...There are many ways in which the Chinese could use their less advanced military to achieve a sort of political-strategic parity with us. According to one former submarine commander and naval strategist I talked to, the Chinese have been poring over every detail of our recent wars in the Balkans and the Persian Gulf, and they fully understand just how much our military power depends on naval projection—that is, on the ability of a carrier battle group to get within proximity of, say, Iraq, and fire a missile at a target deep inside the country. To adapt, the Chinese are putting their fiber-optic systems underground and moving defense capabilities deep into western China, out of naval missile range—all the while developing an offensive strategy based on missiles designed to be capable of striking that supreme icon of American wealth and power, the aircraft carrier. The effect of a single Chinese cruise missile's hitting a U.S. carrier, even if it did not sink the ship, would be politically and psychologically catastrophic, akin to al-Qaeda's attacks on the Twin Towers. China is focusing on missiles and submarines as a way to humiliate us in specific encounters. Their long-range-missile program should deeply concern U.S. policymakers.The author, Robert D. Kaplan, also points out the value of Guam as a piece of American real estate in the Pacific. While the Japanese tried to use islands as "unsinkable" aircraft carriers during WWII, Guam, in the days of ICBMs cannot be relied on to any such extent. As a base for forward operations by submarines, support ships and long range bombers, it is invaluable.
With an advanced missile program the Chinese could fire hundreds of missiles at Taiwan before we could get to the island to defend it. Such a capability, combined with a new fleet of submarines (soon to be a greater undersea force than ours, in size if not in quality), might well be enough for the Chinese to coerce other countries into denying port access to U.S. ships. Most of China's seventy current submarines are past-their-prime diesels of Russian design; but these vessels could be used to create mobile minefields in the South China, East China, and Yellow Seas, where, as the Wall Street Journal reporter David Lague has written, "uneven depths, high levels of background noise, strong currents and shifting thermal layers" would make detecting the submarines very difficult. Add to this the seventeen new stealthy diesel submarines and three nuclear ones that the Chinese navy will deploy by the end of the decade, and one can imagine that China could launch an embarrassing strike against us, or against one of our Asian allies. Then there is the whole field of ambiguous coercion—for example, a series of non-attributable cyberattacks on Taiwan's electrical-power grids, designed to gradually demoralize the population. This isn't science fiction; the Chinese have invested significantly in cyberwarfare training and technology. Just because the Chinese are not themselves democratic doesn't mean they are not expert in manipulating the psychology of a democratic electorate.
What we can probably expect from China in the near future is specific demonstrations of strength—like its successful forcing down of a U.S. Navy EP-3E surveillance plane in the spring of 2001. Such tactics may represent the trend of twenty-first-century warfare better than anything now happening in Iraq—and China will have no shortage of opportunities in this arena. During one of our biennial Rim of the Pacific naval exercises the Chinese could sneak a sub under a carrier battle group and then surface it. They could deploy a moving target at sea and then hit it with a submarine- or land-based missile, demonstrating their ability to threaten not only carriers but also destroyers, frigates, and cruisers. (Think about the political effects of the terrorist attack on the USS Cole, a guided-missile destroyer, off the coast of Yemen in 2000—and then think about a future in which hitting such ships will be easier.) They could also bump up against one of our ships during one of our ongoing Freedom of Navigation exercises off the Asian coast. The bumping of a ship may seem inconsequential, but keep in mind that in a global media age such an act can have important strategic consequences. Because the world media tend to side with a spoiler rather than with a reigning superpower, the Chinese would have a built-in political advantage.
What should be our military response to such developments? We need to go more unconventional. Our present Navy is mainly a "blue-water" force, responsible for the peacetime management of vast oceanic spaces—no small feat, and one that enables much of the world's free trade. The phenomenon of globalization could not occur without American ships and sailors. But increasingly what we will need is, in essence, three separate navies: one designed to maintain our ability to use the sea as a platform for offshore bombing (to support operations like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan); one designed for littoral Special Operations combat (against terrorist groups based in and around Indonesia, Malaysia, and the southern Philippines, for example); and one designed to enhance our stealth capabilities (for patrolling the Chinese mainland and the Taiwan Strait, among other regions). All three of these navies will have a role in deflecting China, directly and indirectly, given the variety of dysfunctional Pacific Island republics that are strengthening their ties with Beijing.
Our aircraft carriers already provide what we need for that first navy; we must further develop the other two. The Special Operations navy will require lots of small vessels, among them the littoral-combat ship being developed by General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin. Approximately 400 feet long, the LCS requires only a small crew, can operate in very shallow water, can travel very fast (up to forty knots), and will deploy Special Operations Forces (namely, Navy SEALs). Another critical part of the littoral navy will be the Mark V special-operations craft. Only eighty feet long, the Mark V can travel at up to fifty knots and has a range of 600 nautical miles. With a draft of only five feet, it can deliver a SEAL platoon directly onto a beach—and at some $5 million apiece, the Pentagon can buy dozens for the price of just one F/A-22 fighter jet.
Developing the third type of navy will require real changes. Particularly as the media become more intrusive, we must acquire more stealth, so that, for example, we can send commandos ashore from a submarine to snatch or kill terrorists, or leave special operators behind to carry out missions in an area over which no government has control. Submarines have disadvantages, of course: they offer less of a bombing platform than aircraft carriers, and pound for pound are more costly. Nevertheless, they are the wave of the future, in no small measure because protecting aircraft carriers from missile attack may slowly become a pursuit of diminishing returns for us.
Our stealth navy would be best served by the addition of new diesel submarines of the sort that Australia, Japan, South Korea, Germany, and Sweden already have in the water or under development—and which China will soon have too. But because of our global policing responsibilities, which will necessarily keep us in the nuclear-sub business, we're unlikely to switch to diesel submarines. Instead we will adapt what we've got. Already we are refitting four Trident subs with conventional weapons, and making them able to support the deployment of SEAL teams and eventually, perhaps, long-range unmanned spy aircraft. The refitted Tridents can act as big mother ships for smaller assets deployed closer to the littorals.
What set it all up, of course, is set up in this:
...China's rulers may not be democrats in the literal sense, but they are seeking a liberated First World lifestyle for many of their 1.3 billion people—and doing so requires that they safeguard sea-lanes for the transport of energy resources from the Middle East and elsewhere. Naturally, they do not trust the United States and India to do this for them. Given the stakes, and given what history teaches us about the conflicts that emerge when great powers all pursue legitimate interests, the result is likely to be the defining military conflict of the twenty-first century: if not a big war with China, then a series of Cold War—style standoffs that stretch out over years and decades. And this will occur mostly within PACOM's area of responsibility...Oh. it's sea lanes again.
You know, these things:
Chokepoints: Maritime Economic Concerns in Southeast Asia Institute for National Strategic Studies, Washington,D.C. (National Defense University, 1996)
(color and bursts added)
from Straits, Passages and Chokepoints: A Maritime Petroleum Distribution by Jean-Paul Rodrigue Rodrigue. Similar charts exist for other raw materials, such as metals.
(see my earlier post here)
As for Mr. Kaplan's analysis of the for a "3 Navy" US Navy, he's mostly right, and most of it is being undertaken, though I have my doubts about whether diesel submarines will be back in the US inventory anytime soon, especially if our allies already have them...but perhaps some submariners have a different view...
Update2: A 2003 Naval Institute article on the Chinese Navy & its submarines found here