Chinese Aerospace Power: Evolving Maritime Roles

  • Published

Chinese Aerospace Power: Evolving Maritime Roles edited by Andrew S. Erickson and Lyle J. Goldstein. Naval Institute Press, 2011, 544 pp.

Andrew Erickson and Lyle Goldstein, two prominent China scholars at the Naval War College, fill an important interdisciplinary niche with this book by bringing together an all-star team of authors from both the Air Force and Navy communities. By no means a light read, Chinese Aerospace Power is in fact a compendium, a compilation of 27 essays authored by an illustrious group including admirals, intelligence analysts, private-sector experts, and former defense attachés. The fifth volume in a series on Chinese military developments in the maritime arena, the book stands as a stark reminder that China’s rise, while impressive to date, can only be expected to accelerate in coming decades.

Due to the diversity of authors and the range of topics covered, the book does not support any single, overarching thesis. If there is one recurring theme, however, it might be this: Chinese military power is rapidly increasing, and American primacy in the Pacific is threatened as a result. Changes in the balance of aerospace power over China’s littoral waters have far-reaching strategic consequences for American policymakers. This book explains both how and why—in dense detail.

While overall a fascinating read for anyone with a strong interest and/or background in Chinese military affairs, one difficulty with the book stems from the sheer scale of the undertaking. At times the reader is left in something of a fog, having to piece together enormous amounts of highly technical information—a bit like being shown a sky full of stars but no constellations. Admittedly, this is a difficulty common to multiple-author works, whereas authors writing alone or in small teams have the ability to lace a clear thesis throughout even the most complex subject matter. As a result, some information is repeated in Chinese Aerospace Power a bit more than one would like.

Nevertheless, for those who find the technical, even obscure details interesting (this reviewer included), this book is a real treasure trove. The work spans six broad subject areas, each of which has been the subject of considerable literature in recent years: the emerging roles of Chinese aerospace power; the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and counter-ISR capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA); PLA aerospace strategy; air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM); ballistic missiles; and the implications of Chinese aerospace power for the US military. Strategic studies aficionados will find the chapters on strategy and missile development particularly worthwhile.

Several authors explain how, properly coordinated, Chinese aerospace power has the potential to vastly enhance antiaccess capacity, pushing foreign forces away from Chinese shores and affording the PLA the strategic depth to turn its energies toward other concerns, such as the “active” side of its doctrine of “active defense.” Paul Giarra, Andrew Erickson, and David Yang excel in addressing one of the key components of China’s emerging antiaccess capacity: antiship ballistic missiles (ASBM), which RADM Eric McVadon, USN, retired, has elsewhere argued could have implications similar to those of China’s first successful nuclear test in 1964 (he reasserts this position in the book’s final chapter). As several authors persuasively argue, if the PLA can deploy ASBMs capable of hitting moving carrier strike groups (CSG), US Navy power projection calculations in the region could be “upended.” For decades, the heart and soul of US Navy power Forward . . . From the Sea has been the aircraft carrier, in large part because it could move with relative impunity on the high seas. American carriers, for example, deployed to the Taiwan Strait in 1995 and 1996 as a show of force in defense of Taiwanese democracy; until now, the Chinese government has been unable to counter such a threat. Several authors make a compelling case that this could change in a matter of just years.

Discussion of PLA aircraft development likewise gives one cause for concern. Pushing the US Navy away from Chinese shores could give the PLA the operational breathing room needed to achieve air superiority over Taiwan. Chapters on PLA Air Force (PLAAF) power share a theme with the ASBM chapters discussed above: the balance is tilting in China’s favor. Fourth-generation fighters now make up approximately 20–25 percent of the 2,000-plus combat aircraft in the PLA arsenal, and that ratio is expected to approach 50 percent in the coming decade. Backed by the bristling missile defense of the Chinese Second Artillery Corps, Chinese air superiority over Taiwan could be achieved in short order.

One of the more concerning takeaways from this book is the limited set of options available to American policymakers. To preserve the balance in America’s favor would be enormously—even prohibitively—expensive. Maintaining a safe distance off China’s coast could soon mean short-range aircraft in US Navy air wings could have little real utility, cruise missiles could lose their efficacy, and Marine Corps amphibious landings “would not be realistic.” Refitting the US fleet would come at enormous cost, which is why in the final chapter, Admiral McVadon argues that the benefits of Sino-American cooperation could soon outweigh the costs. The ultimate takeaway might therefore be this: the era of “rising China” may fast be coming to an end—China is on the verge of being fully risen.

Imagine a world 10 years from now. China’s growing battery of nuclear ICMBs has the capacity to reach all corners of the continental United States. American Pacific island bases and CSGs once offering protection to Taiwan now sit within range of a devastatingly large stockpile of missiles in mainland China. Kadena AFB in Japan begins each day confronted by the bleak fact that it could be grounded for a week or more by a Chinese first strike. Fourth-generation PLAAF fighters are on standby, ready to disrupt US efforts to gain air superiority should armed combat erupt near Chinese shores. Any effort to deploy American fourth- and fifth-generation fighters over the Chinese mainland means subjecting them to the world’s most fearsome surface-to-air missile force. In short, Americans are vulnerable at home, the ability of the US military to assert control of the Pacific theater is greatly compromised, and American retaliatory options are limited mostly to long-range missile and bomber strikes. China is now a fortress. At this point, China announces its new grand strategy: the deployment of carrier groups capable of circling the globe. China’s power surge accelerates.

Anyone who finds such a future difficult to imagine would benefit from reading this book. Not only is such a future imaginable, those who read this book may very well come to expect it.

Capt Paul A. Stempel, USAF

Joint Base Andrews, Maryland

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."