Sino-American Naval Conflict of 2015

China is highly unlikely to achieve naval parity with the United States for another forty years.

A Chinese Song class attack submarine, 2005
A Chinese Song class attack submarine, 2005 (Wikicommons/SteKrueBe)

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.

Comments

  • The chap writing for Foreign Policy does have a point although he doesn’t state it too explicitly: 1) The US Navy is still more than capable of taking on its Chinese counterpart; and 2) The Chinese Navy has no intention of taking on the Americans. In fact, the Chinese in general have no intention of provoking an armed confrontation with the United States, at least not currently and I don’t see why they would six years from now.

    Rather, through smart foreign policy, the US can work to decrease what little belligerence the Chinese harbor while maintaining American supremacy in the Pacific.

    Unfortunately, it seems many Americans, even armed forces personnel, are too full of Sinophobia to realize that.

  • The Chinese naval build up over the past few years seem to be more focused on littoral to near littoral defense, something its mix of submarines, ballistic and guided missiles and small missile crafts can readily do, rather then trying to compete with the US navy on the high seas. While it has bought more surface combatants and amphibious ships it’s large scale power projection capabilities scarcely goes past Taiwan. To me Sinophobia sounds like a larger risk then what for now at least is essentially defensive capabilities.

  • Couldn’t have said it better myself. With nearby powers as Australia, India, Japan and the US across the Pacific all more or less teaming up against a perceived Chinese threat, it’s no wonder that the Chinese themselves are just a little more than concerned about the security of their own shores.

  • I agree with Johan–China’s force projection capabilities are nowhere even close to being on a track to catch up with the US. We have six carriers in each ocean, I don’t think that they have much of anything in their waters that can match that. Further, Nick raises an excellent point–China has no real reason to go to war with the US.

  • They did purchase it, of Ukraine I think. It still being refittet however and there have yet to be any sign of aircraft capable of operating from it.

  • Do I think a naval war is going to break out in 2015? Probably not, of course. The point of the article is a critique of US national oceans policy, declining force structure, 5,000 Naval personnel serving in CENTCOM (the USN has more people serving on the ground in CENTCOM than on ships). The war is a narrative vehicle to show how a decline in sea power can create cataclysmic shifts in power.

  • Is US sea power truly in decline though? Or is the US Navy chosing to adapt to circumstances which require a different approach to naval strategy than the sort of Cold War thinking in terms of absolute numbers alone?

  • What’s the change in the circumstances? you still need a surface fleet of some size to ensure your global interests and command the sea.

  • Sure, but things aren’t like they were fifty years ago. The US armed forces shouldn’t be exclusively geared toward conflict with another state anymore. Irregular warfare has become part of the agenda and the Navy, too, has to adapt to that.

  • How does a Naval force reasonably adapt to what is essentially a land based phenomena; counter-insurgency? what new operations can they add to their repertoir which is in their domain and is not the duty of the Army or Air Force? What we could hazard to call low-intensity operations of a maritime nature are allready enshrined in naval strategy and operations; such as the war on drugs ops in the carribean and so on.

  • The US Navy is correct to emphasize littoral warfare. There will never be another fleet action. Carrier Battle Groups are much too vulnerable to thermonuclear weapons. In a strategic sense, the boomer subs are the only important part of the Navy.
    I am much more concerned about the building of bunkers in China and Russia, if it indicates that they would consider surviving a nuclear exchange.

  • The carrier group’s strength lies in its versatility. Midway-esque fleet exchanges may be gone but it remains the finest tool for force projection. Over 80% of US combat flights into Afghanistan are launched from carriers. A Littoral Combat Ship is next to useless in the kinds of package you need to project a potent force around the world, whether its an emergency like Haiti or a small war. The LCS ‘innovation’ is just like its predecessor of the mid 19th Century, it grabs headlines and makes people think ‘ah, here’s how we’ll be doing it from now on’ but it won’t stick.

  • You are correct in saying that the US fleet is still better then the Chinese navy, however there are afew factors that i believe have been overlooked.

    1) If china wanted to attack the US navy, its airforce would play a large part in any operation, and 90 planes are not a match for the worlds largest airforce.

    2) China would not be taking on the entire US navy, only the 7th fleet, consisting of one carrier, not 6 (hence 90 planes). The carrier is escorted by, at full strength 2 crusiers, 7 destroyers and 3 attack subs.

    3) Chinas naval strength is clearly her submarine force, but the 7th fleet has no anti submarine frigates.

    4)Even if said frigates were present, the US navy is so notouriously inept at ASW it would be doubtfull they could protect the carrier.

    I am not saying china could win, just that it is not as clear cut as many would assume and that the US navy is worried for a reason.

  • If china wanted to attack the US navy, its airforce would play a large part in any operation, and 90 planes are not a match for the worlds largest airforce.

    First of all, why would China want to attack the US?

    Second, their air force may be larger, but the American is superior.

    Third, “90 planes”? Doesn’t the USAAF have more planes than that?

    Chinas naval strength is clearly her submarine force […]

    Which consists, entirely, of attack subs, nothing that can carry ballistic missiles.

  • But surely Sam, in the event of hostilities the 7th Fleet wouldn’t be risked on futile endeavour if it were possible, and bolstered with further vessels, perhaps even the addition of another carrier (though whether the additional airflight would be enough is worth further consideration) and ASW vessels; the USN aren’t foolish as to disregard the submarine threat.
    In any case, part of the point of Kraska’s article, and something I think we can both agree on is a higher concentration on vessels and strategy to negate the floors you’ve outlined. The 4th point of your post being something the USN should adress in reaction to the burgeoning PLAN subsurface fleet?

  • “Third, “90 planes”? Doesn’t the USAAF have more planes than that? ”
    That’s the airflight of a Nimitz class carrier, I believe, Nick.

    “Which consists, entirely, of attack subs, nothing that can carry ballistic missiles.”

    That’s beyond the point. You don’t need BMs to sink a carrier, the carrier being the arbiter of US force in Chinese waters in the event of hostilities. Force projection.

    “First of all, why would China want to attack the US?” Doesn’t matter, that’s the scenario we’re discussing.

  • Reasons why wasnt the point of the article or my responce, however china takes its trade very seriously and there is still the tiawan question that may result in force.

    90 planes is the complient of one nimitz class aircraft carrier, all that would be imediatly availiable. So both the USAF and thier numbers are somewhat irrelievnt.

    As for SSBNs china has at least 3, and up to 5 ballistic missle subs and is currently looking at the idea of anti ship non nuclear ballistic missiles.

    As for James point, this is also true, but this depends on how fast they could get there, other demands around the world, a shirnking fleet and most importantly, why china attacked in the first place, if it is an amphibous assult on taiwan they would be too late.

  • That’s the airflight of a Nimitz class carrier, I believe, Nick.

    Aye. Forgive my sarcasm, but in the event that China should attack, I don’t expect it would be long before planes were taking off from the American mainland, no?

    That’s beyond the point. You don’t need BMs to sink a carrier […]

    True. I was trying to point out though that China’s military isn’t always as advanced as we like to fear.

  • I’m sure the USAF would launch aircraft hastily, as long as they had airbases close enough. They certainly couldn’t send jet fighters from the US Mainland due to range. The 7th fleet would probably be one of the most potent air asset in the region, and certainly one of the most important.
    Whilst the PLA Navy may not be the potent threat that some may like to fear, it is better to raise attention to the details of how it may pose a threat and how that may be approached, than to dismiss one way or the other and give no thought to the US Navy’s development at this juncture.

  • It’s not important that Kraska paints a picture of a Sino-US war at sea. Don’t question why he’s wrong to present the picture, start thinking of solutions.

    By the way England and Germany had a great trade relationship before WWII, didn’t prevent the war because the people in power didn’t care. In 1923 Billy Mitchell outlined in detail the Japanese plan of attack on Pearl Harbor. We ignored him and court marshaled him as well.
    The Chinese would try to push the USN out of the area to do what they want with the locals. Carriers would be threatened with the new weapon. You could shut down the USAF bases in Japan, Korea with area denial weapons. Precesion guided mutions to wipe out base airfields.
    Why not approach the worsening diplomatic situation, assuming we get any warning at all, with a little different mix. SAC bases in Diago Garcia, the Middle East and the Continental US have China in range. Numerical superiority in Chineses subs doesn’t mean much if our subs can find them first. We already did that with the Russians and the submariners out there know how it was done.
    I’ll give you a senerio. The Chinese rattle their sabers and start to deploy for the conflict. We send in our subs first, pull our Carriers back, scatter aircraft at nearby bases and start sending out Stratigic Bombers into the neighborhood to remind them that nuclear weapons and others can come from multiple directions. Maybe we will have bases and agreements with the Ukraine or even Russia.
    When the crap hits the fan the first thing we do is sink every sub we can find. Then we close the ports with a new generation of smart mines and bottle up the Chinese blue water navy. We target their supply ships first not their warships then see what needs to be done. If it’s a well coordinated effort with the Diplomats we make an effort to shut down the conflict diplomatically first, not attempt to smash each other militarily.

  • Hey Randy, thanks for your comment!

    England and Germany had a great trade relationship before WWII […]

    Not really. Germany became increasingly protectionist under the Nazis. Their ideal was self-sufficiency for Germany. What’s more, the trade relationship that exists between China and the United States today is so vast that both are dependent on one another. And not just in an economic sense.

    You haven’t answered the one question that matters though: just why would China provoke an armed conflict?

    Also read two more recent posts of mine on this subject: America’s Shadow over the South China Sea” and “How is Strategic Reassurance Working for You?

  • Ok a reply to a reply. First we don’t need a reason for a conflict to analyze the problem. But, if it will make you feel better to have a reason. Here are a few I can think of, once you get going I’m sure you’ll be able to think up a few yourself.
    Reason One: An unintentional or deliberate military incident. Somebody sinks a sub and fingers point in both directions.
    Reason two: Because the leader of China wants the conflict.
    Reason three: There is an outbreak of Bird Flu that rivals the Ebola Virus in strength. Millions are not listening to the Chinese Governemt to stay put and are pushing across local boarders, spreading the disease and killing hundreds of thousands of non-Chinese.
    Reason 4: Somebody does something stupid with their little anti-computer games. A nuclear plant melts down and thousands are killed or will die in the future from radiation.
    I hope these are acceptable, as I get older I value peace a little more and would rather talk talk and talk until where all sick of it, because when the taling stops the young men and women in the service pay for our lack of trying. OK?

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