I discussed in my previous blog1 what I think are our prospects of establishing “Sea Control” against the Chinese Armada in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), which, painful as it may seem, seems basically (to quote Muhammad Ali) “Slim and None” as of now. Which brings us to the next naval strategic concept available, SEA DENIAL. Unlike Sea Control, Sea Denial is more achievable for us because instead of establishing a presence in an area, protecting it and keeping our opponents out of that area, the goal of Sea Denial is much simpler: It only aims to keep our opponent OUT of that area.2
Of course it means we won’t be able to use that same area for our own purposes, like for example put mining assets at Recto Bank, etc., it’s just that our opponent won’t be able to do the same also. Think of it as like a “Mexican Standoff”, or a DRAW where they or we will not be able to do anything on the contested area.
The Philippines has a couple of claims in the Spratly Islands, but I will just focus on Recto Bank (also called “Reed Bank” or “Reed Tablemount“) for a number of reasons. First is because Recto Bank is estimated to hold up to 49% or 5.4 Billion of the 11 Billion Barrels of oil in the entire Spratly Islands,3 probably the single largest concentration of oil in the area. Second is that the Philippines holds the position that since no part of Recto Bank is above the water, then it is part of the continental shelf of Palawan and thus the Philippines has exclusive rights to it.4 Hence it looks like if we are going to make a “last stand” of protecting a territory in the Spratlys, it will likely be at Recto Bank.
‘Missile Blanket by Land’
One way of establishing Sea Denial would be thru the use of a “Missile Blanket” over the area we want to keep our enemy away from. This means employing missiles against assets that our enemy can deploy into that area, particularly Anti-Ship Missiles (AShM), and hopefully this will DETER them from establishing any presence there. There are a couple of platforms we can use to launch our missiles from, and one of them is a LAND-BASED PLATFORM.
Land-based AShMs are ideal because the platforms used for them like large trailer trucks are simpler than comparable platforms like ships or aircraft, and therefore more cost-effective and simpler to maintain. They also have the advantage of being able to HIDE behind whatever available cover there might be around them, like trees, buildings, mountains, hills, etc. They can also be CAMOUFLAGED to blend in with their background and therefore be more difficult to spot and neutralize.
These missiles don’t have to be launched from near the shore, as long as they have the range to reach the target from where they are and have datalink capability, they theoretically can be launched from anywhere on land. Aircraft could be used to relay initial target information to the missiles thru datalink, and could be used also to provide updates of a moving target’s latest position to the missiles via the same datalink as it does take time for the missiles to reach their targets.
‘Mass Saturation Attacks’
I am a firm believer in using “Mass Saturation Attacks” against ships, meaning the use of a couple of missiles against a single target to overwhelm its defenses, I think it is now even more important due to the countermeasures and defenses that can be employed against missiles these days. This is also the favored tactic intended to use by the Soviets against the American Carrier fleets, which is why they specialized and mass-produced AShMs. To this day, the Russians arguably still have the BEST AShMs in the world, certainly the fastest and the longest ranged.
As to how many missiles are needed, let’s assume that we will need three missiles to neutralize a single Chinese naval surface vessel, and with China’s West Philippine Sea (WPS) Fleet having approximately 62 such vessels, we will need around 186 missiles. Assuming that a mobile launcher can carry three missiles each, then we will need around 62 of such land-based mobile launchers for our missiles.
‘Distance and Missile Range’
A big problem with using land-based AShMs is the issue of DISTANCE and MISSILE RANGE. Recto Bank is approximately 300 km from Palawan, and this is just the distance measured perpendicularly from its far point to the nearest landfall in Palawan. In reality, this distance will need to be further out to:
– Cover all of the areas of the bank;
– Allow our missiles to be stationed further inland along the entire area of Palawan, giving them more area to hide around and launch their missiles from.
Hence to cover the entire Recto Bank from Palawan, we will need a missile with a range of around 400 km. The problem is that there aren’t many AShMs with this type of range available from western countries, most have ranges of only below 200 km. In fact, as of now there is only ONE western missile with such range, and that is the Brahmos. China has very long range AShMs, but for obvious reasons we won’t be getting any from them. Russia also has these types of missiles, but with them being very close politically to China, there will be a lot of complications if we acquire their missiles. Even the Brahmos could be a risk to us as it is a joint venture with Russia by India.
On a side note: There seems to be some confusion about the Brahmos’ range, officially it is “only” 290 km supposedly due to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) regulations, but a closer look at the rule and actual practice shows that the Brahmos SHOULD be exempted from the MTCR regulations as its warhead is below 500 kg (only 200 kg). In fact, land-attack Cruise Missiles like the Taurus KEPD,5 and AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM)6 have ranges of well beyond 300 km but have been exported to many countries as their warheads are below 500 kg.7 Even the Brahmos’ manufacturer and main designer seems to be confused about the MTCR regulations as they ended up giving conflicting statements about it.8 9In reality, though, the Brahmos’ actual range is closer to 500 km,10 which would be way more than enough for our purposes.
‘Targeting and Identification’
Another main issue about these AShMs are TARGETING and IDENTIFICATION. Even if we can get the Brahmos with its 500 km range, we will still need to overcome the Horizon Problem11 to effectively track and identify targets at such long ranges. This is usually done by SURVEILLANCE AIRCRAFT with surface search radars, and most such radars have ranges of around 360 km at most for the largest targets. For smaller targets, the aircraft will have to move in closer to detect and track it, and even closer still to be able to identify effectively the ship using other sensors. This puts them in danger of long-range enemy Surface to Air Missiles (SAM) and aircraft.
This is arguably the weakest link in the entire land-based system, without an effective way to track and identify targets Over-The-Horizon (OTH), then our missiles will not be able to do their job. In fact, China doesn’t even have to physically destroy the missiles, all they have to do is neutralize its “Eyes and Ears”, and if they CAN do that, then our missiles will be rendered ineffective.
Using jet-powered instead of propeller-driven propulsion will improve the survivability of these Surveillance aircraft owing to their ability to get in and out of an area faster due to their higher speeds. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) I feel will also be more survivable because of their smaller size, making them more difficult to detect by radar at longer ranges. And we will need to have enough of these aircraft/UAVs to allow for “Combat Attrition” and still maintain that ability to spot targets at Recto Bank. Not sure what is a good number for this one, but the more the merrier, so to speak, so probably at least a dozen if I were to speculate.
Since there is only currently a single source for an AShM that fits our needs, then the issue of AVAILABILITY crops up. Philippine and Indian relations have not really been that great, there has always been tensions between the overseas workers of both countries of which I personally have had a first-hand experience with, and which I intend to blog about at a later time. China can also take actions to force India to keep away the sale of these missiles to us. For example, there are SPECULATIONS that China could use the issue of PAKISTAN as a LEVERAGE to keep India from selling the Brahmos to Vietnam.12 India has a decades-long Cold War with Pakistan, and China could use the threat of selling/transfering more weapons and/or weapons technology to Pakistan against India to prevent the sale of the missiles. If they could do that to Vietnam, they could well do it to us also.
‘Threat to Palawan’
If China cannot neutralize our long-range sensors over Recto Bank, then it will only speed up the decision on their part to attack and possibly even invade Palawan. China will not let us just take leisurely pot shots against their ships, they will try to neutralize the threat, and if the threat is in Palawan, that is where they will go. To try to destroy our Land-based AShMs, China could use a combination of Surveillance and Attack aircraft as “Hunter-Killer” teams to hunt them down, much in the same way the US hunted down mobile Scud missile launchers during the Iraqi Wars. Investing in long-range mobile SAM launchers on our part will help minimize this threat, they don’t have to be necessarily paired with the AShM launchers, they can be stationed separately and it will still be enough to harass or deter enemy aircraft from getting too close.
Another way the Chinese could attempt to neutralize our AShMs would be to insert Special Forces commando teams via Submarines to locate them and relay their positions to aircraft and/or Submarines which can then use Cruise Missiles to destroy the AShMs. This will keep our own Special Forces teams busy countering their Chinese counterparts, who will be worthy opponents, indeed.
Or the Chinese could just launch an actual invasion of Palawan, taking it would be the best way to keep their assets at Recto Bank “safe” from a strong attack. Putting all these offensive military equipment on Palawan that could be used in a MAIN attack could also result in a “Militarization” of the island, which could result in the dampening of the local economic climate there due to the threat of attack from China, and local industries like Tourism could be affected.
To summarize, the Pros and Cons of a Land-based Missile System are:
– Likely to be more cost-effective in terms of Acquisition, Operation and Maintenance due to its simpler platform;
– Will be more survivable due its ability to hide behind and blend in with its surroundings, even more so if coupled with a SAM Umbrella
– Its weakest link is its entire dependency on aircraft for OTH targeting, without which it won’t be able to do its main job of hitting targets at Recto Bank;
– Will increase the risk of attack and/or invasion of Palawan;
– Militarization of Palawan could dampen its local economy;
– Its single-source availability has too many complications
In theory, the use of land-based AShMs for Sea Denial over Recto Bank could be feasible, and it actually has a couple of advantages going for it compared to other AShM platforms, like it being simpler and more cost-effective and also it being not as easy to neutralize. However, in reality there are a number of issues working against it. There is only a single source to a country we only have lukewarm relations with at best, and the missile is made in joint-venture with a country with close political relations to China. On top of that, we need to be able to ensure a targeting and identification system that will survive attack by the enemy.
Improving the availability will remove some of these issues, like if the manufacturer of the Taurus KEPD 350 (500 km range) could be persuaded to make an Anti-Ship version of their missile, for example, or if other manufacturers can come up with a 400 km range AShM soon. There is another option in the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM)13 (1,000 km range) that the US is currently developing, but it won’t be ready until 2018, and that is assuming that there will be no delays in its development.
Personally, I think there are just too many complications right now involving the use of land-based AShMs to protect Recto Bank, the most critical I feel is the issue of availability. If the LRASM becomes available in a couple of years, then the concept perhaps could be more feasible.
OUR PROSPECTS OF ESTABLISHING SEA CONTROL IN THE WEST PHILIPPINE SEA,
- Sea Control and Sea Denial: Controlling of the seas today, (https://web.archive.org/web/20150325064806/http://stratrisks.com/geostrat/15981) ↩
Reed Bank ‘holds huge oil, gas reserves’,
PH protests Chinese incursion in Recto Bank,
- TAURUS KEPD 350 – High precision stand-off, (https://web.archive.org/web/20151009164200/http://saab.com/globalassets/commercial/air/weapon-systems/air-to-surface-missile-systems/taurus-kepd-350/taurus_kepd_350_precision.pdf) ↩
- AGM-158 JASSM (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile), United States of America, (https://web.archive.org/web/20161002013746/http://www.airforce-technology.com/projects/agm-158-jassm-standoff-missile/) ↩
- Strategic Myopia: The United State, Cruise Missiles and the Missile Technology Control Regime, (https://docs.google.com/viewer?url=http://www.law.fsu.edu/journals/transnational/vol14_1/dutra.pdf) ↩
- India, Russia to develop new hypersonic cruise missile, (https://web.archive.org/web/20160313052020/http://brahmos.com/newscenter.php?newsid=102) ↩
BrahMos Cruise Missile Not Bound By MTCR, Range Can Be Extended Beyond 300 kilometres,
- India Modifies Brahmos Missile With New Nav System, (https://web.archive.org/web/20140724194210/http://en.ria.ru/military_news/20121009/176500812.html) ↩
- RADAR DETECTION AND THE HORIZON DISTANCE, (https://web.archive.org/web/20161115050041/https://rhk111smilitaryandarmspage.wordpress.com/2005/01/10/radar-detection-and-the-horizon-distance/) ↩
- India to train Vietnamese pilots to fly Sukhoi fighters, (http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/After-submarine-training-India-likely-to-train-Vietnamese-pilots-to-fly-Sukhois/articleshow/44954895.cms) ↩
- LRASM: Long Range Maritime Strike for Air-Sea Battle, (https://web.archive.org/web/20160130122651/http://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/lrasm-long-range-maritime-strike-for-air-sea-battle/) ↩