Militarisation of the South China Sea: The Offence-Defense Paradigm
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Issue Vol. 31.1 Jan-Mar 2016 | Date : 13 Jul , 2016

The map above indicates the area where China is reclaiming the reefs to build infrastructure for runways and berthing sites. A major airfield is being constructed on Fiery Cross Reef which would facilitate operation of Cargo, Surveillance, Fighters and Bomber aircraft.

While war between US and China is ruled out for multiple reasons, the military balance of power dictated by military strategy chosen has direct bearings on the political choices made by nation-states in the Asia-Pacific region. The balance of power between the US and China will decide the political evolution of the Asia-Pacific region in the coming years. The concept of ASB not only implicates a shift in military strategy but also the recipient of this strategy. If the Soviet Union was the imaginary adversary during the implementation of Air-Land Battle concept in the mid-1980s, the ASB concept is meant for contingencies with respect to China.

While it is analytically simple to gauge the ‘capability’ aspect of a military strategy, the ‘intent’ part of it remains elusive and requires careful study of various associated aspects of such a strategy and the relationship among them. After being first reported by Fox News1 and its later confirmation by Taiwan Defense Ministry and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who provided the rationale for such a move, it is now established that China has set up a pair of HQ-9 Air Defense Systems and supporting vehicles such as an engagement radar and the Type 305B AESA acquisition radar on Woody Island, part of the Paracel chain of islands in the South China Sea (SCS).2

The placement of the Air Defense System on Woody Island seems to have occurred between 03 February and 14 February when the batteries were first discovered by a commercial satellite3. It was further reported and confirmed that China had deployed fighter jets to the same contested island in the South China Sea. According to Fox News, US intelligence services had spotted Chinese Shenyang J-11 and Xian JH-7 warplanes on Woody Island in the disputed Paracel Islands. While confirming such reports, US Navy Captain Darryn James, the spokesman for US Pacific Command, stated that the fighter jets had previously used the Island.4

The immediate reason for China to initiate military build-up in the South China Sea, which has been an area of significant strategic concern, seems to be the series of ‘Freedom of Navigation’ (FoN) exercises conducted near the Spratley Islands by the United States Navy (USN). The United States mandates the US Navy to conduct FoN missions to contest any nation from claiming sovereignty on the high seas as this contradicts international maritime law and does so against its own allies such as Japan when it uses a straight baseline approach for demarcating its territorial seas. Upholding the rights to ‘Freedom of Navigation’ and innocent passage is central to US strategic concerns in the SCS. However, such concerns are derived from military logic contrary to the ideal of free trade and commerce. The true strategic intent behind upholding the idea of Freedom of Navigation and right to innocent passage as this analysis argues is an arrangement to facilitate the rapid deployment of naval forces across the maritime spaces without any hindrances offered by sovereignty on high seas by nations.

Upholding the rights to ‘Freedom of Navigation’ and innocent passage is central to US strategic concerns in the SCS…

Prior to the disclosure of Air Defense Systems on Woody Island, On November 23, 2013, China’s Ministry of National Defense (MoD) warranted Emergency Defensive Measures on aircraft that passed the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) announced by China. This ADIZ was the fourth to be announced in the region, after Japan (1969), Taiwan and South Korea, therefore, overlapping.5 China’s move was considered to be provocative and destabilising to the region. The United States administration chose to tag it ‘hypocritical’ and violated the Chinese ADIZ with two unarmed B-52 bombers. However, in the days that followed, the US advised its civilian aircraft to respect the ADIZ. The recent FoN missions conducted by the US Navy in the SCS, while suffice it to be a reason for deploying the HQ-9, it does not necessarily translate to being sufficient cause.

China’s Military Discomfort with US Air Sea Battle Concept

Since the early 1990s, after making note of serious improvements in capabilities that altered the conduct of warfare since the Falkland War and the Gulf War, the US initiated profound rethinking into its operational doctrines for warfighting.6 One of the major tasks of the Air-Sea Battle office was to optimise the role of aviation in resolving the complex issues regarding the movement of logistics through the vast expanse of ocean.

It is obvious that the reference here is to the Asia-Pacific region and US Pacific Command. The US Air Force (USAF) has between 43,000 and 46,000 airmen in the Pacific region. The USAF also has concentrated resources in the region, with 60 per cent of the stealthy F-22 Raptor fighter fleet deployed in and around the Pacific theatre anytime. The induction of jointly developed F-35 multi-role stealth fighters is likely to find its operational base in the Pacific theatre. Eight partner countries (Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Turkey and the United Kingdom) are expected to purchase/induct the F-35, while Japan and Israel selected the F-35 through the US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) process, and Israel and Singapore have invested in the F-35 at security co-operation partnerships.

In addition to this, a program to induct the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B), expected to be in the same class as B-2 bombers, is underway. Despite budget pressures the LRS-B remains a top USAF acquisition priority. The bomber received $379 million (or billion?) in the President’s Fiscal Year 2014 (FY14) budget request and delivery is expected by 2020. The USAF is expected to procure 80 to 100 units at a total cost of $550 million. Another long range platform poised to play a central role is the High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) built by Northrop Grumman, known in the USAF as the RQ-4 Global Hawk and in the US Navy as MQ-4C Triton. These platforms can function at 52,800 ft and provide surveillance up to 2,000 nautical miles on round-the-clock missions.

Cyberspace and space-based capabilities are essential for US operations and are vulnerable to adversary capabilities…

By 2020, the US Navy expects to reach a fleet size of 295 ships in its battle force inventory. This includes 11 Aircraft Carriers, 87 Large Surface combatants (comprising 15 Cruisers, 69 Arleigh Burke-Class 59 Destroyers, and three Zumwalt Class DDG 1000 Destroyers), 37 Small Surface Combatants (comprising 27 Littoral Combat Ships and ten Mine Countermeasure Vessels), 49 Attack Submarines, four Cruise Missile submarines, 14 Ohio Class Ballistic Missile Submarines, 31 Amphibious Warships (including ten Amphibious Assault Ships), 11 Landing Platform Dock Ships, ten Landing Ship Docks, 29 Combat Logistics Vessels, and 33 Support Vessels, Four Mobile Landing Platforms MPDT-AKE and two Afloat Forward Staging Base Ships. In 2016, the US Navy will accept the delivery of new Ford class aircraft carrier which will operate the F-35 Cs.

According to Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work, the Pentagon’s fiscal 2017 request included around $3 billion in A2/AD technology development as part of the third offset strategy with a heavy focus of military technologies that would be key in defeating systems like HQ-9 in the event of direct conflict.7 The military requirement here will be to launch offensive strike weapons while staying out of roughly 125-mile radius of the missile systems or relying on stealthy planes such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to penetrate protected airspace.

Doctrinal Lineage: Air Sea Battle

The Air Land Battle concept adopted in the 1970s and 1980s was a limited version of the present day Air Sea Battle concept. According to the official (declassified) summary of the classified Air Sea Battle concept by Air Sea Battle Office (May 2013), the Air Land Battle concept sought to use the Air Force in ‘Degradation of Rear Echelon’ over a land domain before an adversary (the Soviet Union) could engage its allied forces. The Air Sea Battle concept is similarly designed to attack-in-depth, but instead of focusing on the land domain from the air, the concept describes integrated operations across all five domains (air, land, sea, space and cyberspace) to create advantage.8 In further clarification on the difference between the two, the document stresses that the Air Sea Battle concept includes defense of its own ‘rear echelon’ across the same domains.

Air-Land Battle (1970s) Stopping the advancing Warsaw Pact armies was the focus of the US Army and the US Navy during the Cold War.
Air-Sea Battle (2013) Overcoming Anti-Access(A2)/Area-Denial(AD) is the new focus of the US Air Force and the US Navy.

Doctrinal Objectives

According to USN Vice Admiral Mark Fox, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations, Plans and Strategy (N3/N5), Head of the Air-Sea Battle Executive Committee, at an operational level, the Air Sea Battle concept intends to get the services thinking more jointly so that, for example, a Naval ship could use data from an Army ground radar to guide an Air Force aircraft to engage a target.

According to Major General James Holmes, the Air Sea Battle concept is not just about acquisition of new platforms and systems but also integration of already existing systems. Its objectives are to realise a seamless flow of real time data between the US Navy and the USAF. This concept, therefore, has a profound impact on how wars will be fought and requires transformation at both quantitative and qualitative levels. It is expected that like the Air Land Battle concept which was conceptualised in the 1970s, and achieved its mature operational status in the 1980s, the Air Sea Battle concept has some way to go before it is realised at the operational level.

The ASB’s vision of Networked, Integrated and Attack-in-depth (NIA) operations requires the application of cross-domain operations…

According to the Chairman of the House Armed Service Committee’s Sea power and Projection Forces Sub-committee, Congressman J. Randy Forbes, within the current climate of cutting defense budgets, the US was light years away from putting together the materials required to operationalise the Air-Sea Battle concepts. The Air-Sea Battle concept also focuses on finding new Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTP) for integrating existing capabilities between the services as opposed to developing new systems.

Cause-Affect Analysis

The fundamental ‘cause’ culminating into ‘effect’ – Air Sea battle Concept – requires subtle clarification. The obvious ‘cause’ seems to be the enhanced capabilities of some nations in carrying out A2/AD operations (China, Iran). However, upon closer examination, this ‘cause’ (A2/AD – capabilities) has an ‘effect’, and it is this ‘effect’ that culminates into fundamental ‘cause’ of the Air Sea Battle. Therefore, the ‘effect’ of enhanced A2/AD capabilities on the US and its ‘expeditionary operations’ is what matters.

According to the Air Sea Battle Office (May, 2013), “A2/AD capabilities and strategies to employ them combine to make US power projection increasingly risky, and in some cases, prohibitive, while enabling near-peer competitors and regional powers to extend their coercive strength well beyond their borders. In the most challenging scenarios, the US may be unable to employ forces the way it has in the past; build up combat power in an area, perform detailed rehearsals and integration activities, and then conduct operations when and where desired. By acquiring these advanced A2/AD technologies, potential adversaries are changing the conditions of warfare that the US has become accustomed to in the past half century.”

From an analytical perspective, the ‘centre of gravity’ of this contradictory tension between – A2/AD capabilities and Air Sea Battle concept – seems to be each other. Both these constitute the ‘cause-effect’ relation to each other. However, a system approach suggests that the ‘centre of gravity’ in this tension is perhaps, “long distance power projection under degraded environment.” The Air Sea Battle concept is not to counter (perhaps, is!) the enhanced capabilities of A2/AD strategy, but to sustain and maintain a similar (as in the past – absence of A2/AD) ability to project power over long distance, even within a degraded environment. The ‘centre of gravity’ therefore, is ‘power-projection’.

According to the Air Sea Battle Office9 (May, 2013), “The range and scale of possible effects from these capabilities presents a military problem that threatens the US and allied expeditionary warfare model of power projection and manoeuvre.”

Air Sea Battle – Conceptual Framework

Five recently approved revisions (doctrinal) include Joint Publication (JP) 3–03, Joint Interdiction, JP 3–05.1, Joint Special Operations Task Force Operations, JP 3–15, Barriers, Obstacles, and Mine Warfare Operations, JP 3–35, Deployment and Redeployment Operations, and JP 3–60, Joint Targeting.10

ADIZ is a reflection of China’s increased confidence in projecting power and claiming sovereign ideals in nearby seas…

Key assumptions held by Air-Sea (ASB) Battle Doctrine (Official)

The adversary will initiate military activities with little or no indications or warning; the implications are that a short warning timeline requires the US to maintain ready forces that are routinely integrated and prepared to conduct high risk operations against very capable adversaries.

Forward friendly forces will be in the A2/AD environment at the commencement of hostilities; the steady state posture and capabilities of forces must be able to provide an immediate and effective response to adversary A2/AD attacks through high tempo operations in the A2/AD environment. Additional forces introduced into the threat environment should be able to promptly integrate into the existing force posture.

Third, adversaries will attack the US and allied territory supporting operations against adversary forces. In addition to attacking American aircraft, ships, space assets, networks and people, denying access to US forces requires attacks on bases from which the US and its allies are operating including those on allied or partner territory. The implication is that the defense of all bases from which US forces operate must be addressed, whether on US or partner/allied territory. Even the US homeland cannot be considered a sanctuary.

Fourth, all domains will be contested by an adversary – space, cyberspace, air, maritime and land. Cyberspace and space-based capabilities are essential for US operations and are vulnerable to adversary capabilities with a low barrier to entry such as computer network attack and electronic jamming. Since the adversary may employ a multi-domain approach, the ASB must defend and respond in each warfighting domain.

No domain can be completely ceded to the adversary. Each domain can be used to impact and deny access to the others, so to cede one domain to an adversary invites the eventual loss of the other interdependent domains. While US forces may contest freedom of action in each domain, they are not likely to be required to achieve control in each domain simultaneously or to the same degree. As such, US forces must take advantage of freedom of action in one domain to create US advantage or challenge an adversary in another. This will require tightly coordinated actions across domains using integrated forces able to operate in each domain.

ASB is a supporting concept to the Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC) and provides a detailed view of specific technological and operational aspects of the overall A2/AD challenge in the global commons. The Concept is not an operational plan or strategy for a specific region or adversary. The ASB Concept’s solution to the A2/AD challenge in the global commons is to develop Networked, Integrated forces capable of Attack-in-depth to Disrupt, Destroy and Defeat (NIA/D3) adversary forces.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr Rajasimman Sundaram

teaches history, politics, and culture and a member of the Institute of BRICS Studies and College of Multi-Languages at Sichuan International Studies University [四川外国语大学] (The People’s Republic of China)". 

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