Trimming the Dragon’s Claws: Defending Against Chinese Access-Denial Technology

Over the last two years, a firestorm of controversy has erupted over the capabilities and repercussions concerning the possible creation of a Chinese anti-ship missile, the DF-21D. Such a weapon, when fully constructed, tested and deployed, will give Beijing a true Anti-Access capability. If no defense is available at time of full operational capacity, US Carriers would be open to attack with no recourse. As has been pointed out, American vessels would be at their most vulnerable since World War II. Several developments have pushed the debate into the mainstream of strategic studies planning. First, the range of such a weapon estimated at 1500 km has been recently updated to 2700 km. Such a distance would push US Carriers and surface vessels with no defense almost to the coast of Guam. The second is that there have been numerous reports over the last few months from multiple sources that this new missile has reached some level of operational capacity. If this is all to be believed and is accurate, US strategic planners must begin to develop a counter strategy to ensure China’s anti-access/access-denial plan does not succeed.

There are a number of ways US military strategists could defend and limit the strategic worth of an operational DF-21D ASBM system. Here are several policy recommendations that would keep in line with a possibly shrinking US military budget and within current technological capabilities:

  1. Dive, Dive! : The United States must seriously consider devoting less budgetary dollars to new US Carriers and more to upgrading existing submarine platforms.  Professor James Holmes of the US Naval War College in an article for e-IR explains that US submarines patrolling under the seas would negate such a missile system. He correctly points to recent conversions of SSBN Ohio class submarines into SSGN guided missile platforms. Instead of retiring existing SSBN’s when a new class is developed, why not convert 50% of these subs into reworked SSGN guided missile boats? At the end of the day, it does not matter how an enemy is struck, as long as the capability to attack and deter remain.
  2. Move Existing Assets: With US defense budgets more than likely in decline, one could move existing submarine assets, strategic bombers and fighter aircraft from the Atlantic fleet and Europe to the Pacific. This would include moving all converted Ohio class SSGN boats to the pacific. With most modern US Submarines armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles and multiple strike capabilities, US planners could exploit current military advantages by shifting forces closer and not building new ones.
  3. Embrace Diesel Submarines: The US has dedicated its naval planning around building nuclear submarines for their range and capabilities. With the advent of Air Independent Propulsion diesel submarines and possible warfare in the South China Sea, the US does not need the range or the expense of nuclear vessels. The United States must begin developing advanced diesel AIP based submarines armed with cruise missiles that can strike land and sea based targets. The United States has conducted war games with Swedish AIP subs that were rumored to have sunk a US carrier in simulated strikes.  Many will argue against this approach, citing shrinking defense budgets. However, with Taiwan already looking to buy such boats and if a modern design could be created for export, the US would have many customers lining up. This would surely lower overall costs per boat. With US nuclear subs costing in excess of $1.8 billion dollars each compared to modern AIP submarines costing just a fraction of such an amount, it should be an easy sell. With the jobs that would be created and the possible export market available, this should be strongly considered.
  4. Use Existing Defensive Technologies: US planners need to start thinking of using existing defensive weapons in a ploy to counteract the capabilities of the DF-21D. US planners could look at the possibility of the SM-3 missile defense system aboard Aegis cruisers as a way to defend US Carrier groups.
  5. Talk is One Thing, Where is the Test? :  For all the talk and endless speculation about China’s prized DF-21D, there has never been a full fledged test of its capabilities, range, and integrated technology that would need to be synchronized to make such a weapon work. While US planners have classified the system as having reached “initial operational capability” this does not mean it is ready for combat. One must consider that in order for such a missile to work there are a number of technologies that must be mastered. This includes “over the horizon radar”, satellite-tracking technology, possible use of unmanned drone vehicles along with the integration of command and control into one combined system. One must also allow adequate time for training. Any new advanced weapons system needs time to develop, test and train. Without this, even the most advanced weapons system is nothing more than a multi billion-dollar paperweight.

US strategy and planning has already begun the difficult realigning of priorities away from the “War on Terror” to the new challenges that await its armed forces in the future.  In Asia, the great game of power politics is reborn. US strategic planners must follow a balanced approach when it comes to the rise of China’s military capabilities and access denial strategies. Even in an era of shrinking budgets and relative military decline compared to rising Chinese technological capabilities, the United States has multiple advantages in its favor. With proper force redeployments, use of existing technologies with enhancement, and not allowing overhype and speculation without proper verification to cloud strategic fact, US planning can more than compensate for a rising China. The DF-21D is one of many new technologies and capabilities that will come to fruition. Strategic minds must plan, move the proper chess pieces into place, and not allow “possibilities” to become reality before their time.

Creative Commons credit: Both images by Charles McCain.


Dinan, Stephen. “Pacific power may shift with Chinese missile.” Washington Times. (accessed July 26, 2011).

Holmes, James. ” Are the Seas Becoming a No-Man’s Land?” e-IR . (accessed July 26, 2011).

Jean, Grace . “Diesel-Electric Submarines, the U.S. Navy’s Latest Annoyance.” National Defense Magazine. (accessed July 26, 2011).

“Lawmaker: Taiwan still wants US subs..” The Seattle Times. (accessed July 26, 2011).

“SSN774 Virginia-class Fast Attack Submarine.” . (accessed July 26, 2011).

“US Navy Struggles to Recapture, Keep ASW Proficiency.” Navlog. (accessed July 26, 2011).

Yinan, Hu, Li Xiaokun, and Cui Haipei. ” Official confirms China building aircraft carrier.” Chinadaily European. (accessed July 26, 2011).

About the author: Harry Kazianis

Harry Kazianis is an Analyst at Foreword. He is an ALM candidate at Harvard University’s Extension School. He is also Deputy Editor for e-IR, where he maintains the blog Throwing BRICs: Security Reflections in a Changing World.

1 comment

  1. James says:

    Good, but I’m getting a suspicion that China is becoming to be depicted more and more as the next evil empire, which is not completely untrue. I don’t think frantic, even if calculated, rearmament would be a wise choice for the diplomatic future of the region. I wonder if there are other ways to solve this.

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