All posts by IanSundstrom

Capability and Intent in Developing Strategy

Robert Haddick argues early in his Fire on the Water that:

This book will make the case that with respect to China, U.S. policymakers will be wise to focus on China’s projected military capabilities and waste little effort attempting to discern the current or future intentions of China’s leaders. The reason is straightforward: intentions, and thus a country’s national security policies, can change suddenly. What matters for a leader’s calculations is whether the adversary has the instruments, including military capacity, to implement a revised policy. (p. 8)

This seems a reasonable proposition that simplifies the difficult problem of developing strategy. Intentions are fickle and subject to sudden change. Capabilities, by contrast, are relatively stable. They are the combined hardware, personnel, and doctrine that make up military forces. They have a substance to them which is countable and relatively certain. Defense analysts can be fairly certain that tanks will not suddenly transform into submarines. This stability makes it attractive to prioritize analyzing an opponent’s capabilities over identifying and analyzing their intent. It also tends towards the strategic shorthand of treating capability as intent. Unfortunately, ignoring intent or equating it with capability leads to flawed analysis for three reasons.

The first is that ignoring intent denies an opponent’s agency. War is a competitive endeavor between at least two opposing parties. If we are developing a strategy to achieve our goals it is because there is an opponent who would see our goals go unrealized. Our opponent can and will act in order to prevent us achieving our objectives. Our opponent will also act to achieve their own objectives, which are either diametrically opposed to ours, of a different nature, or somewhere in between. Ignoring intent is to argue that our opponent’s objectives are irrelevant to their behavior and that our opponent is simply an object to be acted upon. This never has and never will be the case in international relations. Opponents have the agency to act according to their own strategies in order to achieve their own objectives. To be clear, ignoring intent is not the same as saying an opponent’s intentions are difficult or impossible to comprehend. It is often difficult to identify an adversary’s true objectives, but it is always possible to propose a certain set of opponent intentions and assign a probability to each. It is also possible to discard a certain number of possible opponent goals, no matter how achievable. This thought experiment has the benefit of at least attempting to understand where our opponent is most likely to devote their finite resources and how they may develop their own strategy. Acknowledging an opponent’s agency ensures that we appreciate the inherently interactive nature of strategy as we seek to develop our own.

The second reason is that ignoring adversary intent prevents us from prioritizing our own limited resources. Looking at every enemy capability and asking how it will affect our strategy opens up a near infinite set of effects that must be considered and then countered if not moderated by a theory of most-likely adversary intentions. Take the following small example. Say Country A builds a squadron of advanced multi-role fighter aircraft capable of air defense, ground attack, and strike missions. Country B, a potential opponent, sees this and, ignoring Country A’s motives, determines these aircraft pose a threat to its own air, ground, and naval forces. It therefore develops countermeasures for its forces across all three domains, spending its resources to defeat Country A’s capability. Reasonable, no? But what if Country A had no intention of using these aircraft for the strike or ground attack roles? Country B wasted valuable, limited resources developing defenses against these capabilities. Or suppose Country A truly developed its military to defend against Country C. Country B’s resources were entirely wasted. A final case to consider is if Country B invested resources to build a military that never had any hope of matching Country A. In this case, assume that even if Country B devoted 100% of its gross domestic product to defense, Country A would still overmatch B’s military capabilities. Country B’s defense expenditure could be a total loss if the goal was to deter Country A. These are extremely simple examples, but history is rife with cases of wasted military expenditure designed to counter the wrong enemy or to deter the undeterrable. Focusing only on capabilities, the tendency is to expand threat horizons through well intentioned, but nearly infinite, what-ifs. These what-ifs demand answers, and answers cost money, time, and energy, all of which are limited. Again, strategy is interactive and we cannot consider opponent actions in a vacuum of their intentions.

The third reason is that even supposedly dispassionate capability analysis is subject to cognitive biases. The objects that define capabilities may be concrete, but that does not mean they are of necessity a firmer foundation for analysis. Ships are famously black boxes impervious to detailed peacetime analysis. Haze gray and underway, two nation’s destroyers appear roughly the same, and admirals assume they will operate the same way. But this may simply be mirror-imaging. Perhaps, unbounded by our mental shackles, our opponent has developed some new tactic, technique, or procedure or improved weapon system that generates new possibilities for employing their ship. Ignoring to what end our opponent would use their ships, we are left open to assuming our own tactical and operational art on our opponent. A focus on the technical aspects of adversary capabilities, often necessary in the naval context, can also hamper attempts to come to deeper understandings of operational employment. Mirror-imaging is also a criticism leveled at defense analysts attempting to understand Chinese strategy. The argument in the cited article is that American analysts believe China is pursuing an A2/AD strategy because that is what the U.S. would do if it was in the same position as China and had the same capabilities as the People’s Liberation Army. Ignoring Chinese intentions is exactly the logic that results in equating PLA military capability with Chinese national strategy. Continuing to foster analysis that does not engage with Beijing’s known or likely intentions is not likely to result in better analysis. Cognitive bias is possible in analyzing capabilities and in understanding adversary strategies more widely. Ignoring adversary intentions only serves to make the problem worse by discarding half the material available for understanding an opponent’s strategy.

Ultimately, strategy is competitive. It is crafted to deal with living, breathing, thinking opponents. In order to defeat an opponent we must understand them. This requires empathy, which means intimately understanding their thought processes, fears, and ultimately their intentions. If we focus only on their capabilities we run not only the risk of misunderstanding their capabilities, but also projecting our own intentions on our opponents, leading to incorrect strategic conclusions. Analyzing military capability is difficult, and adding intent to the mix only makes it more difficult to create sound strategy. But ignoring an opponent’s intentions in developing strategy is like navigating dangerous waters using a chart without soundings.

Ian Sundstrom is a surface warfare officer in the United States Navy. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the United States Department of Defense.

Another Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier

By Ian Sundstrom

As part of a broader project of land reclamation, beginning in November China started efforts to develop Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands. As of late November the reef had been built up to 3,000 meters long and between two and three hundred wide. This makes it large enough, in the assessment of analysts with IHS Jane’s and the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, to argue that China’s first airstrip in the Spratly Islands might be under development. China already has a growing airfield on Woody Island in the Paracels a several hundred miles north, and this would not be the first airstrip in the Spratly Islands; Taiwan, the Philippines, and Malaysia all have airstrips of their own. If a runway is truly planned for Fiery Cross Reef, what does this mean for the region’s security environment?

Given the distances involved, and the PLA’s relatively limited aerial refueling capabilities, Chinese forces stationed on or operating near the Spratly Islands cannot currently count on sustained air coverage from mainland China. The USCC report notes that an airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef would allow the PLA to project air power much further out to sea than current possible. Initially, an airstrip would allow for aerial replenishment of the small garrison on Fiery Cross Reef. The airstrip could also almost immediately be used for emergency landings or refueling, both of PLA aircraft and any civilian aircraft in distress.  The PLAN or PLAAF could also deploy ISR assets, most probably unmanned, increasing PLA situational awareness for minimal footprint. This idea is supported by a statement made by Jin Zhirui, an instructor at the Air Force Command School.

1569998_-_mainThe airstrip would additionally enable parts or stores to be flown to the reef and then dispatched to local PLAN vessels via helicopter. This is, for example, an advantage that the island of Bahrain provides for US Navy operations in the Persian Gulf and Diego Garcia provides in the Indian Ocean. In fact, Andrew Erickson speculates development may lead to an island twice the size of Diego Garcia. This would partly address the PLAN’s deficiency in replenishment ships and allow quick turnaround for critical repair parts to maintain vessels at sea even in the face of inevitable equipment breakdown. These uses for an airstrip are relatively benign compared with how the airstrip could develop.

If the reef is expanded sufficiently it could serve as a platform for permanent basing of PLA combat aircraft which would alter the military balance of the region.  China would be able to sustainably project air power further into the South China Sea than currently possible. The reef – or to use the potentially loaded term island, as it would realistically be – would also serve as an unsinkable adjunct to the Liaoning (CV-16). David Shlapak argues that Liaoning will significantly improve Chinese combat capabilities in the South China Sea; an island airstrip would do the same and would not have to return to the mainland for maintenance. The island could also support larger aircraft with heavier payloads than the PLAN’s carrier. Candidates for basing on Fiery Cross Reef include the J-10 air superiority fighter with a roughly 600nm operational radius, J-11 air superiority fighter with a 700nm radius, or the JH-7 attack aircraft with a 900nm range. All are capable of carrying anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles with varying degrees of capability. A 3,000 meter runway could also support aerial refueling aircraft or the H-6 bomber, further increasing the PLA’s options for aerial patrols and strikes. 

Approximate ranges of PLA aircraft from Fiery Cross Reef. Adapted from the map included with the USCC Report cited earlier.
Approximate ranges of PLA aircraft from Fiery Cross Reef. Adapted from the map included with the USCC Report cited earlier.

The satellite imagery of the reclamation work originally published by IHS Jane’s also shows work progressing on a port facility. The progress to date on the port does not give a concrete indication of its final size or depth, but even a rudimentary logistics base would give the PLAN greater sustainability for operations in the area. While the airstrip would allow parts and stores delivery to PLAN vessels, pier facilities would allow more intensive repairs to be conducted in theatre, further extending the staying time of ships in the area. The port could also facilitate the permanent or rotational stationing of China Coast Guard vessels or small combatants like the Houbei-class fast attack craft, giving Beijing a more durable maritime presence.

If development of the reef plays out as current evidence indicates, it would alter the military situation by allowing Chinese aircraft and ships to more sustainably project power further from mainland China. This affects regional navies’ contingency plans for conflict in the South China Sea. They have to anticipate that Chinese maritime operations will have near-continuous air coverage throughout the area. The construction of an airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef also impacts US Navy planning for any possible conflict with China as it extends China’s A2/AD umbrella several hundred miles. Deploying air and surface search radars to the reef alongside air superiority and maritime strike aircraft would add another layer of defense capability that the US Navy or Air Force would have to account for. It is too early to say how the developments on Fiery Cross Reef will unfold, but the development of an airstrip and port facility on Fiery Cross Reef would yield significant operational benefits for Chineseforces in the South China Sea and complicate matters for Taiwan, the Philippines, and Malaysia in their disputes with China over ownership of the Spratly Islands.

Ian Sundstrom is a surface warfare officer in the United States Navy and holds a master’s degree in war studies from King’s College London. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the United States Department of Defense.

More Nukes Doesn’t Always Mean Better Deterrence

In a short article recently published by The National Interest, Xunchao Zhang argues that blockade is an effective means for the U.S. Navy to conduct a war against China because of its reliance on oil imports and then proposes that China has two options for countering a blockade strategy: vulnerability-reducing and conflict-avoiding. He dismisses the first because the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) does not have the capacity to escort oil tanker convoys half-way round the world and China’s overland pipelines would be vulnerable to US strikes. Zhang therefore argues that a policy of avoiding conflict with the United States entirely is the only means for China to counteract a US blockade strategy. Key to this, he claims, is strengthening the Chinese nuclear deterrent and renouncing the No-First-Use policy. Only then will the Chinese nuclear deterrent be sufficient to prevent conflict with the United States and avoid a blockade which would likely be crippling. But this argument misses a fundamental point about deterrence and any US use of blockade in a war with China.

Jugular of the economy

Deterrence is about avoiding war. Zhang argues that by strengthening the Chinese nuclear arsenal, the likelihood of war with the United States would decrease, thereby countering the threat of an American blockade. However, the United States is already unlikely to initiate a war, for numerous reasons. What Zhang calls China’s “minimal nuclear deterrent”, the possible world economic consequences, lack of domestic support for such an endeavor, and the historical unwillingness of the United States to be seen as the aggressor all combine to deter the US from attacking China. Any U.S.-China war would be initiated by China, and therefore a strengthening in the Chinese nuclear arsenal, to include abandoning No-First-Use, does not make a compelling case that the likelihood of war with the United States would be decreased. At best it would have no effect, and at worst it would put the Chinese leadership in a position where a stronger nuclear deterrent could simply increase the attractiveness of conducting a conventional war beneath the nuclear umbrella.

 Furthermore, if a conflict-avoiding policy fails, an expanded nuclear arsenal would be useless in stopping the United States from imposing a blockade. Nuclear deterrence operates even in the context of war. It is unlikely that China would turn their nuclear weapons against the United States when under even a crippling blockade because the United States could respond overwhelmingly. A severe economic decline would be difficult to face, but nuclear weapons raining down on Beijing and Shanghai are on an entirely different plane. The incentive to not escalate to the point of nuclear warfare would be significant, and both sides understand this. The United States would have free reign to conduct the blockade without concern of nuclear escalation because of mutual deterrence.

Recent events support this view. In the context of the Ukraine Crisis, the United States has leveraged sanctions against Russia, which has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, without fear of escalation. Another one or 10,000 Russian nuclear weapons would not change the fact that economic disruption is very different from physical destruction. If the possible effects of a blockade are as serious as Zhang argues, a strengthened nuclear deterrent is not the way to counter it.

Zhang is correct, however, to argue that China’s best way to counteract a potential blockade by the U.S. Navy is to avoid war entirely. Oil pipelines from Russia and Kazakhstan are highly vulnerable. Hitting fixed targets with precision weapons is a skill the United States military has very nearly perfected, with strikes this summer in Syria from carrier-based aircraft and Tomahawk-toting surface ships again proving the point. He also correctly assesses the PLA Navy as insufficient to protect its maritime trade routes. It has no experience conducting convoy operations and has limited, if slowly improving, antisubmarine warfare capabilities. Despite the effort expended to deploy a task force off Somalia, China does not have the capacity to support the number and array of forces necessary to defend its trade routes.

Not your grandpa’s U-Boot

Furthermore, the geography of East Asia contains numerous maritime chokepoints, U.S. submarines are fast, quiet, and have incredible endurance, the U.S. surface fleet has decades of experience conducting maritime interdiction in some of the same waters it would blockade, and the United States has the ability to intercept maritime traffic far outside the range of PLAN capabilities, interdicting oil tankers at their source in the Persian Gulf. While Air-Sea battle in the face of A2/AD capabilities requires the development of any number of new weapons systems, the U.S. Navy has the capacity now and for the foreseeable future to cripple the Chinese economy in the event of war, at ranges far outside those of any existing or upcoming A2/AD capabilities. There is no simple panacea for China to overcome the threat of blockade in the event of war, but Zhang does get it right when he says that China’s best option is to avoid conflict entirely.

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Ian Sundstrom is a surface warfare officer in the United States Navy and holds a master’s degree in War Studies from King’s College London. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the United States Department of Defense.

Despite Lavish Funding, Russian Navy Dead In The Water

This Old House: The Russian navy HQ moves back to St. Petersburg.

As of 31 October, the Russian Navy moved its headquarters back to the Admiralty building in St. Petersburg where it had been based until 1925. This is further, if superficial, evidence of President Vladimir Putin’s desire to revitalize and modernize the Russian fleet, and “maintain Russia’s place as a leading sea power.” Also on 31 October, the head of the Russian Navy, Admiral Viktor Chirkov, stated that he expects to add “up to five warships and auxiliary ships every year” through 2020. That is not a particularly impressive figure, but it is nothing to scoff at either. The number of ships added to the Russian Navy’s lists is only half the story. If President Putin hopes to strengthen Russian sea power relative to other maritime powers, then the Russian shipbuilding plan must be competitive with what others are doing. After accounting for the rate of decommissioning of Russian ships and the amount actually budgeted for Russia’s shipbuilding plan to 2020, as compared to U.S. plans, for example, it quickly becomes apparent those five ships a year are insufficient to achieve Putin’s desired revitalization of the fleet.

According to the state-owned news agency RIA Novosti, the Russian government set aside $156 billion for shipbuilding to 2020, or roughly $19.5 billion annually. This funding is expected to result in eight nuclear missile submarines, 14 frigates, 35 corvettes, six small artillery ships, and six landing ships – a total of 69 vessels. The average cost per unit under this plan is $2.26 billion, with only a handful of the hulls major combat assets. On the surface, the only major concern is the rather high cost for ships with limited capabilities. However, since Putin is concerned with improving the Russian Navy in both absolute terms and relative to its rivals – he wants Russia to be a great power again- it is a useful exercise to compare this shipbuilding plan with those of other leading sea powers.

A recent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report on the U.S. Navy’s 2013 30-year shipbuilding plan notes some interesting differences. The U.S. Navy plans to add 268 ships by 2042, at a CBO projected cost of $599 billion.1 This is just shy of $20 billion per year, with a mean 8.9 ships commissioned annually.2 The cost per ship, however, comes in at $2.23 billion on average, cheaper than their Russian counterparts.3 On top of this, the planned U.S. ships are much more capable vessels. The plan includes 70 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, 12 new ballistic missile submarines, 46 new attack submarines, 18 amphibious warfare ships, 46 logistics and support ships, and several aircraft carriers.4 Furthermore, these figures exclude the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), roughly equivalent to a Russian corvette. When the two plans are held up against each other – admittedly an inexact comparison given the different time frames – the Russian Navy will continue to decline vis-à-vis its U.S. counterpart.

If the Russian Navy is to match President Putin’s ambitions, the rate of construction will not only have to be competitive with other naval powers, but will also have to be sufficient to compensate for the number of vessels decommissioned annually. In 2011, for example, two SSBNs and five landing ships left the fleet while one frigate and six landing craft entered service.5 A net neutral quantitative change, but arguably a net negative qualitative change. In 2010, one SSBN, a cruiser, two destroyers, two frigates, nine patrol craft, 13 mine countermeasures vessels, and seven landing craft entered or re-entered Russian service. This is compared with the loss of one SSBN, 28 patrol craft, an amphibious ship, a landing ship, and 11 landing craft.6 That is a net loss of seven vessels, but an arguable gain in capabilities. In 2009, the Russian Federation Navy added four attack submarines, one destroyer, and a landing ship but lost one SSBN, a destroyer, six frigates, and a landing craft.7 This is a net loss of three vessels, and a definite decline in capabilities. Now, admittedly this is not a perfect record of the comings and goings in the Russian Federation Navy as The Military Balance could be inaccurate. The Russian military is not known for its transparency, after all. The trend over the last three years appears, however, to be a decline in the size of the Russian Navy with, perhaps, some countervailing improvement in capabilities in certain areas. In 2011, seven ships were decommissioned, in 2010, 42 left service, and in 2009, nine were removed from the lists. Given the age of the majority of Russian vessels, it is unavoidable that a significant portion of the current Russian fleet will have to be decommissioned over the next five to ten years. Some of the oldest ships in the Russian fleet happen to be some of the most capable, meaning the loss will not be simply quantitative. The addition of five ships a year until the end of the decade certainly will help rejuvenate the aging Russian fleet, but it will not counteract its decline to the extent desired.

The Russian Navy appears dead in the water at this point. President Putin may wish for Russia to “maintain its status [as] one of the leading naval powers,” but the fact is that the Russian fleet is in decline and present plans are insufficient to absolutely or relatively increase its size and capabilities.8 Russia may or may not be America’s – or any other state’s9 – main geopolitical foe, but in the naval arena it is not much of a contest. Without even more money, the Russian Navy looks set to continue its decades’ long decline.

Ian Sundstrom is a graduate of the War Studies Masters Program at King’s College London.  He is currently engaged on a research project for Imperial War Museum – Duxford in Cambridge, United Kingdom.


[1] Page 3.

[2] Page 7.

[3] Page 3.

[4] Pages 8-9.

[5] International Institute of Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2012 and The Military Balance 2011

[6] International Institute of Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2011 and The Military Balance 2010

[7] International Institute of Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2010 and The Military Balance 2009

[8] The recent firing of Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov may signal a change in Putin’s designs for the military, but it is too soon to tell.

[9] Space considerations have prevented me from discussing other navies’ shipbuilding plans. The reader may wish to consider the trajectory of the British, Japanese, and Chinese navies and how they compare to the Russian fleet. My very brief, preliminary look suggests Russia is set to make some quantitative headway against Britain and Japan, but Russia’s position sandwiched between four major seas renders the gains less than impressive. Compared to the Chinese Navy Russia is in clear decline.