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The Navy’s Newest Nemesis: Hypersonic Weapons

By Jon Isaac

Introduction

In January 2019, Chinese Communist Party leaders announced that the newest iteration of their DF-17 missile system was being designed to overwhelm and sink U.S. aircraft carriers and surface combatants stationed in the West Pacific. According to official statements from the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF), a targeted salvo of eight hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) set aloft by DF-17s would swamp a surface vessel’s close-in point defenses and annihilate it through incredible transfers of kinetic energy. This type of inflammatory language is not new and Chinese officials have been known to exaggerate the capabilities of their military. However, discussion of the DF-17 and similar weapon systems as conventional, theater-level assets, rather than the strategic nuclear capabilities generally associated with hypersonic missiles, poses a set of very serious and immediate threats to decision-makers in Washington.

Rather than continue the popular trend of treating hypersonic weapons primarily as delivery mechanisms for nuclear warheads aimed at strategic targets, China has been quick to utilize the technology to augment its theater-level Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) capabilities. Such developments suggest that the most critical threat posed by hypersonic weapons is not strategic, but tactical, operational, and conventional. A focus on hypersonic weapons as operational threats is not a novel concept, though it merits further review as near-peer adversaries continue to develop hypersonic capabilities. Michael Griffin, Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, argued recently that the “tactical capability that these sorts of weapons bring to theater conflicts or regional conflicts” is at the core of the hypersonic threat.

Most service branches seem to have adopted a view similar to Griffin’s, with the Army, Air Force, and Navy all independently developing hypersonic platforms intended for a myriad of tactical and operational purposes. For the Navy, however, hypersonics could represent a tectonic shift in weapons technology on par with the decline of battleships and the rise of the aircraft carrier during the Second World War. Indeed, Russia and China’s development and deployment of hypersonic weapons could challenge the decades-long assumption that U.S. naval assets can operate with complete freedom of movement and comparatively little legitimate threat to their survivability. While anti-ship cruise missiles or attack aircraft can be countered through point defense batteries, electronic countermeasures, or even directed energy systems, conventionally armed hypersonic weapons could likely render existing defenses ineffective. As such, with the focus on conventional hypersonics on the rise, the operational impacts of hypersonic weapons systems on the US Navy merit analysis and could prompt a series of doctrinal shifts which could then enhance surface survivability in the hypersonic era. Before engaging in any such analysis, however, one must first grapple with the concept of hypersonics as a whole.

What is a Hypersonic Weapon?

Hypersonic missiles and glide projectiles are those which travel at least Mach 5, or five times faster than the speed of sound. In round numbers, this equates to a speed of about a mile a second. For comparison, even the quickest modern fighters generally top out around Mach 2, with only specialized aircraft capable of reaching Mach 3. Once an airframe reaches Mach 4, 5, and beyond, specialized technologies like supersonic combustion ramjets, or SCRAMJETs, must be used to carve through the air. Unlike traditional jet engines, SCRAMJETs use no moving parts or machinery to direct and combust air, thereby making them incredibly efficient at plowing an airframe through the sky at incredibly high speeds.

Though manned hypersonic flight has occurred in the past, most notably with USAF Major Robert White’s 1961 flight in the NASA X-15, today the technology is most promising when used to propel unmanned vehicles and missiles. Presently, most high-profile hypersonic weapons utilize either SCRAMJET propulsion, as is the case with hypersonic cruise missiles, or are unpowered glide vehicles which are propelled to extreme altitudes by ballistic missile systems, only to turn back towards the surface and glide at extreme speeds towards their targets on a non-ballistic trajectory. This distinction is important, as both hypersonic cruise missiles (HCM) and hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV) are being touted as globally destabilizing weapons systems.

Put simply, hypersonic missiles are dangerously fast. So fast, in fact, that they are relatively impervious to currently fielded missile defense technology. Theater level missile defense systems like Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) batteries and the Patriot point-defense missile systems are designed to counter ballistic weapons which fly on relatively predictable speeds and flight trajectories. Conversely, hypersonic cruise missiles and glide vehicles can move erratically and at such incredible speeds so as to render existing defenses mostly irrelevant.

The value of such capability has not gone unnoticed by adversaries. Russia, for example, successfully tested a hypersonic glide vehicle known as Avangard just this past December. The weapon, they claim, is capable of reaching terminal glide speeds of almost 27 times the speed of sound. The validity of that speed claim has been disputed by a number of experts and defense media outlets, but one thing is known for sure – the weapon exists and the weapon works. Meanwhile, China spent most of 2018 conducting more hypersonic weapons tests than the United States has conducted in the past decade. America’s adversaries have funneled enough resources and manpower into developing hypersonic weapons to raise some eyebrows in Washington, not the least of which include the United States Navy. 

What Does This Mean for the Navy?

Since the end of the Second World War, the U.S. Navy has been able to operate with relative impunity throughout the world’s oceans. At the center of American postwar maritime dominance is the aircraft carrier. While hulking battleships of old held the status of capital ships in U.S. fleets, aircraft carriers rose to prominence as the crown jewel of American power projection. As a result, aircraft carrier battle groups have stood at the cornerstone of American power projection strategy in the late 20th and early 21st centuries and have been able to impose their will (and firepower) upon almost any target on the globe. Much in line with the Mahanian fleet doctrines which helped to drive America to victory in the Pacific, modern surface warfare strategies have seen the Navy organize its fleets and surface action groups around a prime directive, protect the aircraft carrier. To date, this strategy has proven successful (albeit with no serious tests in actual combat), with submarine screens, active electronic warfare measures, air defense umbrellas, and AEGIS-equipped surface assets acting as an impenetrable wall behind which America’s flattops are safe from any potential foe.

What happens, then, when new technologies render virtually all existing missile defense and point defense assets ineffective? What happens when the very foundation of modern American maritime dominance, the aircraft carrier battle group, is held at risk by missiles and high-trajectory, high-speed kinetic glide vehicles which are, as admitted by the Pentagon, extremely challenging to existing missile defenses?

This is the fundamental problem with which the Navy must now address. It must be noted, however, that this type of threat against the carrier battle group is not entirely new to the surface warfare community. For example, China’s decades-long development efforts and eventual deployment of Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles (ASCM) and Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles (ASBM) as core to its A2/AD network brought into question the viability of the carrier battle group and questioned whether the hulking warships had a future in a modern battlespace. For the past decade, analysts debated the ramifications of Chinese anti-ship missile capabilities, with increased debate on the topic springing about within the Obama-era Air-Sea Battle concept. A primary feature of the Chinese threat is the reality that increased ASCM and ASBM capabilities may force American carrier battlegroups further out to sea to avoid closing range between themselves and anti-ship missile batteries on shore. In response, analysts have prescribed everything from increased escort vessels to the newly-awarded MQ-25 Stingray Carrier-Based Aerial-Refueling System (CBARS) as ways to increase carrier survivability. These prescriptions have offered a diverse set of solutions, with the former hoping to deny ASCM/ASMB strikes through conventional air defense and the latter ensuring carrier battle group effectiveness by increasing the reach of conventional strike fighters. In short, threats to the carrier battle group are not new. What makes hypersonics different?

Unlike conventional ASCMs, ASBMs, and other A2/AD threats, there is currently no technological counter to the hypersonic threat. Existing joint efforts between the service branches and DARPA, like the recently announced Glide Breaker program, have endeavored to come up with a viable defense to stop hypersonic weapons from bypassing existing missile defense networks. Unfortunately, no immediately viable kinetic counter-hypersonic technologies have been identified or developed. To make matters worse, top defense officials in the Pentagon’s technology development offices have diagnosed that even existing radar systems would be unable to adequately track and identify a hypersonic threat, to say nothing of prosecuting or defeating such a threat.

The news is not all bad, however. For example, space based sensor arrays have been touted by DOD officials as viable means for “warning, launch detection, surveillance, acquisition, [and] tracking” of hypersonic threats. Similarly, despite the technological challenges, offices like the DOD’s Missile Defense Agency and DARPA have charged ahead at examining high-saturation kinetic projectiles and even directed energy weapons as potential means for destroying hypersonics on a strategic level. While these efforts are all well and good, however, their technological immaturity and prohibitive cost betray the lack of capability to protect American naval assets from hypersonics in the next few years.

Clearly, then, to address the hypersonic threat in the immediate short-term, the Navy cannot rely on technological development and the traditional edge offered by American technological dominance. Instead of looking to laboratories and development houses for hardware tools to counter the threat of hypersonic weapons, the Navy must look to its own assets and shift traditional surface warfare doctrines to ensure survivability. Three doctrinal shifts stand out as potential options for responding to the theater-based use of conventional hypersonics, each with varying levels of plausibility and effectiveness.

Potential Fleet Options

First, a decreased reliance on the concentrated “porcupine” structure of a carrier battle group in favor of distributed use of destroyers, cruisers, smaller LHD flattops, and even LPD transport docks could provide adversaries with such a widely spread set of targets so as to make concentrated hypersonic attack, like the “eight salvo” mission as described by Chinese authorities, unfeasible. By disaggregating targets around carrier battle groups, the Navy could deny its adversaries the ability to reach the concentration levels of hypersonic firepower needed to effectively eliminate the target. This shift is not without its faults. The notion of networked and distributed surface operations is not a new one and blunders in attempting to implement this type of fleet structure in the past have been the bane of the surface Navy. Moreover, the act of distributing and decreasing the density of American warships in a surface action group or carrier battle group could limit the power projection capabilities of such a force, thereby hindering one of the Navy’s core missions.

A second option posits that further utilization of unmanned undersea assets and existing nuclear-powered submarines may prove to be an effective way to address some of the shortcomings brought about by a more vulnerable carrier battle group. For example, increased development and deployment of guided missile submarines, be they conventional boats like the Navy’s modified Ohio-class SSGNs or emerging unmanned options like Boeing’s Orca/Echo Voyager XLUUV platform, would provide the Navy with several far-forward domain capabilities. Such assets would allow the Navy to field missile strike and reconnaissance assets closer to adversary coastlines without bringing surface assets into the effective reach of hypersonic weapons. While submarines will never be able to field their own independent combat air wing or project visible American power in the same way a carrier can, they could engage in some of the maritime patrol and missile strike projection operations previously led by carrier battle groups. Again, this is not an impervious solution since many of the key operations shouldered by aircraft carriers are unique to their incredible deterrence and firepower projection capabilities.

Finally, DARPA and the Department of the Navy have highlighted increased conventional missile deterrence and conventional disruption operations as potential routes for driving adversaries to “think twice” in the use of their hypersonic missiles in the first place. As argued by Robert Farley, a professor at the Army War College in Carlisle, PA, there are an incredibly complex series of decisions and steps which must go off without a hitch for an adversary to successfully conduct a strike against a carrier battle group. “Disrupting any single one,” Farley writes, “can slow or entirely avoid the attack.” As such, the Navy could structure its fleet doctrines and operational focuses to counter the myriad of technologies which support a hypersonic strike, rather than attempt to counter the hypersonic weapon itself. For example, targeted jamming of missile guidance nodes around the region or destruction of the aircraft and satellites which are required to guide such a weapon to its target. This notion spreads beyond merely Navy-commanded operations, with cyber-attacks on networked hypersonic systems standing as a possible counter to their launch and targeting.

Like with previous suggestions, this “full spectrum” approach to preventing hypersonic targeting or strike of a traditional surface group is not without its flaws. For example, preemptively engaging in any such attacks or jamming operations could escalate a tactical or immediate political situation. Though it could decrease the likelihood of a successful hypersonic strike, thereby freeing up American carrier battle groups to do what they do best, it could just as easily prove pyrrhic should the situation escalate out of control.

Still, there is no single doctrinal answer to the hypersonic threat. Instead, the Navy must be willing to evolve from the sacred and historically effective Mahanian capital-ship doctrine which it has adhered to in the past and adopt surface organization tactics which decrease the likelihood of a hypersonic attack in the first place and minimize the potential effectiveness of such an attack should it take place.

Conclusion

For the past few months, press sources have been flooding the internet with stories about impervious hypersonic weapons which could deliver nuclear warheads onto targets in the American homeland quickly and with no warning. While the hypersonic nuclear threat is a valid one, focusing on it betrays the real threat posed by conventional hypersonic systems which are not subject to the deterrent effects of the American nuclear triad. Conventional operational use of hypersonic weapons could render existing naval surface asset structures ineffective. Rather than rely on the historically dominant American tech sector, however, the Navy must address the short-term threats posed by hypersonics through evolution of warfighting doctrine, tactics, and fleet organization. Just as aviation development brought a close to the age of the battleship, hypersonic weapons could bring to end the age of the traditional carrier battle group.

Jon Isaac is a pseudonym for a developing security analyst.

Featured Image: Ground crew members make the final checks to the X-51A Waverider scramjet, which is affixed to an Edwards B-52H Stratofortress before being flown over the Pacific Ocean and launched June 13, 2011. (Photo by Bob Ferguson/Boeing)

The Space Force Needs Policy and Strategy, Part 1

By Tuan N. Pham

Last year on June 18, President Donald Trump directed the Department of Defense (DoD) to establish the “Space Force.” The Space Force would be a distinct but equal military service to the Air Force, which has presided over U.S. military space operations since the establishment of an Air Force major command (Space Command) in 1982, subsequent elevation to a unified combatant command (U.S. Space Command) in 1985, and then finally relegation back into the U.S. Air Force as the Air Force Space Command years later. On August 9, the president further instructed DoD to immediately begin the process to establish a Space Force as the sixth branch of the armed forces. On October 23, the National Space Council served up six recommendations to the president to further advance the establishment and sustainment of the proposed sixth military branch. The recommendations call for a unified space command to be known as U.S. Space Command; a legislative proposal for a Space Force; a funding plan in the FY2020 budget; an interagency authorities review; a joint Space Development Agency for technology procurement; and strengthened relationships between military space and the intelligence community. On December 18, the president ordered the Pentagon to re-establish the U.S. Space Command as a unified combatant command for space operations. Two days later, the president announced the Space Force will reside within the Department of the Air Force.

Since the President’s directives, subsequent think tank and media commentaries have focused largely on the necessity for a Space Force. This includes the imperative to counter Chinese (and Russian) growing space ambitions and capabilities, and managing the multitude of bureaucratic, budgetary, doctrinal, command relationship, and legal implications and challenges to establish the sixth military service.

One of the more thoughtful and insightful analysis on the imperative to counter growing Chinese space ambitions and capabilities – in terms of great powers competition – was written by Namrata Goswami in The Diplomat. In the article titled “Waking Up to China’s Space Dream,” he posited that the “political vision for space, championed by the Chinese leadership, is to build internal capacity that can support a space presence and establish dominance and industrialization that would in turn enhance the national rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Underscoring Goswami’s point, China’s Chang’e-4 lunar probe made the world’s first landing on the far side of the moon on January 3, and Beijing announced shortly thereafter more lunar missions later in the year to lay the groundwork for a moon base and an ambitious plan to explore Mars by 2020. 

Interestingly, Chinese media and punditry have also offered their opinions on the proposed U.S. Space Force, most notably the People Liberation Army’s (PLA) Daily and Global Times (subsidiary of the PLA Daily). The former proffered a Chinese assessment of U.S. challenges and opportunities. The Chinese authors surprisingly understood the complexity and nuances of U.S. space policies and operations and the underlying politics and bureaucracy involved. The latter asserted that “outer space has been a place of peace…the United Nations resolutely opposes the militarization of outer space and all countries have remained constrained in terms of their research of military space systems…by establishing a Space Force the United States has started an outer space arms race.” The provocative (and perhaps contradictory) statement was made despite the 2015 establishment of the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF), and recent plans by the PLA Air Force to expand its presence in space. The PLASSF, China’s own Space Force, consolidated, integrated, and synchronized all of its space, cyber, and electronic warfare capabilities under one umbrella organization.

More strategic guidance is needed to guide and manage the operations of the new U.S. Space Force. Hence, this is part one of a three-part series that revisits past recommendations for a new U.S. space policy and strategy in terms of ends, ways, and means – freedom of space, space preeminence, and full-spectrum space deterrence, respectively. Part two will take a step back for strategic context and re-examine a conceptual framework characterizing the dynamics that contribute to instability and stability in the space domain. Part three will then discuss suggestions on how America (through the Space Force) can promote stability while prolonging U.S. space preeminence into the 21st century…additional considerations for U.S. policymakers as they develop a new strategic guidance for the Space Force. Altogether, these erstwhile proposals have become more relevant and acceptable with the passage of the new muscular National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, and can help provide a strategic framework for space operations, as well as advocacy for space requirements and capabilities.

Freedom of Space (Ends)

One of the principal goals of current U.S. strategic guidance for space – 2010 National Space Policy, 2011 National Security Space Strategy, and 2012 DoD Space Policy– is maintaining the stability, sustainability, and free access to and use of space for all. They specifically call for the conduct of space operations without interference and in ways that promote transparency and enable the sharing of benefits provided by the peaceful use of space. These lofty and benevolent U.S. goals are consistent with those of the United Nations that supports the conduct of space activities for peaceful purposes and the benefit of all mankind.

There are historical precedents for guiding the consideration of universal space security and stability, the naval precedent perhaps foremost. For more than 500 years, great nations (maritime powers) maintained powerful and globally deployed navies to guarantee the freedom of the seas for all (net providers of maritime security), a pre-condition for international trade, economic development, and global prosperity underwritten by naval power ensuring the free flow of maritime commerce. Hence, there is a strong need going forward for a comparable guarantor of the freedom of space (net provider of space security) to ensure the free flow of space commerce, a leadership role that calls out to America, with allied support to fill. 

Space Preeminence (Ways)

Just as maritime preeminence is necessary to guarantee the freedom of the seas, so too is space preeminence needed to guarantee the freedom of space. The extant strategic guidance implicitly acknowledged the necessity of space preeminence to enable the stated goals, but stopped short of explicitly affirming them outright. The next space policy and strategy should openly and fully commit America to maintaining that “degree of preeminence in space of one force over another that permits the conduct of operations by the former at a given time and place without prohibitive interference by the opposing force (freedom of action).” If not, the United States may unwisely cede this critical domain to China (and Russia).

In its latest white paper on space published in December 2016, Beijing reaffirmed its strategic intent to use its rapidly growing space program (largely military space) to transform itself into a military, economic, and technological power in accordance with its strategic plan for national rejuvenation (the Chinese Dream). Ye Peijian, the head of China’s lunar exploration program, remarked that the high grounds of space will bear directly on Chinese strategic interests in the coming decades. He made references to the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands and Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal, and suggested that China sees space in terms of astro-strategic terrain rather than simply the focus of scientific exploration: 

“The universe is an ocean, the moon is the Diaoyu Islands (Senkaku), Mars is Huangyan Island (Scarborough). If we don’t go there now even though we’re capable of doing so, then we will be blamed by our descendants. If others go there, then they will take over, and you won’t be able to go even if you want to. This is reason enough.”

Full-Spectrum Space Deterrence (Means)

Many space strategists view space deterrence through the doctrinal lens of denying benefit, imposing cost, and encouraging restraint. On the whole, the current strategic guidance appears to rely heavily on denying benefit (resilience; mission assurance; shared reliance; and capability and capacity to operate in and through a degraded, disrupted, or denied space environment) to deter and defeat aggression by blunting the adversary’s offensive counter-space (OCS) capabilities. The other viable deterrent tools (threat of preemption, active defense, and redline) appear neither considered nor accepted. This limiting take on space deterrence is largely rooted in the hopeful belief of assured resilience, and therefore may have put too much confidence on denying benefit at the expense of imposing cost and encouraging restraint. U.S. policymakers may want to consider adopting a broader, more complete, and more balanced approach toward space deterrence if it hopes to “fully” deter or make a potential adversary think that starting a war or escalating a conflict would be worse than not doing so – particularly if that potential adversary is less reliant on space capabilities than America.

Tactical Preemption and Active Defense

The language and tone of the standing strategic guidance are largely ambiguous in terms of deterrence. The vague and imprecise language can be inadvertently misinterpreted by a potential adversary as perceived U.S. willingness to absorb a possibly disabling first strike, and could encourage a highly destabilizing preemptive attack since America has far more to lose in terms of warfighting capabilities than the attacker due to the offense-inclined nature of space conflict itself. Holding space assets at risk seems far easier and cheaper than defending them considering the wide range of threat vectors, large target sets, and predictable satellite orbital profiles. Moreover, absorbing such a first strike with all of its potential destructiveness, and then striking back against an adversary fully anticipating a retaliatory strike, can be militarily unsound and risky.

In space, offense dominance scales up – “a power that strikes aggressively should be, in theory, able to get the upper hand, or at least get the greatest possible use of whatever OCS it has invested in.” Thus, employment of tactical preemption and tactical active defense may be appropriate. “Tactical preemption” is the use of military power to deny an adversary specific terrain or gains by attacking potential imminent threats before they can be employed. “Tactical active defense” is the interception and disruption of an imminent attack before it can affect its intended target. Including related language into the next strategic guidance can keep all deterrent options on the table, and coupled with resilience and declaratory statements (redlines), may give greater pause to any potential adversary contemplating a highly destabilizing first strike.

Redlines

Declaratory statement of redlines – actions beyond which would trigger a significant U.S. response – is one important means to shape and influence a potential adversary’s risk perception and calculus, lower the likelihood of misinterpretation, promote transparency, and encourage restraint. Declarative redlines make it explicit that certain actions carry unacceptable risks and consequences, and clearly lay out the conditions and willingness to inflict unacceptable retaliatory damage or destruction. In contrast, “ambiguity in deterrent threats, often held up as strategically artful, may actually encourage a potential adversary’s miscalculation and lead to greater risk taking.” To be effective, redlines need to be credible. Potential adversaries will not take redlines seriously if Washington does not back-up them up with concrete and consistent actions.

Current U.S. declaratory space statements are deliberately vague to provide national leaders a wide range of policy options. The unintended consequences of such political flexibility might be a potential adversary not knowing what to expect, being surprised by the response, and misinterpreting the intent of the response. Therefore, declaratory statements may be warranted for military space capabilities relating to missile warning and C2 of nuclear forces and positioning, navigation, and timing systems relating to key force-projection capabilities. Attacks (kinetic and non-kinetic) on these critical military space systems should be declared unacceptable and that they will be met with “dire” consequences – keeping the consequences deliberately vague in this case. U.S. retaliation should be at the time, place, manner, and degree of own choosing. Potential adversaries do not need to know what, how, when, and where America would retaliate; just that America would in some fashion.

Offensive Counterspace Capabilities

That being said, redlines only work if they are backed up by proven capabilities to carry out the deterrent threats. The continued development, deployment, and employment of OCS capabilities is necessary to enable space warfighting capability and full-spectrum space deterrence unless military space assets can be given far greater resilience than what little they have today. A credible second strike capability requires credible OCS capabilities, preferably ones that are the least destabilizing. There is also danger for America in falling behind strategic competitors like China (and Russia) in OCS capabilities. Both nations are unilaterally and aggressively pursuing robust OCS capabilities of their own. 

The heart of the matter remains what type of OCS capabilities, how much, and to what extent should they be publicly disclosed. Regarding the former, some argue none or limited quantities are required while others call for robust OCS capabilities. Whatever the right answer may be, it is difficult to see how one can deter without “some” OCS capabilities. As for the latter, it may be best for now to keep OCS capabilities deliberately vague. Potential adversaries do not need to know what type or how much America has, just that America has the capability to act if it so chooses.   

Tuan Pham has extensive professional experience in the Indo-Pacific, and is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The views expressed therein are his own.

Featured Image: A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket blasts off from Space Launch Complex-41 carrying the second U.S. Air Force Space-Based Infrared System GEO-2 satellite March 19, 2013, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. (United Launch Alliance photo by Pat Corkery)

Ships of State: Chinese Civil-Military Fusion and the HYSY 981 Standoff

By Devin Thorne and Ben Spevack

Introduction

On a late June morning in 2014, Vietnamese fisheries inspection vessel KN 951 approached HYSY 981 (海洋石油981), a Chinese-owned mobile oil platform operating within Vietnam’s claimed exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Three Chinese state-owned commercial vessels retaliated by spraying, ramming, and chasing KN 951 for approximately 11.5 nautical miles, ultimately doing substantial damage to the Vietnamese vessel’s hull. During the pursuit, these three Chinese tugboats displayed a considerable degree of tactical coordination: there is video footage showing that two boats worked in tandem to “T-bone” KN 951 while a third tug positioned itself in front of the Vietnamese vessel to prevent it from escaping. With the fifth anniversary of the HYSY 981 standoff on the horizon, reexamining it in the context of China’s civil-military fusion concept reveals Beijing’s strategic thinking on the role China’s merchant marine could play in future conflict.

Civil-military fusion (CMF) is a defining strategic concept in China’s quest to modernize its armed forces. A core component of the concept is improving national defense mobilization for both peaceful and wartime operations by integrating civilian personnel, equipment, and capabilities with military logistics systems. Burgeoning links between civilian actors and military bodies has led to, among other developments, agreements between the Joint Logistics Support Force and civilian-owned companies, as well as agreements between such firms and specific branches of China’s armed forces. In the maritime domain, agents of China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) have supplied People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) escort ships in the Gulf of Aden. Military exercises also use commercial semi-submersible transport ships as mobile docks, with the goal of moving materiel and repairing combat-damaged warships.

Civilian-military logistical cooperation in wartime is not uncommon. Yet the HYSY 981 standoff of 2014 is a striking display of how Chinese civilian infrastructure, nominally peaceful in purpose, might be summoned to assist in achieving national security objectives outside of war and how civilian equipment could be used in conflict. It also provides further evidence for an oft-heard but difficult-to-prove claim: Beijing sees state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and their assets (as well as those of private companies) as dual-use and may consider using them aggressively to achieve China’s goals internationally.

Joint Operation

The HYSY 981 standoff began in May 2014, as a China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) mobile drilling platform moved into disputed waters south of the Paracel Islands on behalf of China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). It was the opening of a bold play to enforce Beijing’s jurisdiction over the surrounding area. The U.S. Department of Defense described the standoff as “Using [a] Hydrocarbon Rig as a Sovereignty Marker.” This apt description was presaged two years earlier at HYSY 981’s unveiling when CNOOC’s Chairman and Party Secretary lauded the platform as “mobile national territory” in 2012 and, later, described HYSY 981 as a “strategic weapon.” Vietnam protested HYSY 981’s deployment through diplomatic representations and its coast guard, law enforcement, and fishing vessels harassed HYSY 981’s mission. The standoff lasted approximately two and a half months, with clashes between Chinese and Vietnamese non-military assets a common occurrence.

The HYSY 981 standoff has been judged to be the largest joint operation between China’s three main sea forces: the PLAN, the Coast Guard (CCG), and the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM). Deployed to Vietnamese-claimed waters until July 15, 2014, the HYSY 981 platform was defended from Vietnamese challengers by three concentric security rings (i.e., cordons) primarily comprising CCG and PAFMM assets. PLAN vessels, as well as PLA aircraft, provided overwatch support. Yet a fourth fleet participated as well: China’s merchant marine. Over the summer, roughly 30 commercial transport ships and tugboats also defended the oil platform.

The June 23 incident was not an anomaly. Within just five days of the platform’s entrance into Vietnam’s claimed EEZ, Chinese and Vietnamese vessels clashed nearly 200 times. Videos of the standoff show how commercial vessels repeatedly worked in tandem with CCG assets to spray, ram, and otherwise harass Vietnamese vessels that approached HYSY 981. Thus, China’s merchant marine not only served as passive deterrents in the security rings around the rig, but became active combatants in the conflict.

Chinese ship rams a Vietnamese vessel in the HYSY 981 standoff in 2014. (Thanh Nien News NewsVietnam.org)

Open source ship tracking data (i.e., AIS data) show that Chinese commercial vessels assumed distinct patrol patterns around HYSY 981. For example, two ships—Hai Shan (海山) and Zhong You Hai 226 (中油海226)—appear to have been assigned guard duty south and southeast of the platform, respectively. They maintained these relative positions throughout the summer. When HYSY 981 repositioned halfway through its deployment (on May 27), these vessels moved with the platform and maintained their patrols. Further, AIS data suggests these, and other, vessels may have used Triton Island as a staging area. Confirmation of this interpretation—that these vessels were not merely working in the vicinity of the rig—is found in the open source: Hai Shan’s manager praises the vessel’s role in providing security for HYSY 981 on the company website.

Combatant IDs

Chinese companies risked losing hundreds of millions of dollars in commercial assets by allowing their vessels to engage in the standoff. Moreover, HYSY 981 and the vessels involved sparked mass protests in Vietnam, which imperiled the overseas investments of Chinese businesses and ultimately led to the evacuation of thousands and deaths of more than 20 Chinese nationals in the protests. Many questions naturally follow. Among them, who are the owners of these brazen vessels, and why would they risk valuable assets in such an audacious manner?

Accounts of the standoff estimated that approximately 30 commercial vessels, not including fishing vessels, participated in the security cordons around HYSY 981. Ten of these are identifiable, along with their owners, in the open source and through AIS tracking. All ten are owned, respectively, by just three SOE subsidiaries: 

  • CNPC Offshore Engineering Co. Ltd. (CPOE) owns five of the ten vessels. CPOE is a wholly-owned subsidiary whose sole investor is China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), a national-level SOE that is directly owned by the State Council. CNPC had leased HYSY 981 to drill in the disputed waters.
  • China Oilfield Services Limited (COSL) owns two of the ten vessels—Binhai 284 and Binhai 285—both of which participated in the June 23, 2014 attack on KN 951. COSL also manages HYSY 981. Corporate records show that COSL is majority owned by CNOOC. COSL’s remaining shares (49.47 percent) are currently held by government controlled funds in China and Hong Kong. In turn, CNOOC is a SOE wholly-owned by China’s Ministry of Finance and owns HYSY 981.
  • Yiu Lian Dockyards Limited owned the remaining three vessels, including Hia Shan, You Lian Tuo 10, and You Lian Tuo 9—the third tug boat that joined the June 23, 2014 maneuver. Corporate records reveal that Yiu Lian Dockyards is a wholly-owned subsidiary of China Merchants Group (CMG), one of China’s oldest and largest SOEs.

The appearance of SOE assets in a quasi-military operation raises the question of government involvement. Although Chinese oil SOEs, particularly CNOOC, have actively lobbied Beijing for permission to drill in the South China Sea since 2008 with some success, they have also been denied over concerns about conflict with Vietnam. Further, certain CNOOC projects are allegedly protected by CCG vessels at the company’s request, indicating that the company likely does not routinely provide physical security using its commercial ships or those of its subsidiaries. Moreover, SOEs alone would not have had the authority or capacity to unilaterally coordinate the PLAN, CCG, and PAFMM in defense of HYSY 981.

Chain of Command

China’s National Defense Mobilization Law of 2010 gives the State Council and Central Military Commission authority, typically through the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress and the Chairman of the State, to mobilize civilian assets for national defense when “the sovereignty, unity, territorial integrity or security of the state is threatened.” Although there is no direct evidence that the state relied on these structures, explicit government involvement came on May 8, 2014—a week after HYSY 981 moved into position. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and CNOOC’s subsidiary COSL held a press conference responding to Vietnamese retaliation. Yi Xianliang of the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs and Li Yong, COSL’s President and CEO at the time, threatened to increase security in the area. This threat was swiftly carried out; within days of the conference, AIS data show that Bin Hai 284 and 285—the two COSL vessels that attacked KN 951 in June—began moving south from Beijing toward HYSY 981. To the end of the standoff, China’s ministry of foreign affairs spokespeople emphasized that HYSY 981’s mission was entirely within China’s sovereign rights. Chinese officials further argued that it was Vietnam who militarized the incident by sending armed ships, whereas China, officials asserted, only dispatched civilian vessels, thereby “preserving utmost restraint.”

In this file image from June 23, 2014, released by Vietnam’s Coast Guard, Chinese vessels purportedly ram a Vietnamese fishery control vessel, while another Chinese ship fires a water cannon, in a disputed area of the South China Sea. (Vietnam Coast Guard)

Further evidence of direct state support is found in how the Chinese government incentivized participation in the operation. During the standoff, a small private firm named Qingdao Kilter Ship Management Co. Ltd. managed three vessels on behalf of Yiu Lian Dockyards Limited. Defending HYSY 981 became a point of pride for Qingdao Kilter. The company’s website states that, “the oil industry has given [the company] high praise. Especially, between April 27 and July 22, Hai Shan, You Lian Tuo 9, and 10 defended HYSY 981 in the Paracel Islands, … for which [the company] received positive evaluations and commendations from high-level leadership in all areas.”

One of the commendations bestowed on Qingdao Kilter Ship Management Co. Ltd. was a second-class merit award (二等功) that went directly to a tug boat captain named Li for their part in the operation. Further tying this award to the Beijing, chapter 1 article 7 of the National Defense Mobilization Law states that honors will be given to civilians and organizations that make significant contributions to national defense mobilization. Notably, a second-class merit was conferred on all commanders, combatants, and logistics personnel 40 years earlier, when China originally wrested control of the Paracel Islands from Vietnam.

Lessons Learned

The HYSY 981 incident demonstrates for foreign powers how China’s merchant marine may interface with military and paramilitary forces in maritime conflict, furthering state aspirations, and hints at how Beijing elicits and rewards participation. But questions remain: why did Beijing mobilize the merchant marine for this operation and in what circumstances might it consider doing so again?

To the former, it is possible that Beijing required SOEs to contribute to the rig’s defense in exchange for approving the project in the first place. This may explain why the majority of identified commercial vessels belonged to COSL and CNPC and their subsidiaries. Another possibility is that these ships were mobilized to augment the capacity of the maritime militia. The maritime militia is primarily comprised of civilian fishermen who are compensated to participate in paramilitary operations. There is some evidence that militia members may have initially resisted participation in the HYSY 981 mission due to limited incentives, and thus the merchant marine may have been called upon to offset a force deficit.

To the latter, it is possible that Beijing was testing the use of its merchant marine in conflict both as a test of efficiency and how foreign actors might respond. Just as the PAFMM is employed to assert China’s interests in its near-seas below the threshold of war, the merchant marine could be used to do the same farther abroad. Already, the Chinese merchant marine and civilian transport companies are expected to facilitate long-range naval missions globally. Even outside of the Gulf of Aden, Chinese companies operating in foreign countries resupply warships. In the years following the standoff, China has formalized aspects of the dynamics on display in 2014 by promulgating new legislation. In 2015 and 2016, new laws further required all “container, roll-on/roll-off, multipurpose, bulk carrier and break bulk” vessels be built to military standards and that “all SOEs conducting international transport services and their overseas institutions must provide re-supply and rest and re-organization assistance for all ships, planes, vehicles, and personnel involved in military operations for international rescue, maritime escort, and the defense of national interests overseas.” 

Strategic Challenge

In building itself into a “great maritime power” capable of projecting power and influence far afield, China is employing both military and economic means. Chinese SOEs now dominate international shipping lanes and ports, enjoying control of or influence in over half of the world’s top 50 container ports—investments that have the potential to reshape operating environments in critical waterways. At the same time, China controls the world’s largest merchant marine (counting by vessels owned and registered in the country) of 2,008 ships (not including tugboats or fishing vessels), which the Chinese military thinks of as a “strategic delivery support force” to enhance Beijing’s maritime projection.

Many countries rely on their merchant marine fleets to provide logistical support to the military during war and peaceful long-range patrols, but the HYSY 981 standoff suggests that Beijing believes commercial assets are legitimate instruments of aggression in peacetime. Similar logic is seen frequently in the activities of China’s PAFMM fishing vessels, which is one of only two militias in the world that has a mandate to defend internationally disputed territorial claims, even in peacetime. China’s apparent willingness to leverage commercial assets—particularly SOE assets—as critical tools of foreign policy coercion has global security implications.

In 2015, the HYSY 981 platform was prominently featured at an Achievements of Civil-Military Fusion Development in the National Defense Technology Industry Exhibition alongside other dual-use systems and technologies, such as remote sensing and surveillance planes, satellites, and water-pressurized nuclear reactors. Yet the standoff shows that CMF is more than civil-military cooperation on science and technology or research and development (on which most CMF research in the West has focused). It is also more than the adaptation of civilian infrastructure for military logistics and defensive mobilization. CMF opens the door for direct civilian participation in conflict. The HYSY 981 standoff shows this to be the case in the maritime arena, and in other domains (specifically network warfare) Chinese strategists explicitly call for civilian participation in combat.

Conclusion

As CMF drives state-owned and private firms closer to the Chinese military, countries and corporations should appropriately evaluate the risks and rewards of certain Chinese investment. Chinese SOEs may pose the greatest risk, as they are directly controlled by the State. Moreover, they have deep capital reserves, enabling them to operate broadly across regions and industries, as well as potentially absorb substantial losses that market-driven businesses may not survive. Finally, many SOE subsidiaries are publicly traded on international markets, creating the impression that these companies are purely motivated by profits. Indeed, a CNOOC subsidiary is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Such impressions can be accurate, but the dual-use nature of SOEs and the inherent risks of civilian mobilization potentially stemming from CMF agreements demand heightened scrutiny of Chinese investments abroad.

Devin Thorne (@D_Thorne) and Ben Spevack (@BenSpevack) are analysts at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies in Washington, D.C. Thorne holds a master’s degree in International Relations from the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, located in China, where he previously studied and worked. He speaks Chinese, and his past experience includes conducting research for the U.S. Department of State and the Hudson Institute. Spevack received his degree in International Relations from Tufts University. He speaks Chinese, Russian, and French, and has studied and worked in China, Kazakhstan, and Indonesia. They have briefed their previous research on China’s strategic application of dual-use maritime infrastructure to high-level officials at the U.S. Department of Defense, presented at international security conferences, and been cited in multiple congressional testimonies.

Featured Image:  A Chinese Coast Guard vessel passes near the Chinese oil rig Haiyang Shiyou 981 in the South China Sea, about 210 km (130 miles) from the coast of Vietnam on June 13, 2014. (Reuters)

Assessing the Military Balance in the Western Pacific with Dr. Toshi Yoshihara

By Cris Lee

CIMSEC was pleased to be joined by Dr. Toshi Yoshihara of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA). Professor Yoshihara is a long-time expert and well-published author on Asian security topics, Chinese naval capabilities, and Chinese maritime strategy. We are interested in his thoughts on recent security trends and what kind of calculus should be taken into account when analyzing the military balance in the Western Pacific.

Cris Lee: Thank you for joining us, Dr. Yoshihara. Could you please tell us a bit more about yourself?

Toshi Yoshihara: I’m currently a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and I’ve been at CSBA since 2017. I study Chinese military strategy and doctrine, Chinese maritime strategy, Asian security affairs, the overall military balance in Asia, and U.S. maritime strategy in Asia.

Before joining CSBA, I was the inaugural John A. van Beuren Chair of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Naval War College. As an endowed chair, I helped to support research on—and the teaching of—all things Asia at the war college. I was also a professor of strategy in the Strategy and Policy Department at the Naval War College, where I taught strategy for over a decade.

I’ve been looking at Chinese military and defense issues since the late 1990s, so this is an area of great interest to me. It’s a real pleasure to join you today.

Cris Lee: Thank you. Dr. Yoshihara, you’ve studied Chinese military and maritime issues from the beginning of what we could call a distinct and recent modernization period that goes on to this day. You’ve also observed in your writings that there needs to be an understanding in fundamentals, and how to understand these changes through certain analytical perspectives.

Could you introduce us to what you think we should understand when understanding the military balance in the Pacific, and when measuring up American maritime capacity in the Pacific versus that of the Chinese?

Toshi Yoshihara: I think it’s very important to take into account a variety of factors. The first variable is the bilateral naval balance between China and the United States. The Sino-U.S. naval balance, in part, involves surface ships, submarines, naval aviation units, the combat logistics fleet, and so forth on both sides. But, this does not fully capture the balance. China also possesses other elements of seapower.

China’s shore-based military power is integral to this overall balance, including: shore-based aircraft armed with long-range anti-ship cruise missiles and shore-based cruise and ballistic missile forces. Anti-ship ballistic missiles, such as the DF-21 and the longer-range DF-26, can reportedly strike large surface combatants at great distances. These land-based capabilities enable China to impose its will on its adversaries at sea by launching striking power from the Chinese mainland.

I think it’s worth thinking through the operational scenarios, particularly for U.S. naval forces, should the United States decide to intervene on behalf of its regional allies and friends, including Japan and Taiwan. It’s worth thinking through contingencies in which U.S. naval forces could come under withering firepower from sea and from ashore.

But, the military balance still represents only a partial picture. We have to consider the non-military implements of Chinese military power. The China Coast Guard—the so-called “white hulls”—constitutes a frontline force in the maritime domain. China’s maritime militia is also a critical component of its first line of defense. It’s thus important to think about the military and the non-military balance, and to think about how they mesh together in order to fully comprehend the overall balance.

When considering the military balance, we also have to think more broadly about the fundamental asymmetries between a local power and a global power. The United States is a global power that must defend its interests globally. It therefore needs a global navy that conducts a whole host of missions worldwide. In practice, only a fraction of a fraction of the U.S. Navy is ready for action in Asia. The rule of thumb is that the U.S. Navy deploys a third of its forces at any given time, owing to maintenance and workup cycles. Of that third, only a portion of those forces is in Asia at any given time while the rest of the fleet is operating elsewhere around the globe. By contrast, China, the local power, can devote the bulk of its forces in its own backyard. I think this asymmetry puts the naval balance in perspective.

However, another asymmetry—the role of allies and friends—works in favor of the United States. Washington boasts many high-quality, like-minded maritime allies around the world. Think about Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Taiwan. Extra-regional powers, including India and even Britain and France, are also turning their attention to the Western Pacific. The naval balance looks very different when considered in the context of coalitions. But, this by no means suggests that we can take our allies for granted. On the contrary, we need to continue to cultivate close operational ties with our allies to maintain our collective competitive edge.  

Cris Lee: Starting with the 1990s and going to the late 2010s you studied the Chinese Navy which encompasses essentially the bulk of their present period of modernization. How far has the Chinese Navy come in terms of capacity and what they can do now, and how this has affected the military balance?

Toshi Yoshihara: What we’ve witnessed, particularly over the past 10-15 years, is an extraordinary transformation of the Chinese Navy. China already has the largest navy in Asia. This has been the case for quite a few years. Some earlier estimates predicted that the Chinese Navy will be the largest navy in the world by 2020 and that, by 2020, it will be the second-most capable expeditionary force, second only to the U.S. Navy. More recent estimates have concluded that the Chinese Navy has already surpassed the U.S. Navy in size.  

By my own calculations, in 2007, China had about seven surface combatants that could be considered modern by western standards. By 2017, that number jumped to around 80. By the end of 2018, based on my calculations, China could have more than 90 modern surface combatants. This represents a remarkable shift in the naval balance. Given the inherently capital-intensive nature of navies, this massive buildup not only reflects China’s ability and willingness to pour resources into seapower, but it also reflects a long-term strategic will to the seas.

From a historical perspective, this kind of buildup happens infrequently. Its infrequency can be measured in generational terms. Comparable frenzied naval buildups took place prior to both world wars. Historically, when these buildups have occurred, they have preceded great power competitions and global wars. We thus have to pay close attention to China’s remarkable transformation .

It is not just the Chinese Navy. China’s maritime law enforcement fleet is also the largest in Asia. In fact, it is larger than all of the other Asian maritime law enforcement fleets combined. And China’s fleet is still growing.

From an operational perspective, China has modernized its navy, in part, to fight the U.S. Navy in a war at sea. The Chinese Navy’s heavy focus on anti-surface warfare and the development of a large family of long-range anti-ship missiles are powerful indicators. As Admiral Harry Harris, the former commander of Pacific Command, noted in congressional testimony, China is “outsticking” U.S. forces, meaning that Chinese anti-ship missiles far outrange those of their American counterparts. In other words, Chinese missile salvos could reach our forces well before we can get within range to hit back.

At the same time, it’s not just hardware. The Chinese Navy has been honing its skills as an expeditionary force. China has conducted uninterrupted naval operations in the Indian Ocean for a decade, making it a legitimate Indian Ocean power. It now has a base in Djibouti, allowing China to have a permanent presence in a region that was once the exclusive preserve of Western seapower. Over the past ten years, the Chinese Navy has dispatched flotillas to “break through” the first island chain—the transnational archipelago stretching from Japan to Indonesia—into the open waters of the Pacific on a regular basis. These sorties have demonstrably enhanced the tactical proficiency of Chinese naval forces.

It was not so long ago that a U.S. surface combatant could transit the entire length of the South China Sea without running into a Chinese counterpart. Today, a U.S. warship steaming through the South China Sea would just as likely be met and trailed on a continuous basis by modern Chines surface combatants, some of them superior to our warships in anti-surface warfare. This is the new normal. This is something we have to come to terms with.

Cris Lee: With regard to that evolved capacity, how do you think perspectives have changed on the Chinese Navy, particularly those of its peers and the U.S.?

Toshi Yoshihara: I think our attitudes have changed quite a bit as a result of China’s naval transformation. Let me take you back to the 1990s. In the 1990s and well into the 2000s, condescension characterized our views of the Chinese Navy. A running joke that could be heard in the hallways of Washington think tanks was that a Chinese attack on Taiwan would be akin to “a million-man swim.” This evocative image of a million-man swim reflected America’s patronizing views of the Chinese military at the time. It was widely assumed that the Chinese Navy was not even a match against the Taiwanese Navy, much less against Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force. Moreover, some asserted that China would struggle to become a regional navy well into the early decades of the 21st century.  

Today, it is no longer controversial to describe China as a serious seapower. It is widely accepted that China is a genuine maritime power capable of challenging the United States and its interests in Asia. Indeed, by many non-military measures, China is already a leading maritime power. Its merchant fleet and fishing fleet are already among the largest, if not the largest, in the world. Its sprawling and massive port system along the mainland coast has surpassed the world’s leading ports, such as those in Singapore and elsewhere.

Yet, a kind of smugness still persists. We still come across inapt tactical comparisons between U.S. and Chinese forces, a misplaced sense of our operational virtuosity at sea, and musty assumptions about our ability to command the global commons and about our ability to stay ahead in the competition. What these assessments miss, in my view, is the dynamic character of the rivalry. China will pose a far more complex set of challenges at sea than is generally assumed. A clear-cut conflict with a discernible beginning, middle, and end—during which the United States can amass leisurely its military power for a decisive operation—is not the most likely scenario. China will likely employ a mix of military and non-military means in the twilight between peace and war. These so-called gray-zone tactics are designed precisely to constrain, or preclude altogether, our ability to employ our military capabilities and to offset our technological and operational superiority. Side-by-side comparisons of individual naval platforms and comforting narratives about how many more carriers we have compared to the Chinese are at best simplistic, if not misleading.    

Cris Lee: So this kind of smugness, does it reflect an old lineage of thinking that involves assumed U.S. maritime supremacy? How does that kind of assumed supremacy continue to affect American maritime approaches for the Pacific? What problems arise because of that?

Toshi Yoshihara: We need to strike a balance between underestimating and overestimating China. Each fallacy creates its own set of analytical problems. Underestimation certifies institutional inertia and deepens our comfort with the status quo. The siren song of our accustomed supremacy at sea is really hard to resist. The logic goes like this: since we’ve been unbeatable following the Soviet Union’s collapse, our presumption is that this dominance will stretch indefinitely into the future.

The temptation to rest on our laurels is risky. It might mean that we won’t act fast enough in the face of the China challenge. It might mean that we won’t be able to resource our Navy and our sister services enough to meet the threat. Such complacency might mean that we could be surprised at the tactical and strategic levels. Indeed, the Chinese have consistently sprung surprises on us with their many technical and tactical developments.

Overestimation creates its own set of analytical dysfunctions. The storyline goes like this: “China’s going to be too strong and there’s nothing we can do about it. We might as well learn to live with a very powerful China. To do so, we need to accommodate China’s interests and ambitions now. We should cut a deal and reach a grand bargain with China before its too late such that China becomes so strong that it can dictate terms to us and our allies.” This is a kind of preemptive surrender.  

These polarized views and their policy implications are not helpful. Rather, we need to think productively about China in ways that neither downplay its strengths and its ability to challenge the United States at sea nor overlook some of its structural weaknesses.

Cris Lee: Have you seen these perspectives impact the Pacific in recent times and how a rising China’s changing capabilities have impacted policy?

Toshi Yoshihara: A key danger is the growing mismatch between American commitments and resources. When our resources are inadequate to meet our commitments to defend Asia, we have a situation akin to bluff. The bigger the gap, the bigger the bluff waiting to be called by our adversaries.

A related danger is the declining confidence among our allies and friends about the credibility of our commitments. If our allies and friends begin to doubt our security commitments to the region, they may begin to make their own calculations, pursue their own independent policies, and perhaps even cut their own separate deals with China, accommodating it or bandwagoning with it. Some may embark on an independent strategic path, such as going nuclear. Many of our Asian partners and friends, including Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, are all latent nuclear powers.  

There is still an opportunity to restore balance to our commitments and resources. But time is running short.

Cris Lee: I imagine that it would be really difficult to make friends if they view our commitments as wavering in the Pacific.

Toshi Yoshihara: This commitment-resource gap has wide-ranging ramfications beyond the military competition. Our diplomacy, for example, is only as credible as the hard power that underwrites that diplomacy. A growing gap may erode our ability to persuade our Asian allies to act in the best interests of the region. This gap thus has as much to do with the larger diplomatic-political competition that is unfolding in Asia today as it does with the naval rivalry.

Cris Lee: What are the most important aspects that need to be tackled in order for the U.S. to retain its traditional maritime advantages in the Asia-Pacific? What policies and ideas could be pursued to that end?

Toshi Yoshihara: Rather than delving into the operational and tactical aspects of the competition, let me outline some of the larger prerequisites for strategic success.

First, we need to acknowledge that we face a competent, resourceful, and determined competitor. China’s rise as a seapower has already challenged our cherished beliefs and deeply-embedded assumptions about U.S. naval prowess that have persisted over the past three decades. It will—or ought to—force us to think about scenarios that we have not had to seriously ponder since the end of the Cold War. Conditions that we took for granted, such as uncontested command of the seas, are likely things of the past. Indeed, we need to think hard about a future in which a serious contest for sea control could take place in multiple theaters and across different operational domains at the same.

Second, in this far more competitive strategic environment, we need to get reacquainted with risk as an integral component of our statecraft. For too long, risk aversion characterized our calculus. We feared taking actions that might provoke China. We thought risk was, well, risky. This aversion to risk in turn fostered timidity, paralyzed decision making, and encouraged inaction. China, for its part, took calculated risks, pursued its ambitions, and changed facts on the ground in a resistance-free environment. Just look at China’s island-building campaign in the South China Sea. Xi Jinping took a calculated risk—at first not knowing what the Obama administration would do in response—and it paid off. We need to reciprocate Chinese risk-taking. Indeed, we need to do more to impose risk on China in the maritime domain and other areas of statecraft. Only when we approach risk as a normal way of doing business, just as the Chinese have treated risk, can we stay competitive.    

Third, we need to think more productively about the strengths and weaknesses on each side and exploit them to our advantage. They need not be strictly material. The intangibles matter, too. To leverage our inherent strengths, we need to revisit basic principles. We need to return to—and embrace anew—our Navy’s raison detre: to fight and win wars at sea. That is the foundational purpose of our naval power. We need to tap into our enduring strategic traditions that appeal to our way of warfare at sea. That means, in part, restoring our offensive-mindedness at sea and the derring-do that has been the hallmark of our Navy. The surface fleet’s concept of distributed lethality and its implementation are important initiatives in this context.

On the flip side, we need to assess enduring Chinese weaknesses. What can we do to take advantage of those weaknesses? Are there ways that we can tap into enduring Chinese fears to shore up deterrence? In reading the Chinese literature, I have come across repeated references to a longstanding Chinese psychological fear: the fear of being closed off from the seas and of being encircled by a hostile coalition of maritime powers. It seems to me that we should do whatever we can to play up those fears. In this context, we should take a page from the Chinese themselves and adopt anti-access measures at sea that target these psychological fears.

Finally, we need to work with our allies. I think this is one of our true competitive strengths. Frontline states like Japan can impose all sorts of costs and risks on the Chinese. Japan’s Southwestern Islands, which stretch offshore from Kyushu to the northeast coast of Taiwan, could play host to formidable anti-access weaponry. A string of anti-access bubbles along those islands would make large parts of the East China Sea extremely hazardous for Chinese air and naval forces. Think about stretching this anti-access bubble down through Taiwan and down through the Philippines. We could have a very formidable defensive architecture that would give the Chinese serious indigestion in wartime. Should cross-strait deterrence fail, for example, the United States and its allies could open up a massive geographic front that entangles China in a series of peripheral fights, drawing Beijing’s attention away from the main target, Taiwan. The very possibility that a Chinese military operation could trigger such a horizontal escalation would go far to shore up deterrence. Favorable geography and well-armed allies can thus be fused to shift the terms of competition in our favor today and into the future.

Cris Lee: Before we take our final leave, could you describe your recent work and anything else you would like to share with our audience?

Toshi Yoshihara: I’m very pleased to announce that the second edition of Red Star Over the Pacific will be published in December 2018. This is a major revision of the first edition. About 70 percent of the content is new.  This partly reflects just how rapidly the Chinese Navy has developed since the first edition was published.

When the book came out in 2010, many of its arguments, including the idea that China is going to become a serious seapower, were greeted with skepticism, if not hostility. The critics implied that we were overinflating the threat. But, with the benefit of hindsight, we arguably didn’t go far enough in describing the Chinese military challenge in the maritime domain. Today, the notion that China will be a permanent factor in maritime Asia is more or less conventional wisdom.

In addition to capturing the rapid development of Chinese seapower, we frame our overall argument within the larger context of Chinese grand strategy. I’m very excited about this upcoming publication and I hope it will be well-received among colleagues, friends, and other analysts in the strategic community.

Cris Lee: Dr. Yoshihara, thank you so much for your time. This has definitely been a thought-provoking discussion.

Toshi Yoshihara: Thank you.

Toshi Yoshihara is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA). Before joining CSBA, he held the John A. van Beuren Chair of Asia-Pacific Studies at the U.S. Naval War College where he taught strategy for over a decade. He was also an affiliate member of the war college’s China Maritime Studies Institute. Dr. Yoshihara has served a visiting professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University; the School of Global Policy and Strategy, University of California, San Diego; and the Strategy Department of the U.S. Air War College. He is co-author of Red Star over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy, which has been listed on the Chief of Naval Operation’s Professional Reading Program since 2012. The second edition is forthcoming in December 2018. Translations of Red Star over the Pacific have been published in China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Germany. He holds a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, an M.A. from the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, and a B.S.F.S. from the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. 

Cris Lee is the Senior Producer of the Sea Control podcast. 

Featured Image: Chinese Type 055 destroyer (Liu Debin for China Daily)