Tag Archives: China

The Sinews of War

Fleet Admiral King – probably thinking about the challenge of getting from A to B.

I don’t know what the hell this “logistics” is that Marshall is always talking about, but I want some of it.

– Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King to a Staff Officer, 1942

Carting around beans and bullets has never much interested me until recently. Of course, the Military Sealift Command has been on my mind due to the recent engagement of a suspicious vessel by the USNS Rappahannock. I’ve also been reading more about the Falklands War after my conversation with Scott Cheney-Peters on TheRiskyShift.com‘s “Debrief” and recently found an out-of-print book from the 1960s titled Conflict and Defense: A General Theory with a lot of smart things to say about military might. Finally, Undersecretary of the Navy The Honorable Bob Work has been weighing in on forward basing of ships over at Information Dissemination. Though they seem unconnected, all of this has led me to the following conclusions:

  1. You can’t claim to be a Navalist without having an interest in logistics. When we talk about future fleet composition, we’re not spending enough time talking about how we will support our combat ships and how many/what types of replenishment and pre-positioning ships we need.
  2. If you’re looking for a single measure of national power, the size of a country’s merchant marine is a good place to start, but:
  3. The globalization of the shipping industry both affects this last measure and may make large conventional wars less likely.

The Falklands War is a clear example of what Scott calls “The Tyranny of Distance.” The further a state has to go to get to the fight, the less combat power they will be able to apply in that fight. Part of the reason Argentina decided to invade the Falklands in the first place was that they believed that they were so far away from Britain, whose military power (and some would argue, national power) was on the decline. Few believed the British could sustain military operations so far from home – and with good reason. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) could only muster 22 ships with around 120,000 tons combined displacement to sustain a naval task force, a brigade of Royal Marines, an army brigade, and other ground, air, and special operations forces.

The famous RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 converted for wartime service under “Operation Corporate.” Photo: Andy Shaw.

One of the reasons for Britain’s success was the rapid signing of the Requisition of Ships Order of 1982 and the launch of “Operation Corporate” – the rapid conversion of civilian ships to aid the RFA. Virtually overnight, Britain quintupled its replenishment and sealift tonnage. These ships were indispensable to the war effort, allowing the British to concentrate far more military strength in the Falklands theater than many outside observers anticipated. This is why I think a country’s merchant marine is a critical measure of national power – military forces rarely invest enough in logistics capabilities during peacetime. Once a crisis erupts, countries with robust merchant fleets can quickly convert them for wartime use. Great powers need to respond globally, and sometimes that will require surging logistics forces during a crisis.

The United States operates under the tyranny of distance every day. Perhaps that’s why we’ve become insensitive to our logistics forces – we rely on them so often. And we have such a professional and robust force in the Military Sealift Command that the merchant marine becomes an afterthought. But our merchant marine has shrunk drastically since the 1940s. It’s telling that the United States lost 733 merchant ships greater than 1,000 tons displacement in World War II – our current merchant marine stands at only 393 ships according to the CIA World Factbook. I’m not advocating for a return to a 6,000 ship merchant marine, but this historical perspective should spur us to ask the question: do we need more sealift capability in reserve? What kinds of policies might increase our merchant fleet? And comparatively, when we talk about China, we rarely note that it has the largest merchant marine of any great power at 2030 ships.

Going down the rabbit hole further, I find it interesting that our National Defense Reserve Fleet – the ships in “mothballs” – is shrinking significantly. According to a report published in May, the US Maritime Administration is planning to dispose of 34 of 142 ships, with the potential for more down the road. Most of the vessels being disposed of are some kind of bulk carrier or tanker.

Forward basing definitely mitigates some logistics challenges. According to Conflict and Defense by Kenneth Boulding, a Professor of Economics at the University of Michigan in the 1960s, forward bases can actually reverse the tyranny of distance – so powerful is their influence. Students of Mahan know this argument well. Forward basing is also the sensible posture to assume in times of austerity, allowing more operational use to be had from a smaller number of ships without completely burning out equipment or people. But we must consider the future of our logistics capability, particularly the reserves from which we might surge during a crisis.

Finally, a thought on globalization: with the rise of multinational shipping companies and the prevalence of flags of convenience, I think that conventional wars between great powers – particularly invasions across the seas – might be far less likely. In this sense, the decline of national merchant marines might offer some security advantages. Famed international relations theorist John Mearsheimer coined the term “the stopping power of water.” With countries less able to mobilize the logistics capability to transport large numbers of ground troops, great powers (like, perhaps, the United States and China) will be less able to invade one another.

What do you think: does the United States need more logistics forces? Should the United States seek to grow its merchant marine? How? What does China’s large merchant marine say about its national ambitions? This is a conversation worth having…

LT Kurt Albaugh, USN is President of the Center for International Maritime Security, a Surface Warfare Officer and Instructor in the U.S. Naval Academy’s English Department. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

More Mahan and Corbett

The Battle of the Nile, 1798

In my last post I criticized those who overemphasize the size of a fleet as a measure of its operational effectiveness, using the historical example of the Royal Navy’s fleet modernization efforts prior to the First World War.  I did not offer any alternate criteria by which to judge what an optimally sized U.S. Navy would look like.  With discussions of what insights turn-of-the-century theorists such as Alfred Thayer Mahan and Julian Corbett would have on modern maritime strategy so popular right now, however, I thought there might be value to apply their models of sea power to evaluate the composition of today’s U.S. Navy.

Responding to a critique that the current fleet is the smallest it has been since 1917, Under-Secretary of the Navy Robert Work noted that the ability of the current fleet to accomplish its missions is as great as it has ever been, arguing that at a century ago “we didn’t have any airplanes in the fleet.  We didn’t have any unmanned systems.  We didn’t have Tomahawk cruise missiles.”

Critics of what they perceive as a too-small fleet claim that quantity is important because “presence” is necessary for command of the sea.  On its face this is logical, as without enough combat power at the right spot and right time, victory is impossible.  Having more ships makes it theoretically possible to concentrate a larger force at the decisive point, as well as providing more resources in more places to deter against the enemy, wherever they may be.  The only restriction in a navy’s ability to provide presence is the amount of resources that a state has at its disposal.

Mahan was opposed to any notion of presence itself providing any particular utility, expressing a preference for offensive fleet action, even when that end was accomplished by a fleet inferior in total size to that of its foes.  His optimal navy was “equal in number and superior in efficiency” to its enemies at the decisive point within “a limited field of action,” not necessarily everywhere.  It protected national interests “by offensive action against the fleet, in which it sees their real enemy and its own principal objective.”  Mahan would have not approved of an emphasis on presence as an objective, for his description of the undesirable alternative to his above strategy was one which requires the “superior numbers” needed to provide “superiority everywhere to the force of the enemy actually opposed, as the latter may be unexpectedly reinforced.”  Trying to outnumber the enemy everywhere at sea is an impossible end state in any situation in which a pair of opponents have remotely comparable resources upon which to draw.

Corbett’s view of sea power is more compatible with the notion that presence is important.  Corbett felt that what he called “Command of the Sea” was “normally in dispute” and that the most common state in maritime conflict was that of “an uncommanded sea.”  In that context, presence in terms of more ships means that a navy can employ its forces in more places, with command thus achieved.  It would be easier to achieve this state of command through presence in asymmetrical situations in which the smaller force is overmatched both in terms of quantity and quality.

War at sea often revolves around two factors: the ability to locate the enemy, and the ability to employ decisive force against the enemy first.  Until navies began to use aircraft in the early twentieth century, the only way to locate an enemy fleet was to actually see it from onboard ship (or ashore).  Until the introduction of wireless communications, the ability to pass any intelligence thus derived was also restricted to line-of-sight or the speed of a ship.  Mahan noted the difficulty to locate and track a fleet when he said that they “move through a desert over which waters flit, but where they do not remain.”

By having more ships (assuming they effectively employed them), a navy would theoretically have a better chance to locate the enemy on favorable terms.  Nelson could sail across the Atlantic (and back again) and around the Mediterranean without finding the French fleet because his “sensors” were limited to the visual range of his fleet.  The conflict between the German and British navies during the First World War was largely one in which the two fleets were unable to achieve their tactical objectives because they could not find each other (at least under tactically favorable circumstances).  In a more modern example, the American victory at Midway was made possible by SIGINT.  Because the US Navy knew that the Japanese intended to attack Midway, its fleet was placed in a position where they were more likely to find the Japanese first (even then however, each fleet was limited in their ability to locate the enemy to the range of their aircraft).

A smaller fleet which is enabled in its ability to project combat power over a larger area through technology to engage the enemy on its own terms would seem to be just as important as a large fleet.  Today’s U.S. Navy, with access to a historically unprecedented web of information made possible by sensors and surveillance assets in the air, on the surface and under the water, has the ability to win battles against a capable enemy because those sensors mean it can deliver ordnance against enemy targets first.  However, one of the more astute criticisms of Under-Secretary Work’s defense of the current fleet size is that it only works in war, not other situations in which it is not clear “whether replacing ships with aircraft is a legitimate approach towards maritime battlespaces in peacetime when that same effort has been largely ineffective dealing with other low intensity maritime problems like narcotics and piracy.” 

The debate over presence revolves around strategy and objectives, and whether the size and composition of a fleet matches up with those objectives.  If the U.S. maritime objective is the ability to operate at sea in any contested theater, then having a sensor-enabled battle force in which surveillance assets make decisive action possible before the enemy can act is more important than surface presence in terms of many ships.  Conversely, if the most important objective is to provide maritime security against illicit actors such as pirates or drug smugglers, then presence is more important.  As the linked post above from Galrahn notes, a UAV can enable kinetic offensive operations from another platform located far away, but it cannot board a suspect vessel and detain the crew.

The debate between the advocates of presence and a high-end battle force is actually one over the relative importance of the Maritime Security and Sea Control missions, and the resources devoted to each at the expense of the other.  Unfortunately, without a crystal ball, there is not a straightforward answer as to which is the more necessary one for the US Navy to conduct.

Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a Naval Intelligence Officer and currently serves on the OPNAV staff. He has previously served at Naval Special Warfare Group FOUR, the Office of Naval Intelligence and onboard USS ESSEX (LHD 2). The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official viewpoints or policies of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

Who’ll get the Lion’s share?

In the last week, during a visit to the People’s Republic of China, Singapore’s Defence Minister Ng En Hen has reaffirmed bilateral military ties between the two countries with his Chinese counterpart, Liang Guanglie. Since the Agreement on Defence Exchanges and Security Cooperation was signed in 2008, there have been regular exchanges between the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and the People’s Liberation Army, port calls, joint courses, seminars, and a counter-terrorism exercise. But China is not the only suitor trying to woo the Lion City-state. Earlier this month, Mr Ng also met with US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, with the two agreeing that America could deploy up to four Littoral Combat Ships out of Singapore on a rotational basis, with the first due to arrive in the second quarter of next year. In addition, its Changi naval base was designed from the outset to accommodate ships up to the size of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, way beyond the country’s own capabilities. With China becoming increasingly assertive towards its neighbours in the first island chain it see as its sphere of influence, followed by America’s pivot towards Asia in support of its regional allies and the advent of Air-Sea Battle to meet the Chinese threat, Singapore may be forced to choose between its two military partners.

Singapore’s Formidable-class stealth frigates – but which side could they end up on?

Though Singapore’s military relationship with the US stretches back further, the country has always had an ethnocentric strategic outlook. At the time of its secession from the Federation of Malaysia on 9 August 1965, Singapore only possessed around 1,000 armed servicemen. This and the republic’s small population of approximately four million, prompted Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to introduce national service from 14 March 1967. Another major factor behind this was that the majority of those personnel, particularly senior officers, we’re Malay and Indian. With Singapore having a Chinese majority population, and with Malaysia seen as the country’s main threat at the time, Malays were excluded from the draft for its first ten years as Chinese filled out the armed forces’ ranks and were swiftly promoted. Even when Malays were included after 1977, they were assigned to the police and civil defence, not combat roles. The Second Minister for Defence, Lee Hsien Loong, stated in 1987 that “If there is a conflict, if the SAF is called to defend the homeland, we do not want to put any of our soldiers in a difficult position where his emotions for the nation may be in conflict with his religion”. Singapore’s political leaders did not trust Malays to fight against their kith and kin. Should hostilities erupt between the United States and China, can Singapore’s Chinese-dominated armed forces be expected to do the same, and does America need to think more carefully about how far it enters into the Lion’s den?

Dr Daniel Owen Spence is Lecturer in Imperial and International History at Sheffield Hallam University, United Kingdom, and publishes on nineteenth and twentieth century maritime history.

China as the New Germany and a 300-Ship Navy

Admiral Sir John Fisher, First Sea Lord

Is China today in the same strategic position as pre-First World War Germany? If China’s current economic rise and expanding naval power makes it the modern counterpart to Wilhelmine Germany, does the U.S. face a similar set of strategic choices as turn-of-the-century Great Britain? The British response to Germany’s new fleet was to redouble its efforts to build a more powerful Royal Navy, and critics who believe that the current size of the U.S. Navy is too small contend that the U.S. needs to respond in a similarly aggressive manner. For two recent examples of this line of thinking see here and here, and a counter-argument that contends a naval arms race with China is just not worth it here. Here is another piece arguing that the true historical counterpart to China was the US.  Does this analogy provide useful insights into what should drive current U.S. maritime strategy or acquisition efforts?

A century ago the globally deployed  British fleet ensured security of the seas, but its prominence was increasingly challenged by the expanding naval power of many states worldwide, particularly Germany, as well as fiscal constraints at home. The famous “People’s Budget” of 1909 proposed by the Liberal government attempted to juggle guns and butter, raising taxes in order to balance “an enormous deficit” and the need “to create new revenue for the Army, the Navy, and Old Age Pensions.” [1]

Concerned by the danger posed by Germany’s new naval power, Britain’s leaders implemented an aggressive naval modernization program, ultimately resulting in ships like the Dreadnought-class battleship and its successors, which were bigger, faster, and better-armed than anything else afloat. However, restricted by the amount of money available to construct newer and more capable ships, this procurement of better ships was also accompanied by a withdrawal by the Royal Navy from much of the globe, as well as a significant drawdown in the size of the fleet itself. The new-look Royal Navy would prioritize manning the most modern large ships, which would be stationed in home waters, ready to face the threat posed by the German Navy in the North Sea. Victory against or neutralization of the German High Seas Fleet (Hochseeflotte) became the aim of the Royal Navy. Winston Churchill, civilian head of the Navy as First Lord of the Admiralty from 1911 to 1915, noted that “if we win the big battle in the decisive theatre we can put everything straight afterward.”

Sir John Fisher (commonly referred to as “Jackie”) removed 154 ships (primarily small cruisers and gunboats) from the “effective list” after becoming First Sea Lord (the senior Royal navy officer) in 1904, as well as eliminating or combining several of the overseas “stations” into a fewer number of fleets. He also changed the orientation of the forces afloat, with the newest and most capable platforms primarily deployed to the new commands in the Channel and Atlantic. This reduction and reorientation in deployed afloat forces was enabled by a significant geopolitical shift. Rather than being the sole guarantor of global maritime security, Britain essentially outsourced those obligations through agreements with states such as Japan (with which a naval alliance allowed British withdrawal from the Far East), France (the Entente shifting responsibility for the Mediterranean largely to the French Navy), and a realization that combating the growing U.S. Navy in the Western Hemisphere was both impossible and undesirable.[2] This approach towards outsourcing maritime security to other allied or aligned powers was could be considered similar to that of a “thousand-ship Navy” in its recognition of the limitations that a single state has in imposing its naval power everywhere at all times.

What lessons can the U.S. today learn from how the Royal Navy was reshaped a century ago? Britain’s strategic calculus was much simpler vis-à-vis Germany than the US and its current relationship with China. The only reason for the German naval program was to fight or deter the Royal Navy, and in such a conflict it “would need a fleet able to overpower the biggest contingent the Royal Navy was likely to station in home waters.”[3] The German fleet Admiral Tirpitz built was designed to engage in a symmetrical conflict with its British counterpart. In contrast, China’s naval expansion is quite different. Instead of building carrier battle groups, The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is emphasizing anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities to keep other powers out of adjacent waters like the South China Sea, East China Sea, and Yellow Sea. Chinese naval strategy seems to revolve around A2/AD as a means to keep the US away, as “their goal is to deter US forces from intervening in regional disputes.” The choice faced by Jackie Fisher and Winston Churchill as to how to respond to the Germans was simple, assemble a battle force that could win in the North Sea.

The choices faced by the U.S. due to its current security challenges are not as clear cut.  The 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance which implemented the “Pacific Pivot” indicated that the U.S. “will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region.” The focus of the U.S. military cannot just switch entirely to China, however, as the Middle East remains a critical theater. The same document notes that “the United States will continue to place a premium on U.S. and allied military presence in – and support of – partner nations in and around this region.”

Faced with an uncertain world, the 2007 Maritime Strategy similarly (and understandably) hedges when discussing what types of missions that the Navy should be able to accomplish. Its six “Core Capabilities” reflect both high-end war at sea (Forward Presence, Deterrence, Sea Control, Power Projection) as well as more prosaic tasks (Maritime Security, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response). In a world in which war at sea with a near-peer competitor is not necessarily likely, but in which non-state actors such as terrorists, pirates, and illicit smugglers either exploit or are the main threat to freedom of the seas, the notion of ignoring these missions in order to maintain an overwhelming battle force may not be as wise in a constrained fiscal environment as the presence provided through Influence Squadrons.” Those advocating for a more maritime security-oriented force are calling for the opposite of Fisher’s reforms, instead bringing back the gunboats and coastal security force at the expense of the battle fleet.

One clear lesson from the Anglo-German naval arms race is that the answer is not to just buy more ships. The Royal Navy certainly engaged in a naval modernization program and expansion of the battle force, but complemented that effort with a shift in strategy, focusing the combat mission of the fleet on a single task, and eliminating the Royal Navy’s global responsibilities. U.S. responses to the challenge of a rising China should be echoed by similar adjustments in strategy and force employment that address current (and likely future) maritime security needs rather than having an arbitrary number of surface platforms.  Jackie Fisher slashed the quantity of ships in the Royal Navy because they did nothing towards accomplishing the mission, the priority for the US now should be to set its maritime priorities, and then ensure that the force structure can accomplish those missions.

References:

1. George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England: 1910-1914 (New York: Capricorn Books, 1935), 19.

2. Paul M. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (Amherst: Humanity Books, 2006), 214-226.

3. Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes, Red Star Over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010), 48.

Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a Naval Intelligence Officer and currently serves on the OPNAV staff. He has previously served at Naval Special Warfare Group FOUR, the Office of Naval Intelligence and onboard USS ESSEX (LHD 2). The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official viewpoints or policies of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.