Tag Archives: Naval Theory

China and the Falklands Analogy: Preparing for the Wrong War?

A more appropriate Falklands model for the Chinese?
         A more appropriate Falklands model for the Chinese?

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.

As a valued colleague of mine has noted in a recent post here at the NextWar Blog, DoD’s latest Annual Report on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China explicitly picks up on the Falklands analogy in its discussion of China’s future expeditionary capabilities:

“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 discussion of 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 Sinews of War

Fleet Admiral King – probably thinking about the challenge of getting from A to B.

I don’t know what the hell this “logistics” is that Marshall is always talking about, but I want some of it.

– Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King to a Staff Officer, 1942

Carting around beans and bullets has never much interested me until recently. Of course, the Military Sealift Command has been on my mind due to the recent engagement of a suspicious vessel by the USNS Rappahannock. I’ve also been reading more about the Falklands War after my conversation with Scott Cheney-Peters on TheRiskyShift.com‘s “Debrief” and recently found an out-of-print book from the 1960s titled Conflict and Defense: A General Theory with a lot of smart things to say about military might. Finally, Undersecretary of the Navy The Honorable Bob Work has been weighing in on forward basing of ships over at Information Dissemination. Though they seem unconnected, all of this has led me to the following conclusions:

  1. You can’t claim to be a Navalist without having an interest in logistics. When we talk about future fleet composition, we’re not spending enough time talking about how we will support our combat ships and how many/what types of replenishment and pre-positioning ships we need.
  2. If you’re looking for a single measure of national power, the size of a country’s merchant marine is a good place to start, but:
  3. The globalization of the shipping industry both affects this last measure and may make large conventional wars less likely.

The Falklands War is a clear example of what Scott calls “The Tyranny of Distance.” The further a state has to go to get to the fight, the less combat power they will be able to apply in that fight. Part of the reason Argentina decided to invade the Falklands in the first place was that they believed that they were so far away from Britain, whose military power (and some would argue, national power) was on the decline. Few believed the British could sustain military operations so far from home – and with good reason. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) could only muster 22 ships with around 120,000 tons combined displacement to sustain a naval task force, a brigade of Royal Marines, an army brigade, and other ground, air, and special operations forces.

The famous RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 converted for wartime service under “Operation Corporate.” Photo: Andy Shaw.

One of the reasons for Britain’s success was the rapid signing of the Requisition of Ships Order of 1982 and the launch of “Operation Corporate” – the rapid conversion of civilian ships to aid the RFA. Virtually overnight, Britain quintupled its replenishment and sealift tonnage. These ships were indispensable to the war effort, allowing the British to concentrate far more military strength in the Falklands theater than many outside observers anticipated. This is why I think a country’s merchant marine is a critical measure of national power – military forces rarely invest enough in logistics capabilities during peacetime. Once a crisis erupts, countries with robust merchant fleets can quickly convert them for wartime use. Great powers need to respond globally, and sometimes that will require surging logistics forces during a crisis.

The United States operates under the tyranny of distance every day. Perhaps that’s why we’ve become insensitive to our logistics forces – we rely on them so often. And we have such a professional and robust force in the Military Sealift Command that the merchant marine becomes an afterthought. But our merchant marine has shrunk drastically since the 1940s. It’s telling that the United States lost 733 merchant ships greater than 1,000 tons displacement in World War II – our current merchant marine stands at only 393 ships according to the CIA World Factbook. I’m not advocating for a return to a 6,000 ship merchant marine, but this historical perspective should spur us to ask the question: do we need more sealift capability in reserve? What kinds of policies might increase our merchant fleet? And comparatively, when we talk about China, we rarely note that it has the largest merchant marine of any great power at 2030 ships.

Going down the rabbit hole further, I find it interesting that our National Defense Reserve Fleet – the ships in “mothballs” – is shrinking significantly. According to a report published in May, the US Maritime Administration is planning to dispose of 34 of 142 ships, with the potential for more down the road. Most of the vessels being disposed of are some kind of bulk carrier or tanker.

Forward basing definitely mitigates some logistics challenges. According to Conflict and Defense by Kenneth Boulding, a Professor of Economics at the University of Michigan in the 1960s, forward bases can actually reverse the tyranny of distance – so powerful is their influence. Students of Mahan know this argument well. Forward basing is also the sensible posture to assume in times of austerity, allowing more operational use to be had from a smaller number of ships without completely burning out equipment or people. But we must consider the future of our logistics capability, particularly the reserves from which we might surge during a crisis.

Finally, a thought on globalization: with the rise of multinational shipping companies and the prevalence of flags of convenience, I think that conventional wars between great powers – particularly invasions across the seas – might be far less likely. In this sense, the decline of national merchant marines might offer some security advantages. Famed international relations theorist John Mearsheimer coined the term “the stopping power of water.” With countries less able to mobilize the logistics capability to transport large numbers of ground troops, great powers (like, perhaps, the United States and China) will be less able to invade one another.

What do you think: does the United States need more logistics forces? Should the United States seek to grow its merchant marine? How? What does China’s large merchant marine say about its national ambitions? This is a conversation worth having…

LT Kurt Albaugh, USN is President of the Center for International Maritime Security, a Surface Warfare Officer and Instructor in the U.S. Naval Academy’s English Department. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.