How China could scupper US naval power

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 January, 2009, 12:00am

Outgoing US President George W. Bush is due to commission America's newest aircraft carrier today at the Norfolk naval base in Virginia. Named after his father, former president George H.W. Bush, the ship, which carries 85 planes and more than 5,000 crew, is a potent symbol of America's global power and presence, despite recent US economic and foreign-policy failures.

It is also the last of 10 nuclear-powered Nimitz-class carriers to enter service with the US Navy. They are the world's largest warships. However, by 2015, the first of an even bigger and more advanced class of carrier, also nuclear-powered, is scheduled to start replacing them. Two years ago, US Vice-President Dick Cheney said these ships 'will help ensure the sea power of the United States for the next half century'.

To defend its interests in Asia, the US has been steadily transferring more aircraft carriers and other warships from its Atlantic fleet to the Pacific. As a result, the Pacific fleet's share of the 280 ships in the navy has risen from 45 per cent in earlier years to about 54 per cent, and continues to increase. The US Pacific fleet now includes six of the navy's 11 aircraft carriers, almost all of the 18 Aegis cruisers and destroyers that have been modified for ballistic-missile defence operations, and 26 of the 57 attack submarines.

To counter the Asia-Pacific focus of the US Navy, China is reportedly planning to deploy ballistic missiles with non-nuclear warheads and guidance systems to hit moving surface ships at sea in the western Pacific before they can get within range of Chinese targets.

If China fielded such a weapon, one that could reliably sink or cause heavy damage to aircraft carriers and other major warships far from its shores, it would make a potential adversary think long and hard before intervening in a crisis over Taiwan or any other regional conflict in which China was involved. Fortunately, Beijing and Taipei have greatly improved their relations in recent months and an armed confrontation between them seems less likely.

Still, Ronald O'Rourke, a specialist in naval affairs for the Congressional Research Service, told US lawmakers in November that the US Defence Department and other analysts believed China was developing anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs). They would have a range of up to 3,000km and be equipped with manoeuvrable re-entry vehicles designed to hit moving warships at hypersonic speed after being launched by rocket from land.

Ballistic missiles have traditionally been used to attack fixed targets on land and Mr O'Rourke noted that the US Navy had 'not previously faced a threat from highly accurate ballistic missiles capable of hitting moving ships at sea'. Some analysts are sceptical, and doubt that China has made all the technical breakthroughs needed for an accurate ASBM system.

The Bush administration has spent billions of dollars to develop defences against ballistic missiles. However, president-elect Barack Obama says that, while he supports missile defence, he wants to be sure that programmes are affordable and proven.

One of the more successful parts of the US programme, the Aegis ship-based system to defend against shorter-range missiles, experienced two recent test failures, bringing its record to 13 hits in 17 intercept attempts. Even so, it is not designed to provide a shield against longer-range missiles China is reportedly planning to deploy.

Some analysts claim China already operates over-the-horizon radar installations to detect and track ships far out to sea and is backing this up with maritime surveillance using its own satellites in space. They say that China will soon test an ASBM.

If they are correct, and the new system works, it could turn potent symbols of naval power into sitting ducks.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. [email protected]