The First World Naval War (FNWW) is around the corner and the battlefield is none other than the South China Sea. The FNWW will be a lot different from the naval wars fought so far between big powers in the last century. The future war will be fought between US and China but the gallant warriors will be replaced by the unmanned vehicles aided by super sensors and driven by artificial intelligence. Strategic location of the war theater has pitched China against its neighbors who are under the US influence. There are phenomenal realignments which could translate into another bi-polar world like the one which came into being post-WWII? Professor Samuel Huntington, in his famous book, Clash of Civilizations...., predicted a war between China and Vietnam sometimes close to 2010 over the maritime resources of South China Sea. In view of Huntington, this would be a war within a civilization; but the later evidence suggests that South China Sea will be a hotbed of a much broader international conflict. Analysts have their fingers crossed but given the economic growth and fast industrialization of China, the world is already on the road to its cherished dream of bipolarity.
The U.S. is not oblivious to the potential conflict and has adopted a new approach to any potential war with China. The U.S. Department of Defense has been told that, for the foreseeable future, there will be no more large-scale land campaigns. The air force, navy, and marines responded with a plan (AirSea Battle) that has been in the work for years. The new strategy is designed to cope with the rising power of China in the Pacific. AirSea Battle involves tighter planning and coordination of navy, marine, and navy forces, plus the development of some new weapons and tactics and cooperation with allies.
AirSea battle concentrates on military operations. But these will be heavily influenced by economic factors. For example, during World War II the United States was a largely self-sufficient “continental power.” That has changed. The U.S. is now like much of the rest of the world, China included. If there were a maritime blockade of China, the U.S. and many other Chinese trading partners would suffer severe economic disruptions. There would be massive unemployment for all concerned and that would happen despite energetic efforts by everyone to find alternative sources to goods no longer available because of the disruption of the China trade.
Let us look at the potential fighting elements. These are unmanned vehicles like UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), UUVs (Unmanned Underwater Vehicles), and USVs (Unmanned Surface Vehicles) which are radically new technologies. There are already examples of all three in service. There will be more and they will change everything by incorporating more powerful artificial intelligence (AI) and new weapons. Others are Super Sensors like Sonar, Artificial Intelligence, All-Electric ships, Stealth technology, Composites, Networking, Space Based Services, Nanotech, Laser weapons, Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles.
Two years ago many missile experts in the U.S. Navy believed that the long rumored Chinese anti-ship ballistic missile, the DF-21D, was operational. As far as anyone knows, or will admit, the complete system has not been tested. There are hints that there were some tests three years ago and that all the components of the system were present and working. There are photos of DF-21Ds on TELs (transporter erector launcher vehicles) and announcements of new units activated for the 2nd Artillery Missile Brigade, equipped with DF-21 missiles. In theory, such weapons are possible and for China they are an ideal way of attacking American carriers. It's an expensive way to hit a carrier, since each of these missiles costs over $20 million. But if you have to get it done that's a reasonable price. In the future the price will come down a bit and anti-missile systems available to warships will be better at dealing with them. Guided warheads could also be launched from space satellites. You can see where this is going and there will be a lot more of it this century.
The shift of American focus from South Asia, Afghanistan, Middle East and Iran to Pacific Ocean is clear signal that two giants are all set to collide somewhere in the Pacific and the trigger of conflict is in the center of South China Sea dispute. Being aware of this eventuality long ago, China had started building its Navy and brought it from under the shadow of PLA (Navy) to China Navy and making it the second largest after the US Navy. A pre-requisite to this development was economic growth which China achieved by becoming the second largest economy. The imminent conflict will, therefore, be between the Number One and Number Two. And if this conflict takes place in a period of decade from now, it would between equals.
A report carried by The National Interest, says that as China develops complex economic and strategic interests in Africa and the Middle East, freedom of navigation through the Indian Ocean and much of the Pacific will concern Beijing mightily. But unsurprisingly, there is discomfort with sharing maritime security responsibilities close to home. Considering the relative strength of those patrolling the waters—mainly Japan and the United States—the Chinese fear that in times of crisis, access to critical sea lines of communication could be blocked. Or worse, Beijing might be forced to compromise on its long-held logic of sovereignty over a region that extends far beyond what international law permits.
Before it can dominate the seas, China has much catching up to do. The combined weight of twenty-one of the world’s biggest navies is 6.75 million tons. Remove the United States Navy (USN), and that leaves the global fleet 46 percent lighter at about 3.63 million tons. Though not the most accurate gauge of naval prowess, the skewered weight distribution—combined with the USN’s pound-for-pound superiority—cannot bode well for a rising power wary of the status quo. Unfortunately, what China has to show for three decades of naval modernization are a handful of nuclear-powered attack- and ballistic-missile submarines that lag behind those of the world’s premier navies, an aircraft carrier they’re only beginning to learn how to use and anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM). Only the ASBM really gives Beijing an edge over the competition.
The Pentagon reports the highly maneuverable missile has a range of one thousand miles. Considering even the next generation of naval fighter aircraft will lack the range to return to their carriers if launched further than six hundred miles from their intended target, denying potential adversaries’ access to a significant portion of the Western Pacific looks possible. But for the near future, blue-water ambitions are likely to remain unfulfilled. A refurbished Soviet-era aircraft carrier, ASBMs and a few unstealthy nuclear submarines won’t allow the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to conduct complex operations far from its shores, even if China’s sailors can master their new boats.
Given the bulk of what the PLAN presently fields, the implications are likely to be felt closer to home. The large fleet of Song, Ming and Romeo class diesel-electric submarines, catamarans, Landing Platform Docks, and other short-range and shore-based weapons will influence the day-to-day choices nearby countries will make—especially whether to align more closely with China or the United States. China is eager to see its maritime neighbors embrace its naval-modernization effort. Such support is now vital after the apparent loss of Burma as an alternative energy corridor, which has led some in Beijing to question the prudence of banking on vastly expensive and highly tenuous relationships to secure resources.
Whatever China is deliberating is not very clear but it is understood that China is well aware of high cost of miscalculation. China should understand that a stronger navy should allow Beijing to throw its weight around with greater ease. But if Chinese naval modernization is spurring others in the region to do the same—and if some of its more powerful neighbors look more than capable of playing catch-up—it is difficult to decipher what advantage the PLAN hopes to wield in the long term. Hegemony in the Pacific and Indian Oceans seems unlikely. Anything less could leave Beijing more isolated and vulnerable in a powerful, distrustful backyard.
The U.S. Navy is rethinking how it will use its submarines in a future Pacific War. According to Strategy Pagea campaign against Chinese shipping is unlikely, in part because of what actually happened during the last great anti-shipping campaign, which occurred during World War II (1939-45). After the war, the U.S. analyzed its operations against Japanese shipping and found that submarines were important, but not the only weapon effective against shipping. Some 8.9 million tons of Japanese shipping was sunk or so seriously damaged (disabled) at the end of the war. Submarines accounted for 54.7 percent of this. But 16.3 percent was attributable to carrier-based aircraft, 14.5 percent to land- based planes and 9.3 percent to mines (most dropped by B-29s). Less than one percent was due to surface gunfire, and the balance of 4 percent was caused by accidents. Because of their ability to operate in enemy-controlled (mainly by land-based aircraft) waters, submarines accounted for about 60 percent of the damage until the final months of the war. Then, during late 1944, carrier task forces went deep into enemy controlled areas, defending themselves against land-based warplanes and sinking a large numbers of ships. After April, 1945 Japanese shipping was restricted to the Korean and Manchurian runs and to shallow coastal waters. At this point the naval mines dropped by B-29s in Japanese harbors and inland waterways accounted for 50 percent of all ships sunk or damaged. That was then, but sixty years later the United States is able to monitor large ocean areas and has aircraft that are able to hit anything that's spotted.
The report says that the U.S. has adopted a new approach to any potential war with China. The U.S. Department of Defense has been told that, for the foreseeable future, there will be no more large-scale land campaigns. The air force, navy, and marines responded with a plan (AirSea Battle) that has been in the work for years. The new strategy is designed to cope with the rising power of China in the Pacific. AirSea Battle involves tighter planning and coordination of navy, marine, and navy forces, plus the development of some new weapons and tactics and cooperation with allies.
AirSea Battle has been widely accepted, as China continues to make all its neighbors nervous. That's because the Chinese name for China translates as "middle kingdom" as in "China is the middle of the world." The Chinese government, a communist dictatorship by any other name, is using nationalism to keep its pro-democracy opposition off balance. China has border disputes, expressed or implied, with all its neighbors. This has made the neighbors uneasy, especially as Chinese military forces have been modernized and more aggressive over the last decade. While Air-Sea Battle was developed to keep the United States out of extensive land combat (the navy still has commandos and marines for brief operations ashore), those kinds of wars tend to show up when you least expect, want, or are prepared for them. For the moment, U.S. military planners believe they can avoid a large land war.
The U.S. Navy has been studying (and war-gaming) the situation and that included an examination of American submarine use since World War II. After the 1960s, the U.S. shifted to using only nuclear propelled submarines. During the Cold War (1948-91), American subs were meant for use in defeating the growing Soviet (Russian) fleet. That force disappeared in the 1990s. At that point the Chinese fleet got larger and modernized, but is still nowhere near the size of the Soviet Navy. But this time the U.S. was facing a major trading nation. Unlike Russia, which was largely self-sufficient (or could get what it needed overland from neighbors), China requires thousands of ships a year to handle exports and imports. Like Japan during World War II, China is vulnerable here. Discounting the significance of economy in the conduct of war is always a very costly miscalculation. AirSea battle concentrates on military operations. But these will be heavily influenced by economic factors. With the U.S. is now dependent on other nations like much of the rest of the world, China included, the U.S. and many other Chinese trading partners would suffer severe economic disruptions if there were a maritime blockade of China. This could trigger the risk of nuclear war.
The Chinese Navy is the second largest naval service in the world, only behind the United States Navy. With a personnel strength of over 250,000, the PLAN also includes the 35,000-strong Coastal Defense Force and the 56,000-strong PLA Marine Corps, plus a 56,000-strong PLA Naval Air Force, operating several hundred land-based aircraft and ship-based helicopters. As part of its overall program of naval modernization, the PLA Navy is moving towards the development of a blue-water navy. There is a significant strategic rethinking and the new strategic threats include possible conflict with the United States and/or a resurgent Japan in areas such as the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea. At the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the PLAN, 52 vessels were shown in maneuvers off Qingdao in April 2009 including previously unseen nuclear submarines. The demonstration was seen as a sign of the growing status of China, while the CMC Chairman, Hu Jintao, indicated that China is neither seeking regional hegemony nor entering an arms race. Adm. Robert F. Willard, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, called the PLAN's modernization "aggressive," and that it raised concerns in the region. Japan has also raised concerns about the PLAN's growing capability and the lack of transparency as its naval strength keeps on expanding. China has entered into service the world's first anti-ship ballistic missile called DF-21D. The potential threat from the DF-21D against U.S. aircraft carriers has reportedly caused major changes in U.S. strategy. The PLAN's ambitions reportedly include operating out to the first and second island chains as far as the South Pacific near Australia, and spanning to the Aleutian islands, and operations extending to the Straits of Malacca near the Indian Ocean.
The future Chines fleet will be composed of a balance of assets aimed at maximizing the fighting effectiveness. On the high end, there would be modern destroyers equipped with long range air defense missiles (Type 052B, Type 052C, Type 051C); destroyers armed with supersonic anti-ship missiles (Sovremenny class); advanced nuclear powered attack and ballistic missile submarines (Type 093, Type 094); advanced conventional attack submarines (Kilo and Yuan); aircraft carriers and large amphibious warfare vessels capable mobilizing troops at long distances. On the medium and low end, there would be more economical multi-role capable frigates and destroyers (upgraded Luda, Luhu, Jiangwei II, Jiangkai); fast littoral missile attack craft (Houjian, Houxin, Houbei); various landing ships and light craft; and conventionally powered coastal patrol submarines.
Ronald O'Rourke of the Congressional Research Service reported that the long term goals of PLAN planning include: assert or defend China’s claims in maritime territorial disputes and China’s interpretation of international laws relating to freedom of navigation in exclusive economic zones (an interpretation at odds with the U.S. interpretation); protect China’s sea lines of communications to the Persian Gulf, on which China relies for some of its energy imports; and assert China’s status as a major world power, encourage other states in the region to align their policies with China, and displace U.S. regional military influence.
The developments are interesting and clearly explain the shift of focus in US global ambitions. It also explains how and why US is warming up to its Cold-war adversary, India and why is it in a hurry to offload its Afghanistan baggage. It, in part, should also explain US’s dumping of its Cold-war ally; Pakistan. It sometimes becomes clear why the Chinese Muslim province is perpetually at war with tracks of unrest leading to Pakistan’s restive regions where TTP is fighting Pakistan at the behest of India and the US. There are indeed no long-term foes and friends in realist politics.