Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 14

China’s communist leadership has long anticipated that to militarily subdue democratic Taiwan it will first need to win a battle against the United States. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is now preparing for one specific, and key, battle. It is developing methods to disable or sink American aircraft carriers and gathering the specific force packages to do so. With such a strike, Beijing hopes to quickly terminate American involvement in a Taiwan War.

The early 1990s saw much evidence of carrier-related research and nationalist-political advocacy, particularly from the PLA Navy (PLAN), to build a Chinese aircraft carrier. But, following the political crises of 1995 and 1996, which saw the Clinton administration deploy two battle groups around the carriers Independence and Nimitz near Taiwan in response to threatening PLA exercises in March 1996, sinking a U.S. carrier became much more pressing than building one.

In developing that capability, Beijing hopes to deter U.S. military assistance to Taiwan, and by actually sinking one, to terminate U.S. attempts to save the island. This strategy follows from the bias–a potentially dangerous one for China–that America’s aversion to military casualties equates to its unwillingness to risk a real war over the fate of Taiwan. This is apparently a widely held view. It was expressed most boldly by Major General Huang Bin, a professor at the PLA National Defense University, in Hong Kong’s Ta Kung Pao daily newspaper on May 13:

“Missiles, aircraft, and submarines all are means that can be used to attack an aircraft carrier. We have the ability to deal with an aircraft carrier that dares to get into our range of fire. Once we decide to use force against Taiwan, we definitely will consider an intervention by the United States. The United States likes vain glory; if one of its aircraft carrier should be attacked and destroyed, people in the United States would begin to complain and quarrel loudly, and the U.S. president would find the going harder and harder.”

General Huang’s statement is in fact not especially audacious, considering that since the mid-1990s the weakness of aircraft carriers and the methods to attack them has been a frequent topic in China’s military press. It would appear that the PLA is mustering its courage, trying to convince itself that it can with some success attack U.S. carriers. In October and November 2000, for example, after Russian Pacific-based fighters and bombers made surprise runs against the carrier Kitty Hawk, the People’s Liberation Army Daily could barely conceal its glee, devoting three articles to the incident.

The PLA’s apparently growing confidence is likely bolstered by the fact that it is also gathering the forces needed to confront U.S. carriers at a useful distance from the Mainland.

  • Sensor Package. Finding an aircraft carrier group is aLMOST as important as attacking it. Understanding this, the PLA is investing in multiple layers of reconnaissance and surveillance systems. In space, it is expected to soon deploy the first of new generations of high-resolution electro-optical satellites and radar satellites, which are especially useful in piercing cloud cover. The PLA has been developing over-the-horizon (OTH) radar with ranges up to thousands of kilometers for a long time. And its Air Force will soon take delivery of its Russian A-50E AWACS to find ships at sea. But because radar can be jammed, it is likely that the PLA will also use hundreds of small fishing boats, as well as agents in Japan, to track U.S. naval forces.
  • Air Strike Package. The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) is now beginning to cooperate with the Navy in conducting naval strikes. Later in this decade, elderly PLA Naval Air Force H-6 (Tu-16) bombers will be supplanted by eighty to 100 PLAAF Russian Sukhoi Su-30MKK and about twenty indigenous Xian JH-7A fighter bombers. Both will carry long-range antiradar or antiship missiles, some of which will have supersonic speeds that can defeat U.S. close-in weapon systems (CIWS) for defense against such missiles. Both will also have new long-range self-guided air-to-air missiles (AAM) like the Russian R-77 or the indigenous Project 129 AAM, that will approach the usefulness of U.S. missiles like the AIM-120 AMRAAM. This means that PLAAF fighters will soon have half a chance fighting their way to their targets.
  • Sub-Strike Package. According to Russian press reports, China signed a contract on May 2 to purchase eight Project 636 KILO class conventional submarines, to be delivered in five years. The PLAN already has four KILOs, including two Project 636s, with advanced quieting technology that makes them very difficult to detect. The PLAN’s new KILOs, however, will be armed with the Russian Novator CLUB antiship missile system. The CLUB-N is a 300km range cruise missile that looks like the American TOMOHAWK and can be configured for land-attack missions. The CLUB-S has a subsonic first stage with a 220km range, but also uses a rocket-powered second stage to defeat CIWS. In addition, the PLAN may now be building its fifth Project 039 or SONG class conventional submarine. Early difficulties with this class appear to have been solved: Series production is centering on an upgraded Project 039A version. For most of this decade, the PLAN will also have some twenty older MING class conventional submarines and approximately five older Project 091 HAN class nuclear-powered attack submarines. While these may be less effective than the KILOs or the SONGs, they will nevertheless greatly complicate the task of the defenders.
  • Surface Strike Package. The PLAN is adding two new modernized Sovremenniy class destroyers to two already acquired. Armed with their hard-to-intercept supersonic 300km range YAKHONT and the 120km range MOSKIT missiles, these ships would likely wait behind the submarines and attacking aircraft. But the PLA may also be considering purchasing a SLAVA class cruiser from Ukraine. These are armed with sixteen 550km range GRANIT supersonic antiship missiles.
  • Other Strike Options. Another option mentioned in PLA literature is to attack carriers with long-range ballistic missiles. The former Soviet Union had considered this in the 1960s. With proper targeting, satellite navigation guidance and perhaps an enhanced radiation warhead, ballistic missile strikes could disable a carrier. The PLA can also be expected to make great use of deep-sea mines, such as its rocket-propelled EM-52, which could break the keel of a large ship. In addition, the PLA may use Special Forces to attempt to disable carriers in port and attack U.S. aircraft on foreign bases. This is especially critical, given that carriers now rely increasingly on land-based Navy and Air Force support aircraft.

It took the former Soviet Union more than twenty years to build a credible threat to U.S. carriers. China is trying to do so within this decade. To its credit, the PLA is rapidly gathering the right kinds of forces. Skeptics, however, will always question whether the PLA can use them in a sufficiently coordinated fashion to create maximum stress on carrier defenses. Once it has such forces in hand, the PLA will then have to marry layers of long-range sensors to force packages of air, submarine and surface ships armed with new long-range missiles. It may be that the Ukrainian carrier Varyag, now being refurbished in a guarded Dalian shipyard, will best serve as a target ship to refine PLA carrier-attack doctrine and tactics. If properly used, the forces China is gathering could–at a minimum–stop one U.S. carrier battle group.

In a surprise attack scenario, given its strategic dependence on naval forces in East Asia, the United States might be able to muster only one carrier to support Taiwan. Strategic and economic pressures have reduced its fleet to thirteen carriers with smaller and less capable air wings. Former distinct fighter and attack aircraft are now melded in one platform, the F/A-18E/F. While this might be a convenient economical compromise for the Navy, it is not clearly superior to the Su-30MKK. Since 1999, the long-range antisubmarine function has been taken from the superb S-3 VIKING aircraft, and the number of E-2C HAWKEYE radar warning aircraft have been cut from five to four per air wing. It is time to reverse this trend. It is time to consider the systems needed to defeat China’s gathering anticarrier forces if deterrence is to be sustained on the Taiwan Strait.

Richard Fisher is a senior fellow with the Jamestown Foundation and the managing editor of China Brief.