A recent post on The Best Defense grabbed my attention. It gives a quick review of an issue of Orbis magazine‘s article by Commander James Kraska, a professor at the United States Naval War College, who sets out a hypothetical conflict in which China sinks the USS George Washington.
The writer has this to say about it: “I usually like this sort of article that attempts to look back from a possible future event and explain how we got there. But I didn’t find this article […] particularly persuasive.”
Commander Kraska points to current Counter Insurgency operations as a weakness for the United States Navy and says that they are taking their “eye off the ball” and not focusing on the Navy’s primary role: protecting the United States from blue water threats and safeguarding American interests abroad.
An entire generation of [its] midcareer commissioned and noncommissioned officers tried to learn counterinsurgency land warfare in the desert and mountains of central Asia while their counterparts in China conducted fleet exercises to learn how to destroy them.
One can agree with the correspondent when he questions this. The US Navy is a vast organization and has certainly not committed whole swathes of officers to the study of counterinsurgency operations. Especially when the Marine Corps and the Army lead the way for the armed forces in this regard.
However, that’s where this fellow loses his critical potential: “Also, does national security rest ultimately only on the Navy, as this hydrocentric article tendentiously asserts?”
Yes. Yes, it does. One recommends that those who write for Foreign Policy‘s defense section learn a little about sea power if they intend to criticize it.
In the event of war between China and the United States, it is the Navy which would be the instrument of American force. The conflict would most likely take place in the Pacific, being the hinterland between the two states. The Pacific is an ocean. If the United States did not control that “great common” then it would lose the strategic advantage and China would be free to land forces where it wished, blockade the United States, attack American interests around the world, interdict American trade and so on. The United States is a maritime power; if it failed to keep the maritime initiative, its weaknesses would be somewhat large. As Commander Kraska suggests:
Only more slowly did people begin to realize that the maintenance of the world order had rested on American military power, and that the foundation of that power was American command of the global commons. The Army could fail, as it did in Vietnam; the Air Force was ancillary to the Army. To secure the American position and the nation’s security — and indeed for world order — the Navy could never fail.
The article then criticizes the Commander because he comes “close to criticizing his commander-in-chief, politically.” Good stuff, he’s in a democracy and a naval officer with an understanding of naval matters which an elected bureaucrat does not possess.
However, is the concern apt? China has been in the naval news quite frequently of late. The stories of the secret Chinese sub base and the “sudden” arrival of a Chinese submarine right next to USS Kitty Hawk are the stuff of legend and source of derision across NATO wardrooms. But China struggles with a history of naval ineptitude and its military traditions lie in the strength of the army; a powerful force in Chinese political circles. Not to say that China has no potential for naval strength, but compared to the United States, its ambitions are still hampered by finances. The US Navy is a vast force with a tremendously diverse capability including anti-submarine warfare technology in advance of most in the world, not to mention the fact that its naval and maritime culture is much more enshrined in the American defense and security communities. China’s fleet is predominantly geared toward submarines and at current has well over fifty submarines of varying capability, diesel-electrics and nuclear and is set to surpass American submarine counts within four years if it keeps up its intent of a 2.5 boat per annum production rate of the new Yuan class. The submarine fleet, a mixture of the old Russian built KILO class, the new Yuan class, and others remains to a lower specification than most western counterparts.
And yet as history has taught us, the submarine is the weapon of the weak, and guerre de course submarine strategies are highly limited compared to what a full fleet can do. China is following the wrong path to naval supremacy as a whole, despite its abilities for subsurface combat, the failure to address sea power in all dimensions is something China may be unable to do or is unwilling to do so. In either case it is folly.
Commander Kraska is right to question American naval supremacy in the Pacific, in the same way that Captain John Ready Colomb mused on the readiness of the Royal Navy to defend the British Empire, in the 1860s, Admiral Thayer Mahan on the US Navy in the 1890s or as Admiral Reader and Wolfgan Wegener questioned German naval strategy in the interbellum. They were right to do so, for naval officers who reexamine situations and voice their concerns loudly are doing the populace a service, not a bad turn.
While China, one predicts, will not obtain naval parity with the United States within the next forty years, it is better to discuss now and be prepared for the eventuality. Discussion should be made welcome in the public domain for as John R. Collomb pointed out in The Defense of Great and Greater Britain, the people must be aware of naval matters to best understand their vital defense and lease the purse strings of the state for more investment if necessary.