First Job for the Zumwalt Coming Up

The pace of island-building in China’s so-called “Blue Territories” is frenetic. Janes has reported that the island at Fiery Cross Reef is now 3,000 metres long. There are five dredges going at once to dig out the harbour and provide material for the island-building. So Fiery Cross Reef will be the site of an airfield which can enforce an ADIZ over the southern end of China’s claim to the South China Sea. Page 248 of the recent Report to Congress of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission has the following map of current Chinese base-building in the South China Sea:

But what are the other islands being dredged into existence for, and why those particular islands? The answer is provided by the base the Chinese built on Subi Reef. It has a large, elevated radome, probably hosting a surface wave radar.  These radars can see around the curvature of the earth and are good for up to 200 km, as per this graphic:

The radars will provide early warning of cruise missiles and stealth aircraft. The Chinese would have tested the utility of this radar type on Subi Reef. No doubt each of the islands being built will have them as well, along with HQ-9 medium to long range surface-to-air missiles as well as point defence surface-to-air missiles. The HQ-9 has a range of 200 km.

That explains the choice of reefs being converted to islands. China is building a defensive box around the new airfield at Fiery Cross Reef approximately 600 km long and 500 km wide. The reefs chosen for conversion provide overlap in the system. 

The U.S. Navy has long declared right of passage with respect to the South China Sea. Once China declares an ADIZ over the South China Sea and ships and aircraft crossing the area have to ask China’s permission to do so, a test of wills might become a trial by battle.  U.S. practice has been to begin by firing off a volley of cruise missiles at a cost of $1.6 million each. Most of these might be batted down by the cheaper HQ-9 missiles.

If enough cruise missiles get through to knock out the Chinese surface wave radars, then other combatants can approach. The most suitable of these would be the USS Zumwalt, a DDG-1000 destroyer launched in late 2013. This class of vessel is optimised on shore bombardment with two 155 mm guns that can hit targets up to 116 km away. The Zumwalt has a store of 900 rounds of long-range projectiles for her 155 mm guns. Using these will be much cheaper than bombardment by cruise missile.

The Chinese plan to scrape the Filipinos, the Vietnamese and the Malaysians off their bases in the South China Sea.  For a dark future to be avoided, the Chinese will have to be scraped off their artificial islands instead.  It would be a good idea to start building the war stocks to achieve that and not waste cruise missiles and JDAMs on fighting ISIS. Another good idea would be to inspect and upgrade airfields on Palawan Island in the Philippines, 400 km east of the future war zone. The strip at Bugsuk Island, at the southern end of Palawan, will be particularly useful (if it is sealed).

Anyone who doubts the necessity for making plans for war in the South China Sea should read the views of William Reinsch, one of the commissioners, in the Report to Congress.  On page 556 he says:

I have always been an optimist about the relationship, but that view is becoming increasingly untenable, as China asserts itself in ways that are inevitably going to bump up against our interests in the region and in multilateral fora. It is common knowledge that there is no shortage of people in each country who believe the other is an existential threat, and I have thought for some time the fundamental policy goal for each country should be to keep those people out of power. I have not changed my view about that, but it does not appear to be happening in China, which will only make it harder to prevent it from happening here.

On page 557 he says:

Finally, close readers of this year’s report will notice that it is less nuanced and less temperate with respect to China’s military activities. That is deliberate, and while it is not my style, I did not object to it. It appears the Chinese have embarked on a path intended to push the U.S. to choose between confronting them militarily or abandoning our friends and allies in the region, gambling that we will choose the latter. That is a dangerous path, and the Commission is right to note it.

The sadness in Commissioner Reinsch’s tone is apparent. China has chosen the path to war. Much blood and treasure will be lost pointlessly. As the Chinese have chosen this path of their volition, nothing can be done about it. Putting it off will only make the outcome worse in terms of scale and cost and blood.

David Archibald, a visiting fellow at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C., is the author of Twilight of Abundance (Regnery, 2014). 

The pace of island-building in China’s so-called “Blue Territories” is frenetic. Janes has reported that the island at Fiery Cross Reef is now 3,000 metres long. There are five dredges going at once to dig out the harbour and provide material for the island-building. So Fiery Cross Reef will be the site of an airfield which can enforce an ADIZ over the southern end of China’s claim to the South China Sea. Page 248 of the recent Report to Congress of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission has the following map of current Chinese base-building in the South China Sea:

But what are the other islands being dredged into existence for, and why those particular islands? The answer is provided by the base the Chinese built on Subi Reef. It has a large, elevated radome, probably hosting a surface wave radar.  These radars can see around the curvature of the earth and are good for up to 200 km, as per this graphic:

The radars will provide early warning of cruise missiles and stealth aircraft. The Chinese would have tested the utility of this radar type on Subi Reef. No doubt each of the islands being built will have them as well, along with HQ-9 medium to long range surface-to-air missiles as well as point defence surface-to-air missiles. The HQ-9 has a range of 200 km.

That explains the choice of reefs being converted to islands. China is building a defensive box around the new airfield at Fiery Cross Reef approximately 600 km long and 500 km wide. The reefs chosen for conversion provide overlap in the system. 

The U.S. Navy has long declared right of passage with respect to the South China Sea. Once China declares an ADIZ over the South China Sea and ships and aircraft crossing the area have to ask China’s permission to do so, a test of wills might become a trial by battle.  U.S. practice has been to begin by firing off a volley of cruise missiles at a cost of $1.6 million each. Most of these might be batted down by the cheaper HQ-9 missiles.

If enough cruise missiles get through to knock out the Chinese surface wave radars, then other combatants can approach. The most suitable of these would be the USS Zumwalt, a DDG-1000 destroyer launched in late 2013. This class of vessel is optimised on shore bombardment with two 155 mm guns that can hit targets up to 116 km away. The Zumwalt has a store of 900 rounds of long-range projectiles for her 155 mm guns. Using these will be much cheaper than bombardment by cruise missile.

The Chinese plan to scrape the Filipinos, the Vietnamese and the Malaysians off their bases in the South China Sea.  For a dark future to be avoided, the Chinese will have to be scraped off their artificial islands instead.  It would be a good idea to start building the war stocks to achieve that and not waste cruise missiles and JDAMs on fighting ISIS. Another good idea would be to inspect and upgrade airfields on Palawan Island in the Philippines, 400 km east of the future war zone. The strip at Bugsuk Island, at the southern end of Palawan, will be particularly useful (if it is sealed).

Anyone who doubts the necessity for making plans for war in the South China Sea should read the views of William Reinsch, one of the commissioners, in the Report to Congress.  On page 556 he says:

I have always been an optimist about the relationship, but that view is becoming increasingly untenable, as China asserts itself in ways that are inevitably going to bump up against our interests in the region and in multilateral fora. It is common knowledge that there is no shortage of people in each country who believe the other is an existential threat, and I have thought for some time the fundamental policy goal for each country should be to keep those people out of power. I have not changed my view about that, but it does not appear to be happening in China, which will only make it harder to prevent it from happening here.

On page 557 he says:

Finally, close readers of this year’s report will notice that it is less nuanced and less temperate with respect to China’s military activities. That is deliberate, and while it is not my style, I did not object to it. It appears the Chinese have embarked on a path intended to push the U.S. to choose between confronting them militarily or abandoning our friends and allies in the region, gambling that we will choose the latter. That is a dangerous path, and the Commission is right to note it.

The sadness in Commissioner Reinsch’s tone is apparent. China has chosen the path to war. Much blood and treasure will be lost pointlessly. As the Chinese have chosen this path of their volition, nothing can be done about it. Putting it off will only make the outcome worse in terms of scale and cost and blood.

David Archibald, a visiting fellow at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C., is the author of Twilight of Abundance (Regnery, 2014).