Lieutenant Brett Wessley, U.S. Navy, writes: Throughout the history of warfare, the advantage has constantly swung between offense and defense, with new technologies and innovative tactics displacing old doctrines and war plans. The defensive advantage of the Greek phalanx was outmaneuvered by the skilled Roman legion. Improvements in fortifications and armor led to castles and iron-clad knights, until the invention of gunpowder made them obsolete. Rapidly maneuvering infantry assaults were favored until the trenches and machine guns of World War I made them suicidal. The French investment in the Maginot Line proved worthless in the face of a combined-arms Blitzkrieg around its flank. In all these examples, the common denominator is that one side’s tactical advantage spawned new ways of military thinking among its opponents, eventually degrading that advantage or reversing it completely.
At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union faced a dilemma. The United States possessed a large and experienced navy that enabled it to project power overseas, particularly with aircraft carriers. The Soviet Navy lacked a history of excellence in maritime power projection (see the Russo-Japanese War), and Soviet leadership recognized it did not have the resources to compete with the U.S. Navy. Instead, they focused on a strategy of “sea denial”—building submarines, naval mines, and antiship cruise missiles to mitigate the advantages of the maritime opponent. Though the Soviets did not use this term, the modern concept of antiaccess/area-denial (A2/AD) was born. 1
As students of Soviet naval doctrine, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Navy (PLAN) have adopted an A2/AD approach to the United States in the Pacific (Chinese military strategists term the concept “counter-intervention doctrine”). 2 Following the success of the United States in Operation Desert Storm and advancements in precision strike by air and naval assets, China’s military strategy focused on preventing a similar scenario from playing out near its shores. Although China has drastically increased its navy’s blue-water capabilities over the past decade, the PLAN currently has no intention of facing the U.S. Navy in the open ocean. Recent developments in the South China Sea reveal the challenges the United States will face in any future conflict and the role naval intelligence must play to accurately assess the threat and provide creative and effective solutions.
New Challenges in the South China Sea
China has attempted to turn the South China Sea into a modern version of “no man’s land” in the event of war with the United States. If the U.S. Navy decides to sail into the teeth of China’s near seas defenses, it can expect:
• Antiship cruise missiles (ASCMs) and antiship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) designed with carrier strike groups in mind as targets.
• Surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), as part of sophisticated integrated air defense systems (IADS), deployed on coastlines and islands and aimed at limiting U.S. airpower.
• Sophisticated and dispersed radar and command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems, based on land, at sea, in air and space, designed to locate and track U.S. military assets through imagery and signals intelligence (SIGINT).
• Short-range and medium-range ballistic missiles capable of targeting U.S. bases in Guam, Japan, and South Korea.
• Electronic countermeasure (ECM) jammers and counter-space weaponry leveraged to blind navigation, precision-strike, and C4ISR systems.
• Modernized submarines and a sophisticated naval mine inventory, presenting a credible subsurface threat. 3
China’s natural geographic advantage and growing military strength may enable Beijing to achieve escalation dominance over the United States in a future conflict in the South China Sea. China has many coercive options available to intimidate opponents without tipping a conflict into actual war (consider the use of “maritime militias”—fishing boat fleets leveraged to swarm and harass opposing military or civilian maritime forces—as one example of military operations other than war to enforce its claims). 4 The Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) supports these maritime militias, and just over the horizon, the PLAN waits to reinforce Chinese military presence, should the U.S. Navy or another foreign power attempt to intervene.
Attacking the Enemy’s Strategy
“Theory, therefore, demands that at the outset of war, its character and scope should be determined on the basis of political probabilities. The closer these political probabilities drive the war toward the absolute, the more the belligerent states are involved and drawn into its vortex, the clearer appear the connections between its separate actions, and the more imperative the need not to take the first step without considering the last.”– Clausewitz, On War, p. 584 (emphasis added).
The strategic dilemma facing the United States vis-à-vis China is that our strengths lie toward the absolute end of the spectrum of warfare, whereas China’s are concentrated in the domain of limited war or conflicts beneath the threshold of war. As military strategists, if we plan for war in a vacuum, we are cheating ourselves. China has shaped its strategy in the South China Sea to fit its carefully constructed “facts on the ground” and A2/AD operational concept. Knowing that an absolute war between the world’s top two economic powers—both of whom possess nuclear weapons—approaches the unthinkable, China has positioned itself to escalate beyond what the United States will find acceptable … (read more)