Why China's Anti-Access Strategy Matters

By Harry Kazianis

There is no greater threat to the United States in terms of strategic peer competitors than the capabilities of the People's Republic of China.

For over the past decade, China's military has developed capabilities that, broadly stated, attempt to slow, limit or deny a superior armed force from conducting threatening military operations. Termed Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD), such a strategy attempts to place a superior opponent on "the wrong side of physics." The combined military capabilities of diesel and nuclear submarines, mines, cyberwarfare, anti-satellite weapons and swarm attacks by ballistic and cruise missiles would be utilized in an advanced form of layered defense. Chinese strategists in most scenarios assume United States military forces would be the intended target.

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Such a strategy is based on study of the last twenty plus years of warfare. Chinese strategists have paid special attention to the First Persian Gulf War. Chinese military planners were impressed but horrified to see Iraqi military forces destroyed through combined military operations, superior communications, and advanced American military technology. Chinese planners have also studied military operations in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and the Second Gulf War. They have decided to adopt military planning capable of waging "local wars under conditions of informatization."

China's A2/AD strategy is a central component of its geostrategic goals. Chinese planners have concluded "the first two decades of the 21st century as a ‘period of strategic opportunity' for China's growth and development. They assess that this period will include a generally favorable external environment, characterized by interdependence, cooperation and a low threat of major power war." China's leaders may have also theorized as the U.S. waged a "global war on terror" combined with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the first twenty years of this century would be a time where China could develop its overall A2/AD capabilities without pressing competition in the Asia-Pacific. As U.S. forces are now 'pivoting' or 'rebalancing' in the region, Chinese planners may decide to expedite the growth of their A2/AD capabilities.

One of the most troubling aspects U.S. armed forces must consider when devising strategies to deal with A2/AD challenges is the centrality of missile technology. Chinese Anti-Access strategy is by its very nature missile-centric. Chinese forces have stationed vast quantities of ballistic missiles ready to strike Taiwan if conflict were to occur. Chinese strategists have also developed battle plans to target U.S. carriers, supporting vessel's such as AEGIS missile defense ships and American and allied airfields. Such targets could be swarmed with missiles -leading to a debate over whether or not U.S. missile defenses would be adequate to counter such weaponry.

Particularly noteworthy is China's recent development of advanced anti-ship ballistic missile technology (ASBM), notably the DF-21D. Dubbed by popular media as a "carrier-killer," the weapon would be fired from a mobile truck-mounted launcher into the atmosphere, with assistance from over-the-horizon radar, satellite tracking and possibly unmanned aerial vehicles, with the warhead reaching a terminal velocity of Mach 10 to Mach 12. The system is thought to have a range of "over 1500km+."

Having a clear understanding of A2/AD tactics and strategy is of significant importance. Nations such as Iran, Syria and North Korea have made significant investments in developing A2/AD weaponry and have studied China's advances. Considering the financial costs of developing weaponry able to compete with U.S. forces in terms of numerical and technological superiority, anti-access weapons based on asymmetric tactics seem to be offer clear advantages. A firm understanding of such a strategy will be critical as U.S. military planners consider new procurement, strategic planning and force structure concepts in the years and months ahead with smaller budgets compared to the recent past.

Harry Kazianis is a WSD-Handa Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies: PACNET. He is also editor of The Diplomat.

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