Sea Power Dialogue
Mr. Colby writes, “Many navalists, however, find horizontal or cost-infliction strategies appealing,” and cites an article I cowrote as evidence (citation no. 4). The problem with his citation is that our article, “Hedging with Humility: Reassessing China’s Power Projection Capabilities against Taiwan,” is focused on assessing whether China could take Taiwan through military force. We conclude perhaps it could, so hedging toward more robust deterrence posture is in order.
Contrary to Mr. Colby’s implication, our article does not propose horizontal escalation or cost-infliction strategies for the United States but instead examines, albeit briefly and within the context of a larger argument of China’s capability, if the U.S. military could deny China the military objective of Taiwan through combat were deterrence to fail:
[Recent war games] suggest that the United States could deny China’s objectives over the war’s opening four weeks at an extreme cost, but also that China’s growing capabilities are on the cusp of establishing and even sustaining a lodgment on Taiwan. It might be a near-run thing. In correspondence with the authors, Matt Cancian, one of the game’s designers, agreed that “the PLA would probably be able to take Taiwan in the absence of U.S. intervention.”
Consequently, analysts should reexamine underlying assumptions about China’s capabilities for industrial base, lift, and fires—and how they could be checked.
Moreover, our article broadly adheres to Mr. Colby’s preferred strategy of deterrence by denial, as clearly articulated in the penultimate paragraph, in which we rebutted “Amateur Hour Part I: The Chinese Invasion of Taiwan”:
The [article’s] thesis could nevertheless encourage dangerous over-confidence: If the People’s Liberation Army has no chance of taking Taiwan, then why double down on its defense? An equal error in the opposite direction, however, is only as expensive as unused insurance. Concerned allies and partners should therefore hedge towards deterrence by denial.
There’s no such thing as bad press, and so I am glad Mr. Colby included our citation, but I nevertheless felt compelled to clarify the substance of our thesis.
—CDR Collin Fox, USN
Captain Tangredi’s timely contribution deserves to be read and thought about long and hard. His argument flies in the face of the prevailing wisdom, which holds that we can make up for numbers through technology and exquisite weapon systems. Now facing a true peer competitor in China, the U.S. Navy needs to shift its force structure thinking. A new balance is needed between technology and mass (numbers). Our overreliance on the former is dangerous.
Currently, the bulk of the U.S. fleet comprises capital ships. These are highly capable but also expensive; few can be built, and construction takes a long time. Such a fleet makes commanders conservative because ships lost or damaged are difficult to replace. The ability to risk such a fleet is significantly constrained—and imposed caution loses wars. A few highly capable ships may appear to be a solution to the threat posed by a capable enemy, but they alone are insufficient.
Technological innovation will continue to be important, but it is ephemeral, and we must strike a better balance between innovation and numbers. If we can produce in a year only the number of SM-6 missiles that may be expended on the first day of a war, then how relevant will those SM-6 missiles be? We need plans to greatly increase production across our requirements—now, not after the war starts.
The same argument can be made for ship and aircraft numbers. Producing 150 F-35s each year pales against the possibility of losing 100 of them on day one of the war. Designing and building ships takes decades, and even more time is required for operators to learn how best to employ new platforms.
The bulk of our surface fleet is still the Arleigh Burke class, designed in the mid-1970s. That time window is equivalent to imagining the USS Maine (sunk in Havana harbor in 1898) being the class of battleships that fought in World War II.
Greater numbers will help insulate us from inevitable surprises. Again, history is consistent: Operational and technological surprise will permeate a future war. The side best equipped to absorb the losses brought on by surprise will be better positioned to prevail. A future great power war is unlikely to be short, and long wars put a premium on absorbing initial losses and recovering. By definition, a peer competitor has similar technological and industrial capabilities. The continuous give and take of technological advancement means that any initial advantages will be temporary. The side that can learn lessons the fastest and adjust doctrine and systems to those lessons will be more likely to prevail. This dynamic, widely studied by historians, is as old as industrial war.
The world into which we are emerging will demand new approaches to every aspect of naval warfare. A new balance must be struck between expensive, exquisite, slow-to-build platforms and weapons and those that can be built in numbers. The latter may be more at risk, but those very numbers will allow greater operational and tactical risk-taking.
Captain Tangredi opens the debate. Hopefully, the Navy and the nation pursue it.
—CAPT Gerard D. Roncolato, USN (Ret.)
Captain Tangredi focuses on the importance of fleet size (mass) in determining success in a future naval battle. He is concerned that a western Pacific naval war against China in this decade would witness a numerically smaller U.S. Navy confronting a potentially much larger PLAN. However, the article fails to acknowledge the potential mitigating factors of modern naval infrastructure and the size and involvement of allied navies. Despite these oversights, the question remains: What would a future war between China and the U.S. Navy look like?
When reviewing the article’s extensive list of historical naval battles, the reader must consider that it comprised navies supported by modest infrastructures and relatively primitive communication capabilities. Modern navies tend to be a multimodal disaggregation of surface, underwater, and robotic components in an extensive infrastructure of satellites, sensors, and underwater cables. These provide critical communication.
According to the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Mike Gilday, future wars that ensure international communications and depend on collaboration with U.S. allies will look like large-scale, distributed fights. In other words, the naval battles in a future war with China will bear little resemblance to the historical battles cited in the article.
Captain Tangredi shows that mass has trumped technology in the past, and, given the current domestic ship-construction rate, the U.S. Navy’s mass alone cannot match that of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). But that overlooks the numerical strength of the U.S. fleet combined with the navies of Japan, the Philippines, Australia, South Korea, Indonesia, and Taiwan.
The article raises the question of how, in the absence of allies, the U.S. Navy might overcome the PLAN’s current mass advantage. Project Overmatch answers that by providing a greater balance between mass and technology. According to Rear Admiral Doug Small, the project will deploy new technological capabilities for a 2023 planned delivery. Furthermore, the parent program, Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2), creates a massive communications network to connect forces across land, air, sea, space, and cyberspace. According to the Pentagon’s chief information officer, John Sherman, JADC2 is “capable of jamming, intercepting and muddying communications.” Based on lightning speed, he states that “maybe they have mass on us, but we have a quality of data, quality of capability.”
The security of the growing global economy demands an increase in U.S. naval power, leaving little doubt the fleet must expand. Future naval battles with China will most certainly involve the combined U.S.-allied navies. Captain Tangredi’s article provides important insights into fleet size and technological superiority, but it leaves us wondering about the ultimate outcome of a potential conflict.
Comment & Discussion
Lieutenant Gruin provides a very compelling case for making the Coast Guard’s deployable specialized forces (DSF) its own community. During my time in the Coast Guard, I witnessed the service grow more specialized, as evidenced by the development of various qualification badges for port security, boat forces, and marine safety. The DSF community, if so assigned and qualified, can earn the Navy Expeditionary Warfare Specialist Insignia.
But the author’s most cogent argument is his point about how specialized the training is and how easily, when not practiced regularly, those skills can degrade. My own experience, albeit with the U.S. Army, brought this home. In 1987 I went through the Army’s Field Artillery Officer Basic Course as a second lieutenant. We learned the manual method to compute fire missions with various guns using maps, firing tables, and old-fashioned math.
After the course, I tried my hand at flight school, but that did not work out. So, a year after artillery school, I was back in an artillery unit in the Maryland National Guard. One drill weekend was scheduled for fire mission refresher training. I sat down in front of a pile of materials, including fire tables and the like. I might as well have been seeing it for the first time. The skills I’d learned just a year before were gone, vanished.
If the Coast Guard desires its DSF community to perform and perfect its high-end skills, then its DSF members need continuity of training, deployments, and experience to make that happen.
—CAPT David Teska, USCGR (Ret.)
This multiauthor article discussing all the likely factors leading to the loss of the Thresher is excellent.
The key information leading to a more complicated scenario than in the Navy Court of Inquiry report (major flooding) is that the Skylark did not hear flooding, and Mr. Rule declared there was no acoustic-array data supporting major flooding.
It would be interesting to hear Mr. Rule’s ideas on how big a hole would have produced readable acoustic displays. But any flooding at test-depth of the Thresher (heard or not) could have compounded the recovery not only by causing a reactor scram, but also by adding to negative buoyancy. A two-inch hole at 1,300 feet could potentially add 16,000 pounds of seawater per minute.
Captain Bryant and his colleagues have identified key elements of the Navy Court of Inquiry into the Thresher disaster. Their commentary is most valuable to an understanding of the first nuclear submarine loss.
Not long after the loss, lengthy discussions that I had with then-Commander Dean Axene, the first commanding officer of the Thresher, and later with Bruce Rule, the Navy’s leading SOSUS expert, had made it appear conclusive that the initial event in the loss of the Thresher was a reactor shutdown (scram).
Their views were confirmed soon after, when Admiral Rickover convened a meeting in Washington of available nuclear submarine commanders and others to develop methods of rapidly recovering from a reactor shutdown.
Lieutenant Cregge truly hit the mark. The lack of initial surface warfare officer (SWO) classification training and community institutionalization reflects its current priorities and resources. As he suggests, SWO clearances usually advance as members become more senior, receive classified weapon and tactics training, or get certain joint/staff duty exposure. It’s no mystery that the SWO community is behind.
I can remember the uneasiness on the waterfront when the destroyer squadron (DesRon) N2 (intelligence) position was created in the early 2000s, as we grasped to conduct blue/green water support for the war on terrorism. The position was created hastily and without a clear vision for what this position needed to deliver for the DesRon commander’s mission. To my knowledge, there has been no significant increase in making the intelligence or information warfare contribution more formidable.
Captain Bill Shafley suggested last August (on Cimsec.org) an even more robust structure to support the future surface warfare commander afloat. It would be a positive start in the face of very capable peers and as the U.S. fleet looks to develop more complex surface weapons and tactics. Exposure to classified information for a greater number of SWO officers earlier would also drive a training demand. (In fairness, it should be noted that this is only a small segment of the surface community’s ongoing “resources available vs. requirements” problems.)
Additional “cleared” billets and investigations will require more funding and personnel resources. But to grant higher security clearances earlier in a career would be cheaper, and easier, as an individual has less history to investigate. With the recent shift away from exhaustive five-year periodic reviews to a more constant monitoring system, maintaining clearance levels becomes much more manageable.
Regretfully, as with most similar DoD issues, it will probably take a significant loss of ships and personnel to make progress toward change.
—CAPT Joseph Pugh, USN (Ret.)
Captain Hanson writes about what Marines are trained to do best: solve problems with kinetic solutions. His ideas have merit, but only in the context of generalized warfare between the United States and China.
The United States has no mutual defense treaty with Ukraine, and no reasonable person is advocating that the United States should engage in a general war with Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine. Likewise, there is no mutual defense treaty between the United States and Taiwan. And there never will be for the simple reason that such an agreement would almost certainly provoke an immediate invasion of Taiwan by China, as the treaty would be a de facto declaration of Taiwanese independence.
Even outside a general war with China, Captain Hanson’s suggestions need reconsidering. In the eyes of maritime law, for example, what counts as a Chinese merchant ship? Presumably, in the event of an armed conflict with the United States, China would reflag its merchant fleet. Would U.S. forces then board and seize a ship flying a flag of convenience that is owned by ABC corporation, which is a subsidiary of DEF trust that is itself a shell company for GHI conglomerate indirectly owned by a Chinese company?
Oil tankers generally only carry, but do not own, the oil in their hulls. Would the oil on a seized tanker become a prize or stolen property?
Beyond these considerations, the United States also would have to avoid creating an “own goal” by sinking or seizing ships either carrying Chinese goods or loaded with goods bound for China. Think about the economic disruption that Western sanctions on Russia have had on Western nations. These would be insignificant compared with the effects of cutting China out of both the American and the world economies. Producing a worldwide depression is hardly likely to bring other countries to the U.S. side—especially those from the Global South.
The Maritime Strategy of 1986
A different way to think about China-Taiwan is math. There are many elements in China’s comprehensive national power (CNP) calculus, but a few may be most important: hard power, population, and economics. All three are near the top of long sinusoidal waves creating a compounding wave/tsunami effect. These coincident long waves do not occur often—think centuries.
Studying CNP for Andy Marshall in the early aughts, I saw clearly that this is how China’s rulers think; how they make decisions; and how they view net assessment competitions. They were calculating CNP out 20 and 50 years—real strategic thinking our system is incapable of conducting or appreciating.
Hard power. The Ukraine situation has accelerated the Sino-U.S. hard power delta. To be sure, the United States is on the better side of a significant soft power delta. But when war gets hot, that really will not matter. China is counting its bullets and ours (equipment, production rates, etc). Ask yourself when that difference will be greatest. That’s hard power.
Population. Taiwan may take a long time to defeat (or not). But the calculation requires the most conservative estimate. The Chinese population, especially of military age, will be likely declining. The disproportionate number of male children will make it hard to reestablish population growth. And we should not underestimate the social psychological effects of male dominance. China is at the peak cultural opportunity for war now.
Economics. China appears to be at its economic apex. It could even be on the downward slope.
This explains the rush for China to bond with its historical enemy, Russia. I think it is like the final moves in a Monopoly game, and Russia is probably giving away more than meets the eye just to stay in the game. The net effect could bolster China with cheap resources for a decade or more.
So why did Xi Jinping need to extend his rule for only five more years? He could have asked for an indefinite role. I am guessing he plans something within this term. The math supports it.
—CDR George Capen, USN (Ret.)
I am very disappointed in the published version of my comments on “Intellectual Readiness Is Vital To Sea Power.” To explain my use of “spit kits,” someone on the editorial staff added “(PT boats)” in parentheses, which is completely wrong and makes me appear uninformed and takes away from the credibility of my argument. PT boats were long gone and not in the mix of small ship commands in the 1960s and 70s when I was a commanding officer as a junior officer.
I have no problem with the editorial staff correcting spelling, grammatical, or syntactical errors, but adding something to the narrative should not be permitted without the author’s approval.
—RADM John W. Bitoff, USN (Ret.)
Editor’s note: In addition to editing for style and grammar, Comment and Discussion submissions may be edited for clarity and length. (See “Enter the Forum,” p. 8.)