This is a series which is the very definition of mission creep. It started out as one podcast and has now grown into something with batches of them. It is great fun to do, and I very much hope that more service personnel, and anyone else with a story about the conflict they think the world should know, will be motivated by these to get in contact and take part.
These podcasts include a panel with Michael Clapp, Julian Thompson and Jeremy Larken discussing the command situation, strategy and thinking of the Amphibious Task Group, the accounts of three RM commanders including Christopher Nunn who commanded M Company of 42 Commando – the Company which was dispatched to carry out Operation Paraquet (the recovery of South Georgia), and these are just some of the people and history within them.
There are notes though which need to be made; for all of these accounts, it must be remembered that it is thirty two years since the events of 1982. Some misspeaks did occur, many were corrected straight away, but in the case of Christopher Nunn for example realised when listening to the podcast that he referred to Admiral Lewin, when he meant to refer to Admiral Leach (he didn’t request a do-over, but wanted to make sure it was corrected in the notes, so as to preserve the flow of the original).
Ultimately though, I hope you enjoy these podcasts as much as I enjoyed recording them.
If the Pentagon’s reading of China’s interest in “Falklands-style” campaigns of long-range power projection is accurate, the task of maintaining a U.S.-centric security order in East Asia may turn out to be more manageable than expected. But the PLA Navy cannot be counted on to dilute its efforts to the extent DoD now thinks plausible.
To this day, Britain’s 1982 campaign to recapture the Falkland Islands remains among the most relevant examples both of long-range maritime power projection with limited means, and of a weaker power using niche capabilities to complicate operational access and inflict significant damage on the opponent’s projection forces.
“The PLA Navy’s goal over the coming decades is to become a stronger regional force that is able to project power across the globe for high-intensity operations over a period of several months, similar to the United Kingdom’s deployment to the South Atlantic to retake the Falkland Islands in the early 1980s.”
The analogy as such is hardly new, of course, and has already spawned a small literature of its own, including Lyle Goldstein’s insightful piece in Survival and a thorough analysis by Christopher Yung. A more recent contribution by CDR Jim Griffin, USN in Proceedings makes many of the same arguments in a more implicit fashion. All three treatments suggest that the Falklands experience has considerable relevance for the PLAN in both strategic and war-fighting terms. What is new in the Pentagon report, however, is the rather one-dimensional spin it imparts to the PLAN’s adoption of the Falklands campaign as a potential paradigm for future operations.
If we accept DoD’s take on the analogy, we would expect that China will cast itself unambiguously in the role of the expeditionary power (i.e., Great Britain) and, over the next several decades, spare no efforts to attain at least a limited capability for sustained power projection over transoceanic distances. It is certainly true that this would serve the desire of many Chinese naval enthusiasts to climb the rungs of the global naval hierarchy, Felix Seidler’s discussionof which I find most useful. However, it is not yet clear that the Pentagon’s interpretation accurately reflects what Chinese strategists have in mind when they plan for “Falklands-style” campaigns.
As Robert Ross argues in his 2009 piece on “China’s Naval Nationalism,” a blue-water orientation is not a natural strategic choice for a continental power that faces multiple potential threat axes on land as well as from the sea. For such actors, access-denial strategies, broadly conceived, tend to provide a much better return on investment. Thus, to the extent that the operational requirements for access-denial and long-range power projection differ, the strong Mahanian tendency that is evident in the Chinese discourse about maritime strategy would seem to give rise to an additional diffusion of effort (brown/green-water and blue-water) within the more fundamental diffusion of effort between land and sea. (It should be noted here that, for all his insistence of control over maritime communications, such a course would have been utterly foreign to Mahan.)
In other words, given China’s current position and the many uncertainties it continues to face, any attempt at replicating the capability profile of a “Rank 3”navy [“conducting one major ‘out of area operation and (…) engaging in high-level naval operations in closer ocean areas” (Grove 1990: 238)] would amount to a distraction from its key strategic dilemmas. A transoceanic expeditionary capability, in particular, would almost certainly constitute a misinvestment of limited resources. In a very real sense, every yuan invested in dedicated long-range projection forces is a yuan not invested in the control over China’s immediate regional environment. And every Type 052D sailing the Mediterranean on anything other than a one-off port visit will mean several destroyers not sailing the West Pacific.
Of course, this is not to say that China won’t do its potential opponents the favor of going down this risky path. Speaking in broad historical terms, rising continental powers do it all the time – and suffer the consequences. But Goldstein’s and Yung’s works on the PLA’s engagement with the Falklands experience suggest that PLA planners have so far emphasized an “Argentina Plus” approach that combines the far more compatible paradigms of robust access-denial and regional power-projection, and may continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
If such is the case, there will still be more than enough to write about in the Pentagon’s next Annual Report to Congress. As far as analogies go, a much more formidable Argentina that chooses to threaten U.S. interests where it is strong seems to me a far more worrying prospect than a cut-rate Great Britain that is all over the map.
Michael Haas is a Graduate Research Assistant at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), Germany. The views presented here are his alone and do not reflect an institutional perspective.
The Pentagon’s analogy of China and Falkland-Style wars does not mean that it is yet meeting all such necessary criteria. Instead, the analogy tells us about the PLAN’s present and future rank in the hierarchy of navies. Although Europe is in decline, Europeans should not bury their heads in the sand. There are still useful efforts that can be done.
Does the analogy apply?
The Pentagon’s latest Annual Report to Congress says that China has increasing emerging expeditionary naval interests. The Report emphasizes China seeks the capabilities to fight a Falklands-Style wars:
“The PLA Navy’s goal over the coming decades is to become a stronger regional force that is able to project power across the globe for high-intensity operations over a period of several months, similar to the United Kingdom’s deployment to the South Atlantic to retake the Falkland Islands in the early 1980s. However, logistics and intelligence support remain key obstacles, particularly in the Indian Ocean.” (DoD 2013, p. 38)
One can question whether the historic analogy between the UK in 1982 and China after 2013 does really apply. China has no overseas territories like Britain’s Falklands, Diego Garcia, and Pitcairn; or France’s Martinique, Reunion, and Polynesia. Obviously, the geography in the North and South Atlantic is very different from the Indo-Pacific theater. And, being under sequester-siege, one can ask if the U.S. Admirals are over-hyping China’s rise to defend their budgets. On the other hand, one can be sure that the Pentagon’s officers are aware of what they are talking about when they use analogies. Moreover, when talking about expeditionary campaigns of navies underneath the U.S.’ full-scale war level, other cases are hard to find.
What “Falklands-Style” is not about:
Britain’s major obstacle in 1982 was that its “closest” airbase was on the tiny island Ascension 6,300 kilometers from the Falklands. Thus the Falklands-style does not apply to scenarios like Taiwan or the East and South China Sea; China’s military facilities are right next to the theater. Any Chinese campaign in these areas would more be more like NATO’s Libya campaign than the Falklands due to PLAAF bases close to the battlefield. In 1982, Britain conducted some symbolic air raids with Avro Vulcan bombers on Port Stanley’s airfield, however only made possible by a very complex chain of aerial refueling. Britain’s success or failure was dependent on the two carriers HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible. If one or both of them would have been sunk, Britain would have lost, because the Royal Navy could only succeed due to the air power delivered by the seaborne Harriers.
“Falklands-Style” means a carrier-centric operation far away from the homeland. Carriers are an inevitable necessity for expeditionary campaigns due to the need for air superiority. Moreover, such a “Falklands-Style” operation would include some, but not a lot of support from overseas bases and be out of reach of homeland airbases, as Port Stanley was 11,000 kilometers away from London. A “Falklands-Style” campaign’s ultimate operational target is to bring boots on the ground by amphibious landings. Politically and strategically, the aim is to achieve military superiority over another state in certain geographical areas, but not over a whole country – that would be “Iraq-Style.” In addition, Falklands-Style does not apply to non-state actors. They lack the ability to deliver significant, nearly equal air and sea power in the theater as the Argentinians did.
China’s “Falklands-Style” Capabilities
Applied to the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), geographically “Falklands-Style” means an operation beyond the Second Island Chain or “West of Malacca”. However, China does not meet the carrier criteria and it is unlikely to do so before 2020. Moreover, overseas bases are planned, but their operational worth cannot be taken for granted. Gwadar in Pakistan is the PLAN’s only project which can be taken seriously right now. However, in any action, Gwadar would have to be supplied by complex air logistics (the forthcoming Y-20). Railroads or even useable roads from Pakistan to China just don’t exist.
Beside the two carriers with their 48 Harriers, the Royal Navy’s Task Force included two LPDs, eight destroyers, 15 frigates, five nuclear subs (SSN), one conventional sub and dozens of support vessels. In total, Britain sent over a hundred ships. Many of the supply ships were requisitioned civilian vessels. China’s fleet in 2013 includes one carrier (Liaoning, not yet operational), three LPDs, 14 destroyers, 62 frigates, four SSBNs, five SSNs, 55 conventional subs, and 205 logistic and support ships (IISS 2013: 289-290). Thus, in all cases except the carriers China’s numbers meet or exceed Britain’s Task Force.
“Last year, we were introduced to a LHD design that China was offering for export. A couple of months ago, we’ve seen this LHD design displayed for export to Turkey and also at Abu Dhabi. This mysterious design is said to be 211 m long, 32.6 m in beam and 26.8 m high for a displacement of 20,000 to 22,000 ton. It’s a little wider than Type 071 and has a flat top, so it can hold 8 helicopters with the hangar space for 4. This is an increase over Type 071, but I would imagine the first Chinese LHD (let’s call it Type 081) to be much larger than this (30,000 to 40,000 in displacement) and able to hold carry more helicopters and armored vehicles. I personally think PLAN has studied USMC long enough that it would also want the LHD to be able to support STOVL fighter jet. Such a ship would be much more complex than Type 071, but is well within the technical capabilities of Chinese shipyards.”
In addition, “Falklands-Style” campaigns depend on a capable nuclear-powered submarine force. Argentina withdrew its surface fleet after the cruiser Belgrano was sunk by the SSN HMS Conqueror, which provided the Royal Navy the freedom of action for amphibious landings. If you want your subs to go to places, you need nuclear power. Recently the PLAN has demonstrated that her SSNs are able to reach the Indian Ocean. In contrast to the Royal Air Force in 1982, China is incapable of undertaking long-range airstrikes in order to support expeditionary operations. Its so-called Xian H-6 “bombers” (combat radius 970nm) are a further-developed Soviet Tupolev TU-16 aircraft. These are supported by very few aerial refueling capabilities and have no operational experience at all in conducting long-range airstrikes. Operational experience matters, as can be seen in the discussions about the possibility of an Israeli strike against Iran.
Finally, “Falklands-Style” wars and expeditionary operations also require a lot of operational experience. Officers and crews need to be able to deal with and adjust to friction immediately. The service (wo)men must have a pragmatic problem-solving attitude because rapid help from home is unavailable. The Royal Navy had such a capacity, gained over decades of experience leading to 1982. China today is working from slight operational experience developed by anti-piracy operations, regular drills, and friendly ports visits, but is far away from the human skills navies like the U.S. or British posses.
What the Falklands Analogy Really Tells Us
Discussing where Chinese “Falkland-Style” wars could take place is just like reading tea leaves. Will China raid Diego Garcia or Darwin in case of a fight against the U.S.? Could Pacific Island states Sri Lanka, the Seychelles, or Mauritius somehow become objectives of PLAN amphibious invasions? Will China strike Persian Gulf or East African countries in order to secure their resources? Nobody can know for certain. We will see when we (don’t) get there.
What the analogy really tells us is where China is going in the hierarchy of navies. Geoffrey Till emphasized that the most sophisticated attempt ever undertaken at classifying navies was done by Eric Grove (Till 2013: 114). In 1990, Grove classified navies from a Rank of 9, “Token”, to a Rank of 1, “Major Global Force Projection – Complete” (Grove 1990: 237-240). Of course, Rank 1, until present, was only achieved by the U.S. Rank 2 Major Global Force Projection – Partial was achieved just one time by the Soviets during the 1980s until 1991/92, but never again by any country.
Relevant for the given case are Rank 3, “Medium Global Force Projection”, and Rank 4, “Medium Regional Force Projection.” Rank 3 means that a navy posses at least one carrier, amphibious capabilities, SSBN, SSN and a larger number of surface warships like destroyers and frigates. According to Grove, a Medium Global Force Projection Navy would “be capable of conducting one major ‘out of area operation and (…) would be capable of engaging in high-level naval operations in closer ocean areas” (Grove 1990: 238). Thus, Britain in 1982 has to be understood as a Rank 3 case.
Grove considered the PLAN to be a Rank 4 Medium Regional Force Projection case (Grove 1990: 238). With no carriers or expeditionary amphibious capabilities, the PLAN was able by its submarines and surface warships to exercise maritime power in the West Pacific, but not beyond.
The Pentagon’s Annual Report is talking about China “becom[ing] a stronger regional force that is able to project power across the globe for high-intensity operations over a period of several months” (p. 38). Hence, the Pentagon’s analysis matches exactly with Grove’s criteria (surprise, surprise?). Most remarkable is that even in 1990 Grove foresaw that China could become a candidate for Rank 3 “in the medium- to long-term” and could even move “into Rank 2, but not for several decades” (Grove 1990: 238). Now – 23 years after Grove’s excellent classification – China is on the way to move(sic) from Rank 4 to 3. However, it is not there yet. The criteria for operational carriers is not fulfilled. Moreover, the main reason why I personally would not rank China a 3 is that its military has had no combat experience since 1979. Therefore, what the Pentagon’s analogy and Grove’s classification really tell us, is how hard it is to climb up the Ranks in the hierarchy of navies.
How Europe Should React
China’s expeditionary ambitions are more westward looking than eastwards. As the Report outlines, Beijing’s areas of concern are the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, and even the Mediterranean. The Times of India, for example, reported something similar:
“(…), and the Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean is expected to grow. David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador in Africa, expects China’s navy to make more frequent visits to port cities across the Indian Ocean – in South Asia, the southern Middle East and on the east coast of Africa – within the next 10 years and to expand its reach to North African ports on the Mediterranean Sea.”
Thus, Europeans should pay as much or even more attention than the U.S. to what the Chinese are doing. Given that the U.S. really continues to retreat from the Middle East, the Western Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf will become areas of major concern in particular for Europe.
Instead of living in the world of political correctness and talk about utopian ideas, said German EU-Commissioner Günter Oettinger in May, many Eurocrats from the Brussels Bubble must abandon their geostrategic blindness. Except for themselves, in real life nobody outside Europe cares that the EU is promoting human rights, environmental protection, and gender equality. Europe will never become an international actor taken seriously on other continents as long as geopolitical, geostrategic, and strategic thinking only happens in Paris and London. Therefore, it is not a surprise, that China’s media scoffs about European decline and tells the Europeans to shut up.
However, there is no need for unconditional surrender. Many useful things can be done today. Maritime cooperation between NATO and China has already started and seems to work. Thus, this program should be continued and extended to build mutual trust. Moreover, Chinese and European interests for safe and secure sealanes in the Indian Ocean are the same. Some kind of permanent maritime security cooperation, maybe even including India, would absolutely make sense.
To implement this, Europeans must in composite preserve a Rank 3 status as a “Medium Global Force Projection Navy”; either uni-/bilaterally by France and Britain or by a broader European coalition. If Europe would be unable to deliver significant maritime power eye to eye with China, leaders in Beijing with command over a Rank 3 navy (maybe moving towards Rank 2) would tell the Europeans to simmer down when Brussels calls for a “political solution” or “multilateral dialogue” about the Indian Ocean.
Britain and France will continue their fight not to drop down to Rank 4. The UK’s coming Queen-Elizabeth-Carriers are definitely a boost to British (and European) power-projection capabilities. However, the economic and financial situation raises large questions as to whether both countries will be able to sustain their levels of defense spending, especially France. While London has, Paris has not undertaken any serious cuts yet. Needless to say that France’s terrifying financial and economic situation will bring the question of cutting defense spending on the table. The most likely scenario is that Britain and France will continue to go together, whenever they cannot go alone. However, due to harsh cuts in the French military budget, the time could come, where Anglo-French cooperation will not be enough anymore. Without any U.S. military bailout in sight, a pivotal indicator for Europe’s future as a maritime power is whether countries like the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, and in particular Germany are more willing to pool and share substantially and to go to places together.
By Felix Seidler, Institute for Security Policy, University of Kiel, Germany / German security affairs writer. This article appeared in original form at his website, Seidlers Sicherheitspolitik.
Grove, Eric 1990: The Future of Seapower. Annapolis.
IISS 2013: The Military Balance. London.
Till, Geoffrey 2013: Seapower. London.