According to the incoming commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Robert F. Willard, "In the past decade or so, China has exceeded most of our intelligence estimates of their military capability and capacity every year. They’ve grown at an unprecedented rate in those capabilities."
Nowhere is this more evident than in China’s development of an anti-ship ballistic missile capability, specifically designed to target U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups that are the principle obstacle to China’s expansion goals in the Western Pacific.
On Nov. 19, Bloomberg News reported that the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) has disclosed that China is close to fielding a new anti-ship ballistic missile. Some experts say this weapon system could be a game-changer by creating "no-go zones" for U.S. aircraft carriers.
This missile system, when operational and combined with China’s developing over-the-horizon radar network and its new constellation of imaging and radar satellites designed to locate U.S. ships at great distances, will make for a potent weapon system.
It should be noted that China has accomplished this capability in just over a decade. Further, according to ONI’s Scott Bray, who wrote the report on China’s navy, China since 2000 has tripled to 36 the number of ships carrying anti-ship cruise missiles. Not to be overlooked is the fact that Russia also has developed advanced systems that have been sold to Iran, including the supersonic SS-N-22 Moskit/Sunburn anti-ship missile, specifically designed to strike ships with the Aegis Command and Control missile system.
However, all is not lost. The U.S. Navy has in its arsenal today, the capability "to pre-empt" China’s anti-ship ballistic missile system before it becomes operational.
This capability rests in the Zumwalt DDG 1000 destroyer that was designed over the last decade from the keel up to be stealthy, (thereby, enhancing survivability), and to prevail in any future war-fighting environment. The Zumwalt has the power, cooling, space and weight margin designed to meet the full spectrum of future threats, both known and unknown.
When completed, more than $14 billion in research and development will have been spent to gain at least a 10-year advantage in capability over our most likely foes – including China and Russia.
So what’s the problem? The Navy, driven to meet a near-term requirement contained in a dramatically changing national ballistic missile defense (BMD) strategy, has, without any supporting analysis, chosen to back-fit and concurrently build more of the 30-year-old-design Aegis Arleigh Burke class DDG51 destroyers with only the most basic BMD capability.
The Zumwalt class DDG 1000 destroyers designed from the keel up to handle this and future threats, now will be limited to three ships without a ballistic missile defense capability. I am sure both China and Russia are pleased with that decision.
The facts show that while the Aegis DDGs are adequate to the task today, these "new" Arleigh Burke DDGs and the radars they can physically support will quickly become obsolete against emerging high-end threats, e.g. anti-ship ballistic missiles. In short, they will have a threat-driven operational service life half that of a normal combatant ship. This means the Navy will incur a huge fiscal liability with the true cost of these DDG 51 ships, effectively doubling their initial cost on paper. Clearly, as a result, the Navy will be unable to achieve its needed force structure.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, acknowledged that China’s investment in anti-ship weaponry and ballistic missiles could prove a significant threat to the way we project power in the Pacific and help our allies, particularly from our forward bases and carrier strike groups. If left uncountered, the principal of deterrence will be significantly undermined. Further, critical options in a future contingency could be denied to the president.
On balance, a reasonable best option available to the Navy and the country today is acceleration of the Zumwalt class with full BMD capability. Designed from the keel up to deliver unsurpassed BMD war-fighting power, the DDG 1000 class destroyer combines huge electrical power margins (more than 20 times that available on even the newest DDG 51s) with designed-in open space for cooling, and with weight margins well in excess of what is needed to deploy highly powerful sensors, along with future weapons, that will put sea-based BMD well ahead of known BMD threats. Further, these ships are at least 50 times stealthier than the DDG 51s.
The Zumwalt DDG with relatively minor modifications will be able to pace the BMD threat for the next four decades. It is understood that firm low-risk plans and costs have been provided to the Navy to upgrade the three Zumwalt-class ships to full BMD capability. This can be achieved five years ahead of an Aegis BMD capability with a level of performance no DDG 51 can match now or in the future.
The Navy clearly must reverse course on its flawed decision to limit the Zumwalt-class DDG to three ships with no BMD capability. If the Navy fails to act, the defense secretary and Congress must make this decision in order to preserve future critical contingency options for the commander in chief.
James A. Lyons, U.S. Navy retired admiral, was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations, and deputy chief of naval operations, where he was principal adviser on all Joint Chiefs of Staff matters. He is also the Chairman of the Center’s Military Committee.