As we enter the century’s third decade, an openly interventionist team will imminently take back control of America’s foreign policy. Geopolitical instability may become acute, and a dispute over maritime rights is the most likely form of escalation. Asia-Pacific is the most likely theater. And the most important underlying factor leading to military conflict is a flawed U.S. naval strategy of undisputed command of the sea.
The risk to the U.S. from a confrontational foreign policy based on a flawed naval strategy is high, with a variety of negative outcomes up to and including nuclear war with China. That the U.S. military is well aware of that risk was underlined by a new strategy document released in December, entitled “Advantage at Sea—Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power.” In it, both China and Russia are mentioned as threats “to this era of global peace and prosperity”—but especially China.
“We prioritize competition with China due to its growing economic and military strength, increasing aggressiveness, and demonstrated intent to dominate its regional waters and remake the international order in its favor,” the American military planners wrote. “If our rivals escalate into conflict, becoming our adversaries, we must control the seas to deny their objectives, defeat their forces, protect our homeland, and defend our allies.”
Joseph Biden and his team have made bellicose statements directed at Russia—notably those by his Secretary of State-designate Antony Blinken—but there is little risk of America coming into direct conflict with its only peer in terms of the size of its nuclear arsenal. The new Biden administration is more likely to heighten the pressure on Moscow indirectly, by encouraging regime-change operations in Russia’s near-abroad, arming Ukraine with offensive weaponry, introducing new sanctions, and renewing the push for NATO’s eastward expansion. Aggressive certainly, but without providing a casus belli.
The sea is the source of modern conflict. Unplanned incidents on land have not triggered wars in modern times. The unpleasantness over Helen of Troy was a long time ago, after all. An exception may be made for planned terrestrial accidents, such as Nazi Germany’s false-flag attack on its own Gleiwitz radio station on Aug. 31, 1939, which it used to justify the invasion of Poland. On the other hand, incidents at sea have historically created spirals of escalation which may not have been planned in advance by either party, the explosion of the USS Maine in 1898, kicking off the Spanish-American War, being a prime example.
The end result of that incident was a decisive shift from America’s land-focused manifest destiny of the mid-19th century to its thalassocratic obsession of the 20th. Admiral Alfred Mahan was its Marx, President Theodore Roosevelt was its Lenin, his cousin FDR was its Stalin. We still live in the era of their heirs.
An American military doctrine centered around naval power was defined by World War II itself. Six months after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy decisively defeated the Japanese in the Battle of Midway. Japan could never expect to win the war against the United States; but after Midway it could no longer avoid total defeat.
Tactically, operationally, and strategically, Midway marked the ascent of a previously untested technology, the aircraft carrier, into the indispensable backbone of sea power. From that point on, surface vessels could no longer hope to operate without air cover. For naval battle groups in distant oceans, such protection could be provided only by aircraft launched from carriers. Before the war, the U.S. Navy was a battleship-based force. In 1942, it rapidly became a carrier-based navy, remaining so to this day.
During the Cold War and in its aftermath, the U.S. Navy and its carrier-based fleets enjoyed undisputed command of the world’s oceans.
Almost eight decades later, it is time to rethink the strategic assumptions and operational doctrine behind the continued focus on aircraft carriers. America’s reliance on this WWII technology is problematic in view of the rapid development of anti-access/area denial weapons, which were first adopted by Russia and then—far more significantly—by China.
Avoiding military jargon, these weapons can be described in plain language as up-to-date, technologically advanced coastal defense systems. For over a decade, Chinese coastal defense developers have been perfecting layered anti-ship and anti-aircraft defenses that would make it extremely perilous for U.S. aircraft carriers to operate close enough to a defended shore to deploy effectively their aircraft against land-based targets.
Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Soviets had invested heavily in their naval assets in the mature phase of the Cold War, especially in their submarines, but the USSR remained a paradigmatic land power. Unable even to approach the size, operational reach, and effectiveness of the U.S. Navy, the Soviets focused on creating land buffer zones and fighting proxy wars.
Those were the Soviets’ reactive means of countering America’s global military, political, and economic reach, which was based on America’s command of the sea. America employed a latter-day Anaconda Strategy against the Soviets, surrounding them with naval power buttressed by carrier-based U.S. Navy battle groups. America itself remained unassailable, as witnessed by its string of global alliances in general, and by the 1962 Cuban missile crisis in particular.
Over the past decade, however, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army has developed a significant naval arm. It is fully integrated with its still-dominant land force, and embraces the system of land-based sea-denial weapons systems, primarily swarms of “carrier killer” missiles. After inexplicably abdicating her sea power under the Mings in the 1430s, with terrible geostrategic consequences, China is back in the maritime game.
China’s emergence as a sea power is entirely due to the fact that after the end of the Cold War the United States decided to convert its by then uncontestable preeminence into permanent global hegemony, a concept called “full-spectrum dominance.” China’s decision to challenge this audacious, historically unprecedented strategy reflected the natural anti-hegemonic tendencies of rising powers through history. It is still largely reactive in nature, though not necessarily lastingly so.
In Washington the Chinese response triggered the emergence of a robust joint Air Force-Navy operational concept, which became known as AirSea Battle (ASB). Announced 10 years ago by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, it had the specific purpose of integrating U.S. naval and air assets in order to overcome China’s anti-access capabilities in her near seas.
The ASB approach to any potential conflict with China was based on a rapid and massive attack against China’s command-and-control systems and communications, followed by a longer conventional fight to force Beijing into a desirable political settlement. There was nothing particularly novel about ASB. It was inspired by the older concept of AirLand Battle, and was broadly reminiscent of the model of America’s wars against far weaker adversaries in recent decades.
ASB has since been replaced by the clumsy, militarese acronym JAM-GC (“Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons”). The new acronym changed nothing in the overall strategy of establishing command of the sea—“all-domain access” in Pentagonese—in the near seas of an opponent, China, which possesses highly developed coastal defense systems.
Whatever one calls it, the ASB concept offers solutions which are problematic for two reasons.
Strategically, when the layers of jargon are removed, it clearly proposes an all-out war with China for ostensibly limited ends: U.S. control of Taiwan, the Yellow Sea, or the South China Sea. An imbalance between ends and means is inherent to the concept. China has nuclear weapons, and ASB carries an unacceptable risk of uncontrollable escalation, which would far outweigh any attainable benefits. Risking San Francisco for Taipei is absurd.
Amidst the fog of war, the loss of a $17 billion carrier with a crew of 4,000 sailors is eminently possible. Such a catastrophic event would exert great pressure on the U.S. to respond with nuclear weapons. The push from the military likely would be much greater than that exerted by Gen. Douglas MacArthur on the Truman Administration in the early 1950s, after the Chinese intervened with a million “volunteers” in the Korean War.
On the other hand, if the battle were to go well for the U.S., initially at least, the Chinese may decide that they risk losing face and that their geostrategic ambitions would be in danger of being pushed back decades. Worse still, they could conclude that the Chinese Communist Party’s regime may not survive the appearance of a humiliating defeat. In either case, Beijing may resort to nuclear escalation to avert a politically unacceptable outcome. Furthermore, the Chinese would almost certainly use nuclear weapons if they were convinced that the U.S. objective was to destroy their capacity to retaliate.
Operationally, in recent years China has developed highly sophisticated means to resist blinding attacks against her coastal defense systems, radar installations, communications, and satellites. “Severely limiting situational awareness” of Chinese assets, in the phrase of Pentagon planners, may appear to work as initially planned by ASB theorists. But without the unattainable certainty of crippling her missile force to make the surrounding seas safe for carrier-centered U.S. Navy battle groups, the ASB fails both as a concept and as an operational blueprint.
The ASB issue brings us back to the core problem of mission and strategic doctrine: how to define “threats,” and how to match goals and capabilities. America’s strategic failures in Afghanistan and Iraq were never due to the shortage of ships, or the failure to control sea lanes. By contrast, Russia was able to turn the tide in Syria with a few dozen planes and minimal naval deployment. There is a chronic mismatch between what the U.S. Navy can do and what it should be doing in the real world of the mature 21st century.
To a geostrategic realist it is clear that 10, 12, or 15 American carrier groups sailing the world’s oceans 24/7 at an astronomic cost makes no sense. There is a solid front of well-funded vested interests inside the Beltway and across the nation pretending otherwise, of course. For reasons unrelated to rational discourse they are trying to conceal the fact that carriers are as obsolete as the battleships, which they so decisively put out of business in 1941-1942.
Let us reiterate the bare facts: in order to launch their manned aircraft, carriers need to sail 500 miles closer to the enemy shore than their 1960s predecessors, making them extremely vulnerable to long-range drones and ship-killing missiles. If the risk of this happening is too great, the carriers will have to stay out of any no-go zone such as the South China Sea, which would render them useless.
From 1914 to 1918, millions of soldiers died in and between the trenches of Flanders, Galicia, and other fronts because the warring parties’ commanders failed to grasp that the technology had shifted decisively in favor of the defender. Barbed wire, mines, and above all machine guns were all present in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05, but the great powers’ general staffs failed to take notice. The cult of the offensive reigned supreme, with tragic consequences. The failure of the Schlieffen Plan triggered unspeakable tragedies culminating at the Somme and Verdun.
The cult of the carrier is the exact naval equivalent, today, of the pre-1914 cult of the offensive. Over a century later, it has the potential for even more awful consequences in terms of human lives and strategic blunders. Just as history teaches us that no power has been able to maintain open-ended land supremacy, which was not ultimately destructive to its own survival, attempts at establishing and maintaining naval supremacy ad infinitum are doomed to fail. Athens learned that much to her peril in the finale of the Peloponnesian War, never to recover. Ditto the Spain of Philip II. The U.S. is no exception.
If Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, and other regional powers big and small are worried about China’s actions in her maritime near-abroad, they should build their own navies as they deem fit (carriers included) to face the threat as they perceive it, or as it really exists. They should also create alliances, bilateral and multilateral, to deal with it. Of course, they have the financial and technological wherewithal to do so. They have no political incentive, however, as long as the U.S. Navy, at a breathtaking cost to the American taxpayer, is pursuing the naval variant of the absurd strategy of full-spectrum dominance. This is untenable, incoherent, and criminal.
America is a mighty trading and military power separated from the Eurasian land mass by two great oceans. Both need to be defended against any hostile intruder at all times. This requires a navy capable of facing any threat rationally defined on both sides. This is doable and desirable.
An alertly defensive naval strategy is the sine qua non of a post-hegemonic global grand strategy. This is some light years away from the massive navy we have today, entrusted with enforcing an open-ended status quo based on global hegemony in every corner of the planet.
To the detriment of the American interest, it is also at least four years away from a rational foreign policy-making team in Washington, D.C. capable of developing a rational grand strategy.