Tag Archives: East China Sea

Our Future Anti-China Military Strategy

This article is three months old, but I think it’s an interesting summary of how AirSea Battle will be focusing our future development efforts into some specific subject areas.

Jim H

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http://news.usni.org/2013/10/30/future-air-sea-battle

The Future of Air Sea Battle

By: Sam LaGrone and Dave Majumdar

Published: October 30, 2013 4:39 AM

The Pentagon is taking its next steps in developing the often misunderstood and occasionally controversial Air-Sea Battle concept, according to several USNI News interviews with Navy and defense officials.

The effort is the latest from the Air-Sea Battle Office (ASBO), a group of 20-some military intellectuals who have been struggling on how to counter what the Pentagon sees as its toughest problems in the wake of more than a decade of low-intensity ground conflicts: anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategies.

A2/AD is an age-old strategy that stiff-arms a military force, preventing opponents from accessing a physical position on the sea, land or the air.

For a time, for example, the Great Wall of China denied the Mongol hordes access to China’s interior. Likewise, minefields prevent an infantry unit from operating on a particular piece of land. Anti-air missiles prevent fighters and bombers from striking more difficult targets in a protected area.

Typically the strategy was—and is—used by an inferior military to contain a larger, more sophisticated force, and blunt its attacking power.

As the United States was focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, threats to U.S. abilities to operate freely with its military have increased—such as cheaper longer-range guided missiles—making it harder for U.S. forces to access areas in which they would like to operate.

A global rise in sophisticated weapons technology, combined with the U.S. focus on the ground wars of Afghanistan and Iraq, has allowed American proficiency in countering A2/AD threats to slip.

“We’ve lost some skills and let them wither, because it wasn’t required in operations in the past,” one defense official told USNI News.

Enter ASBO.

At its onset the Air-Sea Battle Office was tasked with taking knowledge from the Navy, Army, Marine Corps and Air Force, understanding with exhaustive detail the tactics and equipment the services used to handle A2/AD threats, and then providing commanders on the ground with solutions to solve the problem using the material they had on hand.

The goal is for the U.S. military to, “go into an area, [and when] someone throws up jammers, somebody throws out mines, somebody throws out submarines as a threat to your surface ships . . . you know right away what to do about it,” Rear Adm. James Foggo, the Navy’s head of operations, plans and strategy told USNI News earlier this month.

At the beginning, the ASBO acted like a help desk for the A2/AD fight. Commanders would initially reach out to the office and the ASBO would give them options on how to use their existing equipment to deal with anti-access threats.

“The beauty of the concept is it focuses the services on what the problems are. That’s become a very useful lens,” a defense official familiar with the ASBO told USNI News. “It’s the disrupt, destroy and defeat approach that Air Sea battle embraces that talks about a different way of waging war. It applies an operational design on how you would do that against an adversary that [has] multiple types of these capabilities.”

The early help-desk approach has evolved into a more sophisticated set of goals, outlined in the ten mission areas where the United States needs in improve.

These areas—ranging from how to protect assets in space to waging war at sea—all point to capabilities the military has let atrophy while the focus was on the largely low intensity occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, one defense official told USNI News. “It was the outside-the-Pentagon folks who guided us to these ten mission focus areas,” a defense official told USNI News. “We’re talking to the fleets and forces and they’re helping us rationalize our priorities.”

Pentagon officials provided USNI News a list of the ten areas the ASBO singled out for additional work:

Cross-Domain Operations Command-and-Control (C2)

A fundamental task of any military is telling forces where to go and what to do when they get there. In ASB, the challenge is to efficiently coordinate air, land and sea forces together effectively where seconds count. The Pentagon has several systems in place to undertake the C2 role. An ASB challenge would be to integrate the systems, which do not all communicate with each other.

Undersea Warfare Supremacy

Submarines are a powerful weapon in denying an adversary access in the ocean. Several countries in Southeast Asia have been buying quiet diesel-electric submarines best suited for short-range patrols close to shore. U.S. nuclear submarines can better project power far from shore and the in open ocean, but likely are louder than their diesel-electric counterparts. The area also implies the United States could do more in the anti-submarine warfare realm in detecting an adversary’s submarines before they can do damage to the Navy’s forces.

War at Sea

The U.S. Navy has focused its surface fleet on anti-air warfare and ballistic missile defense roles with its Aegis cruisers and destroyers. Additionally, the Navy’s new littoral combat ships are more oriented toward operations closer to shore. Open-ocean and ship-to-ship warfare has not been a priority for the Navy for years; there has been little development in modern anti-ship weapons. The Pentagon has only recently launched the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile program to counter some the newer threats. Iran, China and Russia have heavily invested in ships having the primary function of fighting other ships.

Attack Operations to Defeat A2/AD

Attacking elements of an A2/AD strategy to prepare for a larger follow-on force. This could include using a combination of penetrating strike assets, such as a long-range U.S. Air Force stealth bomber or fifth-generation fighter alongside cruise missiles, electronic attacks and cyber-warfare to target the means by which the enemy is conducting its A2/AD strategy. This could mean attacking command-and-control nodes, eliminating surface-to-air missile batteries and coastal defenses or even knocking out launch sites for the so called “carrier killer” missiles or even disrupting enemy infrastructure by hacking their electrical grids.

Active and Passive Defense

Active defense uses military power to deny an enemy a specific piece of territory by physically attacking potential threats before it can launch its weapons. One example would be to sink an enemy submarine before got into position to launch its cruise missiles. Passive defense is designed to resist attacks in a specific area by hardening, camouflaging or dispensing forces and could mean intercepting incoming enemy weapons. The Air-Sea Battle concept would integrate the separate systems the services use already to execute both.

Distributed Basing

Instead of operating from a large single land base, distributed basing spreads out a force across several different semi-prepared positions making it harder for an adversary to target. As the United States consolidates its bases in the Pacific, it has explored operating from other bases in the event of a conflict. For example, the United States could be using airstrips in the Philippines for military aircraft. Potentially, entirely new airstrips could be cleared out for temporary use as needed—as was the case during World War II.

Contested Space Operations

Securing U.S. assets in space, such as satellites. Ship-based missiles have been able to successfully shoot down satellites in the past. But this does not necessarily require armoring up satellites or that space vehicles need to maneuver to avoid threats; it could simply mean securing against the jamming of satellite communications or GPS signals. Additionally it could entail securing U.S. satellite ground stations from physical or cyber attack, which for an enemy are easier options than a physical attack on an orbiting satellite. Or, on the other side of the spectrum, it could mean attacking enemy satellites, their signals, or ground stations either by kinetic or electronic means.

Contested Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR)

How to provide forces the information they need to operate and make battlefield and strategic decisions in combat. Most current U.S. ISR platforms are designed for operations in permissive environments, but in an A2/AD environment, the enemy will fight to prevent U.S. forces from conducting surveillance. That means assets that are useful in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan—a Predator or Reaper—may not be useful over Iran or China because both states have the means to shoot them down. ISR data will therefore have to be gathered by penetrating stealth platforms: fifth-generation fighters, the USAF’s future LRS-B, or some sort of low-observable unmanned aircraft. Other options include using space or cyber assets. Another pressing concern in a communications degraded/denied environment is getting the data back to analysts so it may be processed—which may not be an easy task. That data will also have to be analyzed without overburdening intelligence personnel, as was the case over the past 10 years.

Contested Logistics and Sustainment

This area deals with establishing and defending supply lines during a conflict. Given the distances American forces operate from U.S. shores, logistics can an Achilles’ heel. A smart enemy will attack the logistical train that keeps U.S. forces at the front line going—via any number of methods, ranging from kinetic attacks on port facilities and airstrips to cyber attacks on DOD computers.

Contested Cyberspace Operations

Cyber warfare is the least transparent of military operations. The bulk of cyber is maintaining and securing existing communications networks. Offensive cyber operations—exploiting enemy computer networks to gain an equivalent affect from a so-called kinetic weapon—are closely guarded by the military. But cyber can also be used as means of gathering intelligence or feeding disinformation to the enemy. Without doubt, cyber will be one of the most important “battlefields” in future warfare, as U.S. forces are entirely dependent on networks to conduct operations.

Next Steps

The feedback from the ten mission areas —as part an “implementation master plan”—will get further evaluation in November, Foggo told USNI News.

The office will then, “bring individuals into D.C. as representatives of the combatant commands, the numbered fleets and the numbered air forces and sit down at the table and say, ‘Let’s put all this stuff out here on how we collate, how do we bring this together, how do we distribute and disseminate,’” Foggo said.

Primarily the interactions just now are not with the Pentagon’s combatant commanders, but to service offices that provide forces to the regional commands around the world. It’s up to those commands to decide which of the ten areas are the highest priority.

“They are not prioritized on purpose. We don’t see that as our role. That’s for them—the ones out in the field—to prioritize,” Foggo said.

“It’s going to vary by geographic location. Say you’re the [Central Command], you think about the Arabian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, what’s the most important thing? Maintaining access in the Strait of Hormuz. What’s the easiest way to shut it down? Clandestinely—probably with mines. Your priority in mine warfare might be higher than [Africa Command] commander’s priority or the [European Command] commander’s priority. It depends what the COMCOM is looking at.”

The hope for the Pentagon and the services is the ASBO will be able to improve skills and techniques in a low-cost method. As the office interacts with the services the best practices across the services will trickle down to the way they buy equipment and create and improve doctrine through a continued series of plans.

“It’s a living and breathing and evolving thing. This year the implementation will be ready in 2014, there will be another one the next year,” Foggo said. “The joint force has come together on how to operate in an anti-access environment so it’s just seamless.”

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Japan to deploy drones from destroyers

As China is starting to build a second aircraft carrier, the latest news from Japan is that its Maritime Self-Defense Force may begin flying unmanned surveillance drones from destroyers at sea as a possible prelude to procuring aircraft carriers.

Japan's Izumo-class helicopter carrierJapan’s Izumo-class helicopter destroyer or “aircraft carrier”

The Japan Times reports, Jan. 12, 2014, that with China increasing its presence in the East China Sea, Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) is accelerating efforts to boost surveillance abilities. To that end, the MSDF is considering deploying fixed-wing unmanned reconnaissance aircraft (drones) that can take off from and land on destroyers, according to sources.

The MSDF has no experience flying fixed-wing aircraft from destroyers because doing so might draw allegations that it is operating an offensive aircraft carrier, which is banned by the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9.

At the same time, the MSDF intends to undertake research on the equipment needed to conduct the drone operations. But related research costs in the MSDF’s fiscal 2014 budget request amount only to some ¥2 million.

Depending on its research, Japan might someday build an aircraft carrier equipped with fighter jets, the sources said. But an official at the Defense Ministry denied that such studies will lead to the deployment of fighter jets, insisting that unmanned aircraft can be used in dangerous areas in emergencies.

Over the next five years, the MSDF is expected to buy up to 19 such unmanned surveillance drones, possibly the RQ-21 small tactical unmanned aircraft used by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, which can fly continuously for up to some 24 hours, and uses remotely controlled routes.

RQ-21AThe RQ-21A completed its first maritime developmental test flight from the USS Mesa Verde in February, 2013.

In line with the constitutional constraints, the MSDF’s destroyers are not currently equipped with takeoff and landing equipment for aircraft. They can handle only helicopters and the U.S. Marine Corps’ MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor transport aircraft.

Zachary Keck reports for The Diplomat, Jan. 15, 2014, that Japan’s move to operate aircraft from surface ships is likely to spark concern and criticism from some states in the region, particularly China, which insists that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seeking to break loose from the country’s post-WWII pacifist Constitution.

Japan’s decision to only consider using (presumably unarmed) reconnaissance drones at this time was likely made, at least in part, with an eye toward deflecting the almost certain criticism that the move will provoke. By starting with unarmed aircraft, Japan could seek to gradually seek to make the region comfortable with it operating fixed wing aircraft from surface ships. Moreover, even if the Defense Ministry source is being truthful in saying that only drones and not fighter jets will be flown from Japanese ships, unmanned aircraft will become increasingly capable of being used in some of the same ways as bombers and jets in the years ahead.

Still, the decision to use surveillance drones is also consistent with Japan’s strategic interests. In particular, as Tokyo’s dispute with Beijing over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands has dragged on, Japan has taken a number of steps to increase its surveillance capabilities over some of its outer lying islands. This has most certainly included fielding a capable drone force. As The Diplomat has previously reported, Japan intends to procure RQ-4 Global Hawk drones in the coming years to augment the ones the U.S. already maintains in Japan.

One issue Japan will encounter if it moves forward with the plan is that its current destroyers are not equipped with takeoff and landing equipment for aircraft. It’s possible that one of the Izumo-class helicopter destroyers Japan is currently building and testing will be upgraded to have this capability. Japan unveiled the first of these new, large helicopter destroyers last year, which some in China called an “aircraft carrier in disguise.” Some have speculated that the larger size of the Izumo-class vessels was due to Japan’s desire to launch V22 Ospreys off the ships. However, the larger size may also allow Japan to use them to launch drones.

President Xi Jinping prepares China for war with military exercise of 40,000 soldiers

PLATaiwan’s Want China Times ( ) reports, Dec. 29, 2013, that according to a commentary published on Dec. 28 on the website of China’s official Xinhua news agency, to prepare China for war, Chinese president Xi Jinping personally approved a large-scale military exercise in October — dubbed “Mission Action 2013” — which involved 40,000 soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

In the words of Want China Times:

The long-winded 7,500-word piece said Xi, who also heads the Communist Party and is chairman of the Central Military Commission, has repeatedly emphasized the goal of building a strong army since ascending to power at the 18th National Congress last November — a goal which has become more important since that time due to major changes in China’s international strategic situation and its national security situation. These include rising tensions with Japan over the Diaoyutai islands (Diaoyu to China, Senkaku to Japan) in the East China Sea, strained relations with the unpredictable North Korea, concerns over the increased US military presence in the Asia Pacific, and a slate of violent incidents at home involving ethnic minorities which have been labeled “terrorist” attacks.

During a visit to Guangzhou, the capital of southern Guangdong province, to witness a naval exercise last December, Xi told his troops of his dream of rejuvenating the “great Chinese nation,” which he said cannot be achieved without a powerful army with Chinese characteristics.

The commentary said it was important to develop the country’s military through proper propaganda and education, the clarification of ideas and implementing strategies in every aspect of army building in a realistic and pragmatic manner. The PLA must persevere to modernize as well as expand and strengthen its military strategies to deepen preparations for potential conflict to ensure that the troops are ready if called upon not only to fight, but to win, the article added.

Noting that the pivotal third plenum of the 18th CPC Central Committee last month is incorporating national security and military reforms into China’s overall reform strategy, the commentary said that the fundamental goal of the reforms is to increase the efficiency and battle-readiness of the military. Major goals of the reforms include fully bringing China’s military into the information age, revamping the command system for joint combat, and reforming the leadership structure.

Other reform goals include optimizing the size and structure of the army, adjusting and improving the proportion between various troops, and reducing non-combat institutions and personnel.

The commentary highlighted a number of Xi’s visits to various PLA military zones across the country over the past year, saying that it illustrates his affection and care for the troops. In particular, Xi visited the Beijing Military Region on Aug. 1 this year to celebrate the founding of the PLA, and two months later [in October] personally oversaw “Mission Action 2013,” the large-scale joint military exercise in which 40,000 troops maneuvered over 30,000 kilometers by road, rail, sea and air to test the logistic capabilities of the PLA in real war situations.

To demonstrate that he is serious about reforming China’s military, Xi has also included high-ranking PLA officers in his ongoing anti-corruption sweep, increased supervision of PLA activities and cut down on excess and extravagance within the army, the article said.

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China’s ADIZ is a strategic move to control First Island Chain

China-Japan ADIZs

On Nov. 23, 2013, China unilaterally announced an East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) which includes the Japan-held Senkaku Islands, which Chinese call Diaoyutai and over which China also claims ownership.

Since that declaration, Japan and South Korea have refused to accept China’s ADIZ, while the Obama administration has sent mixed signals — at first seemingly challenging the ADIZ by flying two unarmed B-52 bombers over the East China Sea (and the disputed Senkaku islands), then seemingly accepting the ADIZ so long as China not require all aircraft, commercial and military, to check with Beijing before flying through the ADIZ.

It turns out that China’s ADIZ isn’t solely motivated by Beijing’s irredentist claim over the Senkakus, but reaches beyond those disputed islets to include none other than the First Island Chain.

What is the First Island Chain? From Maria Hsia Chang, Return of the Dragon: China’s Wounded Nationalism (Westview, 2001), p. 220:

The PRC [People’s Republic of China] now conceives oceans to be its “second national territory (dier guotu). … China’s “second national territory” includes 12 territorial seas …, 24 “maritime adjacent zones”…, 200 maritime exclusive economic zones and continental shelves — totaling more than 3 million square kilometers or one-third of China’s total land mass.

Defense of its “maritime national territory” requires Beijing to shift its defense strategy from one of “coastal defense” … to “offshore defense”…. National Defense maintains that since “the frontline of maritime national defense lies beyond China’s territorial waters … there will be times” when China’s defense of its seas “may require doing battle in farther maritime regions” including “international waters and seabeds.” China’s perimeter of “offshore defense” is conceived to include two “island chains.” The first chain stretches from the Aleutians to the Kurils, the Japanese archipelago, the Ryukyus, Taiwan, the Philippine archipelago, and the Greater Sunda Islands. The “second island chain” comprises the Bonins, the Marianas, Guam [a U.S. territory], and the Palau archipelago.

1st and 2nd island chainsFirst and Second Island Chains (click map to enlarge)

Below is an excerpt from a commentary by Li Xuejiang (李学江) in the Chinese-language People’s Network (Renmin wang 人民网) of Dec. 3, 2013, titled “Why China’s ADIZ is like a fishbone stuck in the throats of Japan and the U.S.”:

China’s announcement of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) caused an uproar in Japan, the United States, Australia, Canada and other Western countries. Japan and the U.S. even sent military planes as an act of provocation. Their media also rallied together to attack China. Some people laughed at China, saying that the ADIZ is a “disgrace,” “useless,” “a paper tiger.” But in truth, their reaction proves that China’s ADIZ is like a fishbone that’s stuck in the throats of Japan and the U.S.

One of the accusations against China is that China’s military modernization is “disrupting the balance of power in the region.” The United States, therefore, should “return to Asia” to restore the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific. Some U.S. allies in Southeast Asia also expect the United States to counterbalance China. It should be noted, however, that the Asia-Pacific has never had a military balance to restore. Not only has the United States never left Asia, it has had military dominance in East Asia. …

In recent years China’s military modernization has been more in the interest of  defense — an interest that is necessary and legitimate in order to rectify the “imbalance” of power so as to achieve a “rebalance.” This is what worries the United States and Japan. But that should not deter China — China cannot stop cultivating crops because of a “fear of locusts.”

China’s establishment of the ADIZ is not only a matter of the sovereignty of our core national interests and of economic importance; it also has great strategic significance. The United States not only has never accused Japan for its ADIZ, but strongly supports it. Why do these two countries cooperate so seamlessly? Their purpose is, through Japan’s ADIZ, to achieve a blockage of China’s sea and air passages in the first island chain.

Japan’s attempt in so doing is not just “unacceptable,” China must break through the blockage. Ironically, the United States and Japan have shown us how to break that blockage. Now that American and Japanese military airplanes have trespassed into China’s ADIZ without notice, China can also do so vis-a-vis Japan’s ADIZ and without notification. In effect, the U.S.-Japan’s first island chain has become a “useless paper tiger.”

H/t CODA’s Sol Sanders

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Territorial dispute intensifies: Japan will shoot down Chinese drones

Senkaku

Japan on Friday begins a week of live-fire military drills involving 34,000 troops, navy destroyers, jet fighters and amphibious assault vehicles.  The exercises include operations to defend remote islands from attack and come as Tokyo and Beijing are testing each other in a war of words over the disputed islets.

Japanese media report Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this month approved a plan to shoot down any foreign drones that refuse to leave Japan’s airspace.  Kyodo news agency reports Abe decided on the tough policy in response to China’s flying a drone in September near the islands.

Although not yet officially confirmed, Japan has for months been considering the measure to protect the waters surrounding the Japan-administered islands.

Rory Medcalf, the director of the international security program at Sydney’s Lowey Institute, said China’s introduction of drones into the dispute, and pledge to defend them, has made the situation more unpredictable: “So, the Chinese have kind of put Japan into an awkward position.  If it lets them pass, or if it lets them fly over disputed, contested airspace then China is further establishing its presence there. But, if Japan strikes back, then it’s really escalating tensions potentially towards conflict.”

Beijing has been aggressively developing its unmanned aerial vehicles and last year unveiled armed attack drones that appeared to be modeled on U.S. versions.

China’s Foreign Ministry played down its military’s talk of war by implying Japan was hyping the situation in order to build up its defenses.

Japan’s neighbors, who suffered from its World War II aggression, are wary of plans by Tokyo to increase the military operations allowed under its pacifist constitution.

But China is the one asserting its power in the region and testing Japan’s defense of the islands. Beijing sends weekly, and sometimes daily, patrols of ships and jet fighters near the islands, forcing Japan to respond by scrambling its own jets.

Abe this week said Japan would not tolerate any use of force by China to change the status quo.  Beijing responded by calling Japanese politicians “arrogant” and “self-deceiving” over the dispute.

“The real problem isn’t really so much the war of words, it is that the jet scrambling and fleets navigating in the disputed area, there could be a miscalculation with serious consequences,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Japan’s Temple University.

China’s official Xinhua news agency this month revealed Chinese nuclear submarines are being sent on regular sea patrols. Chinese destroyers earlier this year for the first time sailed the strait between Russia and Japan, raising eyebrows in Tokyo.

Japan’s exercises begin as China finishes up its own military exercises. China’s navy earlier this month began weeks of drills in the West Pacific with, for the first time, all three of its navy fleets.  Xinhua reports the exercises are aimed at improving combat abilities on the high seas.

Medcalf said the coinciding exercises could also help the two sides release some steam and prevent more threatening posturing.  But he said Japan-China hostility is not likely to cool down any time soon.

Tension is becoming the new normal in relations between China and Japan.  And, the best we can probably hope for is that they find informal ways of managing this, informal ways of their navies and their maritime forces really signaling to one another or keeping out of each others way,” Medcalf said. “It’s possible that over the next, I guess, ten to twenty years they will work this out and perhaps reach some new political understandings.  The danger zone will be, I think, in the next few years before they reach these new levels of understanding.”

Medcalf said one positive step would be if the countries establish operational hotlines between their forces to prevent unintentional confrontations from turning into a bigger conflict.

H/t GlobalSecurity.org

4 Chinese ships entered Japan territorial waters near Senkaku

SenkakuShips of the People’s Republic of China once again entered Japanese territorial waters off the disputed Senkaku or Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea.

Iran’s Press TV reports (via GlobalSecurity.org) that Japan’s Coast Guard says four Chinese ships have sailed into Japan-controlled waters of the Senkaku islands (known as Diaoyu by China) on Oct. 1. 2013 — the 64th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

Tokyo has long been engaged in a dispute with Beijing over the sovereignty of the uninhabited islands.

The incident also came as US Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel are expected to meet their Japanese counterparts in Tokyo two days later on Oct. 3 to discuss operational arrangements for the alliance between the two sides.

Previous similar incidents include:

  • On September 27, China sent a fleet of four vessels for patrolling territorial waters surrounding the disputed chain of islands.
  • On September 14, four Chinese ships entered Japan’s territorial waters.
  • In late April 2013, eight Chinese vessels entered the disputed waters, which led Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to say that Tokyo would “expel by force” any Chinese individuals landing on the islands.

On September 11, 2012, Tokyo signed a deal to buy three of the islands from their private Japanese owner in line with plans to nationalize the archipelago.

The islands are located near a crucial shipping lane and give the owner exclusive oil, mineral and fishing rights in the surrounding waters.

Last month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that his country is ready to talk to Japan over the maritime row if Tokyo declares the islands to be disputed.

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US-China’s Osprey vs. Bison arms race in East China Sea

ZubrZubr class LCAC or the PLA Navy’s Bison

Osprey vs. Bison in the East China Sea

By Richard D. Fisher, Jr.

East AsiaPreviewSecurity

September 20, 2013

China, Japan and the U.S. are ramping up their ability to deploy to disputed islands in the East China Sea.

Stability in the region between Taiwan and Japan, and the security of Taiwan, hinges on an arms race that will soon be accompanying the heightened paramilitary engagements between Japanese, Chinese and, occasionally, Taiwanese Coast Guard ships over who will control the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea.

For now this contest for control is confined to shoving matches largely between Chinese and Japanese Coast Guard ships, which take several days to deploy. However, China is now developing the means to project decisive force to these islands in hours, not days. Should China gain the upper hand in this arms race there is a greater chance it will use force to occupy the islands and then set its sights on the strategically more attractive nearby Sakashima island group.

For now, though, the upper hand is held by the United States, which has just completed the initial deployment of 24 U.S. Marine Corps Bell-Boeing MV-22B Osprey conventional, or twin tilt rotor aircraft, to Futenma Base in Okinawa. This unique aircraft, by virtue of its twisting rotors and engines at the ends of its wing, can take off like a helicopter, and then cruise at about 280 miles per hour, carrying up to 24 troops or about six tons of cargo to a range sufficient to reach the disputed islands. In a full-out surge, the 24 MV-22Bs at Futenma could potentially put about 500 troops or about 140 tons of weapons and material on the Senkakus or the Sakashimas in about one hour.

On September 17, 2013, Kyodo reported that current commander of U.S. Marine forces on Okinawa, Lt. General John Wissler, told Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaimu about the Osprey, “That aircraft has the ability to reach the Senkakus, should we need to support any sort of Japan-U.S. security treaty.”

China is also accumulating rapid lift assets. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has taken delivery of the first Ukrainian-built Zubr (Bison) large hovercraft. The first example, delivered in May, is now undergoing final modifications in Shanghai. At least three more are expected initially, but China may build many more of an indigenous version. Developed by the former Soviet Union to give its Naval Infantry the ability to rapidly invade NATO countries along the Baltic Sea, the Zubr can lift about 500 troops or up to 150 tons of armor, weapons and material up to speeds of 66 miles per hour. With just four Zubr hovercraft, the PLAN could potentially put 2,000 troops or up to 600 tons of weapons and material on the Senkakus in about four to five hours, or it could reach the island of Miyako-jima in about six to seven hours with a much reduced payload.

If it actually came to a race between the Osprey and the Bison, getting there first would make all the difference, as without the advantage of surprise, an adequately armed defender could significantly damage incoming hovercraft or helicopters. But the outcome would also depend on the result of intensive air and sea battles around these islands. For now, the superior performance of the U.S. Lockheed-Martin F-22A fifth-generation fighter and the Virginia class nuclear-powered attack submarine provide a margin of superiority that undergirds deterrence, but this could change quickly as the PLA Air Force increases the number of capable fourth-generation fighters supported by AWACS radar aircraft, followed by fifth-generation fighters that could even the odds, especially if China decides to strike first. Growing numbers of PLAN air defense destroyers like the new Type 052D could also help deny air dominance to Japanese and U.S. forces.

However, China could also gain the upper hand should it successfully develop its own tilt rotor aircraft, an ambition it likely has been pursuing for most of the last decade. In a surprising revelation, an article published August 28, 2013 on the web page of the China Helicopter Research and Development Institute (CHRDI) goes further, saying that China is now developing a quad tiltrotor design called the Blue Whale, with the goal of carrying 20 tons of cargo at speeds in excess of 300 miles per hour, with a combat radius of 500 miles. A model of the Blue Whale appeared at a Chinese helicopter technology expo recently held in Tianjin, at least confirming it is an active program.

Blue Whale’s performance goals are very close to a now lapsed Bell-Boeing program to develop a V-44 Quad TiltRotor, which faded with evolving heavy-lift requirements for the U.S. Army’s Future Combat System of programs, in turn cancelled in 2009. CHRDI does not reveal when they expect the Blue Whale to enter service or how China will overcome technical challenges for a quad tiltrotor that a 2005 U.S. Defense Science Board study said would take 20 to 25 years to overcome. By 2008 to 2009 the heavy lift program was punted to the U.S. Air Force-controlled Joint Future Theater Lift program, intended to develop a replacement for the venerable Lockheed-Martin C-130, perhaps by the late 2020s. China may think it can succeed with a quad tiltrotor design before the U.S. fields a new vertical heavy lifter. The operational implications of such a capability go well beyond the East China Sea, but may matter there sooner.

For Beijing, control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and the much larger Sakashima Islands, which have ports and airfields, is not simply a matter of salving historical resentments or even controlling resources; it is a contest for geostrategic position to influence the future of democratic Taiwan. From the Senkakus and especially the Sakashimas, the PLA can more easily impose an air and sea blockade on Taiwan or launch multi-axis attacks to rapidly take airfields to aid follow-on invasion forces. Before making any military moves, mere possession of these islands allows Beijing to exert far greater political pressure on Taipei to make “peace” at the expense of its virtual American ally and Tokyo. Occupation of the islands would also give Beijing greater legitimacy on which to develop latent claims to other islands in the Ryukyu chain.

The Miyako Strait in the Sakashimas also must be passed by Chinese naval forces trying to reach the Pacific Ocean. This group of seemingly negligible islands are in fact the lock in the door that keeps the PLA Navy from cruising the Pacific at will, a key link in the so-called “First Island Chain.” For Tokyo and Washington, preserving Japanese control over these islands proves to Beijing that it cannot use force to solve maritime territory disputes, but also gives Japanese and U.S. forces a large number of island base options from which to counter China’s rapidly growing air and naval forces.

At a time when Washington is far more preoccupied with preserving adequate strategic capabilities under threat from sequestration-enforced defense budget reductions, an expensive heavy-lift tiltrotor development program, like so many other programs, has crossed the line from “need” to “needless luxury.” But the absence of this level of capability may have consequences. Without the means to put decisive counter-invasion forces on these islands at a moment’s notice, Japan will have to consider something it has been very reluctant to do: militarize these islands. Tokyo is already considering the development of a 500 km short-range ballistic missile to defend these distant islands. Missiles, of course, fly much faster than the Osprey. On one level, China’s looming threat justifies such moves, but deploying missiles will encourage China’s buildup as well as anti-Japan factions in Taipei.

Despite its much advertised military and political-economic pivot/rebalance toward Asia, it remains an uncomfortable fact for Washington that successful military deterrence of Beijing will also require that the U.S. remain ahead in a growing, multi-faceted arms race. In the East China Sea this arms race and its implications are taking shape rather rapidly.

Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is a Senior Fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center and author of China’s Military Modernization, Building for Regional and Global Reach, (Stanford, 2010).

For Wikipedia’s entry on Zubr-class (or what the Chinese call Bison) LCAC, click here.