China thinks it can defeat the US. David Axe thinks they can’t. Worse, the Chinese know they don’t have to.


David Axe takes a look at the relative naval strengths in the Western Pacific. For years armchair analysts have looked at a potential Sino-American conflict through the paradigm of an attack across the Taiwan Strait. For many years, the thought of an actual assault across the strait was rather unthinkable, as the Chinese had little or no genuine amphibious assault capability. That’s rapidly changing with the Chinese shipbuilding program producing significant amphibious shipping for both the People’s Liberation Army Navy, and for the People’s Liberation Army Ground Forces.

He sees the rapidly growing Chinese fleet as strong, but with one potentially fatal flaw- undersea warfare.

The bad news first. The People’s Republic of China now believes it can successfully prevent the United States from intervening in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan or some other military assault by Beijing.

Now the good news. China is wrong — and for one major reason. It apparently disregards the decisive power of America’s nuclear-powered submarines.

Moreover, for economic and demographic reasons Beijing has a narrow historical window in which to use its military to alter the world’s power structure. If China doesn’t make a major military move in the next couple decades, it probably never will.

The U.S. Navy’s submarines — the unsung main defenders of the current world order — must hold the line against China for another 20 years. After that, America can declare a sort of quiet victory in the increasingly chilly Cold War with China.

Yes, we do have excellent nuclear submarines. And any student of naval war in the Pacific will quickly realize that long range submarines unleashed offensively will have devastating consequences upon an enemy. Our Silent Service in World War II had an impact far larger than the numbers of sailors, or the numbers of boats assigned would suggest.

But no single weapon system or approach is the single key to victory. The great American talent in warfare is the integration of all forms of combat power to overwhelm an enemy, both physically and mentally.  One role for nuclear submarines that Axe doesn’t mention is using our subs as Anti-submarine Warfare platforms to sanitize an area so our carriers and other surface ships can operate with relative safety.  That’s going to take a few boats off the table, keeping them from pursuing Axe’s goal of sinking any notional Chinese amphibious assault.

Second, a look at both US and Japanese submarine operations in World War II suggests that submarines are not likely to be terribly successful in stopping any amphibious invasion. US submarines failed to stop Japanese invasion of the Philippines, and the Japanese never succeeded in stopping any of the many, many US amphibious assaults in the war. Similarly, the German U-boat force was never able to defeat any amphibious assault, though they did try.

But the real issue is, the Chinese currently have no intention of engaging in a shooting war with the US.

As Matthew Hipple argues, while the US is constrained by a “shoot/don’t shoot” deterrence posture of credible combat power in the disputed territories of the Western Pacific, China is leveraging every tactic and means short of shooting to achieve its aims. And absent US willingness to shoot first (and there’s none of that) China is both achieving near term goals, and showing regional forces that the US is not, in fact, a credible deterrent.

Defense strategists usually discuss asymmetry in terms of operations or tactics: specialized anti-ship missiles, cyber-attacks on command-and-control functions, or insurgency against conventional forces. Strategic-level asymmetry is less discussed—in this case, a force designed to stop an opponent’s war versus an opponent using those forces for everything but a war.

The United States is leaving a gap in its strategy. At CSF14, Andrea Dew describes this gap in the context of groups in active conflict: “Although we artificially draw lines between different domains, other adversaries use them seamlessly.”Dew’s specific concernsare about armed groups fighting a state through the exploitable seams of its stove-piped perspectives. This general concept applies to non-combat operations, where China is utilizing a gap in how the West views the scope and appropriate use of military action as a political instrument. Between the committee chambers of diplomats and the joint operations center of admirals, there is a blind spot in our strategy being manipulated, the same as if it were a small boat attack against a conventional blue-water combatant.

The US could counter this current Chinese operational plan, but the current administration, and the vast majority of the defense establishment simply do not have the mindset to engage in the strategic ambiguity needed.

Most US leaders see the path forward in terms of the past, when US and Soviet forces, seeing an escalating pattern of incidents at sea, forged an agreement to minimize the chances of a tense encounter escalating into a shooting match. They worked together to minimize the tensions.

The Chinese, however, are currently working instead to determine just how far they can push, and with every push, are seeking to expand that envelope, bit by bit. The more they can antagonize both regional powers, and the US, without firing a shot, the more they demonstrate a dominance that may lead regional powers to decide that an unhappy relationship with China is better than a feckless one with the US.  And no submarine fleet, no matter how capable, can change that.

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2 responses to “China thinks it can defeat the US. David Axe thinks they can’t. Worse, the Chinese know they don’t have to.

  1. And the classic downside of utilizing submarines is that they are not very good at “Showing the Flag”….

    By their very nature they are not visible (unless they have screwed things up!)….so it is difficult to tell if submarines are operating in your area (until ships start sinking…).

    If you are trying to play a game of brinksmanship…subs don’t really work as well as highly visible surface/air Naval units that people can see and figure out where they are and what they are doing. These units are excellent tools to do the incremental pushing of the envelope that you discuss in the article.

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