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Carrier Killer: China’s Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles and Theater of Operations in the Early 21st Century

By Gerry Doyle and Blake Herzinger, Helion and Company (2022).

Reviewed by Joseph F. Greco

Much attention has been paid to the Chinese ASBM (Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile) program, a strategy that targets the U.S. Navy’s command over the East and South China Seas. As a consequence, the program brings into question the effectiveness of supercarriers that now face hundreds of missiles pointed at the American fleet. In their book Carrier Killer: China’s Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles and Theater of Operations in the Early 21st Century, journalists Gerry Doyle and Blake Herzinger, bring to life the current Chinese program giving even the casual reader a thorough and graphically illustrated understanding of the strategy and its tactics. What makes the work a unique and a welcome addition to the field is the unique perspective it brings to the current research by employing multiple maps, charts, and tables accompanied by extensive photographs. Extensive endnotes and timely references support a well-researched synthesis that builds on previous research. Both authors’ strong journalistic backgrounds and writing styles infuse a dynamism to the seventy-page flow of detailed information. Although the narrative contains few citations and references to the photos, charts, and maps, the style of writing fashions an effective narrative that is clear and easy to comprehend. The greatest strength of the work is the ability to bring the missile program vividly to the reader’s imagination.

Presenting details that have been overlooked in the current research the authors explore the question of the supercarrier’s future with supporting evidence that provides a realistic assessment of the current strategy employed by both sides. For example, the well-designed maps clearly diagram for the reader the territorial claims of China and its neighbors, a visualization of naval strategies, and the range of current and potential ASBMs. In an assessment of future carrier effectiveness, the work focuses on the questions of how, when, and why the ASBM program began; what the A2/AD (Anti-access/area denial) strategy is; what it looks like using photographs and extensive maps; what tactical armaments comprise the ASBM program; what are its strengths and weaknesses; and what countermeasures exist to stop the program. Ultimately, the work coalesces around its main theme: the future of the supercarrier in light of the Chinese missile program in the Near China Seas.

Beginning with the origins of the Chinese ASBM program, the authors contend that the blatant show of America’s command of the seas in 1996 demonstrated by the undetected arrival of two nuclear-powered supercarriers in the straits of Taiwan sparked the Chinese military buildup. The resulting anti-access, area denial (2A/AD) strategy challenges the U.S. Navy’s access today. Doyle and Herzinger spend quite a few pages laying out the challenging requirements of an effective ASBM strategy such as excellent precision, the advantage of geography, and other issues of how to make the missile work well. They focus the reader on an in-depth assessment of the strategy and its impact on the future effectiveness of supercarriers in the South China Sea.

Following a brief history of the aircraft carrier from the pre-World War One era through the multibillion-dollar nuclear-powered carrier programs of the U.S. Navy today, the authors develop the strategic dilemma facing the U.S. and its allies’ navies today: confronting a new sphere of influence, symbolized by the DF-21D ASBM. Well-designed charts illustrate the stages of the missile’s trajectory from pre-launch to the terminal dive and the critical importance of radar guidance involved in hitting the target accurately. Using another series of critical and well-designed maps, the authors diagram the potential missile coverage of the Chinese radar systems, the use of tactically placed sensors, and the importance of satellites that play a major role in giving the best overview of the open seas. In questioning the missiles’ effectiveness, the work points to the active public relations campaign marketed by China’s state media that shrouds the ASBM program in a “haze of incomplete information,” and deliberately acts as a deterrent to keep the Western military planners at arm’s length. For concerned naval planners, the work claims that most of the system’s weapons have been untested without an end-to-end demonstration crucial to setting up a missile arsenal. On the other hand, wariness of an escalating conflict forces Western navies to alter the type of defensive missiles they carry and to hesitate sailing fleets within ASBM range. Acting as a deterrent alone, Doyle and Herzinger argue that the ASBM Program has successfully caused Western navies to expend additional funds to alter the makeup of their onboard inventory of weapons. Ultimately, the authors present a convincing and thorough argument that a carrier strike group’s best chance to avoid an ASBM attack is to avoid detection.

Whether the Chinese defense strategy uses its missiles aimed at ships at sea or bases on shore, the ability to menace U.S. forces across the region will drive the efforts of future naval planners. Although Chinese propaganda attempts to portray the ASBMs as invincible, Doyle and Herzinger debunk the argument by citing countermeasures especially cyberweapons, that make them vulnerable. In summary, the authors make the claim that no ASBM attack currently is capable of taking out a supercarrier without exhausting the Chinese magazine and inviting significant retaliation. The authors argue convincingly that the most effective path for U.S. naval planners to deter ASBM attacks is to destroy satellites and radars that play a crucial role in China’s ability to accurately aim its missiles. Even though the U.S. and allies’ supercarrier fleets remain the single most effective weapon without a match, the authors’ ultimate assessment
concedes that the Chinese ASBM program has ended the U.S. supercarriers’ ability to sail
carefree in the southeast Asia seas.

Joseph F. Greco has taught courses in global risk management at the California State University,
Fullerton for over twenty years. He researches and publishes articles related to financial markets, global
trade, and the Chinese threat to U.S. naval power.

Gerry Doyle is an editor on the Global News Desk at Thomson Reuters. He has been posted overseas for 13 years, 10 of them in Asia, with a recurring focus on defense and security. A native of Kansas City, Mo., in the United States, he has degrees in journalism and philosophy from the University of Kansas. His career has taken him from the Midwest to Florida (where he was part of the 2000 general election team) to Chicago (where he interviewed Barack Obama on a streetcorner) to the Middle East (just in time for the Arab Spring) before landing him in East Asia (where he helped cover the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong and North Korea’s burgeoning nuclear weapons program). His novel, From the Depths, was published in 2007 and was a finalist for the American Thriller Writers’ Best Debut Novel award. He lives in Singapore with his wife and two children.

A third-generation sailor, Blake Herzinger joined the Navy while studying political science at Brigham Young University. He first experienced Asia as an officer in the U.S. Navy deployed to Okinawa and moved to Singapore in 2013, completing a masters degree in strategic studies while serving as a naval liaison. He became a consultant to the U.S. Navy in the Asia-Pacific after leaving active service in 2017, but remains in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He writes regularly on naval matters and the Asia Pacific, with work published in Foreign Policy, Brookings, and War on the Rocks, and joined the Pacific Forum as a Non-resident WSD-Handa Fellow in 2021. He lives with his wife, son, dog and cat in Singapore.

Carrier Killer: China’s Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles and Theater of Operations in the Early 21st Century. By Gerry Doyle and Blake Herzinger (Helion and Company: 2022)

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