My essay the other day about “The Cheaper Way to Bottle Up the Chinese Fleet” drew lengthy commentaries from people in both the Navy Department and Boeing.
I first got into some correspondence with my friend Dave Foster of China Lake on whether land-based missile networks could be reliably effective in "enabling blockades of critical waterways”? As he put it, maybe. Remote sensing looks nice and crisp on paper, but any number of practical limitations on sensor networks in various weather conditions and sea-states make discriminating red from blue amidst the shipping and the clutter rather problematic. Mainly, Dave is thinking about the ill-fated Igloo White and the Secure Border Initiative sensor network projects. The former was a more earnest effort than the latter, but each was much easier to conceptualize than to develop technically, particularly amidst the countermeasures of those trying to avoid their gaze.
In the end, neither got much done, but once things like these get underway, the funding can be difficult to turn off, whatever the technical indications. As John Cochrane of the University of Chicago wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, grands projets have a tendency to turn into “crony boondoggles”. That said, we should not discount the psychological effect of declaring a looming capability, rather as “Star Wars” scared the Soviets in the 1980s. With a strong enough impression of American and Japanese surveillance and firepower in the Ryukus, a Chinese Scharnhorst or Gneisenau might not even try a run down the coast.
The sensor net is a hazy concept at this point. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of anti-ship missile programs on offer for the Navy today:
- Lockheed Martin’s Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), funded by DARPA, and in the early phases of work.
- Boeing’s more modestly-ranging Harpoon II+, under development with internal money at Boeing.
- Raytheon’s yet slightly lesser-ranging AGM-154 Joint Stand Off Weapon (JSOW) C1, funded by the Navy Department, which adds the Link-16 data link for capability against moving ships at sea.
- Kongsberg’s Naval Strike Missile, recently tested successfully from the littoral combat ship Coronado.
Generally, the missile issue seems under control. It’s the surveillance solution that’s less mature. Scaring the Chinese Navy back into port would take a concerted effort at building a maritime traffic net, and fairly, not just another McNamara Line in the East China Sea.