The alleged Chinese deployment of HQ-9 missiles (medium/long range surface-to-air missile) in the Paracel Islands is one of the latest developments in the growing complexity of the South China Sea. The move has increased tensions in the region, particularly with the United States. While the (still unconfirmed) deployment of the missiles would mark a dramatic shift in the ongoing dispute about the sea and its islands with the introduction of kinetic weaponry, there is a more subtle development involving the electromagnetic spectrum and possible deployment of new Chinese radar installations.
The electromagnetic spectrum is quickly growing into the most critical environment of future conflict. The concern about the new Chinese installations in the South China Sea highlights just how quickly dominance in warfare is shifting from kinetic capability to electromagnetic exploitation. This is not to say that weapons systems are unimportant, but that they become much less useful when they cannot get close enough to the enemy to strike.
The problem with China’s possible deployment of its radar systems is that it exacerbates an already worrying disconnect between American strategy and capability. China wants to demonstrate that it can use access denial capabilities to maintain unofficial control of the sea, even if the world does not explicitly accept its territorial claims. Dominating the electromagnetic spectrum allows it to use its asymmetric strategies to much greater success.
While land-based infrastructure is always at risk during direct conflict , China could use high-frequency radar systems to track American ships and planes in the region. Even without directly threatening American planes, demonstrating the ability to track and follow American planes would demonstrate both an escalatory capability and limit American flights.
An even greater concern is how the new installations may play into maritime dynamics. To counter China’s territorial claims, the United States has sent warships past controversial manmade islands and through disputed parts of the South China Sea. During the second passage, the U.S. did not inform China of its intentions. Part of America’s ability to conduct these unannounced operations rests on avoiding Chinese attention until after the passages are made. If China knows about the passages before they happen, it can use non-military ships to block routes and risk escalation. There is increasing evidence that China is building large coast guard ships with this intention in mind. With the new radar stations, China is now much more capable of tracking American ships before they enter the most contested areas of the South China Sea and react accordingly. The United States might have to opt to either risk a collision and the following escalation, or back down on conducting further such freedom of navigation passages.
While the risks of the South China sea have long been not who can strike at whom, but who can see what’s happening, the United States is having to deal with potential adversaries whose ability to see is as good as America’s. On the other side of the coin, Russia demonstrated in Ukraine how undermining an opponent’s electromagnetic exploitation can be used to undermine civil society, mask troop movements, or target enemy forces.
Both situations undermine a key aspect of American deterrence capability, that the ability to strike at an enemy will coerce it to avoid undesirable behavior. Both China and Russia have responded by instead chipping away at the ability of American forces to move unobserved and freely in contested areas. Once observed, U.S. forces can be countered with asymmetric tactics that raise the costs of American involvement, reversing the deterrence equation.
This new dynamic will not be altered by greater numbers of current American weapon systems. Instead, the U.S. military needs to develop strategies and tactics to counter this new reality, or risk losing expensive platforms and priceless lives. Only then will the American military be able to understand the tools it should develop and build, or even how to best use its current technology. The Pentagon has, for example, tools in development that could restore its technological edge in the electromagnetic spectrum—but only if it changes how it operates its systems.
The debate about how many soldiers, ships, or planes the United States needs in order to deter potential adversaries is moot if the military cannot use them for fear of asymmetric war or escalation. The military must fully flesh out its strategies for contested environments. Only then will it be properly prepared for the risks it faces.