With all the world’s attention focused on the Beijing Olympics and to a lesser extent, the “truce” in Georgia, we should not underestimate the serious implications for U.S. strategic objectives posed by the Chinese military modernization programs, (Russia’s announced modernization programs is another element).
Notwithstanding China‘s propaganda about banning weapons in space, the People’s Liberation Army now has a demonstrated capability to intercept and destroy U.S. satellites in Polar and Low Earth Orbits. We should expect that more capable follow-on to the SC-19 anti-satellite weapon will allow the PLA to target even higher orbit satellites, like our critical GPS navigation and radar surveillance satellites.
As it builds systems to fight in or from space, China is also quickly exploiting space for military missions on Earth. China has an initial electro-optical and radar satellite constellation that will this year be joined by Russian-designed surveillance satellites. It should be noted that China has broken with Europe’s Galileo navigation satellite program and will loft its own 30 satellite constellation to compete with the United States, Russian and European NavSat Systems. In April, China launched its first tracking data relay satellite to lessen its dependency on ground satellite control and relay stations. The emerging systems will in the near future enable global precision targeting by Chinese weapons.
China’s space surveillance is being complemented by even more capable ground and sea systems. China has built several sky-wave based Over-the-Horizon radar stations that for the first time allow the PLA to monitor continuously U.S. Navy ship movements hundred miles out in the Western Pacific. China will also soon have new underwater sonar sensor networks designated to monitor and greatly aid in targeting U.S. submarines.
The PLA’s space networks and ground surveillance systems will help target the PLA’s new revolutionary long-range anti-ship ballistic missiles. Today, the 2,500-kilometer-range DF-21C medium range ballistic missiles and the 700= kilometer-range DF-15A tactical missiles are being deployed along the Taiwan Straits. While those missiles were influenced by the old U.S. Pershing 2 radar guided ballistic missile, China’s system is far more capable and effectively keeps U.S. carrier battle groups out of their range until the U.S. Navy can put enough truly effective anti-missile defenses to sea.
It also argues for a stealth long-range attack aircraft as part of the airwing to provide more flexibility on how we employ our carriers. China can in the future sell these missiles to its rogue allies like Iran and further complicate U.S. security objectives.
Complementing the anti-ship ballistic missiles, China has purchased advanced Russian anti-ship missiles like the supersonic Sunburn and the very advanced Club-two-stage anti-ship missile. (We need to ensure that our ship defense can defeat these missiles). China also is developing its own advanced anti-ship missiles and its navigation satellite-guided bombs, like the U.S. JDAM.
By 2010, the PLA Navy could have about 60 very modern to moderately capable submarines. The threat from conventional and nuclear submarines cannot be overstated. Even older “Ming” class designs from the 1970s are modernized, and have been quieted enough so they can approach a ship and get off one deadly shot.
The implications for the U.S. Navy are clear. In 1987, I had 255 ships including seven aircraft carriers in the Pacific Fleet which is almost what we have in the entire Navy today.
We have taken some steps to improve our anti-ballistic and anti-ship missile capability, but more needs to be done. We obviously need to ramp up our ship building program. Cancellation of the Zumwalt DDG-1000 program was the right move with more focus on building Arleigh Burke DDG-51 missile destroyers and improving their defensive capability.
With increasing range of anti-ship missiles, our carrier airwings need a long- range stealth attack capability, both manned and unmanned. With the accelerated modernization of both China and Russia’s military forces, the silver medal won’t carry the day.
James “Ace” Lyons, a retired U.S. Navy admiral, was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet (the largest single military command in the world), senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations and was deputy chief of naval operations, where he was principal adviser on all Joint Chiefs of Staff matters.