Deterring the Dragon . . . From (Under) the Sea

By Commander Victor L. Vescovo, U.S. Navy Reserve (Retired)

Chinese Grand Strategy, Strengths, and Weaknesses

The number one priority of the Chinese leadership is to ensure domestic political stability and Communist Party supremacy through the population’s gainful employment and rising standards of living. 3 To achieve these goals, Chinese grand strategy aims to project its control eastward into the Western Pacific to protect its heartland from sea-based pressure or even attack and to guarantee the security of raw-material imports and manufactured exports into and out of Chinese ports. The latter ensures the employment and economic well-being of the Chinese people, which in turn provides all-important domestic stability and continued Communist Party rule. Accordingly, China has prioritized building up its armed forces to allow enhanced sea-control and power-projection capability into Taiwan, the Senkakus, Spratleys—and beyond. It is a direct and logical consequence of the long-term Chinese grand strategy.

The key strengths of China are its close proximity to the battlespace, numerous precision-strike-capable air or missile systems, and increasingly numerous amphibious forces. 4 China does, however, have two extraordinarily under-reported weaknesses: very poor antisubmarine and antimine capability, as well as ports and trade routes highly exposed to easy interdiction. These latter points are crucially important to how the United States should deter, or even wage war on China should it ever occur. 5

While China is significantly unprepared to wage antisubmarine and antimine warfare, one could persuasively argue that the same is true of almost every non-U.S. navy in the world. Difficult to conduct, such warfare requires expensive time at sea to become proficient, and few navies have the budgets or desire to train in these dull and frankly unpopular tactics. Given current and projected force structures 15 years in the future, it would defy military calculus to argue that China could successfully wage a counter-subsurface campaign earnestly executed by the United States. It simply does not have, nor does it appear it will soon have, the assets or training to do so. China has instead focused its recent naval expenditures on headline-grabbing naval assets like aircraft carriers and antiair-focused surface combatants, not antisubmarine and mine warfare.

The Goal: Deterrence First

It is unconscionably poor strategy, perhaps even military malpractice, to focus discussion primarily on how the United States should defend Taiwan or the far Western Pacific from Chinese military action using Air-Sea Battle or another operational concept. The adage that “amateurs study tactics, and professionals study logistics” may be true, but the leaders of nations should pursue force structures and doctrine that enhance deterrence.

The goal of U.S. military strategy should be to deter Chinese military action in the first place through a clear, highly credible, and difficult-to-counter strategy that has highly negative and potentially dire consequences for the Chinese leadership. Deterrence occurs when a strategy and military posture causes an adversary’s leadership to believe they may not achieve a reasonable probability of victory without cost to themselves. Current American strategy and military posture does not seem to be accomplishing this. With the recent expansion of its air-defense identification zone in the East China Sea, China instead appears increasingly dismissive of the U.S. posture, which is highly dangerous for both sides.

A new U.S. strategy should be that in the event of military conflict with the Chinese, the United States will physically interdict all military and civilian traffic, primarily with heavy inshore offensive mining using submarine and stand-off or unmanned systems. This should be paired with dramatically expanded financial and legal tools to halt air and sea trade. The intent would be to cause enough widespread economic upheaval, quickly and with low collateral damage, to promote political instability that could credibly and directly threaten the Chinese leadership’s rule.

Some may be familiar with retired Marine Corps Colonel T. X. Hammes’ concept of Offshore Control and its opponent strategy, Air-Sea Battle, as espoused by Center for Naval Analyses researcher Elbridge Colby. The strategy proposed here is a hybrid of the two and advocates the active blockade and closure of commerce, as directed by Offshore Control, but in and near easily mined Chinese ports. This would be done primarily with subsurface, stand-off, and economic weaponry to avoid the bloodshed on all sides that would inflame Chinese nationalism and enhance Chinese Communist Party legitimacy. 6

A politically focused military strategy such as Offshore Control and this variant has not been widely advocated by leadership, but as military strategist Carl von Clausewitz taught, isn’t war supposed to be an extension of politics by other means—and isn’t deterrence the first goal of foreign and defense policy? This strategy may be met with derision by many because it doesn’t satisfy what seems to be an almost instinctive desire to plan for and engage in direct force-on-force combat showcasing our highest-visibility assets—carriers and advanced technology aircraft—and giving short shrift to more indirect (and less expensive) methods of warfare with mines, submarines, and the slow, grinding nature of blockade.

Colonel Hammes is correct that “Air-Sea Battle is the antithesis of strategy.” 7 A subsurface/low-kinetic strategy variant of Offshore Control could achieve U.S. goals with a greater certainty of success—and more credibly—since it is politically less risky than bombing targets on the Chinese mainland, inflicting real or fabricated civilian collateral damage, or shooting down hundreds of Chinese pilots. This approach would increase conventional deterrence and reduce the threat of war in the first place.

An additional benefit of a subsurface strategy is that it is much less vulnerable to China’s cyber- and electronic -warfare capabilities than an air- or surface-based offensive strategy. The sea acts as a massive electromagnetic barrier to interference and as de-facto armor against most forms of attack such as antisurface cruise or ballistic missiles like the DF-21D “carrier killer.” In general warfare conditions in the Western Pacific, the safest place will be under the waves—not on or above them. This point is grossly under-appreciated by the advocates of the Air-Sea Battle doctrine. As the British discovered in the Falklands Conflict, modern naval surface combat often turns out to be far more lethal than initially expected. And that was over 30 years ago before weapons became even more capable.

Effective Execution

At the outset of hostilities, the United States would first announce a total maritime exclusion zone extending at least 200 miles off the Chinese coast and around Taiwan. Any vessels entering this zone would be subject to boarding, internment, or even sinking if deemed hostile or simply in violation of the exclusion zone. This is similar to what the British effectively did in the 1982 Falklands campaign.

Second, the United States would specify that our forces will immediately begin extensive mining of the zone, especially Chinese ports, with submarines, aircraft, cruise missiles, and drones. All merchant vessels would be advised not to depart any Chinese port while those already within the zone would be advised to leave it along published, narrow, safe-passage exit corridors. Even with a limited number of submarines and stealthy long-range bombers or drones, enough mining near port areas could rapidly halt most Chinese maritime commerce.

The Chinese would not even know the extent of the mining operation because much of it could be delivered via subsurface methods. One great strength of subsurface warfare is that it is extremely difficult for the defender to know just how dangerous the threat is because it can’t observe the activity. Simply barging through mined areas can result in vessel sinkings, which can in turn block critical ports or channels. The defender, then, is forced to engage in slow, careful, and laborious mine clearing, losing operational speed and all-important initiative. 8

Third, the American government would declare that U.S. financial institutions and courts may not enforce or pay any insurance claims, trade credit, or similar financial instruments for commercial vessels that were judged—by the sole discretion of the United States—as operating in the exclusion zone for commercial or any other purpose with China. Military analysis almost always underestimates the power of U.S. financial or legal actions to alter, or even halt, commercial maritime traffic, actions that would be a very powerful weapon with respect to China. It doesn’t even matter if the proclamation would be legal: The possibility that it could be enforced would make worldwide insurers or banks order their captains to halt movement into the area or risk major financial loss. The United States should use its hard-won worldwide financial hegemony to enhance its military strategies of deterrence.

Strategic Steps

For the United States to achieve an effective subsurface deterrent strategy, there are a number of steps that must be taken.

Clearly communicate the strategy to the adversary. The essence of deterrence is to clearly communicate a credible, potentially effective strategy that would thwart an aggressor’s attempts to circumvent it. China would not be deterred from military adventurism unless an effective American counter-strategy is clearly described and advanced as policy. An aggressive subsurface/indirect strategy, with a clear (if unvoiced) intent to foment political dissent and even rebellion in China during wartime, could be effective.

Enhance the subsurface warfare capability of the U.S. Navy, particularly in the area of offensive mine warfare. It is a travesty of military procurement that the United States abandoned its encapsulated torpedo (CAPTOR) mine program and has invested less than 1 percent of its defense research-and-development budget on one of the most effective, historically proven forms of naval warfare: offensive mining. 9

CAPTOR-like mines are capable of mooring on the ocean floor, waiting patiently, and suddenly launching a high-speed torpedo at priority vessels. Advances in smart weaponry have not been applied to offensive mine warfare; modern mines could have the ability to self deploy at stand-off ranges from submarines, come equipped with stealthy anti-sonar coatings, use multiple types of sensors to identify targets, and even communicate with one another over short distances. The last CAPTOR-like mines were developed in 1979—35 years ago.

Converted Ohio -class nuclear-powered guided-missile submarines, as quiet as the nuclear-powered ballistic-missile vessels they once were, should have the capability to deploy with a full loadout of perhaps as many 150 mines. 10 If the 1970s-era technology Mk-67 sea-launched mobile mine and CAPTOR mines, for example, were improved and made similar in size to a Tomahawk cruise missile, the Navy would have the ability to remotely deploy over 75 influence mines into inshore port areas, and another 75 torpedo-based CAPTOR mines farther offshore, all from the highest-stealth platform in the U.S. naval arsenal. In times of crisis, the United States could even signal that two or more such vessels were already in the conflict area and unlike in the case of an aircraft carrier, the Chinese leadership almost certainly would not even know if it was true, increasing all-important deterrence.

Finally, there should be development of cruise missiles paired with the “Destructor” series of naval mines. This would allow for the immediate, stand-off mining of high-value but heavily protected areas such as ports. Swarms of cruise missiles, even if only partially successful at placing their warheads into ports, would likely halt or severely slow operations until there was reasonable assurance after hours, days, or even weeks, that they had been cleared. Risk to U.S. personnel in such mining operations would be zero, and there would be none of the dramatic or politically damaging effects of watching bombs hitting Chinese cities on CNN. Mining doesn’t cause the emotional reaction of outright bombing; instead it effectively achieves the strategic goal of interdicting sea movements.

Regularly conduct high-profile offensive subsurface training exercises. American heavy bomber and drone squadrons should be seen engaging in frequent and obvious demonstrations of airborne mining operations, both at night and at low-altitude. Attack submarines should regularly practice stand-off, shallow-water mining operations. Regardless of how classified our training programs are, Chinese intelligence will eventually discover our true activities, and these exercises will cement the threat as credible and confirm that our training matches our stated wartime strategy. Otherwise, deterrence is weakened.

Quietly practice offensive counterinsurgency operations around China’s periphery. If the United States wanted to take this strategy to its obvious but most provocative end, it could also become avowed U.S. strategy to offensively insert unconventional warfare materials and training teams into the outlying provinces of China—specifically Xiniang and Tibet—once hostilities begin. It is difficult to think of any other potential wartime doctrine that would more unnerve the Chinese leadership and act as a strategic deterrent than the belief that hostilities with the United States would result in American covert assets immediately inserting into China proper to train local guerrilla cadres. This is especially true for regions that already have a history of violent dissent and no love for the ethnic Han Chinese central leadership.

Acute Impact

The wartime effect of this strategy on China could be immediate and threatening to its leadership. Without maritime trade, China’s export-driven employment engine would likely go into free fall. While the West would temporarily suffer the lack of China’s manufactured products, most of them are consumer-oriented and more easily done without. Alternatively, China could probably not sustain the political risk of unemployment, declining living standards, and fuel shortages, particularly in the wealthier and freer-speaking coastal provinces that would be hit hardest.

For a time, Chinese nationalism might be able to overcome the psychological effect of personal economic distress and keep the population supporting the government, but this could not last indefinitely. After just one to two months of cut-off exports and no significant Chinese casualties from collateral damage, Chinese economic discontent could become acute. We may never need to get to this point, though. If the Chinese leadership believes this could happen, it would be deterred from aggression in the first place. Given its relative fear of civilian dissent, even a partially credible U.S. strategy to choke off economic security and spur political rebellion could achieve the deterrence sought.

Even if China were to win a conflict quickly, the political damage wrought by providing arms and training to its outlying dissidents—even temporarily—might take decades to undo. It would be one more variable the Chinese leadership would have to worry about, and thus hopefully increase the power of those voices arguing against military adventurism. Deterrence is dependent on maximizing an adversary’s worst fears, without provoking pre-emption. For example, American special-operations forces, training with the Indian military in the northern Himalayas to practice high-altitude insertions near the Tibetan border, would probably cause the Chinese leaders to go apoplectic—and probably enhance deterrence at very little cost.

Preserving Pax Americana Pacifica

Many military leaders often quote Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu but seem to frequently overlook his most important lesson: The acme of skill is to win without fighting. Along the Pacific Rim, the United States has achieved virtually all of its strategic goals:freedom of the seas, containment of dangerous regimes like North Korea, and a chain of allies and bases to prevent any country from easily acting in an aggressive manner. Thus, victory for the United States in the near future is to simply prevent any major conflicts, especially with China.

A clear-eyed assessment of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the United States and China, especially in the political and economic realms, point to a conventional deterrence strategy that should focus on making war very dangerous for China’s leadership. Its political Achilles’ heel is the fear of popular rebellion, which stirs violently when the economy fails. Its military Achilles’ heel is the low level of anti-ubmarine and mine warfare capability. Its economic weakness? Dependence on foreign trade and U.S. financial and legal hegemony. These serious weaknesses strongly suggest the United States should favor a subsurface/indirect strategy.

Specifically designed to harm the Chinese economy and foment internal rebellion, it probably has the greatest chance of deterring any Chinese leaders’ desires for military adventurism. It also has the great advantage of sidestepping potential vulnerabilities of U.S. carrier, tactical air, space, or even cyber forces that are often highlighted in many periodicals. A subsurface strategy is not reliant on these forces. It is also a strategy of minimal violence in that it only attacks vessels choosing to move, and does not require sustained violence against enemy combatants or have significant collateral damage potential other than that of an economic nature. Advanced mines could even be programmed to disarm or detonate if pinged with appropriate sonar codes, like the Army’s SPIDER system, or to self-destruct after set time intervals.

The combination of a clearly U.S.–advantaged strategy that aims directly at the heart of Chinese military and political vulnerabilities will cause Chinese leaders to think twice about any serious military adventurism and thus preserve the Pax Americana Pacifica and tame the worst, militaristic impulses of the Chinese dragon.

1. Graham Allison, “2014: Good Year for a Great War?” The National Interest Online , 1 January 2014, .

2. Examples including ancient Macedonia vs. Persia, Rome vs. Carthage, the Mongols vs. China, the Vikings and Huns vs. Rome, Russia vs. Sweden and Turkey, and America vs. Britain (1812).

3. George Friedman. “Assessing China’s Strategy,” Real Clear World , 6 March 2012, .

4. David Lague, “China Eyes $3.5 Billion Russian Arms Deal,” Reuters , 28 March 2013, .

5. David Axe, “China’s Sub Hunter?” The Diplomat , 28 November 2011, .

6. James R. Holmes, “AirSea Battle vs Offshore Control: Can the U.S. Blockade China?” The Diplomat , 19 August 2013, .

7. COL T. X. Hammes, “Offshore Control: A Proposed Strategy for an Unlikely Conflict,” Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, Strategic Forum , June 2012, 2.

8. National Research Council. Naval Mine Warfare: Operational and Technical Challenges for Naval Forces  (Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2001), Appendix B,159.

9. Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., “Deadly Serious’ Navy Wrestles With Mine Warfare Modernization,” AOL , 11 September 2012, .

10. This estimate is based on the American SSGN’s widely-reported capability to carry up to 154 Tomahawks in 22 converted Trident missile silos (7 Tomahawks each).

Commander Vescovo served for 20 years as a Navy Reserve intelligence officer with specialties in operational targeting and counter-terrorism. He was an intelligence instructor at the Navy Strike and Air Warfare Center, a targeting officer for Carrier Air Wing Nine, and deputy department head for intelligence (reserve) for Commander, U.S. 7th Fleet. He participated at the staff level in combat operations over Kosovo and Afghanistan, as well as in numerous exercises in the western Pacific.


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