Academic journal article Naval War College Review

China's "Antiaccess" Ballistic Missiles and U.S. Active Defense

Academic journal article Naval War College Review

China's "Antiaccess" Ballistic Missiles and U.S. Active Defense

Article excerpt

Relations between Taiwan and China have improved recently. At the same time, U.S.-Japanese relations have worsened, partly as the result of disagreements over Futenma Marine Air Station on Okinawa. As a result, the prospects of fighting between the United States and China over Taiwan and of U.S. reliance on Okinawa bases to supplement carrier airpower in the course of such a fight appear far-fetched, disastrous for the states concerned.

Of course,military professionals and the defense analytic community need to think through unlikely and unwelcome scenarios.1 To that end, various analysts have contributed to a lively discussion of Chinese "antiaccess" systems designed to keep the United States at bay in the event of conflict.2 These systems include C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) assets like over-the-horizon (OTH) radar and increasing numbers of satellites, a more modern air force, more submarines with better weapons, and both cruise and ballisticmissiles to hold at risk our ships at sea and our air bases ashore.3 This article examines ballistic missile threats to carriers and air bases and the adequacy of U.S. active defenses.

China seeks the capacity to find U.S. aircraft carriers roughly a thousand miles from the mainland and to attack them with homing ASBMs (antiship ballistic missiles).4 China must overcome serious technological challenges to field the systems needed to do these things. The United States faces the prospect that Chinamight overcome these challenges,perhaps as soon as five years fromnow. To attack fixed targets like American air bases in Japan, China has already developed a family of road-mobile, solid-fuel, short-range ballistic missiles.5 One of thesemissiles, the CSS-6,has the range to attackKadenaAir Base onOkinawa, a U.S.Air Force facility that is in many ways the best air base ashore forU.S. operations against China.6

The current U.S. response to these developments relies heavily on active defense -that is, deployment of antiballistic missiles (ABMs). To defend ships at sea, the United States is investing in Aegis/Standard Missile ABMs, and to defend air bases ashore, in Patriot PAC-3 ABMs. The Navy originally developed Aegis ballisticmissile defense (BMD) to protect assets ashore, such as seaports of debarkation. Given China's ASBM efforts, however, many officers see the counterASBMmission as an important role for Aegis BMD. Indeed, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral PatrickWalsh, recently characterized missile defense as "essential to our ability to operate freely."7


The U.S. ABM investments just described deserve critical scrutiny: asymmetries in the competition of Chinese ballistic missiles versus U.S. antiballistic missiles make it unlikely that active defense alone will succeed. To see why,we need to review China's ASBM system threat to ships at sea and China's short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) threat to U.S. air bases.

ActiveDefense against the ASBM System.What is the asymmetry in the ASBM versus ABM competition? On one hand, China can easily determine how many ABMs the United States is building and compute the limited number that each ABM-configured Aegis ship will likely have aboard. Should it succeed in developing ASBMs that work and systems that can detect, locate, and track U.S. aircraft carriers, China can overcome active defenses by launching more ASBMs than theUnited States can possibly intercept.8 It can do sowith relative ease even if Aegis/ABM systems have high single-shot kill probabilities, because Beijing's entire ASBM inventory is available.

The United States, on the other hand, can devote only a subset of its ABMs to protecting carriers fromthe ASBM threat. Even if the Navy makes heroic efforts to increase the fraction that is forward deployed in the western Pacific, China will retain its "home field" numeric advantage. …

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