Written by Harry Kazianis.
Much has been made over the last several years concerning China’s growing capabilities to deny a technological advanced adversary the capability to intervene in various possible conflicts near its borders. Over the next five years, such capabilities are likely to become even stronger, posing an interesting challenge to U.S. and allied defense planners attempting to ensure access to important sea lines of communication, access to contested areas of the East and South China Sea, and maintaining allied military capabilities throughout Asia.
Dubbed counter invention operations by the PLA, A2/AD by most western scholars, Beijing is slowly creating the conditions in which U.S., Japanese or other allied forces would pay a high price if a conflict ever occurred in the East or South China Seas and increasingly out to the first island chain. Across multiple domains of possible conflict Chinese forces have pursued a robust program to develop a set of unique weapon systems that take advantage of specific weaknesses in perceived U.S. and allied capabilities. While such capabilities are already robust enough that Washington and its allies are making plans to negate such a strategy (see the AirSea Battle concept debate), Beijing is already at work on a new generation of A2/AD weapons platforms. In the coming years, these new systems will continue to add to Beijing’s anti-access capabilities–what could be easily dubbed an even more potent A2/AD 2.0.
One example where China is attempting to enhance its anti-access capabilities is in the air with the much rumored purchase of the SU-35 from Russia. While more rumor than fact (I have been told by two confidential sources an agreement in principle exists for a sale of 24 SU-35s but has not been signed yet) it is an indication of China’s military desires going forward. With greater range than the current PLAAF SU-27/J-11, the SU-35 would give China the ability to deploy advanced fighter jets for longer periods of time in the East and South China Seas and improve the effectiveness of patrols in the recently declared East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). The aircraft would likely be superior to most fighters in Asia (except the F-22 or later F-35) and fill the gap until presumably domestic 5th generation stealth airframes can come online. Combine the above with the possibility of arming the plane with advanced anti-ship weapons, a new and potent anti-access weapon emerges with solid capabilities to push enemy forces back to save distances.
On the high seas, and thanks again to possible collaboration with Russia, China is seeking to enhance its capabilities under the waves with possible new submarine purchases. This has been tied to press reports surrounding a possibly SU-35 sale in many instances. While reports do vary on the firmness of any agreement, we again get a sense of Chinese trends in attempts strengthen its A2/AD capabilities. A fresh infusion of new submarine technology would be of vital importance to China not only for the ability to deploy undersea vessels with greater capabilities but also new technologies each sub would come packed with. This would presumably include Russian AIP engines, quieting technologies, and possibly new anti-ship weapons. Such technologies could give the next generation of Chinese submarines new capabilities over time that could greatly enhance Beijing’s A2/AD strategy.
Moving to more recent news, China is also pursuing a new weapons system that seems more like science fiction that reality–hypersonic weapons. While little information is known about China’s recent tests, various reports speculate such weapons could have an anti-ship focus.
Indeed, various news posts detailed the test of what has been called a hypersonic glide vehicle that “appears designed to be launched atop one of China’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, and then glides and maneuvers at speeds of up to 10 times the speed of sound from near space en route to its target.” While obviously in an early testing phase and likely many years away from being used in a combat scenario one can obviously see the A2/AD capabilities of such a system. Many defense experts have commented that such a weapon would be difficult to defend against. Using such weapons in potent saturation strikes along with cruise and ballistic weapons could make a deadly combination against enemy carrier battle groups, airfields or other targets of interest. Chinese forces could even craft a strategy of expending mass amounts of less costly and less accurate cruise and ballistic weapons in an attempt to wear down limited numbers of missile defense interceptors to deliver a fatal blow by highly accurate hypersonic weapons.
Surely the debate over China’s military will continue for many years to come. Yet, the trend lines clearly point to Beijing developing a world-class military with robust A2/AD capabilities. While purchases from Russia may not come to pass–perhaps due to concerns over past weapons purchases that went astray (see the SU-27 sale), China is also developing other A2/AD weapons systems that could easily continue the advance of its anti-access strategy. New generations of “carrier-killer” ballistic missiles, domestically built AIP-based submarines, 5th generation fighters, longer range cruise missiles, increasingly lethal sea mines (China has over 80,000 various sea mines) and other looming weapons ensures Beijing’s A2/AD capabilities will not stay static and continue to grow. And with other nations like Iran and even non-state actors looking to mimic parts of China’s A2/AD strategy militaries around the world will need to develop counter-strategies to manage such threats. The next few years into the next decade could prove telling for military planners on both sides of what is likely to be a defensive chess match of move and counter move.
Harry J. Kazianis serves as Managing Editor of the National Interest and a non-resident WSD fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies:PACNET. Harry is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow in the China Policy Institute.