Saturday, April 01, 2006

Seeing the Assassin's Mace in a Mirror

America is well ahead of China in overall military technology and capability. So China, it is sometimes said, is looking for a silver bullet solution--a so-called Assassin's Mace--that will nullify our existing advantages.

One proposed mace is the ability to target our aircraft carriers without building a blue water navy of their own. Long-range anti-ship missiles on subs and surface ships are one method, of course. This is pretty conventional thinking.

Another is more ambitious:

The PLA’s historic penchant for secrecy and surprise, when combined with known programs to develop highly advanced technologies that will lead to new and advanced weapons, leads to the conclusion that the PLA is seeking [to] field new weapon systems that could shock an adversary and accelerate their defeat. In the mid-1990s former leader Jiang Zemin re-popularized an ancient Chinese term for such weapons, “Shashaojian,” translated most frequently as “Assassin’s Mace,” or “silver bullet” weapons.

One potential Shashoujian is identified by the [DOD’s 2005 report on China military power]: a maneuvering ballistic missile design to target U.S. naval forces. In 1996 a Chinese technician revealed that a “terminal guidance system” that would confer very high accuracy was being developed for the DF-21 [intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM]. Such a system could employ a radar similar to the defunct U.S. Pershing-2 MRBM or could employ off-board sensors with rapid data-links to the missile tied to satellite-navigation systems. Nevertheless, should such missiles be realized they will pose a considerable threat as the U.S. Navy is not yet ready to deploy adequate missile defenses.

A separate observer states:

Land-based conventional tipped ballistic missiles with maneuverable (MarV) warheads that can hit ships at sea.... would be a Chinese “assassin’s mace” sort of capability — something impossible to deal with today, and very difficult under any circumstances if one is forced to defend by shooting down ballistic missiles. The capability is dependent on Beijing’s ability to put together the appropriate space-based surveillance, command, and targeting architecture necessary to make this work.

One more observer states:

There is yet another exceedingly important chapter being written in the [PLA] ballistic-missile saga. China is trying to move rapidly in developing ballistic missiles that could hit ships at sea at MRBM [medium-range ballistic missile] ranges — in other words, to threaten carriers beyond the range at which they could engage Chinese forces or strike China. Among its other advantages for China, this method of attack avoids altogether the daunting prospect of having to cope with the U.S. Navy submarine force — as anti-submarine warfare is a big Chinese weakness. Along with these efforts to develop ballistic missiles to hit ships, they are, of course, working diligently to perfect the means to locate and target our carrier strike groups (CSGs). In that regard, an imperfect or rudimentary (fishing boats with satellite phones) means of location and targeting might be employed even earlier than the delay of several more years likely needed to perfect more reliable and consistent targeting of ships. Chinese missile specialists are writing openly and convincingly of MaRV’d ballistic missiles (missiles with maneuverable reentry vehicles) that maneuver both to defeat defenses and to follow the commands of seekers that spot the target ships. There seems little doubt that our naval forces will face this threat long before the Taiwan issue is resolved.

It is interesting to me that in a discussion of Chinese efforts to develop a means of short-circuiting our advantage at sea and in naval air power that rely on our superior technology (and enabled by our training, more importantly), the analysis says China will rely on a technological solution to target our carriers at sea. The analysis says the Chinese--while trying to nullify our technological edge--will themselves rely on technology to solve the targeting problem with complex and expensive satellite and communications networks. Civilian ships spread out with simple communications gear are given as an unconventional work-around to the targeting problem.

Let me offer a non-Manhattan Project-style and unconventional solution to China's targeting problem. What if Chinese agents placed a signalling device on the keel of an American aircraft carrier while in port? Or a homing device in the galley's coffee machine before it is installed? Or buried in the storage bins of some bulk product? What if the Chinese maneuvering ballistic missiles were designed to home in on the signal of such a device and the Chinese had a means to turn on the device when needed?

Simple. Low tech. And utterly devastating if the Chinese actually get homing ballistic missiles before we get missile defenses at sea capable of shooting down ballistic missiles.

I don't know if planting homing devices on our carriers is possible, but as long as we are looking at asymmetrical means of fighting our forces, let's think outside our technological frame of mind for how China might create such an assassin's mace.