The Day of the Dreadnought

Change itself can be destabilizing because it devalues the impact of earlier investments which have been leapfrogged by new developments. Aviation Week has more details on China’s antiship ballistic missile system which can sink US carriers from firing positions far inland and can cover the whole of the South China Sea. However the missile is still in development. “It is a high-tech weapon and we face many difficulties in getting funding, advanced technologies and high-quality personnel, which are all underlying reasons why it is hard to develop this,” according to the chief of the Chinese General Staff.


The U.S. Navy, mindful of the threat and no less focused on advancing its technologies to protect its fleet, remains confident in its ability to project naval power globally on the surface as well as under water. But for less technologically advanced navies of the Asia-Pacific region, it is becoming difficult to see how in the decades ahead they can stand up to an opponent that can target surface ships with hypersonic homing warheads that can range more than 1,500 km (900 mi.)—and perhaps much farther.

China Daily is citing a range of 2,700 km for the revolutionary missile, the DF-21D, presenting the crucial data point in a report based on comments by the chief of the Chinese general staff, Gen. Chen Bingde. The Pentagon said last year the DF-21D’s range is “in excess of 1,500 km.”

If not a journalistic error, the statement means that U.S. aircraft carriers launching strike missions while keeping clear of DF-21Ds would need aircraft with even longer ranges than thought. It means that the DF-21Ds can be safely kept further inland. And, for Asian navies, it means the whole South China Sea can be covered from Guangdong, a Chinese province where DF-21Ds are based.

The appearance of an operational DF-21D might mean that naval aviation can no longer cover Taiwan and obsolesce the US carrier fleet at a stroke. In the worst case it would mean that the US Navy, upon which US supremacy fundamentally depends, would be neutered at a stroke.

In the May 2011 issue of the U.S. Naval Institute journal Proceedings, two Pentagon strategists, Navy Capt. Henry Hendrix and Marine Corps Lt. Col. Noel Williams, urge immediate cessation of U.S. aircraft carrier construction. Noting such threats as the DF-21D, they write, “the march of technology is bringing the supercarrier era to an end, just as the new long-range strike capabilities of carrier aviation brought on the demise of the battleship era in the 1940s.”

Skeptics respond that the DF-21D’s kill chain can be broken in several places—for example, in target detection and tracking before launch, communication of targeting data or final homing descent. Still, considering the crews and costs of surface ships, especially carriers, the stakes are high.

“Yes, the [U.S.] Navy would want to have a high degree of confidence that they could break a link in the kill chain, but there are no certainties here,” says Eric Hagt of the World Security Institute.


One of the weapons systems in a development race to counter threats like the DF-21D are directed energy weapons. But even if directed energy weapons were successfully developed by the Navy in time to combat new threats, they would mean that current ships, which cannot generate enough electric power to supply them with electricity, would not be able to use them. The USS Gerald Ford is carrier being designed with power systems which might be sufficient to power directed energy weapons, but that would leave many of the older Nimitz-class carriers and other surface combatants unsuitable from the point of view of electric power supply.

The advent of revolutionary new weapons would create a situation akin to the Dreadnought period in the early 20th century, when technology obsolesced the entire British pre-Dreadnought fleet. Britain in that case responded only by spending herself nearly to death to maintain maritime supremacy and lost it from subsequent economic decline anyway. Time is bringing a whole new series of weapons systems into the real of possibility. What counts in times of change isn’t the summation of investments but the marginal rate of investments by a country.

Critics have said that the Obama administration is fundamentally ignoring the Chinese threat. Commenting on the administration’s National Security Space Strategy (NSSS), Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the strategy fails because it does not adequately account for the Chinese threat to U.S. satellites.


“One gets the impression from this document that the Obama administration simply wants to ignore the Chinese threat in hopes it will just go away,” he said. “There is apparently no consideration of developing U.S. active defenses for space that would more effectively deter China.” …

The investment that China is putting into counterspace capabilities is a matter of concern for us,” [Ambassador Gregory Schulte, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy]  added. “It’s part of the reason why the secretary of defense wants to talk about space as part of the stability dialogue with the Chinese.”

The administration has tried to replace defense spending with diplomacy. One of these initiatives is embracing the EU “code of conduct” agreement which will basically require everyone to disclose where their space assets are in order to ostensibly reduce debris pollution.

The administration has signaled that it is preparing to accept the European Union’s draft Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities with minimal changes to the document. An administration interagency review concluded last month that the code of conduct — aimed at reducing the amount of space debris that could collide into satellites — would not damage U.S. national interests in space or limit research and development into classified programs. …

“We are deeply concerned that the administrationmay sign the United States on to a multilateral commitment with a multitude of potential[ly] highly damaging implications for sensitive military and intelligence programs (current, planned or otherwise) as well as a tremendous amount of commercial activity,” 37 Republican senators said in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. …

The lawmakers asked what impact the code of conduct would have on “the research and development, testing and deployment of a kinetic defensive system in outer space that is capable of defeating an anti-satellite weapon, such as the one tested by the People’s Republic of China in 2007.”

Proponents of the EU code of conduct praise the agreement as a way of minimizing space debris that can disable intelligence, military and commercial satellites.

The code of conduct is also an alternative to a space arms-control treaty supported by China and Russia that the Obama and Bush administrations have opposed as being unverifiable and counter to the U.S. national interest.


It is amazing that in an era where the President wants to raise the debt limit in order to make “investments” so little attention is being paid to developments which might well determine the security of the next decade.

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