Tag Archives: China

Conventional Deterrence and the US Navy: Why the Future Needs to Happen Now Pt. I

By Adam Taylor

Recent remarks by Admiral Phil Davidson, Commander of the Indo-Pacific Command (INDO-PACOM), highlights one of the most difficult challenges confronting US naval forces in the Asia-Pacific—America’s conventional deterrence posture in the region. He noted “the greatest danger for the United States in this competition [with China] is the erosion of conventional deterrence. Absent a convincing deterrent, the People’s Republic of China will be emboldened to take action to undermine the rules-based international order.” This statement deserves further consideration among naval observers given its assumptions about the nature of conventional deterrence, possible ramifications on the composition and disposition of US forces in the region, and implications for the Navy’s future force design. An assessment of the Navy’s recent “Battle Force 2045” vision against the utility of its traditional contributions to conventional deterrence and the implications associated with differing US and Chinese ideas about deterrence unfortunately demonstrates that the service’s future force design remains ill-equipped to address the deterrence deficit confronting the US.

Deterrence represents one form of coercive diplomacy, which the DoD defines as the “prevention of action by the existence of a credible threat of unacceptable counteraction and/or belief that the cost of action outweighs the perceived benefits.” Compellence constitutes a different form of coercive diplomacy, representing the “use of threatened force, including the limited use of actual force to back up the threat, to induce an adversary to behave differently than it otherwise would.” States can employ these coercive approaches through various instruments of power in their pursuit of national interests.

Strategies of deterrence and compellence differ in their relationships to the prevailing status quo : Deterrence seeks to preserve the status quo, while compellent policies seek to alter it. Other important differences between both strategies include the passage of time and initiator of action. Deterrence strategies passively wait for the object of the deterrent strategy to initiate action, while compellence requires continuous and active efforts by the coercing state.

As a status quo great power, America’s deterrence paradigm informs the Navy’s contributions to the nation’s conventional deterrence posture. Three of its nine functional contributions to the joint force directly contribute to conventional deterrence posture:

  1. Conduct offensive and defensive operations associated with the maritime domain including achieving and maintaining sea control, to include subsurface, surface, land, air, space, and cyberspace;
  2. Provide power projection through sea-based global strike, to include nuclear and conventional capabilities; interdiction and interception capabilities; maritime and/or littoral fires to include naval surface fires; and close air support for ground forces;
  3. Establish, maintain, and defend sea bases in support of naval, amphibious, land, air, or other joint operations as directed.

The chart below from a Center for Naval Analyses report illustrates how the Navy’s deterrent contributions fit into the broader joint force deterrent posture.

Deterrence: Total Force View

The Navy’s ability to “loiter” and remain minimally intrusive highlights why the service is best suited to provide mobile, prompt, and flexible conventional deterrent forces that can sustainably project power without a footprint. The resources needed to deploy and sustain land forces may effectively signal a state’s deterrent commitment, but require time to generate and are relatively less mobile within a theater of operations. Conversely, air power can provide prompt response and minimally intrusive capabilities, but is limited by platforms’ relatively short time on station compared to naval assets. The Navy mitigates these issues through a variety of means, as noted in the same report:

“When maritime power is used, countries can keep from appearing to have an overly close relationship with the United States that might spark new, or enflame ongoing, socio-cultural tensions and violence, while at the same time enjoying the security benefits of US forces in the area vis-à-vis regional adversaries. In fact, if there is a continuing trend in which countries want completely new US security commitments and/or strengthened assurances of existing guarantees, but at the same time do not want to host US forces on their soil, maritime power may increasingly become the primary military instrument used to simultaneously assure allies and deter adversaries.”

Naval operations can simultaneously address the need for commitment without the costs associated with permanent military installations because they do not need basing or overflight rights like land or air forces and can maintain either an overt or “over the horizon” presence. These qualities led Oliver Cromwell to famously declare that a “man-o-war is the best ambassador.” They also demonstrate how naval assets can credibly communicate the commitment needed to deter without incurring political costs or unnecessarily antagonizing potential belligerents.

These qualities ensure the Navy remains a crucial element of America’s deterrence posture in the Asia-Pacific given the contestable nature of conventional deterrence. Prompt denial mitigates opportunistic aggression by limiting the likelihood of quick and low-cost victory. The Navy’s combination of air, sea, and land assets ensures the service has the organic ability to counter aggression. Similarly, the service’s ability to loiter in zones of contention for extended periods of time means the Navy can demonstrate the political resolve and commitment needed to convince potential belligerents to abandon hostile courses of action – but only if those potential belligerents find the deployed forces to be credible.

China, however, pursues a conventional deterrence strategy at odds with America’s deterrence paradigm. The PRC defines deterrence as “the display of military power or the threat of use of military power in order to compel an opponent to submit.” This definition encompasses both dissuasion and coercion in a single concept. Chinese military writing emphasizes that deterrence has two important functions: “one is to dissuade the opponent from doing something through deterrence, the other is to persuade the opponent what ought to be done through deterrence, and both demand the opponent submit to the deterrer’s volition.” Beijing’s definition of deterrence also suggests it views deterrence as a way to achieve a desired political outcome. Deterrence represents a means to a specific end. American discussions tend to characterize deterrence as a goal. INDOPACOM’s mission to field a “combat credible deterrence strategy…” highlights this distinction.

American versus Chinese Views of Deterrence

Strategy Definition Temporal Constraint Object of Force Characteristics
American Deterrence Dissuade an opponent from taking an unwelcome action by threatening the use of force. Occurs during peace time. Passively influence enemy’s intentions to prevent future challenge to status quo. Status quo posturing can be viewed as first strike preparations.
Chinese Deterrence Dissuade or coerce an opponent through the display of military power or threatening the use of force in order to compel an opponent to submit. Occurs during peace and war time. Requires object of deterrence to preference Chinese political interests at object’s expense. Multi-domain; preemptive; contests disputed sovereignty claims; crisis amenable.

The PLA pursues deterrence through a strategy of “forward defense.” This strategy calls for China “pushing the first line away from China’s borders and coasts to ensure that combat occurs beyond China’s homeland territory, not on or within it…China’s borders and coasts are now viewed as interior lines in a conflict, not exterior ones.” China incorporates a variety of conventional, space, information capabilities, economic, and diplomatic means into its deterrence policy tool bag. All of these measures combine to aide Beijing’s deterrence policy which aims to compel an aggressor to abandon offensive intentions or cause a defender to conclude the cost of resistance remains too high. The offensive nature of Chinese deterrence means Beijing would consider preemptive action during periods of tension should the PRC conclude an aggressor has decided to violate China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Beijing’s use of force in its deterrence strategy also highlights the value it places on crisis and tension. While American policy makers might consider a crisis that challenges the status quo a possible point of deterrence failure, Chinese leadership views crisis as an avenue to achieve favorable political outcomes. A crisis or increase in tension that might not normally exist under the status quo allows the PRC to probe an adversary’s intentions, foment friction among allies, weaken an opponent’s resolve, or decrease the domestic political support for an adversary’s policies.

The divergence in deterrence theory and practice between both nations has important implications for the Navy’s future force design. China’s impressive anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities combined with a deterrence strategy that favors crisis escalation and encroachment on other nations’ sovereignty challenges the Navy’s ability to effectively deter. The Navy can no longer assume that its ships’ ability to loiter in zones of contention will deter an increasingly capable Chinese military from taking unwanted action. Navy leadership also must reconsider if the fleet’s current composition and posture adequately conveys America’s daily commitment to its allies or provides a realistic deterrent against belligerent Chinese behavior short of war. Aircraft carriers, high-tech destroyers, and attack submarines do an excellent job demonstrating the Navy’s capabilities should conventional war occur, but do not necessarily represent the best choice when dealing with the daily and persistent malign behavior that China employs. These platforms cost a lot to operate and maintain which means the Navy cannot endlessly keep them at sea in contested areas. Furthermore, it likely strains Chinese credulity to believe that the US would employ its qualitatively superior platforms to respond to every escalatory action Beijing engages in against American partners. Washington would look overreactive and all too willing to consistently let its ships and sailors operate in a costly A2/AD environment.

All of these issues raise important questions about the Navy’s ability to deter Chinese aggression, manage escalation, and credibly prevail in a great power conflict. The future fleet must possess the ability to decisively win a conventional conflict while also maintaining the capability needed to deter aggression short of war. Beijing’s deterrence paradigm requires a navy that can compete with China across the entire spectrum of operations. Unfortunately, the Navy’s recently released “Battle Force 2045” concept falls short of these requirements with its over investment in surface combatants, under investment in uncrewed ships, and unrealistic assumptions about defense budgets.  A more thorough review of the Navy’s ability to respond to conventional aggression against Taiwan will demonstrate the service’s current shortcomings and the way ahead for a more sustainable and effective force design.

Adam Taylor recently separated from the Marine Corps where he served four years as an air support control officer and is now in the Individual Ready Reserve. He currently works as a fellow in Congress and received his M.A. in international relations from American University’s School of International Service. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect any institutional position of the Marine Corps, Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or Member of Congress.

Featured Image: INDIAN OCEAN (March 20, 2021) Electronics Technician 2nd Class Ryan Walsh, from Monroe, N.Y., watches the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) from the flight deck of the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Russell (DDG 59) March 20, 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Wade Costin)

If You Build It, They Will Lose: Competing with China Requires New Information Warfare Tools

Naval Intelligence Topic Week

By Andrew P. Thompson

The Modern Fight

Written into the most recent National Security Strategy is the principle that Great Power competition will continue to play a major role in the shaping of our strategic priorities.1 As the Navy continues adapting to operations below the level of armed conflict, how we implement combat capability must adjust. China’s modernization of its Navy, enhanced with its desired use of Artificial Intelligence (AI), should catalyze change in our own development efforts. Its modernization initiative directly supports its system destruction warfare principle, which operationalizes a system of systems approach to combat. Confronting this style of warfare requires a new mindset, and the Information Warfare apparatus, of which Naval Intelligence is an integral part, must align itself appropriately to support this change. While the last century’s wars heavily favored attrition-centric warfare, 21st century Great Power competition requires the use of warfare that is decision-centric. The Information Warfare Community (IWC) support required for such an approach must capitalize on the use of new technologies, developed from industry, to aid commanders. Doing so will allow the IWC to provide decision-makers with the best advantages as fast as possible and the method to accomplish such a feat will determine both the IWC’s and Naval Intelligence’s legacy in this modern fight.

By the end of 2020, China is assessed to have 360 battle force ready ships compared to the U.S. Navy with 297.2 Projecting forward to 2025, China will have 400 battle force ships and 425 by 2030.3 In addition to the sheer size of its projected ship count, China is currently making strides to modernize its programs associated with anti-ship ballistic missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles, submarines, aircraft, unmanned aircraft, and command and control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) tools.4 One supporting element in modernizing these programs is the Chinese utilization of AI. According to the Congressional Research Service, “the Chinese aim to use AI for exploiting large troves of intelligence, generating a common operating picture, and accelerating battlefield decision-making.”5 As opposed to the bureaucratic red tape that exists in much of the U.S. defense acquisitions process, few such barriers exist in China’s between its commercial, academic, military, and government entities. Therefore, the Chinese government can directly shape AI development to meet its desired need in whatever capacity it wants. To support this effort, the Chinese government founded a Military-Civil Fusion Development Commission in 2017 in order to rapidly transfer AI technology, from whatever source, directly to the military.6 In doing so, China is incrementally utilizing AI to enhance its conventional force modernization programs at a more rapid pace than one impeded by self-imposed bureaucracy.

AI Benefits/Issues

The advantages of AI technology apply no matter which nation develops it, allowing combat systems to react at gigahertz speed. With such a dramatic shift in the time scale of combat, the pace of combat itself accelerates.7 Additionally, military AI use can provide an augmentation option for long-term tasks that exceed human endurance. For example, intelligence gathering across vast areas for long durations becomes more manageable for human analysts when using AI.

In addition to the above advantages, AI directly confronts, and has the potential to make sense of, the tremendous amount of data for analysts to process. While the U.S. military operates over 11,000 drones, with each one recording “more than three NFL seasons worth” of high-definition footage each day, there are simply not enough people to adequately glean all possible actionable intelligence from such media.8 Similarly overwhelming are the 1.7 megabytes of information that the average human generates every second.9 Therefore, AI-powered intelligence systems may offer a way to sift through the resulting data repositories in order to better understand behavior patterns. Further, after a desired set of iterations, AI algorithms may feed further analysis that refines earlier conclusions, and ultimately provide an even better understanding of complex information for decision-making advantage.10 While promising, skepticism is necessary. Dr. Arati Prabhakar, a former DARPA Director, noted, “When we look at what’s happening with AI, we see something that is very powerful, but we also see a technology that is still quite fundamentally limited…the problem is that when it’s wrong, it’s wrong in ways that no human would ever be wrong.”11 Such skeptical risk, however, does not outweigh the possible benefits of AI’s development and use.

While the advantages of AI technology are clear, our adversary’s approach to how this development takes place merits discussion. The Chinese AI development framework can be corrupt and favor sub-par research institutions, resulting in potential overinvestment, producing unneeded and wasteful surpluses.12 Conversely, whatever advantage the U.S. retains in AI technology research due to China’s own domestic malfeasance can quickly diminish by way of industrial espionage. Despite agreeing to the U.S.-China Cyber Agreement, in which both sides agreed that “neither country’s government will conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property,” it was reported to Congress that “from 2011-2018, more than 90 percent of the Justice Department’s cases alleging economic espionage by or to benefit a state involve China, and more than two-thirds of the Department’s theft of trade secrets cases have had a nexus to China.”13 Such actions, while not germane exclusively to AI development, clearly show an aggressive approach to technological progress with little regard for agreed-upon rules. When applied to AI research, such aggressiveness may result in less safe outcomes due to China’s tolerance for risk at the expense of speed. This may eventually result in the U.S. possessing more capable applications in the long-term.14 However, such optimism does not exempt the U.S. from adjusting to the modern concept of warfare for which China is rapidly developing AI in the first place.

System of Systems/System Destruction Warfare

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) no longer sees war as a contest of annihilation between opposing forces. Rather, it sees war as a clash between opposing operational systems.15 Thus, China sees the victor in a war as the side who renders the other side’s systems ineffective, the ultimate goal of system destruction warfare. This model demands a joint force that utilizes numerous types of units from multiple services to continuously conduct operations across the battlefield.16 The past predicated that dominance in one or more physical domains was sufficient for warfighting success. As an example, 20th century thought suggested that air dominance was necessary to achieve land or sea dominance. Systems confrontation, on the other hand, predicates that warfare success requires dominance in all domains: land, sea, air, cyber, electromagnetic, and space.17 However, for such dominance to occur, the first domain necessitating control is the information one, as it is the nucleus that ensures everything else within the overall system correctly functions.18

To account for this dynamic force posturing in all domains, the PLA requires multidimensional and multifunctional operational systems. Such system permutations enable enough flexibility to adjust to newly developed technology.19 Correspondingly, a degree of malleability is built into the architecture of the PLA’s system categories of entities, structures, and elements. Entities include the weapon platform itself. Structures include the matrix style interlink that allows for coordinated functioning. Elements include the system’s command and control, protection, and maneuver capabilities. When intertwined, the resulting web of each system’s entities, structures, and elements provides redundancies that ensure the overall system is greater than the sum of its disparate parts.20 That said, each part is elastic enough that taking one part away from the web will not result in a total loss, while adding a part is equally non-destructive.

With these systems, the PLA seeks to strike four types of targets: 1) targets that interrupt the flow of information within an enemy’s system, such as key data links to a system’s command and control, 2) targets that degrade essential elements of an enemy’s system, such as a system’s firepower capability, 3) targets that interrupt the operational architecture of a system, such as the physical nodes of the essential elements (i.e. the firepower network), and 4) targets that interrupt the tempo of an enemy’s systems architecture, such as a system’s “reconnaissance-control-attack-evaluation” process that is inherent to all operational systems.21 Thus, the PLA seeks to operationalize its destructive warfare model by targeting what it perceives as the most vulnerable parts of its adversary’s infrastructure. By building flexibility into the design of units within its own system of systems (entities, structure, and elements) used to conduct this targeting, China’s system destruction warfare model accounts for loss while simultaneously adapting to new developments. Such an approach makes for a leaner, smarter, and dynamic force.

Decision-Centric Warfare/Our Response

In the current environment, Carrier Strike Groups are the Navy’s common force packages that deliver multi-mission units.22 These groups are vulnerable due to their size and aggregation, providing the perfect units for the PLA to target with its system destruction warfare model. Other services’ main force packages, such as the Army’s Brigade Combat Teams and the Marines’ Expeditionary Units, are also reflective of a vulnerable force borne out of the attrition-centric warfare model.23 While this legacy mindset worked in the 20th century, Great Power competition in the 21st century provides the requisite scenario to impose multiple dilemmas on an enemy to prevent it from achieving objectives. This decision-centric warfare approach, where making decisions faster than the adversary is paramount, is the cornerstone ingredient of the required methodology to confront China’s destructive warfare model.24 Having the Navy’s current force package, the Carrier Strike Group, utilize AI and autonomous systems is the means by which this new approach can be operationalized.

In addition to the benefits of AI discussed earlier, autonomous systems afford forces the ability to conduct more distributed operations by way of disaggregating capabilities of more traditional multi-mission platforms into a larger number of less flexible and less expensive systems.25 Use of these autonomous systems, on an as-available basis, is the hallmark standard of the decision-centric model. Thus, command and control of autonomous forces is based on communications availability, rather than a hardened command and control network. Decision-centric warfare assumes, and accounts for, contested and/or denied communications, as a commander will only possess control of forces that he/she actually can communicate with.26

From a decision-centric warfare model perspective, the current force’s Mission Command actually undermines its ability to make the necessary quickest decisions. It does so because the current command and control of forces is dependent on working communications, or extensively troubleshooting them, all of the time. To enable commanders to address this shortfall, the adoption of a new command and control structure that combines human command and AI-enabled machine control is necessary. Such a structure would combine a human’s flexibility and creativity with a machine’s speed and scale.27 Over time, as discussed earlier, human commanders could adjust machine recommendations, thereby forcing the machine to learn, increasing the commander’s confidence in subsequent recommendations when communications are limited.28 The net result of this feedback loop is a decision-making apparatus superior to an adversary’s. When applied to enemy systems attempting to target/destroy friendly force systems, the resulting quick decision-making effectively outmaneuvers the opposing side.

A key enabler of this quick decision-making rests with the advent of the Information Warfare Commander position on Carrier Strike Group staffs, which has gradually elevated the status of the Information Warfare Community (IWC) across the service. Along with this position, personnel within the Strike Group IWC Enterprise are key enablers who must recognize that their ability to leverage decision-making and combat capability lies with their ability to enable AI and autonomous systems of the future, combine this enabling with their own understanding of enemy intentions, and ultimately make recommendations to improve the commander’s decision cycle.

To achieve this, IWC personnel must be cognizant of new technologies on the rise within industry, where the most promising disruptive innovation trends reside that can meet these challenges. As the National Security Strategy states, “We must harness innovative technologies that are being developed outside of the traditional defense industrial base.”29 To this end, and to “harness innovative technologies,” an AI-industry sponsor must be assigned to each Carrier Strike Group Information Warfare Commander and his/her subordinate staff. This sponsorship program would enable IWC personnel the ability to incorporate the most modern AI technology into at-risk portions of their portfolios and define exacting requirements for new tools that are flexible enough for future progressive technological investment. While such innovation developments may surpass the tenure of the personnel assigned to the Strike Group staffs, the output of each team will aid future teams’ performance and eventually the Navy’s fighting ability. As such, after several iterations of afloat Strike Group staffs working with their respective industry sponsor, the result would be the promotion of tool production that aids the service in possessing the technological and decision-making edge…and ultimately play a direct role in future potential conflicts.

Getting to this point will require a new mindset for IWC personnel. Most do not possess acquisitions experience and most have not worked in positions that require technological innovation. To aid in not overburdening an IWC staff, the TYCOM should assign an Acquisitions Community sponsor to each Information Warfare Commander. This new combined team, comprised of the Strike Group IWC personnel, the AI-industry sponsor, and the TYCOM-approved Acquisitions Community sponsor, would seek to prototype tools/designs that attack key problem areas encountered by end users (i.e. the IWC personnel), as stated earlier. By swiftly deploying new operational concepts into potentially useable tools and products, the new decision-making infrastructure would support a warfare model fit to confront China’s today.

When compared to every other warfare area within the Navy, the IWC requires the most modern technological advances in the least amount of time. While other communities have proven processes and protocols in place to implement new technologies into their existing platforms, the IWC is simply too new and in too much need to benefit from these practices. This demands that the IWC business model be different, as Information Warfare Commanders need tools right now to effectively compete and win. Further, they must be the right tools where end users have a direct say in what they get.

Great Power Competition will dominate our military’s focus for the foreseeable future and the Information Warfare Community, including Naval Intelligence, must adjust accordingly. Understanding that China intends to enhance its military modernization efforts with AI, that it thinks differently about warfare in the 21st century, and that we need to modify our own warfare model to effectively respond, the Information Warfare Community’s newfound status should elevate new technologies into our Navy’s decision-making and combat DNA. The nation, and our Navy, cannot afford a misstep in this realm. The next major conflict will possess high stakes in the information domain where the Navy’s IWC will be at the forefront.

LCDR Andrew Thompson is currently serving at the USINDOPACOM JIOC. As a Surface Warfare Officer, he served aboard USS BOONE (FFG 28) as the Communications Officer, at Destroyer Squadron FIFTY as the Operations Officer, and at Naval Special Warfare Group ONE as the Middle East Desk Officer. As an Intelligence Officer, he has completed tours at the Office of Naval Intelligence, the Navy Cyber Warfare Development Group, and Carrier Strike Group TWELVE (as the Deputy N2). He holds a B.S. in Naval Architecture (USNA ’05), an M.S. in Mechanical Engineering (NPS), and an M.A. in National Security Studies (Naval War College). He holds subspecialties in African Studies and Space Systems, and has deployed to the SOUTHCOM, EUCOM, AFRICOM, and CENTCOM AORs. The views expressed in this article are his own, and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense or the Intelligence Community. 

Endnotes

1 Trump, Donald J., National Security Strategy of the United States of America, December, 2017, 27.

2 “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress.”

3 Ibid., 2.

4 Ibid., 3.

5 “Artificial Intelligence and National Security,” Congressional Research Service, November 21, 2019, 21.

6 Ibid., 21.

7 Ibid., 27.

8 Ibid., 28.

9 Ibid., 28.

10 Ibid., 28-29.

11 Ibid., 29.

12 Ibid., 23.

13 Ibid., 23.

14 Ibid., 23.

15 Engstrom, Jeffrey, How the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Seeks to Wage Modern Warfare, Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018, 10-11.

16 Ibid., 12.

17 Ibid., 13.

18 Ibid., 12.

19 Ibid., 13.

20 Ibid., 14.

21 Ibid., 16-18.

22 Clark, Bryan, Dan Patt, and Harrison Schramm. Mosaic Warfare: Exploiting Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Systems to Implement Decision-Centric Operations. Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2020, ii.

23 Ibid., iii.

24 Ibid., iii.

25 Ibid., v.

26 Ibid., v.

27 Ibid., vi.

28 Ibid., vi.

29 Trump, Donald J., National Security Strategy of the United States of America, December, 2017, 29.

Bibliography

“Artificial Intelligence and National Security.” Congressional Research Service. November 21, 2019. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R45178.pdf

“China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress.” Congressional Research Service. May 21, 2020. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL33153.pdf

Clark, Bryan, Dan Patt, and Harrison Schramm. Mosaic Warfare: Exploiting Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Systems to Implement Decision-Centric Operations. Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2020. https://csbaonline.org/uploads/documents/Mosaic_Warfare_Web.pdf

Engstrom, Jeffrey. How the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Seeks to Wage Modern Warfare. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1708.html

Trump, Donald J. National Security Strategy of the United States of America. December, 2017. https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf

Featured Image: Sailors wearing gas masks operate a combat direction system console aboard the guided-missile frigate Handan (Hull 579) during a 4-day maritime training exercise conducted by a destroyer flotilla of the navy under the PLA Northern Theater Command in waters of the Yellow Sea from March 27 to 30, 2018. (eng.chinamil.com.cn/Photo by Zhang Hailong)

Navy Officers, André Malraux, and Chinese Culture

By Bill Bray

The U.S. military spends quite a bit of money and time educating a segment of its personnel on foreign cultures. Too much or not nearly enough, depending on who you ask and at what moment you ask them. Recall the relatively short run of the Afghanistan/Pakistan Hands Program. As a colleague at the U.S. Naval Academy who is the director of the Center for Experiential Leadership Development program, which arranges for various cultural immersion programs for midshipmen, relayed to me recently, in the era of renewed great power competition the emphasis on “cultural education” is waning in favor of more traditional technical warfighting knowledge.

The Army and the Marine Corps will probably continue to prioritize foreign culture knowledge without much debate, for obvious reasons. The Navy, however, may not. This is a service that tried and failed to establish a several times in the past half century before finally succeeding in the late 2000s. The Navy’s FAO debate was emblematic of the service’s larger struggle with determining what learning to emphasize in addition to technical knowledge, if anything at all. At the start of my career in the mid-1980s, the prevailing consensus regarding Navy officer education, as I recall it, was that understanding foreign cultures is a luxury. Not bad to have, but not terribly important for the vast majority. We may be drifting back to that place, and that would be a mistake.

The right answer is that Navy officers need both technical and cultural knowledge to compete against a sophisticated adversary in both peace and war. China will be the dominant threat concern for new officers during their entire careers. Officers in particular should strive for much more than a superficial understanding of Chinese culture as it pertains to matters of politics and warfare.

Malraux and Eastern Thought

For those that have little or no background on Chinese culture, a book with which to start is one recommended to me long ago when working on a graduate degree in Asian studies—André Malraux’s slender epistolary The Temptation of the West (La Tentation de l’Occident), published in 1926 but remarkably durable in capturing the differences in Western and Chinese thought. Two characters, the young Frenchman A.D. and Chinese student Ling-W.-Y., correspond about art and culture, specifically about a decaying European culture and how it, in turn, has infected Chinese culture. This is a conversation that had been playing out in Malraux’s mind for some time, at least from the point he first came to “the Orient” in 1923 to search for (in actuality probably to pilfer for sale) ancient Khmerian sculptures along the Royal Road in Cambodia (an adventure that landed him a three-year prison sentence by French colonial authorities, subsequently suspended).

Born in 1901 into a seafaring family in Dunkirk, Malraux took an interest in art and archaeology at an early age. He studied at the Lycée Condorcet and later at the Ecole des Langues Orientales. He ventured to Cambodia with his young wife, Clara Goldschmidt. From his humiliating arrest in Cambodia, to his return to Indochina (Vietnam) in 1925 (after briefly having returned to France), and later political activities in China supporting both nationalist and communist movements, the facts of what exactly he did, with whom, and when are shrouded in myth, mystery, and conjecture—an opaqueness he did little to clear up later in life. What we can know for certain is that by the mid-1920s, while running a newspaper in Hanoi, Malraux was writing prolifically. He published his first full-length novel, The Conquerors, in 1928, followed by The Royal Way in 1930, and Man’s Fate in 1933, a story set against the failed 1927 communist uprising in Shanghai (written before Malraux ever set foot in Shanghai) that won the Goncourt prize.

That Malraux was at least a communist sympathizer into his 30s is without question. Yet even in the most fervent years of his left-wing political activities, Malraux was more interested in examining the human condition through art and culture than in political doctrines. In fact, according to early Malraux chronicler and late Harvard professor of French literature W. M. Frohock, Man’s Fate was viewed with some suspicion by orthodox communist hardliners. “Did Malraux have a party card? The legend holds that he did not. And on his trip to the 1934 Writers’ Congress in Moscow . . . he was billed on the program as a ‘Marxist humanist’ and, according to reports, placed his emphasis much more on the human than on Marx.” Malraux was always searching and never comfortable with the doctrinaire. His politics shifted continually over the course of his life. In the Second World War he served in the French Army and later the French Resistance, and after the war as Charles de Gaulle’s Minister of Information (1945–46) and France’s Minister of Cultural Affairs (1958–69).

Reading The Temptation of the West today, nearly 100 years after it appeared, reminds us of the hold culture retains on our thinking, even in an age of hyper-globalization. Malraux was deeply influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical critique of Western culture. In his introduction to the 1961 edition, Robert Hollander notes, “In Nietzsche, with his analysis of Western decadence, Malraux found an exalted precursor, more important for showing the way toward developing cultural generalizations than for shaping specific concepts.” Malraux also admired Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s novel Dangerous Liaisons (1782), widely considered the best epistolary novel ever written in the French language. Nietzsche provided the philosophical foundation and de Laclos the form for Malraux to carry the critique further in the context of the West’s interaction with Chinese culture. The demise of a culture is not something one can truly appreciate from a distance. It is not an abstraction, of interest only to anthropologists and historians. It is personal and we must feel it—and we do through the letters of A.D. and Ling. We feel how they are inextricably caught in this crisis, how the uncertain future is their future.

One can forgive a young Malraux for so harshly dismissing a European culture he worked so hard in his later years to preserve. What could Europe but seem in the years immediately following the Great War? Europe was still convulsing, the old order still gasping, while vile political extremism was gaining currency. The center was never more than tenuous, and of course it collapsed like a house of sand by the end of the 1920s. In 1927 Malraux published the essay “D’une Jeunesse Europeenne” (“From a European Youth”) in Les Cahiers Verts in which he “proclaimed a personal alienation from European culture to match the one expressed by the focal character in La Tentation.”

An Enduring Epistolary

Only 18 letters comprise the book, and 12 are from Ling in Europe to A.D. in Asia. In the brief forward we learn A.D. is 25 years old and Ling 23. We never learn how Ling and A.D. know each other or why they correspond in the way they do. We are told at the end of the forward that the letters have been “selected and edited” and are intended to evoke in readers “some arresting thoughts on the seemingly unusual sensuous and spiritual lives of these two men.” Who selected and edited them? We have no idea. With this device Malraux seems to want us to know the bare minimum of background, as too much detail will unduly influence our interpretation and understanding of the subtle and finely wrought conversation.

The opening letter is from A.D., written from the liner Chambord as it carries him to China. We are not sure where Chambord is, only that A.D. has “seen savages suddenly appear and offer seafarers horn-shaped fruits from primitive trays. . .” He goes on to describe a wondrous flow of exotic sensations. Before leaving Europe, he experienced the rest of the world only through books and the gathered cultural treasures and animals one finds in museums and zoos. “Man, capturing living forms one by one and locking them up in books, has prepared the present condition of my mind.” A.D. is embarking on an adventure to a strange world. He is a colonial man—not the incurious or rapacious variant, but also not above indulging in the luxuries on offer. Asia is a place for the taking. The culture must be protected, not for its own sake, but rather because it is interesting to the Western man.

Ling is already in France, and he’s unimpressed. He writes his first letter from Marseilles. From the opening line we see that Ling has ventured to Europe with much suspicion—“Europe calls forth few beautiful ghosts, and I have come to her with hostile curiosity.” He is curious to know how Europe is so strong that it could colonize peoples around the world, including parts of China. China in the 1920s is sick, and Ling believes Europe the source of the disease. The remaining letters from Ling are sent from Paris, although he does make mention of visiting other European cities.

What transpires from the third letter onward is an inquiry into the European and Chinese minds—how each character thinks and sees the world. Religion, art, architecture, myth, literature, philosophy, even dreams—these are the methods of cultural expression Malraux examines. Ling studies and inquires, but also compares and explains. He is on a mission to understand how something he longs to preserve is slipping away. A.D. is less didactic. He is not determined to defend European culture. He is a product of it and all its excesses and tragedies, and that has convinced him that life is ultimately absurd. Searching for meaning is a fool’s errand. The existential concept “the absurd”—the realization that man’s attempt to understand and order the world is a fruitless exercise because no such order exists—is a Malraux motif. It is no wonder he influenced Sartre, Camus, and other French existentialists.

Malraux’s observations of both Chinese and European culture—East and West—rush at us in exquisite blossoms of language. When A.D. surfaces, such as in letters 8 and 12, he seems in implicit agreement with Ling on many points, as we see him explaining Europe rather than defending it. In letter 8, A.D. writes, “The excessive importance we have been led to give to ‘our’ reality is doubtless just one of the means the mind employs to defend itself … The absurd, the beautiful absurd, linked with us like the serpent to the tree of Good and Evil, is never completely hidden …” And in letter 12, “Europeans are weary of themselves, of their crumbling individualism, of their exaltation. What sustains them is less a thought than a delicate framework of negation.”

The denouement occurs in letter 17. Ling responds to A.D.’s description in the previous letter of his long discussion with the ex-politician Wang-Loh, whom he met in Shanghai. Wang-Loh pronounces the traditional culture of China dead. He pours scorn on young Chinese who have been infected with Western ideas. Ling is in sorrowful agreement with Wang-Loh, and the tone of the letter resonates a deep sadness. “He believes China is going to die. I believe it too.” For thousands of years, a propriety where elders are held in high esteem and revered for wisdom was being upended by a Western-educated youth—the “new elite.” But the new elite are not entirely happy to adopt European culture and shed their native culture. They believe they can have both. They are “tortured souls.” This is the tragedy unfolding in China. Ling sees it and is helpless to stop it. His countrymen thought they could absorb Europe like “learning a foreign language,” with no adverse repercussions to their own culture and identity. “How can I express the feelings of a disintegrating soul? All the letters I receive come from young men as desperate as Wang-Loh or myself, barren of their own culture, disgusted with yours…”

In a preface to the 1992 University of Chicago edition, noted China historian Jonathan D. Spence wrote, “It is never safe, and often folly, to call any writing ‘prophetic,’ but the closing two pages of this last letter of Ling’s read now as if they had been designed as an epilogue and benediction to the hopes and fears of China’s long revolution, and to the millions who died for the future…” What to make of The Temptation of the West today, nearly 30 years after Spence wrote those words? Like Malraux himself, the book refuses to be neatly distilled. It is heartbreaking to read about a culture dying, but we do not get the sense that it was ever avoidable. It seems a fate, a destiny, and not the result of a chosen direction that existed aside other paths just as easily taken. Ling comes closer to A.D. in concluding that all human existence lies in the “metallic realms of the absurd.” What awaits them both is only a “naked horizon and the mirror of solitude’s old master, despair.”

Culture Still Matters

When I first read this book in the early 1990s, a debate was raging on what the world was becoming in the post-Cold War era. Francis Fukuyama had recently published the article “The End of History?” in The National Interest. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, and before the Soviet Union formally dissolved, Fukuyama resurfaced an argument first coherently offered by the German philosopher George Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel in the early 1800s that history—meaning the trajectory of man as a political and social creature, and not the academic subject—is not haphazard, but rather evolves with purpose and will have an end. The purpose, according to Hegel, is man’s quest for freedom and the end is a political system that fulfills this quest in all its citizens. In the 1930s, the Russian-French philosopher Alexander Kojeve gave a series of lectures incorporating Hegel’s concepts into 20th-century European democratic political theory. Fukuyama essentially reargued Kojeve’s thesis (and openly credited Kojeve) in his subsequent book, The End of History and the Last Man, published in 1992.

Fukuyama has since had a legion of critics, some who I am convinced still misunderstand his argument, but also some very learned and distinguished. In his 1993 book, Specters of Marx, Jacques Derrida dismissed Fukuyama’s book as “Western triumphalism and Christian eschatology.” For the American defense establishment, however, the Fukuyama critic more widely and warmly read was Samuel Huntington, whose essay “The Clash of Civilizations” appeared in Foreign Affairs in 1993. For Huntingdon, the end of the Cold War signaled not the affirmation of a political ideology, but the loss of a transcendent ideology’s hold on the more ancient and deeply held drivers of human conflict. At least one lid had come off a boiling pot. Both communism and liberal democracy always struggled to tame the forces of cultural identity in the service of universal principles, and now that at least one of the ideologies proved a failure, vast swaths of humanity will more likely find purchase in their civilizational identity than in the principles of liberal democracy. Huntingdon predicted a new wave of conflict in the 21st century, the fault lines of which will be between ancient civilizations.

It has been more than a quarter century since the ideas of Fukuyama and Huntingdon captivated so many of us, and in that time plenty of evidence has surfaced to support both viewpoints. Fukuyama has since revisited and moderated his position to account for group identity as a more potent political force than he had anticipated. But what is hard, if not impossible, to deny is that culture still matters. Listen carefully, for example, to the speeches of Chinese President Xi Jinping. He regularly appeals to Chinese culture to help justify the party’s legitimacy. The Hong Kong Chinese in the streets defending the city’s democratic structures are traitors not to the communist party, but to China—to being Chinese. At its core, Beijing’s great-power restoration project is much about the primacy of Chinese culture. Xi aims to restore what the fictional Wang-Loh thought was dead.

Given that reality, how much should young Navy officers educate themselves on Chinese culture? Quite a lot, in my view. China, with its highly capable, modernizing navy and its grand ambitions, is the great problem of their careers. The letters of Ling and A.D. add an interesting and different way to help do that.

Bill Bray is a retired Navy captain and deputy editor-in-chief of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine.

Featured Image: French President Emmanuel Macron, left, and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping attend a wreath laying ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe monument in Paris, March 25, 2019. (AP Photo)

Jennings

Fiction Contest Week

By Ryan Belscamper

Seven years ago, the Marine Corps decided they needed a better way to “Kick in doors on foreign shores!” Landing craft were slow and vulnerable, aircraft weren’t as slow, but still pretty vulnerable, and the ships to launch either one of them would not survive for long operating nearby. Shore bombardment was a problem, too. How do you provide enough firepower when you don’t have enough ships? Hitting the beach was only the first insurmountable problem. Once there, Marines would need to fight further inshore, using who knows what for supply lines, and only the equipment that could have been landed in the first place. If someone could just get a foot in the door, take an airfield or knock out local defenses, then more traditional methods could handle everything else. If victory could be won fast enough, then resources might go far enough. That’s where really bad ideas started sounding like good ideas.

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Two years ago, Jennings had been on a patrol in Afghanistan when they’d come under attack. Half the squad was dead or wounded in the first two seconds, the other half fighting for their lives. Reinforcement took four minutes to arrive, and the fight didn’t last long after that. For those four minutes though, Jennings was in a special place. There was no panic, no pain, no fear or loss. For four minutes, Jennings just did his job. Bullets couldn’t touch him, and he couldn’t miss. Two grenades over there, one more to the left. Grab more from McBride, he wasn’t going to use them. Grab an extra magazine while he was at it, and shoot that guy on the right. Combat was supposed to be terrifying, but this was just shooting things.

Afterward, Colonel Walks told Jennings he’d fought well, and asked if he wanted to avoid pulling guard or patrol duty ever again. That sounded pretty unlikely, so Jennings asked what the catch was.

“The catch is, all you’ll ever do again is either train or fight. New unit, handpicked, volunteer only, and you have to get shot at to join.” the Colonel explained. “Today, you got shot at.” 

To Jennings, training was fun, sitting in barracks dull, guard duty was awful, patrol duty was torture, and combat was just shooting things. So he said “Yes, sir.”  That evening, he was in the back of a C-17, heading stateside.

35 Marines made up the new unit. Five squads, seven Marines to a squad, plus a Major everyone called Brickhead, because the man looked like a brick. Seven was a peculiar number to make up a squad, but apparently that was all their new transports could fit. Not that Jennings or any of the other members of his unit got to see those transports yet.

For the next two years, Jennings and the others trained. They trained to enter and clear buildings, and they trained to fight in the mud. They trained as teams, then they trained to fight alone. They got new weapons, new armor, and a fancy new helmet that would show where everyone else was at. The Major called their gear a three-piece suit, though it looked nothing like a suit to Jennings. They spent a lot of time in the weight room, and more time in the ‘Rattle Room.’ The rattle room looked like one of those high-end flight simulators, the kind that move around on pneumatic pistons. This one was all about shaking a squad up, then stopping suddenly to see how fast they could recover.

No-one knew what to call their new unit. It was clearly a platoon, but a platoon of what? They’d eventually been allowed to pick their own names for squads. Someone in Jennings’ squad thought their new armor looked like an armadillo, and the name stuck. Growing up in east Texas, they looked nothing like armadillos to Jennings. Five of second squad’s seven original members were female, so Kline and Phillips just had to live with being called “She-Devils.” Jennings had seen them train, so he thought She-Devils was perhaps a bit too tame. “Vicious Amazonian terror fiends rage killing everything” was a bit unwieldy though. Kicking in doors was exactly what this whole unit was about, so calling themselves “Door-Kickers” made sense. Hedgehogs made about as much sense as Armadillos. Butterflies was a complete mystery, but it wasn’t excessively vulgar or obscene, so it stood. Other units on base supplied the platoon name by always complaining how Brickhead’s men never pulled guard duty.  They weren’t a platoon, or a company, or a brigade. They were “Brickheads.” Jennings was now a Brickhead.

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 “One-way in 30 minutes!” Sitting in the berthing compartment, Brickhead was briefing them on what would be their first operational mission. A Navy special warfare pin painted on one wall revealed the compartment’s usual occupants. Given a little paint, the Brickheads would’ve gladly replaced the Trident with a Globe. Two weeks stuck underwater gave them more than enough time. The slide showed a map of a small island with an airfield. “Armadillos, She-Devils, and Door-Kickers are hitting the north side of the island. Hedgehogs and Butterflies in the south.”

“Armadillos, we’re going down the west shore. Our job is to neutralize the airfield. Nothing takes off once we hit. She-Devils, you’re in the middle. Take down the control tower and main barracks. Door-Kickers, you’re on the east shore. This tower has the island’s main search radar, and this building is the operations center. Level them both.”

“Hedgehogs will come up the west shore from the south, taking out these missile sites. Butterflies will be coming up the eastern shore and taking out that marina. We don’t need to deal with any patrol boats.”  Yellow boxes were drawn around each major objective. Both the map and the boxes would appear on a display inside each Marine’s helmet. As objectives were assessed as either destroyed or neutralized, the yellow symbols would change to black. Blue circles would indicate each other’s positions, while red diamonds would relay enemy positions. A built-in radio would allow them to stay in constant contact with their squad and with the platoon.

While the Major continued, Jennings focused on his armor. Patrol had always sucked, lugging around 50 pounds of gear. Right now, Jennings was bolting on the last of about 120 pounds of armor. With a powered exoskeleton, it felt like about ten. Of course, that would only help for the first few minutes. After that, the armor would feel like about 40 pounds, and eventually he’d have to pull the cord that would shed both the exoskeleton and 90 pounds of his armor. Batteries only lasted so long, ten minutes, give or take. His weapon fired 12mm armor piercing sabots, with an underslung launcher firing up to nine 40mm smart grenades. Each member of the squad also carried four rockets, good to about 300 meters. They’d take the back off a tank, supposedly, if you could get behind one. The last two weapons seemed almost like a joke: a demolition charge about a foot across and three inches thick with foam glue on the dangerous side, and a combat knife that any sane person would call a sword. Just in case you needed to kill buildings or fight the Roman Army.

No one ever said the next part was a good idea. Actually, quite a lot of people had said it was a bad one. But apparently, somebody thought strapping a handful of Marines to the top of a ballistic missile wasn’t that bad of an idea, because Jennings was about to do just that, along with the rest of the Brickheads.

The Armadillos, She-devils, and Doorkickers filed out of the small berthing compartment onboard the converted ballistic missile submarine, into the missile room, through small hatches near the top of each missile tube, and into their deployment pods atop the repurposed missiles. The Hedgehogs and Butterflies would be doing the same aboard another sub somewhere. The corpsmen passed out Dramamine while boson-mates turned armor-techs literally bolted the armored warriors into place. The hatches were sealed, and then nothing happened.

“You sure this thing has room for seven?”

“Why, you don’t like my company?”

“Mom! He’s touching me!”

“No, I don’t like your elbow in my back.”

“That’s not my elbow.”

Laughter.

“How long is this flight supposed to be?” someone else chattered.

“About 500 miles.”

“So, is there a movie?”

More laughter.

Brickhead cut in on the banter, “Combat in eight minutes, jokers.”

One minute, 37 seconds later, something big kicked Jennings in the back. After the initial kick, he was falling backwards for about a second, before the rocket motor kicked in. Obviously, it was the rocket motor because Jennings’ teeth were rattling out and the kick became one continuous shove. At least this was the worst part.

Two minutes later, and the worst part was over. Now Jennings was in free fall and knew why the docs had passed out the Dramamine. His display read four minutes sixteen seconds to landing. Three arcs rose from the map, showing where each squad was rising from the ocean. Two more arcs began rising from the south. Three minutes. Two minutes. At a minute and a half, plummeting back into atmosphere, Jennings learned two things. The first was that he was wrong about launch being the worst part. The second was why those Rattle-Room operators had always tossed them around so much. He was a rag-doll in the hands of an insane child. If he could have moved, he’d have broken every limb flailing about. Things were breaking off the capsule, up and down were alien concepts, the display was a riot of lines and colors, and something went missing. His display changed to an overlay of the island, with a timer counting down from thirty. The violent jolting eased, as the capsule dropped just below Mach five in its descent. At 27 seconds, Jennings again learned he was wrong about the worst part. Retrorockets fired, crushing Jennings in his armor. The pod flew apart around him, bolts released, the ground came with a thump, and he was face down in the sand.

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Jennings could feel the warmth of the coral sand beneath him. Rolling onto his back, he could just barely feel the tropical breeze under his armor. He sat up in the sand, enjoying the peace and quiet, not entirely certain how he got there. The sea lapped at the shoreline a few dozen feet away, while acrid smoke drifted by from the left. He could hear some voices, and off in the far distance there was a staccato popping sound. Looking to his right, Jennings could see the sun just cresting some low, ugly buildings sporting radio towers. Something about the size of a surfboard impaled the sand nearby. To his left was a smoking, hollowed out cone about ten feet high. Why did that voice sound so urgent? And what was that sputtering in the sand all around him?

“JENNINGS! GET YOUR HEAD IN THE GAME!” Brickhead screamed. “She-Devils are out. Ajax, we’re getting shot at, you wanna do something about that?  Flores, Young, take the shore defense. Jennings, Chavez, control tower! Hamlet, you’re with me. Let’s wreck that flight line before anything leaves this island!”

Jennings remembered where he was. This was a hostile island with 500 enemy soldiers and 35 of his own unit trying to take the whole thing out. Scratch that, She-Devils were out? So, 28 against 500. Great. Rolling and turning he got to his knees, then to his feet. He began running. The sputtering in the nearby sand turned to a tapping on his armor as Jennings realized he was being shot at. With a terrific ripping sound, first one, then three rockets launched from the squad behind him. A short tower with a point defense weapon atop it exploded on one side, while other things went crack and boom behind him. Another pair of rockets, one each from Jennings and Chavez into the barricades ahead and the tapping stopped. Spotting one of the island’s cruise missile launchers, he let off a second rocket.

Jennings saw the island’s radar turn to shrapnel and wreckage as a rocket from the Door-Kickers hit. His display didn’t change the objective from yellow to black. None of the other Brickheads appeared on his display either. As Jennings and Chavez approached the control tower, they spotted a number of enemy soldiers improvising a second defensive position. What were they called again? People’s Soldiers? Revolutionary Marines?  Freedom Militia? It didn’t matter, Chavez put a rocket into the position, and Jennings set three grenades to go off just above and behind the barricades that might have saved someone from the rocket. They continued their charge to the tower.

Reaching the back of the tower, the two Brickheads rested for a half-second. The door was not on this side, so they would need to circle the building to find an entrance. Their comms were filled with static, so Chavez pointed first at Jennings, then the corner on their left. Chavez turned and went for the right. As Jennings stepped around the corner he spotted the heavy machine gun waiting for him. He leapt back, barely getting clear before bullets began tearing at the concrete and the air in front of him. Chavez wasn’t so lucky rounding the other side of the building. They wore a lot of armor, and at longer range, laying prone, the bullets might have deflected off. At less than forty feet, catching fire right in the chest, Chavez didn’t have much chance. Jennings bounced three grenades around the corner, then turned to help Chavez. Reaching her ankle, he dragged her behind the building before lobbing three more grenades into that alley. A handful of pockmarks showed where the armor had actually worked, but one furrow dug into the armor showed where a bullet had slid up the chest plate and under her helmet.

Jennings grabbed the demo charge from Chavez’s side, and slapped it onto the wall. He moved as far toward one alley as he dared, stepping back from the wall and crouching as the charge went off. Shaped charge explosives make a heck of a hole in one direction, but still blow a lot of shrapnel out to the sides as well. Jennings avoided most of it by not being in plane with the charge, but his armor still rattled with what he did catch. Jumping to his feet, Jennings dove through the door he had just made. Pulling down two display cases, he blocked the front door. Shoving a flagstaff through the push bar secured it just a little better. After that, he found the stairs.

Reaching the control room, he shot the two guards. An officer of some type still had his sidearm holstered. The officer reached for his weapon, struggling to get it clear, and stopped as he realized the futility of his situation. Jennings took two steps, punching the man in the face with an armored fist. The officer dropped to the floor, unconscious. The horrified controllers in the room broke and ran when Jennings started shouting at them and chasing them with his knife. It was one way to clear a room, and probably faster than shooting everyone. Down the stairs, he could hear revolutionary soldiers or whatever they were called trying to break through the front door. No time to do things neatly, Jennings shot every console and equipment box he saw, smashing two handheld radios to the ground.

Turning back to the stairs, he found the first enemy just reaching the control room. The same exoskeleton that made it possible to run and fight wearing so much armor made a kick to the chest an unstoppable force. Sending the man back down the stairs with two of his buddies, Jennings grabbed a desk and shoved it onto the stairs behind them. While he waited for something to go wrong, he looked out the windows at the island below.

The northern half of the flight line was a smoking wreck, and two fighter-bombers littered the taxiway. Brickhead and Hamlet were doing their job well. A helicopter tried to lift off behind them, flames shooting from the engine compartment before the craft was engulfed in a fireball. The wreckage landed on the runway, blocking its use. To the south, Jennings could see the Butterflies and Hedgehogs working their way north, about a mile distant. Three patrol boats had made it out of the marina and were beginning to shell the Butterflies with grenades and rocket fire. One of the patrol boats exploded as it was hit by a rocket, but the other two kept firing. Surface-to-air missile launchers were elevated on the western shore, but began exploding as the Hedgehogs got close enough to them. One missile launched, then exploded in mid-air. Another spiraled into the sea, holes punched through its guidance systems. Just below, Jennings could see the barracks on fire and partially collapsed. The armory was in worse shape, having taken five or more rocket hits. A radio mast collapsed, and Jennings’ display flickered to life. The operations center appeared to still be intact, so Jennings decided to go there next. Yelling and banging behind him told Jennings his makeshift barricade was at an end.

Moving sluggishly, he realized his batteries were beginning to run low. He checked his ammunition: two magazines with 25 rounds each, no grenades, two rockets, and a demolition charge. And one knife. He put five rounds through the desk to clear the top of the stairs, then pulled it aside. Seeing men coming around the landing, he slid feet first down the stairs, using his armor as a sled and his boots as a battering ram. Bringing out his knife, he dispatched the men who broke his fall. One flight down, four to go, and he’d be outside again. Repeating his armor sled trick, he almost made it. On the last step, the soldier he aimed for managed to jump aside. While Jennings was on the ground, three more jumped on him, pinning his now unpowered form to the ground. His display showed lines of red diamonds all over the island, as the defenders managed to regroup. Eight blue circles remained, all of them surrounded by red. Everyone else had either died or taken their armor off. The good news was that all of the yellow was gone.

His captors didn’t need much time to find the release for his armor as they stripped him of his equipment. With one arm twisted so far behind his back Jennings thought they were trying to break it, he was marched outside toward the flight line. Smoke and a strange buzzing noise filled the air. Distant crunches told of fighting continuing to the south. He looked around, finding a disappointing number of buildings still undamaged. He was punched in the head, and his arm was lifted forcing Jennings to march doubled over as the buzzing grew louder. No more sight-seeing.

The gentle sea breeze erupted into a hurricane, the buzzing replaced by an enormous rush of air and sand. His captors scattered as an aircraft swooped overhead, dropping almost right on top of them. Another landed next to it, while a third circled overhead. Gunfire erupted as Marines poured from the aircraft, running past him. The two Ospreys leapt back into the air, the third dropping to unload its precious cargo. More shouts, then deafening roars as LCACs pulled onto the runway. Landing Craft, Air Cushion; they looked more like metal storage buildings drifting to a stop before sitting on the ground to release armored vehicles from within. Fighting vehicles and armored trucks rolled into the spaces between the various buildings, forming instant bunkers and strongpoints. They were too close to the buildings to protect themselves from rockets or grenades, but those buildings were already being swarmed by infantry. Jennings couldn’t count the aircraft suddenly overhead, but there were plenty.

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The Ospreys and the LCACs had been timed to arrive just after the Brickheads had done their work. By knocking the island’s radar out, grounding planes, ruining air and shore defenses, they’d made the island defenseless. With so much mayhem from the Brickheads, no one had even seen the assault craft. In less than 15 minutes the arriving Marines had secured every building, made prisoners of everyone still moving on the island, and begun setting up their own equipment. After 20 minutes everyone dove for cover when reports came in of enemy aircraft approaching. Five minutes after that it was back to work, apparently they weren’t coming after all. An hour after his own landing, Jennings was regrouped with the other surviving Brickheads, including the Major.

Within another hour, a second landing arrived, bringing a mobile radar station, surface to air missiles, and Seabees. Attack sirens sounded, then cleared, and sounded again throughout the day. Point defense guns went off twice. Long-range rocket artillery dotted the island, telling Jennings that the Marines would be staying here for as long as they wanted. By that afternoon, twelve of those rockets had been fired. Meanwhile, cargo aircraft had begun to arrive on the newly cleared airfield, bringing supplies and removing prisoners from the island. Later, the Air Force would arrive with Warthogs and Eagles, perfect forward deploying patrol forces.

The Brickheads wouldn’t be repeating their performance any time soon. The rockets they’d been launched on, and the capsules they’d dropped into combat in weren’t reusable. The rocket boosters had burned themselves up, and the capsules had shed layer after layer on the descent, ablating chaff and micro-jammers all the way down. What was left of the capsules got shot to pieces as the island’s defenders responded to the Brickhead’s unwelcome arrival. More painfully, half the Brickheads had died that day.

Jennings didn’t know if they had any more rockets to ride, but he knew replacing the She-devils, Butterflies, and others who’d been lost wouldn’t be fast or easy. Then Jennings broke into laughter.

“What’s so damn funny?” asked Ajax.

“I finally get… why the Major… calls our armor… a three piece suit!”  The other Brickheads were looking at Jennings like a strange animal, not sure if they should be worried or scared.

“Okay Jennings, I’ll bite. Why does the Major call our armor a three piece suit?”

Gasping for air and recovering somewhat, Jennings replied, “Because there are three pieces!”  Quizzical looks met him. “We rode in on rocket ships, that’s one.” Nods of vague understanding met him this time. “And our armor and weapons, that’s two.” More nods.

“Alright, so what’s the third piece? And don’t say something cheesy like ‘friendship’ or ‘teamwork,’” Young asked. She could be real sentimental at times.

“Close! We’re the third piece. If we’re ever going to do this again, the Corps need more rockets, more gear, and more of us.” This last part sobered Jennings up. It was the thought of what and who would need replacement that sparked his understanding. It was the reminder that people would need replacing that broke the joke. People he knew. Whether those people would be replaced, whether new recruits would fill their boots, or whether any more of the ballistic missiles they’d launched on that morning would be acquired, it all depended on whether or not anyone thought what they did that morning was worthwhile. And whether it was still a bad idea.

Ryan A. Belscamper is a retired U.S. Navy Firecontrolman with Bachelor’s degrees in Mechanical and Electrical Engineering from Southern Illinois University.  He is currently working as an Engineer with NSWC Crane.

Featured Image: “Soldier” by Richard Bagnall (via Artstation)