Tag Archives: sea power

The Sea Power of the State in the 21st Century

Admiral Sergei S. Gorshkov’s legacy as a naval leader and strategic thinker has not been entirely forgotten. Reports of his death, however, were not greatly exaggerated. Largely ignored by the NATO navies that once studied him so intently as the head of the Soviet Navy for much of the Cold War, Gorshkov remains an inspirational symbol in the two countries that should come as no surprise: Russia and China.

Earlier this year, Admiral Viktor Chirkov, the current commander-in-chief of the Russian Navy, pointedly chose the 105th anniversary celebration of Gorshkov’s birthday in his childhood home of Kolomna to make some bold statements about the navy’s future in the 21st century. After laying flowers at Gorshkov’s monument, Chirkov formally announced that Russia will be back in the aircraft carrier business with plans to build a new-generation one comparable in size to a U.S. supercarrier. Given the current state of Russian shipyards and the tremendous costs involved, defense analysts greeted the announcement with skepticism.  There was good reason to doubt this most recent news: Russia had already announced in 2005, and again in 2008, that it would begin to build carriers by 2010. According to Jane’s Defence Weekly, the new multipurpose, dual-design (two ski-jump ramps and electromagnetic catapults each) carrier is called Project 23000E or Shtorm (Storm).

USNA17th-19th C. Sea Power of the State: Admiral Chirkov getting a tour of USNA Museum in 2013 from CIMSEC member Claude Berube. Was the Russian navy chief trying to get advance info on the #CarrierDebate? (Photo credit: USNA PAO)

 Of course, Admiral Gorshkov once promoted the virulent anti-carrier stance of the Soviet Union. He mocked the platform as too expensive and too vulnerable and echoed Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s view that they were “floating coffins.” Yet, the Soviet Navy’s need to be untethered from the sole support of land-based naval aviation first resulted in helicopter carriers for anti-submarine warfare and amphibious operations in 1967, then eventually in large-deck carriers for fixed wing aircraft toward the end of the Cold War – the Kuzntesov (still in service, although with considerable time in the repair dock, in the Russian fleet) and the Gorshkov (sold to India).

Gorshkov would likely have applauded Chirkov’s ambitious 50 ship building plan for 2015 that included a mixture of surface and subsurface vessels. In particular, the resurgence of nuclear submarine production, especially the Borei-class ballistic missile sub, is a reminder of how Gorshkov once used submarines as the cornerstone of Soviet naval power and prestige for decades.

Chirkov also announced that 30 ships and submarines were currently deployed around the world, which indicated a modest but nonetheless significant return to the pattern of out-of-area patrols and presence missions for the Soviet Navy that Gorshkov introduced to much fanfare in the mid-1960s. This May’s joint Russian-Chinese naval exercises in the Mediterranean also supports the views that the Russian Navy is “rebalancing” to the region while the Chinese Navy may intend to secure its energy supply lines at the western edge of the “New Silk Road.”

Above all, Gorshkov would probably have approved of Chirkov’s vision: the adoption of an “ocean strategy” that will seek to reestablish Russia’s global reach and promote its political and economic interests. Chirkov’s choice of language harkened back to the efforts of his Cold War-era predecessor to justify a blue-water navy. Notably, Chirkov did not directly challenge the supremacy of the U.S. Navy as Gorshov did in the late 1960s. Rather, Admiral Chirkov’s mission, at least for the moment, is to put Russian naval forces back on the path to restoration, not on one toward great power rivalry. 


Gorshkov was associated with the phrase “’better’ is the enemy of ‘good enough.’” In other words, Chirkov must get the Russian Navy back to Gorshkov-era “good enough.”

There is also nothing revolutionary in Chirkov’s pronouncements. The navy’s primary missions are still, as in the Cold War, strategic deterrence and defense. It will likely not be as rapid as the transformation after the Cuban Missile Crisis, either. The Russian Navy, according to defense analyst Dmitry Gorenburg, will slowly grow through a phased recapitalization scheme that will unfold over 20 years. The pace of naval construction is, of course, subject to change based on evolving political and economic imperatives.

To further underscore that Admiral Gorshkov has not passed entirely into irrelevance, a pair of Russian military writers (one a retired navy captain) paid homage to him in a recent article for Voyennaya Mysl [Military Thought], the elite journal of Russia’s Defense Ministry for nearly a century. In “The Sea Power of the State in the 21st Century,” the authors noted that Gorshkov’s seminal 1976 book, The Sea Power of the State, took an expansive view of sea power that included naval, merchant, fishing, and exploration capabilities. Gorshkov envisioned the World Ocean as one immense domain upon which to assert Russian national power. These authors, however, wished to scope the definition of “the country’s sea power” down to “the navy’s real combat power” in order to illustrate the special place that navies hold in geopolitics.

A central theme of their essay, based on historical examples, was that countries without sea power do not have “a decisive voice in world affairs.” Russia used a strong navy in the past, the authors argued, to maintain its place in the top tier of nations. The blow to Russian prestige was great at the end of the Cold War with the demise of the Soviet Navy:

… the loss of the core of its powerful oceangoing navy during the political and economic reforms in the late 1980s and early 1990s cost the country dearly. It caused other nations, Russia’s neighbors and rivals on the high seas, in the first place, to rethink their attitude to this country. It was deserted by many allies and friends, and its image of a great sea power has faded.

Thus, the article indirectly endorsed Admiral Chirkov’s current strategy of “looking to the ocean” and his plan for a navy that can once more defend Russia’s national interests and secure it against threats. The authors acknowledged, however, the huge lead by the U.S. Navy in air-sea battle concepts and that of American expertise in network-centric naval warfare. Indeed, “it is difficult, even hopeless at times, for Russia to take up this challenge for economic considerations.” Nonetheless, they concluded, it is a price that must be paid for the return to greatness on the world stage.

Writers in Chinese open source literature have also found reasons for optimism in the example set by Admiral Gorshkov during the Cold War. According to Lyle J. Goldstein at the Naval War College’s Chinese Maritime Studies Institute, some naval analysts in China “are extremely interested in Gorshkov, his legacy, and Soviet naval doctrinal development in general” [per his correspondence with this author]. They are impressed by the rapid transformation of Soviet naval power under Gorshkov as well as his ability to check U.S. power with his own oceangoing navy. Moreover, they also appreciated, based on Gorshkov’s lesson, that a “balanced fleet” can also emphasize undersea platforms while never reaching parity with U.S. carriers.

China’s recent strategy white paper elevated the PLA Navy’s status and explicitly tied naval power to China’s geopolitical ambitions and economic development with the navy’s dual missions of “open seas protection” and coastal defense. Indeed, sea power will play a central role for the Chinese state in the 21st century: 

The seas and oceans bear on the enduring peace, lasting stability and sustainable development of China. The traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned, and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests.

On the other hand, Gorshkov’s legacy shows that sea power, once achieved, can be transitory due to geographic, economic, and political factors. His is also a cautionary tale, for Russians and Chinese alike, not to pursue sea power beyond what a nation can support. As Goldstein noted, “… the [Chinese] authors do indeed directly connect the all-out Soviet naval expansion of the later Cold War, and the commensurate enormous investment of Russian national resources, to the demise of the USSR.” Moreover, there is the potential risk involved in Russia’s attempt under Vladimir Putin to return to the past glories of the Soviet superpower era yet fall well short of his goals. This naturally includes naval ambitions for aircraft carriers that never make it beyond the concept stage. Even the modernization of smaller surface ships such as frigates (including the new Admiral Gorshov-class) is now endangered by Russian actions in the Ukraine.

Both Russia’s and China’s navies may also face the same dilemma as that of the Soviet Navy by the mid-1960s if naval construction outpaces professional knowledge and practical experience. As Robert Farley noted, the Soviet Union “built blue water ships long before it built the experience needed to conduct long range, blue water operations.” A more provocative and aggressive stance toward the U.S. Navy, coupled with the deficiencies in Soviet training and this lack of a “blue water look,” resulted in repeated incidents at sea such as collisions that many feared might escalate during the Cold War.

Ultimately, sea power as an expression of great power status is beginning to look in the early 21st century much as it did in the 20th century. The investment in costly blue-water navies still speaks volumes about a country’s geopolitical ambitions and its strategic calculus – where it sees itself in the world and hopes to be in the future. The writings and accomplishments of Admiral Sergei Gorshkov are also a timeless reminder that in order to assess navies, one must still look at what they say, what they build, and what they do. In Gorshkov’s case, what he did remains much more memorable than anything he wrote.

Jessica Huckabey is a researcher with the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) and a retired naval reserve officer. She is writing her doctoral dissertation on American perceptions of the Soviet naval threat during the Cold War. The opinions are her own and not those of IDA or the Department of Defense.

American Strategy in the 21st Century: Maritime Power and China – Part III

This is the third of a three-part series. See Jake’s first article here and second here.

Justin Logan outlines an alternative critique of America’s “pivot” toward Asia and a maritime presence that counters China’s growing military power. According to Logan, the “liberal internationalist” or “optimists” (also known as “Panda Huggers”) represented by G. John Ikenberry, “elide the zero-sum nature of military questions, hang too much on faith that political liberalization will happen, and will resign China to American military dominance, and similarly place too much faith in the power of international institutions.” On the other hand, “realists” or “pessimists” (also known as “Dragon Slayers”), represented by John J. Mearsheimer, “have not shown how Washington could squash Chinese economic growth at an acceptable cost, and do not demonstrate directly how even a much more powerful China would threaten the security of the United States.” He suggests that “Beltway elites” have adopted “an inherently contradictory approach, congagement, that borrows problems from both schools of thought and creates a new problem: free riding.” [1]

“Congagement” creates several problems. America’s attempt to act as “the balancer of first resort” becomes more costly as China becomes more wealthy and capable of fielding an ever-more effective military. By “infantizing” allies in the region, they do not see the need to invest in their own defense, instead relying on American security guarantees. Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, Australia and others should come together to deter Chinese aggression without America doing it for them. [2]

Are you a panda hugger or dragon slayer?
Are you a panda hugger or dragon slayer?

The United States should instead “pivot home.” It must “revisit formal and informal U.S. security commitments in Asia with a clear eye trained on what it would actually be willing to fight a war with China over, and just how likely those scenarios are.” Policymakers should “work to lessen and ultimately remove the forward-deployed U.S. military presence in the region, helping establish more powerful national militaries in like-minded states” and “encourage Asian nations to work together on security issues without the United States leading the way.” Otherwise “it likely will see its allies unable to play a larger role, and a larger share of America’s national income dedicated to containing China on their behalf.” [3]


Logan’s critique builds upon the strong “libertarian” or “isolationist” strain in American foreign policy going back to the days of Thomas Jefferson, and perhaps best embodied today by Senator Rand Paul and his father, former Congressman Ron Paul. It has a popular appeal, one in which the United States avoids involving itself in the affairs of other nations and the “entangling alliances” of the former European powers. In this view, America can best serve its national security and foreign policy interests by having a military capable of defending its political territory and using that power only in self-defense. While America can serve as an “international example” of freedom and economic liberalization, it should avoid a muscular policy with broad strategic interests, one in which the United States is the predominant military power and international leader.

Despite its appeal, Logan’s critique leaves much to be desired. Neither the “liberal internationalist,” “realist” or “congagement” policy perspectives argue that American allies will rely solely on American security guarantees. Indeed, evidence suggests that while China’s defense spending has certainly increased substantially from 2000 to 2011 ($22.5 billion to $89.9 billion), so has that of America’s allies and other security partners. Japanese defense expenditures rose from $40 billion to $58.8 billion, South Korea’s rose from $17 billion to $29 billion, and Taiwan’s rose from $8 billion to $10 billion. Indian defense spending surged 47.6 percent over the decade, reaching $37 billion. [4] The evidence that Asian nations are “free riders” does not appear compelling as Logan would have us believe.

The historical experience since the end of the Vietnam War has shown that the American presence is Asia is a stabilizing force, counter to Logan’s claim. He does not appreciate the context of the 19th and 20th Centuries. For example, Japan’s growing role in regional security would not be possible without American leadership (and influence on) Japanese policy. Logan at one point highlights recent security agreements between the Philippines and Japan as an example where America was not needed. Yet he fails to understand that without the American security umbrella (and still tacit influence over Japanese defense policy), the Philippines would almost certainly not enter into any security agreement with their one-time occupier. The same holds true for South Korea, whose experience with Japan includes more than a century of occupation. Can one seriously believe that the Japanese and South Koreans could or would work together without America’s leadership (and forward presence) in the alliance structure?

Sailor on watch.
Sailor on watch.

Logan is right that policymakers must think seriously about under what scenarios the United States might find itself drawn into conflict with China, but he seems to downplay how likely those scenarios are. The fictional scenario considered in Part I is not out-of-the-question. Indeed, it may be more likely than any Taiwan-related scenario because the chances of miscalculation on the part of China are much higher. China may perceive territorial conflicts over small islands in the South and East China Seas much easier to accomplish than a forced reunification with Taiwan. Logan suggests that those types of conflicts would result in more economic harm to China, and it would not be in their economic self-interest. Setting aside the conceit that an American sitting comfortably in Washington D.C. is just as capable of determining Chinese self-interest as the Politburo in Beijing, he again ignores history. Economic interdependence rarely deters war. Thucydides’ observation over 2,500 years ago is still true today – nations go to war because of fear, honor and interest. Matters of security, national honor and fear will always trump trade agreements.

The siren song of isolationism is strong, and the burden of world leadership is great. However, we have already been through periods of American disengagement, especially after the First World War and we’ve seen how this plays out. While Logan is right to demand that policymakers outline the explicit threat to American national security China poses, he is wrong to suggest it is small.

Maritime power provides American policy makers with significant benefits, perhaps none more important than time. Forces can be replaced, space can be regained, but time cannot. Any conflict with China will require significant political considerations of the objectives to be attained while at the same time slowing escalation into a larger regional or global war. Maritime power does not pose a direct, immediate threat to the regime’s survival in Beijing, and may permit the political leadership on both sides to reach an acceptable end to the conflict should hostilities ensue. At the same time, should the conflict escalate, sea control will become a prerequisite for any hope of defeating China on land, as unpalatable as that option may be.

Maritime power is also a more politically viable alternative in an age of budget austerity. It will meet our strategic security needs while providing flexible options to policy makers on appropriate responses to security challenges. This is not to suggest that the development and modernization of long-range strike platforms, amphibious assault ships, logistic facilities or scouting systems will be cheap. They will not. Yet we need not consider maritime power solely from the perspective of large surface combatants, long-range bombers or nuclear attack submarines. Smaller, stealthier and faster surface combatants armed with ASCMs or unmanned vehicles (surface, subsurface and air) as well as improved cyberspace capabilities can provide a significant “bang for the buck”.

Political viability is also important when considering international cooperation. As John Hattendorf notes, “Of the various kinds of military forces—land, air, and maritime forces – only navies and coast guards have the ready and established ability to be both weapons in war and benign elements in peace.” [5] International political support will require a credible military deterrent while maintaining a light footprint.

The pivot to Asia demands a rethinking of American maritime power and how we are to defeat China in a conflict. Thinking about and preparing for such a conflict will reassure allies and friends while signaling to China that we are willing to fight. Showing a sense of resolve will prevent miscalculation on the part of China’s leadership, allowing us to continue our policy of engagement. Our national security depends on our continued leadership in Asia. Cole reminds us: “It will remain America’s responsibility to maintain its economic and military presence, as well as the historic character of American ideology, if Chinese maritime hegemony is not to prevail in Asia.”

About the Author
LT Robert “Jake” Bebber USN is an information warfare officer assigned to the staff of United States Cyber Command. He holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy from the University of Central Florida. He lives in Millersville, Maryland with his wife, Dana and their son, Vincent. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent the U.S. Department of Defense, Department of the Navy or U.S. Cyber Command. He welcomes your comments at jbebber@gmail.com.


[1] Logan, Justin. China, America and the Pivot to Asia. Washington, D.C.: The Cato Institute, 2013.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] AFP-Washington. China leads surge in Asian military spending, U.S. report says. Washington, D.C.: October 17, 2012.

[5] Hattendorf, John B. “The United States Navy in the Twenty-first Century: Thoughts on naval theory, strategic constraints and opportunities.” The Mariner’s Mirror 97, no. 1 (2011): 285-297. Pg. 296.

[1] Cole, op.cit., Pg. 201.

Sea Control 58 – ADM Parry’s Super Highway

seacontrol2We interview ADM Chris Parry (RN, Ret) on his new book, Super Highway: Sea Power in the 21st Century. We discuss his intentions in writing the book, the changing nature of technology & sea power, the impacts of an inevitably changing climate, and how to face the challenge of those pushing for new norms in contradiction to the freedom of the seas.

DOWNLOAD: Sea Control 58 -ADM Parry’s Super Highway

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Note: Thanks to Sam LaGrone for the kickin’ new tunes.

American Strategy in the 21st Century: Maritime Power and China – Part II

This is the second of a three-part series. See Jake’s first article here.

China is a Land Power
While China continues to invest heavily in a navy, it still remains a continental for several reasons. First, China must maintain a large land force for internal stability and as a deterrent to regional competitors such as India, Vietnam and Russia. It faces demographic, economic and social challenges which threaten the Communist Party’s grip on power. Bernard D. Cole states, “Economic priorities and the need to defend the world’s longest land border with the most nations … still argue against [the PLA(N)’s] ambition for a global navy.”[1] That being said, China continues to develop a navy capable of meeting security interests within the first island chain and most of the South China Sea up to 1,000 nm off the coast.

Second, while China has vastly improved “blue water” capabilities, it has not yet capable of protecting maritime interests beyond the first island chain. Investing heavily in “anti-access/area denial” (A2AD) capabilities is a defensive strategy designed to make the cost of U.S power projection too high. However, A2AD is not a sea control strategy. It does little to prevent the cumulative effect[2] of American (and allied) maritime power to strangle China beyond the first island chain, as outlined by Thomas Hammes.[3] Finally, China’s substantial investment in a navy will likely lead to organizational pressure not to risk it to heavy losses, something which Arquilla and others have also noted. [4]

“Quantity has a quality of its own,” and China will enjoy early numerical superiority against forward-deployed American forces. It would take two to three weeks for additional forces to reach the Western Pacific in the event of an unexpected crisis. A comparison of the PLA(N) and forward deployed American naval forces is found below.

Figure 1. 2012 Comparison of PLA(N) and U.S. 7th Fleet Derived from China Naval Modernization (2012)  a-CV 16 “Liaoning”, while commissioned, does not have a carrier air wing. b-Does not include “Jin” class SSBN or “Ming” class SS c-Derived from Table 4, pg. 41 of China Naval Modernization (2012) d-U.S. 7th Fleet derived from public information available at http://www.c7f.navy.mil/forces.htm
Figure 1. 2012 Comparison of PLA(N) and U.S. 7th Fleet
Derived from China Naval Modernization (2012) [5]
a- CV 16 “Liaoning”, while commissioned, does not have a carrier air wing.
b- Does not include “Jin” class SSBN or “Ming” class SS
c- Derived from Table 4, pg. 41 of China Naval Modernization (2012)
d- U.S. 7th Fleet derived from public information available at http://www.c7f.navy.mil/forces.htm
Noting the numerical superiority of the PLA(N) over local American forces, the PRC may miscalculate on American resolve (or that of allies such as Japan and South Korea) and initiate a conflict.

Also, while the U.S. has not fought a traditional fleet action since World War II, the Navy has been conducting combat operations around the globe for the past two decades. China, for all the investment and exercises, has not engaged in maritime combat since 1988 in the Spratly Islands with Vietnam. PLA(N) commanders may assume their combat capabilities are better than they actually are, providing unfounded assurance to their own political leadership, increasing the odds of miscalculation.

American Maritime Power and the Strategy to Defeat China
America’s super power status is preserved through the ability to project power across the oceans. While the most obvious component of maritime power is the Navy, it is in jointness with the land, air, space and cyberspace components that makes it formidable. The “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region must include a reallocation of forces and capabilities. China has continued to aggressively pursue territorial disputes, which have had the effect of driving many Asian countries to seek a greater American presence in the region. A larger land presence is out of the question, but naval and air assets – especially airborne ISR platforms – are much less intrusive and appealing. Space and cyberspace will play a significant (perhaps decisive) role, not only in sensor capabilities but also in defeating A2AD systems and PRC ISR.

The core of American maritime power is built upon destruction of enemy naval forces while preserving its own. Around this core are five pillars: scouting effectiveness, long-range strike, logistics and supply, amphibious assault and coalition warfare.

The Core – Sea Combat and Survivability
The ability to destroy or render inoperable the enemy’s navy – on the surface, in the air or under the sea – is the sine qua non of maritime power. At the same time, the survivability of forces enables the Navy to follow up on success and execute further operations, such as additional combat, blockade, escort or other sea control/sea denial tasks. The introduction of amphibious forces also requires sea combat and may be undertaken in contested waters. A maritime war with China will pit numerically inferior American forces against a formidable yet untested larger PLA(N). U.S. forces must be able to fight, win and survive to carry the war closer to China’s shores.

The Pillars
Scouting effectiveness. Wayne Hughes defines scouting as “the gathering and delivery of information,” a more compact and encompassing term than the currently used “ISR.”[6] It also includes the processing and analysis of vast quantities of all-source information – including space and cyberspace – to provide commanders the best picture possible from which they can make timely decisions. Scouting effectiveness is judged by how quickly information can be turned into actionable intelligence. If commanders can remain inside the decision-making loop of their enemy, they can have a distinct advantage.

Long-range strike. American military development continues to pursue the goal of projecting power from extreme distances or from a position of stealth or sanctuary. Long-range strike should be thought of as a “family of systems,” including land-based bombers, carrier-based strike aircraft (manned and unmanned), rail guns, cruise missiles and supporting airborne electronic attack aircraft.[7] The ability to strike the PRC’s A2AD systems, which are located not only on the coast but also far inland, will be crucial in a maritime fight. In this case, space and cyberspace offensive operations should also be considered in the family of “long range” strike.

Amphibious assault. War is ultimately decided by the “man on the scene with a gun.” The ability to insert land forces onto hostile shores in contested seas may be the ultimate arbiter in a maritime conflict with China, especially in the scenario described above. Even if not used immediately, the credible threat of an amphibious landing could have the effect of tying down Chinese naval, land and air forces hundreds of miles away.

Logistics and supply. In a conflict with China, we should expect that forward supply bases such as those in Japan, South Korea and Guam will become targets, along with supply ships. The flow of food, fuel, forces and ammunition will be the determining factor in our ability to sustain a long-term conflict, so our defense of “sea lanes of communication” (SLOCs) will be tested. Concurrently, the ability to restrict or deny China’s SLOCs should be an early objective of operational planning. A prolonged conflict will test both American and Chinese logistical capacity. The longer America is able to sustain a conflict while controlling SLOCs, the more untenable the Chinese position becomes.

Coalition warfare. The scenario we introduced highlights the importance of coalition and allied warfare. From a perspective of legitimacy, American national security policy has largely adopted the position that the unilateral use of force, while retained, is undesirable. World, and more importantly American, public opinion matters significantly in our ability to conduct and sustain military operations. More importantly, the participation of allies is necessary to offset the quantitative advantages of the PLA(N). The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) and the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) are significant forces in their own right, and combined with the U.S. Navy, would match up well against the PLA(N). Third, while some of our coalition partners and allies such as the Philippines, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand or Singapore may not directly participate, they may provide critical logistical hubs or basing. The pillars described above – scouting effectiveness, long-range strike, amphibious assault and logistics and supply – will hinge on the participation and/or support of our allies and friends.

Preparing to Pivot – Restructuring Forward Deployed American Forces
Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta suggested that approximately 60 percent of the U.S. naval forces will be postured toward the Pacific region by 2020. How those forces are configured remains a central question.[8]

A Chinese warship launches a missile during a live-ammunition military drill held by the South China Sea Fleet last year.
A Chinese warship launches a missile during a live-ammunition military drill held by the South China Sea Fleet last year.

Current maritime forces are centered on the USS George Washington carrier strike group and a large amphibious task force, CTF 76. The Air Force, Army, Marines and special forces also have a significant presence in the region in Japan, South Korea and Guam.

Future force realignment in the region should include an increase in the number of forward deployed U.S. submarines. The immediate availability of subsurface assets would tip the balance against the numerical advantage of the PLA(N) and allow commanders the option to operate immediately in the first island chain without risking large surface combatants.

In that vein, the development and construction of small fast and stealthy surface missile combatants would provide another avenue to commanders for operations closer in to Chinese waters.[9] Significant investment has already been made in both the littoral combat ship (LCS) and joint high speed vessel (JHSV), which represents a starting point. If equipped with next-generation anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM’s) such as the Harpoon Block III, advanced capability (ADCAP) torpedoes and SM-2 missiles, these surface combatants could sortie into the East China and Yellow Seas conducting “hit and run” attacks on the PLA(N) surface units as well as protect Japanese and Korean home waters. Further out from the first island chain, they can also be utilized from the Philippines to the Spratly Islands and Singapore to participate in off-shore blockade of the Malacca strait.

Much like the Navy, the Air Force will operate at a numerical disadvantage to the Chinese air and naval air forces. It will fight further from bases, requiring tanker support making them vulnerable and limiting their attack depth. Both the Navy and Air Force will depend on advantages in electronic warfare to blind China’s air forces and air defense systems while fifth generation stealth fighters, such as the F-22, will be critical to achieve air superiority.

Land forces in a maritime conflict are naturally built around maritime assault. However, the presence of a significant force on the Korean peninsula serves as both a deterrent to North Korea attempting to take advantage of a conflict as well as representing a pool of forces to draw from to conduct amphibious operations. Soldiers and Marines stationed on Okinawa, Guam, Korea, Japan and Australia, have to be sufficient in number to conduct a forced entry and capture of any number of island-war scenarios, whether in the tiny Spratly, Paracel or Senkaku Islands to larger ones such as Taiwan.

Land forces also have a role in our own ability to contest the seas and defeat PRC A2AD systems. They can be used to station our own ASCM capabilities among the many islands and littorals in the East and South China Seas. Coupled with land-based rail or traditional gun systems, they could provide an effective deterrence against a PLA(N) sortie and give the PRC leadership pause before initiating conflict.

The opening stages of a maritime conflict with China will be a contest of sea denial. Large American surface combatants will not be operating within the first island chain until Chinese land-based ASCM capabilities are sufficiently neutralized. Control of the undersea, air and space will be bitterly contested. The PRC will attempt to “blind” American ISR and “command and control” capabilities using cyber attacks and anti-satellite (ASAT) missile systems.

U.S. submarines will play a crucial role attriting Chinese naval forces as well as executing strikes against ports and logistic facilities. U.S. land-based and carrier aircraft will begin to contest the skies. With stealthy, fast missile boats, surface forces could sortie out into contested seas. America will not have initial sea control within the first island chain, but should pursue sea denial to limit the PLA(N)’s freedom of action.

At the same time, larger surface action groups made up of guided missile destroyers and cruisers can begin to choke off China’s economic lifelines, especially south of the Spratly Islands and in the Western Pacific. Long-range strike platforms and airborne electronic attack, coupled with space and cyberspace warfare operations, will attempt to roll back China’s formidable integrated air defense (IAD) and A2AD systems. This will create an ever-tightening grip on Chinese economic activity and achieve air superiority in areas critical to the conflict.

About the Author
LT Robert “Jake” Bebber USN is an information warfare officer assigned to the staff of the United States Cyber Command. He holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy from the University of Central Florida. The views expressed here do not represent those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy or the U.S. Cyber Command. He welcomes your comments at jbebber@gmail.com.


[1] Cole, Bernard D. The Great Wall at Sea: China’s Navy in the Twenty-First Century (2nd Ed). Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010. Pg. 201.

[2] Wylie outlined two types of strategies: sequential and cumulative. A sequential strategy is one in which each success is built upon the other in a march toward victory. He suggests the “island hopping” campaign in the middle Pacific as an example. A cumulative strategy is “made up of a series of lesser actions” which are not “sequentially interdependent.” See pg 22-27 of Military Strategy.

[3] Hammes, T. X. Offshore Control: A Proposed Strategy for an Unlikely Conflict. Washington DC: Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, 2012.

[4] However, this risk aversion may apply only to newer, modern platforms. The PLA(N) may be more willing to sortie older surface combatants which are still heavily armed anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) platforms

[5] O’Rourke, Ronald. China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities – Background and Issues for Congress. CRS Report for Congress, Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2012.

[6]Wayne P. Hughes, Jr. “Naval Operations: A Close Look at the Operational Level of War at Sea.” Naval War College Review, 2012: 23-47. Pg. 32.

[7] Gunzinger, Mark A. Sustaining America’s Advantage in Long-Range Strike. Washington DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2010. Pg. ix.

[8] Neisloss, Liz. U.S. defense secretary announces new strategy with Asia. June 2, 2012. http://edition.cnn.com/2012/06/02/us/panetta-asia/index.html (accessed December 1, 2012).

[9] Huges, op cit., Pg. 29.