Tag Archives: AirSea Battle

Shipping as a Repository of Strategic Vulnerability

The following article is special to our International Maritime Shipping Week. While we often discuss the threats to maritime shipping, this week looks at dangers arising from such global trade, and possible mitigations.

“Where the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together.”

                                            Julian S. Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (1911)

In a global system marked above all by its complexity and interconnectedness, dependence on international shipping is universal. Yet some nations are far more vulnerable than others. As students of naval history well know, such vulnerability is often turned into a source of strategic leverage. To what extent can this leverage actually be exploited under 21st century conditions?

The needs of a nation, the opportunity of a foe
The needs of a nation, the opportunity of a foe

The globalized economy is, in a very real sense, a system of maritime exchange. As Thomas Friedman points out, as much as any other recent innovation, it was the shipping container that shaped our daily lives by making the economic transformation of the late 20th Century possible.[1] In the past two decades alone, the volume of sea-borne commerce has more than doubled, from 4 billion tons in 1990 to 8.7 billion tons in 2011. According to the International Maritime Organization, if the overall trend of trade growth observed over the last one and a half centuries continues, the figure will be 23 billion tons in 2060. And, while the exact share of global trade in goods that is moved by is a matter of some debate, it is sea well in excess of 75 percent by most reckonings. Further, it is clear that only cheap and plentiful shipping in a secure maritime environment can sustain this transformation. As a result, the stakes in international shipping are widespread.

But while any nation that wishes to prosper in the current global environment shares in the global dependency on shipping, the vulnerabilities that arise from it are distributed unevenly. This is mainly for two reasons: First, the degree to which specific nations sustain themselves by means of ship-borne imports, and to which they found their prosperity upon maritime exports, varies greatly. Secondly, depending inter alia on a country’s geopolitical setting, it will be more or less able to manipulate the degree to which it has to rely on shipping for its economic security. A resource-rich, continental-size state with landward access to sizeable markets – like Russia – has serious alternatives to maritime transportation. A small island nation with an export-oriented economy that runs on imported hydrocarbons – such as Taiwan – does not. It is where dependency gives rise to vulnerability that it turns into a potential source of leverage for outside powers.

Targeting Shipping for Strategic Effect

In what ways can vulnerabilities in the area of maritime transportation be exploited for strategic effect? There is, of course, a whole spectrum of options available to would-be-predators. Unilateral or multilateral sanctions have been a mechanism of choice since the end of the Cold War. But historically, it has been direct military action against the opponent´s shipping that has had the greatest impact on trade. Two main methods of waging war on commercial shipping can be distinguished, at least at an analytical level: (1) the blockade, and (2) guerre de course, or commerce raiding. The blockade relies on concentration and persistence to choke off the flow of sea-borne goods into enemy harbors, and as such will usually require some form of command of the sea. Commerce raiding, on the other hand, relies on dispersed, attritional attacks by individual vessels (or small groups of vessels), which makes it an attractive option for navies that find themselves in a position of inferiority. Both methods leverage the disruption of shipping to impose a cumulative toll on the adversary’s economy, which is expected to have a significant indirect impact on the war effort and/or erode the opponent´s will to resist.

Recsuing the survivorsHistorical examples of shipping being turned into a strategic lever are abundant. In the age of sail, preying on adversaries’ commerce was an integral part of most naval campaigns, including those of the Dutch Wars, the Seven Years’ War, and the Wars of the French Revolution. While it was seldom decisive, it was often “exceedingly painful,”[2] as Colin Gray observes. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, innovations in naval technology all but brought to its termination the “close blockade” of enemy harbors while also providing means – the submarine, torpedo, and naval mine – that would transform guerre de course into a method of total warfare. Much ink has been spilled on Germany’s failed – and strategically counterproductive – attempts subdue Britain by way of Handelskrieg (the German variation of commerce raiding), while a slightly more specialized literature focuses on the “distant blockades” of Germany that were a key feature of British naval operations in both World Wars.  However the case of Japan is most the instructive for the purposes at hand.

An island nation with an extremely circumscribed resource base, Japan was utterly dependent on ship-borne imports of a range of raw (and precursor) materials. In a very real sense, the Empire´s huge naval modernization program during the 1930s was based on its maritime commerce with the United States. Among other things, the U.S. covered 80 percent of Japanese liquid fuel needs. Given its political and military trajectory, Japan´s demand for key commodities was highly inelastic. The only alternative to trade with the United States and other potential adversaries was the unilateral extraction of resources from Japan´s near abroad – which could decrease its dependence on this particular foreign power, but (crucially) not on maritime transportation. When war came, the U.S. was able to exploit this vulnerability to devastating effect. Despite the many operational and technical inadequacies revealed by its initial operations in 1941-42, the U.S. Navy´s all-out war on Japanese shipping eventually came as close to strategically decisive as can reasonably be expected from any indirect use of military power.[3] Aided by the dire lack of defensive measures on the part of the Imperial Japanese armed forces, U.S. submarines alone sent more than 1,100 Japanese merchantmen to the bottom, and nearly as many were sunk by aircraft and mines. By the spring of 1945, Japanese sea-borne logistics had virtually ceased to exist, and so had Japan´s ability to sustain its war effort.

It has been suggested that other attempts throughout history at disrupting shipping flows might well have been equally successful in exploiting strategic vulnerabilities, had it not been for the predators´ “technical incapacity, operational ineptitude, and policy incompetence […] in the conduct of commerce raiding.”[4] Whether this assessment is accurate or not, there is little doubt that – despite the moral opprobrium that has often accompanied attacks on civilian vessels – the vulnerable dependence on sea-borne trade can be exploited to considerable effect. What relevance this finding might possess in an era of global economic integration is, however, much less clear.

Execute against China?

Until very recently, the explosion of maritime trade supporting economic globalization has not resulted in a resurgence of military strategies based on the (selective) disruption of international shipping. An important exception has been Iran´s focus on the Strait of Hormuz, which has played a critical role in Iranian strategic thinking since the 1980s. But it is the rise of China that has reignited naval strategists´ interest in shipping as a source of strategic vulnerability.

One set of scenarios that has been debated in detail involves Chinese offensive operations against Taiwan´s economic lifeline.  Given the island´s vulnerable dependency on shipping and the enduring limitations of the People´s Liberation Army with regard to a full-scale invasion, it is hardly surprising that the imposition of a coercive blockade should hold some appeal in PLA planning circles.

Considerably greater attention has been attracted, however, by the possibility that the People´s Republic might itself become the target of offensive military action against the sea-borne commerce on which the integrity of its economic model stamds. After all, 90 percent of China’s exports and 90 percent of its liquid fuel imports – which, as Sean Mirski observes are “functionally irreplaceable”[5] – are transported by sea. The oft-cited ‘Malacca dilemma’ is but one expression of a suspicion that now unites an increasing number of strategic thinkers, both Chinese and foreign: namely, that its dependence on maritime transportation may prove to be China´s Achilles’ heel on its way to greatness.

While the vulnerability of the PRC’s sea lines of communications has become an official justification for naval expansion and a rallying cry for naval nationalists, it is also a focal point for U.S. strategizing in the context of increasing access challenges in the Western Pacific. Thus, a blockade of Chinese (or rather China-bound) shipping has been debated both as an element of, and as an alternative to, the AirSea Battle Concept that is designed to enable operations in the face of an anti-access/area-denial challenge, such as U.S. military planners anticipate in case of conflict along the Chinese periphery.

Shipping LanesWhile Western treatments of the subject tend to agree that a blockade would be militarily feasible – given an adequate investment of resources – and could have a very considerable impact on the Chinese economy, the assumptions under which they arrive at these conclusions are extremely restrictive. For example, Mirski assumes that (1) the U.S.-China conflict in question would not be limited in scope, yet would stop well short of nuclear use, (2) the U.S. would find itself in the position of defender of the status quo against a blatantly aggressive China, (3) the U.S. would be able to build a coalition that includes Russia, India, and Japan; and (4) under these conditions, a ‘sink-on-sight’ policy towards civilian vessels in China’s near seas would be politically viable. Even with these preconditions, he concludes that despite the American blockade “China would be able to meet its military needs indefinitely.”[6]

Recent publications also points to changes in the nature of international shipping itself as potential complicating factors: in a prospective blockade scenario, few – if any – civilian vessels would fly the Chinese flag and, given the practice of selling and reselling cargo on spot markets, a ship´s final destination might not be known until it actually enters port.[7] But while Mirski’s proposal of instituting a system of digital navigational certification is ingenious, he dodges the broader question of how the United States and the nations of the Asia-Pacific would deal with the myriad repercussions of what would amount to a major disruption of the globalized economic sphere for an extended period of time.

Conclusion: Return of the commerce raiders?

If nothing else, the current debate about a U.S. naval blockade of China reveals that – much like their predecessors in past centuries – strategists in a globalized era see shipping as a repository of strategic vulnerability, particularly in cases of high-intensity conflict between great or medium-size powers. But while the potential leverage to be gained from nations’ dependence on international shipping is perhaps greater than ever before, the actual leverage might not correspond to planners’ expectations. The sources of this disconnect lie primarily in the political and economic context in which any concerted military action against sea-borne trade would be embedded. Given the U.S. Navy’s determined stewardship of freedom of navigation, the U.S. in particular would find itself on the wrong side of the norms it has been upholding for the past 60 years. And while the economic fall-out of any great power war is likely to be significant, the willful disruption of trade flows for strategic effect would only serve to accentuate the costs to regional allies and global trading partners.

As a result, unrestricted commerce warfare of the type pursued by the U.S. Navy against Japan in 1941-45 is just not in the cards. On the other hand, anything short of a strategically counterproductive ‘sink-on-sight’ policy might not produce sufficient strategic impact to justify the cost of embarking on such a risky course of action in the first place. Finally, once we move beyond the context of open interstate warfare, multilateral economic sanctions offer the possibility of causing many of the same effects at markedly lower cost to the attacker’s international standing.

Overall, the recent surge of interest in economic warfare strategies does little to encourage faith in the potential decisiveness of military actions against globalized trade, and serves to underline the practical and political challenges presented by any attempt at leveraging the vulnerabilities of a major trading power under 21st-century conditions. While the dependence on international shipping poses many risks, the strategic leverage it provides as a direct result of its crucial contribution to the prosperity of nations is now more apparent than real.

Michael Haas is a researcher with the Global Security Team at the Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich. The views presented above are his alone. Michael tweets @the_final_stand.

[1] Thomas L. Friedman (2006), The World Is Flat: The Globalised World in the Twenty-first Century (London: Penguin), 468.

[2] Colin S. Gray (1992), The Leverage of Sea Power: The Strategic Advantage of Navies in War (New York: Free Press), 13.

[3] Robert A. Pape (1996), Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP), 100-01.

[4] Gray 1992, 13.

[5] Sean Mirski (2013), “Stranglehold: The Context, Conduct and Consequences of an American Naval Blockade of China,” Journal of Strategic Studies 36:3, 389.

[6] Mirski 2013, 416.

[7] Ibid., 402; Gabriel B. Collins and William S. Murray (2008), “No Oil for the Lamps of China?,” Naval War College Review 61:2, 84.

Beyond AirSea: Quick Thoughts

I had the privilege of today attending a debate at the Center for National Policy on “Asia and the Future of American Strategy.” (the audio and video are included in the link and I encourage readers to check it out). It featured friend of the forum Cdr. Bryan McGrath (Ret.), Dr. T.X. Hammes, Col, USMC (Ret.), and free cookies.

Dr. Hammes described the occasion for the debate as the dearth of strategic thinking over how the U.S. would actually prosecute a war against China should it find itself in the completely undesirable position of being in one. He said the “Pivot to Asia” had not been accompanied by deep strategic thinking, and that misunderstandings over the Pentagon’s “AirSea Battle” has “sucked the air out of the room” for that discussion. To the point, over at the Brookings Institute this morning, the Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Greenert said that AirSea Batte is “a concept, a way of thinking things through, a conceptual approach to establishing access.” In other words, something closer to a Sun Tzu-esque guiding principle than a fully fleshed-out strategy.

With the Pivot, the spotlight is on Asia. With the AirSea Battle the U.S. knows the main actors it intends to cast. But they roles they’ll play, and how they’ll work together are unclear. Dr. Hammes laid out a summary of the thesis of his article “Offshore Control: A Proposed Strategy, available in the Infinity Journal. He argued that by building defensive capabilities and defensive alliances along China’s first two island chains, from Japan through Malaysia, and focusing on a war of economic attrition (establishing a maritime exclusion zone, and conducting maritime interdiction ops and submarine warfare to enforce it) the U.S. could forgo the need to develop and deploy deep-strike penetration capabilities. This would, in the event of a conflict, help negate the Chinese focus on anti-access/area-denial by effectively ceding the areas within their range (for the time being) and establishing “offshore control” to bring the Chinese government to the negotiating table.

There is much merit in this approach, and I am thankful for the bold attempt at a strategy. I plan on taking up the gauntlet thrown down Dr. Hammes in a more in-depth post – if not to develop my own divergent strategy, then to at least hopefully help move the discussion forward.

For now, these are some of my own initial thoughts along, with some of the counterpoints that Bryan did a good job in bringing forth:


To deter, defeat, or bring together.

1. Dr. Hammes took as a starting point that the U.S. has been drawn into a war with China, and from there proceeded to list the ends, ways, and means to bring it to a conclusion. The means derived from this strategy were primarily those that would support the defense of the island chains and prosecute the economic war. But are these the same means one would develop if the mission was focused instead on deterring war? Bryan’s main point of divergence was along this line, as his core concepts: “Presence, Assurance, Deterrence, Power,” may be better served by the higher-end assets Dr. Hammes hopes to cut to find cost savings. In a stand-off over any particular piece of rock, is China more likely to begin a conflict if it (or a over-ambitious on-scene commander) believes it can forcefully seize the immediate objective? The tools that would allow the U.S. to win a long, drawn-out conflict are not necessarily the same as those that would effectively deter it from beginning in the first place.

The difficulty of determining this lies in the difficulty of determining how China would enter into a conflict with America. Most probably it would not be a decision so much as a stumble – a minor squabble with an American ally that through human error ends in bloodshed and a refusal to back down. But there are many possible variables. So if China didn’t think it was entering into conflict, the knowledge that America had an effective strategy for ending it on its own terms might not deter China – but then again neither might a nearby aircraft carrier if China doesn’t expect it to come to the aid of a beleaguered friend.

2. In order to bring the conflict to a close, Dr. Hammes’ strategy relies on a measure of China face-saving since the conflict would undoubtedly generate high-pitched nationalism in the country. As a reporter for the Asia Times detailed on Tuesday on China’s current stand-off with the Philippines:

many common Chinese people are inclined to take a harder line on the dispute than their government itself. I recently asked a Chinese friend about the ongoing dispute, and he, who declined to be identified, told me “Everyone wants to go to war with the Philippines. They say the government is being too weak.” I asked him why a dispute over a small island has taken on such significance. He said, “Chinese people care much about face, and the Philippines is a small country.”

It is unclear how a face-saving measure would be possible if the dispute begins with a territory grab, short of allowing the Chinese to maintain their new possession. Sure, there’s room for clever diplomacy, perhaps both sides agreeing to submit a claim for international resolution, but a focus on limited capabilities to serve limited aims removes the ability to enact higher psychological costs (letting the population see the full impact of war), if it continues to push the government to not back down from the initial claim or cause of the conflict. This is not to say it’s not worth the trade-off, or that strikes “going downtown” would be productive, but as Bryan pointed, the benefit of the option should be considered before it is given up.

3. The importance of allies and world opinion plays a heavy role in this strategy. While the U.S. can supply hardware, maintain bases, and jointly operate all it wants with its allies in the region, when the chips are down, it will come down to the specifics of the conflict to determine which way the allies go. The economic consequences of cutting off trade with China will be economically disastrous for not only America and China, but America’s allies as well. As Dr. Hammes admitted, China’s strategy is to attack America’s alliances, so you can bet it would try to exploit reluctance to fulfill military commitments. It may be hard for South Korean leaders to risk their nation’s military, economic livelihood, and subsequent constituents’ ire over a conflict escalating from a fishing dispute in say Malaysia.


In review.

4. Similarly, the backlash against the U.S. from friends and partners around the globe could be immense if the U.S. loses the public relations battle over the necessity for the economic disruption. There would be hostility at the intrusive enforcement no matter the length, and its legality would be questioned as there would be no Security Council resolutions since China is of course a veto-wielding member of the Security Council. The need to interdict overland routes in South East Asia in countries unwilling to sign on to the effort could also pose enormous challenges. It is unclear how the U.S. would be able to maintain its position for long if the end does not appear in the near-term, but much again depends on the circumstances.

5. U.S. domestic pressure may become equally, quickly tired. If it is “only” an ally that has suffered a lose of territory or lives there may be a temptation to cut our losses. I would not be surprised to hear voices ask “is it really worth it?” This could happen no matter the strategy, but could be magnified if the fight is portrayed as passive. Conversely, if the lives of Americans have been lost there could be enormous pressure to “go downtown” from the start, and again especially if the pace of the conflict were to drag. What may start as a calculated strategy to maximize American defensive advantages could be turned into a campaign of power projection by overwhelming domestic pressure, only without the capabilities to do it effectively.

5. Lastly, the enemy gets a vote. Part of Dr. T.X. Hammes’ strategy includes broadly advertising both the defensive nature and general concepts of the plan. While Kurt Albaugh in an earlier post on LCS talked about the benefits of clarified intentions, the Chinese would nonetheless begin to focus their efforts on developing effective counters for the strategy and strive to keep them far from the public eye.

This is a great start to thinking about our strategic posture in Asia. Despite the above criticisms, I found much to commend Dr. Hammes’ strategy. To their credit, Dr. Hammes and Bryan both admit they don’t have all the answers, and I’ve shown so far I only have questions, but I look forward to the continuing discussion.