The United States military has engaged in a form of “cognitive warfare” following the latest encounter between its warships and the Chinese navy.
Both countries have deployed aircraft carrier strike groups to the East and South China seas, led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the Liaoning, respectively.
On Sunday, the US released a photo that showed one of its guided-missile destroyers, the USS Mustin, shadowing the Liaoning group – a move that analysts said was designed to send a clear message to the Chinese.
The photo taken on Monday somewhere in the East China Sea showed the ship’s captain, Cmdr. Robert J Briggs, and his deputy, Cmdr. Richard D Slye, watching the Liaoning, which was just a few thousand metres away.
“In the photo, Cmdr. Briggs looks very relaxed with his feet up watching the Liaoning ship just a few thousand yards away, while his deputy is also sitting beside him, showing they take their PLA counterparts lightly,” said Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy in Kaohsiung.
“This staged photograph is definitely ‘cognitive warfare’ to show the US doesn’t regard the PLA as an immediate threat.”
Zhou Chenming, a researcher with the Yuan Wang think tank, a Beijing-based military science and technology institute, said the photo indicated that the US warship kept a “very safe distance” while shadowing the Liaoning.
“Both sides understand that there is a big gap between the US and Chinese aircraft carrier strike groups,” Zhou said.
Andrei Chang, the editor-in-chief of the Canada-based Kanwa Defence Review, said the photo was a “warning to the PLA” that the US was thoroughly informed about the Liaoning strike group.
The Beijing-based South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative said the US military had increased the deployment of aircraft and warships to the East and South China seas.
It also said the USS Mustin had been sent to waters near the mouth of the Yangtze River on April 3, and since last Sunday has been following the Liaoning group through the East and South China Seas.
The Liaoning aircraft carrier group also includes the Nanchang, one of China’s most advanced Type 055 destroyers, two other destroyers, a frigate and a support ship.
The Japanese defence ministry is also reported to have sent the destroyer JS Suzutsuki and two patrol aircraft to monitor the strike group as it passed between Okinawa and Miyako Island on Sunday.
Meanwhile, US Defence Secretary Austin Lloyd had a phone conversation with his Philippine counterpart Delfin Lorenzana to reaffirm their shared commitment to their alliance after Chinese vessels massed at a disputed reef, according to the Pentagon.
China has described the presence of the 200 vessels near Whitsun Reef as “normal and legitimate” and said officials are maintaining close communications with the Philippines.
But the Philippines has described the vessels as a maritime militia and last week the broadcaster ABS-CBN claimed two Chinese vessels armed with missiles drove away the ship carrying its news crew near the island province of Palawan. The broadcaster said it was the first recorded instance of a military manoeuvre against a civilian boat.
Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Tong said the report indicated that the PLA had deployed Type 022 missile boats to Mischief Reef, one of the seven artificial islands Beijing has reclaimed in the disputed Spratly Islands, which are just 250km (155 miles) from Palawan.
“The massing of China’s maritime militia vessels at Whitsun Reef implies that Beijing may attempt to resume its land reclamation project in the Spratly Islands because of the geostrategic location of Whitsun Reef, which is located between Fiery Cross Reef and Mischief Reef,” Wong said.
“China realised Mischief is too far away from the mainland and too isolated in the Spratlys, but land expansion based around Whitsun Reef will solve the problem.”
After nearly two decades of counter-terror operations around the world, the United States military has recently begun shifting its focus away from this form of asymmetric warfare and back toward the potential for near-peer conflicts with nations like China or Russia.
Despite maintaining the most powerful military apparatus on the globe, this pivot won’t be without its challenges. Over the past 19 years, the United States military has funneled the majority of its funding into combat operations and new technologies that support the counter-terrorism endeavor.
During this time, national opponents like China have had ample opportunity to observe the way America’s military operates, and find cost-effective methods of countering the US’s most significant strengths.
In 2015, for instance, both China and Russia established space-specific branches of their armed forces tasked with replicating some of America’s orbital strengths (like a GPS satellite constellation), but also with finding ways to mitigate America’s established orbital dominance.
Put simply, it’s cheaper and easier to interfere with or destroy technology than it is to replicate it, and America’s enemies have leveraged that simple logic to great effect in recent years. Today, it’s believed that both Russia and China operate semi-autonomous orbital assets that can already spy on or potentially even destroy satellites that are currently in orbit.
But while America has maintained the lead in orbital technology, it has apparently fallen behind in some weapons technologies that saw reduced focus throughout these many years of fighting terror organizations – namely, weapons technologies intended for use against technologically capable opponents.
Hypersonics, as one pressing example, are a rapidly developing field of extremely fast (higher than Mach 5) weapons that, to date, no air defense system can counter.
While both China and Russia claim to have operational hypersonic weapons in their arsenals, there’s one weapon that has wreaked more havoc in American military strategy than any other: China’s hypersonic DF-21D anti-ship missile.
Why is the DF-21D such a threat?
The DF-21D is a hypersonic anti-ship missile employed by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The platform itself is a medium-range, road-mobile ballistic missile. Once launched, the DF-21D follows a similar arc to that of an intercontinental ballistic missile, flying high into low earth orbit before deploying a hypersonic glide vehicle that can reach speeds as high as Mach 10 during its guided descent phase.
Existing missile defense systems simply can’t intercept a target moving that fast, making it all but impossible to stop one of these missiles once it’s been fired.
While the DF-21D’s speed makes it a clear threat to US Navy ships, it’s the missile’s range that poses the biggest problem. The DF-21D has an operational range of about 2,000 kilometers, or a bit more than 1,200 miles.
By placing these platforms along the Chinese coastline, the PLA has been able to establish an area-denial strategy, sometimes referred to as an area-denial “bubble,” or a 1,200-mile circle around each missile that enemy ships can’t enter without being within range of the weapon system.
It’s important to note that while these missiles can carry both conventional and nuclear payloads, the sheer kinetic force of a Mach 10 impact would be enough on its own to sink many ships, and when coupled with an explosive warhead, could conceivably take even a massive Nimitz-class supercarrier out of the fight with a single shot.
The strategic implications of China’s ‘area-denial bubble’
China’s area-denial bubble that extends some 1,200 miles from their shoreline poses a significant challenge for America’s conventional wartime strategy of using aircraft carriers as a means of force projection.
The US Navy maintains a fleet of 11 supercarriers, each capable of delivering more firepower than many entire nations could manage. One Nimitz-class carrier is capable of accommodating as many as 130 F/A-18 Super Hornets, or as many as 90 aircraft of varying types, along with a massive 6,000 service personnel.
The US uses these carriers to deliver huge amounts of firepower to any region of the globe, using carrier-based aircraft to deliver ordnance to targets extending out hundreds of miles.
It’s that “hundreds of miles” part that is the real issue here. The US Navy’s workhorse fighters are F/A-18 Super Hornets, which are currently undergoing a massive overhaul that will offer a similar increase in capabilities to the previous shift from Block I Hornets to Block II Super Hornets in 2001.
However, even with these Block III Super (Duper) Hornets, the ranges these jets are capable of engaging targets at are still far too short to compensate for China’s area denial bubble.
Block III Super Hornets and F-35Cs come up short
The Navy’s current Block II Super Hornets have a combat radius of approximately 500 miles while carrying a full weapons payload. That means these jets can take off from a carrier, fly 500 miles to engage a target, turn tail, and fly 500 miles back to their ship.
The forthcoming Block III variant of these fighters will add conformal fuel tanks (additional fuel tanks that hug the fuselage of the aircraft) which will allow them to carry 3,500 pounds of additional fuel, which will increase their fuel range by approximately 300 miles, or combat radius by 150. That means the top-end fourth-generation fighters employed by the US Navy in the near future will need to be launched within 650 miles of a target to be able to engage it.
The Lockheed Martin F-35C (carrier variant) offers about 10% more fuel range than the Block II Super Hornet, making its combat radius approximately 660 miles. Again, that mark falls far short of China’s DF-21D anti-ship missile’s range, at better than 1,200 miles.
This means that, in a best-case scenario, the U.S. Navy would have to park its carriers about 650 miles off of Chinese shores to be able to target shoreline assets, which places it well within China’s area-denial bubble. The minute an American carrier comes closer than 1,200 miles from Chinese shores, we run the risk of losing it to a DF-21D strike.
Put succinctly, this single missile platform has effectively neutered America’s most potent form of force projection: its fleet of supercarriers.
Increasing the fuel range of carrier-based aircraft
The US Navy is currently developing a carrier-based drone refueler called the MQ-25 Stingray. Originally developed to serve as a low-observable Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (or armed drone), Boeing was able to convert their platform into a carrier-based refueler when the Navy began to recognize the importance of pulling more mileage out of existing fighters.
On August 30, 2018, the US Navy awarded Boeing an $805 million contract to continue development on the platform, and the drone took its first test flight just over a year later in September of 2019. The Navy intends to purchase a total of 76 Stingrays from Boeing, and according to the Pentagon, they may be able to extend the range of carrier-based aircraft by as much as 400 miles.
This increase in range is substantial – but isn’t substantial enough to allow carriers to launch sorties from outside China’s area-denial bubble. It’s important to note that the Navy’s fighters can’t refuel over the target, so each jet needs enough range to make it back to where the MQ-25 can reach them after delivering ordnance.
While there are current concerns about the MQ-25 program being delayed by external issues within the Navy, a spokesperson from Naval Air Systems Command recently confirmed that they expect to reach initial operating capability for the MQ-25 sometime in 2024.
Finding alternatives to carriers
There are a number of initiatives in development aimed at offsetting the strategic advantage China maintains in the region through their area-denial strategy, but thus far, no single effort that has been discussed publicly will do it on its own.
The US Marine Corps has had a great deal of success launching F-35Bs (short take-off, vertical landing variant) off the deck of smaller “flat-top carriers” the US refers to (for legal reasons) as amphibious assault ships. These vessels would likely be called aircraft carriers by other nations, but are significantly smaller than the Navy’s Nimitz or Ford-class supercarriers – making them a more difficult target to locate and engage.
It’s important to recognize the significant challenge accurate targeting will be for China’s DF-21D. Aircraft carriers may be massive, but against the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean, they’re practically tiny and can move at around 35 knots (40 miles per hour) with the throttle open.
In order to hit one on the move, China intends to employ supersonic drones to locate and transmit targeting data back to the missile. A smaller target (in the form of an amphibious assault ship) does make effective targeting even more difficult.
Other efforts include creating austere airstrips for F-35Bs on land masses inside China’s area denial bubble. These hastily cleared airports would allow heavy lift helicopters to deliver fuel and ordnance for F-35Bs to land, resupply, and take off once again.
However, these hasty airstrips, like a stationary aircraft carrier, would have a short shelf-life inside the range of China’s ballistic missile arsenal.
Support from the Air Force and the Army
While the US Navy and Marine Corps have both been working tirelessly to find ways to extend the reach of America’s carrier strike groups, it may be the Air Force that would need to lead the way in a conflict with China.
Northrop Grumman’s forthcoming B-21 Raider is expected to be the stealthiest bomber ever to take to the skies and will offer global strike capabilities similar to that of its predecessor, the B-2 Spirit.
The B-21, then, may come to the Navy’s rescue by flying long-distance bombing missions over Chinese shorelines, engaging DF-21D and other hypersonic anti-ship platforms to clear the way for America’s carriers to sail close enough to begin launching sorties of their own. However, because the DF-21D is road mobile, it’s likely that it will be difficult to be sure where these platforms are. That’s where the Army may be able to help.
Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy recently let the cat out of the bag about a new program under his purview called “Vintage Racer,” which is a previously undisclosed hypersonic weapon that, unlike the hypersonic missiles employed by China and Russia, aims to solve problems through data collection and lots of brainpower, rather than brute force alone.
Vintage Racer closes with targets at hypersonic speeds, making it just as difficult to defend against as China’s own hypersonic missiles, but once it reaches a target area, the platform deploys a loitering system that uses its own sensors to find hidden or moving targets in the area. Once that system spots a mobile missile platform, it can then engage and destroy it.
Could a new fighter solve this problem?
With the Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr. recently claiming that the US Air Force needs to develop a “clean-sheet” stealth fighter that combines some F-35 capabilities with the cost effectiveness of a 4th-generation fighter, it’s clear that the United States no longer sees the F-35 as a solution for every problem.
The Air Force also claimed to have designed, built, and flight tested a “6th-generation fighter” platform that will likely mature into a replacement for the stealth F-22 Raptor via the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance program.
So if the Air Force is looking to bolster its own F-35s with a handful of more specialized fighters, what’s to stop the Navy from following suit? Namely, the money.
America’s Defense Department has to compete within itself for portions of the budget, and while the Air Force considers new fighter acquisitions, the Navy is stuck trying to expand the size of its surface fleet to compete with China. America’s Navy has something in the neighborhood of 293 vessels, with many slated for retirement in the coming decades. In order to keep pace with China’s 700+ size fleet, the US Navy needs more ships, and ships are expensive.
But what if the Navy were to find a way to hop into bed with the Air Force’s multiple fighter programs? While trying to cram the word “joint” into a fighter program may give us all a bit of pause (for good reason, after the acquisition nightmare the F-35 has become), if a new jet could solve this problem for the Navy, what would it have to look like?
To be clear – it would be asking a lot. In order to offset the area-denial bubble created by China’s anti-ship weapons, this new jet would need to have a massive amount of range and a tiny radar profile. If we assume the area-denial bubble extends 1,200 miles from China’s shores and the existence of operational MQ-25s for refueling, we can do some back-of-the-envelope math to determine range requirements.
This new aircraft would need to fly 1,200 miles out from the deck of a carrier, and then a minimum of 800 miles back, where it could be refueled for an additional 400 miles. That means the Navy needs an aircraft with a whopping 2,000-mile range … at a minimum. It would also need to be stealthy – in order to survive in the highly contested airspace it would operate in.
While such an aircraft may not be impossible … it is a pretty big ask.
Does this even matter if we don’t go to war with China?
While the capabilities the US is developing with an eye toward China will certainly benefit combat operations in any theater, there’s another important aspect of defense technology development that warrants consideration: diplomatic leverage in the pursuit of deterrence.
Like Theodore Roosevelt’s “talk softly and carry a big stick” approach to diplomacy, military capability is often as much about the threat of use as it is about actual use. When engaged in diplomatic talks, the understanding that warfare is foreign policy by other means is ever-present.
When it comes to aggressive states like China, who are moving to enforce illegal claims over the hotly contested South China Sea, knowing we can’t stop them plays an important role in how they approach the subject in international dialogue.
Likewise, if China is aware that the US possesses the capability to do away with their anti-ship arsenal and begin launching combat sorties in their airspace, it forces them to engage with the dialogue directly. A great deal of foreign policy really comes down to posturing and veiled threats, but threats are only effective when they’re backed by real capability.
From a strategic military standpoint, the most effective way to deter a 21st-century war with China is to ensure America would win such a conflict. In order to get to that point, the capability gap created by China’s area-denial bubble needs to be closed, and right now – that all boils down to fuel range.
Putin’s success augmented “the belief among some that bigger nations can bully smaller ones to get their way,” as US President Barack Obama put it at the time. Given Crimea’s location in a small country – and the complex, often ethnically tinged territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia – the world was not willing to fight for it.
History may not repeat itself, but it often rhymes; today, a Crimea-like scenario could easily unfold in the South China Sea. In this case, China would be the aggressor, while Taiwan’s Dongsha Islands, which Beijing also claims, are the potential targets.
Also known as the Pratas Islands, they have no permanent inhabitants, but they host a detachment of some 500 Taiwanese marines, and are also visited by fishers and researchers. Although the Dongsha are located about 275 miles from Kaohsiung, the municipality in southern Taiwan that administers them, they lie just 170 miles from Hong Kong and are within the city’s airspace, putting them in easy reach of the People’s Liberation Army.
In recent years, Beijing has become more aggressive in the South China Sea, where it maintains expansive maritime claims that are not recognized under international law.
On countless occasions, China’s fleet has harassed, intimidated or even rammed into other countries’ ships in this strategic waterway – including naval vessels, fishing trawlers and oil exploration rigs. The PLA has also built military installations atop reefs and rock formations in the disputed Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands.
But unlike those features, which are the subject of numerous overlapping claims and international legal disputes, the status of the Dongsha Islands is a bilateral row between China and Taiwan. This makes it easier for China to attempt a unilateral change to the status quo.
Indeed, throughout 2020 and into 2021, Beijing has stepped up the pace of its military exercises near the Dongsha, prompting Taipei to respond with live-fire drills on the islands, including one earlier this month. As his administration looks to build closer ties with Taiwan, President Joe Biden would be wise to pay close attention to this potential flashpoint.
The Dongsha Islands have long been seen as strategically significant in China, which could use them to control and hinder foreign access to the Bashi Channel, a waterway between Taiwan and the Philippines that Chinese nuclear submarines use to access the Western Pacific Ocean.
Chinese writers and scholars have in recent years made Beijing’s position plain: The Dongsha Islands are necessary to both China’s eventual unification with Taiwan and for Beijing’s broader geopolitical interests.
Song Zhongping, a Chinese military expert, put it simply, writing in a recent article for the state tabloid Global Times that the “Dongsha Islands’ location is strategically important as it links the South China Sea and the West Pacific, and if the Taiwan authority lets US military forces deploy facilities in the islands, it would be a major threat to the PLA and the mainland’s security.”
For reasons that remain unclear, though, the exercise was apparently canceled at the last minute. Li Daguang, a professor at the National Defense University of the PLA, was quoted by the Global Times as denying that the drills were ever planned. Still, China’s designs for these islands remain clear.
In fact, there is already precedent for this. In October 2020, the Hong Kong government prevented a Taiwanese aircraft from using its airspace to fly to the islands, reportedly due to nearby PLA missile drills. Less than a week later, a senior Taiwanese military officer, Lt. Gen. Li Tingsheng, made a trip to the islands with a delegation of coast guard personnel, sending a clear message of defiance to Beijing.
However, the Dongsha Islands’ presence in Chinese airspace makes fortifying them and maintaining effective control over the territory a much harder and more expensive task for Taiwan. Here, the parallel to Russia’s takeover of Crimea is disturbingly clear, given that the peninsula’s geography – almost completely surrounded by the Black Sea – and proximity to Russia made it difficult for Ukraine to defend.
When Putin seized Crimea, the international community responded by isolating Russia and imposing sanctions. Yet despite this pushback, it was clear that the United States, the European Union and the rest of NATO were not going to risk war with Russia over Crimea.
Taken in sum, these efforts may have avoided a military confrontation. But they also made it clear to Putin that while he might face some short-term pain, he could redraw Europe’s borders by force without fear of military pushback. And now, some seven years later, it is apparent that he has done just that.
Chinese President Xi Jinping seems to have taken this lesson to heart. Indeed, he appears to have been emboldened by the democratic world’s collective failure to hold Putin to account after the seizure of Crimea. China continues to not only claim nearly the entire South China Sea, but physically fortify its islands there, prompting, again, “only muted response from the international community,” as US Air Force Capt. David Geaney put it in a recent op-ed.
If Xi believes he can get away with militarizing disputed land features in the South China Sea – and with sinking and harassing neighbors’ vessels there, as he has so far – he may very well see the Dongsha Islands as ripe for the taking.
In the event of such aggression, the rest of the world would be wise to bear in mind the lessons of Crimea. If the architects and most fervent supporters of the rules-based international order – namely, the United States, the EU, Japan and others – again fail to defend the victims of outright aggression and annexation, this time off China’s coast, the attractiveness and validity of that order will only further decline, as it has since 2014.
The United States and its partners cannot expect countries around the world to support and stand by the US-led international order, rather than defect to China’s illiberal vision for the world, if Washington and Brussels do not stand up for smaller countries that are threatened by the bullying behavior of nearby great powers.
In 2014, the international community’s red line should have been Crimea; today, it must be the Dongsha Islands.
Shahn Savino is a program analyst with VTG, a defense contractor. He is a member of the Black China Caucus and the National Association for Black Engagement with Asia. Follow him on Twitter @ShahnMarc.
Charles Dunst is a visiting scholar at the East-West Center in Washington, an associate at the LSE IDEAS think tank and a contributing editor of American Purpose, Francis Fukuyama’s new magazine. Follow him on Twitter @CharlesDunst.
US Indo-Pacific Command spokesperson Capt. Mike Kafka told Insider in an emailed statement that “the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group closely monitored all People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and Air Force (PLAAF) activity, and at no time did they pose a threat to US Navy ships, aircraft, or Sailors.”
A defense official said that the Chinese aircraft did not come within 250 miles of the US Navy vessels, putting them outside the estimated range of the YJ-12 anti-ship cruise missiles carried by the H-6K. There was a simulated attack run though, the official said.
Kafka said in the INDOPACOM statement, “the PLA activities highlighted here, are the latest in a string of aggressive and destabilizing actions.”
The spokesman said that “these actions reflect a continued PLA attempt to use its military as a tool to intimidate or coerce those operating in international waters and airspace, to include their neighbors and those with competing territorial claims,” adding that the “United States will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, demonstrating resolve through our operational presence throughout the region.”
The US Navy said in a statement last Sunday that the Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group is on a routine deployment to the US 7th Fleet area of responsibility to conduct maritime security operations.
China objects to the regular presence of the US military in the South China Sea, even though it has operated in the area for decades.
The latest developments in the South China Sea highlight the challenges the new Biden administration will face as it deals with Beijing and China’s growing military power.
The new administration and China have already traded jabs over Taiwan. During Monday’s press briefing, Zhao told the US to “refrain from sending any wrong signals to the ‘Taiwan independence’ forces so as to avoid damaging China-US relations and peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” after the US State Department criticized China’s efforts to militarily, economically, and diplomatically pressure Taiwan.
Chinese Ministry of Defense spokesman Wu Qian said Thursday that Chinese military activities near Taiwan are necessary and warned that it would mean war if Taiwan pursued independence from China.
Speaking at the first Department of Defense press briefing of the Biden administration, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby reaffirmed US support for Taiwan’s defense but said that tensions “need not lead to anything like confrontation.”