To foster its imperialistic goals, China for the past two decades has funded an unprecedented military expansion program. With no known threat to its homeland, that should leave no doubt that the Chinese plan to use their modernized People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to further their expansionist objectives by intimidation or outright aggression. Their illegal claim to essentially the entire South China Sea, which they have declared a “core interest,” is a case in point. Their unauthorized building of facilities on the Philippines’ Mischief Reef in 1995 and their forced confrontation with Japan over disputed islands in 2010 only serve to illustrate what China is prepared to do in the future.
More recently, an Asahi news article published on Dec. 31 stated that the PLA has developed an internal tactical plan to seize control of disputed islands in the South China Sea by force. According to the article, exercises involving the PLA, air force and navy were conducted in July and November to test the plan. One source from the Guangzhou Military Region stated, “We were able to demonstrate that we had the ability to destroy a U.S. aircraft carrier.”
Further, a Kyodo news story on Jan. 5 added a new dimension by reporting that the “Chinese military will consider launching a pre-emptive nuclear strike if the country finds itself faced with a critical situation in a war with another nuclear state” that carried out superior conventional strikes against key strategic targets. This new declaration runs counter to China’s stated policy of no first use of nuclear weapons and represents “lowering the threshold of nuclear threats.” Both of these reported new policies should be high on the agenda to be discussed during President Hu Jintao’s upcoming visit.
The recent unveiling of the PLA’s J-20 fifth-generation stealth fighter, combined with the anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), which, according to the U.S. Pacific commander, Adm. Robert R. Willard, has reached an initial operational capability, has significantly raised the threat equation for both U.S. and allied forces. It is clear that the Chinese military buildup can no longer go unchallenged.
According to Richard D. Fisher Jr., author of the new book “China’s Military Modernization,” the J-20 fifth-generation stealth fighter is the “real deal.” Although only a prototype now, it has the potential to compete with the U.S. Air Force’s F-22 fighter and to be a killer of the F-35, the newest U.S. joint strategic fighter.
The Chinese ASBM is clearly targeted against our deployed aircraft carriers. It is not easy to target a moving carrier, but the Chinese have not been idle. They have developed an initial network of satellites, over-the-horizon radars, complemented by the largest submarine fleet in the Western Pacific as well as a militia of “fishing ships” to provide targeting information. In the future, these systems would be supplemented by maritime patrol aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles.
For the record, Adm. Willard stated that we have not seen any tests of the ASBM against a moving-ship target. Nonetheless, the Chinese clearly are putting in place the necessary assets to make their anti-access/anti-denial strategy a reality. It will encompass not only the first island chain in the Western Pacific but the second island chain, which includes Guam. Our allies Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia, as well as Taiwan and other regional states, are adversely affected by the changing threat equation.
Unfortunately, we do not have a decisive response to China’s ASBM. This will become more serious if the PLA succeeds in placing multiple independently guided warheads on its ASBMs. Based on past practice, we need to anticipate China’s sale of ASBMs and/or missile technology to its client states - North Korea and Iran. One approach to countering China’s ASBM would be to equip the latest SM-2 and SM-3 missiles with a new, dual-mode anti-missile and anti-ship/land-attack warhead. This warhead, using the SM-2 missile, could then be sold to Japan, South Korea and other Asian allies. Such a program would significantly enhance deterrence.
We also should initiate a priority program to upgrade the U.S. F-22 fighter so that it is superior to the new Russian and Chinese fifth-generation fighter. The F-35 will not measure up. Further, our directed-energy programs, e.g., lasers and rail guns, need to be accelerated.
Separately, we need to make clear to Chinese leadership in unmistakable terms that we consider the deployment of the PLA’s ASBM an “unfriendly act.” Further, should it be used against our aircraft carriers, we would consider such an attack the same as an attack on our homeland, which would be answered with a devastating response.
Another complicating element is the PRC leadership’s recent decision to support a generational change in the Kim dictatorship. It was a tragic, missed opportunity to bring about regime change in North Korea. The PLA is also the likely source of a new S-300 class surface-to-air missile (SAM) now being built in North Korea and is fueling a similar SAM program in Iran. With China’s continuous support to prop up the puppet regime in Pyongyang, it is simply ludicrous and a denial of reality to give any credit to China for any progress toward peace on the Korean Peninsula. The six-party talks have failed to produce any redirection in the North Korean threat. China’s goal is clear - to destroy the U.S. alliance with Japan and South Korea.
Finally, incoming House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon should call for a review of our current Navy and Air Force programs and how they are structured to meet existing and future threats. This is essential because those past decision-makers who thought we could get by with less expensive alternatives have been proved decisively wrong.
Retired Navy Adm. James A. Lyons was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.