When strategists encounter a formidable policy challenge, they often rush to their history books. China’s growing assertiveness in maritime Asia has been sufficiently worrisome to occasion just such a search for lessons in the past. The greatest stimulus for this inquiry is Beijing’s emerging anti-access and area denial capabilities—broadly understood as military forces arrayed to complicate or deny U.S. military operations in Asian waters. As analysts look back, many see a parallel between Imperial Japan’s plans for fighting the U.S. Navy in the 1920s and 1930s and China’s current “counter intervention” strategy.1
Tokyo then, and Beijing since the 1990s, struggled to develop military options that would deter (and failing that, defeat) U.S. intervention in their backyards. And they came to roughly the same conclusions about what to do. China’s anti-access buildup today would have surprised interwar Japanese planners only for the resemblance to their own efforts. Indeed, while more than eight decades separated their respective attempts at improving the odds of operational success, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) sought surprisingly analogous tactical outcomes on the battlefield.
A closer examination shows that interwar Japan is a powerful proxy for understanding China’s current anti-access program and for illustrating the universal appeal of anti-access. Such a historic analogy helps to see past the veneer of novelty around China’s anti-access efforts. It also discerns Chinese warfighting preferences and the kinds of tactical and operational effects that China hopes to achieve at sea. Finally, a retrospective look at Imperial Japan furnishes reference points to appreciate the magnitude of China’s anti-access challenge to the United States.
Interwar Japan and China at the turn of the 21st century shared a vexing problem. Both faced the possibility of a naval war with the United States that, at least on paper, they seemed certain to lose. The consensus in Tokyo and Beijing held that their nations would invariably fight from positions of weakness. To level the playing field, Japan and China relied on innovative doctrines, tactics, and technologies to give their nations a fighting chance.
Both specialized in warfighting skills that furnished an outsized edge. They converged on comparatively cheap and expendable weaponry that was lethal to highly-prized, capital-intensive American naval assets. This reflected the shared belief that landing devastating blows on capital ships of their respective eras—the battleship and the aircraft carrier—held the most promise for victory at sea. The goal was to impose disproportionate costs on the adversary. In current Pentagon jargon, they planned to wage “asymmetric warfare” against the United States.
Defense by Offense
While the United States possessed a formidable naval force, it had to slog across the vast ocean to reach East Asian waters, imposing enormous logistical burdens on the U.S. fleet. The closer it neared enemy territory, the more difficult resupply and maintenance became as lines of communication stretched ever thinner. By contrast, Japan and China enjoyed the home-court advantage. As resident powers, they possessed intimate knowledge of their own neighborhoods. Japanese and Chinese defending forces also benefited from their proximity to support infrastructure located just behind them. This geographic asymmetry is central to the development of their strategies.
At the campaign level, both Japan and China stuck to the idea that the best strategic defense is a good tactical and operational offense. As a centerpiece of its “progressive reduction strategy,” the IJN planned to launch “interceptive operations” involving aggressive and repeated attacks against the enemy fleet.2 Under this scheme—the basis of Japanese war planning until 1941—a gauntlet of Japanese submarines, aircraft, cruisers, and destroyers would stand in the way of the U.S. Pacific Fleet as it advanced westward toward Japan. The Japanese envisioned a succession of battles that would eat away as much as a third of the enemy fleet’s fighting power. Once attrition had done its work, the IJN would unleash its fresh main striking force—deliberately kept out of harm’s way until the opportune moment—to finish off the much weakened opponent in a decisive battle of annihilation.
While the PLAN rarely reveals insights about its operations and tactics, its “near-seas active defense” strategy offers some hints of how China would engage in sea combat. The term “active defense” traces its origins to Mao Zedong’s famous military essays on guerilla warfare in the 1930s. Mao scorned the idea of passive defense, insisting instead that “the only real defense is active defense.” By this he meant “defense for the purpose of counter-attacking and taking the offensive.” For Mao, even defensive aims were best attained by offensive means.
Near-seas active defense essentially transcribes Mao’s strategy from land to the seas. Indeed, Mao himself would have instantly recognized the Chinese navy’s official definition of its strategy. In operational terms, the PLAN would “use all kinds of methods” to “unceasingly exhaust and annihilate the attacking enemy.” It would employ “mobile combat capabilities to search and destroy the enemy, gradually shift the power balance, change the strategic situation, and thereby appropriately time the transition to the strategic counter offensive and attack.”3 The idea of using offensive tactical means to grind down the adversary until the attacks opened the way for a decisive blow bears a striking resemblance to the IJN’s interceptive operations.
To implement these strategies of exhaustion, the IJN then, and the PLAN over the past decade, developed weapons and honed doctrines that would cut the opponent down to size. Both services actively sought to engage the U.S. Navy in an attritional contest across the undersea, surface, and air domains.
Beneath the waves, the interwar Japanese navy planned to rely on long-range fleet submarines to interdict American naval forces. The attack boats would sortie to forward positions, forming picket lines across the path of the U.S. fleet. The submarines would ambush the approaching enemy battle line as it came within torpedo range. The subs would continue to intercept and track the fleet until it ran into Japan’s main battle fleet awaiting the decisive engagement. For this purpose, the IJN built ocean-going submarines that boasted the range to reach the U.S. west coast and the endurance to operate there for weeks.
Since the 1990s, China has introduced at least four new classes of nuclear- and non-nuclear-powered attack submarines with the latter type enjoying sustained growth in numbers and technical sophistication. This modern undersea force can launch antiship cruise missiles (ASCM) while submerged, posing a potent threat to surface forces.
Assuming that the likely course of an oncoming enemy fleet could be anticipated, these submarines would transit to firing positions in advance and wait for the right time to spring an ambush on the adversary. Compared to active hunts for opposing forces, stationary subs would be less likely to give away their hiding spots to enemy anti-submarine warfare units. With the aid of off-board sensors and targeting systems, dispersed PLAN submarines could fire coordinated, multi-vector missile salvos at a distance to surprise the adversary.4
On the high seas, Japanese planners formed night combat squadrons composed of torpedo destroyers and cruisers that excelled in concealment and surprise. To outrange U.S. firepower, the IJN equipped the surface units with the Type-93 “long lance” torpedo that far outclassed its American equivalent in speed and range. Moreover, the oxygen-powered torpedo produced virtually no telltale trail in its wake, masking its approach toward enemy vessels.
Under the cloak of darkness, the IJN’s nimble warships would let loose coordinated and concealed salvoes of torpedoes against unsuspecting U.S. battlewagons, sowing panic, confusion, and chaos among enemy forces. It was thought that this nocturnal warfighting skill would compensate for Japan’s inability to contest American sea control in daylight hours. During the 1942-1943 Guadalcanal Campaign, Japanese night attacks savaged U.S. naval forces, validating a tactical innovation that gave the IJN a valuable, but short-lived, equalizer.5
A Chinese analogue to the IJN’s light torpedo forces is the large fleet of Type-022 Houbei fast attack craft. Armed with long-range antiship cruise missiles, the wave-piercing catamarans pack a punch.6 The stealthy hull structure, speed, and small size of the Houbeis make them ideal platforms for evading the enemy and for launching surprise attacks in offshore waters. With as many as 100 Houbeis entering service, the PLAN may be well positioned to launch coordinated saturation missile volleys to overpower enemy fleet defenses.
Shore-Based Air Power
The maturation of aviation technologies furnished Japan the means to influence events at sea directly from shore. The Mitsubishi G3M and G4M were some of the most advanced land-based maritime-strike bombers that extended the IJN’s offensive punch by hundreds of miles over water. Few competitors in the world rivaled these attack aircraft in speed and range. Launched from forward airbases on Pacific islands under Japanese mandate—the Marianas, the Carolines, and the Marshalls—aviation units could conduct deep raids against the oncoming Pacific Fleet.
During the early months of the war, Japanese bombers dominated the skies, menacing enemy targets across large swathes of maritime Asia. Notably, they scored a major tactical victory when Indochina-based bombers sank the HMS Prince of Wales and the HMS Repulse in the heart of the South China Sea. The British naval disaster proved for the first time that land-based air power alone could destroy capital ships while underway on the open sea.
The infamous kamikazes also demonstrated the potential effectiveness of shore-based air power against naval forces. The kamikazes were the functional equivalent of piloted cruise missiles launched from airfields. Attesting to their lethality, the kamikazes inflicted frightening losses on the U.S. fleet in the naval battle for Okinawa, sinking or heavily damaging over 120 ships in two months. As the end neared, about 5,000 suicide planes were readied to repulse the anticipated American invasion of the Japanese home islands.7 Had the United States attempted the forced landings on Japan’s shores, hundreds upon hundreds of manned cruise missiles would surely have rained down upon exposed American amphibious forces.
China, too, has invested in land-based firepower. The PLAN’s air arm is among the world’s largest and fields a variety of shore-based fixed-wing aircraft that could fire antiship cruise missiles. Notably, the Su-30MKK multirole fighter and the H-6 medium-range bomber can threaten surface ships cruising well east of the first island chain. Massed formations of such maritime strike aircraft armed with long-range ASCMs could conceivably deliver a concentrated blow to punch through the enemy fleet’s defenses.
The Second Artillery Corps’ antiship ballistic missile (ASBM)—a maneuverable ballistic missile capable of hitting moving targets at sea—is perhaps the ultimate technical expression of shore-based firepower. With a range reportedly exceeding 800 nautical miles, the truck-mounted missile joins an extended family of ship-killing missiles that can be fired from submarines, ships, and aircraft. Whether it will perform as advertised has been a subject of intense debate, but it is an unmistakable sign that the Chinese seek to hold at risk the enemy’s surface fleet with as many maritime strike options as possible.
Discerning the Rhythm of Anti-Access
Underscoring the compelling logic of anti-access, Japan and China mounted layered defenses to maximize their strategies of exhaustion. In the initial phases, the IJN and the PLAN would conduct distant operations, intercepting the adversary as far from the homeland as possible. As they fell back to their next defensive position, more units and weaponry would pile on. As the opponent closed in, it would encounter fiercer resistance as the density of attacks increased, thus accelerating the attrition rate.
For the IJN, forward-deployed shore-based aircraft and submarines would form the first line of defense. After the U.S. fleet slugged its way past these barriers, it would run into Japanese night combat forces seeking to whittle down the surviving forces further for the decisive engagement. For the PLAN and the Second Artillery, long-range land-based aircraft and antiship ballistic missiles would deliver the initial blows. As an American fleet approached China’s shores, it would encounter lurking ASCM-armed submarines, stealthy fast attack craft, and other shorter-range missile-armed units.
The IJN and PLAN also expected to achieve very similar tactical outcomes. The Japanese and Chinese sought to capitalize on concealment and surprise with their surface and undersea units. Both viewed saturation attacks with torpedoes and missiles as effective means for overwhelming enemy defenses. Finally, Japan and China invested in cutting-edge technologies to outrange the adversary. Notably, air power and missiles enabled the IJN and the PLAN to deliver ordnance on the adversary’s fleet directly from land well before the striking power of enemy forces could get close enough to shore to retaliate in kind.
Where the Analogy Falls Short…
No historical analogy is perfect. It is worth acknowledging where the parallel breaks down not least because even dissimilarities offer fruitful insights about how the China’s anti-access challenge measures up to Imperial Japan’s keep-out strategy. One notable difference would appear to dim China’s prospects for success.
In warfighting capability, the IJN was a fearsome threat to the U.S. Navy. Japan boasted a very well-trained and balanced fleet that could command the Asian seas. Tactically, the Japanese navy’s weapons were among the best in the world. The Sino-Japanese War in the 1930s also exposed the imperial armed forces to real combat and provided a laboratory to test and refine doctrine. There was thus merit to the IJN’s forecast that the struggle would culminate in a titanic battle between two battle fleets of comparable size and technological sophistication.
By contrast, the PLAN is still largely a sea-denial force, unable to project and sustain naval power over great distances. While the proportion of modern equipment is growing, obsolescent platforms constitute a drag on the navy. The PLAN is still playing catch up with the U.S. Navy, and Chinese armed forces have not fought a major war since 1979. The PLAN is thus in no position to slug it out with the U.S. fleet on the open ocean. It will take many more years for China to build a genuine blue-water navy—if that is indeed the goal—to engage in a one-on-one struggle with American naval forces.
Nevertheless, the longer-term trends suggest that Beijing will be much better positioned to fulfill its larger strategic aims. Owing to sheer economic heft, China’s anti-access and general-purpose forces will grow in size and improve in quality beyond the wildest dreams of Japanese planners. In a potential protracted war, China’s enormous industrial capacity will also give the PLAN advantages of military mass and the ability to regenerate such mass that the IJN never enjoyed.
Japan’s economic situation was quite precarious and threatened to deteriorate as the United States recovered from the Great Depression. On the eve of the Pacific War, the U.S. economy and industrial potential were twelve and ten times larger, respectively, than those of Japan. Wartime naval construction is telling. American shipyards produced more than five times as much warship tonnage as their Japanese counterparts from 1942 to 1945.
In 2012, on the other hand, the Chinese economy was roughly half the size of America’s.8 If current growth rates continue, the Sino-U.S. gap will shrink further. China also boasts a much larger industrial and resource base than Japan did. Beijing is already one of the largest shipbuilding powers in the world while its naval yards are bolting together warships of every kind at breakneck speed. In short, Japan was destined to fall behind the United States while China will likely narrow America’s material lead.
Translating Anti-Access into Strategic Success
Finally, the reasons behind Japan’s ultimate defeat offer an important cautionary tale about China’s anti-access strategy. First, the IJN’s technical virtuosity could not make up for Japanese strategic blunders throughout the Pacific War. The failure to adequately build up the forward infrastructure in the western Pacific for shore-based aircraft and submarines rendered Japan’s attrition strategy moot. Second, great weapons do not guarantee operational effectiveness if unsound doctrine fails to harness them. Owing to flawed tactics, for example, world-class Japanese submarines paid virtually zero dividends in the war effort. What looked good on paper thus did not translate well at sea. These lessons apply to the PLAN with equal force.
But the outcome of the Pacific War does not by itself condemn China’s anti-access strategy to failure. After all, major battles that turned the tide of the Pacific War, including Midway and Guadalcanal, were all close-run things. Had chance favored Japan in any one of those encounters, the price of American victory might have soared. With all the advantages that the U.S. Navy enjoyed, it still took 30 months of arduous fighting to tear down Japan’s anti-access wall.
Even a deeply flawed strategy permitted Japan to inflict great harm on its way to defeat. As the adage goes, the journey is as important as the destination. Whether China will avoid Imperial Japan’s strategic mistakes and whether the PLAN will make maximum use of its weaponry are thus questions of great consequence. If Beijing learns from this history, a much more formidable anti-access challenge may lie in store for the United States. As debates about China’s strategy continue, it behooves strategists to keep their history books close at hand.
1. James Holmes, “Preparing for War with China,” The National Interest, 16 August 2012; CAPT Philip Dupree and COL Jordan Thomas, “Air-Sea Battle: Clearing the Fog,” Armed Forces Journal, June 2012; and Michael McDevitt, “The Evolving Maritime Security Environment in East Asia: Implications for the U.S.-Japan Alliance,” PacNet, No. 22, 21 May 2012, 2.
2. David C. Evans and Mark R. Peattie, Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy 1887-1941, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997), 203-204.
3. Editorial Board of the Chinese Navy Encyclopedia, Encyclopedia of the Chinese Navy, (Beijing: Haichao Publisher, 1999), 1154.
4. James Patton, “Cold War SSN Operations: Lessons for Understanding Chinese Naval Development,” in China’s Future Nuclear Submarine Force, Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein, William S. Murray, and Andrew R. Wilson, eds. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2007), 280-281.
5. Thomas G. Mahnken, “Asymmetric Warfare at Sea: The Naval Battles off Guadalcanal, 1942-1943,” Naval War College Review, Vol. 64, No. 1 (Winter 2011), 95-121.
6. John Patch, “A Thoroughbred Ship-Killer,” U.S. Naval Institute, Proceedings, Vol. 136, No. 4 (April 2010), 48-53.
7. Richard B. Frank, “Ending the Pacific War: ‘No Alternative to Annihilation,” in The Pacific War Companion: From Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima, Daniel Marston, ed. (Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing, 2005), 237.
8. International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook Database, October 2013 edition, www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/weo/2013/02/weodata/index.aspx.