Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Juvenile Speculations - War in the South China Sea?

On Monday [23 Jan 2017], new White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the United States would prevent China from taking over territory in international waters in the South China Sea.
His comments were widely interpreted as doubling down on remarks by Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, on Jan. 11 that the United States would not allow China access to islands it has built in the South China Sea, and upon which it has installed weapons systems and built military-length airstrips.
The adult in you should be horrified at the prospects of another war. With the two largest economies. And so close to home. To be clear, China doesn't want a war. Does the US want a war? With Trump, who knows?

The juvenile in you (and me) may just want to speculate: Can China successfully defend those islands they reclaimed and the facilities they built on it? Will the US (under Trump) be able to take the fight to China?

How will this impact the rest of the world, and specifically Singapore? More importantly, who will win such a war or any lesser confrontation? Or if not "win", prevail?

(The juvenile in you is the one who still thinks questions like "Superman vs  Green Lantern - who will win?" is a deep important philosophical question.)

It's a complicated question, so juvenile me will just focus mainly on the military "answers" for the most part.

Missile duel

We know Trump is just itching to nuke something. Or somebody.

Islands in the middle of the South China Seas present "reasonable" targets. Those islands occupied by the Chinese are military installations, so there would be few or even no civilians.

Nuke away, Trumpy!

Except (reality bites), some of those islands are within Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone. While the Chinese may be criticised for building within Philippines EEZ, Nuking the the islands would be even worse. Then again, maybe Trump doesn't care anyway.

But if Trump uses Nukes, he "frees" China to nuke the USA in retaliation. Which then frees the US to nuke Mainland China. And so on. (This is why we haven't had a nuclear war yet - mutual assured destruction).

So, nukes are out. At least not as a first strike option. Not as a rational option. But then I have not heard anyone accuse Trump of being rational. So who knows? But let's assume that in this matter he is at least persuaded by his advisers NOT to go nuclear. First. (Or he tries anyway, and his advisers realise that he is unhinged and needs to be stopped and removed from office.)

(But what would be the effects of a nuclear missile on the Spratley Islands on Philippines? Is Trump gambling with the lives and health of Filipinos? Well, at Nukemap, you can detonate a Nuke (simulated) on or over the Spratleys and see what are the simulated effects. 

With a 9 megaton Titan II missile detonated 400m above the surface, the fireball radius would be 2.3km, the radiation radius would be 3.3km, and the airblast radius (20 PSI, enough to severely damage or destroy strong concrete structures - like say, military installation) would be about 4.6 km. However there would be nuclear fallout which if the wind were blowing in the right direction and strong enough would affect Palawan Island. However, this is if the wind were blowing directly towards the East. 

Alternatively, the nuclear warhead could be detonated to maximise the 20 psi blast radius, which would be 3.8 km in the air. This would produce NO fallout. but the blast radius of 5.9 km would knock down almost all the buildings on the islands.

A ground detonation would kick up the most fallout and in this scenario, the fallout would reach Cebu and Iloilo depending on the wind speed and direction.

And if all out nuclear war were to break out, China would be very vulnerable. 95% of its population are in the Eastern seaboard. While The US has 10 cities with more than a million people, the top 10 cities in China has more than 7 million people each. The two most populous are Shanghai with 22 million and Beijing with 19 million. In contrast, NY has 8.5 million and is the largest US city by population. LA is second with about 4 million.)

But there are other options. Certainly, ICBMs and cruise missiles (Tomahawks) could be armed with conventional warheads (non-nuclear) and be used to bombard the military installations on the islands. With a range of over 1500 km, Tomahawks could be fired well outside the range of China's DF-21D ASBM (a.k.a. Carrier-killer, range projected at 1,500 km) ) by US warships.

Which means that China will have no answer to the US, unless they steam out to intercept the US warships, or scramble their warplanes to counter the US threat.

The problem (for China) is that the US will be attacking fixed land targets (islands) which cannot move, while the PLA will be trying to attack the platforms from which those cruise missiles were launched (ships or subs - SSGN), which are moving targets. Their (longest range?) anti-ship missile (ASM) has a range of about 800 km (YJ-100, a variant of the CJ-10)

Which means that a Chinese bomber needs to fly to within 800 km of the Carrier Strike Group (with the Tomahawk launch platform - a Guided Missile Destroyer (DDG)?) in order to launch the YJ-100. This is within the operating envelope of the F18 Hornet which would be providing air cover for the fleet and which will try to intercept the bombers (the YJ-100 needs to be launched from a bomber), before they get within range. (China has smaller ASMs that can be launched from Fighters, but the shorter range of those missiles means the fighters have to get within 100 km of their target).

If the Tomahawks were launched from an SSGN submarine...

So in a missile duel, China, being land-based will have access to almost unlimited resources (or almost all their resources), but trying to hit moving targets will be difficult. Their DF-21D is unproven in battle, but while it cannot be counted out, it may not be counted on. The US Navy on the other hand will have mobility, but will be limited to what munitions they have on board and can be replenished by re-supply vessels while at sea. However, their targets would be land-based, immobile targets (military bases on reclaimed islands) which are basically sitting ducks.

While the DF-21D ASBM may be a possible counter in a missile duel with the US guided missile destroyers launching cruise missiles at their island bases, the Chinese may not be willing to use them against targets lesser than an aircraft carrier. China is estimated to have about 150 - 200 of these ASBMs. They may use the DF-21D against other ships (other than a carrier) to test and refine their weapon and deployment. But there are three potential problems. The first is that the weapons may not work at all. In which case the DF-21D cannot even function as a threat or a deterrent. That means the carriers would be free to sail in to provide close air support. The second problem is that the DF-21 works, but in using the weapons, the Chinese reveal their operations and inadvertently reveal the weakness in their "kill chain" - the processes necessary to ensure that the DF-21D hits the target. The problem with ASBM has been the mobility of the targets. Ballistic missiles intended for land attack do not need to have tracking ability. These are targets at cities usually and ballistic missiles may carry nuclear warheads, so do not need to be extremely accurate.

However, hitting a mobile target at extreme ranges presents several problems - detecting it at long range requires Over-The-Horizon radar, tracking it may require satellites specifically launched for the purpose, and having UAVs to provide confirmation and last minute update on the target's location all make for vulnerabilities in the "kill chain".

Of course revealing the exact nature of the "kill chain" would not be a problem, if the US is unable to disrupt the kill chain. Which is potentially the third problem for China - the US develops a reliable means of disrupting the kill chain or spoofing the ASBM with electronic warfare, thus rendering the DF-21D threat impotent.

Anyway, for as long as the US keeps to conventional warheads, the Chinese should be reluctant to escalate to Nuclear warheads. But there are factional struggles within the Chinese political leadership that might pursue contradictory strategies and plans.

But this is just the "easy" or simplistic view of things.

The problem with an ICBM or even a cruise missile is that there is no way to know if the warhead is nuclear or conventional. Until after it hits the target.

So if the US launches a missile at Chinese military bases in the South China Sea, the Chinese have no way of knowing if they are under nuclear attack until after the missile has hit the target. If so, the Chinese have two options, wait and see, or respond immediately. How they respond will depend on whether they believe they are under nuclear attack.

While with any other rational-seeming POTUS, it is a reasonable assumption that they would not want to go down in history as being the man who started the first Nuclear War, with the Trump, you cannot be sure that he would not consider that as an historic achievement.

This "mature moment"  (in this juvenile speculation) is to point out that the simplified "analysis" is not realistic and does not take into account China's perspective, anxiety, and uncertainty. And how these uncertainties can lead to miscalculations, and erroneous assumptions. The point is Trump is behaving very dangerously by being unpredictably irrational or seemingly so. His infantile instincts could doom us all. But let's not get gloomy. Back to our juvenile speculations!

Carrier duel?

The US has 10 Carrier Strike Group, each led by one Supercarrier. China has the LiaoNing (a.k.a. the "LiaoLui"). The US could possibly deploy more carriers to the Western Pacific as it has done before. But let's keep things simple, and stick to just ONE Carrier Strike Group. It could either be the Ronald Reagan (CVN76, of Carrier Strike Group 5) based in Yokosuka, Japan, or the John C Stennis (CVN-74, Carrier Strike Group 3) from Washington. Or the USS Carl Vinson (San Diego-based). Or even all three. Or more (five are based in the Pacific. The other two are the Nimitz, and the Roosevelt). The point is, the US has options, and can bring a lot of wings into the game.

But while China only has ONE carrier, it also has ASBM - the DF-21"Carrier-killer" as mentioned above. However, it is not clear if it is reliable. They have fired it and under test conditions, it had hit the target. Twice.
Satellite images revealed two large craters on a 200-meter-long white platform in the Gobi desert used to simulate the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. The photo was first posted on SAORBATS, an internet forum based in Argentina. Military analysts believed the craters would have been created by China's DF-21D anti-ship missile, dubbed the "carrier killer."
But can it hit a non-cooperative moving target?

Well, if the Chinese can catch the Ronald Reagan in port, the carrier would not be moving. Firing over North Korea, let's say China does a "Pearl Harbour" in Yokosuka (with ASBM or even a simpler, land attack ballistic missile), and their attack "kills" the Ronald Reagan and so the resulting carrier duel is between the John C. Stennis vs the Liaoning. Supported by more missiles on China's side.

(Note that this assumes that Japan and the Carrier Strike Group were both unable to stop the Chinese missile. I'm not sure if this is realistic, or if the Chinese missile is that reliable or unstoppable, but let's assume that somehow, one carrier to taken out of the equation to simplify matters. See also THAAD. China doesn't like them.

While China is building a second carrier, it is not expected to be fully operational before 2020. So we will focus on the single LiaoNing currently in operation.)

The US could send more carriers, but it would take time, and some may be otherwise engaged or in port for maintenance and repairs. It is quite possible that they could be "scrambled" to reinforce the 7th fleet or what is left of it. But for the immediate scenario and again for simplicity, we'll assume just ONE US carrier.

Since (or if) Yokosuka has proven itself vulnerable to ASBM or even ICBMs (non-nuclear warheads, are there such things?), the US Carrier Strike Group might want to make a less vulnerable base of operations. Say from Guam, which is about 3000 km from the Chinese coast, and out of the range of the DF-21D. Even if the Yokosuka base is safe, Japan may, for its own interest, decide to deny the US use of Yokosuka for the duration of their confrontation of China. This is regardless of the terms of any treaty or alliance. The reality presents a clear risk to Japan that China would retaliate against Japan, and Japan may have to decide what is best for the country and act in that respect. This may mean disengaging from any alliance with the US, or going all in. I suspect that the Japanese, who are most concerned with honour and duty, would be compelled to honour their agreement with the US and support the US. But again, for the purpose of simplicity, minimising additional players, I will assume that they disengage from the confrontation. Also I just want a juvenile set-up for a China-US showdown. Don't want the Japanese to complicate the issue.

Anyway, in a one-on-one "carrier duel" between the LiaoNing and a Nimitz class carrier, the LiaoNing would seem to come up short. It is lighter, slower, carries fewer planes, has a ski-jump ramp for take-off instead of a catapult, and has steam turbine engines which are unreliable, and is only just starting to learn carrier-based aerial warfare. Moreover, the LiaoNing is more of a training ship for carrier operations. Still it is a carrier, and can be formidable. But US carriers are not called "Supercarriers" for nothing.

The ski jump ramp would limit the take-off weight of the LiaoNing's fighters, and the munitions they can carry. The planes would also have less than a full tank of fuel and their flight time will be measured in minutes, not hours. The Chinese J15s (Flopping Fish) will be no match for the US Superhornets.

What China has on its side is the currently unquantifiable DF-21 threat to keep the US carriers at bay. At least that seems to be China's hope.

However, the Carrier Strike Group could try to provoke the Chinese into attacking with the ASBM in order to assess the practical capability of the missile, by launching Tomahawks against the disputed islands and the Chinese bases on them, and hoping that the Chinese attempt to answer the bombardment with the DF-21D.

The Chinese is unlikely to put the LiaoNing up in a straight contest with a US Super Carrier and their carrier strike group. The Liaoning is now the pride of the PLA, and the de facto flagship if it is not actually the flagship. If the US defeats or sinks their carrier, it would be humiliating and demoralising.

China might have another set of assets - the island bases they have been building. Certainly, those bases can provide additional aircraft to support the LiaoNing (or vice versa), and even provide additional covering missile fire. In fact, with full length runways, the planes launched from those airfields would probably be better equip and have longer range than a similar plane launched from the LiaoNing.

But of course, these "unsinkable" aircraft carriers are also immobile and are simply ballistic missile targets. And are in fact the objectives of the US intervention.

Which means in the initial stages the Chinese may be able to use these "unsinkable carriers" as intended, but eventually, under persistent and unrelenting bombardment, they would be degraded likely to beyond serviceability.

Submarine warfare

I had reservations about a section on sub warfare because I do not have a lot of facts on this matter. There is this rather outdated article (2011):
China's overhyped sub threat.

And a more "updated" assessment (but on YouTube) of China's sub standards, so to speak.

But if you want to believe that China has greatly reduce the sub-gap, the SCMP provides fodder for that belief. From that link, the PLAN has 73 subs. Most are diesel powered subs with limited submersion endurance (they have to surface almost daily to recharge their batteries). Some of the subs are Ballistic Missile subs or strategic nuclear subs, but most are short-range, regional, defence-oriented subs. A few (16) are nuclear-powered.

What does the US have?

The US has 24 Los Angeles, 3 Sea Wolf, and 4 Virginia Class Attack subs in the Pacific - 31 boats. All are nuclear powered. These can function to hunt and kill enemy subs.

In addition, the US has four SSGN, of which two are in the Pacific. These Ohio class subs have over 150 Tomahawk each to attack land targets. These two subs could be use to either a) bombard the disputed islands occupied by China until the facilities on those islands are degraded beyond serviceability. Or b) primed to counter-strike at the launch platforms of the DF-21D if they are used against US ships. (However the sub-sonic cruise missile may take too long to get to there and the mobile platforms may have moved by the time the cruise missile reach the original target location.)

Chinese subs may have improved, but they will need to head out to the deeper waters of the Pacific for more effective cover. One theory as to why the Chinese are trying to occupy islands in the"Nine-dash line" is that the seas South China Sea and East China Sea are relatively shallow waters, and subs in the area could be easily seen by satellites or spy planes. They would have more depth to hide if they could get to the Pacific. However, as most of the Chinese subs are non-nuclear powered, they do not have the endurance for extended sorties in the Pacific.

Sub warfare will likely be the PLAN subs trying to get out to the Pacific and track the carrier group to provide final targeting for their ASBM. The USN on their part will be trying to hunt and kill these submarines. The PLAN's secondary mission may be to target the carrier directly. But if carriers had no defence against subs, the Chinese would not have made such a big deal about their "carrier-killer" missiles. Another set of targets would be other subs (Ohio Class SSGN), or Guided Missile Destroyers (DDG) which can launch cruise missiles at strategic targets. In other words, the PLAN subs will have a lot of things to do. Whether they can do those things is another question.

The Carrier fleet will of course be on alert for PLAN subs threatening the fleet. Ships and anti-submarine aircraft will be actively trying to detect enemy subs. The USN has an advantage though as their targets are immobile. The DDG and SSGN would have less work to lock onto target. With DDG and SSGN, the USN has flexibility to keep the SSGN unrevealed, and let the DDG try to draw the fire of the ASBM, with a barrage on the reclaimed islands, in particular to degrade the airfield.

China's options will depend on the level of their actual technological advancement, as well as their pride.

The scenario then is that the PLA would be hoping that the threat of their DF-21D will hold the carriers at extreme ranges (over 1500 km away). However, the carrier need not venture within range of the ASBM. Guided Missile Destroyers, and submarine-launched missiles could target the bases on the reclaimed islands.

Opportunism and Adventurism
(Beyond that of the two parties in conflict).

North Korea is always the joker in the deck and may take the opportunity to muddy the waters. For example, they may choose to target the US fleet, specifically the carrier (or carriers).

However, if they do so, they will invite retaliation from the US and from S. Korea.

N. Korea is all about bluff and threats. They just need their weapons to work during the tests well enough to be used as a threat. Unless N. Korea truly has dependable and accurate missiles, they should sit this one out. There is nothing to gain for them.

Collateral Effects

Singapore - would we have to choose between US & China?

From Singapore Perspective 2017:
Professor Liow cautioned against taking a zero-sum game view of foreign relations with China and the US. This is because of the reality of an interdependent and interconnected world, alongside geopolitical developments like deepening and widening relations between China and the US with countries in the region. It is also in the interest of both powers to remain engaged in the region. But there are five scenarios within which Singapore may be made to choose between the two, said Professor Liow.
  • The first is the election of an unpredictable American president that is hostile to China. [Done!]
  • The second is the rise of nationalistic hawks in China who view the US and its allies as obstacles to China’s inevitable rise and have few reservations about engaging in conflict if warranted. [They are in place!]
  • The third draws on the first two, which is the prospect of a serious breakdown in China-US relations because of the perceived threat of a rising China. [Noises are being made, but not quite there yet.]
  • The fourth is where the US and China agree to carve out spheres of predominant interests to stay out of each other’s way.
  • The fifth is where Singapore’s diplomacy fails and it is forced to pick between the two superpowers.
If it came to that, Professor Liow said that Singapore should consider five factors. First, any choice should be made based on Singapore’s interest and not the preferences of other
countries. Second, the Singaporean government of the day should act in a way as to guard the country from external interference in domestic politics. Third, it would have be mindful that making any concessions to the great powers would risk sending the wrong signal to neighbouring countries, allowing them to think that Singapore is a “pushover”. Fourth, while the US and China are key features of geopolitics in the region, they are not the only powers of consequence that shape it. Fifth, countries in the region face similar dilemmas and therefore it would be useful to consider how the neighbouring countries and cohesion in ASEAN will be affected.
Which is all well and good, but not juvenile enough to answer the simple question: What should SG do? SG may well assess that US would win the war, but China would still be around after that.

War will disrupt trade of course, and that would be a major disruption to economic growth.


How would the war end? What would be considered a "Win" for China or the US?

The US stated objective is to deny China's access to the SCS islands. So a nominal "win" for the US would be if they destroyed all the military installations on these disputed islands, or drove off or eliminated the Chinese military force occupying these islands.

Another possible "win" would be if the US destroyed or crippled a significant number of the PLAN vessels, such that the PLAN would be unable to project their naval might over these islands and seas. So if the LiaoNing were crippled or sunk and/or if the 2nd carrier being built were destroyed in dock, that would also be a victory point for the US.

A strategic objective might be to assess the DF-21 in action so as to properly assess its threat to US carriers. So the US might want to bait the Chinese into using their "Carrier Killer".

For China, if they were able to hold off the Carrier Strike Group indefinitely, that would be a victory of sorts. However, a more substantial "win" would be if most if not all their island bases were intact at the cessation of hostilities.

Another clear win is if they are able to hit and sink the carrier or other ships with the DF-21. Even a hit without sinking the ship or carrier would be a morale boost. If their subs could hunt and kill or disable US ships sufficiently to stop them from destroying all their islands and military bases, that would also count as a victory.

If China could also mobilise support for them from countries in the region, or resistance or retraction of support for the US (Japan, S. Korea, Philippines, Singapore), that might also count as a moral victory.

China could also "win" a moral victory if they get the US to nuke them first. With any POTUS, I would say this is most unlikely. But it's Trump. So who knows how or if he thinks.

Given the "win scenarios", the US fleet or carrier group might well just sit outside the range of the DF-21, allowing just a couple of DDGs with AEGIS cruisers as defence to sail into range (to tempt the DF-21 to strike). Hornets from the carriers will provide air cover. Subs and sub-hunter aircraft will defend against PLAN subs.

The DDG's would then launch salvos of Tomahawks at the artificial islands to destroy the bases and airfields. China's forces will have to come out to get them. Or they can use the DF-21. And show that they work well, or not well at all. Regardless, using the DF-21 will reveal the "kill chain" for the DF-21, and perhaps any weak links that the US can exploit or disrupt.

If the US manages to destroy all the bases, they can offer a ceasefire with terms and conditions. If China accepts the terms and conditions, hopefully, the ceasefire will become peace. If not, the US could continue bombardment of the military/naval base on Hainan Island, and other bases or military targets. Or even the second carrier being built. Or try to catch the LiaoNing in port.

China's win scenario is simple - hold onto the islands. Unfortunately, they may not have the equipment and assets necessary to successfully hold onto the islands. The C-802 anti-ship missile has a 40 km range. The Tomahawk has a 1500 km range.

Or maybe I'm missing something?

All the above juvenile speculation is based on a war breaking out within the near future, with current technology and tactics (as I understand them). On this matter I am no expert, and these are just my juvenile speculations.

The reality is (as the Rand Corporation in the video below concludes) a US-China war is unlikely and in nobody's interests or advantage.

Then again, that was what was said about Brexit and Trump as POTUS. And look at what happened.

[See also Chabuduo - China's "close enough" philosophy.]

[Dec 2017 update: The concern now is that the twit-in-chief might tweet the US into a nuclear war with North Korea. Here's a speculative article. ]

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