William S. Murray is an associate research professor and the Co-Director of the Halsey Bravo research effort at the United States Naval War College. He served on, and qualified to command nuclear powered submarines. He is the co-editor of the United States Naval Institute books China’s New Nuclear Submarine Force and China’s Energy Strategy; The Impact on Beijing’s Maritime Policies. He has published articles in International Security, the U.S. Army War College Parameters, the journal Comparative Strategy, the United States Naval Institute’s Proceedings, Jane’s Intelligence Review, Undersea Warfare, and the US Naval War College Review.
In this book military analyst Robert Haddick, a former Marine officer, describes why and how the United States military should fundamentally change to prevent, or prevail in a war with China in the Western Pacific. The author’s derivation of why China’s military modernization and potential demands our respect and attention, and why the US military’s means of countering any future Chinese military aggression should fundamentally change, is very well done. In particular, his discussion of the limitations represented by the USAF’s and USN’s reliance on short-range air power, and how China apparently intends to take advantage of the factors is both compelling and sobering. Also quite good is his analysis of why the approaches described in the Department of Defense’s Air-Sea Battle (ASB) and the CJCS’ Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC) are probably not up to the task of successfully deterring or defeating China. Completing this trifecta of valuable analysis is Haddick’s consideration and ultimate rejection of T. X. Hammes’s strategy of Offshore Control which argues for blockade options as a means of countering Chinese military aggression. Informed readers might not agree with Haddick on all aspects of his logic, but most will concede he makes his case well. This sets the stage for the second half of the book, in which he describes how the Pentagon should respond to China’s implicit threat to forcefully evict the US military from the Western Pacific. It is here, where Haddick builds what he calls an effective Competitive Strategy against China, that the author’s logic becomes less convincing. Haddick argues that the best way to deter or defeat China is to “hold at risk, with conventional strike operations, assets valued by China’s leaders, in an effort to dissuade those leaders from coercive strategies”. He lists some of the classes of potential targets his strategy envisions striking, including underground and other hardened military facilities protecting “command and control structures, logistics assets, its missile forces, and some of its naval assets”. As the author notes, these assets are well protected by China’s modern integrated air defenses, which leads him to assert that the Air Force must build a follow-on to the B-2 stealth bomber, known as the Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRSB). Only aircraft this large and this stealthy, he notes, can carry ordnance such as the 30,000 pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) necessary to destroy such hardened targets. But this leads to an irreducible problem. One might expect that the LRSB will be approximately the same size as the B-2, which can apparently carry sixteen 2,000 pound bombs. This suggests that the LRSB could carry at most two, and probably only one MOP. This in turn, indicates that the US would have to build many, many LRSBs to credibly “hold at risk” the many (hundreds? thousands?) hardened or deeply buried targets Haddick envisions destroying. He also recommends that a variant of the LRSB should carry dozens of very long-range (500 km) air-to-air missiles and function as an airsuperiority bomber, and that the Navy should buy and employ LSRBs from land bases as a means of achieving sea-superiority in the Western Pacific.
All these uses for the LRSB stuck this reviewer as unlikely if not fanciful, especially as there is little precedent upon which to base a belief the Air Force can build 80-100 LRSBs at its estimated $550 million unit cost, or that Congress will fund the construction of very many LRSB, whatever the unit cost. One can legitimately question the wisdom of building a military strategy upon such an uncertain foundation. Some of Haddick’s other recommendations also tend to ignore additional limitations and obstacles. For example, he states his concept requires the ability to locate and destroy China’s mobile missile launchers. His solution to this vexing challenge is to build very large numbers (he implies many thousands) of a new version of a small autonomous weapon developed and abandoned in the 1990s called the Low Cost Autonomous Attack System (LOCAAS). In limited tests this meter-long cruise missile could independently and autonomously find, classify, and attack mobile targets such as missile launchers. Haddick acknowledges that the old-LOCAAS’ reported half hour endurance and 100 km range would limit the system’s utility in a China scenario, but addresses this fundamental shortcoming by stating that “The next-generation LOCAAS needs a much greater range and loiter time, ideally thousands of kilometers and hours or days of search time.” Similarly, Haddick considers the TLAM’s utility to his strategy and concludes “the Air Force and Navy need a new land-attack cruise missile with at least double the range of the 1,600 kilometer Tomahawk.”
Unfortunately, there is little reason to think such improvements in cruise missiles’ range and endurance is physically possible. Jet fuels have a known, limited specific energy, and there is no chance that turbofan or other engines’ efficiencies can achieve the orders-of-magnitude performance increases necessary to meet Haddick’s many/small/smart/cheap/long-endurance requirements. A new-LOCAAS would therefore have to be much larger than the 1990’s three-foot long LOCAAS –at least on scale with and almost certainly larger than the current TOMAHAWK Land Attack Missile (TLAM), which cannot achieve the performance Haddick’s recommendations require. Doubling TLAMs’ range will require a new, larger missile, meaning fewer will fit in a given surface ship, submarine or airplane, which works at cross purposes to Haddick’s requirements. Perhaps boosted hypersonic warheads or some other exotic means could meet his demanding performance criteria, but absent a technological breakthrough that redefines aerodynamics, that is unlikely to happen any time soon, if ever. Strategies that rely on advanced weapons must be firmly based on what is physically achievable. It isn’t clear that at least some of the concepts and strategies in Fire in the Water are.
Even if one suspends disbelief about future weapons’ performance, another perplexing aspect of the book is its assertion that any dissuasion strategy will have to hold at risk “assets valued by China’s leaders”. Haddick argues that extensive conventional strikes against the Chinese mainland are irreducibly necessary to successfully deter or fight China. Haddick, however, criticized JOAC and ASB’s reliance on mainland strikes “to destroy the adversary’s reconnaissance and command systems” as dangerously escalatory. Despite this, his alternative relies on comparable strikes to destroy similar targets in hardened bunkers or deep in tunnels, and also requires the ability to “hold at risk” very large numbers of multiple classes of land-based tactical targets. Haddick does not adequately explain why his strategy is structurally any less escalatory than that described in the JOAC or in ASB.
A larger problem looms over all of this. Reasonable people can disagree about the wisdom or necessity of conducting conventional strikes against a nuclear China. Yet such strikes are inherently escalatory. This fact obligates advocates of mainland strikes to convince others that a deterrent that relied upon such measures would be credible, especially given the disparity of perceived value in the objects being fought over. China wants Taiwan very badly, officially calling it a core interest over which it is willing to fight, and apparently is unwilling to compromise.
China also, as Haddick clearly relates, strongly desires and is willing to push hard against accepted international norms for the Senkaku Islands and control of the South China Sea. None of these objects, however, unarguably constitutes a vital interest to the United States, which could logically lead a future Chinese leader to conclude that a US threat to risk escalation through extensive mainland strikes was simply a bluff begging to be called. One could make a stronger case arguing that preserving a US-led order in the Western Pacific warrants taking larger risks. Yet even if that argument is made, it is far from clear that the best way to deter such conflicts is through a strategy that fundamentally relies on extensive mainland strikes. Other alternatives, such as the denial strategies forwarded by the Naval Post Graduate School’s Wayne Hughes and Jeff Kline (Between Peace and the Air-Sea Battle) and the Naval War College’s Andrew Erickson (Deterrence by Denial: How to Prevent China From Using Force) have the potential to effectively deter and do not rely on extensive mainland strikes. Such potential strategies therefore deserve careful consideration. However Fire on the Water did not really do this, and instead argued strenuously in favor of a more punishment-based method of deterrence.
A war with China is one that certainly must be deterred. But effective deterrence must be credible, as the Naval Submarine League’s The Submarine Review’s readers certainly understand. The great question then is “How can this deterrence best be established and maintained?” Unfortunately, the strategy proposed in Fire on the Water, and the forces necessary to support it, does not seem credible, at least to this reviewer. Despite this fundamental shortcoming, the book remains useful since the author explained clearly how the United States and China arrived at their current military state of affairs, why that condition is potentially unstable, and why current and many proposed military approaches for dealing with this issue are inadequate. These factors alone will advance the public debate on this important subject. Consequently, NSL Review readers will find this book worthwhile, whether they agree with author Robert Haddick’s recommendations, or not.