On March 14, China completed the transition of its new leader, Xi Jinping, with his assumption of the presidency. His main power comes as the leader of the Communist Party and as chairman of its Central Military Commission. While trying to project his image as a “man of the people,” his various speeches on “the China Dream” have a definite military overtone, even though he professes to continue the peaceful development policies of his predecessor. He has launched a well-planned campaign to enhance the military force of the People’s Liberation Army in order to give China the capability to “fight and win wars.” Such statements undercut the theme that China’s military buildup is only for defensive purposes.
China’s unrelenting drive to become the dominant military power in the western Pacific continues with its just announced 10.7 percent increase to its military budget. This double-digit increase takes on added significance when viewed in light of the Obama administration’s sequestration and previous, draconian budget cuts to U.S. military forces. With the continued turmoil in the Middle East, as well as Russia’s efforts to revive Soviet Cold War tactics to test our readiness both militarily and politically, it is questionable whether the “strategic pivot” to the Pacific can ever be fully implemented.One of the key weaknesses of the pivot strategy is that it does not address China’s development of a globally deployable military force and the establishment of nuclear and non-nuclear and proxy states, such as North Korea and Iran. As Richard Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, has pointed out, such an imbalance has the potential for China to create a number of “Chinese pivots” that could quickly overstress and thus limit or deter U.S. strategy.Another element that cannot be discounted is the potential for a large Chinese nuclear breakout. China has more than 3,000 miles of underground reinforced tunnels for their fixed and mobile strategic weapons. In a Feb. 11 Wall Street Journal article by Bret Stephens, Gen. Victor Esin, former chief of staff of Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces, highlighted the “stealthy” rise of China to a position of nuclear parity with the United States and Russia. He stated that China may have 850 warheads ready to launch, and he estimated China’s inventory of nuclear weapons at between 1,600 and 1,800 warheads, as compared with the current U.S. estimate of China having 200 to 400. Many reports note the administration wants to reduce U.S. warheads to 1,000 or fewer.Gen. Esin went on to state that he has solid evidence that China conducted a multiple-warhead test in July 2012, and a month later, launched a new, long-range multiple-warhead-capable missile from a submarine. Any future START talks with Russia must recognize China’s nuclear inventory.Clearly, we need an immediate “shot across China’s bow” that would have an impact. Putting anti-ship ballistic missiles on U.S. ships, submarines and aircraft could be just such a shot, threatening China’s navy to show them they will gain nothing by using their fleet against the United States and its allies. Such a capability could be accomplished in the near term as a relatively inexpensive option, while posing a risk to China’s ever-expanding surface navy.
The potential impact of introducing anti-ship ballistic missiles into our naval and air forces would be significantly multiplied if we could sell such a capability to our allies, provided an agreement can be reached with Russia to retire the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty. This probably is feasible, since, according to Russia’s Gen. Esin, if China does not stop expanding its nuclear inventory, Russia will consider abandoning the INF Treaty. Another action that we can take is to create an Asian regional long-range sensor network that would provide our allies real-time warning of broad Chinese military activity. For such a network to become a reality, we should capitalize on the recent decision to install a second Forward Based X-Band Transportable (FBX-T) radar in southern Japan by placing a similar radar in the Philippines. We currently have an FBX-T radar in Shariki, Japan, with a 600-to-1,200-mile range. Installing an updated 3,700-mile-range SBX radar in the Philippines would permit continuous missile and aircraft coverage of all nations in the western Pacific littoral, including China.Even in this tight budget climate, we should find the funding to pursue the development of energy weapons. For example, a railgun with “shotgun” pellets flying at Mach 5 has the potential to produce a “steel cloud,” which would shred most missiles, cruise missiles and aircraft flying through it. In tests, the railgun has fired artillery-size projectiles up to speeds of Mach 5 with a potential range of 62 miles. Such a system would be quite adaptable to a destroyer-sized ship.Clearly, we have a number of options that can be brought to bear, including selling nuclear submarines to allies such as Australia and Japan. However, all our conventional options must be underpinned by a credible nuclear deterrent. Therefore, it is absolutely essential to modernize our nuclear-weapons inventory. To make our options a reality, the Obama administration needs to recognize China’s strategic objectives and the threat they pose to our national interests and those of our allies, and institute programs that pose an unacceptable risk to China.
Retired Adm. James A. Lyons was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.