It is serendipitous that the two most powerful and influential countries in the word today, the United States and China, both have long coasts that touch the Pacific Ocean. This massive body of water that separates them also connects them through trade, economic growth, assistance and support. It also provides a medium to project power to protect international trade, resources and to influence neighboring Pacific Rim countries.
The United States has effectively used this medium for commerce, assistance and to promote stability in the Pacific. China, with its emergence as a major world power is moving to match and eventually surpass the United States’ capability to leverage the Pacific Ocean for trade, projection of military power and influence.
To effectively deal with China as an emerging world power, and to help guide it to become a responsible Pacific Rim actor, an open transparent dialogue across civilian, corporate and military sectors needs to continue and evolve to strengthen a partnership that fosters respect and trust. This valuable dialogue between both nations helps mitigate the kind of misunderstandings and miscalculations that will inevitably occur between an emerging power and an established power on opposite ends of the Pacific. Notably, military to military engagement during significant exercises such as RIMPAC where China has recently been participating have reduced tensions and fostered greater understanding. Several incidents between the two navies in the East China Sea have been deescalated thanks to relationships established at RIMPAC between commanding officers.
Although developing a relationship based on transparent engagement is the preferred course of action to pursue long term stability as China grows, it still has to be coupled and enforced with real U.S. force projection capability. The United States cannot completely rely on dialogue and relationship building to stop all fires from being started in the Pacific. We must also have enough capable fire trucks to put out a fire in case it starts. In the Pacific, our fire trucks are the Aircraft Carrier Strike Groups.
In World War II, the sheer vastness of the Pacific Ocean helped spur the emergence of the Aircraft Carrier as the dominate platform to project power. Today, the United States has 10 – soon to be 11 – Aircraft Carrier Strike Groups, each made up of a Nuclear Powered Aircraft Carrier with a wing of 85-90 fixed wing and rotary aircraft, up to two Los Angeles-class Nuclear Attack Submarines, and one or more Aegis equipped Guided Missile Cruisers or Destroyers for integrated air, surface and subsurface defense. The main mission of the U.S. Navy Aegis Cruisers and Destroyers is to defend the Carrier so it can project its power.
In the Pacific, one of the ten current U.S. Carrier Strike Groups are always in continuous deployment in the East China Sea and Pacific region based out of Yokosuka, Japan. Two others are home-ported at San Diego (USS Carl Vinson and USS Ronald Reagan), and another two are out of Washington state (USS Nimitz and USS John C. Stennis).
China understands the limited number of U.S. Carriers in the Pacific. It also understands that there are cheaper ways to destroy or deny area access to a U.S. Carrier than to build a large, sophisticated fleet of carriers of its own. As such, China has invested heavily to develop offensive missile systems that could overwhelm and destroy the five carriers in the Pacific. China has made major investments into its long range maneuverable YJ-18 supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) and sophisticated DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missiles. Additionally, China has an ample supply of other ASCM models, such the imported Kh-31, and domestically built YJ-8, YJ-12, and YJ-83, YJ-100, and others. Some of these missiles may have a range of up to 3,000 km, depending on the range of the aircraft that launches them. The threat of high altitude EMP detonation also makes China’s fleet of short and medium range ballistic missiles a threat to the U.S. Carriers while operating in international waters near China. The Chinese are also testing non-ballistic hypersonic glide vehicles, designed to overcome traditional BMD technology.
For the ships within a Strike Group, the defense of the Carrier from air, surface and subsurface threats is the number one priority. Many of these ships already have Aegis BMD capability, but the demand for the Pacific is to have each of them with Baseline 9 capability in order to provide both Ballistic Missile Defense and cruise missile defense with sophisticated, long range and maneuverable SM-6 interceptors to protect the carrier. Baseline 9 Aegis BMD ships also force multiply with ships outside and inside the battle group by having linking capability with each other to perform force protection with launch and engage on remote platforms of their SPY radar sensors and SM-3 interceptors. In the future this network, called Navy Integrated Fire Control and Counter Air capability (NIFC-CA) will look to link into the U.S. Navy Aegis Ashore sites already fitted with Baseline 9, and through IBCS link to the U.S. Army land based assets in the Pacific region such as THAAD and TPY-2 radars. This network could also include JLENS should it be deployed to the Pacific.
This networked capability will eventually include allied Aegis ships of Japan, Korea and Australia in a collective Pacific defense. As a priority, the Navy plans to have 11 Aegis BMD Cruisers upgraded that have been identified and in the process of dry docking to prepare to have the most modern capability to include Baseline 9 to provide escort for each of the Carrier Strike Groups. Though not funded for in the next five years because of other Navy priorities, these 11 upgraded Cruisers are planned to be funded and back in the fleet within ten years.
Adding to this capability are the Flight IIA destroyers, the new ships entering the U.S. fleet will all be Baseline 9 capable, providing the fastest and most effective defense of the fleet both near and far term. Ideally, these ships should come into the fleet at a pace of two per year. This approach paves a way to eventually have a pure fleet of all U.S. Destroyers with Aegis BMD capability, force multiplying the Navy’s fleet defenses against air and missile threats. To complete the pure fleet, the older Aegis BMD versions should also be upgraded during scheduled modernization as a third priority to fill the gap.
There are 84 Aegis Ships in the U.S. Fleet today, 33 of which are Aegis BMD capable. Only three of these have been upgraded with Baseline 9 and deployed. Two of those Baseline 9 Ships are deployed in the Pacific Fleet. These numbers are clearly deficient, and it is a national security priority to get these ships upgraded to provide security and stability in the Pacific and around the world.
China and its weapons present a very serious threat to U.S. Aircraft Carriers should there be a misunderstanding that escalates to conflict in the Pacific. The protection of the U.S. Carriers is vital for Pacific stability and U.S. national security. This objective remains a team game, and all services will have to contribute to the joint integrated air and missile defense in the Pacific.
The Navy must also look beyond Carrier Strike groups to make generational technology leaps with directed energy and electromagnetic propagation on future sea based platforms to stay ahead of China.
As China’s disputes over islands in the South China Sea become more heated, the need for strong U.S. naval presence in international waters to uphold international law in the Pacific region will only become more pronounced.
We need balance in the Pacific.
– Riki Ellison
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