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9:40AM

TIME on PACOM versus WAPO on PRC's DF-21D

Nice Mark Thompson post at Time.com (U.S.-Chinese War Games Ratchet Up), where he starts out by noting that now PACOM is claiming the DF-21D is already deployed - as in, the PLAN could take out a USN CV tomorrow.

So what's the deal?  WAPO citing experts saying it could be years away from effective deployment and Admiral Willard of PACOM saying the carrier killer is already deployed?

Bit of a discrepancy, huh?

My guess is that the DF-21D has been signed to the practice squad and that's emboldened Willard to declare that the Chinese are on the verge of winning the Super Bowl with the missile as presumed MVP.  These things all take time, so Willard is playing his chip as early as possible.  Justification? If he doesn't make this stink now, he believes the long-in-coming relief (e.g., pushing ahead with long-range carrier-based strike UAVs) won't arrive in time.

Is this lying? In business we call it "forward selling."  In football, they call it "throwing the receiver open."

PACOM would undoubtedly say otherwise, and I'm perfectly willing to be proven wrong, but the wording of what Willard says suggests I'm right.  I have no doubt that there are some of these missiles theoretically teed up in this mode.  I also have no doubt that it's still in testing and that to say it's operationally capable of taking out a carrier is untrue. I'm betting Willard was careful with his words so that what he says is technically true (deployed = missile in field and missile "turned on" and capable of being fired), but I think he purposefully forward sells the capability to a degree that most people would consider it pure hype.

Evidence to that effect comes at the end of the FT's front-pager announcing Willard's claim, in which the admiral himself, in the last para, is cited thusly:

Adm Willard said the new Chinese weapon was not fully operational and would probably undergo testing "for several more years." The key remaining step is a test of the entire system at sea.

And that'a the cleverness of the forward-sell:  Willard's claim gets the FT to publish a front-pager with the title "Chinese missile tilts power in the Pacific: Beijing's anti-carrier weapon is operational: Deployment challenges US naval strategy."  But the truth is, it's not "fully operational," so it's not really operational at all, and saying it's deployed can simply mean it's parked somewhere.  So Willard's claiming an operational capacity that's really not there.  Parts of a capability chain are in place, but the chain itself is not yet achieved.

Unless, of course, John Pomfret, a superb journalist, is talking to a bunch of navy experts on our side who are completely clueless about the real story on the missile, but I'm guessing he's - and they are - right on the money and that Willard is out on a truth limb.  I also find it interesting the Willard needs to suddenly come out and make this declaration days after the WAPO front-pager by Pomfret suggesting that the DF-21D is years away from being truly operationalized in its carrier killing capability (so not just a missile built and not just a missile sitting on a launcher somewhere, but the A-to-Z capability - with all the attendant tracking and sensoring nets - to find, target and hit a carrier with one of these missiles).

So, in the end, this is all a battle of headlines:  WAPO's "years away" headline does battle with Willard's "deployed and operational now*" headline (with * denoting "not fully operational").  There is no real disagreement between the pieces, it's just how the selling is being spun.  Pomfret's sell accurately notes that the capability to kill a carrier is years away, while Willard's sells the notion that just having a DF-21D capable of being fired and on the launcher signals the intent to blow up our carriers.  So no real argument on the facts, just one side (WAPO) publishing a piece deflating the arms race momentum and Willard popping up almost immediately to counter that impression with an arms race strengthening claim.

The difference here is that when the Chinese develop a capability, we say they intend to use, and when we develop a similarly threatening capability, we say we're developing it purely for defensive means.  And if both navies stuck in their backyards with these capabilities, there would be no discussion. But we have the tendency to bring ours right to China's front door, and thus the conversation begins.  We have our reasons for such a global reach. We just need to ask ourselves what we're trying to achieve here. If all we want is to propel an arms race, then objective achieved.  If we hope to cower the Chinese during their rise, then that won't work, especially over something as sensitive as Taiwan.  If we want a truly cooperative relationship with China, we'd find another route in the military realm--something less provocative than this one.  But we don't seek that route.  We say, in effect, we need to be able to make the Chinese cower right on their doorstep, and if they can't handle that as a prerequisite for our friendship, then too bad.

And then we wonder why our mil-mil ties are so strained.

I'm not arguing against the logic of the individual moves in the race: we scare them and they come up with capability to negate that asset, and so now we come up with AirSea Battle, whose logic I cited approvingly in a recent China Security piece. I'm arguing against the entire race itself, and I'm especially arguing against letting that race dynamic be driven by the latest forward-selling claims of military types on both sides, because, in this atmosphere, the most aggressive forward-selling wins the headline battle time and again. And the result is always the same: the countering side is driven to the next step.  At the beginning and the end of the day, everybody agrees the scenario remains unlikely, but some of us argue that we should nonetheless pursue this arms race vigorously--just in case.  And that's a self-fulfilling prophesy driven by the most militant voices on both sides.

Far-sighted types on both sides will tell you that the inevitable next stage for this race is space. And I guarantee you, that when both sides take the next step, they will have gloriously justified rationales.  Sensible-sounding, authoritative types will tell us these steps must be taken.  But the underlying logic will still suck when arrayed against the larger realities of globalization and our interdependent relationship. But we will be told these are prudent measures, all things being considered.  And the big lie will be: this is the only path possible.

Thompson quotes a recent post by me on the CSBA bombing maps and reprints one himself.  I ginned up that post because I want people to understand why the Chinese chortle when we say things like, "We have no intention of going to war with you." [For the record, the CSBA is a private-sector think tank very much in favor with the current Pentagon and this tank is widely credited with successfully selling the AirSea Battle Concept to the Defense Department, so when it publishes things, they come with the implied imprimatur of the USG]. China parks no carriers off our coast, nor does any wargames up close, nor has any air force bases within strike range.  We have all those on China, and we publish war plans in detail saying we'll bomb their entire country and destroy all their shipping and sink all their naval vessels - for starters! 

And no, I don't think its particularly "provocative" for the Chinese to develop weaponry (which they most certainly are, even if it's taking them time) to prevent our carriers from sitting off their coast with the capability of launching attacks across the breadth and depth of their mainland.  I don't find that counter odd at all.  I would find it odd if a rising power sat idly by while another nation (that wants a different political system for it) has the capability of unleashing such military strikes and routinely floats that capability along its shoreline--especially when that same country has a record of toppling regimes.

And yeah, that's pretty ballsy - or just plain stupid - when you're in the financial situation we're in. Our military remains - by and large - clueless about the larger economic interdependency we have with China.  I mean, they're aware of it, but THEY JUST DON'T GET IT. That lack of understanding, combined with the knuckleheads sprinkled across the upper reaches of the PLA and PLAN, is one dangerous combination, because this is how world orders are destroyed: ambitious people simply doing what they think is their job, and nobody with enough courage or intelligence to rein them in.

I want a strong military, and I'm on too many records to play saying that I want to use it regularly. This isn't about who's "realistic" about the world. This is about who understands the place of war in the modern era and who still wants to keep it an isolated plaything - no matter the cost or consequences.

Dangerous stuff.

I'm not picking on Willard.  I don't know the man.  He comes with the reputation of a hard-liner and he's demonstrating that.  Most guys go to PACOM and see the larger picture and push for better relations with China.  We've seen that time and again. Willard is pushing in another direction because he believes that is best, but I think such thinking takes us down a very uncertain and foolish path.  I see no strategic logic in it.  I see only community self-interest (USN, USAF) and tired historic analogies (the Japanese Co-Prosperity Sphere nonsense from CSBA).

Globalization is a bit too important to be left to the generals and admirals and retired colonel think-tankers.

Again, you can tell me we need to hedge on the Chinese.  That's easy.  Deciding we need to be able to fight them instantaneously right on their shoreline and destroy their entire military lest they do something we fear? That's a bit aggressive by anyone's standards. Getting up in their grill regularly on this score? Again, a bit aggressive. They don't do it to us and nobody else does it to them, so why are we so convinced we need to tee up a war with China to feel secure?  And why right now?

This is not a discussion we're having.  This is one our military is pushing along the path on its own, justifying itself on the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 (and please, don't tell me PACOM feels this bit of legislation to be a burden they must meet because it's a hunting license and certain elements on our side simply love it). The rest of America is clueless on the subject. We're told simply to be scared and accept the arms race that results.

And that's wrong. We have a choice here and we're limiting ourselves to 19th-century logic. No wonder nobody trusts our leadership anymore. We bark and we don't listen.  We live in the past. We're clueless about the present and mostly scared about the future.

We are killing our own global leadership with such hyperbole and fear-mongering, and we deserve to taken down a peg or two in global power fora if we don't improve (already happening). Our great genius in creating this globalization is that ultimately, it does not need us to continue. It only needs our unwillingness to destroy it.

And now, even that basic intelligence is being brought into question.

Reader Comments (4)

re: This is not a discussion we're having

This is one our military is pushing along the path on its own... The rest of America is clueless on the subject. We're told simply to be scared and accept the arms race that results.

What makes this military push troublesome is:

Our military remains - by and large - clueless about the larger economic interdependency we have with China. I mean, they're aware of it, but THEY JUST DON'T GET IT.

Absent consideration of economic dependencies, we are pulled into a false comprehension of China ambitions. Thus our military unwittingly supplies a key ingredient toward a recipe for disaster:

That lack of understanding, combined with the knuckleheads sprinkled across the upper reaches of the PLA and PLAN, is one dangerous combination, because this is how world orders are destroyed: ambitious people simply doing what they think is their job, and nobody with enough courage or intelligence to rein them in.

Khanfusion rains...

so why are we so convinced we need to tee up a war with China to feel secure? And why right now?

Who will rein that in?

I think 5D's of the dragon's decline would make a nice 18 minute video, Ted... er, Thomas. "She's a looker", right?

December 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCritt Jarvis

Brilliant idea Critt!

"Five D's of the dragon's decline from world-beater to world-benefactor: demographics, decrepitude, dependency, defensiveness, and — most disabling of all — democratization."

I second your motion to see a video or this being put out on a road show to inform and enlighten.

December 29, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterhistoryguy99

Tom,

I'm behind your overall desire to engage China as a strategic partner, however your recent analysis of China's military capability seems to force the issue a bit.

Post on the bombing maps:

The sources aren't from our government, (globalsecurity.org, etc) and should not be thus attributed. Is it natural for defense think tanks to analyze what they can from open source. Of course. It's not a snub to the Chinese. You have a case with surveillance flights on China's coast, but not here. To say the Chinese don't publish the same kind of thing isn't true. Granted for a Taiwan scenario their targets aren't here in the US, but they talk about targeting our assets in the region all the time....which brings me to the DF21D

I think it's safe to say development and deployment of a weapon system for the express purpose of attacking 7th Fleet is provocative. Where we go from here, how to achieve strategic partnership from where we are now, now that's a discussion to have. Also, wishing they aren't operational doesn't mean they aren't.

Next, Deployment of an advanced weapon system like the DF21D also would seem to be a point of contradiction to your other post of China's less than capable defense industries. On that count, every defense analyst I've heard will tell you the opposite and cite advances throughout the PLA well in advance of expected time lines. They've got room for improvement, but I think it's equally relevant to judge their capibilty to advance (high), than where they are today (buying stuff from Russia). I know it would be easier to advance your ideas if China were truly the victim of wanton US agression, but they are are ratcheting this up just as much or more than we are. Again, to move forward you've got to have a realistic assessment of where you are.

Like I said, your voice on Sino-US relations needs to be heard and acted on. However, these three recent posts seem like they are reaching a bit. Also, while there are those who benefit from strategic competition with China, the military doesn't make policy. PACOM can, does, and will influence things to move in the right direction, but calling them liers is sort of like yelling at the TSA agent for touching your junk.

-Mark

December 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMark

The Chinese have cooperated with the Russians, who own MRBM. The Iskander although not technically a ballistic missile has a CEP of 1 meter. That tech, which with the Chinese having deployed the associated satellites is likely operational. It is very probably what the Chinese are honing for their terminal guidance.

It's real and it's a game changer.

December 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPenGun

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