China in Alaska, part II: turning the other cheek

If foreign warships intruded into American territorial waters near a critical and undefended military base, you might expect that reasonable countermeasures be taken, like shadowing the vessels with military aircraft, dispatching some troops to shore up the garrison, and summoning the ambassador of the offending state to demand an explanation. But this is 21st century America, where NASA’s primary mission is offering therapy to the Muslim world and international LGBT rights are considered a national security priority.

Nothing frustrates this Administration more than the intrusion of great power politics on its post-modern foreign policy agenda. Recently this was on display by President Obama’s reaction to the Russian intervention in Syria (“This is not some superpower chessboard contest”). Last month it was visible in the confused response to the PLAN’s Alaskan pleasure cruise.

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China in Alaska, part I: sending a message

Nearly seven years ago, when China deployed ships to the Gulf of Aden to join international counterpiracy operations, I remarked on the historical significance of the occasion as China resumed blue water operations for the first time in centuries.

We’ve come a long way in seven years. In August, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) sent seven ships to conduct exercises with the Russian navy in the waters near Vladivostok, including an ampbibious landing drill with 200 Chinese marines. Joint exercises of this sophistication and ambition are newsworthy in their own right, but the real story occurred after the training concluded on 28 August. The PLAN flotilla took a bit of a detour on the way home.

On 2 September the flotilla was reported to be operating in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska, coinciding with President Obama’s visit to that state. This caused a great deal of confusion and consternation among U.S. officials, who purported to be baffled as to why the PLAN was operating so far north:

US government officials acknowledged the curious timing of the Chinese ships navigating in the waters near Alaska at a time when President Obama is there, but White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Beijing’s intent was still unclear.

The Pentagon official said there were a “variety of opinions” on how to interpret the Chinese ships’ deployment.

“It’s difficult to tell exactly, but it indicates some interest in the Arctic region,” the official said. “It’s different.”

Not to worry, though. White House spokesman Josh Earnest reassured the press, three different times, that the vessels were not behaving in a threatening manner and were staying in international waters.

Except they were not. On 4 September the Wall Street Journal reported that the flotilla had, in fact, entered U.S. territorial waters as it transited the Aleutian Islands and steamed south into the Pacific. This seemed to increase the confusion among American observers:

“This is clearly a signal,” said David Titley, a retired rear admiral who is a professor at Penn State University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Of what, Titley said, it’s difficult to say, but he suggested that China may be seeking to establish itself as a player in the growing commercial activity in the Arctic.

There are two interesting dimensions to this story. First, what Beijing was actually signaling by its foray into U.S. waters; second, the bemused and feeble American reaction, which suggests an unspoken political imperative to avoid giving offense to China.

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Dong Feng’ing in the new year

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.

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What are we going to do about those Dong Feng’ed missiles?


The latest opportunity for the media to engage in another shameless bout of Sinophilia concerns the rather esoteric topic of maneuverable ballistic re-entry vehicles. A recent Associated Press article loaded with triumphant language declares American supremacy on the high seas all but over, thanks to the latest Chinese magic bullet: the DF-21D.

Nothing projects U.S. global air and sea power more vividly than supercarriers. Bristling with fighter jets that can reach deep into even landlocked trouble zones, America’s virtually invincible carrier fleet has long enforced its dominance of the high seas.

China may soon put an end to that.

U.S. naval planners are scrambling to deal with what analysts say is a game-changing weapon being developed by China — an unprecedented carrier-killing missile called the Dong Feng 21D that could be launched from land with enough accuracy to penetrate the defenses of even the most advanced moving aircraft carrier at a distance of more than 1,500 kilometers (900 miles).

What makes the DF-21D unique is its payload: a maneuverable re-entry vehicle (MaRV) equipped with a conventional warhead and either radar or infrared terminal homing. This would indeed pose a threat to the U.S. Navy because existing ship-borne defense systems are designed to protect against sea-skimming anti-ship cruise missiles; a MaRV would approach its target along a ballistic trajectory within a cone that is poorly covered by existing systems. However, before proclaiming the death of U.S. naval supremacy, a few points need to be raised.

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