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When you’re out of missiles…

January 8, 2011

Given the recent anxiety about China’s DF-21D ASBM reaching initial operating capability, there’s been plenty of anxiety about whether the missile is a serious threat. As Galrahn at Information Dissemination explains, however, there’s no need to worry about ballistic missile defense systems being technically incapable of meeting the threat. The ASBM is relatively novel, but it is hardly cutting edge technology. What is problematic? There’s only so many missiles warships can carry, and no safe way to reload them at sea – and even if they do make it to port, the US does not have particularly deep stocks.

This is particularly troubling for those who buy into the RAND corporation’s assessment that the US, in the short term, at least, is in danger of losing an air war with China, since carriers are the main way the US compensates for its lack of airbases close enough to deploy fighters without tanker assistance. In a war with China, the US is at a severe disadvantage once factors of attrition come into play, unless we are assuming a truly extended great power conflict.

However, the DF-21D will only be as good as the reconnaissance, detection, command and control systems that it relies on. The easiest way to deal with them would be to strike at Chinese spotters and launch air-strikes on critical land facilities. As the US and China continue to develop their weapons systems, with eyes turned increasingly to the other’s developments, the offense-defense balance becomes very important to determining how quickly a crisis could escalate into something worse. Who as the incentive to launch a first strike? How quickly will bombing targets on the Chinese mainland escalate the conflict, and how long could the US realistically put that off?

Dan Nexon, commenting on Robert Farley’s excellent call for more engagement with defense issues from the left, notes that “guns and bombs” questions have essentially dropped from the radar of mainstream political science. Perhaps today’s political scientists find these sorts of questions archaic? Of course, that just means that if war does come again, our models for understanding it will be as outdated as we assumed war to be.

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