Where are the SSGNs?
The Yomiuri Shimbun recently described Japan's growing concern over China's capability to attack bases in mainland Japan, citing Defense Ministry reports that Chinese jets "were repeatedly approaching Japan--close enough to launch a cruise missile--before returning to Chinese air space." With both Chinese aircraft and submarines being equipped to carry cruise missiles, and the cruise missiles themselves becoming more capable with each passing year, Japan could no longer rely on sheer distance to stand off from China. "Beijing is believed to have started developing advanced precision-guided missiles with a range of about 3,000 kilometers--a range similar to the U.S. military's Tomahawk cruise missile."
These long range capabilities are in line with what is known about Chinese strategy in the unlikely event of conflict with the United States. A sudden strike at US facilities to even the odds before American reinforcements could be brought in from other theaters. Chinese military planners have described war against the US as akin to " throwing an egg against a rock." If China were to have any chance at all it would have to rely on a surprise attack, counting on the sensitivity of an American public to casualties and the "domestic anti-war cry" movement to prevent any recovery from a sudden blow, according to the US Air Force Aimpoints magazine.
Striking U.S. air bases — specifically command-and-control facilities, aircraft hangars and surface-to-air missile launchers — would be China’s first priority if a conflict arose, according to [a Rand] report. U.S. facilities in South Korea and Japan, even far-south Okinawa, sit within what Rand calls the “Dragon’s Lair”: a swath of land and sea along China’s coast. This is an area reachable by cruise missiles, jet-borne precision bombs and local covert operatives. China is designing ground-launched cruise missiles capable of nailing targets more than 900 miles away — well within striking range of South Korea and much of Japan, according to the report. Cruise missiles able to reach Okinawa — home to Kadena Air Base — are in development.
The threat to US installations in the region would be complemented by attempts to neutralize US aircraft carriers. The Kyodo News Service reported that on November 23, 2007, a Chinese submarine and destroyer shadowed the USS Kitty Hawk while it was en route back to Japan after being denied entry into Hong Kong "causing the group to halt and ready for battle." Although the entire incident was later dismissed as a misunderstanding the point had been made that even aircraft carriers were not safe while within striking distance of China's increasingly long arm.
But declining ship numbers were forcing the USN to deploy its vessels forward in order to remain effective. The Navy "has accepted the inevitable budget realities that it is no longer possible to have a 55 SSN fleet and that numbers will decline with decommissioning to 42 in coming years." To make up for declining numbers, naval units will have to be based as close as feasible to points in South East Asia and the Indian Ocean for them to be effective -- that is within range of China's burgeoning navy and its new, long-ranged weapons.
One weapons system which reduces the Navy's vulnerability to a surprise attack are its new SSGNs, consisting 4 submarines of the Ohio class. Converted from their former Cold War configurations as seagoing nuclear deterrents, these ships have been recast as extremely potent strike platforms. Armed with up to 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles each or varying combinations of missiles, UAVs and decoys, they can constitute an assured second strike capability. An article on the Navy's website describes their role succinctly: to serve as invulnerable strike platforms which cannot be taken out by surprise attack. "In crisis and transition to war, when air dominance and surface superiority are not assured, an SSGN can serve as a stealthy strike platform that could operate independently in denied areas, no matter who dominates the air or surface battle space."
In its "Maximum Strike" configuration with 154 TLAM missiles, a single SSGN provides striking power almost equal to the 120 to 180 TLAMs normally carried by all the ships in the typical carrier battle group (CVBG) deployed to the Arabian Gulf. ... SSGNs in the "Strike/SOF" configurations (with 66 SOF personnel and as many as 140 TLAMs) could operate covertly in close proximity to an enemy coast to perform multiple surveillance and intelligence-gathering missions for 90 days or more. ... Two SSGNs, each manned by two crews, could provide continuous presence in any theater, ready to launch their 154 TLAMs 365 days a year, and thus preclude redeployment of assets from other theaters to cover contingency requirements. This advantage will assume increased importance with any further decline in overall Navy force levels.
As the Defense Industry Daily observed, "in the past, when trouble struck in a global hotspot, it has been said that one of the first questions an American President asks has been 'Where are the carriers?' In future, that question may often change to 'Where are the Tactical Tridents?'" But since the SSGNs are subs, that is for the USN to know and others to find out. No one will be asking themselves this question more keenly than the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). As China's overseas trade and appetite for imported energy have increased, the PLAN faces the challenge of securing its vital sea lanes from blockade. It is a daunting task. The PLAN's naval bases are masked from the open sea by Korea, Japan, Okinawa and Taiwan. In other words, they are covered by a string of American allies or bases -- and now the SSGNs.
It is unlikely that China will throw "an egg against a rock" any time soon except by miscalculation. But as its energy needs grow so will its strategic predicament. Without a secure energy lifeline beyond the reach of a USN strangulation, China's economy would be hostage to naval action. In reality America is unlikely to throttle one of its major trading partners. But it could. And that probably makes China's leaders uncomfortable. The Jamestown Foundation writes that China understands its strategic problem clearly. Already worried by a string of American bases off its coast, Beijing became even more nervous when the events in the Middle East brough a "strong U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, which supplies 60% of its energy needs." With America in Afghanistan and Pakistan, China imagined the U.S. extending "its reach into Asian nations that ring western China. Having no blue water navy to speak of, China feels defenseless in the Persian Gulf against any hostile action to choke off its energy supplies." To break the encirclement, China decided to focus its efforts on Central and South Asia. The Great Game, traditionally played on land, spilled over into the sea at an unlikely place called Gwadar. Gwadar was a sleepy port, "located on the southwestern coast of Pakistan, close to the Strait of Hormuz on the Persian Gulf." (Lat 25.1917° Long 64.6204°) It is located along a stretch of Baluchistan province some distance West from Karachi, which has been periodically menaced by the Indian Navy. This port is being developed by an astounding amount of Chinese money. And with good reason. As Wikipedia writes:
The significance of Gwadar is great to both Pakistan and China. Pakistan will be able to have a strategic depth southwest from its naval base in Karachi that has long been vulnerable to blockade by the Indian Navy. China is going to be the beneficiary of Gwadar's most accessible international trade routes to the Central Asian republics and Xinjiang. By extending its East-West Railway from the Chinese border city of Kashi to Peshawar in Pakistan's northwest, Beijing can receive cargo to and from Gwadar along the shortest route, from Karachi to Peshawar.The rail network could also be used to supply oil from the Persian Gulf to Xinjiang. ...
The construction of the Gwadar deep-sea port is just one component of a larger development plan which includes building a network of roads connecting Gwadar with the rest of Pakistan, such as the 650 km Coastal Highway to Karachi and the Gwadar-Turbat road (188 km). This network of roads connects with China through the Indus Highway. Pakistan, China, Kazakhistan, Kyrgizstan and Uzbekistan are developing extensive road and rail links from Central Asia and the Chinese province of Xinjiang to the Arabian Sea coast.
China for understandable reasons, must regard USN deployments aimed at controlling the Indian Ocean and the China Sea as a limitation on its freedom of action. Seapower acts not simply as a brake upon Beijing's ambitions on Taiwan, but a fundamental constraint on its ambitions as a great power. The rise of China's economy and its consequent dependence on foreign trade and energy cannot but remind Beijing daily that each ship and tanker which reaches its ports arrived by leave of the USN. In any crisis involving the two countries, the first questions not just the American President but the Chinese leadership will ask will be: 'Where are the carriers? Where are the SSGNs?'.