The China threat receives attention at Singapore conference

Hong Kong: The latest edition of the Asia Defence Expo and Conference Series (ADECS), an annual conference focusing on various aspects of defence, was held in Singapore on January 28-29, 2019. A number of facets of underwater defence technology, military simulation, maritime patrol and electronic warfare were brought to the fore, but some of the more interesting presentations by the delegates concerned the threat that China poses.

ANI was in attendance at this year’s event, and the following represents the most pertinent aspects relating to China’s military growth. Four themes are unravelled in this article, beginning with submarines, then China’s increasing naval presence in the Indo-Pacific region. It then moves on to its surface-to-air missile arsenal and finally the cyber-threat created by Beijing.

Beginning with submarines, Collin Koh, a research fellow at the Maritime Security Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, reported that the capability of Asia’s submarine fleet is currently increasing, even though the number of boats “will taper off within a few years”. This is because more expensive and larger-displacement submarines are appearing, as are improvements in their quieting technologies, longer endurance, more sophisticated combat management systems and more potent standoff weapons.

China perfectly illustrates all of the above. Indeed, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is the largest conventional submarine operator in Asia. Referring to the size of the PLAN fleet, Koh said: “If you are referring to nuclear-powered submarines, the number is growing. If you are talking about conventional submarines, the number is decreasing But across these two categories, the quality is improving.”

“Conventional submarines, I would say, are more interesting because the number gradually dropped. But, increasingly the new models that came on line are larger and more capable than those that pre-existed,” Koh remarked in his ADECS presentation.

China’s nuclear-powered technologies are growing in maturity too, with larger and more capable nuclear-powered attack submarines and ballistic-missile submarines (SSBN) coming on stream now or in the near future. Koh asserted that these designs are “benefitting from insights from Western models. For instance, we can talk about possible espionage and the means to acquire know-how and, more importantly, the insights that come from Russian or Soviet models.”

A submarine by itself is not fully potent, and so the country’s submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) are also making a “leap forward”. For example, the next-generation JL-2 SLBM, which will begin to supplant the JL-1 in coming years, is expected to possess the ability to hit India, Moscow or the west coast of the US.

Question marks remain over how often Chinese SSBNs, which represent one leg of the country’s nuclear deterrence triad, are put to sea. Koh remarked: “The big question is that China may have these capabilities on paper, but have they really done operational patrols?”

While Chinese sources claim China has already done a deterrence patrol, neither the Pentagon nor even the PLA can confirm this. Therefore, Koh said that the evidence remains “ambiguous”. By contrast, India achieved its first operational deterrence patrol by the SSBN INS Arihant, according to a government announcement last November.

Not only is China building more capable diesel-electric and nuclear-powered submarines for itself, but it is rising in the world as a “lower-tier submarine builder” with boats for export. The country has sold two retired Type 035G Ming-class submarines to Bangladesh, while it has contracts for new-build submarines for both Pakistan and Thailand.

One delegate who addressed China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region was Sarabjeet S. Parmar, an Indian Navy captain and senior fellow at the Delhi-based National Maritime Foundation. Although, not dressed in uniform whilst at ADECS, his topic reflected the consternation of the Indian military at China’s expanding presence in places like the Indian Ocean.

Approximately 120,000 ships ply the Indian Ocean annually, and on average there are 120-140 warships roaming the maritime region at any one time. Among the latter, nothing alarms Delhi more than the permanent presence of Chinese warships and even submarines in the Indian Ocean.

In his ADECS presentation, Parmar presented a table of comparative naval fleet strengths. If mere hull numbers are counted (not taking into account the displacement of vessels), the PLAN currently has 330 surface ships and 66 submarines. In contrast, the US Navy (USN) has 211 surface ships and 72 submarines.

However, based on current shipbuilding rates, Parmar predicted that China will have 450 ships and 99 submarines by 2030, while the USN may have 355 ships, if it is lucky. Interestingly every year, the PLAN is adding the equivalent of a Pakistan Navy to its already powerful fleet.

Also, taking into consideration the fact that just 60 percent of the USN fleet will be based in the Indo-Pacific region, this gives the PLAN absolute numerical superiority in places like the Western Pacific and South China Sea.
Parmar also described China’s maritime strategy. The nation has been arming reclaimed islands in the South China Sea as part of its anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy. In any potential conflict, the overarching aim is for China to discourage US’ entry within the so-called First Island Chain, and certainly not into areas such as the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea.

Parmar also highlighted another strategy of active strategic counterattacks on exterior lines (ASCEL). The idea of ASCEL is to conduct conflict as far away from the Chinese coast as possible, especially using asymmetric tactics against a superior enemy. This strategy extends beyond the First Island Chain and moves towards the Second Island Chain. ASCEL, by definition, involves counterattack, so Parmar suggested: “In my mind, China will never fire the first shot,” although he hinted that the PLA could perhaps force an opponent into firing first.

The Indian Navy captain summarised China’s intentions with its A2/AD and ASCEL strategies. They give the country greater strategic depth, buffering the mainland from threats, but also encircling and isolating Taiwan. It is also a “training ground and springboard for power projection beyond the First Island Chain.” Furthermore, it benefits maritime or undersea resource collection, as well as securing vulnerable Chinese sea lines of communication.

China is also a master of tolerance warfare, which he defined as “the persistent effort to test the tolerances for different forms of aggression against settled states.” China, thus, likes to probe for avenues of minimal resistance that it can exploit, while unilaterally asserting rights and not complying with accepted conventions.

This involves “establishing or creating new facts on the ground,” which is precisely what Beijing has done in the South China Sea.

Air defence was another area analysed at ADECS 2019, this time by Doctor Thomas Withington, an EW analyst and editor-in-chief at Mönch Publishing.

China already has capable indigenous SAM systems as the HQ-9, HQ-12, HQ-15, HQ-18 and HQ-22 that protects China from air attack. Indeed, the Pentagon’s 2018 report on China’s military assessed: “China has a robust and redundant (integrated air defence) architecture over land areas and within 300 nautical miles of its coast.”

Despite a plethora of indigenously developed SAM types, China decided to buy four battalions’ worth of S-400 Triumfsystems from Russia. The S-400 was tested by China late last year, reportedly intercepting a ballistic missile target 135nm away. Withington described their acquisition as an “enhancement of the country’s A2/AD capabilities, particularly if used to defend disputed maritime and territorial areas in the East and South China seas”.

China reverse engineered the Russian S-300 PMU missile system as the HQ-9, and the Russian S-300V high-altitude SAM as the HQ-18. Yet, one difficulty in assessing the quality of Chinese SAMs is that they have never been encountered by the West during a conflict. On the other hand, the US and others are able to suck up relevant data concerning the Russian S-300 or S-400 in places like Syria.

In any conflict, it is necessary for an attacker to suppress enemy air defences (SEAD), and this would be equally true if the US and/or others went to war against China. Indeed, SEAD is critical if an air force is to apply airpower, which is precisely what the US did in places like Iraq, Serbia and Libya.

Analysing recent combat operations by the US and allies, Withington concluded that SEAD aircraft assets comprised an average of around 5 percent of total forces employed, and that almost 500 anti-radar missiles were fired in each operation.

The expert elaborated: “While US allies in the region face a plethora of known and unknown ground-based air defence threats, local actors have SEAD capabilities which can be used against these. The challenge will be in ensuring that state-of-the-art systems such as later S-300 versions, and the S-400, can be successfully neutralised with these capabilities.”

Withington’s research reached the conclusion that more than 370 aircraft in the Asia-Pacific region are capable of firing anti-radiation missiles that could destroy hostile radar emitters that form part of air defence networks.
The USN, US Air Force and US Marine Corps alone have 120 fighters stationed in Japan that could perform SEAD missions with AGM-88 missiles. EA-18G Growlers of the USN in particular “would invariably play an important part during any showdown with China or North Korea”.

Withington predicted that in Asia, “on paper at least, both regional air forces and the regional US presence possess the SEAD assets needed to assist a large-scale air operation”. However, he warned of the need for Japan, South Korea and Taiwan to sharpen their ability to target enemy air defences through newer anti-radiation missiles, more electronic intelligence aircraft, cooperative training and information sharing and more capable aircraft.
Withington concluded by saying: “Investment in future SEAD capabilities should be a priority.”
Finally, Professor David Stupples, director of electronic warfare systems research at City, University of London, warned of the dire threat posed by countries such as Russia, China and North Korea “in an era where ‘information warfare’ will proceed or replace ‘kinetic warfare’”.
He declared: “Russia is at the forefront in information warfare in the modern age, utilising an array of organisations and strategies to spread disinformation to further national strategy…” However, China is not far behind as it builds up both kinetic warfighting weapons and information warfare cyber-weaponry. He said that although Beijing is not collaborating with Moscow, it follows similar doctrines.

The English professor quoted a Chinese strategist named Wang Xiangsui, who said in 2015: “Our new threat is not to involve a direct confrontation between one country and another. Today, it is no longer guns against guns, airplane against airplane or tank against tank… Confrontation takes many forms in many different areas, for example, in economics, finance and the media. The object of this new kind of conflict is the same as military confrontation. It is to force the opponent to accept our rules.”

Numerous threat vectors are available to state actors such as China, North Korea and Russia, including communications network attacks, cyberespionage, cyberterrorism, cybercrime, infrastructure attacks, fake news and influencing public opinion.

Indeed, Stupples warned that in this modern day, enemies “can destroy countries by cyber alone” without the need to fire conventional weapons in anger. This is because the West is “making it easy for them” as it rushes headlong towards the Internet of Everything (IoE), whereby copious amounts of data and network intelligence are added to the Internet of Things (IoT) to bind together cohesive intelligent systems and networks.

Stupples remarked that “information warfare can surreptitiously get at society to influence thinking, behaviour and well-being” simply because everyone is connected into networks.

“The aim is to break the economy of nations to establish world dominance – you should be aware that it is happening around us,” he added. He said it was both dangerous and scary, where almost any network – from manufacturing to the energy industry to the police – could be hacked.

Stupples is himself researching how to stymy such hostile players. “If you don’t think outside the box, you just won’t do it. The typical ways that we are protecting systems now just won’t work because we have always been behind the curve… What the Russians and Chinese are doing, they are researching ahead of that and we will never catch up. So, therefore, what we have to do is to use these new methods,” he elaborated.

Stupples also commented on Huawei, which has had extensive media coverage in recent weeks. The professor believes the risk is that the Chinese conglomerate puts malware in its software, which allows Huawei to steal intellectual property and other secrets from networks. “This would allow China to stop or jam networks whenever it wishes to as well,” he said.