Strategic Preference #3: Mao Zedong, Meet Alfred Thayer Mahan

The strategic preferences we are discussing are not fixed; they are leanings. As the PLA Navy approaches parity with the U.S. Navy, Mao’s grammar of active defense will come to resemble the Mahanian scheme for concentrated fleet-on-fleet engagements. Recall that the third and final phase of Mao’s strategy of the weak is the conventional counteroffensive that brings about final victory. What comes before—the strategic defensive, the strategic equilibrium—are transitory expedients, not desirable states. If Beijing believes the PLA is now the stronger contender, it can skip the phases that presuppose China is outmatched and proceed straight to a conventional offensive.

Mao’s endgame was a conventional battlefield victory. Mahan hoped to open with a fleet-on-fleet engagement that likewise yielded victory. Both strategists agreed on the imperative to vanquish the foe’s main force in decisive combat at some stage. The only difference was how to sequence operations and engagements to bring about a fleet action.

Hughes’ third scenario, massed attack, thus may now be part of the PLA commanders’ portfolio of options. As noted before, some Chinese strategists look directly to Mahan for strategic insight. The well-known pundit Zhang Wenmu cites Mahan’s maxim that economic prosperity hinges on deploying stronger naval forces at strategic locations. From this Zhang concludes that China must “build up our navy as quickly as possible” in preparation for the “sea battle” that constitutes the “ultimate way for major powers” to resolve economic disputes. Zhang, it seems, foresees decisive fleet actions.

How might such an engagement come about? One plausible scenario: a sequential PLA strategy could unfold by increments, climaxing in a Mahanian test of arms. Small-scale engagements would progress stepwise toward the ultimate reckoning. Or, if the PLA felt the balance of forces favored it from the outset, Beijing might seek a decisive battle with the U.S. military right away rather than progress through Mao Zedong’s phases of war. The strong have little need for the strategies of the weak.

Venturing everything to gain everything is not so dramatic a break with Mao as it seems. Mao enjoined weaker powers, not stronger ones, to give ground and concentrate against isolated enemy units. Once Chinese forces build up to parity or relative superiority over their foes, they will enjoy far more operational and tactical options, including the option of inaugurating the conventional counteroffensive Mao believed they must eventually prosecute to achieve victory. If the strategic setting favors offensive action, then, there is no reason for the PLA not to get right to it.

Indeed, Mao departed from his own pattern when circumstances warranted. Despite grave reservations among his comrades, Mao prevailed on them to intervene decisively in the Korean War, convinced that a massive initial blow would push UN forces off the peninsula. His gamble failed miserably. Still, such logic—perhaps compounded by wishful thinking—could again grip Chinese commanders. Below we discuss some factors that might impel them to risk a fleet action early.

Maoist Operational Grammar Isn’t So Different from Mahan’s After All

As we noted above, offensive Mahanian battle is compatible with Maoist traditions when conditions suit. Having ensnared U.S. forces deep inside China’s contested zone, the PLA can assume the exterior lines, applying Mao’s operational logic far more broadly than he anticipated. Mao himself contemplated globe-spanning exterior lines, albeit in a diplomatic rather than an operational sense. His contemporary followers might apply his theory in ambitious ways, pursuing a counteroffensive promising outright naval victory. Maoist theory would converge with Mahanian theory, urging them on.

Death Ground

The CCP regime could find its survival at stake in some Taiwan or South China Sea contingency. Self-preservation is the top priority for the CCP, as it is for the rulers of any state. A cross-strait war, to name the most obvious contingency, would call Chinese national unity into question—and the legitimacy of the regime along with it. U.S. intervention thus might summon forth an all-out PLA assault. If the communist regime’s longevity hinged on victory, self-restraint would recede in importance. Or a similar calculus could take hold should the United States mount a blockade of Chinese resource shipments, endangering China’s economic vibrancy and thus standards of living for the populace. All bets are off should some U.S. action place China’s leadership on what Sun Tzu dubs “death ground”—where it is imperative to fight to the utmost or perish.

Now or Never

China often deprecates America’s political staying power, but it may fear a repetition of December 1941, when an Asian sea power last underrated America’s will and capacity to fight across the Pacific and paid the price for it. Chinese commanders resigned to armed strife against U.S. forces might aim a knockout blow at U.S. naval task forces that venture into the China seas. If Chinese forces did not achieve a solid victory, however, Beijing might provoke the kind of massive U.S. counterstroke that followed Imperial Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor. But there is a major difference: today’s counterpart to “Pearl Harbor” sits within reach of strike forces based on the Chinese mainland. The PLA need not replicate the long, tortuous voyage the IJN undertook to assail Oahu in 1941. It can rain missiles on U.S. Seventh Fleet bases such as Yokosuka and Sasebo from nearby. And unlike IJN carrier aviators operating at the end of their logistical tether, PLA rocketeers can sustain their bombardment until the job is done thoroughly. A killing stroke would foreclose the prospect of massive American retaliation, and such a stroke is increasingly thinkable for Beijing.

Dare All to Gain All

Should the PLA offer decisive battle and win, its triumph would hasten China’s rise to regional and world eminence, reordering the Asian and perhaps global systems. America would not quickly rebuild its navy—or regain its superpower status, which turns on supremacy in the maritime commons—following a catastrophic defeat. We doubt that Beijing would initiate war solely to knock out the U.S. Navy. Chinese thinkers grasp the political, economic, and military costs of great-power war and evince little appetite for it. Still, the allure of a final reckoning might prod Chinese commanders to risk the fleet if they were already leaning that way for the reasons discussed above.

That Chinese decision makers could hazard a climactic fleet action does not mean they are fated to do so. Much will depend on how they estimate the military balance in Asia. Thus, monitoring how Beijing appraises its comprehensive national power relative to that of the United States and other rival powers will supply important clues to Chinese maritime strategy and tactics.

Can the United States Preserve Its Naval Mastery?

U.S. officials, commanders, and shipwrights must exercise foresight, refine training and doctrine for Asian sea combat, and pay constant attention to upgrading the material dimension of strategy. Military professionals like to point out that they traffic in capabilities rather than intentions. How should U.S. naval commanders prepare for Chinese integrated attacks at sea?

By embracing Wayne Hughes’ advice, for one thing. Hughes urges ship designers to extend the range of U.S. missiles while bolstering U.S. Navy expeditionary forces’ detection and targeting ability. Constant work on ships, planes, and armaments is crucial. So is constant work on the human factor. Hughes enjoins commanders to refine their tactics so as to preserve or restore their advantage over prospective adversaries such as China. In particular, American seafarers need to regain the Navy’s proficiency at electromagnetic emissions control (EMCON), which manages electromagnetic emissions such as radar and radio to keep enemy forces from detecting U.S. task forces. It means muffling the force’s electronic signature or silencing it altogether. Properly done, EMCON hobbles enemy scouting and targeting. Aggressive electronic warfare is likewise central to U.S. information superiority.

Who holds the edge in weapons range and scouting effectiveness at present? To date, China has won the contest for greater range. Every one of its antiship missiles outranges the U.S. Navy’s Harpoon, granting PLA Navy captains multiple engagement opportunities before American ships can close the range enough to fire back. The PLA’s YJ-18 boasts four times the Harpoon’s range. The U.S. Navy and defense firms are now competing in the range war, however. The Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office has repurposed the SM-6 interceptor for surface-warfare engagements, a new long-range antiship missile is under development, and engineers have fitted the Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile with sensors and software to conduct surface engagements. If pursued, the latter in particular will boost vessels’ striking reach into the hundreds of miles. Naval commanders will sleep more soundly once such weaponry reaches the fleet. Faster is better when fielding these armaments.

Nevertheless, when and if the PLA perfects its ASBMs, U.S. forces will be forced to operate within the DF-26 or DF-21D threat envelopes, especially if developments bear out the upper estimates of those missiles’ reach. These figures exceed the maximum range advertised for any U.S. land-attack cruise missile or for any ship-launched aircraft armed with antiship or land-attack missiles. Depending on the variant, the U.S. Navy’s Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles boast ranges officially reported at 1,600–2,500 kilometers. The F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, the mainstay of today’s carrier air wings, has a combat radius of 723 kilometers with a standard bomb load and external fuel tanks. Add another 321-plus kilometers for the Super Hornet’s joint air-to-surface standoff missiles (JASSMs) and 804-plus kilometers for the extended-range variant (JASSM-ER).

At extreme range, then, the F/A-18 can hit targets roughly 1,500 kilometers away. That is almost precisely the low-end estimate for DF-21D range and deep within DF-26 range. The F-35C Lightning II stealth fighter will improve on the Super Hornet’s range, clocking in with a combat radius estimated at 1,111 kilometers. For the F-35, that makes the extreme striking range 1,915 kilometers—beyond the minimum estimate for the DF-21D’s range but well within the maximum. If the DF-26 proves out, carriers would have to venture deep within the ASBM envelope to do their work. Beijing’s buildup of its fleet, and of its shore-based sea-power arsenal, is pushing the culminating point of the attack farther offshore for U.S. task forces, raising the costs of entry for the U.S. military into Asian waters.

With regard to manned aircraft, the PLA Navy’s J-11 fighter/attack aircraft, a derivative of the Russian Su-27 and Su-30, boasts a tactical radius of 2,000 kilometers if refueled in flight. In theory, it could hold U.S. vessels at risk up to 2,400 kilometers distant from its base if armed with YJ-12 ASCMs which boast a range estimated at 250 to 400 kilometers. This pushes the engagement zone well beyond the inner island chain, supporting China’s goal of sea denial in and around Taiwan and the approaches to the South China Sea. And this discussion leaves aside the contributions China’s J-15 might make. The J-15, under development for use on board PLAN carriers, has a combat radius of around 1,500 kilometers, and a family of stealth aircraft is under development that appears able to operate out to the second island chain.

The favorable balance of aircraft and missile ranges now allows Chinese strategists to look beyond the Taiwan impasse. They appear comfortable that they can deny the United States access to the waters shoreward of the first island chain. Now look at the American side. For close-in encounters like one off Taiwan, which could involve landing U.S. Marines or interdicting Chinese landing forces, U.S. forces must venture within the cruise missile envelope and well within range of missile-armed aircraft flying from airfields on the mainland. Layered defenses for carrier and amphibious groups will be thinner and more permeable in these cramped quarters. Response times for U.S. defenders will plummet as a result. This is what it means to operate within range of Fortress China and its fortress fleet.

Shipboard defenses will take on new importance under these circumstances. The U.S. Navy’s premier self-defense system, the RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM), is a semiactive radarguided missile fired from vertical launch systems or deck-mounted launchers. Its range is reported to be only forty-five kilometers, however, compressing reaction times for U.S. task forces against Chinese antiship weaponry like the Sunburn, with its sea-skimming cruise altitude, maximum velocity of Mach 3, and capacity for radical evasive maneuvers in the terminal phase. The YJ-18 cruises at subsonic speeds but accelerates to Mach 3 when approaching its target.

One study estimates the probability of a hit for a Mach 2.5 missile at 40 percent against a carrier group screened by Aegis combatants. The window for multiple ESSM engagements, then, will shut quickly under battle conditions. The Close-In Weapon System (CIWS), U.S. Navy warships’ point defense against aerial attack, is a radar-guided Gatling gun able to fire up to 4,500 penetrating rounds per minute. The range of CIWS mounts is so short, though, that their rate of fire provides cold comfort for shipboard defenders against airborne threats. The Navy is upgrading point defenses with “SeaRAM,” a defense system that marries CIWS radar and fire control with rolling airframe missiles to engage incoming missiles farther off board. The system’s range is classified but appears to be around eight kilometers. This represents an improvement over gunfire, but again, it amounts to short range when coping with supersonic missiles trying to evade shipboard defenses.

A significant disclaimer is in order. The technical specifications of China’s armaments appear imposing, but missile ranges are contingent on the PLA’s ability to detect, identify, and track U.S. warships at extreme distances. The Pacific Ocean is big, and the biggest fleet is vanishingly small by comparison. This factor imposes a deterrent to long-range surface engagements. U.S. Navy doctrine frowns on very long-range antiship strikes for fear of hitting noncombatants. There is little reason to think the PLA Navy, which has never been tested in high-seas combat, has leapfrogged this intricate technical and doctrinal challenge. Nor is there reason to think PLA commanders would cut loose indiscriminately, heedless of the danger to civilian shipping or the waste of expending scarce munitions against non-combatants—except as a desperation measure should the CCP regime find itself treading on death ground.

For now, our diagnosis is this: China holds the advantage in long-range antiship weaponry, but the United States is beginning to field systems that will cut into that advantage. U.S. naval commanders should no longer expect to strike with impunity at Chinese military assets, ashore or at sea, while keeping their own high-value platforms—carriers, amphibious landing ships, and Aegis cruisers and destroyers—out of harm’s way. Commanders should also realize that the fleet relies to an unhealthy degree on the carrier air wing for its offensive punch against sea and shore targets. These facts add up to a compelling brief not just for new shipboard armaments but also for initiatives such as “distributed lethality,” which will disperse firepower throughout the surface force. Once every ship is a fighting ship, the fleet’s dependency on a few squadrons of fighter/attack aircraft should ease.

How far offshore the PLA Navy will operate is a function of how confident Chinese commanders are in their anti-access defenses, how much risk Chinese commanders and party leaders are willing to assume, how much seamanship and tactical prowess Chinese mariners and airmen exhibit, and the technical feasibility of such systems as the ASBM. Together these factors will govern the point at which U.S. task forces will come under threat when approaching the Asian seas.

If our diagnosis is correct, the United States and its allies are in a danger zone. If American engineering stands at the verge of evening the range imbalance, and if Chinese commanders know that, the Chinese may be tempted to act before their advantage disappears. This may be why Beijing has shown signs of urgency in the South China Sea by dredging up seafloor to create military installations. Beijing has taken the risk of uniting a hostile coalition—but perhaps the CCP leadership rates that risk as less than the risk of taking a leisurely approach that soothes animosities but lets the United States recover its maritime supremacy in Asia. The region could be in for a bumpy ride in the coming decade or so.

Looking ahead, it is safe to say that the PLA’s tactical reach already extends beyond the first island chain. It is also safe to say that Beijing will soon be able to dispute U.S. command of the waters and skies between the two island chains, if indeed it cannot already. How far offshore China’s navy conducts exercises and what Chinese officers and pundits say about their doctrine will provide the best indicators available.

For planning purposes, the soundest assumption is that U.S. forces will face surface, subsurface, and aerial threats along more than one threat axis, especially as they close on Chinese shores. Within China’s contested zone, the PLA will fight on tactically exterior lines, mounting dispersed attacks to overpower U.S. antiair, antiship, and antisubmarine defenses. Accordingly, U.S. commanders must think about how American units can lend one another mutual support and make the expeditionary force a single, cohesive force. This will help balk Maoist strategies predicated on defeating an oncoming force bit by bit, picking off isolated units and annihilating them. Hughes terms this mutual-support strategy “massing for defense.”

The martial balance may continue shifting toward the PLA in the coming years as Chinese forces expand, improve their arsenal, and refine their tactics to make the best use of the contested zone. It will certainly continue shifting if the United States declines to make the conscious political choice to remain the world’s predominant sea power and guarantor of freedom of the sea. Primacy requires resources. Admiral J. C. Wylie points out that Congress makes strategic decisions all the time through the budgetary process. Indeed. No amount of seamanship or tactical wizardry will carry the U.S. Navy to victory in the Far East if U.S. mariners have too few implements for the fight.

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