China: The Spectrum of Beijing's Asymmetric Warfare Capabilities

5 MINS READJun 26, 2008 | 18:56 GMT
In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on June 25, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs James Shinn and Vice Director for Strategic Plans and Policy at the Joint Chiefs of Staff Maj. Gen. Philip Breedlove highlighted China's asymmetric warfare capabilities. The Pentagon personnel and members of the U.S. House of Representatives present expressed concern about the United States' ability to establish and maintain dominance in some domains due to these expanding asymmetric capabilities.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs James Shinn and Vice Director for Strategic Plans and Policy at the Joint Chiefs of Staff Air Force Maj. Gen. Philip Breedlove highlighted China's development of asymmetric warfare capabilities in their testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on June 25. Although their testimony largely covered familiar ground, it was consistent with an increasing military and intelligence acknowledgment of asymmetric threats such as cyberwarfare in which the United States, they argued, must do more to compete. Officially, the Pentagon has long complained about the lack of transparency in Chinese military efforts — a way of saying that, since Beijing does not publish meaningful defense-spending figures or articulate strategic objectives, the United States is left guessing about its intentions. Beijing, for its part, is deeply concerned about Washington's ability to interfere in the waters surrounding its territory — especially in any scenario involving Taiwan, which China considers internal business but in which Washington would be pressed to intervene. While the potential for such a scenario currently is quite low, it remained a subject of consideration at the hearing and still remains a part of strategic planning. Indeed, the military balance across the strait has been shifting toward Beijing's favor over the years. China, of course, also has larger ambitions. Since China is a great power with worldwide economic ties, it would be odd if it did not seek to build a navy capable of protecting its interests around the world to one extent or another. But its asymmetric capabilities are uniquely tailored to dealing with the world's sole superpower. Among other things, the hearing touched on four People's Liberation Army (PLA) asymmetric capabilities of particular relevance to the military balance with the United States:
  • Cyberwafare: China is recognized as having one of the most advanced cyberwarfare capabilities in the world. An untold number of intrusions and attacks on military, government and corporate systems have been traced back to mainland China — often to sources with ties to the PLA. The testimonies of Shinn and Breedlove reinforced many other statements to this affect from U.S. military, government and industry officials. There is little doubt at this point that China would be able to bring massive and well-drilled force to bear in cyberspace in a future conflict. There is substantial concern within the government and military about the U.S. ability to defend the continental United States against such attacks — not only military systems, but targets as diverse as corporate Web sites and power grids.
  • Counterspace: Beijing's efforts at counterspace capabilities predate China's January 2007 anti-satellite weapon test. While China's offensive capability here is certainly outpaced by the United States', it remains an area of deep concern, given that any U.S. military operation in East Asia would rely heavily on space-based platforms for communication, navigation, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Nevertheless, the Pentagon has a very substantial lead — on not only China, but the entire planet — in both the defense of space-based systems and offensive counterspace.
  • Ballistic missiles: In addition to its extensive ballistic and cruise missile programs, China reportedly is working on refining an anti-ship ballistic missile. Such a system would deploy a warhead that would approach its target from — essentially — straight above. This is a method of attack that could be difficult for the defensive systems of a U.S. Carrier Strike Group to defeat, as the longstanding focus of these systems has been the flight profiles of more traditional anti-ship weapons. The 4.5-acre flight deck of a U.S. supercarrier makes for a particularly large target at such an angle.
  • Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) weapons: Often associated with a nuclear blast, which generates such a pulse, an EMP can devastate electronic systems over a very wide area — including satellites, if the pulse is generated high enough. This would, of course, be disproportionately devastating to U.S. forces, especially if it came as a surprise while PLA forces were hunkered down in anticipation of it. China appears to be pursuing methods for replicating an EMP without resorting to a nuclear detonation, though this is something both the U.S. and the Soviets played with during the Cold War without much apparent result. It is not clear if China will succeed in this realm in the near-term.
However, despite a fairly extensive consensus on the potential threats these and other Chinese systems represent, they come at a time of intensely tight funding within the U.S. Department of Defense. The U.S. Air Force in particular has found itself torn between funding traditional airpower, funding operational needs for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and funding efforts in emerging domains such as space and cyberspace. Meanwhile, even as spending on current operations draws down over the next few years, estimates of "reset" costs — the expense of repairing, upgrading and replacing equipment and forces worn down over the course of the high operational tempo of the last few years — run as high as $100 billion. Meanwhile, efforts to expand the ranks of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps by a total of 90,000 troops are also having expensive reverberations throughout the Department of Defense. While U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made no secret of his intention to favor operational needs above all else, the June 25 testimony comes as a reminder of the challenges to U.S. military dominance that await in East Asia — long recognized, but sidelined over the last seven years.

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