“To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” —Sun Tzu, Art of War
The Chinese maintain that the trump card for winning a twenty-first century war is to combine Western technology with Eastern wisdom. Throughout the 1990s, Chinese geo-strategists espoused ‘shashoujian’ as the riposte to the US military in numerous articles. The Shashoujian – made popular by General Qin Shubao of the Tang Dynasty – is an ancient Chinese hand mace that could be concealed and employed without warning. The “Assassin’s Mace” thus entered lexicon as a Chinese stratagem of the relatively less powerful to humble the more powerful. One cannot but admire the majesty of the coinage!
The news of China’s retrofitted aircraft carrier Varyag sailing out of Dalian on August 10 last year for sea trials created a splash. The Varyag sortie came in the wake of recent Chinese iron-hand-in-velvet-glove assertiveness, turbo-charged military modernisation including its rapid induction of anti-access and area-denial – A2/AD – and subsurface warfare leviathans and its expansive claim over land and sea in its immediate periphery. Varyag might need another 18 months and some luck with the Shenyang J-15 jets to become fully operational. But the ripples generated by its maiden outing swelled into tidal waves, raising concerns amongst many as China’s empire-building is advancing apace. Varyag is likely to be rechristened “Shi Lang” after the Admiral who was responsible for the subjugation of Taiwan in 1681. The People’s Republic obviously knows how to semaphore its intent and then rub it in.
On November 14, 1910, Eugene Burton Ely accomplished the first shipboard take-off and landing in a Curtiss bi-plane from a makeshift deck on the American light-cruiser USS Birmingham, thus adding another dimension to air power and naval might. The day is not far when China too will savour its Eugene Ely-moment closing the gap in its power projection capability across the Asia-Pacific and the world beyond.
The PLA Navy is likely to induct two, even three, indigenous aircraft carriers by 2025. Having gotten American carrier-centric fleets in the crosshairs of the land-based, 3,000-km range Dong Feng-21D Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM), the Chinese pursuit of these game-changing strategic assets is an unambiguous signal to the US that the People’s Republic is very much in the game and would play by the rules it lays down.
From Shashoujian to Shi Lang – The Beijing Build-up
Combining the aphorism ‘A chain is only as strong as its weakest link’ with acupuncture, their traditional system of medicine, the Chinese have created a blend of asymmetrical warfare known as “acupuncture warfare”. In fact, it dates back to the teachings of the old fox Sun Tzu and neatly conforms to the Chinese belief ‘The other side may be strong, but they are not strong in all things…’ Having adapted it to the modern times, acupuncture warfare aims to paralyse the ‘acupuncture points’ (weakest nodes) of the enemy’s Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence (C4ISR) framework. Acupuncture warfare is a way to throw a monkey wrench into a vastly networked military machine.
After the Third Taiwan Crisis (1995-1996), China fired hails of missiles to shake up Taiwan. The US responded by ordering a flotilla spearheaded by the USS Nimitz to patrol the Taiwan Strait. It was then that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) went into a huddle to strategise and draw up a blueprint to checkmate the overwhelming military superiority of the US.
China believes that the trump card for winning a twenty-first century war is to combine Western technology with Eastern wisdom. Throughout the 1990s, in numerous writings, Chinese geo-strategists espoused ‘shashoujian’ as the riposte to the US military. The Shashoujian – made popular by General Qin Shubao of the Tang Dynasty – is an ancient Chinese hand mace that could be concealed and employed without warning. The “Assassin’s Mace” thus entered the Chinese lexicon as a stratagem of the relatively less powerful to humble the more powerful. One cannot but admire the majesty of the coinage!
- Anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons
- Spaced-based Reconnaissance, Surveillance and Target Acquisition (RSTA)
- Electro-magnetic weapons
- Advanced fighter aircraft & Airborne Early Warning platforms
- UAVs & UUVs
- Killer submarines
- Sea mines
- Electronic warfare
- Over-the-horizon radars
- Lethal ballistic and cruise missiles
- Integrated air defence systems
- Cyber warfare
A Deadly Arsenal! In the ninth century, Chinese alchemists discovered gunpowder which revolutionised warfare. Now, the Chinese regard the tools of A2/AD as the new gunpowder. China will rely on its goodly A2/AD and sub-surface warfare capabilities to take on America’s air and naval might in the Asia-Pacific theatre. For this, the PLA Navy has embarked on force restructuring and massive force expansion to have about 300 combat vessels including 70 submarines and at least two medium-sized carriers by 2025. Given the present day budgetary constraints, the US Navy armada in the ‘Western Pacific Theatre of Operations’ is likely to stagnate at the current force levels. By 2025 or earlier, the PLA Navy could well match the US Navy numerically.
How would the “shashoujian” work in the Asia-Pacific theatre? In any future conflict, the PLA aims to diminish the power asymmetry by seizing sea control through lightning blows of sea denial and ‘blinding’. Sea denial will be achieved through A2/AD instruments such as salvoes from submarines, blitz of ASBMs and aircraft/submarine-launched sea-skimming Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles (ASCMs) and peppering of DH-10 air-launched, land-attack cruise missiles from Xian H-6K bombers. The PLA will be in a position to target and assault forward bases in Guam and Okinawa and the US Carrier Battle Groups who, due to the short range of the strike warplanes aboard the US carriers will be forced to close in and thus become sitting ducks for the surface-based anti-ship missiles. The PLA expects to paralyse the American networks through pre-emptive ‘blinding’ of information and communication systems using ASAT weapons, electro-magnetic and cyber warfare, to leave the C4ISR architecture in utter disarray. Clever as they come, to keep everybody guessing, the PLA has not defined the tipping point or ‘what’ will provoke them to unleash the “shashoujian.”
Having sensed the gentle tilting of balance of power, like a bull in a china shop, the cocksure PLA has begun to snort and storm. China couches its outlandish claim of territorial waters as ‘historic waters’ dating back to the 1930s when Chiang Kai-shek, then generalissimo, was reigning over the Middle Kingdom. The Kuomintang (his Chinese Nationalist Party) drew a dotted line in the shape of a cow’s tongue, from the East Sea spanning across the South of China, enveloping as much sea and archipelagos, including the island chains of the Paracels (Vietnam) and the Spratlys (Philippines). Add South Korea (Ieodo Island a.k.a. Socotra Rock) and Japan (Caprine islands called Senkaku) also to the list of aggrieved parties, and we have a region trembling in fear of the rapacious Dragon. Of course, China is ever ready to resolve the long-festering disputes but only to its sole satisfaction!
This unwarranted aggression has destabilised the regional security setting, triggering off an arms race in East Asia-Pacific. By stoking up the smouldering sores, China has only succeeded in shoving its neighbourhood into American hands. The US and her allies have their hands full yet they have to take the bull by the horns to play the new Great Eastern Game.
The Original Empire Strikes Back
With the Americans being aware of the Beijing build-up, and episodes of Sino-US naval argy-bargies – USNS Impeccable incident for instance, their think tanks have been burning the midnight oil. In May 2010, the Washington DC-based Centre for Budgetary and Strategic Assessments (CBSA) released the conceptive document Air-Sea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operation Concept, a newly minted blueprint to head off Beijing.
Is Air-Sea Battle (ASB) the antidote to China’s venom poisoning the region? CSBA swears ASB, which has earned the nod of both US Navy and Air Force, is not about war with China or containment of China. It is part of a larger ‘offsetting strategy’ aimed at preserving a stable military balance in those areas that are both vital to US interests and where Chinese A2/AD capabilities are being fielded. That, in a few words, is maintaining the stability in East Asia.
The purpose of ASB, in American perception, is to discourage acts of coercion or aggression and promote change through internationally accepted norms. Translated into Mandarin, it reads, “Should China choose war, it will fail to realise its objectives through military adventurism.” In East Asian lingo, it says, “Sleep well for the US will intervene effectively.” A bigger bomb for bomb, a bigger missile for missile – in case China used the military stick as an instrument of conflict resolution. That is, ASB is a confidence-builder for smaller regional players; should Big Brother China turn belligerent, dial Bigger Brother Uncle Sam, and he will steam in to boot out the interloper.
How does ASB help to offset China and reassert sea control? Let us rewind to the eighties. Disturbed by the quantum leaps made by the USSR military in both numbers and firepower in the late 1970s, the US Army and Air Force racked their brains to face-up to the tilting balance of conventional power. This begat the offensive Air-Land Battle manual that advocated on expanding the capabilities to ‘see deep’ and ‘shoot deep’. It enjoined both the US Army and Air Force onto synergistic use of firepower to assault the enemy simultaneously at the vanguard as well as the rearguard. ‘Jointness’ became the fulcrum of military action. The induction of next-generation of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) elements gave new edge to the sword-arm, and Air-Land Battle, which formed the basis of US military’s European war-fighting doctrine from 1982 to the late-1990s, transmuted warfare into a new realm where synergy and swiftness mattered as much as aggressive tactics.
The crux of the ASB is to ensure that the US military, without upsizing and reconciling to the steady veering of power dynamics, remains a highly credible deterrent force to compel the People’s Republic to shun adventurism and expansionism. ASB does not aim to upturn the Chinese juggernaut, just to apply the brakes.
Like Air-Land Battle, ASB calls for greater and seamless collaboration between the US Navy and the US Air Force. Like any war doctrine, ASB too hinges on repelling the Chinese first strike followed by seizing the initiative to dictate subsequent course of events. The ASB response will focus on dismantling China’s A2/AD capabilities and crippling the sub-surface forces.
Seeking to impair Chinese A2/AD assets through ‘blinding’ onslaughts on C4ISR facilities, the ASB plans to achieve through concerted cyber attacks as well as destruction of satellites using ballistic missiles and directed-energy weapons and jam the radio waves. The US Navy and Air Force combat aircraft are to be tasked to eliminate the missile launchers, missile boats and Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) platforms. The US Navy’s destroyers equipped with Aegis Combat System, are to be tasked for the defence of bases and ships.
As for the submarines of the PLA Navy, , the Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) force including stealth bombers, armed-UUVs and Crafts Of Opportunity (COOP), are to be tasked to confine the undersea vessels to littoral waters and within the anti-submarine barriers demarcated along the Ryukyu Islands and the Luzon Strait.
Looming Dragon, Slouching Tiger
India has always taken for granted that the Indian Ocean is her mare clausum and exclusive sphere of influence but expansionist China has thrown down the gauntlet. Analysts term it the ‘String of Pearls’ encirclement strategy. Whatever you call it, the PLA idea is uncomplicated and cost-effective – constrict India to minimise her influence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and manipulate cat’s-paw Pakistan to rivet the Indian armed forces’ glare on the hatchet nation.
The nuts and bolts of the so-called ‘String of Pearls’ strategy of forward bases has been dissected threadbare. China’s naval and maritime doings – building related infrastructure in Pakistan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka; submarine base at Marao Islands in the Maldives, also meant to keep tabs on the US forces based in Diego Garcia, the US military outpost in the Indian Ocean; warships patrolling in the Gulf of Aden to bear hard on piracy; obtaining exclusive rights to prospect the international seabed area of 10,000 square kilometres in the IOR for rare earth like polymetallic sulphide – give credence to their IOR rush. China’s plans speak for themselves.
To fuel its industrial growth, the People’s Republic needs humongous feedstock and hydrocarbons, much of which have to voyage through the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately, miles of railroads and pipelines through Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar cannot substitute sea-borne haulage. Of course, the Thai canal, from the Andaman Sea to the South China Sea slicing through the Isthmus of Kra in southern Thailand, will be able to shrink time and distance but Thailand has not rolled up its sleeves. Geography can be a nasty leveller.
India should view the deployment of Chinese ships in Somali waters, the frantic port-building and the cosseting of island nations such as Seychelles and Maldives as a sub-plot of the grand strategy. To operate ships far and wide, the long-distance logistics need to be in place. By the time the new carriers are baptised, the PLA would ensure that the mechanism is in ship-shape and its wheels are well oiled. In short, enlarging the Chinese footprint in the IOR is a reality India will have to contend with.
It is incumbent upon the PLA Navy to ensure security of trade through our southern blue waters However, the PLA Navy will shift focus to establish commanding presence in the Indian Ocean once it is done with the Pacific, East and South China Seas, its current priorities. How the People’s Republic is aiding Pakistan to run India aground, thus constraining the latter to dissipate its energies on its western neighbour is well-documented. India is within bowshot of Chinese and Pakistani missiles. The DF-21D is the Damoclean sword for the warships of the Indian Navy.
Elsewhere, by elevating South China Sea to another ‘core interest’, the PRC intends to dominate not just the hydrocarbon-rich waters of the South China Sea but also its shipping lanes. Aside from harming our interests (ONGC has stake in the Nam Con Son basin off Vietnam’s Southeast coast), aggressive posture of this kind is unwelcome as it will insidiously upset regional stability and security causing immeasurable damage to regional peace.
In spite of the widening power differential between the PRC and India, pre-eminence in the IOR is India’s to lose. India has to show some spine and stand up to China to protect her national interests. Despite the giant strides hitherto, PRC’s credible power projection capability in the Indian Ocean should take at least a decade-and-a-half to build. In other words, India has time to get her act together to raise her profile and weight in the IOR and the Indo-Pacific, if she is up to it.
In view of the above, does the Indian military have anything to learn from the ASB? Prima facie not much as the geo-political and geo-strategic milieu over the IOR is comparatively placid. Also, when compared with China and the US, the capability of network-centric operations is inchoate and therefore ‘blinding’ warfare sounds like science fiction. However, on second reading, the ASB has much to offer against both China and Pakistan.
ASB: China, Pakistan and India
It would be witless of India to match the PLA tank for tank, ship for ship and aircraft for aircraft. A sound strategy for India will be to build credible capabilities to deter the PLA. China’s “shashoujian” is an inspirational template for any inferior force to slash the asymmetric sway enjoyed by a superior adversary. Yes, India can take a leaf out of China’s own blueprint on how to keel a mighty armada but adapt it to suit her tactical environment. For India, the backdrop for ASB will be the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and to a lesser extent, the Bay of Bengal.
India needs to take the following measures on a war footing in order to meet the challenges thrown up by her neighbour.
- Arm and equip the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force to effect sea denial. By 2025, the IN combat vessel strength must rise to 180-200 (including 40-50 submarines).
- The IAF has shortlisted the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Rafale for the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender. With the Chinese naval and maritime assets in the IOR bound to proliferate, the IAF should keep in mind the capabilities of the finalists to strike these assets while selecting the MMRCA. Maritime interdictions can also be used as a counterpunch to China’s air campaign over the Himalayas in case of hostilities.
- Indian Navy’s aerial strike force will comprise MiG-29K and Tejas LCA. Unfortunately, both possess only moderate sweep apart from lacking stealthy airframes, that too in a lethal environment with ever-lengthening eyeshot of AEW&C crafts and ever-increasing reach of missiles. These frailties need to be addressed while inducting carrier-borne aerial platforms for India-built aircraft carriers. The US, faced with a similar handicap, is now developing long-range, stealth UAVs for carrier-borne strike and surveillance roles.
The warming up of Sino-Pak collaboration will have to be factored in by India while contemplating her war doctrine. In order to lord over the IOR, China aims to hopple the Indian Navy and leave it anchored in the Arabian Sea. To accomplish this, China will humour sponger Pakistan by providing satellites (For instance, the Chinese rocket launching the PAKSAT-1R communication satellite this August, anti-ship missiles, anti-submarine weapons, other hardware and technological assistance.
To indebted Pakistan, replicating China’s war manual is not just the done thing but also grand naval strategy. The Pakistan Navy (PN) relies on a two-pronged tact – elaborate coastal defence and sea denial upfront (emphasis on submarines and anti-ship missiles).
This can be summed up as a strategy of offensive sea denial. For confirmation, behold the PN’s acquisitions/ wishlist – P-3C Orion, Agosta 90B submarines, Harpoon/Exocet anti-ship missiles, Chinese Yingji-82 anti-ship missiles, Chinese Type 039 (Song class) submarines and German HDW Type 214 submarines.
Pakistani A2/AD strategy is as clear as daylight – to compel Indian war boats to hold beyond the range of their ASBMs and ASCMs, and thereby render them wasting assets.
Therefore, few ASB concepts can be borrowed to effect sea control.
- To counter Pakistan’s strategy of offensive sea denial, one cannot emphasise enough on the need for airpower management through consolidation of IAF and IN’s offensive and defensive arms. The IAF firepower can be called upon to sink Pakistan’s A2/AD arsenal, to ‘blind’ C2 & ISR systems and for counter-space. IAF AWACS can direct the IN’s fleet of MiG-29K and LCA Tejas as well as supply over-the-horizon targeting data. Similarly, if the DRDO succeeds in integrating the Aegis missiles into the Prithvi Air Defence Shield, the IN destroyers can defend IAF bases from enemy missiles.
ASB : Diplomatic & Military Agenda
- Raise an adequate military-industrial edifice to meet and serve the requirements of the armed forces. While beefing up military power, it is important to ramp up India’s power projection capabilities too.
- Enter into smart security partnerships not only with countries in the Indian Ocean Region but also with the littoral states to our East.
- Shed all diffidence in engaging with friendly powers, expand the scope of bilateral/multilateral exercises and increase the frequency of such mutually beneficial engagements.
- China will continue to pursue what it perceives as its national interests. While India must prepare for the worst, it is worth our while to prevent conflict or the situation collapsing into a state of cold war. Therefore, the necessity to engage the People’s Republic in a security dialogue cannot be overemphasised.
- Air and space dimensions are fast merging into one – aerospace. Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) and budgeting will ultimately meld the four dimensions – land, sea, aerospace and cyberspace – into a continuum and future battle space will coalesce into a single entity. Effective war-fighting in such an environment calls for jointness – the whole shooting match. ‘Jointness’ has become a must not just for cross-utilisation of assets but for cross-pollination of ideas as well. Yet we procrastinate to instate the Chief of Defence Staff – a reminder of the lament of Basil Liddell Hart that “the only thing harder than getting a new idea into the military mind is to get an old one out.”
- The DRDO needs to work on Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) using air-launched interceptor missiles which will qualitatively fortify our missile-defence shield. The Yanks call them Air-Launched Hit-to-Kill (ALHK BMD).
- Not to forget the next big thing – sea-skimming, stealth anti-ship cruise missiles.
- The enemy’s offensive sea denial also hinges on sub-surface vessels. So, strengthening ASW capabilities – vectored mines, UUVs and stealth submarines – is a no-brainer. ASB stresses on exploiting geography and hydrography to create anti-submarine barriers to ambush/circumscribe enemy vessels. There is also a pressing need for expeditious induction of more submarines as many such vessels are marked for superannuation. Procurement efforts to replace and replenish the inventory are tardy, to say the least.
- During the Cold War, the US had sunk an array of deep-water sensors or Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) to snoop on Soviet submarines, especially the ‘noisier’ nuclear fellows. ASB advocates availing of geography and geophysics to install such a system. Unlike the colder North Atlantic, the Indian Ocean is notorious for temperature and salinity variation, which plays tricks with sonar. Ideally, submarines have to be tracked from the starting-point. At present, the dunking sonars, air-dropped sonobuoys and ship-based tactical towed arrays are LOFAR systems serving the IN well. Although an integrated undersea surveillance system to detect and identify PLA Navy and PN underwater craft is desirable, nothing can substitute old-fashioned, painstaking noise ‘fingerprinting’ of enemy vessels during peacetime for identification in wartime.
- Network centricity has added an extra edge to the tools of war but it is double-edged, a mixed blessing; if ‘blinded’, it can bring even a mighty military behemoth to cease ticking. Advantage can turn into disadvantage in a blink. Need there be more emphasis on training of personnel to fight ‘blind’? Nothing hones your battle skills more than peacetime drills in ‘ISR darkness’.
- As we endeavour more and more to squeeze sensor-to-shooter time to make the shooting war more efficient and clinical, we will rely more and more on aerospace and cyber assets. While expanding our aerospace and cyber capabilities, we will have to imbibe the techniques to protect them as well. The creation of a tri-service Cyber Command & Control Authority to deal with all operational and administrative matters relating to military use of aerospace and cyberspace could be a clincher.
- We are not that far from becoming a space-faring nation. Everett Dolman said that, “control of earth space not only guarantees control of outer reaches of space but provides advantage on terrestrial battlefield.” It may be politically correct to decry it but weaponisation of space is a reality and we should not be weighed down by qualms. Astro-politics and astro-weapons go hand in hand.
- We need a constellation of satellites up in the heavens. The PRC has already demonstrated its capability to smash low-earth orbit satellites into smithereens. As numbers increase, so will the physical vulnerabilities. Hence the need for defensive measures against ASAT weapons. One way to minimise its impact is to miniaturise the satellites as nano and pico satellites. The ISRO has established a toehold in this arena by successfully having the PSLV post nano-satellites – Studsat, SRMSat and Jugnu in orbit. In short, the work of the big satellites will be taken over by a swarm of tiny satellites which will communicate with each other to function as one.
- For offensive operations, investment in research and production of ASAT arsenal including directed energy weapons is an urgent necessity.
- On the cyber front, Chinese hackers have broken in almost at will, thus exposing the chinks in our firewall. The proposed Cyber Command & Control Authority can raise a regiment of cyber-warriors to not only secure cyber assets but also to unleash pre-emptive/punitive cyber raids.
Strategic vision is not the strong suit of our safari and lounge-suited mandarins but will the threat of a rising China impel them to stay awake, dream up, and think anew of strategies to outwit the looming Dragon?
- CSBA Air Sea Battle by Jan Van Tol, Mark Gunzinger, Andrew Krepinevich and Jim Thomas.