USS-Theodore-Roosevelt-(US-Navy)
The PRC has threatened the US Navy’s CSG-9 led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt pictured here with electromagnetic attack. This risks inflaming tempers in an already tense part of the world.

The People’s Republic of China has called for ‘electromagnetic attacks’ against US Navy warships in the South China Sea.

The Warning

The warning was articulated via Song Zhong Ping, a defence pundit and former officer with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Second Artillery (now the PLA Rocket Force). The branch of its military responsible for the People’s Republic of China’s ballistic missile force, who was quoted in the Global Times. This publication is believed to be strongly affiliated with the PRC’s ruling Communist Party.

Mr. Song urged the use of lasers and electromagnetic weapons as the US Navy’s Carrier Strike Group-9 (CSG-9) led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt, a ‘Nimitz’ class aircraft carrier, and joined by the US Marine Corps’ USS America Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) commenced naval exercises in the South China Sea on 17 March. The PRC maintains maritime and territorial claims on this stretch of water.

US Navy Unwelcome

Mr. Song advocated the disruption of these US Navy activities stating that such measures, while falling short of all-out war, were a useful means of sending a strong signal that the US Navy presence in this area is unwelcome.

From an electromagnetic perspective it is unclear what weapon any of the PLA’s constituent branches could bring to bear. The systems and capabilities of the country in this regard are shrouded in secrecy.

Coastal-based electronic attack weapons would have a limited reach given the line-of-sight range restrictions inherent in microwave transmissions. As a ballpark figure, even using an antenna 328 feet (100 metres) high, jamming signals would still struggle to reach beyond 22 nautical miles (41 kilometres/km). While this is beyond the internationally-mandated twelve nautical mile (22km) limit of a state’s territorial waters it would be surprising if US Navy warships chose to sail this close to China’s coastline, even if these vessels would still remain in international waters.

The US government is no doubt keen to emphasis freedom of navigation on the high seas, but at the same time will also be keen to avoid a conflict, as will the PRC.

Provocation

The PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) could choose instead to perform electronic attack with its own warships or with aircraft from the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF).

EW platforms at the PLAAF’s disposal include several Shaanxi Y-8 converted turboprop freighter variants and the Shaanxi Y-9G revealed in 2015 which is believed to be equipped with electronic countermeasures.

Airborne Jamming System

The PLAAF and PLAN are also thought to use the BM/KJ-8602BC Airborne Jamming System. This is a pod-based ensemble equipping the Xian H-6G strategic bomber to configure the aircraft for electronic attack. These platforms and systems could potentially be flown near areas where the US Navy maybe operating to transmit jamming signals against the radars and communications used by CSG-9 and the ESG.

Nonetheless these US Navy assets, as well as using some of the most advanced radars and radios, and accompanying low probability interception/deception waveforms, will no doubt be performing very strict electromagnetic discipline, meaning that the emissions will be difficult to detect let alone jam.

Retaliation

The PLA will have to be cognisant of the fact that, despite Mr. Song’s predictions, electronic attack in international waters could be seen as highly provocative by the US government, and US allies in the Asia-Pacific. Moreover, jamming signals risk exposing the very platforms performing the attack leaving them open to suffer retaliation in kind, and further escalation.

Raising the prospect of electronic attack is a useful muscle-flexing exercise for Beijng both at home and abroad but turning threats into promises risks inflaming a delicate situation, something that the PRC and the rest of the world can ill afford.

by Dr. Thomas Withington