China has been busy trying to develop a military that can isolate Taiwan, and, if necessary, hold the U.S. at bay. The PLAN’s one hope for success in a campaign against Taiwan is to blockade the island and limit, or even negate, a U.S. response by challenging the U.S. naval presence in the waters to the east of Taiwan. The target of choice, naturally, is a U.S. aircraft carrier.
Attacking a U.S. aircraft carrier, particularly one steaming in harms way, is one of the most difficult challenges facing any hostile power. In Aircraft Carrier (In)vulnerability, author Dr. Loren Thompson concludes that U.S. aircraft carriers are extremely difficult to find and target. Were it even possible for an adversary to do so, the defensive firepower in the carrier battle group makes it highly unlikely that the aircraft carrier could be attacked successfully.
The substantial defensive capability that the Navy enjoys with its current assets will be further augmented by a number of programs presently underway. First, there is the advanced E-2C Hawkeye based on the Radar Modernization Program (RMP). Providing enhanced airborne command-and-control as well as an expanded surveillance umbrella, the Hawkeye will act as an airborne node for Cooperative Engagement Capability, supporting complex air defense missions and leveraging the RMP’s electronically-steered Ultra-High Frequency radar system. Second, the U.S. Navy and the Missile Defense Agency are working hard to develop the Area Missile Defense System and the Theaterwide Missile Defense System to counter ballistic missile threats at various ranges. Finally, the extended range active missile (ERAM) will be deployed on Aegis-capable ships to address advanced cruise missile and aircraft threats.
On the offensive side, extended air defense will be enabled by the deployment of the F/A-18 E/F and F-35 JSF. With its enhanced radar, large payload, increased range and networked data sharing, the F/A-18 E/F will allow the carrier battle group to operate at a greater distance from the enemy while delivering a more powerful punch. The addition of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter with its stealth capability and advanced avionics at the end of the decade will further enhance the ability of carrier-based aviation to conduct both offensive and defensive missions.
Perhaps most significantly, the U.S. Navy is developing Forcenet, an information architecture that networks sensors, weapons, command-and-control, databases and platforms. Integrating ground, air, space and sea-based capabilities, Forcenet will serve as the structure for acquiring, processing and distributing a vast amount of information that will improve battle space awareness for both offensive and defensive operations.
The Chinese can buy ships and missiles, but no one is selling net-centric capabilities. This alone is likely to tip the scales in favor of the U.S. Navy in terms of overall combat capability in the region. China’s current intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities do not, as yet, allow the PLAN even to see over the horizon. In the race to dominate the seas, don’t bet on China. As fast as the Chinese move to improve their capabilities, the U.S. Navy’s transformation plan will only widen the gap between itself and the PLAN. Pity the poor PLAN strategic planner.
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