With the world’s attention focused on the atrocities being committed by the evil Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, plus Russia’s de facto invasion of eastern Ukraine, China has continued its bullying tactics in pressing its illegal claims in both the South China Sea and East China Sea.
China is mounting a direct attack on the “freedom of the seas” concept, which has been the cornerstone of our maritime strategy for more than 238 years. With almost 90 percent of the world’s commerce traveling by sea, the exercise of the “freedom of the seas” concept is critical to the world’s economy, particularly ours.
China’s most recent challenge to this concept was its dangerous Aug. 19 intercept of a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine and reconnaissance plane in international airspace southeast of Hainan Island. A Chinese fighter at one point came within 30 feet of the P-8, and then did a barrel-roll over the top of the P-8. This maneuver was not only unprofessional, but could cause a major incident.
There have been a series of close encounters between Chinese forces and U.S. Navy aircraft and ships operating in clearly recognized international waters and airspace. The most serious incident occurred April 2001 when a Chinese F-8 fighter collided with a U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft while attempting a close pass 70 miles from China’s Hainan Island. The fighter crashed into the sea while the EP-3 had to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island. The 24 crew members were held for 11 days, while the Chinese dismantled the EP-3’s sensitive equipment.
The Chinese have built underground submarine pens on Hainan Island for their nuclear attack and JIN-class ballistic-missile submarines and are attempting to enforce an exclusive zone around the island. Nonetheless, international law is clear that “all” aircraft have a recognized right of overflight in ocean areas beyond a country’s 12 nautical mile territorial sea.
The Chinese party line is that the dangerous situation occurs because of “U.S. surveillance flights,” and therefore, that would be the “root cause” behind any accidents.” Nonsense.
While some of our officials try to downplay these incidents as not being officially sanctioned, Rear Adm. Zhang Zhaoghong from the Beijing National Defense University debunked that line when he recently stated that China must fly even closer to U.S, surveillance aircraft to put more pressure on them. Clearly, with a U.S. president they do not fear, they are trying to intimidate the United States and force a cessation of such legitimate flights and other naval operations embodied in our “freedom of the seas” concept.
China’s illegal claim to almost all of the South China Sea is part of its bullying tactics embodied in their Anti-Access, Area-Denial (A2AD) strategy to drive the United States out of the western Pacific. China wants hegemony over the first island chain, which includes Taiwan, and eventually, out to the second island chain, including Guam, which is now our key western Pacific base.
To provide the muscle to implement their strategy, for two decades China has pursued a massive military-expansion program for both their conventional and strategic forces. Their naval-expansion program is clearly designed to challenge the U.S. Navy. They also have a very aggressive space and cyberwarfare program. In addition, they have an ever-expanding conventional- and nuclear-missile capability.
Of critical importance to the U.S. Navy is the fact that the Chinese have developed an anti-ship ballistic missile, the DF-21C, which is clearly targeted against our major surface ships, particularly our aircraft carriers. With this threat, they hope to be able to successfully implement their A2AD strategy at a time of their choosing.
Last March, it was confirmed that China has developed a new intermediate-range nuclear missile, the DF26C, which reportedly could reach Guam. It is supposed to be capable of being launched from a road-mobile chassis and uses solid fuel. This combination gives it the capability to be hidden in China’s underground — 3,000 miles of strategic reinforced tunnels — until ready for use. According to reports, these new missiles are capable of firing conventional or nuclear warheads along with maneuvering anti-ship and hypersonic warheads. There is speculation that a DF26C could follow the DF-21C.
These new Chinese missiles are a formidable threat and will be difficult to counter with our current anti-ballistic missile systems. However, fortunately, an algorithm and software application has been developed that can be used to immediately upgrade current U.S. missile interceptors such as the PAC-3 and the SM-6 to counter this threat. The application is also scalable to several other missile-interceptor systems. Based on 15 years of testing, it has proven its capability to predict and effect intercepts against classified maneuvering and hypersonic targets. Further, I understand this algorithm to be the only one that has been successfully converted to actual computer software and has been shown to improve the performance of existing systems against a wide range of threat targets, with an average probability-of-kill in the mid-to-high 90 percent range.
Since maneuvering and hypersonic warheads are now in the inventory of our potential enemies, we can no longer afford to delay bringing this software forward by conducting unnecessary, redundant testing and leverage available test results. We also need to avoid falling into the “not-invented-here” syndrome. This software is a “game-changer” and should be made available now. It will “checkmate” Chinese current anti-ship ballistic maneuvering and hypersonic missiles, and dramatically change the strategic equation.
James A. Lyons, U.S. Navy retired Admiral, was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.