Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 1

By Thomas Woodrow

China’s navy is developing a Taiwan-scenario strategy to defeat U.S. naval forces by luring them into predetermined target areas and ambushing them with an array of anticarrier attack forces. Recent Chinese military exercises and military commentaries have illustrated in detail how Beijing plans to achieve this goal.

Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) naval and coastal exercises in 2001 and 2002 near Taiwan and along China’s southern coast were three-phased operations depicting information warfare attacks, coordinated air and missile strikes on Taiwan’s airfields and seaports, and attacks on U.S. naval forces coming to Taiwan’s assistance. The purpose of the 2001 exercise, according to Chinese military officers involved, was to plan for the invasion of the Pescadore Islands–which lie between Taiwan and the mainland–and to practice attacking U.S. aircraft carriers that would shortly thereafter arrive in the area. The recent 2002 exercise, which involved more than fifty ships and a dozen submarines, had similar themes. It also included Chinese naval and submarine forces in an unprecedented transit along the eastern coast of Taiwan to an area in the Pacific where U.S. carriers might be in the event of a Taiwan crisis with China.

Defeat of U.S. carrier battle groups would be key to a Chinese victory over Taiwan. Beijing was embarrassed in 1996 when its missile launches into waters near Taiwan caused Washington to dispatch aircraft carriers to the Taiwan area in a show of force. Since that time, China has assiduously added to its military arsenal–including Russian-design high-performance ships, submarines and aircraft weaponry–to be prepared to defeat U.S. carriers in the event of an actual showdown. The Chinese believe that within a few years they will have this capability.

–General Zhang Wannian, vice chairman of China’s Central Military Command, reportedly told attendees at a conference two years ago that “during the period of [China’s] 10th five-year plan [from 2001-2006], it is certain that war will break out in the Taiwan Strait.”

–In May 2002, Major General Huang Bin, professor at the PLA’s National Defense University, stated his belief that “once a military conflict occurs in the Taiwan Strait, the United States certainly will intervene, but the scale will be limited. The United States may send several aircraft-carrier battle groups, but they will never dare to sail to the Taiwan Strait [itself, as this would put them] into a dangerous position. Missiles, aircraft and submarines are all means that can be used to attack an aircraft carrier. [In 1996] U.S. aircraft carriers arrived but suddenly fell back by 200 nautical miles, because Chinese nuclear submarines were operating close to the U.S. aircraft carriers…. Once [the carriers are] threatened, [the United States] will run away.”

–PLA published commentary has described the vulnerabilities of carriers and the existence of a battle plan to attack U.S. early warning aircraft with antiradiation missiles and then strike the carriers with simultaneous saturation attacks from air- surface- and submarine-based antiship missiles launched from different directions.

–A top Beijing official was recently quoted as saying, “as long as [China] can strike and sink U.S. aircraft carriers that come to Taiwan’s aid, there is no problem settling the [Taiwan] issue.”

China’s anticarrier strategy appears to be a version of the one used by Japan at the Battle of the Tsushima Straits, a strategy that totally destroyed the combined Russian Baltic and Pacific Fleets and effectively won the Russo-Japanese War, propelling Japan onto the world stage as a major power. Beijing is aware it is not capable of confronting the United States in a blue-water duel and plans to take advantage of engaging close to the Chinese coast where multiple military assets can be thrown against the carriers. The Chinese military will have the advantage of surprise and can prepare a trap for the U.S. carriers near Taiwan.

Chinese military purchases since 1996 have been devoted to achieving this goal. Two Sovremennyy-class destroyers–the Fuzhou and Hangzhou, referred to by the Chinese as “aircraft carrier killers”–have been delivered from Russia. Two additional Sovremennyys are on order. Armed with the SS-N-22 Sunburn antiship missile, these warships pose a considerable risk to U.S. carriers and would effectively block off the Taiwan Strait as an operating area in the event of conflict. Moscow recently agreed to sell China the supersonic SS-N-26 Yakhont missile, which is even more awe-inspiring than the Sunburn and, once launched, cannot be intercepted. According to the U.S. Department of Defense report on Chinese military capabilities, released in 2002, Beijing’s purchases of the Sovremennyys, “provide China with immediate improvement to its warfighting capabilities.”

China has also purchased the Kilo submarine from Russia, described in the DOD report as “one of the quietest diesel-electric submarines in the world.” Beijing has four Kilos already, and has placed orders for eight additional advanced-generation version subs armed with the Klub antiship missile. These numbers of Kilos will allow China to completely close the Taiwan Strait and wait undetected for the arriving carrier forces along ingress routes to Taiwan. According to the Pentagon, “[China is] improving [its] capability to deploy submarines on extended patrols. The Kilo provides Beijing with access to previously unavailable quieting and weapons technology. China’s procurement of new space systems, airborne early warning aircraft and long-range and over-the-horizon radar will enhance its ability to detect, monitor and target naval activity in the Western Pacific.”

The United States has attempted to address the widening gap in Chinese and Taiwan military naval capabilities by promising to sell Kidd-class destroyers and diesel submarines to Taipei. The diesel submarine project is dead in the water because Germany refuses to sell its submarines to Taiwan under Chinese pressure and U.S. submarine yards are loath to open a new diesel line that could compete with lucrative nuclear submarine projects. It is unlikely that Taiwan will ever see a single submarine from this effort. In a recent Taiwan naval exercise depicting a 2005 scenario pitting Kidd-class destroyers against the Chinese Sovremennyys, all four Kidd-class destroyers “sank under enemy fire after they were forced to engage in battle.” The Taiwan Navy seemed nonplussed about the results, explaining, “we tend to think the new missile system [the SS-N-26] is aimed at attacking the U.S. navy.”

What does the U.S. navy think? In my discussions with the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) based in Honolulu–the command that would actually have to fight and suffer casualties in a conflict with China–it is clear PACOM leadership is aware of the dangers posed by China’s quickly growing military capabilities. At the Pentagon, however, senior naval officials appear smugly confident that the Chinese would turn tail once the U.S. carriers show up like the cavalry. The Russian General Staff in St. Petersburg had a similar attitude towards Japan when they arrogantly sent the Baltic Fleet around the world to dispatch the pesky Japanese. Arrogance may convince politicians, but, as history makes quite clear, it does not win battles.

Mr. Woodrow was a senior China analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency.