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How the Fleet Forgot to Fight, Pt. 6: Strategy and Operations

Read Part 1 on Combat Training. Part 2 on Firepower. Part 3 on Tactics and Doctrine. Read Part 4 on Technical Standards. Read Part 5 on Material Condition and Availability.

By Dmitry Filipoff

Strategy and Operations

“During this time we have seen our once-great fleet cut almost in half and our remaining ships and personnel forced to endure long and continuous deployments as their numbers dwindled while requirements increased, and our nation turned away from international imperatives to attend to vexing problems closer to home…” –Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo “Bud” Zumwalt, 1973

The Navy is not the only branch of the military facing significant challenges born from a long focus on the low-end fight. After the fall of the Soviet Union and especially after the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan all of the military services pivoted their training toward low-end skills to a significant extent. All of the services dealt with crushing operational tempo stemming from demand driven primarily by the Middle East, and are still paying off large maintenance debts. Now they are all trying to radically reorient themselves to be ready for great power competition.

However, the Navy stands far apart from the other services in how it contributed and adapted to the major wars of the power projection era. The nature of blue water naval power was poorly suited to counterinsurgency, causing the Navy to diffuse its efforts across a broad variety of mission areas. The fleet went on to suffer an especially large divide between what it could do and how it was tasked. Missions that were once considered a luxury afforded by the demise of a great power competitor eventually came to be regarded as inescapable obligations. This mission focus blurred the Navy’s priorities, allowed it to overextend itself, and helped blind the fleet to the fundamental need to  develop itself through proper exercises.

As a result, many of the Navy’s operations undermined enduring strategic imperatives, suggesting the urgency of those low-end missions was built on questionable strategy. In the process, the Navy shed high-end warfighting skills that remained relevant even after the demise of the Soviet Union and is entering an era of renewed great power competition at a disadvantage as China rises. The United States, as a maritime nation, and the world, as dependent on maritime order, now find themselves at greater risk by an American fleet deficient in sea control. 

Missions and Adapting to Power Projection

“Looking at how we support our people, build the right platforms, power them to achieve efficient global capability, and develop critical partnerships will be central to its successful execution and to providing that unique capability: presence.” –A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (2015)

The composition of blue water naval power is often decided a generation in advance of when it actually manifests itself. It takes many years to conceive of a ship, several more years to then build the first ship of a new type, and many more years to build an entire class of ships. The fundamental attributes of the modern U.S. Navy were mostly set or inspired by the national security thinking of the 70s and 80s when sea control defined its focus. The American fleet that sails today is mainly composed of 100,000-ton nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, large surface warships that can carry over 100 missiles each, and nuclear-powered submarines. The modern U.S. Navy is a living relic of the Cold War, where its design was crafted in an era dominated by great power competition.

Something similar could be said for the force structure of the other military services, and the low-end focus of the immediate post-Cold War era demanded they all adapt. The nation-building and counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan required especially radical changes. Adapting to these wars took more the form of different missions and training, rather than building different kinds of force structure. Divorcing units from high-end force structure inspired by Cold War threats became central toward adapting to the low-end fight.

Both the Army and Marines recognized that a significant part of their force structure was barely useful for counterinsurgency and chose to rarely employ their armored units in traditional roles. It appears the U.S. did not deploy tanks to Afghanistan until 2010, and up until at least two years ago no Army armor units have deployed to Afghanistan with their tanks.1 Having been divorced from their main vehicles these units underwent extensive retraining to take on new missions, and the Army’s field artillery branch experienced similar reforms.2 Even though these units were pushed into less-familiar roles these adaptations were viewed as necessary to make them more applicable to the counterinsurgency fight.

The Army and Marines are not alone in having force structure that was hardly useful to counterinsurgency. Most of the tools of blue water naval forces such as powerful radars and sonars, dozens of missile tubes, electronic warfare suites, nuclear submarines, and long-endurance ships are poorly suited to fighting insurgents. Insurgent war is usually a land-only contest, where insurgents almost never field real navies. Aircraft carriers can employ airpower, but most of the Navy’s major capabilities could hardly be applied. This is reflected in how the surface and submarine fleets’ direct combat contributions to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were mostly confined to cruise missile strikes conducted in the opening months of those campaigns.3 Beyond that there were virtually no contributions of firepower from most American warships for the rest of these wars.

The Navy had to make its own retraining adaptations. The Individual Augmentee (IA) program pulled Sailors from assignments that usually took them to sea and instead deployed them to serve in augmented roles on land. However, the numbers were very uneven across the Navy’s various communities. Even though tens of thousands of Sailors deployed through the IA program it appears less than five percent of Navy individual augmentees came from the surface fleet.4 This points to a major difference in how the Navy adapted to counterinsurgency compared to the other services, in that even in a time of insurgent war the Navy still continued to operate less relevant force structure at pre-9/11 levels. The Navy never went so far as the Army or Marines who regularly made their armor and artillery units leave their main weapons behind. The Navy’s ship deployment rate went unaffected by any augmentation or retraining.

Pay grade distribution of individual augmentees who were deployed from cruisers and destroyers during Fiscal Years 2006 through 2009. (Source: GAO)

The diminished relevance of blue water naval power in the Global War on Terror is reflected in the work of Lieutenant Commander Alan Worthy, who interviewed numerous Sailors while researching the Navy’s IA program: 

“A significant number of the young Sailors I spoke with joined the Navy specifically to be part of this ongoing war. They joined after 9/11 or after the GWOT began and wanted to get into the fight. In my interviews, I was surprised to learn that a considerable percentage of Sailors did not have a good understanding of the Navy’s role in the GWOT. For Sailors who were in the Navy before the war, their day-to-day duties out to sea had not significantly changed because of the war. For those who joined to fight this war, it has been difficult to see what their daily efforts out to sea were accomplishing. The strategic effects of missions such as maritime dominance and theater security cooperation are often unrealized by the average Sailor as they go about daily sea life. Unlike Marine Corps and Army accomplishments, which are in the daily news media, Sailors do not regularly get to the opportunity to see or hear how the maritime mission directly contributes to the war.”5 

The Navy was poorly suited to counterinsurgency, forcing it to focus its operational energies elsewhere. The low-end spectrum missions opened up many opportunities to conduct diverse operations that would allow the Navy to put the forward presence of its ships to use. Warships conducted missions such as counterpiracy, maritime security, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Ships protected fisheries, caught smugglers, and taught foreign counterparts how to better provide for their own security. Partnership engagements in particular became a leading operational activity for U.S. naval power as concepts such as the 1,000-ship Navy and Global Fleet Station urged greater international cooperation.

A snapshot of missions for ships in the Fifth Fleet area of responsibility. (Source: “Surge Readiness: What the Fleet Response Plan Really Means to a Joint Force Maritime Component Commander”)

The power projection era ushered in what may be remembered as a high time for naval soft power, where the Navy devoted a significant amount of its time and skill on directly helping other nations improve their human condition. However, many of these operations are better described as opportunities offered by the diverse set of missions found at the low-end spectrum of operations, rather than pressing requirements driven by wartime demand. While tens of thousands of Soldiers and Marines were solely focused on advising heavily embattled Iraqi and Afghan counterparts the Navy enjoyed the luxury of frequently partnering with dozens of other nations, almost all of whom were not engaged in any major hostilities.

Despite these low-end missions the Navy’s stringent level of continuous forward presence was mainly for guaranteeing deterrence by denial. The Navy sought to primarily deter Iran, who was perfectly positioned to interfere with the Strait of Hormuz and threaten one of the most important global energy lifelines. Iran has regularly made outspoken threats to close the Strait, has far more naval forces than its Arab rivals, and attacks on international shipping in the 1980s prompted armed U.S. intervention that targeted Iranian assets. By continuously maintaining a carrier strike group in the Middle East the Navy sought to insure the global economy and regional allies against Iran.

The necessity of this demanding level of presence is questionable. Unlike in Europe or Asia, the conventional military balance in the Middle East favors U.S. allies versus Iran. The past two U.S. administrations have given tens of billions of dollars’ worth of advanced military aid to U.S. allies in the region, especially those that are staunch rivals of Iran such as Gulf Cooperation Council states and Israel. While Iran certainly enjoyed some military advantages during the power projection era its temptations to pursue major military action may have been tempered by the tens of thousands troops the U.S. deployed to countries flanking Iran.

The worldwide significance of the seaborne energy that transits the Persian Gulf is perhaps the best security guarantor. Iran could cause global economic damage if it tried to close the Strait or initiate major war with its regional rivals, but this would likely prompt extremely fierce condemnation from across the world. Even if the U.S. Navy couldn’t instantly respond, the overriding factor of politics would likely be on its side. With the advantages of politics and allies, deterrence by denial against a rogue state is less necessary if a superior coalition can be counted on to surge in response. Iran’s ability to close the Strait militarily is highly doubtful, but the possibility of this prompting an internationally-supported counter-intervention is not. The same cannot be said for how the world would respond to many contingencies involving great power war.

The Navy struggled to find a place for itself in the power projection era, but it would not abandon its traditional ship deployment rates as major land wars broke out in the Middle East. Instead, it reacted to a new national security focus by subscribing to questionable logic. During this time the Navy chose to obsessively overspend its readiness on many missions that are completely optional in nature, and on a level of deterrence that was hardly warranted. Yet the Navy was so convinced of the necessity of these operations that for years it willingly sacrificed its material readiness, tolerated severe maintenance troubles, and let its warfighting competence wither away.

This unrelenting insistence on optional missions and a total disregard for full-spectrum competence produced decades of fleet deployments that were driven by a grossly misplaced sense of urgency. In a time of power projection and insurgent wars, if any branch of the military could have safely made time to prepare for the high-end fight, it is the Navy.

Full-Spectrum Competence and U.S. Naval Power

“With the demise of the Soviet Union, the free nations of the world claim preeminent control of the seas and ensure freedom of commercial maritime passage. As a result, our national maritime policies can afford to de-emphasize efforts in some naval warfare areas. But the challenge is much more complex…We must structure a fundamentally different naval force to respond to strategic demands, and that new force must be sufficiently flexible and powerful to satisfy enduring national security requirements.”            –…From the Sea: Preparing the Naval Service for the 21st Century (1992)

With the downfall of the Soviet Union the U.S. Navy could afford to take a step back from high-end warfighting. But a single-minded focus on the low-end fight or heavily scripted training could hardly be justified even with the demise of a great power competitor. Difficult threats remained, and required that the Navy still retain high-end warfighting skills. The failure to maintain full-spectrum competence during the immediate post Cold-War era could now come home to roost with the rapid onset of great power competition in maritime Asia.

The Navy allowed the low-end skillset to dominate the nature of its pre-deployment training, but full-spectrum competence across the range of missions is no option for a Navy tasked with protecting the global interests of a superpower. A ship could be conducting counterpiracy operations one week and conducting a show of force near a missile-armed state the next. Ships en route to the Middle East can pass through the South China Sea and be shadowed by the Chinese Navy. Warships in the Mediterranean could be helping refugees stranded in the ocean while a Russian squadron hangs over the horizon.

The power projection era sought to shift the Navy’s attention to littorals mostly populated by third-world states, but these areas contain no shortage of powerful capabilities and tactical challenges. Iran for example still fields a respectable amount of conventional military capability such as coastal anti-ship missile batteries, fast attack craft, mines, and Russian-made submarines. While the quality and resilience of the Iranian military is questionable in many respects, it is still a multi-domain threat worthy of consideration.

The credibility of littoral threats was already recognized in key strategy papers that announced the Navy’s power projection focus. As the major Navy strategy document …From the Sea (1992) declared “a fundamental shift away from open-ocean warfighting on the sea toward joint operations conducted from the sea” it also recognized that this different operating environment of the littoral still had no shortage of tactical challenges:

“The littoral region is frequently characterized by confined and congested water and air space…making identification profoundly difficult. This environment poses varying technical and tactical challenges to Naval Forces. It is an area where our adversaries can concentrate and layer their defenses. In an era when arms proliferation means some third world countries possess sophisticated weaponry, there is a wide range of potential challenges…an adversary’s submarines operating in shallow waters pose a particular challenge to Naval Forces. Similarly, coastal missile batteries can be positioned to ‘hide’ from radar coverage. Some littoral threats–specifically mines, sea-skimming cruise missiles, and tactical ballistic missiles–tax the capabilities of our current systems and force structure. Mastery of the littoral should not be presumed.”6

The power projection focus still required strong warfighting skills, and could hardly justify scripted training or a lack of attention to high-end warfighting. Perhaps the terms “littoral” and “power projection” somehow became synonymous with “easy” for the U.S. Navy, and allowed it to atrophy its warfighting skills.

Even with the demise of the Soviet Union the Navy still had an obligation to deter powerful states. This was made especially clear in one of the most high-profile shows of force in the power projection era when the U.S. deployed carrier battle groups to deter China during the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis. This event added urgency to China’s desire to modernize its military for high-end warfighting, but apparently it did little to remind the U.S. Navy of its obligations toward full-spectrum deterrence.7 

Perhaps the neglect of full-spectrum competence was built on the assumption that the Navy could easily regenerate high-end skills if a new great power rival presented itself. The Chinese Navy has been given an opportunity to test this assumption. The Chinese Navy’s push for high-end competence overlaps with the American Navy’s generational focus on low-end missions, suggesting the PLAN has stolen a march on the U.S. Navy with respect to high-end force development.

After the Soviet Union fell the U.S. Navy could have taken a different path. The lack of utility of blue water naval power for counterinsurgency could have been a blessing in disguise for the Navy while the other services were heavily tied down by operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. During the power projection era the Navy could have focused on settling complex developmental questions posed by Information Age technologies, and evolved its high-end skills. The Navy effectively missed a historic opportunity to make major progress on force development, where the fleet could have easily focused on securing its future dominance. Instead, it let a rising rival close the gap.

For a generation the Chinese and U.S. Navies have focused their skills and culture on opposite ends of the warfighting spectrum, and this disparity is far more fatal to the American fleet. A superpower navy does not threaten itself by lacking low-end skills, but it can certainly risk its defeat and destruction by failing to be ready for the high-end fight. The Navy assumed great risk by failing to maintain full-spectrum competence while an authoritarian China rose to become both a superpower and a maritime power. A possible historical legacy of the likes of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden could now include helping the U.S. Navy atrophy to such a degree that its decay was taken advantage of by an ascendant great power rival.

Matching Exercises to Strategy

“A final way in which the Maritime Strategy has served as a focus for reform is by shaping an emphasis on tactics and warfighting at the operational level. For too many years, our fleet exercises suffered from a lack of realism and focus, and our routine operations seemed to be lacking in purpose. But the Maritime Strategy now forms a framework for planning realistic, purposeful exercises, and provides a strategic perspective for daily fleet operations in pursuit of deterrence.” –Chief of Naval Operations Admiral James Watkins on the 1986 Maritime Strategy 

The low-end skillset clearly proved its worth. Navy Special Forces took out numerous insurgent leaders, collected valuable intelligence, and conducted sensitive operations worldwide. Sailors helped save thousands of lives in the wake of environmental disasters like the deadly tsunamis in Asia and after Hurricane Katrina at home. These low-end missions elevated the Navy’s role in many respects by applying naval power to a greater variety of problems and with many partners. These missions developed meaningful relationships around the globe, and were an excellent opportunity to put national values into practice abroad. The skills and relationships that come with low-end missions will remain relevant going forward because great power competition is still whole-of-government competition in peacetime and in war.

But after the fall of the Soviet Union the U.S. Navy did not just double down on these missions, it went all in. High-end warfighting experience barely came from either the Navy’s training or its forward operations. Of the little time that was actually spent on events that approached high-end exercising, few were truly challenging or well-connected to force development because of heavy scripting. Properly resourced force development can still be undercut by heavy scripting, and quality exercises can still be starved of ready units. In the Navy’s case, high-end force development was effectively taken off the schedule and out of its strategy through a self-inflicted lack of both resourcing and standards.

There is not a stark tradeoff between deterrence, force development exercising, and forward presence because of naval power’s mobility. The Navy can easily exercise within the depths of the Indian, Atlantic, or Pacific Oceans and still remain on call to respond to a contingency within days. This mobility allows for a more remote operating posture to still count as forward presence for the sake of deterrence. However, it would not be the sort of upfront presence that supports the type of small-scale exercises that come with most low-end missions. The Navy did not add more forward presence by deploying the usual 100 ships per year, but rather by disaggregating its formations once they came on station to better take advantage of the many opportunities that come with the low-end focus. By often making formations disaggregate themselves within the forward-most littorals the Navy optimized its presence to exercise for partnerships and low-end operations, rather than stronger deterrence and force development.8

The unbalanced logic of focusing solely on low-end missions caused the Navy to operate with far fewer constraints. Concepts of presence, overseas partnership, and undersea surveillance can become boundless and open-ended, where a force can quickly overwhelm itself with the many opportunities that come with these missions. In a well-rounded strategy these missions would be heavily constrained by training and force development requirements alone, where adequate time for force development has to be protected against many other demands. Trying to maintain high levels of continuous forward presence with a shrinking fleet made it difficult to maintain larger formations without disrupting schedules. A strained readiness cycle and a tunnel-vision focus on low-end missions combined to stretch the fleet so thin that it could rarely get enough ships together to properly resource high-end force development with large exercises.

The Navy can look to what other military branches have done for decades. The Army sends about a third of its brigades every year to the National Training Center, and hundreds of aircraft participate each year in the Air Force’s Red Flag exercises.9 Other military services know that they must guarantee a significant amount of readiness for large-scale exercises.

The Navy still conducted numerous training exercises every year, but their chronic lack of true opposition deprived them of value. The Army and Air Force know to dedicate units to act as full-time opposition forces (OPFOR), to empower those units to inflict meaningful losses, and to mandate them to master the methods of rivals. The Army’s major OPFOR unit is the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, and for the Air Force it is the 57th Adversary Tactics Group. By comparison the Navy has no dedicated OPFOR warship formations.

A flight of Air Force Aggressor Squadron F-15 Eagles and F-16 Fighting Falcons  fly in formation over the Nevada Test and Training Ranges. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Kevin J. Gruenwald)

OPFOR units are among the most proficient units in the armed forces because their primary mandate is to train hard, they are given plenty of opportunity to do so through large-scale events, and they are well-connected to an extensive learning architecture that is built around their exercises. People serving in dedicated OPFOR units can take unique culture, tactical knowledge, and professional connections with them throughout their careers. Dedicated OPFOR units perform a strategic force development function by acting as incubators from where tactical excellence can spread throughout the force.

Dedicated OPFOR units are also indispensable because superpowers often think about warfighting in widely different ways. Capt. Dale Rielage (ret.), who wields an intelligence background specializing in China and experience leading opposing forces as the senior member of the Pacific Naval Aggressor Team, sheds light on how the U.S. and Chinese Navies have significant conceptual differences in the conduct of war:

“The Marxist-Leninist view of warfare focuses on military science where Western practitioners focus on military art, which creates an objective analytic approach to warfare. While the PLA has developed and adapted Marxist thinking in the almost century since the first Soviet instructors arrived, it still defines its basic approach to warfare as a ‘Marxist view of strategy with Chinese characteristics.’ The result is that the PLAN, like its Soviets predecessors, practices a style of warfare heavily based on what Westerners would call operations research. This focus has a real impact on PLAN forces and doctrine. For example, the belief that warfare has complex but discernible rules likely produces a military more accepting of automating command functions.”10

Conceptual differences in the conduct of war can lead to highly dissimilar tactics and operational plans, which complicates training realism. Regular troops that are asked to act as opposition forces on short notice can quickly fall into mirror-imaging, where by training and instinct they can easily default to their own nation’s way of war. A rival’s view on the conduct of war can be so complex and different that it warrants dedicated units to fully understand it, train to it, and then put that alternate vision of warfighting into practice. By applying a rival’s tactics a dedicated OPFOR unit can reveal how different warfighting methods could clash with one another to produce unique combat dynamics. This is necessary for defining realism, and to know how one stacks up against the enemy’s way of war is a question of the highest strategic importance.

Now in an era dominated by great power competition even more attention must be devoted to exercising for the high-end fight beyond the responsible minimum needed for full-spectrum competence. But as a result of a long overemphasis on low-end missions the budgets and operating norms of the fleet were stretched to their limits in the absence of a major demand signal. The result is a Navy that must dig deeply into its own time and pockets to make painful choices to correct itself. 

Exercises as the Link Between Tactics and Strategy

“In the past tactics has suffered from lack of standard instructions, lack of records, lack of planning and tests of efficiency, lack of a ‘home office’ in the Department, but most of all it has suffered from lack of time in the fleet schedules…The tactical training of our fleet for war has suffered in the past, is now suffering, and will continue to suffer because of the ‘tight’ schedules of the present system.” –Commander Russell Wilson, “Our System of Fleet Training,” April 1925.

Regardless of their immense value exercises still cannot answer plenty of important questions. Exercises cannot probe many of the larger strategic concerns that can inform a campaign, such as political considerations or industrial base limits. These broader questions are more readily assessed using analysis and simulations rather than through the maneuvers of live units. Instead, where realistic combat exercises find their place in strategy is in how they dominate the realm of tactics, and how tactical-level success is the foundation of winning strategy.

Knowing how to organize for tactical success is critical toward crafting strategic plans, and Clausewitz proclaimed that proper strategy is completely contingent on superior tactics:

“…endeavor above all to be tactically superior, in order to upset the enemy’s strategic planning. The latter [strategic planning], therefore, can never be considered as something independent: it can only become valid when one has reason to be confident of tactical success…let us recall that a general such as Bonaparte could ruthlessly cut through all his enemies’ strategic plans in search of battle, because he seldom doubted the battle’s outcome…all strategic planning rests on tactical success alone…this is in all cases the actual fundamental basis for the decision.”11

Failing to understand surprise at the tactical level will eventually beckon surprise at the strategic level because one cannot be too sure of knowing if they can win if they are not sure how to win. Tactical shortsightedness can not only come from a lack of warfighting competence, it can also come from a poor understanding on how capability trends have evolved to redefine tactical ground truth. The unforseen tactical carnage wrought by the machine gun, trench, and artillery barrage in WWI was so devastating it shattered strategic concepts on both sides.12

Exercises come closest to real fighting because only they can use live units to create mock battles, making them the most important activity for understanding the tactical level of war. Only exercises can help thousands of troops practice tactics, and only exercises offer troops the most realistic proving grounds for testing tactical ideas. After having experimented enough to discover the tactical truths that govern the conduct of future war, and after having inculcated the related tactics into the force, exercises can also then be used to reveal tactical skill through bold maneuvers and rehearsals.

Exercises are the best possible means to teach tactics through training, to invent tactics through experimentation, and to showcase tactics for deterrence through demonstration. To strongly emphasize challenging exercises is to pay appropriate respect to how the tactical level of war is the foundation upon which strategy rests. 

Hazarding a Navy, a Maritime Nation, and a Maritime System

“If in the future we have war, it will almost certainly come because of some action, or lack of action, on our part in the way of refusing to accept responsibilities at the proper time, or failing to prepare for war when war does not threaten. An ignoble peace is even worse than an unsuccessful war…” –Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, 1897

A generation’s worth of poor priorities and standards has gambled much of the Navy’s credibility away. Readiness is degraded across the board, from the material state of the ships, to the warfighting competence of the individual Sailor, and to the level of institutional understanding of high-end warfighting. This degraded sea control capability can pose a strategic liability, especially when a rival superpower is focused on creating a powerful sea control capability of its own. The history of the United States and its chosen role of advancing a principled global order points to what the U.S. and the rest of the world stands to lose from an American Navy deficient in sea control.  

The discovery and colonization of the New World was driven by maritime power. Wave after wave of ships delivered settlers, supplies, and influence as the great maritime powers of the time such as Great Britain and Spain sought to expand and compete across a new hemisphere. Here the United States finds its origin story as a colony of a maritime superpower, a nation whose founding was made possible by the sea.

The Mayflower at Sea. Gilbert Margeson (1852-1940)

After gaining independence from Great Britain the United States gained a similar sort of strategic flexibility its English forefathers enjoyed. Nations in most other continents border several neighbors which forces them to always be aware and engaged. As a maritime nation, the United States could often choose to use the large oceans that divide it from most of the world to keep its distance from international events, or actively engage abroad if desired. This relative isolation from international turbulence helped the United States bide its time on developing itself into a first rate power. Soon after the start of the 20th century the U.S. had gained enough in confidence and strength, and announced its ascendancy as a nation of global influence in part through a high-profile naval deployment in the form of the Great White Fleet.

The independence that often came with being a maritime nation is gone today. The world’s oceans have become an even more indispensable foundation for human progress and globalization. By far the most cost effective form of transportation, 90 percent of the world’s trade goes by sea.13 2.4 billion people, a third of  the world’s population, live within 60 miles of a coast.14 97 percent of global communications and $10 trillion in daily transactions flow through undersea cables.15 International benefits and problems can be more readily transferred through the seas, and severe shocks to the maritime system can quickly cascade throughout the global economy.  

In a war at sea these things that make the world’s oceans a pillar of civilization become pressure points at the mercy of the victorious navy. By projecting power through the air, surface, subsurface, and across the coastline blue water naval power can dictate foreboding terms through sea control. The consequences of command of the seas are especially more severe for maritime nations such as the United States, where being isolated by the sea comes with greater dependence on it. A powerful example comes from the U.S. Navy’s own history in dominating the navy of a maritime superpower in WWII. It is a curious thing that several of the Navy’s top admirals came out against dropping the atom bomb when their proposals to end the war included using uncontested sea control to starve millions of Japanese into submission.16

A maritime nation that is separated from its allies by oceans requires sea control to send reinforcements abroad and maintain physical links, making the Navy especially critical to American security guarantees. The U.S. Navy could easily serve as the tip of the spear for the rest of the American military in many contingencies, since “Control of the seas near land assures the prompt access and freedom of maneuver of joint forces from the sea base.”17 The U.S. Navy must be able to secure forward spaces and sea lanes well enough to allow the joint force to surge across the ocean from the homeland. If the Navy cedes sea control to a superpower rival many U.S. allies could be left to fend for themselves.

Maritime commerce could be interdicted by a hostile Navy, causing untold economic damage and offering a powerful point of leverage. Coastlines and territories could be threatened by amphibious invasion. Population centers and critical infrastructure could be attacked deep inland through long-range fires safely delivered by ships at a distance. If the U.S. Navy cannot best a great power rival at sea control then many allies would be put at the mercy of the same sort of blue water naval power the Navy itself has wielded for decades.

The value of American naval supremacy goes far beyond what it could offer in war because of the nature of the global maritime system. Command of the seas is not just a wartime state of dominance for a particular Navy or coalition. It can also be understood as a particular state of peace. Today, command of the seas does not belong to any one nation or group, but rather it belongs to all as a global commons. 

The set of rules that govern the world’s oceans was not solely decided by the world’s strongest powers, nor does it vary from region to region based on local preferences. In this sense, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is a historic human achievement. It lays down rights and rules for most of the surface of the world with regard to safe passage, economic development, and many other legal matters for conduct within the global maritime domain. 167 countries have ratified UNCLOS, including China.

The U.S. hasn’t ratified UNCLOS, but still adheres to many of its provisions as customary international law.18 The commitment to a common and principled legal framework to guide conduct on the world’s oceans is perhaps one of the more high-profile examples of American commitment to a rules-based international order. The United States has repeatedly demonstrated its seriousness about protecting the principle of freedom of navigation, with the U.S. Navy being a main instrument for doing so.

A Freedom of Navigation Operation conducted by U.S. warships is not simply a message to highlight the violation of rules or norms. It is the American Navy retracing a red line the United States has a long history of enforcing through the use of force. From Barbary pirates to the impressment of Sailors, to Gaddafi’s “Line of Death” or the Tanker Wars in the Persian Gulf, freedom of navigation has figured prominently in U.S. military intervention for over two centuries.19

On the other hand, China’s commitment to undermining the rules of the global maritime system is one of its most brazen examples of contempt for international order. Trillions of dollars of trade flow through the South China Sea since it is the main body of water that most seaborne commerce from Africa, Europe, and the Middle East transits on the way to Asia. China’s claim to the whole of the South China Sea is a clear example of a nation viewing its personal sense of entitlement as more important than respecting an agreed-upon framework of conduct that was forged by global cooperation. It remained steadfast in its selfish defiance even after its claims were decisively ruled against by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea at The Hague.

China’s worsening authoritarian character and the rapid ascent of its powerful Navy casts doubt on its maritime ambitions. If China wins command of the seas through war or other means it could earn a powerful medium for peacetime coercion by molding the maritime commons to its advantage. What would be the character and norms of such an authoritarian maritime system? Given the interconnected nature of the world’s oceans, command of the seas in a specific region could be enough to exert targeted pressure on a global scale. But how could an authoritarian state impose and enforce such a vision? Defeating the U.S. Navy would certainly go a long way. 

Part 7 will focus on Strategy and Force Development.

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Nextwar@cimsec.org.


1. Rajiv Chandrasekaran, “U.S. deploying heavily armored battle tanks for first time in Afghan war,” Washington Post, November 19, 2010.  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/18/AR2010111806856.html?noredirect=on

Robert S. Cameron, Armor In Battle, U.S. Army Center of Military History, August 2016https://history.army.mil/news/2016/images/gal_armorInBattle/Armor%20in%20Battle_opt.pdf#page=480

2. Major Daniel C. Gibson, USA, “Counter-Insurgency’s Effects on the U.S. Army Field Artillery,” USMC Command and Staff College Marine Corps University, 2010. http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a602988.pdf

Boyd L. Dastrup, “Artillery Strong: Modernizing the Field Artillery for the 21st Century,” Combat Studies Institute Press, 2018. https://www.armyupress.army.mil/Portals/7/combat-studies-institute/csi-books/Artillery-Strong-Final.pdf 

Excerpt: “Redesigning the school’s curriculum went beyond modernizing the 2005–2006 Field Artillery Captain’s Career Course under Colonel McDonald. With the 2003 rise of the insurgency in Iraq, field artillery Soldiers devoted the bulk of their time to nonstandard missions, such as patrolling, providing base defense, and convoy operations. Because only a few field artillery units provided fire support, field artillery core competencies atrophied. As outlined in the 20 July 2006 Army Campaign Plan Update, the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, General Richard A. Cody, understood the effect of nonstandard missions. He directed the US Army Training and Doctrine Command to assess the competency of field artillery lieutenants to determine if nonstandard missions in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom had degraded their basic branch skills and if they required additional or refresher training.”

3. Naval History and Heritage Command, “Where Are the Shooters? A History of the Tomahawk in Combat,” 2017. https://www.public.navy.mil/surfor/swmag/Pages/Where-are-the-Shooters.aspx 

4. Government Accountability Office, “Military Readiness: Navy Needs to Reassess its Metrics and Assumptions for Ship Crewing Requirements and Training,” June 2010. https://www.gao.gov/assets/310/305282.pdf

5. Lieutenant Commander Alan Worthy, “U.S. Navy Individual Augmentee Program: Is it the Correct Approach to GWOT Service?” Marine Corps Command and Staff College Marine Corps University, 2008. http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a490401.pdf 

6. Department of the Navy, …From the Sea: Preparing the Naval Service for the 21st Century, September 1992. https://www.navy.mil/navydata/policy/fromsea/fromsea.txt 

7. Michael Chase et. al, China’s Incomplete Military Transformation: Assessing the Weaknesses of the People’s Liberation Army, RAND, 2015. https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR800/RR893/RAND_RR893.pdf 

8. For disaggregation norms see: 

Naval Operations Concept 2010https://fas.org/irp/doddir/navy/noc2010.pdf 

Carrier Strike Group 11 Fact Sheet. https://www.public.navy.mil/surfor/ccsg11/Documents/FactSheet.pdf 

9. For National Training Center reference:

Colonel John D. Rosenberger, “Reaching Our Army’s Full Combat Potential in the 21st Century: Insights from the National Training Center’s Opposing Force,” Institute of Land Warfare, February 1999, https://www.ausa.org/sites/default/files/LPE-99-2-Reaching-our-Armys-Full-Combat-Potential-in-the-21st-Century-Insights-from-the-National-Training-Centers-Opposing-Force.pdf.

Major John F. Antal, “OPFOR: Prerequisite to Victory,” Institute of Land Warfare, May 1993. https://www.ausa.org/sites/default/files/LPE-93-4-OPFOR-Prerequisite-for-Victory.pdf

For Red Flag Reference:

414th Combat Squadron Training “Red Flag,” July 2012. https://www.nellis.af.mil/About/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/284176/414th-combat-training-squadron-red-flag/

10. Capt. Dale Rielage, USN (ret.), “The Chinese Navy’s Missing Years,” Naval History Magazine, December 2018. https://www.usni.org/magazines/navalhistory/2018-12/chinese-navys-missing-years 

11. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. 

12. Hew Strachan, “The Strategic Consequences of the World War,” The American Interest, June 2, 2014. https://www.the-american-interest.com/2014/06/02/the-strategic-consequences-of-the-world-war/

13. IMO Profile, International Maritime Organization, United Nations Business Action Hub. https://business.un.org/en/entities/13 

14. NASA “Living Ocean.” https://science.nasa.gov/earth-science/oceanography/living-ocean

15. Brandon Knapp, “How Exposed Deep-Sea Cables Could Leave the Economy Vulnerable to a Russian Attack,” C4ISRnet, February 1, 2018. https://www.c4isrnet.com/it-networks/2018/02/01/how-exposed-deep-sea-cables-could-leave-the-economy-vulnerable-to-a-russian-attack/ 

16. Jim Hornfischer, The Fleet at Flood Tide, Bantam, 2016. 

17. Department of the Navy, Naval Transformation Roadmap, Power and Access…From the Sea, 2002. http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/b295445.pdf

18. Steven Groves, “Accession to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea Is Unnecessary to Secure U.S. Navigational Rights and Freedoms,” Heritage Foundation, August 24, 2011. https://www.heritage.org/defense/report/accession-the-un-convention-the-law-the-sea-unnecessary-secure-us-navigational

19. James Kraska, “The Struggle for Law
in the South China Sea,” Statement of Professor James Kraska Before the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, September 21, 2016. https://docs.house.gov/meetings/AS/AS28/20160921/105309/HHRG-114-AS28-Wstate-KraskaSJDJ-20160921.pdf 

SUEZ CANAL, Egypt(Sept. 23, 2008) The amphibious transport dock ship USS San Antonio (LPD 17) transits through the Suez Canal. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jason R. Zalasky (Released)

Strategic Loss: How EU Sanctions Affect Russia’s Ability to Replace its Sunken Dry-Dock

By Lieutenant Commander Peter Barker, RN

The icy waters of Murmansk harbor now cover one of the world’s largest floating dry-docks. Last week, a catastrophic power failure seems to have caused the dock’s pumps to jam, rapidly flooding the ballast tanks. As a result, PD-50, the largest floating dry-dock of the Russian Navy, sank to the bottom of the shipyard and now lies 160 feet below the surface.

Much attention has focused on damage to Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kutznetsov, which was in PD-50 at the time of the incident. However, the loss of the dry-dock may have a more significant long-term impact on Russia’s ability to sustain its Northern Fleet. As a consequence, the ability of Russia to recover, repair, or even replace the dock assumes considerable importance because it is a maintenance asset of strategic import.

Russia’s ability to overcome this setback is further complicated by European Union (EU) sanctions, where the legal and practical effects of the EU sanctions regime will strongly affect Russia’s ability to replace this key maritime asset.

Sanctions and Dry Docks

The EU sanctions regime against Russia is conducted under the auspices of the Common Foreign and Security Policy. It is directly applicable in EU law, meaning that it takes effect without the need for national legislation (in fact, most countries have no separate national sanctions regime against Russia). EU sanctions were established in March 2014 as a response to Russia’s activities in Ukraine. They have remained in force since and are reviewed at six-month intervals by the EU Council. The sanctions recently were extended until 31 January 2019. Further, the EU Council has stated that it will continue renewing these sanctions until the complete implementation of the Minsk agreement.

The EU sanctions are a range of measures including asset freezing, an import ban on items from the Crimea and Sevastopol, and a ban on tourism to the same areas. More pertinently for this discussion, sanctions have been enacted in specific economic sectors. This includes a ban on arms sales to Russia (article 4 Council Regulation (EU) 833/2014) and an export ban on dual-use goods (article 2 Council Regulation (EU) 833/2014), with minor amendments being made in Regulations 960/2014 and 1290/2014.

Proceeding on the assumption that these sanctions will remain in place for the foreseeable future, the question is whether the export ban on arms or dual-use goods includes replacement parts for PD-50—or indeed an entirely new dock—if supplied from within the EU.

Looking first at the arms question arising from article 4, the list of prohibited equipment is detailed in the EU Common Military List (2015/C 129/01). The most relevant items are ML9.1 (“vessels (including components) designed or modified for military use”) and ML17b (“construction equipment specifically designed for military use”). Although a floating dry dock, or the components to repair it, may fit the description of a “vessel” or “construction equipment,” it would be difficult to argue that a floating dry dock is designed for military use. It is even harder to conclude that a floating dry dock is specifically designed for military use. Components for a floating dry dock (or even a dock itself) are therefore unlikely to be considered arms under article 4 and would not be caught by the ban on arms sales.

The ban on dual-use goods, set forth in article 2, is more likely to be applicable. Dual-use items are defined in Council Regulation (EU) 428/2009 and include all items that can be used for civil and military purposes. Military end-use includes the “use of production equipment and components for the maintenance of military items,” as stated in article 4(2)(b). Although PD-50 is owned and operated by a private company, this definition focuses on the use of the equipment rather than the owner. The use of a dry-dock for the maintenance of an aircraft carrier (indisputably a military item) strongly suggests that it is caught by this provision. One could argue that this is an unduly broad interpretation of the phrase “production equipment,” but a contextual reading of the article clearly shows that these provisions are intended to cover a wide range of items that may be used to support military infrastructure.

This conclusion is bolstered by article 2(1) of Reg. 833/2014. Article 2(1) states that where the end-user is the Russian military, any dual-use item shall be deemed to be for military use. Again, an argument could be constructed that the private ownership of the dock places it outside the scope of the provision by asserting that the end-user is the company rather than the Russian military. However, given the almost exclusive use of the dock for warship repair and maintenance, a strong case can be made that, appearances aside, the end-user of the dock (or any replacement) would be the Russian military, even if the actual ownership rests elsewhere.

The only caveat to the above analysis is that the sanctions do not affect the completion of contracts entered into before 1 August 2014. It is possible that the purchase agreement for the dock included an ongoing contractual obligation to provide replacement parts. If so, this would be unaffected by the sanction regime. In reality, it is very unlikely that such a provision was included and thus, this caveat can probably be discounted.


Unsurprisingly, there are few concrete details about the state of PD-50 and the prospects for the recovery of this strategic asset. Even a Russian news agency has accepted that this is a complex operation and unlikely to be completed within six months. A rapid repair or replacement of the dock is required to avoid severe pressures on the maintenance and availability of crucial Northern Fleet units and to conduct complex modernization work. Any support for this work is likely to be hampered by the EU sanctions regime, which now assumes additional significance following the sinking of PD-50.

Lieutenant Commander Peter Barker is a serving Royal Navy officer and barrister. He is currently the Associate Director for the Law of Coalition Warfare at the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law (@StocktonCenter), part of the U.S. Naval War College. He can be contacted at peter.barker.uk@usnwc.edu.

These views are presented in a personal capacity and  are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any ministry or government.

Featured Image: Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kutznetsov in dry-dock PD-50. (Lev Fedoseyev via Tass)

Chinese Evaluations of the U.S. Navy Submarine Force, Pt. 2

This article originally featured in The Naval War College Review in 2008 and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here. Read Part One of the republication here.

By Gabriel Collins, Andrew Erickson, Lyle Goldstein, and William Murray

Sensors, Systems, Research, Development, and Training

American efforts at exploiting advancements in commercial off-the-shelf technology have received attention. One article observes that “the updated (COTS) CCS MK II [fire control] system is not only used on the Los Angeles and Ohio classes, but is also used on the new Seawolf and Virginia class submarines”;44 another points out that “92% of the hardware and 90% of the software used in non-publicly available projects in fact come from popular commercially available technologies.”45 China’s intense interest in the U.S. Navy’s use of COTS may stem in part from Beijing’s effort to develop a world-class commercial information technology industry and to incorporate its products into the PLA.

Chinese analysts also monitor American submarine sensor development. One article notes, “At present, the U.S. is the world leader in developing periscope technology and using it on its submarines.”46 U.S. efforts to bolster the submarine force’s mine warfare capabilities receive particular attention.47 Moves to develop and acquire the Long Term Mine Reconnaissance System (LMRS) have been noted, with one researcher stating that “the U.S. is now buying 8 long-range mine scouting systems to be put on the Los Angeles and Virginia class nuclear attack submarines.”48

Chinese observers pay fairly close attention to American submarine-related research and development efforts. For example, websites on Chinese naval matters frequently report on the awarding of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Office of Naval Research (ONR) contracts.49 Chinese journals take advantage of these announcements and also scour the U.S. open press for sources that can be exploited. For example, a rather lengthy article in the June 2002 issue of 现代舰船 (Modern Ships) reprinted the “Submarine of the Future” briefing slides (complete with a logo in the upper left-hand corner of each) generated by the DARPA-sponsored, Lockheed Martin–led industrial consortium “TEAM 2020.” These slides depict futuristic hull forms, sonar configurations, propulsors, weapons storage ideas, interfaces for unmanned underwater vehicles, and other elements of advanced submarine designs and concepts.50 It seems that little, if any, publicly released information regarding U.S. submarine-related research and development escapes the attention of Chinese analysts.

In keeping with the technological dynamism of U.S. platforms and their constant improvement, Chinese analysts also credit the American submarine force with an extremely rigorous selection and training process for commanding officers. In a coauthored article in Modern Navy, Rear Admiral Yang Yi, a PLA expert on the United States and former naval attaché in Washington, emphasizes that “the U.S. Navy’s selection process for the commanding officers of nuclear submarines is very strict.” Yang details the numerous education and training programs that successful candidates must attend, as well as the periodic qualifying tests they must undergo. A major emphasis of his article is the extent to which submarine commanders must periodically update their “specialized [technical] knowledge.”51

Historical Issues

Although China is emerging as a submarine power, its submarine force, and indeed its navy overall, generally lacks blue-water experience, to say nothing of a combat history. Of course, this paucity of experience stands in stark contrast to the U.S. submarine force, and PLA Navy analysts are acutely aware of that disparity. In fact, Chinese naval analysts have expressed particular admiration for the record of American submarines in World War II, pointing out that “the U.S. submarine force had the fewest losses” of any major submarine force “but had high combat effectiveness. According to statistics, the U.S. submarine force destroyed 1,314 enemy ships during the war.”52 Moreover, Chinese sources indicate an appreciation for the accumulated knowledge that the U.S. Navy has achieved through decades of intense submarine operations. Another Chinese source observes: “The U.S. is a country with 100 years of experience in building submarines, and with so many years of experience the USN constantly emphasizes the ability of a submarine to take punishment [and survive].”53

While there are numerous Chinese writings on the U.S. Navy’s submarine force’s campaign against Japan, this article focuses on the Chinese perceptions of American submarine operations during the Cold War. Some of the observations made in this context may explain aspects of contemporary PLA Navy submarine doctrine. For example, an article in Modern Ships relates an anecdote of a “Soviet Type 627 [known in the West as “November”] nuclear attack submarine [that] once went all out in a race with a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, revealing the Soviet attack submarine’s capabilities. [This revelation] apparently has had a major impact on the development of a new class of American submarines.”54 This appraisal of the peacetime interaction between the two navies may suggest that overly aggressive tactics employed by the Soviet Navy yielded too much information to the U.S. Navy. In general, it is quite clear that Chinese sources understand that a “main mission of [U.S.] nuclear attack submarines [during the Cold War] was to deal with the Soviet Navy’s SSBNs.”55

With respect to the Cold War at sea, one Chinese book published in 2006 is worthy of particular note.56 The translation of a Russian book, Secrets of Cold War Undersea Espionage, states that “U.S. nuclear and conventional submarines would often lurk along the routes of Soviet warships, and even within Soviet territorial waters, conducting intelligence activities.”57 It is noted that “the SOSUS [Sound Surveillance] system substantially helped the U.S. to cope with the capabilities of the Soviet submarine force.”58 The subject of acoustic signatures is also raised: “In the ocean, there are simply too many sources of noise. . . . In order to cope with this problem, the U.S. decided to build an acoustic signature catalogue (resembling a fingerprint) for Soviet submarines.”59

Chinese ASW and the U.S. Navy Submarine Force

When considering Chinese views of the American submarine force, it is certainly relevant to consider how China appraises its own antisubmarine warfare forces. Generally, China considers its ASW forces to be weak. One Chinese naval analyst observes: “[Chinese] people are focused on China’s submarine force (both conventional and nuclear) development, but often neglect the threat we face from [U.S. Navy] submarines.”60 It is, moreover, suggested that “there is still a relatively large gap between [China’s] ASW technology level and that of the world’s advanced level.”61 In appraising the ASW capabilities of its own surface forces, another naval analyst notes, “Across the world, most naval ships are now equipped with towed array sonars, which has increased their ASW capabilities, but most of our ships only have hull mounted sonars.”62 Finally, there is a concern that these antisubmarine assets are themselves highly vulnerable: “Submarines can carry out ferocious missile attacks from tens or even 100–200km ranges, causing the submarine hunting vessels to become the hunted targets.”63

Chinese aerial ASW is also highlighted as a particular weakness. One Chinese analyst judges that the Z-9 helicopter lacks adequate range and internal space for the ASW mission.64 A second argues that while the Z-8 has better range and capacity, it is too big for most surface combatants to carry and chronic engine troubles have limited production.65 The Russian-import Ka-28 ASW helicopter is reported to be capable but few in numbers.66 As for Chinese maritime patrol aircraft, some designs have apparently been developed, including a variant of the Y-7 Fearless Albatross, but the outlook is said to remain bleak.67 Thus, one evaluation of Chinese aerial ASW concludes, “Our country at the present stage does not have an ASW maritime patrol aircraft . . . but the number of submarines in our peripheral seas is increasing, and their technological sophistication is also increasing. This contradiction is becoming more obvious every day, creating a grim situation.”68

In Chinese discussions of Russian ASW systems, there is a pointed recognition that the Soviets leaned heavily toward the use of tactical nuclear weapons (e.g., nuclear depth charges and torpedoes) in ASW operations.69 Tactical nuclear weapons are also mentioned in the context of mine warfare. An article in the July 2006 issue of Modern Navy, in discussing possible PLA Navy use of sea mines, suggests the potential combat value of nuclear-armed versions.70 It will be important to watch closely for any sign of Chinese efforts in this direction.

While the overall impression is that of Chinese ASW weakness, there is one notable exception. Significant prioritization appears to be given to the use of sea mines for the antisubmarine mission, as if to produce a “poor man’s ASW capability.”71 One discussion explains, “Because of a tremendous change in the maritime strategic environment, since the early 1990s the PLA has made mobile ASW sea mines a focal point of weapons development.” The analysis continues, “[China] is energetically undertaking the research mission [of] using [mobile ASW sea mines] against U.S. nuclear submarines.”72 The same discussion also hints at a review possible PLA Navy ASW role: “The major mission of self-guided sea mines is to isolate American nuclear submarines outside the First Island Chain.”73

It is noteworthy for the future development of Chinese antisubmarine warfare that hydroacoustics has been called a “key point” technology for state investment.74 The conventional wisdom has long been that the Chinese submarine force is focused entirely on the anti-surface ship mission. This assumption may have become outdated, perhaps especially after the PLA Navy received the last of eight new Kilo-class diesel submarines (and accompanying weaponry) from Russia in 2006. According to Professor Li Daguang of China National Defense University, these new Kilos have four missions: to blockade Taiwan, threaten carrier battle groups, employ land-attack cruise missiles as a “strategic weapon,” and “form an underwater threat to the U.S. nuclear submarine force.”75 There is also preliminary evidence that China is moving toward deploying antisubmarine rocket weapons on its newest surface combatants.76 This system is no “silver bullet,” as the Chinese would still have severe, perhaps insurmountable, targeting and cueing problems, but successful acquisition and deployment of ASROCs would extend the engagement range of Chinese ASW weapons significantly. It is also worth noting that Chinese sources discuss “many openly published dissertations concerning underwater targeting for a homing depth charge.”77

To reverse the equation: How do Chinese naval analysts appraise American ASW, and in particular the submarine force’s part in it? Clearly, the PLA Navy understands the overall centrality of SSNs in U.S. antisubmarine warfare. Thus an article in Modern Navy states: “The nuclear attack submarine . . . is the most effective tool for ASW.”78 However, some PLA Navy observers appear rather unimpressed by American efforts in ASW. The same official Chinese Navy journal observes: “The U.S. Navy actually has not had sufficient exercises in the [ASW arena] and also lacks experience.”79 In the same article, it is likewise noted that “conducting ASW in the littorals represents a special difficulty for the USN” and that “the combat advantage of the U.S. Navy nuclear submarine force in the littoral areas is far from obvious.”80 On this note, Campaign Theory Study Guide, a 2002 textbook written by China National Defense University scholars that draws on a variety of high-quality doctrinal publications, emphasizes that “nuclear powered attack submarines have difficulty operating in close proximity to shore due to natural conditions.”81 Another Chinese naval analysis suggests that “up to 2005, the USN has altogether 350 ASW platforms, just 11% of the number of [ASW] platforms it fielded in 1945. Moreover, many of these current naval and air platforms are not specialized for ASW, but more often are multi-mission platforms.”82 This quantitative comparison across historical periods is crude in some ways, but there is no denying that inherent physical principles combined with the vast geographical area of the Pacific Ocean will likely keep ASW an asset-intensive mission, even in the age of “net-centric warfare.”

The U.S. Navy Submarine Force-Level Trajectory

Chinese discussions of the American submarine force focus heavily on the continuing decline in its size. As one article from a People’s Republic of China (PRC) naval interest publication states, “The decline of U.S. submarine strength is inevitable.”83 Indeed, that a wide variety of Chinese naval sources share this evaluation suggests that this “decline” now passes for conventional wisdom within the PLA Navy. The Chinese naval community is likely paying close attention to internal U.S. debates, knowing that investments made (or forgone) today in submarine fleet modernization shape the future fleet.

Some Chinese assessments of the Seawolf program appear to point out indirectly the internal political tensions that hold down American submarine build rates now and perhaps in the future. One volume notes: “Although the Sea Wolf– class SSN gathers the era’s most advanced technology in a single hull, and possesses beyond-first-class performance, the appraisals of ‘Sea Wolf’ by American public figures from all walks of life differ, with a roughly half-and-half split between praise and condemnation.”84

Taking the long view, Chinese naval strategists recognize that force levels have dropped drastically from Cold War levels. One source observes, “Since 1989, the U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered attack submarine [force] has been reduced by half.”85 A more recent Chinese naval press article estimates that “[U.S.] nuclear attack submarines will decline in number by close to 40%, eventually reaching 30 boats.”86 This calculation is roughly consistent with a projection in Modern Navy that anticipated a sustained build rate of one boat per year.87 Rear Admiral Yang Yi, writing in 2006 on the future size of the American submarine force, quoted one American analysis as follows: “China already exceeds [U.S. submarine production] five times over. . . . 18 [USN] submarines against 75 or more Chinese navy submarines is obviously not encouraging [from the U.S. perspective].”88

A Reputation for Mastery?

This article demonstrates that Chinese strategists are keenly interested in the U.S. Navy’s submarine force. Thousands of articles have reviewed various aspects of American submarine capabilities, operations, and developmental trends. There is clear evidence that Chinese naval analysts have enormous respect for U.S. submarines, submariners, and their weapons. Certainly, China aspires to be a submarine power and hopes to emulate certain aspects of American experience. However, it is equally clear in these writings that the U.S. submarine force is seen as a key challenge in any military confrontation between Beijing and Washington. It is significant in that regard especially that Chinese analysts are increasingly drawing attention to, and seeking to remedy, their antisubmarine warfare deficiencies. The study also reveals an apparent assumption within Chinese naval analytic circles that American submarine force levels are on a downward trajectory.

The authors are research faculty in the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. They are members (Dr. Goldstein is the founding director) of the College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. The opinions expressed in this report are those of the authors alone and not the assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other entity of the U.S. government.


  1. “美国雷声公司拟用商用流行技术更新潜 艇作战系统” [U.S. Raytheon Corporation Draws Up a Plan to Use COTS to Upgrade Subs’ Systems], 情报指挥控制系统与仿真 技术 [Intelligence, Command, Control, and Simulation Technology], no. 10 (2003), p. 19.
  2. 戴维 [Dai Wei], “ESM 对潜艇支持的新 作用” [ESM’s New Role in Submarine Support], 情报指挥控制系统与仿真技 术 [Intelligence, Command, Control, and Simulation Technology], no. 7 (1999), p. 19. 46. 李平, 陆炳哲 [Li Ping, Lu Bingzhe], “美 国虚拟潜望镜研究及进展” [Research and Progress of the American Virtual Periscope], 船舶电子工程 [Ship Electronic Engineering] 26, no. 5 (2006), p. 199.
  3. This article does not analyze Chinese examinations of U.S. sonar, navigation, combat control, ESM, or radio systems.
  4. 李书甫 [Li Shufu], “水下无人航行器” [UUVs], 舰载武器 [Shipborne Weapons], (April 2003), pp. 57–60.
  5. See, for example, the “US Submarines, Antisubmarine Warfare and All News” section of the China Defense.com Forum at www .china-defense.com/forum/index.php ?showtopic=1541.
  6. 王绪智 [Wang Xuzhi], “潜艇大革命—近岸 作战催生美国下—代多用途核潜艇” [The Submarine Revolution: Littoral Warfare Will Drive the Multirole Nature of America’s Next Generation Nuclear Submarine], 现代舰 船 [Modern Ships] (June 2002), pp. 30–33.
  7. 杨毅, 赵志军 [Yang Yi and Zhao Zhijun], “美国核潜艇艇长是怎样选拔的?” 17 Collins et al.: 85 [How Are American Submarine Commanding Officers Selected?], 当代海军 [Modern Navy] (December 2001), p. 17.
  8. 杜朝平 [Du Zhaoping], “美国为什么不装 备常规潜艇” [Why the U.S. Is Not Equipped with Conventional Submarines], 舰载武器 [Shipborne Weapons] (January 2004), p. 19.
  9. Qi Yaojiu, “Reflecting Again on the San Francisco,” p. 41.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Du Zhaoping, “Why the U.S. Is Not Equipped with Conventional Submarines,” p. 21.
  12. 拜科夫, 济科夫 [Zykov and Baikov—in Russian], 水下间谍战的秘密 [Secrets of Undersea Espionage] (Shanghai: Shanghai Translation, 2006).
  13. Ibid., p. 10.
  14. Ibid., p. 12.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Tai Feng, “Does China Need Antisubmarine Patrol Aircraft?” p. 70.
  17. 管带 [Guan Dai], “走向未来的中国反潜作战” [Looking toward Future PLA Navy Antisubmarine Warfare], 舰载武器 [Shipborne Weapons] (August 2005), p. 33.
  18. 蓝杰斌 [Lan Jiebin], “中国反潜装备的发展” [China’s ASW Equipment Development], 舰载武器[Shipborne Weapons] (February 2004), p. 29.
  19. 巡抚 [Xun Fu], “中国海军反潜武器的发展” [PLA Navy Antisubmarine Weapons Development], 舰载武器 [Shipborne Weapons] (August 2005), p. 29.
  20. Tai Feng, “Does China Need Antisubmarine Patrol Aircraft?” p. 73.
  21. Xun Fu, “PLA Navy Antisubmarine Weapons Development,” p. 30.
  22. Tai Feng, “Does China Need Antisubmarine Patrol Aircraft?” p. 73.
  23. Ibid., p. 75.
  24. Ibid., p. 73.
  25. See, for example, ibid., p. 72; and Xun Fu, “PLA Navy Antisubmarine Weapons Development,” p. 30.
  26. 刘衍中, 李祥 [Liu Yanzhong and Li Xiang], “实施智能攻击的现代水雷” [Carrying Out Intelligent Attacks with Modern Mines], 当 代海军 [Modern Navy] (July 2006), p. 29.
  27. For a much more detailed discussion of this issue, see Andrew Erickson, Lyle Goldstein, and William Murray, “China’s Undersea Sentries: Sea Mines Constitute Lead Element of PLA Navy’s ASW,” Undersea Warfare (Winter 2007), pp. 10–15.
  28. Lin Changcheng, “The Hidden Dragon in the Deep,” p. 30.
  29. Ibid., p. 31. The “first island chain” comprises Japan, its northern and southern archipelagoes, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and the Greater Sunda Islands. See Xu Qi, “Maritime Geostrategy and the Development of the Chinese Navy in the Early Twenty-first Century,” trans. Andrew S. Erickson and Lyle J. Goldstein, Naval War College Review 59, no. 4 (Autumn 2006), pp. 47–67, esp. note 11.
  30. Xun Fu, “PLA Navy Antisubmarine Weapons Development,” p. 28.
  31. 陈位吴 [Chen Weiwu], “解放军新基洛” [The PLA’s New Kilos], 国际展望 [World Outlook] (July 2006), p. 25.
  32. Xun Fu, “PLA Navy Antisubmarine Weapons Development,” p. 29.
  33. Ibid., p. 32.
  34. 许世勇 [Xu Shiyong], “美海军实施网络反潜 新战略” [The U.S. Navy’s New Network ASW Strategy], 当代海军 [Modern Navy] (September 2006), p. 44.
  35. Ibid. For an equally unimpressed American view, see John R. Benedict, “The Unraveling and Revitalization of U.S. Navy Antisubmarine Warfare,” Naval War College Review 58, no. 2 (Spring 2005), pp. 93–120.
  36. Xu Shiyong, “The U.S. Navy’s New Network ASW Strategy,” p. 44.
  37. 薛兴林 [Bi Xinglin, ed.], 战役理论学习指南 [Campaign Theory Study Guide] (国防大 学出版社 [National Defense University Press], 2002), vol. 3, p. 261.
  38. 石江月[Shi Jiangyue], “‘中国潜艇威胁’与美 军反潜战的复兴” [“The Chinese Submarine Threat” and the Revival of the U.S. Military’s ASW], 现代舰船 [Modern Ships] (May 2007), p. 17.
  39. 胡锦洋 [Hu Jinyang], “外媒: 中国海上‘狼 群’挑战美军潜艇霸权” [Foreign Media: China’s “Wolf Pack” at Sea Challenges American Submarine Hegemony], 海事大 观 [Maritime Spectacle] (July 2006), p. 45.
  40. Wang Yu and Yao Yao, eds., World Naval Submarines, p. 127.
  41. 孟昭珍, 张宁 [Meng Zhaozhen and Zhan Ning], “潜艇承担的新任务” [Submarines Assuming New Missions], 情报指挥控制系统 与仿真技术 [Intelligence, Command, Control, and Simulation Technology] (April 2003), p. 12.
  42. 石江月[Shi Jiangyue], “美国海军需要什么样 的舰队?” [What Kind of Fleet Does the U.S. Navy Require?], Navy Require?], 现代舰船 [Modern Ships], (December 2006), p. 12. 87. 张晓东, 王磊 [Zhang Xiaodong and Wang Lei], “美国海军未来 20 年发展规划” [The 20-Year Development Program of the U.S. Navy], 当代海军 [Modern Navy] (August 2006), p. 51. 88. Yang Yi, “Who Can Estimate the Future Number of Submarines?” p. 28.

Featured Image: Virginia-class submarine Indiana (SSN-789) Departs for Sea Trials, May 2018. (via Navsource)

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)