How can the U.S. military best position itself to defeat China in a major conflict in the South or East China Seas?
China claims the near entirety of the South China Sea as its own private swimming pool: a vast area enclosed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and China. This assertion of sovereignty is politically, legally, and geographically absurd. China knows that if it becomes the sole authority for what and who can travel through these waters, it will acquire massive leverage for foreign political acquiescence. If nations cannot access these waters, a global trade artery worth trillions of dollars annually, their economies will suffer greatly. China can thus make its grant of access contingent on deference to its political, military, and economic interests.
Our conclusion should be clear: This is imperialism of a scale not seen since the early days of the Soviet Union. But lubricated as it is by a mix of mercantilism-patronage networks (cough, Germany, cough) as well as hard power, China represents an even greater challenge than did the Soviet Union. Xi Jinping intends as much. His South China Sea gambit is designed to wipe away the liberal international order that has sustained since the end of the Second World War. China’s actions threaten the future prosperity and democratic political authority of the entire world. They must be resisted.
Of course, words won’t do the trick. So as the U.S. military steps up its naval and air presence in the South China Sea, it must constantly reassess how to best position itself for the day we hope never comes. The day war breaks out. Recognizing the increasingly impressive quality of China’s naval apparatus, I’ve written in favor of some shifts including:
- Significantly scaling back the aircraft carrier force.
- Diverting resources into unmanned systems, and undersea assets.
- Supporting the Marine Corps’ updated vision for rapid island seizure and an increased anti-air/anti-ship/anti-submarine role. This bears note as Congress puts corporate welfare before Marine combat readiness.
- Applying the same standards to the Admirals as the Admirals apply to their Captains and Commanders. And doing more to reward fleet commanders who take risks.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg. The U.S. must be more willing to challenge conventional wisdom. Towards that end, a conference hosted this week by the Royal United Services Institute presented a number of compelling reforms. Two speakers stood out.
Let’s start with retired Marine Corps colonel, and doctor Thomas Hammes. He believes the Air Force and Navy’s cost-utility calculation is broken when it comes to strike aircraft such as the F-35. Pushing an original idea which will be unwelcome on Capitol Hill, in the Pentagon’s inner ring, and with defense contractors, Hamme suggests putting strike aircraft procurement on the back burner. He notes that “the Navy’s already got the Tomahawk cruise missile with a ship-attack version out to 1,100 miles.” Hamme says the Pentagon should contact defense contractors and say “can you get me one for $300,000-$,400,000 and make this really cheap and ubiquitous.” This would be valuable, he argues, because “we’ve got to move rapidly to small, smart, and many.”
Hamme’s point is well made. If the U.S. can equip its forces and those of allies with stockpiles of cheap stand-off weapons, the People’s Liberation Army-Navy will be forced to more carefully reconsider the prospective cost and utility of closing with U.S. forces. F-35s look good, but they’re unlikely to be instrumental in turning the Chinese fleet into coral reefs.
The Hudson Institute’s Bryan Clark observed that “aircraft carriers are [going to be] constrained in their force generation or their sortie generation capacity because they [will be] harassed” by a range of Chinese forces. According to Clark, “surface combatants [destroyers, cruisers etc.] can generate more [strike opportunities] and sustain them more effectively than the aircraft carrier can.” In Clark’s mind, the aircraft carriers can only penetrate closer to the Chinese mainland or Taiwan once other U.S./allied assets have “reduced the threat” posed to the carrier. The carriers can then support “air defense and close air support” needs, especially along the “first island chain” (Okinawa linking to the Philippines).
This is great stuff. Still, I fear Clark is exaggerating the aircraft carriers’ continued utility amid rising Chinese anti-ship ballistic missile and maritime surveillance capabilities. China’s “carrier killer” ballistic missiles have long range and, if thirty missiles were launched at one carrier using multiple redundant targeting systems, the risk of a hit would rise significantly. Crippling a U.S. carrier and then offering a Beijing-favorable cease fire, Xi would aim to play the U.S. democratic system against its wartime interests in suing for an early peace.
Clark makes a convincing case in favor of a new U.S. approach to command and control, and battlefield sensors.
He pushes for a shift from the current hierarchical, centralized command structure to a heterarchical structure which sees command authority localized. This is necessary in that any South China Sea fight will take place in an “extremely contested electromagnetic spectrum environment.” This will disrupt communications, and battlefield awareness at range. It is thus “incumbent upon us to have the decision support tools for [any warship] commander to be able to operate effectively in the contested environment with those forces. [These commanders] can’t just [fight] based on tactics or doctrine that they’ve learned or that they’ve gained through habit, because the opponent can figure that out and predict it.” While Clark is on the money here, the Navy’s obsessive discipline approach to its best fleet commanders is deeply problematic. Aside from the submarine force, the Admirals have encouraged a culture of risk avoidance rather than one of aggressive risk taking. That is not a good recipe for confronting fanatical Chinese fleet commanders.
Next up, there’s the interest in maximizing the enemy’s sensor confusion and the U.S. military’s simultaneous sensor evasion. The U.S. has a range of new systems designed to create ghost fleets and aircraft on Chinese radar, sonar, and satellite screens. These systems are designed to hollow out China’s scaled-up forces and divert its lines of effort. But that’s just one side of the coin. Clark notes that “You don’t want to reveal yourself by how you do your own sensing so it’s imperative that we also look at other ways of detecting targets other than our monostatic radar model…” Clark wants more passive sensor systems and radar systems which use “very narrow beams and very short pulse widths, and very low power.” Again, it makes a lot of sense.
President Biden and his defense secretary should take note.
Original Author: Tom Rogan
Original Location: How to fight China in the South China Sea