Saturday 24 Feb 2018 | 21:06 | SYDNEY
Saturday 24 Feb 2018 | 21:06 | SYDNEY

More on China's carrier killers



25 August 2008 18:17

Tobias at Observing Japan has some questions about my recent post on China's anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs). He notes that, although it is still hard for China to find American ships at sea, anyone with an internet connection can find US carriers when they are in port, for instance at Yokosuka, Japan. Doesn't that make US ships vulnerable to these ASBMs when the ship are in port? And doesn't that rather undermine the basing arrangements that are a key element of the US-Japan alliance?

In some ways the answer is actually more alarming than Tobias has guessed. Ports are large static targets, and China has been capable of hitting Yokosuka for some years with previous generations of medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs). There is now also evidence of a new-generation MRBM with improved accuracy, which would not have to be nuclear-armed to be militarily useful. A salvo of such MRBMs armed with submunitions would do relatively superficial damage to a port like Yokosuka, but it might only take a few holes in a carrier deck to make that ship militarily worthless for perhaps days or weeks, and China would probably plan for a war with Taiwan to last no longer than that.

So does this somehow undermine the justification for US naval basing in Japan? Well, it certainly makes the US Navy more vulnerable, but the US response will probably be in the form of countermeasures rather than physical retreat from Japanese bases. The likely shortness of any Chinese campaign against Taiwan is again a factor, since the sailing time from  the continental US to the Taiwan Straits might make the carriers just as militarily useless as if China damaged them with ballistic missiles. If the war was preceded by a crisis, the US would have time to deploy, but there's always the possibility of a surprise attack.

So that leaves countermeasures, which in this case refers mainly to ballistic missile defence (BMD). BMD has proven relatively successful against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. But there is a big question over whether the US and Japan can ever build enough interceptors to stop them being overwhelmed by incoming Chinese missiles. China is also investing in BMD countermeasures to fool American defences.

The US could try to hit China's MRBMs before they are launched, but putting aside the difficulty of even finding the mobile launchers in the Chinese countryside, this raises the issue of escalation. Is the US prepared to strike the Chinese mainland to defend Taiwan, or would that open up the threat of retaliation in kind?

I should close by noting that I do not regard the actual threat of war between China and Taiwan as being very high. But these developments affect peacetime decision-making too. America's ability to intervene in a Taiwan crisis at acceptable cost is being eroded by Chinese capability improvements. That weakens American security assurances to Taiwan and undermines Taiwanese and American bargaining power with China.

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