Repeating Three Strategic Mistakes?

By Captain David A. Adams, U.S. Navy

Naval planners must recognize that our Navy’s most necessary pivot is neither geographic nor geopolitical: It is to alter our operational construct to confront the maritime implications of the evolving character of war. Our imperative is a new strategy that sets a course to skillfully navigate the nexus of the civil, maritime, and military components of modern conflicts. Our objective must be to precisely target constrained resources as a hedge against the full-scale, high-end conventional war fight while innovatively overcoming dangerous adversaries who aim to blur lines between military and non-military to blunt the influence of America sea power. Our first step must be avoiding a repeat of Golightly’s three strategic mistakes of believing that:

1. A conventional defense is safer than nuclear deterrence;

2. Large-scale conventional warfare is the United States’ most pressing threat;

3. Irregular, hybrid threats are of peripheral strategic importance to the Navy.

Conventional Defense vs. Nuclear Deterrence

Examined through what Carl Builder describes as the lens of Navy culture, Air-Sea Battle could be interpreted as filling our Navy’s unconscious desire to refight the Pacific War. 6 While the service’s culture remains enamored of the conventional aspects of our last great war at sea, many disassociate it from that conflict’s tragic atomic ending. The dawn of the nuclear age irrevocably changed the dynamics of conflict in general and great power rivalry in particular. Given the nuclear dilemma and massive U.S. conventional superiority, all belligerents are gravitating toward increasingly effective hybrid approaches. Unfortunately, every time U.S. military forces face the realities of difficult, dirty, unconventional challenges, we cannot resist subsequent calls to re-embrace the conventional approaches with which we are comfortable. Just as the post-Vietnam era begat Air-Land Battle, it is no surprise that concepts like Air-Sea Battle have emerged in the post-Iraq and Afghanistan period. History tells us that these conventional ideas will at best produce brilliant tactical successes with too little strategic benefit.

Conventional U.S. bias discounts the importance of strategic deterrence in underwriting the relative peace among nuclear powers over the past half century. Nothing but the dangerous absence of clear strategic dialogue on the subject has really changed since the Cold War. Just as the stability of Europe was fostered by a nuclear shadow, the best chance for Pacific stability rests foremost with the likelihood that major great-power confrontation incurs a real risk of nuclear war. Unsound theories to the contrary simply jeopardize the lives of millions. Political and military leaders must comprehend that “direct armed aggression as [an] instrument of policy against another nuclear power is not an option.” 7 Even if escalatory risks appear low, the catastrophic consequences of getting it wrong are not worth the slightest risk. Air-Sea Battle dangerously discounts this possibility.

That is why it is so important for U.S. nuclear strategy to draw the clearest possible line between any level of aggression and the invocation of nuclear defense of the United States and our allies. Delegitimizing U.S. nuclear deterrence plays right into China’s hands. Allies who lack confidence in U.S. extended deterrence will have no choice but to either bow to Chinese coercive influence or develop their own strategic arsenals. An unintended consequence of Air-Sea Battle is that it actually raises the nuclear threshold by demonstrating our intent to fight a full-scale conventional war with China. This fuels China’s incentive to prepare to win a hybrid war with conventional aspects that remain just below that threshold. It also risks severe miscalculation by undermining the certainty that conventional attacks might escalate into a calamitous nuclear exchange.

Just as the Chinese cannot be sure of our nuclear thresholds, we cannot be sure of theirs. Some analysts are convinced that China will not choose nuclear escalation even in the face of strikes on their homeland, citing the PRC’s long-standing restrained attitude toward the use of nuclear weapons. It would be a mistake, though, to assess China’s policy of restraint in light of anything other than its massive nuclear disadvantage. A closer examination suggests that Beijing’s nuclear policy “resembles mutually assured destruction in every way but name.” 8 Some analysts suggest that the United States is seriously underestimating China’s nuclear capacity. General Viktor Esin, a former commander of Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces, and Georgetown University’s Dr. Philip A. Karber estimate that China has more than 1,500 nuclear warheads hidden in a vast network of tunnels. What is certain is that the PRC has fielded “at least 1,129 intercontinental and medium-range nuclear delivery systems capable of delivering, collectively, 1,274 warheads.” 9

To understand the PRC commitment to a second-strike capability one need look no further than the country’s press for a sea-based strategic deterrent in the form of the Jin-class ballistic-missile submarine armed with the JL-2 missile. Deterring the United States is the only plausible explanation for this buildup. General Zhu Chunghu, now dean of the Chinese National Defense University, once admitted, “if the Americans draw their missiles and position-guided ammunition on to the target zone on China’s territory, I think we will have to respond with nuclear weapons.” 10 Conspicuously missing from the PRC’s most recent annual defense white paper was the perennial pronouncement of China’s no-first-use policy. Underlying this is a thinly veiled message that nuclear deterrence is a cornerstone of Chinese military and political strategy.

China is developing an increasingly credible nuclear deterrent at a time when there is a paucity of discussion and interest in reinforcing U.S. strategic and extended nuclear-deterrence policies. Whether or not the United States is willing to acknowledge intellectually the reality of nuclear deterrence, practically speaking the risk of any conflict escalating into a nuclear conflagration will severely constrain U.S. options during a crisis. If the United States proved unwilling to conduct mainland strikes against an extraordinarily weak, non-nuclear China during the Korean War, it is absurd to think that we would take such risks today. That is why any interpretation of Air-Sea Battle that targets anti-access capabilities on mainland China would be dangerously escalatory. Instead, we must ensure a clear mutual understanding that any significant Chinese aggression against U.S. territories and those of our key allies would inevitably invite the employment of the full force of the United States.

Moving Past Conventional Warfare

Preparing for large-scale conventional war in the Pacific has become the darling of some fanciful U.S. defense planners and the military-industrial complex alike. Careers, budgets, and new weapons systems are being staked at disproportionate rate to the actual risk of such war. Cynics may take the view that reinventing the “yellow peril” is merely a justification for big defense programs and even bigger budgets. General James Mattis reinforced the point when he stated that “I find it intellectually embarrassing that people want to hug the Chinese, ‘Oh, thank God we have another peer competitor at last! Now we can go back to building the weapons that we always wanted to build.’” 11

Defending Taiwan, for instance, is the best worst-case to latch onto. Massive investments in Air-Sea Battle would be required to gain the access needed to counter a short-notice Chinese invasion or blockade of Taiwan. 12 Our only hope of success would be to disrupt and destroy certain targets early—missile launchers for instance—because even our most effective defenses would be overwhelmed by the vast array of sophisticated missiles currently staged across the straits. Even if we could afford to develop Air-Sea Battle sufficiently to defend Taiwan, the decision to engage these essential targets on mainland China takes us back down that unacceptable escalatory path. Fear of nuclear retaliation would severely restrain U.S. and Chinese options during any crisis. Former Deputy Chief of Staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army General Xiong Guangkai once exclaimed that “the United States will not likely trade Los Angeles for Taipei.” 13 While nuclear weapons may not deter a cross-strait incursion to forestall independence, they will certainly cause the PRC to take serious pause before they risk Beijing by striking Tokyo, Busan, or Tumon. Every move and countermove will be carefully weighed and mitigated against the escalation risks.

Given the small likelihood and severe constraints associated with an all-out war with China, former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft suggests that we skillfully hedge against China while tempering the Air Force’s and the Navy’s desire “to take the latest technology and push it into every weapons system they can.” 14 Instead of investing tens of billions to overcome our weaknesses and vulnerabilities, the United States should play up its strengths. Prioritizing our undersea advantage, for instance, will make it almost impossible for China to reap the rewards of outright conventional aggression in the maritime realm over the long haul. The great historian John Keegan rightly foresees future maritime battles characterized by seemingly empty oceans underneath which “warships great and small, will be exacting from each other the price of admiralty.” 15 If fielded in sufficient numbers, our attack submarines would certainly exact from China a heavy cost. The United States will also enjoy a significant advantage in the air, especially given that China will not likely risk attacks on our bases in the Pacific. Using these immense competitive advantages, the United States could counter full-scale Chinese aggression by collapsing China’s vast maritime territorial ambitions back to their coastline.

Smartly investing in these strengths and positioning them in greater numbers in the Pacific will give China pause. Today, Chinese maritime experts fear our undersea and air forces most. To realize fully a Pacific rebalance, the United States must increase the quantity of these forces available in a fight. Placing additional submarines in Guam is a good start, but more forces are needed even closer. For instance, overcoming the difficult obstacles to deploying a squadron of attack submarines to places like Sasebo, Chinhae, or Yokosuka would significantly strengthen our warfighting calculus while sending a strong signal. At the same time, the United States needs to ensure that these forces are sufficiently trained and armed to sustain the fight until every last PRC ship, submarine, and aircraft is forced to return to base or finds itself on the bottom. To do this, the Navy must make difficult trade-offs to ensure both adequate carrier presence in the Pacific to deter aggression as well as a significant submarine inventory and presence to prevail in the unlikely event that conventional and nuclear deterrence fail.

Beijing is keenly aware that moving against Taiwan or inciting a major war with Japan would undermine its long-term agenda. Irrespective of the outcome, any attempt to forcibly reunify Taiwan with the mainland or take the Senkakus would be akin to a Chinese Prague Spring and would likely escalate into a full-scale Cold War. As a result, the United States would likely garner substantial international support for deliberately countering China’s irresponsible rise. Such a war would quickly bring to fruition China’s anxiety of being contained. Any move to war would hasten the PRC’s economic downturn and exacerbate the Communist Party’s struggle for legitimacy, thereby catalyzing the possible political transition that the party fears most. Given all that, we must consider that our myopic focus on high-end warfighting leaves the Chinese free to advance a more sophisticated approach designed to win without fighting a symmetric conflict with the United States at all. All of this points to a third strategic mistake.

Hybrid Warfare Is Here to Stay

As U.S. Pacific planners are preoccupied with countering the high-end threats, the PRC is pursuing a highly effective, incremental hybrid strategy to achieve its strategic goals in the East and South China Seas. Chinese defense experts were among the first to explore concepts like unrestricted warfare, which go beyond traditional military means, and incorporate political, financial, legal, informational, and many other non-military components at the strategic level. 16 Their idea is to combine the new and the old, the military and non-military, with commercial activities to influence the course of the Pacific over the long haul. In implementation, China is weaving a coercive web of legal and ethical constructs reinforced by operational actions to gain strategic advantage.

As China conducts financial, trade, and cyber war out of plain sight, it is growing more confident in its mastery of unrestricted warfare as it openly integrates Chinese maritime law-enforcement ships and fishing vessels—reinforced by PLAN ships just over-the-horizon—to assert expansive maritime claims. These forces are the front lines of enforcing an illegitimate legal framework that claims Chinese authority over the East and South China Seas in their entirety. China is effectively using these methods to bully legitimate foreign maritime commercial and naval operations, encroach on other nations’ territorial waters and exploit every opportunity to surround islands, reefs, and shoals long held by other states. At the same time, they whisper veiled diplomatic and economic threats in an attempt to quiet their victims.

The most prominent example is what is called the “Scarborough Model.” In April 2012, Chinese maritime surveillance ships blocked the Philippine frigate BRP Gregorio Del Pilar from interdicting Chinese fishing boats as they illegally harvested giant clams and corals and endangered live sharks at Scarborough Reef, about 120 miles west of Subic Bay. A standoff ensued as the Chinese persisted in intervening in Philippine enforcement of its exclusive economic zone. In June of that year, Philippine and Chinese ships agreed to mutually evacuate the Scarborough Shoal area. Unfortunately, only the Philippines complied with the agreement, leaving Chinese forces to barricade the entrance to the shoal and consolidate their gains.

Beijing was so impressed with how their integrated operations achieved PRC aims without violence that it is now more aggressively pursuing elements of its maritime strategy based on the Scarborough Model. Shortly thereafter, Beijing established a prefectural-level government called Sansha City on Woody Island located in the disputed, but Chinese-controlled, Paracel Islands. China granted Sansha’s mayor and 45 legislators legal authority over the so-called nine-dashed-lines territory, which encompasses all the disputed shoals and islets of the South China Sea. Watching PRC actions in the Senkakus, Thomas Shoal, and South Laconia Shoal it is clear that the Chinese intend to build upon their success.

The Scarborough Model is just the tip of China’s irregular-warfare iceberg. At every level of conflict, China is preparing to send rounds down-range that are deliberately designed to be outside the bandwidth of the U.S. military responses. The recent announcement of China’s expansive air-defense identification zone in the East China Sea is just another example. China’s goal appears to be to dial up hybrid activities, enlist time as an ally, and count on the fact that the half-life for international annoyance with its moves will be fairly short, and then compliance becomes accepted and routine. Recently, PLA Major General Zhang Zhaozhong described specifically how the PRC intends to capitalize on a hybrid approach: Combining coast guard ships, legal administration, fishermen, and navy warships so that contested areas are “wrapped layer by layer like a cabbage” will exert pressure and eventual PRC control. 17 All of this is designed to effectively blunt U.S. influence and slowly transform other Pacific nations into de-facto tributary states. If conflict intensifies, the PRC is building capacity to conduct an integrated campaign “so that the civilian electricity network, traffic dispatching network, financial transaction network, telephone communications network and mass media network are completely paralyzed” in order to compel peace on China’s terms. 18 All of this suggests that the People’s Republic has clearly embraced hybrid warfare as a potential game changer in great-power competition.

China’s ability to effectively put these ideas to sea demonstrates how irregular warfare is expanding beyond failed states and non-state actors. It is no longer just the realm of land-based terrorists and insurgents but is rapidly infecting the maritime arena with an unparalleled level of state sponsorship and sophistication. Far behind, the U.S. Navy must act to avoid a maritime Vietnam of sorts in places like the South China Sea. Righting our strategic ship starts by strengthening nuclear deterrence and applying constrained resources to bolster our inherent advantages to hedge against full-scale conventional conflict. But that will not be enough. Embracing an institutional overhaul is necessary if we are to prevail in what is shaping up to be a trend of dirty, paramilitary, irregular wars at sea.

New maritime and National Fleet Strategies are needed to effectively blend our own military and non-military operations for effect. Every naval officer must learn to think innovatively about how to integrate kinetic and non-kinetic situations and to employ all maritime means more fully to achieve operational ends. Lessons from Afghanistan and Iraq apply. Building the maritime, naval, and coast guard capacities of all the nations in the Pacific is the first priority. One idea is to fund a larger U.S. Coast Guard, overhaul its mission, and bring our own white hulls to assist our conventional Fleet’s effort to bolster acceptance of international norms, laws, rules and standards across the Pacific maritime. Such operational innovation will only emerge and succeed if we put our best minds to work on the problem and drive execution straight through the inevitable storm of bureaucratic resistance.

Former CNO Admiral Mike Mullen once put forward the concept of “two challenges, one Fleet” in order to emphasize the imperative to be capable of prevailing in high-end conventional war at sea while becoming masters of irregular warfare. 19 Time is running short to fully accept and answer that call. Failure to do so may prove disastrous for our Navy and the nation.

1. John Lehman, “A Bravura Performance,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings vol. 133, no. 11 (November 2007), 22–24. Seth Cropsy, “Don’t Give Up the Ships, the Navy’s Flawed New Strategy,” The Weekly Standard , 19 November 2007.

2. ADM Thad W. Allen, USCG, GEN James T. Conway, USMC, ADM Gary Roughead, USN, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power , October 2007, .

3. Brent Scowcroft, “Foreign Policy in the Age of Austerity,” The American Interest , 1 January 2010, .

4. Carl H. Builder, The Masks of War: American Military Styles in Strategy and Analysis (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), 17–30.

5. LT Niel L. Golightly, USN, “Correcting Three Strategic Mistakes,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 116, no. 4 (April 1990), 33.

6. Builder, Masks of War , 74–85.

7. Golightly, “Correcting Three Strategic Mistakes,” 35.

8. James Mulvenon, “China and Mutually Assured Destruction: Is China Getting Mad,” in Henry D. Sokolski, Getting MAD: Nuclear Mutual Assured Destruction, Its Origins and Practice (Carlise, PA: DIANE Publishing, 2004), 239.

9. Zbigniew Mazurak, “How big is China’s Nuclear Arsenal,” 5 November 2012, .

10. Alexandra Harney et al. “Top Chinese general warns U.S. over attack,” Financial Times , 15 July 2005.

11. Thomas P. M. Barnett, “Think Again: The Pentagon,” Foreign Policy , 4 March 2013.

12. ADM Jonathon Greenert, USN, and GEN Norton Schwarz, USAF, “Air Sea Battle,” The American Interest , 20 February, 2012, .

13. Richard K. Betts, American Force: Dangers, Delusions, and Dilemmas in National Security (NY: Columbia University Press, 2013), 976.

14. Scowcroft, “Foreign Policy.”

15. John Keegan, The Price of Admiralty (New York: Viking, 1989), 265.

16. Liang, Qiao and Wang Xiangsui Unrestricted Warfare: China’s Master Plan to Destroy America . (Panama: Pan American Publishing Company, 2002).

17. Jeff Himmelman, “A Game of Shark and Minnow,” The New York Times Magazine , 27 October 2013.

18. Liang, Qiao and Wang Xiangsui, Unrestricted Warfare , 146.

19. ADM Mike Mullen, USN, remarks as delivered at the Current Strategy Forum, 14 June 2006, .

Captain Adams is the Director, Commander’s Initiatives Group, U.S. 7th Fleet. He previously commanded Joint Provincial Reconstruction Team Khost and the USS Santa Fe (SSN-763).


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