The Pentagon has requested a substantial increase in the Navy’s budget, and Gregg Easterbrook, writing in the New York Times, insists that an increase is unwarranted. Why? First, Easterbrook observes that while the United States has 10 advanced nuclear supercarriers, no other country, China included, has anything comparable. Second, he asserts that concerns about the threat China’s new weapon systems might pose to the Navy are nothing more than “fearmongering,” as “there’s no evidence that [China’s] anti-ship missile has had a realistic test.” Third, he claims that rising Chinese naval power is not a threat to the United States, and to complain against Chinese dominance in the South China Sea or the East China Sea is like complaining about U.S. dominance in the Caribbean.
There are a few problems with Easterbrook’s line of thinking. China is not the only major power in the Western Pacific, and a number of its neighbors would greatly prefer that the United States preserve its strategic primacy in maritime Asia, or at the very least preserve its ability to contest Chinese dominance. Most serious defense analysts recognize that America’s relative position in the region is deteriorating. (Elbridge Colby, a National Review contributor, has written extensively on the dangers posed by this deterioration.) I appreciate that Easterbrook considers it unfair that the U.S. dominates the Caribbean while it objects to the thought of China doing the same in its backyard. Yet surely one can appreciate why Japan or South Korea might prefer to have more strategic independence vis-à-vis China than Jamaica and the Dominican Republic do vis-à-vis the United States. American naval power is essential to shielding these and other East Asian states from the threat of Chinese military coercion. You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned Taiwan — that is because at this point, it is not at all clear that the United States could shield Taiwan from Chinese coercion in a controlled escalation scenario, which is why many Taiwanese defense analysts have reconciled themselves to “Finlandization.” Something similar is arguably happening in South Korea as well. Will East Asia be better off if we allow China to establish military dominance in the region? I doubt it, not least because there are growing signs that China is about to enter a period of political turmoil. Given East Asia’s central importance to the global economy, I’d say there’s very good reason for the United States to want to maintain the ability to shape the course of events in the region.
When Easterbrook observes that the U.S. is the only power with advanced nuclear supercarriers, he neglects the rise of China’s anti-access/area-denial capabilities. China does not need to match the U.S. Navy ship for ship. Rather, they just need to limit the U.S. Navy’s freedom of action in maritime Asia. Easterbrook addresses this concern glancingly when he discounts the threat of China’s anti-ship missiles. What he fails to appreciate is that China’s anti-ship missiles don’t have to clear a high bar to greatly undermine America’s ability to project power in the Western Pacific. As Jerry Hendrix of the Center for a New American Security explains, the Chinese approach is to launch a slew of (relatively) low-cost missiles to overwhelm U.S. defenses:
Using a maneuverable re-entry vehicle (MaRV) placed on a CSS-5 missile, China’s Second Artillery Division states that its doctrine will be to saturate a target with multiple warheads and multiple axis attacks, overwhelming the target’s ability to defend itself. MaRV warhead itself would use a high explosive, or a radio frequency or cluster warhead that at a minimum could achieve a mission kill against the target ship. While the United States does not know the cost of this weapons system, some analysts have estimated its procurement costs at $5 million to $11 million. Assuming the conservative, high-end estimate of $11 million per missile gives an exchange ratio of $11 million to $13.5 billion, which means that China could build 1,227 DF-21Ds for every carrier the United States builds going forward. U.S. defenses would have to destroy every missile fired, a tough problem given the magazines of U.S. cruisers and destroyers, while China would need only one of its weapons to survive to e!ect a mission kill. Although U.S. Navy and Air Force leaders have coordinated their efforts to develop the means to operate in an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) environment by disrupting opposing operations, the risk of a carrier suffering a mission kill that takes it off the battle line without actually sinking it remains high. [Emphasis added]
Even if Easterbrook is right to say that there is no evidence of a successful test of China’s anti-ship missiles, China doesn’t need every one of its anti-ship missiles (or one in every hundred, or even one in every thousand) to do its job. If anything, the size of America’s advanced nuclear supercarriers has become a liability rather than a strength, which is why Hendrix has called for slowly moving away from today’s carriers and towards smaller, cheaper ones that could as platforms for unmanned combat aerial vehicles. But this transition will require a substantial investment. I don’t doubt that there is fat in the Pentagon’s budget request that can be cut. But if you think it will be cheaper in the long run to allow America’s strategic position in East Asia to continue to erode than to make smart, targeted investments in weapons systems that will preserve our ability to project force, you’re mistaken.