How We Would Fight China

The Middle East is just a blip. The American military contest with China in the Pacific will define the twenty-first century. And China will be a more formidable adversary than Russia ever was

At the moment the challenges posed by a rising China may seem slight, even nonexistent. The U.S. Navy's warships have a collective "full-load displacement" of 2.86 million tons; the rest of the world's warships combined add up to only 3.04 million tons. The Chinese navy's warships have a full-load displacement of only 263,064 tons. The United States deploys twenty-four of the world's thirty-four aircraft carriers; the Chinese deploy none (a principal reason why they couldn't mount a rescue effort after the tsunami). The statistics go on. But as Robert Work, a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, points out, at the start of the twenty-seven-year Peloponnesian War, Athens had a great advantage over Sparta, which had no navy—but Sparta eventually emerged the victor.

China has committed itself to significant military spending, but its navy and air force will not be able to match ours for some decades. The Chinese are therefore not going to do us the favor of engaging in conventional air and naval battles, like those fought in the Pacific during World War II. The Battle of the Philippine Sea, in late June of 1944, and the Battle of Leyte Gulf and the Surigao Strait, in October of 1944, were the last great sea battles in American history, and are very likely to remain so. Instead the Chinese will approach us asymmetrically, as terrorists do. In Iraq the insurgents have shown us the low end of asymmetry, with car bombs. But the Chinese are poised to show us the high end of the art. That is the threat.

There are many ways in which the Chinese could use their less advanced military to achieve a sort of political-strategic parity with us. According to one former submarine commander and naval strategist I talked to, the Chinese have been poring over every detail of our recent wars in the Balkans and the Persian Gulf, and they fully understand just how much our military power depends on naval projection—that is, on the ability of a carrier battle group to get within proximity of, say, Iraq, and fire a missile at a target deep inside the country. To adapt, the Chinese are putting their fiber-optic systems underground and moving defense capabilities deep into western China, out of naval missile range—all the while developing an offensive strategy based on missiles designed to be capable of striking that supreme icon of American wealth and power, the aircraft carrier. The effect of a single Chinese cruise missile's hitting a U.S. carrier, even if it did not sink the ship, would be politically and psychologically catastrophic, akin to al-Qaeda's attacks on the Twin Towers. China is focusing on missiles and submarines as a way to humiliate us in specific encounters. Their long-range-missile program should deeply concern U.S. policymakers.

With an advanced missile program the Chinese could fire hundreds of missiles at Taiwan before we could get to the island to defend it. Such a capability, combined with a new fleet of submarines (soon to be a greater undersea force than ours, in size if not in quality), might well be enough for the Chinese to coerce other countries into denying port access to U.S. ships. Most of China's seventy current submarines are past-their-prime diesels of Russian design; but these vessels could be used to create mobile minefields in the South China, East China, and Yellow Seas, where, as the Wall Street Journal reporter David Lague has written, "uneven depths, high levels of background noise, strong currents and shifting thermal layers" would make detecting the submarines very difficult. Add to this the seventeen new stealthy diesel submarines and three nuclear ones that the Chinese navy will deploy by the end of the decade, and one can imagine that China could launch an embarrassing strike against us, or against one of our Asian allies. Then there is the whole field of ambiguous coercion—for example, a series of non-attributable cyberattacks on Taiwan's electrical-power grids, designed to gradually demoralize the population. This isn't science fiction; the Chinese have invested significantly in cyberwarfare training and technology. Just because the Chinese are not themselves democratic doesn't mean they are not expert in manipulating the psychology of a democratic electorate.

What we can probably expect from China in the near future is specific demonstrations of strength—like its successful forcing down of a U.S. Navy EP-3E surveillance plane in the spring of 2001. Such tactics may represent the trend of twenty-first-century warfare better than anything now happening in Iraq—and China will have no shortage of opportunities in this arena. During one of our biennial Rim of the Pacific naval exercises the Chinese could sneak a sub under a carrier battle group and then surface it. They could deploy a moving target at sea and then hit it with a submarine- or land-based missile, demonstrating their ability to threaten not only carriers but also destroyers, frigates, and cruisers. (Think about the political effects of the terrorist attack on the USS Cole, a guided-missile destroyer, off the coast of Yemen in 2000—and then think about a future in which hitting such ships will be easier.) They could also bump up against one of our ships during one of our ongoing Freedom of Navigation exercises off the Asian coast. The bumping of a ship may seem inconsequential, but keep in mind that in a global media age such an act can have important strategic consequences. Because the world media tend to side with a spoiler rather than with a reigning superpower, the Chinese would have a built-in political advantage.

What should be our military response to such developments? We need to go more unconventional. Our present Navy is mainly a "blue-water" force, responsible for the peacetime management of vast oceanic spaces—no small feat, and one that enables much of the world's free trade. The phenomenon of globalization could not occur without American ships and sailors. But increasingly what we will need is, in essence, three separate navies: one designed to maintain our ability to use the sea as a platform for offshore bombing (to support operations like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan); one designed for littoral Special Operations combat (against terrorist groups based in and around Indonesia, Malaysia, and the southern Philippines, for example); and one designed to enhance our stealth capabilities (for patrolling the Chinese mainland and the Taiwan Strait, among other regions). All three of these navies will have a role in deflecting China, directly and indirectly, given the variety of dysfunctional Pacific Island republics that are strengthening their ties with Beijing.

Our aircraft carriers already provide what we need for that first navy; we must further develop the other two. The Special Operations navy will require lots of small vessels, among them the littoral-combat ship being developed by General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin. Approximately 400 feet long, the LCS requires only a small crew, can operate in very shallow water, can travel very fast (up to forty knots), and will deploy Special Operations Forces (namely, Navy SEALs). Another critical part of the littoral navy will be the Mark V special-operations craft. Only eighty feet long, the Mark V can travel at up to fifty knots and has a range of 600 nautical miles. With a draft of only five feet, it can deliver a SEAL platoon directly onto a beach—and at some $5 million apiece, the Pentagon can buy dozens for the price of just one F/A-22 fighter jet.

Developing the third type of navy will require real changes. Particularly as the media become more intrusive, we must acquire more stealth, so that, for example, we can send commandos ashore from a submarine to snatch or kill terrorists, or leave special operators behind to carry out missions in an area over which no government has control. Submarines have disadvantages, of course: they offer less of a bombing platform than aircraft carriers, and pound for pound are more costly. Nevertheless, they are the wave of the future, in no small measure because protecting aircraft carriers from missile attack may slowly become a pursuit of diminishing returns for us.

Our stealth navy would be best served by the addition of new diesel submarines of the sort that Australia, Japan, South Korea, Germany, and Sweden already have in the water or under development—and which China will soon have too. But because of our global policing responsibilities, which will necessarily keep us in the nuclear-sub business, we're unlikely to switch to diesel submarines. Instead we will adapt what we've got. Already we are refitting four Trident subs with conventional weapons, and making them able to support the deployment of SEAL teams and eventually, perhaps, long-range unmanned spy aircraft. The refitted Tridents can act as big mother ships for smaller assets deployed closer to the littorals.

None of this will change our need for basing rights in the Pacific, of course. The more access to bases we have, the more flexibility we'll have—to support unmanned flights, to allow aerial refueling, and perhaps most important, to force the Chinese military to concentrate on a host of problems rather than just a few. Never provide your adversary with only a few problems to solve (finding and hitting a carrier, for example), because if you do, he'll solve them.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan is an Atlantic correspondent and the author of Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground, forthcoming in September from Random House—the first of several books he is writing about the armed forces.

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