[2015.10.5] S. Korea caught between US and China naval expansion


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Posted on : Oct.5,2015 15:21 KSTModified on : Oct.5,2015 15:21 KST

Stationing of a US supercarrier in Japanese port is the latest sign of tussle for supremacy in East Asia 

The first unveiling of the Chinese military anti-ship Dongfeng (DF) 21D ballistic missile, which has been called the “aircraft carrier killer,” at the Sept. 3 military review at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to mark the seventieth anniversary of China’s victory over the Japanese and fascism in World War II. (AP/Yonhap News)
The stationing of the top-of-the-line US supercarrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) in the Japanese city of Yokosuka on Oct. 1 is being called a symbol of Washington’s commitment to its current military face-off with China in the Asia-Pacific region. First commissioned in 2003, the Ronald Reagan is the second newest of the US’s ten aircraft carriers, which has become the focus of attention since a decision to have it replace the USS George Washington (CVN 73) at Yokosuka. With the typical fuel replacement cycle of a US nuclear-powered carrier on the order of once every two decades or so, the Ronald Reagan could be involved in various operations as part of the Seventh Fleet based in Yokosuka until at least the mid-2020s.

Meanwhile, China is responding to the US‘s overwhelming military advantage with an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy centering on its own increased ballistic missile capabilities. Key elements of the strategy are denial of US access past a “first island chain” stretching from the Senkaku Islands to Okinawa, Taiwan, and the Philippines, and restrictions on free US military movement within a “second island chain” from Japan’s Ogasawara Island to Guam and Papua New Guinea.

A symbolic glimpse at the strategy came at the Sept. 3 military review at Beijing‘s Tiananmen Square to mark the seventieth anniversary of China’s victory over the Japanese and fascism in World War II. The biggest focus of attention there was on seven varieties of ballistic missiles belonging to the People’s Liberation Army Second Artillery Corps - the military’s strategic missile forces. The day saw the first unveiling of the anti-ship Dongfeng (DF) 21D ballistic missile, which has been called the “aircraft carrier killer.” Other missiles shown that day include Dongfeng-16, with an estimated firing range of 1,000 km that would allow it to reach Okinawa, and the Dongfeng-26, with a 4,000-5,000 km firing range that would allow it to strike Guam.

Also revealed by China were the H-6K strategic bomber, with a cruising radius of 8,000 km that would allow it to strike Guam, along with the new KJ-500 airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft and J-15, an aircraft for operation on the carrier Liaoning.

The message the display sent to the world was that China is capable of devastating strikes against major US units throughout the western Pacific, that it can control US carriers attempting to defend them, and that it has the AEW&C capabilities to clearly observe US activities in the East and South China Seas.

To counter China’s upgraded military, since 2010, the US has been developing what the Pentagon has called “Air-Sea Battle,” a combat doctrine that integrates air force and naval operations to enhance overall military capacity. Although this doctrine has since been supplemented and expanded into the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons, or JAM-GC, it doesn’t offer a way to properly offset China’s anti-access and area-denial strategy.

In the event of a conflict involving Japan, which can now mobilize in the name of “collective self-defense,” the hectic strategic transformations in the situation of East Asia imply the possibility of the US placing increasing strategic demands on South Korea, which doesn’t have operational control over its own military.

The first step of the US military to counteract Chinese strategic movements was a reduction in the number of its foreign troops through its Global Posture Review (GPR), a re-evaluation of the deployment of overseas military bases, as well as new missile defense systems to enhance the defensive capacity of its bases. In May 2006, Washington proclaimed the implementation of the US-Japan Roadmap for Realignment, which would reduce the American military presence in Okinawa by repositioning to Guam. In Guam the anti-ballistic missile system Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), which was temporarily deployed to counter the threat of nuclear missiles from North Korea, was converted into a permanent program on the island this past July. In South Korea, the military transfer of the Yongsan Garrison and US 2nd Infantry Division to Pyeongtaek has been pushed back nearly 10 years from the original date of 2008.

Simultaneously, the US Navy has been rapidly augmenting its Aegis Weapon System, the centerpiece of American missile defense in East Asia, since the latter 2000s . After the US Navy deployed three Aegis destroyers, including the USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54), to the 7th Fleet in Yokosuka in the fall of 2004, the number of destroyers in the region has increased every year, and stands at ten as of October. The number of destroyers operating from Yokosuka is expected to increase to 12 by 2017. As regards this issue, Professor Choi Jong-kun from Yonsei University (Intl. Relations, specializing in Northeast Asian Security) said that China can’t match US military capacity, so can only respond with missiles if their supposed enemy “breached its strategic territory.” But as the US deploys its missile defense systems closer to China and in increasing numbers, China has no choice but to develop faster and stealthier missiles. “The two countries are engaged in a strategic tug-of-war, developing new operations and weapons based on their own idea of regional defense,” he added.

What’s most concerning amid this arms race is the enhanced military role the US is bound to place on South Korea and Japan. As American forces started developing missile defense systems across East Asia, South Korea and Japan also initiated their own Aegis weapon strategies. South Korea plans to increase its number of Aegis destroyers from three to six, while Japan plans to upgrade from its current six to eight. Already, Japan has announced during the revision its pacifist constitution that the chief role of its self-defense forces will be using its Aegis destroyers to defend US aircraft carriers and vessels.

Another interesting phenomenon is South Korea and Japan’s simultaneous campaign to introduce aerial refueling tankers to their arsenals. In the race to offset China’s anti-access and area-denial strategies, military aircraft with the long-range capacity to strike the heart of the Chinese mainland becomes increasingly important. In July of last year, Korea announced it would purchase four Airbus D&S A-330 MRTT tankers by 2020, and Japan is currently in the process of selecting aircraft to increase its number of tankers from four to seven. The Abe administration’s new military legislation allows the Japan Self-Defense Forces to aid American military by deploying refuel tankers that would fuel aircraft ready for takeoff and transport ammunition.

By Gil Yun-hyung, Tokyo Correspondent in Yokosuka

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