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How Effective Is China’s A2/AD in the South China Sea; By Commodore V Venugopal (Retd)

Updated: Mar 6

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Article 52/2020

Anti Area Access Denial (A2/AD) is a maritime strategy designed to deny an adversary’s naval forces freedom of movement in a battle space, which in this case is the disputed South China Sea and East China Sea domains.

A2/AD is also referred as the ‘Bastion Strategy’ by the Russians and also ‘Sea Denial’ in maritime security parlance. Traditionally, powerful navies followed the strategy of controlling the sea by deploying aircraft carriers, their respective air wings and large surface combatants. Sea Denial however serves as more of a defensive strategy, which employs air and sea defense systems, fast attack submarines, shore based strike aircraft, land based missile batteries & ocean surveillance systems with which to track targets.

In the last decade China has been developing this concept in the South China Sea, East China Sea and in the area around Taiwan Straits. The ambition is to disrupt the freedom of navigation for the United States Navy and other allies and increase the calculus of risk for warships operating in these disputed and increasingly tense waters. This strategy challenges the US’s unique ability for naval power projection in areas of key interest. China’s A2/AD also serves to introduce doubt in the minds of its Pacific allies regarding the US Pacific Command’s (USPACOM) ability to respond to security concerns.

Use of natural and artificial islands   

China has extended its reach into the South China Sea by creating a host of new military infrastructure in the form of artificial islands equipped with airstrips, submarine pens, berthing facilities with logistical support for Chinese ships, as well as the necessary air defense systems with which to protect them.

The speed with which China has undertook its programme of reclamation and building of military infrastructure in these islands is impressive. The pattern of A2/AD infrastructure developed on the islands of the South China Sea corroborates reports of the transfer of technology from Russia and effectively the copying of the ‘Bastion Strategy’ used by the Russians in their own maritime domains. The militarization of islands with weapon systems in 2013 was followed by the establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea and close to Japan’s Senkaku islands.

Practically China has found it difficult to enforce the ADIZ in its truest sense due to constraints in number of air assets and the willingness of Japan, the US and South Korea to ignore the zone.  This is important given the recent reports that China plans to establish an ADIZ in South China Sea in the near future and are awaiting the right moment to implement the concept. Taking cue from East China Sea experience, the challenges of implementing the ADIZ in South China Sea would be an even greater undertaking. Further they are likely to encounter similar moves from countries like Vietnam, who would respond by enforcing similar zones over their own disputed islands.

One of the key elements of an effective A2/AD strategy is the requirement of a credible long range air defense to support the concept. The People’s Liberation Army KJ-2000 airborne early warning aircraft, the Y-9 electronic intelligence and anti-submarine warfare aircraft look set to play a major role in providing early warning to China in the near future and would be key to success in the South China Sea.

Another pillar to achieve its aims would be for the islands to be fortified with DF-21/DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missile systems to complete the anti-access bubble and to counter the threat from US surface ships including the Nimitz and Ford class aircraft carriers. The naval bases in the South China Sea could also be used to deploy Type 052 class destroyers, also known as the Chinese Aegis series. The latest version coming into service which will soon appear in the disputed waters is the Type 055 destroyers, which have been classified by the West as cruisers due to their dimensions and weapon fit.

The first ship of this new warship class entered service in Jan 2020 and five more are in the pipe line. Their primary role is to form part of aircraft carrier strike group and in addition to that role could provide air/surface defense to complement  the A2/AD strategy. The last year has seen China unveil an increasingly strong Marines corps with a credible sealift/expeditionary capability, supported by amphibious assault ships including a new class of Landing Platform Docks (LPD) which could play an as yet undetermined role in China’s South China Sea strategy.

Submarines form the next leg and are likely the key element in Beijing’s A2/AD strategy in the South China Sea. The PLAN’s naval bases on the mainland have concealed caverns to base nuclear submarines whose primary role during wartime would be to counter hostile surface ships in the South China Sea and to provide a sea based nuclear deterrent in support of their maritime security objectives beyond the confines of the battle space. If China were to forward deploy submarines to the South China Sea islands themselves this would offer a big advantage given that these islands provide a relatively short transit distance which would facilitate quick deployment based on tactical scenarios.

Hainan Island

Located close to Chinese mainland and home to the Yulin naval base, Hainan island would be a cruicial asset in the deployment of an A2/AD strategy. As discussed in a previous article this base operates a series of cavern facilities for basing strategic nuclear submarines and a large harbor which can accommodate two aircraft carrier strike groups or amphibious assault ships.

Another submarine base at Longpo is located on the island’s south eastern tip. It is a deep-water port complete with submarine piers and an underground facility with tunnel access. Longpo also features piers designed for surface combatants, making it a critical multipurpose base for the People’s Liberation Army Navy. The submarine and surface warship facilities at Hainan island indicate that this island would play a central role in China’s concept of an A2/AD strategy.

Hainan can be seen as a potential ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) bastion for the undersea leg of China’s nuclear deterrent in which attack submarines and a surface fleet provide a protective cover for Beijing’s SSBN’s designed for second strike capability or in the scenario outlined above, for operations designed to enforce an A2/AD strategy via nuclear meanss. The naval build up on Hainan island could be construed in offensive terms as the staging post for the magnifying of China’s sea control capabilities through greater power projection and also in Sea Denial operations in the South China Sea. Given Beijing’s recent conduct along its territorial disputes it can be logically assumed that both concepts are being pursued simultaneously by the PLAN.

Woody Island

Woody Island could also play a key role alongside Hainan in implementing an A2/AD strategy in the South China Sea. It is the largest of the Paracel islands where it is strategically located and is equipped with an upgraded airstrip that can oversee Chinese claims as far away as the Spartlys. China is known to have deployed J -11 fighter aircraft at Woody island thereby extending its potential reach by an additional 360 kilometres into South China Sea, supplementing the forces from the PLAN base located on Hainan island.

Satellite photographs now in the public domain indicate that extensive military infrastructure is being created including airstrips and logistics facilities for quick turnaround of deployed air units. Woody Island would also serve as the potential site for the deployment of mobile batteries of the DF series of ballistic missiles, thus giving China the ability to strike naval assets across the South China Sea. China’s new bases at Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reefs which are approaching a similar levels of capability as Woody could also provide air power to enforce an ADIZ in the South China Sea in support of a wider A2/AD strategy. Developments on Woody Island would likely hint at future moves by Beijing in the region.

Advantages and risks for China

China’s island outposts offer Bejing a decisive superiority against any challenger in the South China Sea. In addition to military power projection, the islands would serve to integrate the information and intelligence gathered from outposts in the South China Sea into the PLA’s overall command system at a strategic level.

Towards this, the concept of the ‘Nine Dash Line’ and the development of military facilities at artificial islands confirm a long term strategic vision to develop the maritime spaces into a ‘backyard’ for the People’s Liberation Army. China’s communication facilities on the islands are known to include undersea fiber optic cables, multi band satellite communications , high frequency broad band arrays and microwave over the horzon radars.

All these systems have a key role: to deny an adversary access to information while preserving the PLA s own access to real time intelligence in the South China Sea. Furthermore, the outposts can command and control their own maritime militia to complete the loop of creating an overall maritime domain picture. Geographically, the bases are well located to give China strategic depth over any adversary to challenge their position. This enables China to have an active defense while being operationally offensive.

Although the concept of A2/AD is suited geographically to the South China Sea there are of course major risks in its implementation. China and the PLA’s military hardware are not combat proven and their personnel have little combat experience beyond UN peacekeeping operations and are not prepared to face an experienced, technologically advanced foe such as the United States. Likewise the availability of qualified personnel to keep in pace with their military expansion plans is doubtful.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy’s ability to manage maritime domains by integrating all inputs into a comprehensive tactical picture is another aspect which is shrouded in mystery. The fact that they have not been successful in enforcing a limited ADIZ in the East China Sea merit attention as it brings into question the viability of a South China Sea ADIZ entirely.

Finally the on-going maritime disputes have led to a significant trust deficit with countries across the region. China’s aim of dominating the region solely without engaging with countries diplomatically may not derive the envisaged results Beijing may hope for. An A2/AD strategy is not a substitute for good regional diplomacy. Indeed the risk for Beijing is that claiment states like Vietnam move closer to the United States and India in order to balance China’s assertiveness. As long as the South China Sea dispute remains a contentious issue and China shows disregard for international norms, Beijing’s vision for itself as the leader of Asia will fail.

Even with an accomplished A2/AD strategy in the event of direct hostilities, regional states may look to the United States for assistance, in which case China risks being isolated and viewed as the aggressor. Only if Beijing is able to build trust with the nations of Southeast Asia and forge strong alliances in the region will the the A2/AD strategy serve to supplment Chinese power. Then the dynamics would really shift in Beijing’s favor in South China Sea.

(Commodore V Venugopal IN (Retd) enjoyed a 30-year career with the Indian Navy during which time he held various appointments including commands at sea. He is an alumni of DKI Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies, College of Naval Warfare, Mumbai and Defense Services Staff College, Wellington and Member, C3S. His areas of interests include maritime security in Indian Ocean & Indo-Pacific Region, Maritime piracy and Counter terrorism. The views expressed are personal.)

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