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China’s “Black Boxes” at Sea

James Holmes, Professor, US Naval War College
December 2, 2011
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The balance of naval forces matters a great deal to the overall US-China relationship. A naval balance that favors the United States discourages Chinese adventurism while heartening US friends and allies. A decaying balance does the opposite. Sea and air forces underwrite the United States’ strategic position in Asia. If the US military no longer commands the maritime “commons”—the seas and skies beyond any state’s jurisdiction—then Asian powers like Japan and South Korea must either look to their own defenses or make their peace with Chinese primacy. A China that bestrode regional sea lanes would have the liberty to rewrite the rules of the game in maritime Asia, much as a rising America imposed its own rules on the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico a century ago under the guise of the Monroe Doctrine.

The rise of Chinese sea power thus entails vast political ramifications. (Sea power is more than fleets of warships. It also enfolds shore-based aircraft, cruise and ballistic missiles, and other systems capable of influencing events at sea.) This is just as true in peacetime as in wartime. In fact, ships, aircraft, and weaponry may exert greater political influence in peacetime. Combat is an unsparing arbiter of warfighting capability. An untried navy like China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) could court disaster by challenging the US Navy, the paramount force of the day. The Chinese Communist leadership has built up the PLA Navy in the popular mind as the bearer of China’s seaborne destiny, and of the communist regime’s legitimacy. Consequently, defeat on the high seas could cost Beijing dearly in the eyes of the Chinese populace and fellow Asian peoples.

A major fleet engagement, then, is a worrisome prospect for this newcomer to marine warfare. Yet China’s leadership could reap political advantages from an formidable-looking armada without hazarding it in battle. Appearances matter. That is, the outcomes of peacetime encounters at sea depend on who observers think would have won in wartime, whether or not appearances conform to the real balance of capability and battle prowess. Strategist Edward Luttwak terms the peacetime use of military capabilities “armed suasion” or, in the nautical setting, “naval suasion.” Weaponry—or a nation’s capacity to construct it quickly enough to matter—presents concrete evidence of resolve. Wielded artfully, military forces can send a powerful message, dissuading antagonists from certain actions or persuading friends or opponents. Since persuasion and dissuasion take place in the minds of important audiences, no shots need be fired.

How effective is the PLA Navy—backed by the land-based arms of Chinese sea power—as an implement of naval suasion? Some pundits softpedal China’s maritime rise, insisting little has changed in the naval balance. Boston College professor Robert Ross, to name one, maintains that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) “has not deployed any additional naval capabilities” over the past decade that “pose consequential new challenges to the US Navy or to America’s defense of its security partners.” The balance lopsidedly favors the US Navy, as it has for many decades.

No new capabilities of consequence? The fine folks at the US Defense Department beg to differ. The most recent Pentagon report on Chinese military power observes, for example, that “China’s current and projected force structure improvements will provide the PLA with systems that can engage adversary surface ships up to 1,850 km from the PRC coast.” Beijing has the resolve—and increasingly sports the capability—to mount a “layered” defense of the Asian seas, landing blow after blow against an enemy fleet as it comes within range of each weapon system. The PLA is not a force content to shelter in coastal waters.

Nor is it the backward force of the Maoist era. Innovations familiar in the West are increasingly commonplace, such as stealth technology, vertical missile launchers, and precision-guided munitions. Tabulating the numbers—missile ranges, weapons payloads, and overall fleet size—should also give China-watchers pause. The Pentagon report lists not just diesel submarines but also high-tech surface warships and maritime strike aircraft among the platforms that have appeared since 2000. More are on the way.

In late October, for example, the third Type 052C Luyang II guided-missile destroyer (DDG)—a combatant Beijing touts as equivalent to the US Navy’s top-flight Arleigh Burke-class Aegis destroyers—put to sea for sea trials. The fourth, fifth, and sixth Luyang IIs are in various stages of completion. This suggests that PLA Navy commanders may have settled on a design for serial production after years of experimenting with various hulls, combat systems, sensor suites, and weapons configurations. And DDG production is only one achievement among many. For instance, PLA rocketeers now brandish the world’s first “antiship ballistic missile,” a truck-launched weapon reportedly able to strike at moving ships hundreds of kilometers away.

It’s worth pointing out, furthermore, that the PLA Navy inventory includes aging Soviet- and Russian-built weaponry that has lost none of its potency. A triumphal afterglow now tinges Western mariners’ memories of the Cold War, as though the Soviet Navy was never a serious competitor. Thankfully, such assumptions were never tested in the crucible of battle. It is clear, nevertheless, that the US Navy never found good defenses against Soviet weapons such as SS-N-22 Sunburn antiship cruise missiles—supersonic missiles that execute radical evasive maneuvers—or against submarine-launched “wake-homing torpedoes” that ride the turbulence churned up by a ship’s propellers back to its source. Win or lose, a navy so equipped can inflict heavy losses on an adversary. Let’s not assume away older yet still-lethal systems.

Chinese hardware, then, is at once imposing on paper and outwardly impressive, magnifying its political influence. Will it live up to the hype? Beats me. Until tried in combat, declares Luttwak, armaments are little more than “black boxes” whose performance defies confident predictions. But if China can harness this burgeoning force for political gain—overawing its neighbors while discrediting their US protector—it could reorder the Asian system without fighting. Naval suasion would suit Beijing just fine.

James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College and co-author of Red Star over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to US Maritime Strategy, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010. The views voiced here are his alone.

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