Mr. Buff is a novelist who has written several submarine-related books. He also has appearedfreq11e11tly in these pages. He uses the novelist’s craft to comment meaningfully on seemingly arcane subjects through broad observation and specific research. His first career was in financial management. His first article for THE SUBMARINE REVIEW used unclassified sources to create a technical, political-military view of submarine utility in the mid-21st century.
Ladies and gentlemen, thanks very much for coming. It’s an honor for me to be here to talk with you about the important and serious problem of China that America now faces, whether many people realize it or not. Those of you who’ve heard me speak in the past, or have read much from my articles and opend essays over the years, know that I like to start by establishing a broad context, to then zero in more effectively on the main issue. I’ll do that in today’s discussion of the intentionally thought-provoking and forward-looking question, “Will China Rule the Waves?” I firmly believe that the only way to make permanently sure that the answer to that question is NO is for the U.S. Navy to attain, maintain, and retain decisive undersea warfare superiority against the increasingly muscular People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). The goal of this talk is to convey to you the reasoning behind why I make such a statement.
Overview of China -Some side issues that interconnect
There are a lot of things each of us knows about the People’s Republic of China, at least at the level of unconnected dots or unassembled pieces of a puzzle. To properly assess the level of danger that China can, in the future, present to burgeoning global freedom and America’s way of life, it helps for clarity to put such factoids together in one place, gathered from wherever they sit in history books and daily newspapers.
China has an extremely bad human rights record, which isn’t getting any better. Restiveness is violently repressed, often using lethal force. This has ominous implications. Beijing places a much higher premium on rigid centralized control than they do on the value of rank-and-file human lives among their own citizenry. We may, thus, reasonably conclude that in a military context, modem China would not be (and would not become) the least bit casualty-averse. That alone suggests a significant asymmetry between the U.S. and the PRC in any future saber-rattling or actual hot armed conflict.
The Chinese economy is powerful, and has been growing at a rate around 10% annually for a number of years. Some of this is the result of intentional manipulation of the yuan-versus-dollar exchange rate, to China’s advantage and to America’s harm-on many fronts of commercial competition, and in the vying for access to finite global energy reserves. After lots of summit meetings and diplomatic talks, Beijing remains essentially unyielding in this crucial arena of policy. I think it should be viewed as a form of economic warfare.
China’s population is many times as big as America’s; a recent census report by Beijing put that country’s size at 1.2 billion. Americans will be familiar with China’s attempt at population control via a rule of one child per family, with financial penalties for having more than one kid. What most Americans may not realize, and what Beijing will not admit, is that the family is by far the most important unit of loyalty in Chinese culture. Many families went ahead and had second and third children and simply never reported the births to local municipal authorities. One knowledgeable person stated, at a Naval War College seminar which I attended recently, that the total of these unregistered births is about 300,000,000 people, many of them now adults. The entire population of the United States of America is right around 300,000,000 people. I find that a frightening comparison. In reality, we’re out numbered five to one.
And the people of the People’s Republic should not be underestimated. They’re ambitious, driven, proud, and very patriotic. Remember, they’re used to being oppressed by warlords and emperors for thousands of years; Mao’s dictatorship and the varying forms of communism practiced by his successors are nothing new-and nothing unusual-to the residents of mainland China. The rural/urban social schism in China is also nothing new. I don’t think such strife should be viewed as the seed of budding democracy in the PRC. If anything, it’s just further testimony to demographic shifts inevitable as China undergoes its own peculiar, hugely sped-up version of an industrial revolution. What does deserve attention, and worry, is the emergence of China’s superb university system. The number of world-class PhDs being graduated each year is truly amazing, especially in technical areas where America has been lagging. Take our annual new-PhD figures, add one or two zeros, and you get good data for China -another very disturbing comparison.
Lastly, before moving on to other topics, I’d like to debunk a myth that seems to have percolated through America since the conclusion of the Cold War. This myth (or wish) is that a large and growing middle class, and big international trade ties, prevent a country from starting an aggressive war. Counter-examples to this include Germany’s precipitating two world wars in the 201h century, and even-granted, an extreme case-America’s own bitterly fought War Between the States. My point here is not to open old wounds, but to caution that economic development in China, alone, cannot be counted upon as a factor discouraging Beijing from making aggressive war in the future.
China as potential militarv threat: Decoupled from BRAC debate
I mention the 2005 BRAC process because earlier this year some information outlets (Internet biogs, print media) presented what to me appeared to be a very flawed train of logic. It went like this: The Submarine Force doesn’t want to close the New London Base. So, to preserve the base, they invent the need for a large number of SSNs in the future. To justify this large SSN fleet they create an emerging enemy. For lack of anything better, that enemy is the paper tiger of China.
Obviously, there’s something wrong with this picture. The BRAC Commission rendered its verdict on Groton back in mid-August. So that’s been a moot point for months. Yet China is getting an increasing amount of concerned attention from the U.S. Navy-and not merely from the Submarine Force-under the leadership of the new CNO, Admiral Mullen. Headlines on China appear on the front pages of major newspapers on an almost daily basis, and those headlines are not reassuring.
We should remember that China gave the world Sun Tzu ‘s classic “The Art of War” around 500 BC. That’s millennia before von Clausewitz or A. T. Mahan or J. C. F. Fuller composed their own treatises on warfare. China practices what they preach, and they mean what they say. Are their central government’s aspirations nowadays suddenly peace-loving? Listeners to this talk can judge for themselves, by examining a partial recent track record of China’s cross-border acts of aggression:
1. Korea was the first big U.S.-China war. Our casualties were horrendous. Beijing formally warned the U.S. not to come near the Yalu River, because they saw such a move as threatening their security interests at the time concerning Taiwan. We ignored that warning, and our troops paid a heavy price.
2. China invaded and conquered Tibet in an act of blatant imperial-ism which to this day has gone mostly unpunished.
3. China invaded reunited, Communist Vietnam when Vietnamese actions concerning Cambodia and Laos threatened Chinese security interests in those areas. Vietnam, a seasoned warrior nation with lots of modem imported Russian and captured American equipment, repulsed China easily. This was a wake-up call to modernize their military that China took very seriously. They realized they couldn’t fight a 1980ish enemy using their own l 950ish weapons, tactics, and command and control. They’ve been modernizing, both overtly and stealthily, for the past 25 years.
4. During the Cold War, relations between China and Russia varied. At times they fought bloody border skirmishes -China did not shy away from defending her territorial claims, even against that imposing opponent (and supposed ideological colleague), the USSR. For much of the Cold War, grand strategies revolved around which pairing would predominate in the ever-shifting triangle of China, the Soviet Union, and the United States. More recently, China and Russia have been best of pals. In 2005 they even held a major joint military exercise. Analysts in the West have described this war-game as in effect a giant arms trade show. Russia, already a substantial weapons exporter to China, got to display more of their latest hardware and electronic gadgetry in action.
5. High tensions prevail between China and Japan. This is partly because World War II-era hatreds linger and it’s become more politically acceptable to express them aloud. But another reason is that China and Japan have overlapping economic and military areas of interest in the here and now. Indispensable sea lines of communications of the two countries intertwine. Recently a Chinese submarine was caught snooping where it shouldn’t be in Japanese home waters, undoubtedly conducting espionage and measuring hydrography. That sub was driven off, but presumably others will be back.
6. China is not behaving the least bit conciliatory in the ongoing multi-way territorial dispute over the tiny Spratly Islands and their suspected giant petroleum reserves. In fact, units of the PLAN recently conducted naval maneuvers near the islands, a very provocative gesture given other stresses and strains in the region-including highly volatile deliberations over North Korea’ s status as a nuclear power.
7. In 2001, China forced down an American state-of-the-art EP-3 spy plane in what began as a mid-air collision in free international airspace, the fault lying with a Chinese fighter pilot who cut a game of chicken too close and paid with his life. But once the unarmed American plane made an emergency landing on Chinese turf, it was impounded, stripped of every item of possible military, intelligence, or engineering value to Beijing, and the aircrew were held as virtual prisoners for days. Arguably, this belligerent conduct was a direct violation of international law on several counts.
8. In one non-classified Chinese military publication, which is viewed by Western analysts as reflecting central government thinking, a PLAN admiral wrote a piece which basically sent the unfriendly message: “U.S. carriers, keep out of Taiwan Strait or else.” Beijing never disavowed this warlike message.
Perhaps most significant of all in trying to assess China’s status as a potential aggressor in the future, we should all be aware that China’s publicly declared intent is to have a world-class blue water Navy in the 2020s. China’s fundamental military plans along that time frame arc summarized by what the Pentagon in 2005 labeled Beijing’s 24-Character Strategy. (The Communist Chinese are great ones for sloganeering, and this strategy is expressed in the original PRC document using two dozen Chinese pictograms.) One of the key elements of the 24-Character Strategy is “Never claim leadership.” To this I must say Uh oh, watch out! It reminds me too much of the old adage from politics and public relations, “Beware of unsolicited denials.” I conjecture that China would not have as one pillar of her main long-term strategy the watchword to “never claim leadership” unless eventually claiming leadership was actually a primary goal.
Anyone who’s gathered, analyzed, and used intelligence knows the crucial distinction between intentions and capabilities. Intentions mean what a country plans or wants to do. Capabilities mean the things which it has the wherewithal to do. Intentions and capabilities are distinct, they do not necessarily coincide, and in the real world they may even exist, within a nation, in a state of mutual contradiction or sheer impracticality. For instance, Imperial Japan had every intention to conquer and permanently control the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, but Tokyo ended up lacking the capability. Some analysts (but by no means all) argue that it’s safer to determine and weigh a potential enemy’s capabilities, since they tell you the worst that might happen, rather than try to divine that opponent’s intentions, which are inherently intangible-and subject to your own misinterpretations as well as the other guy’s disinformation campaigns.
Deciding what to think of China’s 2111 century destiny, and then choosing what if anything to do about it to protect American interests, come down to accurately understanding both Beijing’s intentions and her capabilities. I’m already building a picture here of what I think of PRC intentions based on recent past and present behaviors. I’ll come back to that, and to the question of capabilities, especially in her submarine New Fleet.
How China is & isn’t like the old USSR as a threat to America
To further establish perspective, and dispel any false complacency, it seems useful at this point to compare and contrast the People’s Republic of China of today, and the Soviet Union of yesteryear, as rivals to American superpower status. Just because we beat the one in the old Cold War does not mean that we will automatically beat the other in a new Cold War, or Hot War.
1. Things new PRC and old USSR have/had in common
- Communist government, centralized control
- ICBMs with H-bombs capable of hitting entire U.S.
- Superb human intelligence (Humint) operations within U.S.
- Superpower aspirations, non-theist societies
- Crucial nautical choke points likely centers of naval conflict
- Widening network of vassal/client states worldwide
2. Ways modem China differs from old Soviet Union
- Strong economy, not weak and imploding one
- Much larger population to ramp up toward robust armed forces
- Excellent year-round ice free harbors all along huge coastline
- Always had a quasi-capitalist under-culture
- China has carefully studied both USSR and U.S.
Some of these points bear elaboration. White Soviet-era Godless Communism was an oppressively atheist state, religion in the form of the Russian Orthodox Church played an important role in official society under the Czars. (Remember, Rasputin was a monk.) And since the fall of Communism, Russians from all walks of life have rediscovered great interest in their religious roots. China is very different. The predominant ethnic group is the Han culture, which mostly practices Confucianism-a philosophy, not a religion. Mainstream China is thus more non-theist than atheist. They never developed the concept of a God, a deity, or a Higher Power in the conventional Western sense. Why do I even mention this? Because I think that a truly non-theist society is more opaque to American understanding than we might realize. Differing conscious and unconscious personal attitudes toward basic issues such as:
- Where did the universe come from?
- What’s the purpose and value of human existence?
- What ethical codes if any should people live by?
- What eternal consequences result from violating those codes?
will all drastically affect how a nation approaches matters of war and peace, of free speech versus blind obedience, and of altruism on the world stage versus cynical selfishness.
Another significant point, and one which doesn’t give comfort to a dovish take on Chinese intentions, is that China has always had a quasi-capitalist element to its economy. The emergence of more active Big Capitalism in China should not be misread as a drift toward populist democracy. Rather, it’s a sign of the central government correcting past mistakes and harnessing new tools to increase the country’s overall strength. China has for millennia had local markets where common people met to buy and sell produce and cottage-industry goods. Even during Mao’s vicious Cultural Revolution, young Red Guard thugs, after a hard day at the office beating up school teachers and doctors and lawyers, would stop at these markets on the way home -to purchase things at them, not disrupt them. Think about that for a minute.
When I say that China has carefully studied the U.S. and the USSR, in particular I mean that Chinese political leaders and military commanders have focused on the lessons of using or misusing naval power. In retrospect, it was the secret jousting between American and Russian submariners that played a major part in the U.S. ‘s Cold War victory, as did some celebrated (plus some presumably still classified) undersea espionage capers. The Kremlin’s surface Navy, representing a massive investment in raw materials and manpower, never got to play a decisive role, and consequently in the end was something of a waste. One can even draw a parallel here to Hitler’s Kriegsmarine, in which battleships and battle cruisers like BISMARCK, TIRPITZ, SCHARNHORST, and so on, had temporary nuisance value as a fleet in being until each of them in tum was sunk. Had all that steel and all those trained sailors been devoted instead to building and manning additional U-boats, the Battle of the Atlantic might have turned out very differently. And it’s a point of history little known outside submariner circles that German U-boats actually sank more British merchant shipping tonnage in World War I than they did in World War II! Therefore, one may deduce from public statements and from general circumstance that Beijing and the PLAN understand full well that any foreseeable contest for supremacy at sea will depend in large part on submarine muscle. Submarines are 21st century capital ships; China’s leadership grasps this as much as American submariners do. (Would that America’s Congress so clearly comprehended the critical lessons here.) China also knows the vital importance of seizing and holding the initiative in cold (and hot) undersea warfare. Her rapid development of friendships with many countries that don’t like America, when plotted on a map, reminds me eerily of the 191h century race among major European countries to acquire chains of coaling stations along every ocean’s shores. For coaling stations, now read naval bases, and you’ll get the idea. China’s ambitions are definitely global, not regional.
Some further warnings from history
One of the hardest facts to challenge, or argue with, regarding world history is that sea power is a key to global hegemony. Nautical and mercantile potency very closely interrelate, as do naval vigor and national security. Portugal, Spain, Holland, then France, each in their own day, thanks to their navies, were genuine superpowers. In some cases, their influence on the known world at the time is unexcelled even today. Yet each of them is now-limiting ourselves to the outdated context of empire-a minor shadow of their past. Napoleon’s France, Hitler’s Germany, and the Soviet Union each discovered the hard way that teeming, triumphant land armies alone are insufficient to retain control over even one continent. One can, alas, say the same thing about the UK: Britannia ruled the waves-note the past tense.
Though a definitive analysis of 500 years of European naval history would fill volumes, the causes of decline among these different former superpowers do show some common threads: complacency as to their vaunted place in the world, neglect of the need for ongoing vigorous sea power, and consequent under-funding of once mighty navies. The conclusion is that there’s no reason, ipso facto, to just assume that American naval supremacy will simply go on forever unchecked. China’s emergence as a rival must not be downplayed. In the perpetual game of hopscotch around the globe contesting who’s the boss? in nautical terms, the mantle America currently holds might be dropped, or snatched from our hands.
As another (intentionally scary) cautionary tale about sea power, consider a simplified timeline of Japan:
1. 1854: Commodore Perry opens feudal Japan using gunboat diplomacy, delicately balancing “gunboat” and diplomacy parts.
2. 40 years later, Japan has a modern combat fleet via UK help.
3. 1905: Japan slaughters Russian fleet at Tsushima Strait.
4. 30 years later, Imperial Japan occupies Manchuria. 5. 1941: Tokyo’sSuper carrier Navy creams Pearl Harbor.
Japan, thanks to some prodding from America (which proved in a big way the law of u11i11te11ded conseqnences), went from being isolationist and almost pre-industrial to being one of the most warlike imperialist powers on the planet. It took them quite a while to do this, but the pace of technical advancement and even the rhythm of daily life have accelerated notably since the end of World War II. The past few decades seem to have experienced a sort of modem-era time compression whose effects keep increasing almost exponentially. That being the case, I invite you to do the math for yourself on China. How much longer do they need to transform themselves from an isolationist, feudal society into a modem warlike imperial power, able to do other major powers grave harm? Hint: Their own government thinks the answer is twenty more years.
Is Taiwan a Red Herring?
Just as important as not missing a major threat that’s right under your nose, busy hiding in plain sight, is to not become fixated on a threat that isn’t there. So many commentators talk about the PRC’s imminent danger to Taiwan that I’ve started to grow suspicious whether it’s real. From the many years I spent in risk management, often dealing with investments for large financial institutions, I grew to be a contrarian-that is, someone who disagrees with the herd when they see the herd start to fall into group-think. I even wonder whether Beijing is not on purpose both overtly and covertly fueling American concern about Taiwan as a red herring, to distract us from something completely different. What that something might be, I’ll discuss more below. Right now, let’s take a cold-eyed look at the relationship between China and Taiwan today:
1. Taiwanese domestic politics have taken a very significant shift in recent years. Although their president favors declaring independence from China, Taiwan’s Congress, controlled by different political parties, prefers improved tics with the mainland. The current Taiwan president is expected by many analysts to lose the next election. Meanwhile, Taiwanese businessmen and politicians visit China at Beijing’s invitation, and a network of amiable personal relationships is budding.
2. China does not insist on taking over Taiwan politically. (They only threaten to invade Taiwan militarily if Taiwan ever declares itself fully independent.) Beijing much prefers the approach which they call One country, two systems. Taiwan would retain democratic autonomy in domestic affairs, but would renounce any claim to being a wholly separate sovereign nation. The controlling parties in Taiwan’s Congress favor this One country, two systems approach.
3. Viewed rationally, it doesn’t make much sense for China to invade Taiwan. Taiwan is an extremely valuable economic and infrastructure asset. Any invasion would reduce that asset to useless rubble. This would be completely counter to Beijing’s own best interests. Much smarter, from their point of view, is to encourage driving a wedge between Taiwan and the U.S. This latter approach seems to be working nicely lately. Taiwan’s Congress has repeatedly refused to approve increased military spending that the U.S. government wants to see in order for Taiwan to accept more responsibility for defending herself against China. Though hard-liners in America are quite displeased, it would seem that Taiwan doesn’t feel she really needs so much defending. The premise that Taiwan is misusing America, forcing us to commit humongous resources to block a Chinese invasion across the Taiwan Strait on our own, I fear might derive in part from a lack of accurate perceptions on the part of some Beltway insiders, and in part from China’s red herring scheme. (Now you see what I mean about being a contrarian.)
4. The red herring scheme I keep referring to is my conjecture that, as a what-if worst case scenario, China might have naval objectives more ambitious and advantageous than conquering Taiwan. Those objectives, I think, lie much farther out in blue water. Ifso, to realize her plans, China needs a good way to penetrate the nautical choke points in the chain of island countries that hem her in from the vast Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean proper. These countries range from Japan to Taiwan to the Philippines to Malaysia and Indonesia. Thus, were Taiwan to become a true friend with Beijing, one major stronghold in this endless barrier-island string would, in effect, change hands. A gap in the network of choke points would suddenly open, a gap one thousand miles wide.
Imagine yourself an ambitious Chinese statesman, sitting in Beijing, looking at the same nautical charts that you and I can look at. Imagine yourself as rational yet ruthless-which would certainly be in character for this role-playing exercise. Then ask yourself, taking account of everything I said above: Would you invade Taiwan and invite open war with America on terms the American public by long custom is likely to support … or would you win over Taiwan by peaceful means and then take on the U.S. in a time and place of your own choosing, with the full element of surprise, and in a context where the U.S. electorate is likely to blanch at the very thought of armed intervention?
Announced PRC goal: Triple the U.S. submarine fleet in 20 years
If we look ahead to the 2020s, as we must, the U.S. Navy will then have about 60 SSNs, SSGNs, and SSBNs in commission, while China’s New Fleet will have maybe 150 or 180. Those Chinese submarines will be a good mix of foreign-bought and home-grown diesel subs, nuclear-powered fast attacks, and boomers. This New Fleet is nothing to trifle with: The men will be well trained and the equipment will be good enough for China’s purposes. (The two recent accidents aboard aging MING-class diesel boats can be dismissed as part of China’s increasingly irrelevant Old Fleet.) China is already buying Improved KILOs from Russia, and some reports indicate the latest version is coming with air-independent propulsion. (Able to stay far below the surface for many days or weeks at a time, diesel/AIP subs represent a whole new spectrum of threat, and have been called by some the poor man’s nuclear submarine.)
Right now alone, China has 18 submarines under construction, half of these in Russia and half at home. In contrast, the U.S. recently went through a drought in which not one new submarine was put into commission for six or seven years. At the moment, we’re building VRGINIA-class SSNs at the paltry rate of one per year at least until 2012, and four OHIO-class SSBN-to-SSGN conversions are gradually being completed-and that’s it.
China is arming her submarines with a variety of sophisticated weapons, including excellent sub-launched anti-ship cruise missiles, some of which are supersonic-and hence very difficult to defend against. These modem weapons also include the Russian Shkval super cavitating rocket-torpedo, capable of speeds of 200 or 300 knots underwater. American submariners say that they personally don’t see these things as much of a threat, at least if they aren’t tipped with an H-bomb warhead. But a Shkval moves so fast in a straight line that against a deep-draft surface target (think of an American aircraft carrier) it doesn’t need homing sensors or even any warhead at all. The sheer kinetic energy of the rocket-torpedo platform is bound to smash through the hull below the waterline, so long as the Chinese sub gets reasonably close and has a half-way decent firing solution. Some hits from a salvo of Shkvals would put even a CVN-21 next-generation supercarrier out of action for the duration. If the Chinese sub is destroyed in return, Beijing achieved quite a bargain. If twenty Chinese subs are destroyed in return for each super carrier mauled with heavy casualties, or each American SSN sunk, Beijing will still see themselves as having come out on top in the contest. And so will their submariners, even the ones who know they’re about to get killed. In the First World War, 50% of Gennan submariners were lost in action. Between the wars, this fact was generally known. Even so, in the Second World War, German sailors lined up in droves to volunteer for U-boat service. As the war progressed and their terrible 80% loss rate began to be impossible to hide from men on the waterfront, sailors never flinched from vying for a place in one of the U-boat crews. We can expect exactly this sort of courage and heroism from Chinese submariners.
Traditionalists view a navy that emphasizes submarines as inherently inferior/defensive, and one that emphasizes aircraft carriers as inherently superior/offensive. I ‘ d argue that this distinction is becoming blurred to the point of maybe no longer applying. One reason is that ongoing advances in acoustic and non-acoustic submarine stealth, improved sensor and communications capabilities, increasing weapons payload capacity, and versatility of adjuvant vehicle mission profiles, render the latest SSNs and SSGNs more and more closely analogous to underwater CVNs. A balanced navy is always best, but balanced means different things to different nations. National policy and strategic goals must enter the equation. It should be clear by now that China doesn’t see a lot of things the same way that most Americans do-including the level of tolerance for heavy combat casualties. I’d furthermore argue that almost every major naval war in known history was in some important ways asymmetric. We can’t measure China by our own standards, or we might make fatal, irreversible miscalculations.
Intelligence and counter-intelligence will also continue to play key roles as America’s and China’s navies change and grow. For instance, one embarrassment for the U.S. intelligence community was to completely miss a new PLAN diesel sub, the YUAN-class, until the first ship’s existence was announced by Beijing. Some commentators disparage this vessel as noisier than a steam locomotive, but that misses some much bigger points. Western analysts were also surprised by how quickly the first new 094-class SSBN followed the introduction of the PLAN’s 093-class SSN. Chinese designers want to learn everything they can, as fast as they can, and they’re willing to take risks and buy or steal what they can’t yet manage themselves. We have to assume, for instance, that all of the information the Walker spy ring sold to Moscow has been passed on to Beijing, for an appropriate fee, thus helping jump-start a new submarine arms race. What then will America do if China buys from Russia not just Improved KILOs with AIP, but also some of their superb AKULAlls (a very dangerous adversary for a LOS ANGELES-class boat), or even some of Moscow’s next-generation SEVERODVINSK-class SSNs or BOREY-class SSBNs?
China has her own outstanding espionage apparatus at work within the U.S. The recently-arrested alleged Chi Mak spy-ring foursome is a case in point. Purported to have been in operation since 1990, it’s been said that they sold China some of the most sensitive design secrets and acoustic profile data on the new VIRGINIA-class SSN, compromising that class’s safety in any hostile waters. Other reports, possibly exaggerated, state that they or other Chinese spies also provided Beijing with full specifications of the Aegis integrated air-defense system, and China’s first Aegis-clone cruiser was recently detected at sea. On another recent occasion, Chinese agents were interdicted at the last minute while attempting to buy special electronics that would have let Beijing listen to the decoded downlinks from American spy satellites. This would have given China several invaluable prizes for free: unlimited access to a working constellation of the best spy satellites in existence, keen insights into what things the U.S. was most interested in spying on, and intelligence on how best to disguise their own secret activities from prying American eyes.
I put it to all of you in the audience today that these constant, widespread, relentless, shameless espionage efforts by the People’s Republic yield further clues as to their ultimate naval intentions: Those intentions are neither benign nor purely defensive.
Red Herrings: Possible PLAN surprise sub surge strategies
China has (or will have) an edge in three important aspects of undersea warfare-a battle which we mustn’t forget is fought from the surface and in the air and outer space as well as down in the water column. One aspect is her geographic situation. If a PLAN sub breaks through nearby anti-China choke points, that sub gains immediate access to the deep and vast waters of the Pacific Ocean, in which to exploit bad weather, protective acoustic propagation effects, and other local factors in order to disappear, lurk, and then attack. American subs based at Guam, Pearl Harbor, and the U.S. East and West Coasts, because of the tremendous distances involved, might lose the race to reach and block those choke points. The second aspect, by the 2020s, will be China’s weight of sheer numbers of subs-which we can expect by 2025 to be accompanied by a gradual shift toward more leveling of the playing field as to quality of vessels and crews between the U.S. Navy and the PLAN. The third aspect of China’s edge is that the PRC has no commitment (yet) to act as a worldwide policeman-or the opposite role more fitting to her, as a mob boss. Thus China can mass her forces to accomplish global policy via regional military actions or threats, whereas the U.S. Submarine Force is of necessity spread around the globe, and overstretched at that.
If China has three times as many subs as America, and our subs are divided between disparate theaters of conflict and counter-insurgency, China can achieve local undersea superiority in the Western Pacific, at least temporarily-and temporarily may be more than enough to consolidate her objectives. A classic advantage of the aggressor is that they can choose the time and place of attack. China thus, through shrewd planning and skilled logistics coordination, could arrange in secret to surge all of her submarines at a time that a substantial portion of American subs are undergoing maintenance in dry dock, unable to even get underway for days or weeks-a delay that could act decisively in China’s favor.
If we imagine close to 150 hostile submarines of many different classes all surging at once, even any friendly available diesel subs and ASW forces (Australia, Japan, etc.) would be unable to fill the gaps. Exploiting surprise, China could quickly achieve sea control (or at least sea denial) in major portions of the Western Pacific. Such a large number of submarines in motion at once would be impossible to keep from being noticed, of course, but that wouldn’t be the point. Chinese submarines could follow individual courses that weave around and intersect with each other to play an effective shell game -it might be impossible for surprised U.S. and allied forces to keep track of which Chinese vessel was which, further disguising actual Chinese objectives for the surge. This would be a particular problem to the degree that some ASW detections rely on optical (LIDAR, LASH), MAD, or surface-wake anomaly signatures, which are less able to identify a target by name or even by class or type, compared to active and passive sonar. (Pre-positioned undersea listening grids might not be of much help against such an overwhelming wave of sortieing vessels.) Once out in the Pacific, the Chinese subs could by pre-arrangement rendezvous to form fifty or sixty mutually supporting or widely scattered three-ship wolf packs, each an expendable task group in an unflankable barrier or uncharted smart minefield, with orders to sink any American carrier or SSN that comes charging their way. (A campaign against U.S. merchant shipping would be bad enough in itself!)
What might the PRC’s political policy and the PLAN’s military objectives be in such a hypothetical surprise-surge scenario? Let’ s assume an outside the box worst case, where Taiwan is friendly or at least neutral to Beijing, and not Beijing’ s target. Well, the Pacific Ocean is peppered with small islands and atolls, all of great strategic value in any serious naval fracas. Many of these islands were once occupied by independent natives, then were taken over by various colonial powers, and owner ships changed again as a result of World War I and World War II. Some of these islands and atolls now remain possessions of the United States. These include, for instance, Guam, Saipan, Wake Island, or Midway. Beijing could make the case that the U.S. is a hostile occupying power, and the job of the People’s Liberation Army Navy is to liberate occupied peoples. Suppose the People’s Republic were to exploit their temporary local dominance in sea power (and other military power) to invade and liberate these so-called oppressed masses and hold them under protective custodianship-permanently. This gambit fits perfectly with Beijing’s espoused ideologies, and seems likely to receive huge popular support within China. Assume that China invaded in such a way as to minimize initial American casualties, and immediately released all POWs. Would the United States, faced with such a fait accompli, and faced also with the actual or prospective loss of several CVNs and SSNs (not to mention aircraft crews and Marines and various ground troops), really be willing to mobilize and replay World War Two-style island hopping? This would of course depend on many factors, including other military commitments from which the U.S. might not be able to quickly extricate herself, the attitude of the current White House administration at the time, the state of the American economy and national deficit, and the willingness of the American people to shed blood to take back abstract little dots on a map when we ourselves, arguably, years ago snatched those dots from Spain, or independent Hawaii, or whomever.
This is exactly what I mean by a potential PRC red herring strategy. Rather than a north-south arena of attempted dominance against the island nations off her shores, especially Taiwan, instead China and Taiwan implement the 011ecou11t1y, two systems approach. Then China achieves an end-run past the other island nations in her way, accomplishes a bold west-east land grab in mid-Pacific, and dares an embarrassed U.S. to do something about it while PLA soldiers quickly dig in and install hefty anti-air defenses. Shouting matches at the UN Security Council, and fragmentary economic sanctions by third-party countries, would certainly not deter Beijing. The Red Herring Strategy reduces American stature and self-respect, perhaps forever, and leapfrogs China to the fore as a credible superpower.
This scenario, by the way, is designed to be controversial. Its purpose is to shake you up and get you to think.
There are some other points worth posing about Chinese submarine strategies and tactics:
1. While possible, it seems relatively unlikely that China would mimic the Soviet approach of establishing bastions of protected waters in which to keep her SSBNs safe from American interference while on strategic deterrent patrol. Russian and Chinese geography and hydrography are too different for this to work well. China’s only potential bastion areas, the Yellow Sea in the north and the Gulf of Tonkin in the south, are rather shallow, and in both cases one entire shoreline consists of nations potentially very hostile to China: North and South Korea in the case of the Yellow Sea, and Vietnam in the case of the Gulf of Tonkin.
2. On the other hand, Chinese SSBNs need not be very well protected or even very stealthy in order to be effective playing pieces in a grand scheme to diminish American clout and spread our SSN fleet dangerously thin. I suspect that China knows from Soviet experience in the Cold War that it’s unlikely a communist SSBN can for very long avoid getting an American (or Royal Navy?) SSN in trail in the boomer’s baffles. The job of the SSN is to destroy the SSBN promptly under certain contingencies related to possible thermonuclear war. But if even really good Chinese SSBNs can’t avoid being followed by Western SSNs (to the extent such SSNs are available), why not go for not-so-good Chinese SSBNs with not-so-good sub-launched has 1 is tic missiles? In reality, even one Chinese H-bomb warhead hitting the continental U.S. interior with a circular error probably of a wildly inaccurate 1,000 miles presents an unacceptable threat. In this way China can dilute the effectiveness of our fast-attacks on deployment without even firing a shot, by using one crappy SSBN as strategic flypaper for a superb SSN.
3. In any major conflict with China, whether cold or hot or first one and then the other, SSBNs on both sides will take on much greater importance than was the case in the struggle between the Warsaw Pact and NA TO. The reason, once again, has to do with geography. One glance at a globe will reveal that the trajectories of any ICBMs launched from the heartlands of the U.S. and China at one another must pass over the heartland of the Russian Federation. Considering that in the late 1990s, a Russian early warning radar thought that a pre-announced Norwegian science sounding rocket aimed toward the North Pole was an inbound American ICBM warhead-and President Yeltsin went as far as opening the briefcase with the nuclear go-codes before the mix-up was resolved-it would seem to be the height of madness for the U.S. and China, in any limited or all-out nuclear exchange, to fight each other right over Russia’s head. This would be an almost certain recipe for tragic misunderstandings, massive Russian retaliation against both other countries, and a true global thermonuclear holocaust. It makes much more sense for China and the U.S. to deploy SSBNs close to each other’s shores, where the missile trajectories, should it ever come to that, would be unambiguous. Granted, this is a fine example of thinking the unthinkable, but as a professional risk analyst that’s part of my job.
Conclusions: What should we do?
I believe that step one is to accept that a new cold war is already on with China. At least three strategies for dealing with this problem have been suggested:
1 . “Hope and pray.” I’ve tried to convey why I’m deeply convinced that China’s ultimate intentions aren’t benign. To hope and pray that her society and government will somehow tum peaceful and friendly simply won’t cut it. Isolationism as an American strategy spells doom.
2. “Learn to speak Chinese.” This alternative is unattractive. Surrender is not an option. Unilateral disarmament will only encourage Chinese aggression, a sure recipe for exactly the war America seeks to avoid.
3. “Wield steel fist in velvet glove.” Henry Kissinger once said that diplomacy is ineffective unless backed by useable armed force. I believe this third strategy has important potential, and will even, as more time goes by, prove to be essential both to preserving peace and-if necessary-prevailing in war.
My conclusions will look at how to implement the “steel fist in velvet glove” strategy:
1. Firstly, I think the U.S. needs to become much better at Chinese-style gamesmanship, deceit, and deception. In short, out-Sun-Tzu them!
2. We also need to learn (or relearn) truly world-class human intelligence and counter-intelligence tradecraft, and build a network of assets to counteract and counterbalance China’s espionage against the U.S. We mustn’t be shy on psychological operations either.
3. As Admiral Mullen and others have emphasized recently, the U.S. Navy needs to get better at antisubmarine warfare and also at counter-mine warfare. Important advances are being made on both fronts after years of semi-stagnation. The keys to success here remain the same as always: practice, practice, practice.
4. Unfortunately, with a few notable exceptions, in today’s world the concept of reliable allies has become an oxymoron-a self-contra-diction in terms. We must be mentally, physically, and fiscally prepared to go it alone in a major armed conflict. A robust carrier fleet remains essential, because experience has shown that we can’t count on friendly bases, or even on overflight rights, among third parties close to a theater of battle. Yes, U.S. Air Force bombers deploying directly from American territory, and refueling repeatedly in flight, provide our country with planet-wide reach, but those USAF assets alone have finite munitions delivery rates. Shuttle bombing from carriers, well protected by ASW assets including SSNs, remains a necessary war-winning tool.
5. For reasons that by now should be obvious, it’s vital to increase the VIRGINIA-class build rate to two per year as soon as possible.
6. To the extent that any further OHIO-class Trident subs are withdrawn from SSBN duty, those platforms must be converted as soon as possible to SSGNs, and not scrapped.
7. We must stay the course with the cost overruns and developmental delays of the Advanced SEAL Delivery System minisub. This transformational special ops transport vehicle is considered essential by Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Yes, the ASDS right now has problems. We need to fix them.
8. We need the largest possible SSN fleet over the next few decades to optimally conduct preventive or preemptive undersea indications and warnings missions, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions. The prolonged dwell time, stealth, and exploitation of electromagnetic surface-ducting effects make submarines indispensable platforms for all these taskings that are now a matter of national survival. We need to serve notice on China that we are watching them and are not pleased by what we see. Our submariners must continue to maintain the attitude of full-time warriors, as they did during the Cold War, and get in the adversary’s face and stay there, deployed and annoyed.
9. The American public would benefit from some systematic, accurate education on National Defense and Deterrence 10 I. Outside the military community and its supporters-enthusiasts-hobbyists, it’s sometimes shocking how unaware the average man or woman in the street really is about even the most basic aspects of military history, strategy, tactics, doctrine, and technology. The prevalence of this under-education is going to hurt us more and more in the years to come. How casualty-averse will our country be by 2020+?
In closing, I’d like to quote from Teddy Roosevelt, a genuine master of the purpose and uses of sea power. He once put it very bluntly, “Battleships are cheaper than battles.” I also want to repeat a truism mentioned often by others, that nuclear submarines are capital ships of the 21″ century. New capabilities are now emerging that were barely dreamt of when the Berlin Wall came down. To shortchange our Submarine Fleet’s size going forward, to underutilize its ever-increasing payload capacity, and to under-appreciate the hard work and sacrifices by every generation of our brave submariners, could mean that in the foreseeable future America will reap the whirlwind in a terrible conflict with China.