DN - Defence Notes

Analysis: US Navy must face Chinese ambitions

8th January 2018 - 12:01 GMT | by Wendell Minnick in Taipei

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A new US Congressional Research Service (CRS) report lays out the groundwork needed for the US Navy (USN) to face China’s growing naval power in its near seas, including the South China Sea, and potentially the entire Western Pacific.

Ronald O’Rourke, a CRS naval affairs specialist, makes the case that the USN must address its weaknesses in the face of a China capable of destroying American ships and aircraft with an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy that uses long-range anti-ship ballistic missilessubmarines, long-range air-to-air missiles, hypersonic missiles, hypervelocity projectiles, solid-state lasers and electromagnetic rail guns.

The 13 December report, ‘China Naval Modernization: Implications for US Navy Capabilities – Background and Issues for Congress’, challenges the USN to take immediate action to reshape itself into a survivable military force under a Chinese asymmetrical A2/AD assault.

The first concern addressed by O’Rourke is the size of the USN. Current plans call for a fleet of 355 ships of various types. There are growing concerns that the USN budget in coming years will result in fewer ships being built. If the navy falls short of this goal, meeting China on the open ocean could be fatal.

According to O’Rourke, through 2008, China had only one ballistic-missile submarine, but by 2016 that number had grown to four. Until 2012 China had no aircraft carriers, then the first one entered service that year and now two additional carriers are being constructed and ‘observers speculate China may eventually field a total force of four to six carriers'. In 2014 China began fielding corvettes for the first time in its history and 37 had entered service as of November 2017, with expectations that a total force of 60 could eventually be fielded.

As an example, 2016 was a bumper crop for new ship builds with a total of 18 commissioned ships, including a Type 052D destroyer, three Type 054A frigates and six Type 056 corvettes.

The USN should push forward on its long-range, carrier-based, UAV programme, especially the low-observable Carrier-Based Aerial-Refuelling System (CBARS) that will serve as the key to maintaining the survivability and mission effectiveness of aircraft carriers against Chinese A2/AD systems in coming years. This programme, called the Unmanned Carrier Aviation/MQ-25 Stingray, will mitigate shortfalls and preserve the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet’s lifespan as a fighter.

The US must also develop and field longer-range anti-ship and land-attack missiles so that ships will be out of range of Chinese weapons. The USN has begun developing a ‘Maritime Strike Tomahawk’ capability to deliver longer-range strikes on Chinese targets and, at the same time, maintain a safe distance from retaliatory strikes. 

The US is also developing the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) as the air-launched Offensive Anti-Surface Warfare material solution to meet near- to mid-term anti-ship warfare threats. O’Rourke said the LRASM will meet all Joint Chiefs of Staff-approved warfighting requirements, and be delivered on time and within approximately 1% of its original programme cost estimate. 

Another development programme is follow-on next-generation strike capabilities, including an air-launched weapon to address long-term anti-surface warfare threats and a surface- and submarine-launched Next Generation Land Attack Weapon (NGLAW). The NGLAW will eventually complement and later replace the Tomahawk missile.

O’Rourke recommends that the USN develop a long-range air-to-air missile for its carrier-based fighters to improve their survivability. The problem that the navy now faces is China’s development of the PL-15 that reportedly has a range of 200km. ‘Even in the prototype stage, the PL-15 is already an international star.’ 

This reputation has provided the US an urgent requirement to replace the AIM-120D Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM). Though the AMRAAM has a range of 180km, the PL-15 has improved terminal manoeuvrability, jam-resistant data links and active radar seekers compared to the PL-12. The result is that the PL-15 has the potential of ‘out-sticking’ the AMRAAM.

One of the biggest threats to the USN is China’s new anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM), the DF-21 and DF-26, capable of striking US aircraft carriers and destroyers from land-based mobile launchers. These missiles effectively push the USN beyond the range of Chinese forces in a Taiwan invasion scenario. This A2/AD strategy must be overcome with both hard-kill (active) and soft-kill (passive) tactics in disrupting the missile’s kill chain. 

Hard-kill options include development of better ballistic missile defence (BMD) interceptor missiles, including the SM-3 Blk IIA and SM-6, and accelerating development and deployment of the hypervelocity projectile, electromagnetic rail gun and solid-state lasers. Soft-kill measures that should be explored include electronic warfare systems or systems for ‘generating radar-opaque smoke clouds or radar-opaque carbon-fibre clouds that confuse an ASBM's terminal guidance radar.’

Excluding ballistic-missile submarines, China has over 40 attack submarines of various sizes and capabilities. The USN’s anti-submarine warfare (ASW) skills have eroded since the end of the Cold War. O’Rourke challenges the US to improve ASW, including development of a new anti-torpedo torpedo to counter China’s wake-homing torpedo, and developing technologies for achieving new approaches to ASW that are sensor-sensitive as opposed to platform-sensitive.

O’Rourke’s final recommendation is for the USN to shift to a more highly distributed fleet architecture that features reduced reliance on aircraft carriers and other large ships to an increased reliance on smaller ships. Support for this idea argues that the USN’s current architecture, which relies on 11 aircraft carriers, ‘in effect puts too many of the navy’s combat-capability eggs into a relatively small number of baskets on which an adversary can concentrate its surveillance and targeting systems and its anti-ship weapons'.

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