America Has Turned a Blind Eye to China’s Growing Naval Power
China is building up a lean force capable of challenging the U.S. Navy on a limited scale
Admirals say the darnedest things. Over at the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine, retired U.S. Pacific Command Intelligence Chief Capt. Jim Fanell takes PACOM kahunas, past and present, to task for disparaging China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy. Respect for prospective foes, Fanell proclaims, constitutes the most prudent attitude.
Such counsel is evergreen.
Military folk must beware of hubris, the worst of all strategic habits. As ancient Greeks warned, hubris begets nemesis, meaning divine retribution. It’s insidious—especially for a force like the U.S. Navy. After all, it’s been 26 years since the Cold War.
Few sailors or naval aviators now in uniform have known anything except American maritime supremacy. Such a historical interlude can give rise to triumphalism that taints assessments of rising challengers.
Last month, for instance, erstwhile PACOM commander Adm. Dennis Blair told a naval conference that China’s military has failed to amass “maritime and air superiority” and thus cannot degrade American deterrence or treaty commitments in the Far East. Around the same time, testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, current PACOM supremo, Adm. Harry Harris, likened comparing PLAN and U.S. Navy submarines to “comparing a Model T with a Corvette.”
The impression conveyed in both instances—nothing to worry about here, move along.
Fanell takes exception to these statements on two grounds.
First, that disparaging the PLAN flouts the reality of mounting Chinese martial prowess and material capability. And second, that insinuating the PLAN isn’t battleworthy betrays a political tin ear. Pooh-poohing the challenge damps congressional and popular support for the larger U.S. Navy that the Trump administration and Navy leaders have been pushing. Thus, the admirals convey a false impression of China’s navy and then compound that error by sapping political support for rebuilding the U.S. Navy.
This amounts to self-defeating conduct on naval potentates’ part. After all, if China’s navy remains little more than a nuisance, as not just admirals but learned commentators sometimes say, why should lawmakers fund a pricey naval buildup to counter it?
Let’s take Fanell’s points in turn, starting with Adm. Blair. By “maritime superiority,” Blair presumably means “sea control,” the usual term. My colleague, professor Milan Vego, defines sea control as “one’s ability to use a given part of the ocean/sea and the associated air (space) for military and nonmilitary purposes and to deny the same to the enemy in a time of open hostilities.”
U.S. Air Force doctrine, meanwhile, depicts “air superiority” as “that degree of control of the air by one force that permits the conduct of its operations at a given time and place without prohibitive interference from air and missile threats.” It may be “localized in space and time,” or “broad and enduring.”
The common denominator is physical space. Sea control and air superiority connote imposing enough control of physical space to fulfill one’s purposes while preventing a foe from fulfilling its purposes.
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Blair has it right and China’s military can’t wrest sea or air superiority from the U.S. military and its partners—even in China’s own environs. Isn’t it reasonable to conclude that an inferior PLAN cannot degrade American deterrence or security guarantees?
Well, no. By deploying even lesser forces with skill and dexterity, PLA commanders can sow doubt among U.S. allies fearful of being abandoned to the wrath of Asia’s would-be hegemon.
Henry Kissinger’s workmanlike formula for deterrence constitutes a serviceable formula for reassurance as well. Deterrence, writes Kissinger, is a product of three variables—“power, the will to use it, and the assessment of these by the potential aggressor.” All three are critical. And because “deterrence is a product of those factors and not a sum,” deterrence drops to zero if any one variable does.
Deterrence, then, is about fielding formidable capabilities and mustering the moxie to use them. Capability and willpower represent the two basic components of strength for any combatant. But deterrence comes down to making the antagonist a believer in one’s capability and resolve. The most musclebound and stalwart competitor cannot deter an unbeliever.
The same goes for reassurance, except the target audience is different. An ally must convince its partners that it is strong and resolute enough to uphold its security guarantees. If an ally comes to doubt a fellow ally’s power, or an allied leaders’ gumption to use it, then the consortium could falter or fall through altogether. Unbelief could seep into friendly capitals.
So how can China implant doubt in U.S. allies’ minds if the PLA still holds a weaker hand? Simple. It can execute its longstanding strategy of anti-access and area denial—a strategy premised on persuading U.S. leaders that they cannot win a Pacific war at a cost they’re willing to pay.
As strategic grandmaster Carl von Clausewitz observes, the value a combatant affixes to its political aims determines how many resources it invests to attain those aims, and how long it keeps up the investment. How badly that combatant wants its goals, in other words, determines how lavishly it spends on them, and for how long.
If an East Asian venture’s price tag is too high—or if China’s armed forces can drive it too high—U.S. leaders may conclude the venture isn’t worth the expense.
If so, Clausewitz would counsel them to forego it.
China, consequently, doesn’t need to command sea or sky, either partially or wholly, to prevail in a trial of arms—let alone to deter in peacetime. It only needs to convince Washington, D.C. the price of, say, defending the Senkaku Islands is too steep considering the meager value Americans attach to the archipelago.
Beijing can ask, sotto voce—how many American lives, and how many aircraft carriers, destroyers or fighter aircraft, is a group of uninhabited islets worth to you? If the PLA can plausibly threaten to inflict costs greater than that outlay, then U.S. leaders may do the Clausewitzian thing and abjure the effort. In light of that possibility, Tokyo could come to question whether Washington will really keep its pledge to defend the Senkaku Islands.
Doubt would have been sowed, and the U.S.-Japan alliance would have wavered—all without Chinese forces’ seizing maritime or air superiority through combat. This is the logic of anti-access and area denial.
The weak need not prevail on oceanic battlegrounds. They only need to prevail in their enemies’ minds, skewing cost/benefit calculations to China’s benefit. So it is China that could deter—and loosen U.S.-led alliances in the bargain.
Blair’s blithe dismissal of Chinese military power scants all of this.
Now for Adm. Harris. As Jim Fanell notes, comparing Chinese with American submarines misleads. PLAN commanders envision using diesel boats to ambush oncoming U.S. Pacific Fleet surface forces in times of war, elevating the costs of entry into the Western Pacific. Kilo– or Yuan-class boats will blast away with anti-ship cruise missiles, exacting as high a toll as they can.
Undersea warfare, then, represents one of the pillars of China’s anti-access strategy.
Yet the PLAN submarine fleet is not a fleet meant for fighting other submarines. That’s why Harris’s quip deceives. One of these things is not like the other. Boat-for-boat comparisons reveal little.
Now, U.S. Navy nuclear-powered attack boats would hunt PLAN submarines should war come, and they indeed embody the state of the art. They are also few—and dwindling—in numbers, and they carry only short-range armament.
Indeed, American boats must get within about 10 nautical miles to launch their torpedoes. Swing a circle with a 10-nautical-mile radius around a point on your map of the Pacific Ocean. That’s the area where a U.S. Navy submarine cruising at that point can strike. You’ll notice that area is microscopic amid the ocean’s empty vastness.
Will U.S. anti-submarine forces really—as Harris implies—make short work of silent-running PLAN diesel boats dispersed for picket duty within this broad expanse? Color me skeptical.
So U.S. Navy SSNs may be Corvettes relative to PLAN Model Ts, but it may not matter much. Primitive implements can do many jobs. The Corvette is an artisanal vehicle, manufactured in small batches for well-heeled sports-car enthusiasts. The Model T was an inexpensive automobile mass-produced for Americans shopping on a budget. And yet both vehicles got drivers and passengers from point A to point B at acceptable speeds and in acceptable comfort for their day.
Now transpose Harris’s analogy to naval warfare. Long-term strategic competition involves competing on the cheap while goading competitors into competing at exorbitant cost. Is the U.S. Navy competing cost-effectively? Well, the latest-model Chevy Corvette Z06 runs over $80,000. One imagines some carmaker could put the 1927-vintage Ford Model T back into production for a minuscule fraction of that—assuming there was a market for creaky low-tech vehicles.
Similarly, a Virginia-class SSN sets back the U.S. Navy some $2.7 billion. Beijing divulges few details about how much platforms or weaponry cost, but the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force can acquire a Soryu-class diesel sub for about $540 million, one-fifth of the sticker price of the Virginia’s class.
The Japanese boat is a rough counterpart to PLAN diesel boats, so use it as a yardstick. If China can purchase five submarines that meet its needs for the same price the United States can purchase one, then who’s competing more efficiently and effectively?
Which brings us to a basic point. “Good enough” constitutes the standard of excellence for military hardware. If China’s navy can execute its strategy with an armada of Model Ts while the U.S. Navy bankrupts itself struggling to procure enough Corvettes, then who gets the last laugh? The answer is far from obvious.
Practitioners of competitive strategies—the art of competing at low cost to oneself and high cost to rivals—would applaud the miser while fretting over the spendthrift’s prospects.
American seafarers, accordingly, had better heed Fanell’s critique. We should respect a potential foe able to make do with Model Ts, not scoff at it. That’s an adversary well equipped to compete over the long haul. Heck, if it’s smart, then the U.S. Navy might afford China the sincerest form of flattery—and kick the tires on some Model Ts itself.