Type 001A aircraft carrier
Having reviewed more intangible aspects of Chinese maritime strategy such as geopolitics, historical precedent, and strategic thought, we now turn to more prosaic matters. How will China put its strategy into practice using the implements it has assembled through fleet building? China’s navy is maturing and developing the arsenal to carry out a forceful maritime strategy. In the interim, however, “sea denial” is still the best concept for managing the nation’s nautical surroundings. Such an approach will suffice until Beijing has rounded out a fleet on par with the finest rival fleets likely to appear in Asian seaways.
Sea denial aligns with long-standing Chinese traditions. A successful sea-denial navy is at once humble and enterprising: it frankly admits its inferiority to prospective antagonists while refusing to admit defeat. It neither flees vital waterways nor resigns itself to passive defense. That the weaker contender can win—or accomplish its goals by keeping its foe from winning—sometimes escapes China watchers. In the late 1990s, for instance, two prominent Sinologists declared that China’s innate feebleness at sea forced it to shelter passively within the first island chain, where it would wage a strategy of “protracted defensive resistance.” U.S. naval supremacy, they maintained, was too stifling to permit anything more ambitious.
We dissent. A sea-denial force works around its weaknesses while exploiting the advantages it does enjoy. It need not vanquish hostile forces outright. Its function is to clear foes from designated waters for a finite interval or, better yet, to deter them from entering in the first place. A sea-denial strategy succeeds if it wards off stronger foes long enough for the nation to fulfill its larger strategic objectives. Sea denial thus constitutes a strategically defensive strategy that inferior powers prosecute through offensive tactical and operational methods. Even if the PLA Navy remains weaker than its likely opponents, it will stay on the operational and tactical offensive. The U.S. Navy and its allies must anticipate that.
The hybrid offensive/defensive style of combat conforms philosophically to Alfred Thayer Mahan’s dictum that even lesser navies can impose local command on important waters—as indeed Mahan beseeched the U.S. Navy to do in the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, even though it remained weaker on the whole than Great Britain’s Royal Navy. At the same time it conforms to Mao Zedong’s concept of “active defense,” which yokes offensive tactical means to defensive strategic ends. Today as in the age of Mao, the PLA portrays active defense as the core of Chinese military strategy. China’s first formal military strategy white paper, released in 2015, declares:
The strategic concept of active defense is the essence of the [CCP’s] military strategic thought. From the long-term practice of revolutionary wars, the people’s armed forces have developed a complete set of strategic concepts of active defense, which boils down to: adherence to the unity of strategic defense and operational and tactical offense.… Shortly after the founding of the PRC in 1949, the Central Military Commission established the military strategic guideline of active defense, and later, in line with the developments and changes in the national security situation, had made a number of major revisions of it.
Intriguingly, China’s Maoist approach likewise conforms to precepts set forth in Sir Julian Corbett’s writings about maritime strategy—writings Chinese strategists have investigated in recent years. “True defense,” proclaims Corbett—a contemporary of both Mao and Alfred Thayer Mahan—means balking a stronger opponent’s strategy while awaiting the chance to administer a counterpunch. The British theorist even hit on the same term—“active defense”—to show how a weaker navy can dispute a stronger navy’s maritime command until it makes itself stronger and wrests away command for itself. Active defense, clearly, is a concept with heft and longevity in China’s way of sea warfare.
And China has structured forces around that method of defense. The Chinese military possesses, is procuring, or plans to acquire systems designed to make the seas and skies adjoining the Asian mainland no-go territory for any opponent. Beijing has purchased arms from Russia lavishly since the early 1990s. At the same time it has bolstered its domestic defense industry, allowing the PLA to field a variety of indigenous weaponry. Infusing new platforms and systems into the force alongside a more professional, more battleworthy corps of mariners has produced a leap in offensive PLA combat power.
Over the past two decades, modern diesel submarines—difficult to detect, track, and target in shallow offshore waters—have slid down the ways at Chinese shipyards or been purchased in significant numbers from Russian suppliers. One aircraft carrier is in service, another is nearing operational status, and future carriers are reportedly under design or construction. Destroyers equipped with sophisticated radar suites (touted as equivalent to the U.S. Navy’s state-of-the-art Aegis combat system), antiship missiles, and air-defense missiles increasingly form the backbone of the Chinese surface fleet. PLA Navy surface groups’ chances of withstanding long-range missile or air bombardment are brightening commensurately. This is doubly true so long as the fleet operates within range of shore-based fire support that augments the fleet’s firepower with missiles and aircraft dispatched from Fortress China itself. Shore fire support constitutes the PLAN’s great equalizer.
Accordingly, surface forces typically cruise underneath that protective umbrella. And the range and accuracy of shore-based assets are growing. This allows the PLAN to extend its combat radius while still tapping that great equalizer. Indeed, China may stand at the brink of rendering a strategic concept condemned by Mahan—the “fortress-fleet” tethered to shore fire support—viable for the first time. Mahan was writing in the context of the Russian Navy’s dismal performance during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5. He upbraided the Russian naval command for resorting to this “radically erroneous” way of combat, which fettered Russian commanders’ freedom of maneuver—ships had to remain within reach of the fort’s guns—while sapping their fighting spirit.
Mahan’s was a telling critique for an age of rudimentary naval technology, when the effective firing range for artillery was a few miles. It has lost cogency now that precision fire can reach scores if not hundreds of miles offshore. One imagines the Russian Navy would have fared far better against the IJN had shore gunfire boasted modern China’s range and precision to pummel Japanese fleets throughout the Yellow Sea and Tsushima Strait—the battlegrounds for climactic sea engagements in 1904–5. Russian gunnery could have cut the Japanese down to size from afar while affording Russian warships maneuver space aplenty.
In short, the day of the fortress fleet may have come. If so, footloose PLAN units will be able to roam waters Beijing deems important without leaving the protective cover of shore defenses. Defense will increasingly blur into offense under this aegis, even eastward of the first island chain. Advanced ground-based air-defense systems, capable naval fighter/attack aircraft, long-range cruise missiles, and even ASBMs reputedly able to find and attack vessels on the high seas are pivotal to China’s military modernization effort. If the Chinese package these assets wisely while developing the tactical proficiency to use them, they will gain confidence in their ability to deter, delay, or defeat any foreign force bold enough to attempt hostile entry into nearby seas or airspace.
China’s continent-spanning geography is invaluable to the PLAN’s sea-denial strategy because it furnishes plentiful sites for coastal bases and mobile missile batteries. Indeed, emerging military capabilities are explicitly designed to assail targets in offshore expanses from bases on the mainland. Furthermore, as weapons range improves, shore defenses can be positioned farther inland. Technology will make China’s deep continental interior a safe haven from which to punish intruding forces along the coastline.
This sanctuary will serve the purely military purpose of buffering PLA assets against attack. A PLA that turns strategic depth to advantage can compel enemy forces to enter the combat range of its weaponry, accepting battle on China’s political, geographic, and military terms. Such a strategy would have found favor with Mao Zedong, who famously urged his followers to lure enemies deep into Chinese territory. The Red Army would enfeeble its antagonists in the process, setting conditions for a devastating counterblow, and the weaker Chinese Communist legions would score a conventional battlefield victory in the end.
Just as important, defending from deep inland dares an opponent to escalate the fighting. Suppose U.S. forces struck at Chinese antiship missile sites located well inland. They would risk inflicting collateral damage under such circumstances, especially if targets adjoined populated areas. Duly broadcast by Chinese media outlets, images of civilian death or suffering could swing political sentiment behind Beijing—not just in China but among influential audiences elsewhere in Asia and in the international community. A backlash against a hardhearted or feckless America could result, no matter how just the cause that prompted the United States to take up arms.
Moreover, the United States would risk escalating a limited naval conflict to full-blown war against China, its leading trading partner and a fellow permanent member of the UN Security Council. China is a nuclear-armed power that brandishes mobile, increasingly effective, land-based and undersea strategic deterrent forces. The survivable retaliatory arsenal operated by the PLA Rocket Force would remain in reserve should conventional deterrence fail. No U.S. president would lightly make the decision to employ force under the nuclear shadow.
The historical record supports that contention. Americans showed restraint vis-à-vis the Chinese in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, declining to escalate “vertically” up the scale of violence. History also suggests that policy makers exercise caution before undertaking military actions likely to prompt “horizontal” escalation to new places on the map. In particular, the prospect of expanding the geographic scope of military operations deep into China’s interior would be daunting if not unthinkable to an American president. The repercussions from such a fight could well outweigh the presumably modest strategic goals at stake for Washington.
The odds of U.S. leaders climbing down from a dispute would improve under those circumstances, boosting the likelihood that China would prevail without an actual exchange of fire. Small wonder that Chinese fleet tactics fuse offense with defense; they come naturally to PLA Navy commanders while promising handsome dividends.
Massed, Dispersed, or Sequential Tactics?
The PLA’s increasing ability to integrate surface, subsurface, and aerial warfare into a defensive thicket against seaborne threats to China is remaking the strategic environment in maritime Asia, and the U.S. armed forces must keep pace. They must adapt their own methods and weaponry if they hope to preserve the maritime supremacy that has served U.S. interests—not to mention the interests of the region as a whole—so well since 1945.
Captain Wayne Hughes has supplied U.S. Navy mariners with a primer for sea combat in Asia. Hughes’ classic Fleet Tactics (1986) and its successors, Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat (2000) and Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations (2018), constitute a baseline for analyzing the challenges Chinese antiship tactics pose. However useful his treatises, though, they cannot stand alone. We mean no slight. Fleet Tactics aspires to school tacticians in a variety of settings and against a variety of potential antagonists. Indeed, Hughes describes his purpose as “to illustrate the processes—the dynamics—of naval combat” rather than to prophesy how particular contingencies might turn out. Thus, Fleet Tactics is largely silent on operational and strategic matters, and it is entirely devoid of political, cultural, and strategic context. As is the case with any good theory, its users can tailor it to varying circumstances.
This flexibility is a strength, but it could become a weakness if readers misuse Fleet Tactics. There is a decidedly technical feel to such accounts on naval tactics, which are de rigueur in U.S. Navy training institutions where warfighters learn their craft. The downside of the abstract approach to naval warfare is that, taken in isolation, Hughes’ works strongly imply that technology decides the outcomes of martial encounters. On the high seas, enemy fleets slug it out with volleys of precision-guided arms. When fighting close to enemy shores, defenders may fire antiship missiles at U.S. task forces, land-based aircraft may disgorge missiles from aloft, or diesel submarines may lurk below preparing to launch torpedoes or missiles. In both modes of fighting, the combatants hammer away with everything in their magazines, and the side that lands the first blow is the likely victor.
For Hughes, the arbiters of high-tech naval combat are (a) “scouting effectiveness,” meaning the proficient use of shipboard and offboard sensors, combat systems, and computer data links to find enemy units; (b) “weapon range,” the ability to inflict damage at a distance; and (c) tactics, which are determined by scouting effectiveness and the range of a fleet’s weaponry. Hughes’ text conveys the dynamics of sea combat, but its scope is limited. Seeker effectiveness or detect-to-engage algorithms will do much to shape the results of any U.S.-China clash at sea, as will missile ranges. But people, not machines, compete for naval mastery. Not for nothing did U.S. Air Force colonel John Boyd, one of the leading strategic minds of the Cold War, proclaim that people, ideas, and hardware—“in that order”—represent the prime determinants of competitive endeavors, warfare in particular. More to the point, Mao lambasted “the so-called theory that ‘weapons decide everything,’ which constitutes a mechanical approach to the question of war.… [I]t is people, not things, that are decisive.”
Outdistancing an opponent’s sensors and weaponry is far from the only challenge any U.S. naval offensive will face. Fleet Tactics shares this deficit of vision with standard net assessments that tally up numbers of platforms and their technical characteristics, often scanting the human element of war and politics. A larger view is in order. Consider one data point from Asian maritime history: Imperial Japan, which has emerged as a model for PLAN development. Ni Lexiong, a leading Chinese proponent of sea power, faults China’s Qing Dynasty for being insufficiently Mahanian in its 1894–95 tilt against Japan. China, Ni says, should bear in mind that Mahan “believed that whoever could control the sea would win the war and change history; that command of the sea is achieved through decisive naval battles on the seas; that the outcome of decisive naval battles is determined by the strength of fire power on each side of the engagement.”
That distinguished analysts such as Ni now pay tribute to Japanese sea power despite the bitter history of Sino-Japanese relations during the twentieth century marks a striking turnabout in Chinese strategic thought. Beijing’s willingness to consider the Japanese paradigm bespeaks increasing openness to non-Chinese, noncommunist sources of wisdom on military and naval affairs. Yet looking beyond Chinese traditions is eminently Chinese. Sun Tzu’s Art of War, probably written in the fourth century B.C., remains a fixture in Chinese strategic discourses. The Chinese sage counsels generals, “Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril. When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal. If ignorant both of your enemy and of yourself, you are certain in every battle to be in peril.” This may be a truism, but it is one worth repeating, and it is important because it urges strategists to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each belligerent and reject analyses blinkered by culture or ideology.
American commanders should heed Sun Tzu’s wisdom as well. They need to understand U.S. forces’ material and human strengths; acknowledge their own shortcomings; and come to terms with the ends, ways, and means likely to guide China’s efforts in crisis or war. Only thus can they fashion strategy for overcoming Chinese forces. The Mahanian geopolitical logic that helps govern Chinese maritime strategy could also help goad Beijing into a trial of arms involving the United States. Our purpose here is to explain what such a prospect means in operational and tactical terms. A few propositions:
• If Mahan supplies the grand logic of maritime war, Mao Zedong’s operational-level writings on land warfare will inform Chinese tactics and operational practices in any clash off Taiwan, in the South China Sea, in the East China Sea, or at hotspots elsewhere along the Asian periphery. This is China’s martial grammar.
• The South China Sea represents the most likely maritime theater for Beijing to conduct combined-arms attacks designed to saturate and overpower U.S. task groups’ defenses in support of China’s geopolitical and strategic aims.
• PLA forces will integrate weapons systems, new and old, into joint “orthodox” and “unorthodox” attacks, executing offensive actions to attain strategically defensive goals. They will not depend on any single method or system, or solely on aerial, surface, or subsurface warfare. Multiple axes of attack, multiple weapon types, and preparedness to shift nimbly between the main and secondary efforts will represent hallmarks of China’s way of naval war.
Among the three tactical scenarios Wayne Hughes posits (described below), PLA Navy planners and commanders will probably incline toward dispersed attack, sequential attack, and massed attack, in that order. Unless Beijing grows so confident in its quantitative and qualitative superiority that it can simply hammer away, saturating American defenses at a single blow, it will stay with tried-and-true Chinese methods.
As Sun Tzu’s theories suggest, more acute understanding of oneself and the adversary could provide the margin of victory in an armed conflict against China. Now fast-forward from China’s Warring States period, when Sun Tzu purportedly lived, to nineteenth-century Europe. Recall that Carl von Clausewitz depicts war as “only a branch of political activity … that is in no sense autonomous” (emphasis in original). “Is war not just another expression of [peoples’ and governments’] thoughts, another form of speech or writing?” he queries before answering his own question. “Its grammar, indeed, may be its own, but not its logic.”
By this he means three things. First, war is the act of pursuing policy aims with the admixture of military means. The addition of violent means fires passions among the combatants—usually negative ones such as fear, rage, and spite—while bringing chance and uncertainty to the fore. Second, nonmilitary instruments such as diplomacy and economic coercion still have a part to play after the shooting starts. And third, warlike preparations and war itself are expressions of political and strategic thought. A violent clash of human wills is not easily reducible to rules, formulas, or statistics. Those schooled on Clausewitz cannot fully appreciate Chinese hardware and tactics without grasping the larger strategic, political, and cultural considerations that impart the logic—the purpose—to war.
Despite our dour tone, we are not prophesying naval war in Asia. There is ample room for debate about China’s intentions and its vision of its maritime destiny. Chinese naval power might evolve in a benign direction, although that prospect appears dimmer than it did when the first edition of this book appeared. We believe U.S. political leaders and commanders should do their best to shape conditions in favor of a maritime entente with China, but hoping for an agreeable outcome is not a strategy.
Washington, that is, can no longer afford a strategy of neglect simply because it reckons that the probability of a clash with China is low and wants to keep it that way. Nor, can the United States assume that its traditional strengths in naval warfare, including air power and undersea forces, will be sufficient to fend off China’s striking power at sea. By investigating the logic and grammar impelling Chinese sea power, U.S. strategists can estimate how the PLA Navy would mount an integrated, offense-minded defense against U.S. Navy carrier, amphibious, and surface action groups in Asian waters. Foresight will help them prepare for this eventuality.