China’s magic bullet – the supposed carrier-killing DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile – is all over the news…again. This time because CINCPAC Adm. Robert F. Willard commented that the weapon system had reached “initial operating capability,” giving the media yet another excuse to indulge in more orgasmic Sinophilia. Judging by the many gleeful proclamations of the impending death of the U.S. Navy, one gets the impression that certain elements in the media are looking forward to a Chinese-dominated world-order (at least until they get the memo on changes to intellectual property rights).
The last time this story was making the rounds, back in August, I posted that the threat of the DF-21D, though not insignificant, has been greatly exaggerated. Analyses that predicts the dislocation of power balances due to the introduction of a single weapon system is fundamentally flawed because it examines strategy solely from a technical perspective, neglecting technical, operational, and strategic considerations that dictate how the weapons are actually used.
When considering sensationalized stories about new “game changing” weapons, it is important to keep in mind Edward Luttwak’s [yes...I'm going to talk about him again] observation that the “paradoxical logic” of strategy – created by the reciprocal process of action and reaction between conscious belligerents – applies to the technical level of strategy just as it does to higher levels. Weapon systems reach a culminating point of success when the enemy begins to implement effective countermeasures. Extremely efficient weapons (and anti-ship ballistic missiles, relatively cheap systems supposedly capable of sinking multi-billion dollar aircraft carriers, are the archetype of military “efficiency”) tend to reach this culminating point early because their very efficiency prompts immediate countermeasures. Because efficiency is the product of very narrow capabilities, these systems cannot cope with broad-based countermeasures; an anti-ship ballistic missile can do only one thing, whereas a surface naval vessel can do many things in terms of reactions.
The example that Luttwak uses to illustrate this dynamic is manifestly relevant to the topic at hand:
From the 1870s, for example, the combination of the newly invented self-propelled torpedo with fast steamboats to provide its launching platform seemed to offer the possibility of defeating efficiently the altogether more expensive battleships on which naval power then rested. Battleships, built as they were to fight other large warships, were armed with long-barreled guns of large caliber. Those guns could not be depressed low enough to defeat torpedo boats approaching under the cover of night and revealed only at close range. In addition, even oceangoing torpedo boats would present only a small and unstable target, very difficult to hit. Moreover, the heavy armor of the battleship, which made it so costly and formidable, was then mainly applied to decks and superstructures, in order to resist the descending armor-piercing shells of other big-gun ships; therefore the explosion of torpedo charges against the unprotected sides below the waterline could be devastatingly effective.
The conclusion to be reached seemed quite obvious: with the advent of the torpedo boat, the costly battleship had become fatally vulnerable, and if inert conservatism could be overcome, naval power could be acquired on a new and far more economical basis. (p. 33)
Naval strategists were not blind to this development, and in the decades before World War I, naval powers around the world built hundreds of torpedo boats, particularly states such as France and Germany that had reason to fear the Royal Navy’s vast fleet of battleships.
Yet torpedo boats did not play an important role in the naval warfare of 1914-1918 except as a threat to be guarded against. Far from having made all larger and more costly warships obsolete, it was the torpedo boat itself that became obsolescent, surviving only as a minor weapon of marginal value. For by then the innovation had long passed its culminating point of success and was already largely neutralized because of its efficiency, which had both evoked a strong reaction and prevent any remedial response. Platforms or weapon systems that are highly efficient because they are narrowly specialized cannot accommodate broad counter-countermeasures.
By 1914 all modern battleships and battle cruisers, indeed all large modern warships, were prepared to neutralize the torpedo boat. Although the long-barreled guns of their main batteries still could not be depressed to fire at short ranges, the searchlights by then universally employed made it much more difficult for torpedo boats to approach closely undetected, even at night. And, just in case, quick-firing guns of small caliber had been added to attack them at close range. Though armor protection was still at its thickest on decks and superstructures, new and highly effective protection was also provided below the waterline, not only by armor plate but by sealed bulges that could absorb the impact of torpedo detonations. At anchor, wire nets suspended alongside could shield warships by detonating torpedo charges at a safe distance from the hull.
The ability of larger warships to carry extra armor, provide ample electrical power for searchlights, and accommodate quick-firing guns and heavy steel nets derived of course from the same characteristics that had made them appear so inefficient in the visualized duel with the torpedo boat. Their size and power had merely seemed to increase their value as targets, while being irrelevant to the duel – until all that costly versatility was exploited to defeat the new threat. Thus the broad prevails over the narrow to cut short its span of success. (p. 34-5)
It is not difficult to see how this same logic applies to the DF-21D, and how the extreme complexity of the system creates a range of possible countermeasures. Unless it’s armed with a high-yield thermonuclear warhead fused for airburst, the re-entry vehicle must be maneuverable in order to attack a surface warship. To facilitate maneuver, the vehicle must be slowed down considerably compared to a purely ballistic warhead, making it vulnerable to missile defense systems that are already deployed, such as the SM-3 interceptor. Furthermore, maneuverability requires some form of terminal guidance, an extremely high technical hurdle for a semi-ballistic warhead. GPS guidance is ineffective for attacking a moving target, and requires an uplink with an external navigation system. Both radar and infrared homing can be jammed, spoofed, and decoyed. And when the target is a surface warship, missing by a foot is equivalent to missing by a mile. Considering these factors among others, it is arguable that the DF-21D has already exceeded its culminating point of success.
The purpose of this is not to discount the threat posed by the DF-21, but simply to temper the “magic bullet” rhetoric that has all but declared the Western Pacific to be a Chinese lake. More alarming than the particulars of a U.S.-China arms race is the extent to which Washington has allowed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to distract it from the East Asian littoral, a region of vastly greater strategic significance.