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U.S. Navy Missile Defense: Responding to the Chinese Ballistic Missile Threat

U.S. Navy missile defense, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, Part 10

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As noted in earlier posts of this series on U.S. Navy missile defense, dealing with just the multi-headed hydra of the Chinese ballistic missile threat is a complex issue that belies a complete treatment here. Clearly, in the case of dealing with the threat the DF-21D poses for U.S. carrier strike groups that operate in the Western Pacific, a large part of the response must be naval. Add to this the fact that, as pointed out above, China’s decision to deploy the DF-21D on mobile launching systems makes it less likely that the missile can be destroyed before it is launched.

Without putting too fine of a point on it, this compels U.S. Navy carrier strike groups (CSGs) – as well as other battle formations such as expeditionary strike groups – to contend with this missile in the maritime arena. It is for this reason that the nation and the Navy are outfitting existing and emerging Aegis cruisers and destroyers, which will provide the lion’s share of the naval defense against ballistic missiles, with Aegis BMD at an accelerated pace. Clearly, the flexibility and mobility of these platforms makes them not only vital – but indispensable – assets to defend these strike groups.

Distinguished visitors from Vietnam observe flight operations during a tour of the U.S. Navy's forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73), Oct. 20, 2012. Hosting these visitors was an attempt to show that the U.S. is committed to the region. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Tatiana Avery

Distinguished visitors from Vietnam observe flight operations during a tour of the U.S. Navy’s forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73), Oct. 20, 2012. Hosting these visitors was an attempt to show that the U.S. is committed to the region. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Tatiana Avery

And the need to defend these strike groups from potential Chinese threats is not likely to abate in the foreseeable future, as the United States continues to deploy CSGs proactively in the Western Pacific.

The October deployment of the USS George Washington to the South China Sea, reported extensively in the international media, along with the carrier’s port call in Manila and hosting Vietnamese VIPs aboard the carrier, was clearly designed to ensure Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) like Vietnam and the Philippines, who continue to have disputes with China over claims in the South China Sea, that the United States intends to maintain a long-term presence in the region.

But this resolve by the United States – implemented in large part by U.S. naval deployments to areas China considers “their own” – bumps directly into China’s long-term strategic interests. As Christopher Johnson put it in a recent Center for Strategic and International Studies report, Decoding China’s Harder Line on the South China Sea, “China this summer has put the world on notice that is means business in defending its sovereignty in the South China Sea.” A quote in an October 2012 Singapore Times article, “U.S. Show of Might in the South China Sea,” by East-West Center China expert Denny Roy aptly sums up the nature of the strategic standoff between the world’s two most powerful nations.

“China will take this cruise [of the USS George Washington] as another expression by the United States of its desire to maintain regional domination,” Roy wrote. “The U.S. also wants to send a message to the region that it is here for the long haul … and that it wants to back up international law.”

Clearly, the United States does not intend to cede regions like the South China Sea to Chinese influence, especially since many ASEAN nations have expressed a strong desire for U.S. support in their disagreements with China over this strategically and economically important sea. And as Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert recently noted, “The 1,000-ship navy concept is ‘alive and well’ with the shift to the Pacific,” pointing out that partnerships with Asia-Pacific navies will become more important in the future, a point emphasized by U.S. National War College professor Michael Mazarr in a November 2012 article on Foreignpolicy.com where he noted, “U.S. policy remains focused on building strategic partnerships and shoring up U.S. deterrent capabilities.

The littoral combat ship USS Freedom (LCS 1) is underway conducting sea trials off the coast of Southern California, Feb. 22, 2013. Freedom, the lead ship of the Freedom variant of LCS, is expected to deploy to Southeast Asia this spring. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James R. Evans

The littoral combat ship USS Freedom (LCS 1) shown under way conducting sea trials off the coast of Southern California, Feb. 22, 2013. Freedom, the lead ship of the Freedom-class variant of LCS, is deploying to Southeast Asia. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James R. Evans

Therefore, for the foreseeable future, CSG deployments to the region, mirroring, perhaps, the October 2012 deployment of the USS George Washington to the South China Sea (along with other initiatives such as the U.S. Navy stationing Littoral Combat Ships in Singapore) will likely remain the most visible component of U.S. resolve to remain engaged in the region, especially by partnering with regional navies. This makes the need to defend these CSGs against Chinese ballistic missiles all the more compelling.

In an October 2012 interview with Reuters News Agency, in responding to questions about whether the Pentagon will have the funds to execute its strategic “Pivot to Asia,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter noted, “The Pentagon leadership is focused intently on executing the rebalance. We’re watching every dollar, every ship, every plane, to make sure that we execute our rebalance effectively.” Clearly, Aegis BMD is an important element of this strategy. But the Asia-Pacific is not the only region where Aegis BMD capabilities are becoming an indispensable part of the equation.

U.S. Navy Missile Defense Part 1: The Transition from Guns to Missiles

U.S. Navy Missile Defense Part 2: Building and Deploying the U.S. Navy’s Missile Fleet – with Urgency

U.S. Navy Missile Defense Part 3: Getting Surface-to-Air Missile Development Started

U.S. Navy Missile Defense Part 4: The 3-Ts – Talos, Terrier, and Tartar – A journey begins

U.S. Navy Missile Defense Part 5: Building an Aegis Fleet

U.S. Navy Missile Defense Part 6: The Ballistic Missile Threat Emerges

U.S. Navy Missile Defense Part 7: The Vision Realized

U.S. Navy Missile Defense Part 8: Continuing Evolution

U.S. Navy Missile Defense Part 9: The Evolving Chinese Ballistic Missile Threat

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Captain George Galdorisi is a career naval aviator. He began his writing career in 1978...