Step by Step, Here’s How to Defeat China in War

Strategic interdiction focuses on depriving Beijing of energy resources

Step by Step, Here’s How to Defeat China in War Step by Step, Here’s How to Defeat China in War
The air campaign in Desert Storm was a watershed for air power. It demonstrated the effectiveness of precision munitions, marked a high water point... Step by Step, Here’s How to Defeat China in War

The air campaign in Desert Storm was a watershed for air power. It demonstrated the effectiveness of precision munitions, marked a high water point for electronic warfare and introduced radar stealth in a decisive manner. It also established a template for the application of air power that has taken root in Air Force culture and remains firmly established a quarter century later.

Unfortunately, the Instant Thunder air campaign has also become the template for future air campaigns, despite being poorly suited for that role. In retrospect, we have learned many of the wrong lessons from Desert Storm, in that we had time to build up forces, operated from a broad network of U.S.-built bases and essentially ravaged the military structure of a small, isolated nation with an incompetently led military using obsolete equipment and outdated employment doctrine.

By the time Allied Force rolled around in 1999, it should have become clear that the same template produced uneven results at best, even when backed by a combined NATO air force.

In the aftermath of a series of wars against relatively weak adversaries, planning for a larger war has descended into nonspecific terms. Pentagon discussions on force structure, posture and capabilities are often based on a “capabilities-based,” generic adversary reduced to the status of an opposition force. This adversary might be referred to as a “near peer,” characterized largely by the technology it brings to the fight rather than understood as a living, adaptable enemy that might have to be fought under unfavorable conditions.

This habit ignores the reality that the People’s Republic of China has eclipsed the old Soviet Union and its successor as a superpower, militarily, economically, politically and technologically. We remain wedded to an inappropriate warfighting model leftover from the Gulf War, while ignoring China’s evolution as a military power.

We ignore this evolution at our peril.

WIB icon

To attempt to apply the Desert Storm air campaign model to other nations is of questionable utility, and applied to China in particular is pure folly. China is large, resilient, can mass military forces like few other nations and is clearly a superior power when fighting in its own territory. Moreover, it has spent a quarter century of military development ensuring that the United States can never be in a position to repeat Desert Storm against the People’s Republic.

Chinese military force design has been built specifically to counter the U.S. Air Force’s reliance on stealth and forward basing, and to reduce the threat of carrier aviation by developing weapons designed to keep the carriers far away from the action. Our response has been to plan to fight symmetrically, matching our technological widgets against theirs in a battle in the PRC’s front yard.

Strategically, this methodology replays the successful strategic campaign, whereby the USSR spent itself into collapse trying to match American technological prowess. This time, however, the United States is on the wrong side of that strategy.

There is benefit of adopting an asymmetric offset strategy to deal with the PRC’s general technological parity and commanding position. There is additional benefit of adopting a strategy that could be executed today, without being dependent on technologies that have yet to emerge. The reality of the Chinese force structure is that it is largely a defensive structure whose utility wanes rapidly with distance from the Chinese coastline.

Unlike Imperial Japan, China lacks a carrier-capable, blue-water navy with which to challenge the United States, and has not begun an overt territorial expansion that provides overseas basing facilities. Like Imperial Japan, China is heavily dependent on overseas supply lines, and thus subject to interdiction of critical warfighting resources, especially energy.

China’s import dependency is particularly acute for energy supplies, which have to travel long distances through unfavorable maritime terrain, only to then be dependent on a limited domestic transportation infrastructure which is itself energy-intensive. This means that the PRC is vulnerable to a counter-logistics campaign intended to limit China’s energy supplies in a fashion that reduces or eliminates their capability to project military power.

The foundation for a military campaign against the PRC, presumably with the objective of stopping or reversing Chinese aggression, could be based on strategic interdiction, a.k.a. SI — a joint effort designed to prevent the movement of resources related to military forces or operations. An SI campaign would be designed to repeat the fundamental success of the Pacific War — isolating Japan to the point where it could no longer impede Allied operations in the Pacific.


A sinking Japanese transport ship through the periscope of USS Tautog in January 1945. U.S. Navy photo

Historical background

A counter-logistics campaign has historical precedent in the Pacific. Indeed, we have volumes of data documenting the execution and effect of such a strategy against Japan.

In February of 1942, Japanese forces wrested Rabaul, New Britain, from the outnumbered and unsupported Australian detachment. In short order, Rabaul became the primary forward base in the South Pacific and a major obstacle sitting squarely between both Allied theaters in the Pacific. Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s plan to recapture the island fell afoul of resource constraints and the higher priority held by the war against Germany.

By August of 1943, the President made the decision that Rabaul would instead by bypassed rather than seized, largely because of the emerging realization that Rabaul did not have to be captured in order to be neutralized. Operation Cartwheel, starting in December, neutralized the island citadel without a direct and costly amphibious assault, and without requiring resources above what was already allocated for the theater.

Rabaul was attacked by air, isolated by maneuver and starved by air and naval forces to the point where it could no longer be used as a venue for power projection. Australian forces liberated Rabaul without a shot fired, surrendering four days after the surrender ceremony in Tokyo Bay.

While directed against only a small island group, the isolation of Rabaul is a relevant historical example of the success of a long-term strategy to neutralize powerful military forces in a critical position. Operation Cartwheel was a small example of what became a general strategy for the conduct of the Pacific War — that Japanese garrisons would be isolated and cut off, attacked in place and that the home islands would be deprived of materials, energy and supplies that relied on water or rail transport.

By the end of the war, a coherent maritime interdiction campaign brought the Japanese home islands to the brink of surrender, while an air campaign against Japanese railroads tied up domestic transport to the point that needed resources could not even be moved internally.

A well-designed, pre-planned strategic interdiction campaign provides a potential way forward for a war-winning air and naval power application, specifically tailored to the PRC’s specific characteristics. In particular, the campaign is intended to apply lessons learned against Japan to China, as if China were in fact an island.

From a transportation standpoint, China is over 98 percent island. China’s international land transportation networks, even in combination, are dwarfed by any of China’s larger ports taken singly, and its land transportation already suffers from a lack of capacity and susceptibility to disruption — both exploitable vulnerabilities.

The Los Angeles-class fast attack submarine USS Houston approaches the submarine tender USS Frank Cable. Frank Cable conducts maintenance and support of submarines and surface vessels deployed in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Catherine Bland)

USS Houston approaches the submarine tender USS Frank Cable. U.S. Navy photo

Strategic interdiction

A strategic interdiction campaign is a strategy based on denying logistical supplies to the fighting forces of an adversary. It is a combination of several efforts, including a limited blockade, interference with transportation networks and disabling some energy production at the resource level. The primary objective here is to effectively neutralize certain elements of PRC military power by starving it of energy.

In contrast with maritime interdiction, strategic interdiction is not an airtight blockade but a targeted effort to interdict primarily the production and transport of energy resources all the way back to the source. A campaign would have four elements:

A “counterforce” effort designed to attrit the adversary air forces (particularly bombers), naval forces (gray hulls) and naval auxiliaries (replenishment) to the point where they can neither project military power nor defend against U.S. power projection, at least far beyond the PRC continental shelf.

An “inshore” element, which consists of operations to deny effective use of home waters, including rivers and coastal waters. Standoff or covert aerial mining is a key component of this element.

An “infrastructure degradation” plan intended to disrupt or destroy specific soft targets, such as oil terminals, oil refineries, pipelines and railway chokepoints such as tunnels and bridges. Many of these targets would be in airspace not defended by ground-based air defense.

A “distant” maritime strategy, which occurs out of effective adversary military reach, intended to interdict energy supplies. This strategy is aimed primarily at bulk petroleum carriers (tankers) and secondarily at coal transports, and not at container, dry bulk or passenger vessels. Such a strategy might not be lethally oriented, directed instead towards the seizure and internment of PRC-bound vessels.

In effect, this strategy targets its effects on naval and air forces, which rely on jet fuel, and leaves the gasoline and diesel-dependent army shorebound. Along the way, secondary effects ripple through the industrial, refining, power generation and transportation sectors of the economy, with broad effects that are difficult to predict or quantify. A strategic interdiction strategy is not a short war strategy. It is a prolonged containment strategy derived from previous experience in the Pacific War.

While we don’t think of the PRC as an island nation, effectively it is one. Over 98 percent of the PRC’s external commerce by tonnage moved is seaborne. The transportation infrastructure over land borders accounts for a miniscule portion of PRC imports, and all goods crossing the borders are a long way from China’s industrial sector. The total volume of goods moved overland via train, road and watercraft through the borders in a year is exceeded by the port of Shanghai in 60 days, with room to spare.

This reality is effectively impossible to change or mitigate in any significant way, and clearly indicates the potential of an SI campaign focused on maritime transport.


A Chinese coal-fired power plant. Wikimedia photo

Energy — the sixth ring

The targeting strategy for the Gulf War’s air power application was based on Col. John Warden’s “five rings,” which threatened the subject country (in this case, Iraq) as a series of concentric rings. The outermost ring (fielded forces) protected the inner rings (population, infrastructure, organic essentials and leadership). As the theory went, one of the key advantages of air power was that aircraft could fly over the outermost rings to get to the key one — leadership.

While applicable to Iraq in 1990, the applicability to China is questionable, as it is not a centralized Ba’ath Party dictatorship led by a single individual. Furthermore, it is risky to attempt to execute a decapitation strategy against a state with a significant nuclear arsenal. Instead, an SI strategy is centered on the sixth ring, which doesn’t exist at all in Warden’s construct except as part of the second and third rings.

The Sixth Ring is the energy ring, which also serves as the glue that holds all of the rings together. In this modified construct, the center ring is still a physical target, but under an SI strategy, it is not one that is attacked directly. Effects aimed at it, along with every other ring, are secondary effects of an energy denial strategy.

China is a massive energy consumer, relying primarily on coal for electricity and oil for transportation. The two are not really interchangeable, and each has its own vulnerabilities. Coal-fired power plants provide approximately 70 percent of China’s electricity generation, a percentage that has remained relatively constant since 1980. Nuclear, natural gas, solar and hydropower are a comparatively small portion of the power generation infrastructure, providing less energy combined than oil does alone. As these last four are comparatively minor energy sources, they are ignored in this analysis.


China is the world’s largest coal consumer. Steam coal is used for power, and coking coal for industrial processes. Coal consumption is largely taken up by industry, including power generation. Even without counting heating demand, the power sector consumes more steam coal than industry.

China produces most of its coal domestically, producing 3.87 billion tonnes of coal in 2014 and importing another 291 million tonnes in 2014, a domestic/import ratio of better than 13:1. In the past two years, Mongolia has emerged as a key supplier of imported coal, supplying by train and truck rather than by ship.

In 2012, China had 58 coal offload ports, scattered all along the coast, serving both domestic and international coal movement.

While imported coal appears to be a drop in the bucket compared to the total coal supply, this is not true for all regions. Seventy percent of imported steam coal was consumed by power plants in coastal regions south of the Yangtze (Guangdong, Shanghai, Guangxi, Zhe-jiang and Jiangsu) — the demand centers furthest from China’s main coal-producing regions. This may not be related to the capacity of the transport system but its cost — for the southeastern provinces it is cheaper to import coal than to ship it domestically.


Crude oil accounted for roughly 19 percent of China’s electricity consumption in 2012, making it a distant second to coal. Oil supplies are mostly gobbled up in transportation, although diesel is also the fuel of choice for backup power generation. China’s appetite for crude is massive, requiring imports of 2.26 billion barrels and another 219 million barrels of refined fuels on top of domestic oil production of 1.53 billion barrels in 2014. In total, in 2014 China imported 56 percent of its oil needs.

The lion’s share of petroleum consumption is taken up by industry, including electricity production, chemical manufacture and refining. The transportation sector in China consumes almost as much petroleum as industry, consuming the vast majority of middle and light distillates burned in a year. Transport accounts for 46 percent of the gasoline consumed, 91 percent of the kerosene and 63 percent of the diesel fuel.

Oddly enough, as much as two thirds of China’s annual diesel fuel consumption is burned transporting coal. By comparison, the entire transportation sector consumes less than two percent of the electricity used in a year.

China is making an effort to establish a strategic petroleum reserve (SPR) for crude oil. In 2010, China had a commercial storage capacity of between 170 and 310 million barrels, but no national strategic reserve at all. The PRC’s tenth five-year plan (2000 to 2005) marked the beginning of the government SPR program. Phase 1 established a capacity of 103 million barrels at four sites and was filled by 2009; phase 2 is expanding that to by another 226 million barrels at nine locations, of which 210 million barrels will be filled by the end of 2015. The last phase, (2020), should bring the SPR capacity to half a billion barrels of crude oil.

Even at this capacity, the SPR holds less oil than the PRC imports in three months. The SPR holds no refined products, which are entirely reliant on a commercial storage capacity estimated at 400 to 480 million barrels for all types of refined fuel combined. With one notable exception using a reclaimed salt mine, the SPR sites are conventional above-ground storage tanks, often on the coast, and often next to existing refineries.


China’s water-borne infrastructure exists on a massive scale compared to the United States. Wikimedia photo

Internal transportation network

China has a well-developed transportation network all along the eastern corridor, consisting of waterways, roads and railways. Compared to the United States, China’s water transport enterprise is massive while the pipeline transport infrastructure is minuscule. As of 2013, the Chinese rail network consisted of 90,000 kilometers of conventional railway lines and another 10,000 kilometers of high-speed lines, which are mostly passenger lines. Of this, 56,000 kilometers was electric and 48,000 kilometers double-tracked.

The country has 125,000 kilometers of navigable inland waterways, including the Yangtze River, which moves more freight by far than any other inland waterway in the world. The public road network consists of 4.36 million kilometers of roads, 34 percent of which are dirt with 424,000 kilometers of highways including 9,600 kilometers of expressway. In 2012, the country reported having 9,100 kilometers of oil and gas pipelines, roughly 0.3 percent of the U.S. pipeline infrastructure.

The transportation network is substantially less dense away from the eastern provinces, and is comparatively sparse at the country’s borders or in the west. With respect to the tonnage of freight moved (which includes fossil fuels), China uses highways, waterways and rail, in that order, to move goods internally.

Air transport is virtually insignificant by comparison, while pipeline transport for oil, refined products and gas is comparatively limited. Measured by tonne-kilometers rather than simply tonnage, waterways and highways switch places, because waterways are used to ship goods longer distances by far. In 2012, the average tonne of freight moved 1781 kilometers by waterway, 748 kilometers by road and a mere 187 by road.

Many trips mix modes of surface transportation. The implication of this transport distribution is that China’s internal transport is reliant on the two modes that are most oil-intensive. In 2014 total freight traffic increased by over seven percent compared to 2013, with roads and waterways gaining traffic (10 and 16 percent increases, respectively) and rail losing it (5.6 percent decrease).


China’s energy infrastructure. Crude oil pipelines in green, oil product pipelines in blue. Jet fuel refineries are red icons and component factories are orange. Green refineries produce chemicals. The rail network is in red.


It takes energy to move energy. Coal accounts for a full 52 percent of the tonnage shipped and 40 percent of the tonne-kilometers hauled by rail and 21 percent of the domestic freight handled in the large coastal and river ports. Petroleum products account for only four percent of the rail tonnage and nine percent of the port freight. On average, a tonne of coal moved by rail travels 647 kilometers.

Moving coal is nontrivial in China. The three top coal-producing provinces are Shanxi, Shaanxi and Inner Mongolia (outlined in black), which alone account for more than half of the national coal output. These three provinces are some distance from the coal-consuming provinces.

The railway network was unable to keep up with the transport demand as China’s coal usage increased, and as a result from 1997 much coal traffic was diverted to multimode transport, where coal is carried by rail to the ports on the Bohai Sea and thence by coastal shipping to the south. Truck transport is used extensively, resulting in world-class traffic jams. In 2010, Inner Mongolia coal traffic generated several major traffic jams, extending for more than 100 kilometers and lasting for days.

The difficulties moving coal often forces provinces far from the producing regions to ration power consumption in response to supply disruptions, including inclement weather. The strained coal transportation system is already imposing local coal shortages on the power industry, with the impact greatest on the southwestern provinces (Tibet, Sichuan, Chongqing, Gansu) and the provinces south of the Yangtze. Oddly enough, Shanxi province exported so much of its production in 2012 that its own power plants ran short.


A Chinese industrial center. Wikimedia photo

Refining sector

Crude oil cannot be burned for any purpose until it has been refined. In short, getting refined petroleum products is dependent on the quality of the oil that goes in and the equipment available for processing the oil. Some products are distilled, while others are chemically broken down and reformed. Oil is full of impurities, especially water, salt and sulfur, which must be removed during refining. Chinese oil imports are largely Middle Eastern, heavy “sour” oils which require more refinery processing than the “light, sweet” crude produced elsewhere.

The fuel that is most important from a military power projection standpoint is jet fuel, a high-quality mixture of kerosene, naphtha and additives used by aircraft and turbine-powered ships. Without fuel, aircraft are grounded and warships remain in port. One of the goals of an SI campaign it to make it really hard or impossible to make jet fuel. Turbine powered ships can operate with marine diesel fuel (the U.S. Navy runs ship turbines on it) but aircraft turbines cannot.

In the past decade, the PRC has undertaken an ambitious effort to increase its refining capability from six million barrels per day (bbl/d) in 2000 to 12.6 million bbl/d in 2013, while simultaneously consolidating into fewer refineries of much greater size. As a result, there is excess capacity remaining and the number of lucrative targets has been reduced and refinery functions consolidated. The refinery sector operated at only 81 percent of capacity in 2012, which has turned out to be a mixed blessing.

This excess capacity actually delayed further expansion of domestic refineries originally planned for 2016 and 2017, leaving the Sino-Burmese pipeline unable to deliver oil for refining because the ground has not been broken for the refinery site that would have received the imported crude.

As late as 2012, China did not meet all of its refined fuel requirements with domestic refining, and in 2012 one out of every four barrels of petroleum imported was actually a refined product. As the market shifted, so did the mix of refined fuels, as producers chased the more profitable products, especially jet fuel. In 2014, China was a net exporter of all refined fuel products except naphtha. This occurred despite the fact that China’s surviving smaller “teakettle” refineries, which account for a quarter of the nation’s refinery capacity, produce no jet fuel components at all.

Like coal, China’s refinery infrastructure is not evenly distributed. Refinery capacity is concentrated in the east, with a scattering of refineries along the sole railway link to the far west. Refineries in the country’s interior are largely reliant on domestic feedstock. Teakettle, or small privately-owned refineries, have to acquire a permit to use imported oil at all. Critically, the refineries along the coast are more reliant on imported oil, and the four southern provinces are close to 100 percent reliant on overseas imports for their feedstock.

Two B-1B Lancers assigned to the 37th Bomb Squadron, Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., taxi during Red Flag 15-2 at Nellis AFB, Nev., March 10, 2015. Red Flag provides a series of intense air-to-air scenarios for aircrew and ground personnel to increase their combat readiness and effectiveness for future real-world operations. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Siuta B. Ika)

B-1Bs at Nellis AFB, Nev., on March 10, 2015. U.S. Air Force photo


Strategic interdiction

Given China’s unique energy vulnerabilities, combining massive demand, significant imports and a capacity-challenged transportation network, a military campaign designed to apply pressure at multiple points in the energy web would seem to be both cost-effective to execute and difficult to counter, even under conditions where operations in the Western Pacific are limited in scope and duration.

The objectives of such a campaign would be to so disrupt the energy and transport sectors of the PRC such that there is a pervasive and enduring effect on fielded forces. The campaign design takes lessons learned from the Pacific War against Japan, where both the Imperial Japanese Fleet and its air arm were systematically deprived of fuel, which affected all aspects of their military enterprise from engine testing and training to flight time and vital resupply.

A strategic interdiction campaign rests on four pillars and is intended to provide a viable offset strategy that is based on a presumed need to coerce a specific adversary in a designated region — China in the Western Pacific. The campaign is a long-term, counter-logistics effort which rests on four pillars: counterforce, inshore, infrastructure degradation and distant interdiction.

I. Counterforce

The counterforce pillar is intended to neutralize any PLAN or PLANAF attempt to project power outside Chinese coastal regions and is built in expectation that the PLAN and PLAAF will come out to fight. In fact, such an adventure against Taiwan, the Senkaku Islands or any number of island possessions may be the event that requires a U.S. response in the first place. The PLAN may conduct an amphibious operation, undertake convoy escort or execute any of the out-of-area missions that a blue-water navy would aspire to.

It may be desirable to sink surface combatants, but also replenishment ships, auxiliaries or minesweeping vessels. It is also permissible to attack blockade runners regardless of ownership, an issue of particular importance to the fourth pillar.

PLAAF bomber aircraft armed with cruise missiles will undertake counter-maritime and counter-land missions at some distance, perhaps as far as Guam. It will be necessary to counter these operations, often from a standoff position. In the Pacific, the long expanses of open ocean will require a focus on counter-air and counter-maritime capabilities. U.S. anti-ship capabilities have long since been allowed to atrophy, even in the Navy, as the PLAN has fielded increasingly capable anti-air-warfare ships which must be attacked from increasingly long distances.

Without diving into specific weapon and sensor combinations, standoff and specificity are key anti-ship weapons attributes, and any aircraft or vessel that launches them must have a suitable sensor system or a connection to one.

The simplest method, and the most difficult to affect by enemy action, is for the launching unit to have its own system for detection, identification and targeting of its on-board weapons. This is already approach used by fighter aircraft for air-to-air targets, and by all surface combatants. This approach could be extended to include counter-maritime capabilities.

Improved long-range sensors, especially radar and ELINT sensors useful in anti-surface warfare, could transform our bomber fleet into the transoceanic counter-maritime force that it used to be. Increasing the effectiveness of counter-air capabilities is also a key component of this pillar.

II. Inshore

Inshore operations are closely related to the counterforce pillar; there is significant overlap in capabilities. The purpose of inshore operations is somewhat different — the inshore pillar is intended to deny the PRC the unfettered use of waterways, rivers, harbors and offloading and replenishment facilities.

The objective is twofold; to prevent the PLAN from being able to sortie, sustain at sea, and reload or replenish, while simultaneously interdicting energy supplies which are transported by oceangoing, coastal or riverine vessels. Strictly speaking, with the exception of river mining, this pillar does not require direct attack against the mainland, and relies as much on the threat of attack as actual attack.

Aerial or covert mining is a significant component of the inshore strategy, capitalizing on both the effects of actual mines and the suppressive nature that fear of mines has on shipping. Aerial mining is the only way to lay large offensive minefields quickly, while covert (underwater) mining may allow for precise placement of advanced mines.

The Yangtze was mined by USAAF in World War II, and the Rangoon River in Burma was entirely closed to Japanese shipping by aerial mines. PACOM has recently demonstrated the Quickstrike-ER, a standoff, precision version of the legacy Quickstrike bottom mine. Combined with the shorter-range Quickstrike-J, the U.S. is now developing the capability for one aircraft to lay a minefield in a single pass.

Combined with underwater minelaying, low altitude insertion or stealth aircraft, there is an emerging capability to lay minefields in areas where it was previously infeasible, including rivers, river mouths, and harbors. Smart target detection devices allow both limited selectivity of targeting and resistance to minesweeping.

The inshore pillar is aimed primarily against the waterborne element of the transportation network, with secondary effects against naval facilities and ships. It is intended to apply against domestic, short-haul shipping, and against ships carrying critical imports which penetrate an allied naval cordon. It would be possible to interdict vessels at either end of the network for domestic traffic — coal traffic might be bottled either at the on-load or offload facilities. Fear of mines may be more effective at halting traffic than actual mines themselves. While under the 1907 Hague Convention all minefields have to be declared, not all declared fields have to be mined.

In many cases, once mines have been employed somewhere, they could have been employed anywhere and this uncertainty is a powerful deterrent to movement.

III. Infrastructure degradation

Interdiction of maritime transport alone will not necessarily achieve the full goals of the campaign by itself, although it will likely have a devastating (though reversible) effect on PRC industry and power generation. The PRC’s domestic energy supplies, combined with refining capability, ensure that the military could still be supplied with sufficient energy supplies to conduct sustained operations, albeit at a significant cost to other domestic priorities.

Local energy shortages will likely be exacerbated and reallocation of suddenly scarce resources would be challenging even for a country where the actual flows of resources were well known. The infrastructure degradation campaign is intended to give the resource denial efforts a push in the wrong direction by disrupting, incapacitating or destroying critical chokepoints in energy transport and production.

The most lucrative targets are rail tunnels and bridges, certain refinery components, international oil pipelines and oil transfer terminals. Nonlethal means may be used in addition to lethal ones, although even a nonlethal attack on petroleum handling or refining facilities can result in a lethal catastrophic effect.

The infrastructure degradation pillar is intended to constrain overland imports, while simultaneously destroying the refinery capacity necessary to turn strategic reserve or domestic crude oil into usable fuel and interdicting rail and water transportation at their most vulnerable points.

IV. Distant interdiction

The distant interdiction pillar involves a maritime interdiction effort aimed specifically against ships bound for China with energy cargoes, particularly oil, refined oil products and coal.

It is the most legally complex of the pillars in that it involves action against both Chinese and foreign-owned shipping. It is also the pillar that can and should consist largely of actions that involve minimal property destruction, although it does involve the use of force. It takes advantage of the fact that the vast majority of China’s imported energy supplies come through chokepoints that can be easily interdicted. The distant interdiction effort stretches from the Asian continental shelf all the way back to the original points of embarkation.

The maritime geography is unfavorable for China. Unlike the United States, which has four coasts that are mostly devoid of potentially hostile neighbors (excepting Cuba, of course), China is hemmed in by island chains that are owned by nation-states with longstanding territorial disputes with China. Supply lines across the Pacific from the Panama Canal or South America pass nearby U.S. territory on the way.

Furthermore, China has neither a true blue-water navy nor a robust network of forward bases, and cannot project naval power long distances from the mainland. In short, the People’s Liberation Army Navy cannot protect its supply lines for energy back to the sources, which are typically in the Middle East for oil, or Australia for coal.

The distant interdiction portion of the campaign would aim to define energy supplies as contraband and to intercept, board and intern vessels carrying energy supplies to China. This would include vessels that are Chinese-flagged and foreign flagged ships carrying energy to China. The vast majority of ships, which are container ships, are of no interest and can be allowed through, but petroleum tankers (oil, oil products and LPG) and bulk coal carriers would be boarded, seized and interned. The nature of these ship designs makes them the easiest to identify and greatly simplifies the execution of a blockade.


Maritime traffic flows in 2014. Marine Traffic visualization


Under threat of attack, neutral ships may elect to avoid the conflict area, carrying other cargoes to other ports. There is little profit in attempting to deliver bulk cargo while risking damage or loss of the ship. Under such conditions insurance rates typically rise, and the premium for a brief exposure may reach upwards of 10 percent the market value of the vessel, plus cargo value. The internment of Chinese-flagged vessels or neutrals with contraband bound for China is a compound-interest challenge.

Every internment not only removes the current cargo from the delivery sequence, but removes all subsequent cargoes that might have been carried by that ship. In the case of very large crude carriers (VLCCs), that can account for very large cargoes indeed. At this time, there are less than 100 Chinese-flagged VLCCs, accounting for under a sixth of the worldwide VLCC stock. Given the favorable geography, the U.S. Navy would not have to spread out far in order to interdict these ships, and may even block chokepoints outside Asia, like the Bab El Mandeb or Strait of Hormuz.

In 2014 an average of around 11 to 15 VLCCs transited the Straits of Malacca on any given date, traveling in both directions. Not all of these were bound for China, and a tanker may in fact carry oil for several destinations on a single voyage. A naval task force, supported by air, could intercept a significant number of these ships and interrupt their transit, either loaded or during the return voyage. Each ship that delivers cargo to China is subject to seizure on the return, providing two seizure opportunities on a single voyage.

The Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Chosin (CG-65) launches a Harpoon missile during a live-fire exercise as part of Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) Exercise 2014. Twenty-two nations, 49 ships, six submarines, more than 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel are participating in RIMPAC from June 26 to Aug. 1 in and around the Hawaiian Islands and Southern California. The world's largest international maritime exercise, RIMPAC provides a unique training opportunity that helps participants foster and sustain the cooperative relationships that are critical to ensuring the safety of sea lanes and security on the world's oceans. RIMPAC 2014 is the 24th exercise in the series that began in 1971. (U.S. Navy photo by Fire Controlman 2nd Class Andrew Albin/Released)

The cruiser USS Chosin launches a Harpoon missile. U.S. Navy photo


Sample targets were compiled for this analysis. The largest target category is rail lines, which are broken at tunnel entrances and bridges to make repair time consuming and difficult. There are 32 targets chosen (white targets) to interdict coal transport (mostly exiting Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces) and international coal and oil imports.

All of the rail transport from these two coal-producing provinces plus Inner Mongolia is interdicted, blocking movement of 70 percent of the country’s domestic coal. All railway border crossings were interdicted on the Chinese side. Thirty-two additional rail targets (yellow targets) were selected to shatter the rail transportation network, mostly at river crossings, which are intended to have a secondary effect of blocking shipping channels.

Every railroad bridge along the Yangtze 500 nautical miles upstream from Shanghai is on the list. Combined with additional railroad bridges across other waterways, the rail links between north and south China are severed, excepting only the high-speed passenger lines which are only broken at the Yangtze. Every one of the country’s top ten freight corridors is broken in at least one place. Road bridges were only targeted across the Yangtze River (to block ship traffic) or when roads and railroads shared a bridge. Road tunnels were targeted only if adjacent to rail tunnel targets.

Pipelines accounted for six targets (orange), inside China’s borders, usually by targeting pumping stations but also the pipeline itself. There are 32 refinery targets (red), all allocated to refineries producing jet fuel, kerosene, and/or adjacent to strategic petroleum reserves. Distillation towers, rail terminals, rail access, power plants, and pumping stations consisted of the majority of aimpoints, with two to 10 aimpoints per refinery.

Water terminals were left alone unless directly attached to a refinery. Some refineries were isolated by cutting the rail approaches at bridges and otherwise leaving the refinery alone. Strategic Petroleum Reserve sites were targeted when adjacent to refineries but not if otherwise located.

There are 39 inshore targets, all minefields (blue). Those minefields accounted for all PLAN bases and all large oil terminals, plus the mouths of the Yangtze and Pearl rivers. No river mining was conducted upstream of any river mouth. Only two minefields are offshore, both at oil terminals in the South China Sea, all others were within the 12 mile limit and often within the three mile limit. Because of the uncertainty involved with mining in defended airspace, most coastal refineries were double or triple-tapped, in that their rail links and refining capacity was directly attacked in addition to mining. Mined oil terminals are essentially double-tapped with the distant interdiction pillar.

No military facilities were directly targeted, nor were communications, underground petroleum storage, air defenses, commercial power plants, coal load/offload facilities, space control, space launch or leadership targets.

The Los Angeles-class fast-attack submarine USS Bremerton returns to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam after participating in Rim of the Pacific 2010 exercises. RIMPAC is a biennial, multinational exercise designed to strengthen regional partnerships and improve multinational interoperability.

USS Bremerton. U.S. Navy photo


The direct effect of an SI strategy on PRC power projection capabilities cannot be precisely predicted from the data available from open sources. The goal of depriving PLAN and PLAAF forces of jet fuel will not be accomplished within a few weeks.

While China has no strategic reserve for refined petroleum products, it does have commercial storage, plus (presumably) military storage of undetermined size and composition. Diversion from civilian use and reallocation of refinery resources are probable, but both of those efforts will be hampered by interference with transportation; reallocation of production may be prevented by damage to refineries.

A detailed analysis of the anticipated effects is both beyond the scope of this white paper and not suitable for public dissemination in any case. What is certain is that an energy denial strategy will have immediate effects on the PRC. Interdiction of oil imports will force both an immediate reallocation of resources and likely cause a dip into the strategic reserve. A reduction of coal imports will have a rapid effect on power generation, although a reduction in industrial power use could mitigate the effects of power shortages.

Any perturbations, including physical damage, against the rail transportation system will ripple through the country – the system is over capacity as it is and even weather events disrupt rail transport. Damage to refineries simply cannot be mitigated rapidly — these are the softest of soft targets and even relatively minor damage can cause a refinery to shut down.

It is equally certain that interdiction of coal and oil imports will have a disproportionate effect on the provinces bordering the South China Sea. Aside from the inevitable electricity shortages, oil interdiction will idle every refinery in the four southeastern provinces, taking 20 percent of the country’s total refinery capacity offline without any need to damage those refineries.

From an interdiction standpoint, it is easiest to interrupt foreign flows, whether they flow by sea or by pipeline. For coal, overseas interdiction is nevertheless worth the effort because of the disproportionate impact on the coastal provinces. Of course, 100 percent import interdiction cannot be achieved overnight and may never be achieved at all, given the willingness and capability of neighboring countries to revert to rail imports, however marginal. Interdiction of 90 percent of oil imports is not only achievable, but impossible to offset through other transport means.


Sample target array. Railroad network in red, with the Yangtze displayed in blue.


This will force the PRC to rely on its strategic reserve almost immediately and cause a massive reallocation of fuel use requirements. It may also have localized impacts on military forces, as it will be much harder to supply PLAN and PLAAF units based in the south. Only two of the strategic petroleum reserve depots are in the south, comprising less than 20 percent of the SPR.

Additional effects on internal energy transport are another element of the strategy. The inshore effort is intended to disrupt both military and energy logistics. In the case of coal, 30 percent of domestic coal transport is by river and coastal traffic, which is especially vulnerable to mine warfare. Chinese short-haul shipping is a commercial and not a state enterprise, and civilian shipowners have been traditionally unwilling to risk their vessels in hostile waters. A ship sunk at a loading berth blocks the facility effectively and for a significant duration.

Infrastructure degradation will affect both water and rail transport, especially if rail bridges are dropped into major waterways. The Danube River was effectively closed to large traffic for five years after the Novi Sad bridges were dropped in Allied Force. Damage to pipeline pumping stations, rail tunnels, bridges and refineries will be time consuming and difficult to repair, and in the case of refineries, suitable equipment may not be available domestically.

The secondary effects on electricity production will likewise ripple through the transportation and industrial sectors.

Electricity shortages caused by oil or coal interdiction will affect the train network; refineries starved of either feedstock or electricity cannot refine and pipelines without electricity do not move oil. Reduced diesel production will affect the non-electric portion of the rail network plus both maritime and truck transport, while at he same time diesel will be in demand for emergency power generation.

Reprioritization of limited freight transport will affect industry (itself starved for power) and agriculture directly, as well as disrupting distribution of industrial or agricultural products. Local surpluses and shortages of fuel, coal and electricity are certain to occur, further complicating distribution challenges.

Similar effects can be directly observed from single industrial accident. In November of 2013 a Sinopec pipeline in Huangdao, Shandong Province exploded, killing over 60 people and shutting the pipeline down. This caused production cutbacks in two nearby refineries, a reallocation of refinery production company-wide, and a shutdown of the Qingdao oil terminal for a week. Tankers were diverted to other ports, causing offshore backups because of the lack of available offload facilities. Environmental damage took many weeks to clean up and the oil berths were out of commission for months.

All of these cascading events were the result of the equivalent of a single weapon hit and the pipeline was never repaired.

The duration of any campaign is difficult to predict. The amount of military storage for refined fuel remains an unknown factor. Similarly, there are absolute limits on refinery production, rail transport, and truck movement of refined products, none of which are known, perhaps even to the PRC government. Finally, the wartime consumption of jet fuel by the PLAN and PLAAF is largely conjectural. Further complicating any assessment is the fact that turbine-powered ships can and do run on marine diesel fuel, which is still refined distillate, but is closer to diesel fuel in composition than kerosene.

WIB icon


A counter-logistics campaign, fought from long range where possible, is intended to provide a strategy that avoids China’s strengths in air defense and relies on a very limited target list focused on targets that are neither hardened nor mobile.

Instead of matching technologically advanced military forces against like systems in terrain favorable to China, it is intended to fight only those units that come out to fight and leave many of their advantages behind.

This is a deliberate offset strategy, tailored to China, which avoids the pitfalls inherent in the misapplication of older air power theory and takes the specific characteristics of the adversary into account. It is also a strategy that could be executed today, with today’s force structure, posture and today’s personnel.

The Pentagon could certainly improve in all of those areas, but the execution of an SI campaign will not need to wait for the development of new technologies and it does not hinge on transient vulnerabilities.

Our experience in World War II demonstrated the effectiveness of our efforts to successfully interdict the Japanese transportation systems and oil storage and production facilities. The Pacific Strategic Bombing Survey noted in retrospect that our efforts were inefficiently directed — if we had possessed accurate intelligence about the nature of Japan’s logistics network, we might have rearranged our targeting priorities to increase our effects and shortened our timelines.

With respect to China, we do have significant knowledge about the energy sector, precisely because it is involved directly in foreign trade and a great deal of data is available. Instead of attempting to fight a generic “near peer” adversary with a template drawn from Desert Storm, we should be planning to apply a counter-logistics strategy against a real adversary, with the attendant national characteristics, vulnerabilities and geography.

  • 100% ad free experience
  • Get our best stories sent to your inbox every day
  • Membership to private Facebook group
Show your support for continued hard hitting content.
Priced at $19.99 per year, the first 200 people to sign up will receive a free War is Boring T-Shirt.
Become a War is Boring subscriber