Win Without Fighting: China Waging A Maritime Insurgency – Could Beat U.S. Without Firing A Shot

Win Without Fighting

The United States is devoting significant energy to preparing for great power war, but China is waging a maritime insurgency—and could win without firing a shot. · June 1, 2020

The prioritization of China as the Department of Defense’s pacing threat and the renewed emphasis on the core naval function of contending for command of the sea are welcome developments. Yet, what this means in terms of how the Sea Services should be equipped, trained, and employed remains unsettled. In the rush to embrace the new paradigm of great power competition, the services risk going in the wrong direction.

Recent statements by senior leaders suggest that U.S. strategy and force design vis-à-vis China has up to now been based on the following sequence of thought:

1. The principal threat from China is a high-intensity war of aggression.

2. War with China is expected between 2030 and 2035, giving the United States 10–15 years to prepare.

3. The best way to preserve U.S. interests, therefore, will be to field a force that can win (and thus hopefully deter) a high-intensity war in the western Pacific by 2030 or 2035.

While the focus on the warfighting dimension of the Chinese threat is essential to ensure deterrence at the high end of the conflict spectrum, these assumptions are both incomplete and faulty. War is not China’s first or only option. An excessive preoccupation with preparing the fleet for a worst-case scenario risks leaving U.S. forces inadequately equipped, trained, and postured to compete and defend U.S. and allied interests against subtler forms of attack below the level of armed conflict. Though China’s ability to wage a high-intensity war is menacing and growing, its lines of effort in the gray zone are not notional. They are in course—and accelerating.

The first duty of the Sea Services is to be ready to fight and win wars; it also is vital that the fleet be trained and equipped to win without fighting. Force development and force design decisions going forward must balance and find synergies between these two imperatives. To continue to allow decisions about the future of U.S. seapower to be guided uncritically by flawed assumptions about the nature of the primary threat would be to court strategic defeat.

Competition Does Not Necessarily Mean War

Though few if any say it publicly, in private, many senior leaders in the Pentagon worry that war with China may be increasingly unavoidable. Former Marine Corps Commandant General Robert Neller spoke of this during his tenure, telling Marines “I hope I’m wrong, but there’s a war coming,” reiterating more colorfully, “there’s a big ass fight coming.”1

Fear is a healthy motivator in strategic planning, and the growing capacity and capability of Chinese seapower leaves no room for complacency. But while war with China is a worrying possibility, it is by no means inevitable.

First, it is within the power of the United States to deter China from a high-intensity war of aggression against its maritime neighbors along the first island chain. With the requisite investments in antiaccess/area denial and long-range strike capabilities, innovative concepts for their operational employment, and the resilient and agile logistics train to support them, the United States and its allies and partners could raise the prospective costs and reduce the likelihood of success of any large-scale expeditionary adventurism to the point that no rational Chinese leader would seriously contemplate it.2 The principal barriers to adoption of this strategy are budgetary constraints, bureaucratic inertia, and the recent transnational political trend toward denigration of key relationships within the U.S.-led alliance system. All of these are internal hurdles, however, and are thus within the United States’ power to solve.

Second—and this should engender grave concern—China may not embark on war because it has no need to. Why spend blood, treasure, and political capital fighting the world’s foremost nuclear power and its network of allies when it can achieve its revisionist geopolitical objectives without firing a shot? Over the past decade, China has advanced its agenda through distinctly aggressive moves that mostly have failed to produce a serious U.S. response.

Perhaps the best example is in the South China Sea. Since submitting its claim to “indisputable sovereignty” over the area within the Nine-Dash Line to the United Nations in 2009, China:

  • Has seized control of Scarborough Shoal, a strategic maritime feature well within the exclusive economic zone of a U.S. treaty ally
  • Has paved over seven reefs to create a formidable air, sea, and missile-basing complex in the Spratly Islands
  • Has deployed advanced fighter and bomber aircraft and mobile surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missile systems to fortify those installations
  • Is using its ill-gotten territorial gains as logistics staging hubs for China Coast Guard and People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia forces that are intimidating local Southeast Asian civilians to deny them the fruits of their own internationally recognized exclusive economic zones3
  • Is building a new base on the coast of Cambodia that will allow Chinese forces to encircle Vietnam and cut off its sea lines of communications at will4

Michael Collins, the CIA’s deputy assistant director for the East Asia Mission Center, summed up the situation at the 2018 Aspen Security Forum:

What they’re waging against us is fundamentally a cold war. A cold war not like we saw during the Cold War, but a cold war by definition. A country that exploits all avenues of power, licit and illicit, public and private, economic, military, to undermine the standing of your rival relative to your own standing, without resorting to conflict.5

Such nomenclature has fallen out of style, in no small part because of vigorous Chinese verbal attacks on anyone who suggests the United States should apply lessons from its most successful long-term grand strategy to the contemporary Chinese challenge. Though China’s accusatory refrain of “Cold War thinking” has turned the intellectual foundations underpinning the victory over the Soviet Union into a dirty word, U.S. policymakers should not let a branding problem prevent them from acknowledging the dynamic that clearly is at work today. The United States can win the next cold war, but only if it realizes it is in one. If the phrase “Cold War” is so 20th century, perhaps they could adapt China’s own description of its current approach: “war without gun smoke.”6

The Threat Is Closer Than We Think

The Chinese threat is not 10–15 years away. It is here. Not only do Chinese forces already pose a serious war-fighting challenge if matters come to blows, but China’s strategies short of war constitute a real and present danger to U.S. interests and allies in Asia and to some of the most critical pillars of the U.S.-led rules-based international order.

In the South China Sea, China is working to achieve nothing less than the subjugation of its neighbors’ civilian maritime populations—and, in turn, their governments—to Beijing’s authoritarian vision of maritime sovereignty. China is waging a “maritime insurgency” that seeks to snuff out freedom of the sea and overthrow the U.S.-backed system of international law that upholds it. These are vital U.S. national interests, and allowing China’s campaign to succeed would do grievous long-term harm.7

U.S. leaders also should keep in mind that a combination of factors could accelerate China’s timetable for achieving its desired revisions to the international environment. Between a population expected to peak in 2029 before aging into “unstoppable decline,” a burgeoning naval force that will grow vastly more expensive as it heads toward “massive overhauls a decade hence,” and what retired chief of Pacific Fleet intelligence Captain James Fanell postulates could be a political timeframe for a triumphant celebration of the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic in 2049, China is likely to be a more formidable challenge in the near term than the long term.8 To this end, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday’s remark at the Naval Institute’s 2019 Defense Forum Washington that he thinks about China not in a “2035 mind-set,” but rather “in a much closer period of time in terms of potential trouble,” is encouraging.9

Unfortunately, the Sea Services’ planning and procurement processes continue to be oriented toward a large-scale blue-water war years down the road. The Navy’s future frigate is scheduled to start procurement in 2020 and be procured in full as a 20-ship class by 2030, yet the first ship will not be delivered until 2026—suggesting the first deployment will not occur until 2027 or 2028.10 The Navy increasingly sees smaller unmanned surface vessels as a cornerstone of the future fleet as sensors and shooters and is looking to procure ten large unmanned surface vessels over the next five years. In his widely acclaimed planning guidance, Marine Corps Commandant General David Berger articulated a desire to redesign his service with all speed to operate as an expeditionary “stand-in force” to control maritime space from land as part of an integrated naval service, but he has stated this process has a ten-year time horizon.11

This is not meant to unjustly castigate Sea Service leaders—procurement processes have become painfully slow, and a large portion of the shipbuilding budget in the coming years will be taken up by the Columbia-class ballistic-missile submarines. Nevertheless, it is worth taking stock of the present pace after a year in which Chinese shipbuilders launched no fewer than 28 major surface combatants, including 10 destroyers.12

Warfighting First—But Navies Do More

Beyond the lengthy timeframe for procuring the Sea Services’ current vision of the future force, the proposed mix of assets may not be adequate to compete effectively with great power adversaries in confrontations short of war. Technologically sophisticated forces optimized for high-end warfighting are not necessarily well-adapted to low-end tasks.

The British discovered this when facing off against NATO ally Iceland in the Cod Wars, a series of disputes over fishing rights and international maritime law between 1958 and 1976 that, despite their name, were in fact gray zone confrontations. Though it outmatched its antagonists in numbers, firepower, and air support, a rotational force of more than 20 advanced Royal Navy frigates designed to hunt Soviet submarines found themselves at a disadvantage against the small, stoutly built patrol vessels and converted trawlers of the Icelandic Coast Guard in the close maneuvering and ship-to-ship ramming incidents that defined the conflict.13 As the U.S. Navy experienced in 2017, the thin hulls of modern blue-water escorts built for speed and evading rather than withstanding enemy weapons do not perform well in collisions.

In the last of the three Cod Wars, 15 British frigates were involved in collisions, suffering numerous hull gashes and lost bows—and one frigate sustained such serious structural damage that she had to be reduced to a shore training ship.14 And strategically, the Royal Navy’s efforts amounted to naught, as Iceland successfully extended the boundaries of its exclusive economic zone three times despite almost universal international opposition, destroying Britain’s northern fishing industry. It is imperative that the United States avoid the same pitfalls.

Preparation for high-intensity war alone will not be sufficient to preserve U.S. and allied interests against Chinese aggression. Deterrence and defense must be comprehensive, up and down what joint doctrine now refers to as the “competition continuum.”15 Moreover, the requirements for deterrence by denial short of war and actual warfighting are not the same. The challenge will be how to strike an appropriate balance between the two while maximizing crossover to ensure deterrence forces are both effective and economical short of war while remaining a net contributor to and enabler of the fleet’s success in the opening phases of a kinetic exchange.

For example, capabilities and operational methods now being developed as part of littoral operations in a contested environment, expeditionary advanced base operations, and distributed maritime operations could be readily adapted to a “maritime counterinsurgency” campaign to protect civilians in the South China Sea. Execution of maritime counterinsurgency in peacetime also would create opportunities for U.S. forces to build partnerships and establish regular access to strategic locations that would better position them to rapidly attrite enemy forces early in a shooting war and open the way for friendly reinforcements.

Similar analysis can be applied to individual platforms. With its heavy gun armament, a range of more than 600 nautical miles, and readily adaptable design, the Mk VI patrol boat would be an ideal platform for much of the on-the-water work operating with partners and maintaining a persistent, credibly permanent presence among local civilian mariners. At $15 million per hull including government-furnished equipment, a force of 50 Mk VIs could be purchased for well under half the procurement cost of a single Arleigh Burke–class destroyer, three-quarters the projected cost of a new frigate, and a comparable cost to a littoral combat ship with a mission module. Supported at the company or squadron level by an agile light tender, a force of Mk VIs would lend itself to wartime in-depth raiding operations as well, and if equipped with an over-the-horizon antiship missile, could contribute to the fleet at large as a missile shooter.16 An extension of this logic would support a larger and longer-legged gun and missile-armed fast-attack craft along the lines of the Korean Navy’s PKG class.

The lack of translation between wartime and gray zone deterrence utility is particularly salient when it comes to unmanned platforms. Robots, as the saying goes, do not have mothers. This is a virtue in a warfighting scenario, where unmanned platforms are more “risk-worthy” than their manned cousins, whose loss likely would entail injury or death to human crews in addition to the loss of the asset. Yet in circumstances short of full-scale war, this lack of humans is a liability to deterrence and offers an aggressive adversary an invitation to attack without fear of retaliation based on the death of a servicemember.

In 2019, multiple sovereign U.S. aircraft were fired on and shot down in international airspace by Iran and its proxies in a gray zone campaign against the United States and its allies in the Persian Gulf.17 Because the lost platforms were unmanned, these unprovoked kinetic attacks were not met with a commensurate military response from the United States. This would suggest that platforms built to be optionally unmanned would have far greater strategic utility across the competition continuum than those that are solely unmanned. While more expensive than a solely unmanned alternative, an optionally unmanned platform would benefit from the deterrence value of a human crew in operations short of war while retaining the ability to remove the crew and transition to remote or autonomous operation for more hazardous missions in wartime.

It is easy for the Sea Services to envision fighting a set-piece fleet engagement like a game of chess that would see them striking opposing pieces with seemingly decisive maneuvers on a grand oceanic game board. It is inconvenient, therefore, that the United States’ primary opponent operates more along the lines of the game of Go, an exponentially more complex game of position where victory is gained by gradually surrounding the enemy rather than going through them directly. In this new age of great power competition, the Sea Services must scrutinize even their most closely held articles of faith to ensure strategic effectiveness at all levels, so they may win without fighting and beat their adversaries at their own game.

1. Hope Hodge Seck, “Marine Leaders Highlight Norway Unit’s Role as Deterrent to Russia,”, 21 December 2017; and Amy B. Wang, “Top General Tells Marines to Be Prepared for a Big Fight,” The Washington Post, 23 December 2017.

2. James Holmes, “Defend the First Island Chain,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 140, no. 4 (April 2014); Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., “Archipelagic Defense: The Japan-U.S. Alliance and Preserving Peace and Stability in the Western Pacific,” Sasakawa Peace Foundation, 10 August 2017; Tanner Greer, “Taiwan Can Win a War with China,” Foreign Policy, 25 September 2018; and Thomas G. Mahnken, Travis Sharp, Billy Fabian, and Peter Kouretsos, “Tightening the Chain: Implementing a Strategy of Maritime Pressure in the Western Pacific,” CSBA, 23 May 2019.

3. Remarks of Greg Poling and Collin Koh Swee Lean, “South China Sea” panel, China’s Maritime Ambitions in the First Island Chain and Beyond Conference, CSIS, 18 November 2019.

4. Hannah Beech, “A Jungle Airstrip Stirs Suspicions about China’s Plans for Cambodia,” New York Times, 22 December 2019.

5. Remarks of Michael Collins, “China Rising” panel, 2018 Aspen Security Forum, 20 July 2018.

6. Andrew S. Erickson and Ryan D. Martinson, eds., China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 15 March 2019).

7. See Hunter Stires, “The South China Sea Needs a ‘COIN’ Toss,” and “Why We Defend Free Seas,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 145, no. 5 (May 2019).

8. Charlie Campbell, “China’s Aging Population Is a Major Threat to Its Future,” Time, 7 February 2019; Andrew S. Erickson, “Make China Great Again: Xi’s Truly Grand Strategy,” War on the Rocks, 30 October 2019; and CAPT James Fanell, USN (Ret.), “Now Hear This—The Clock is Ticking in China: The Decade of Concern Has Begun,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 143, no. 10 (October 2017).

9. Remarks of Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael M. Gilday, U.S. Naval Institute Defense Forum, 5 December 2019.

10. Ron O’Rourke, “Navy Frigate (FFG[X]) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, 10 October 2019; and David B. Larter, “Pentagon Proposal Cuts an FFG(X) and an Attack Submarine from the Budget,” Defense News, 25 December 2019.

11. GEN David H. Berger, USMC, Commandant’s Planning Guidance: 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps; and GEN David H. Berger, “Notes on Designing the Marine Corps of the Future,” War on the Rocks, 5 December 2019.

12. Xavier Vavasseur, “China Launched the 24th Type 052D, 6th Type 055 & 71st Type 056 Vessels for PLAN,” Naval News, 30 December 2019.

13. Geoffrey Till, Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-First Century, 2d ed. (London: Routledge, August 2009).

14. John Roberts, Safeguarding the Nation: The Story of the Modern Royal Navy, American ed. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press: 2009); and David W. Mason, “Peace-time Attrition Expectations for Naval Fleets: An Analysis of Post-WWII Maritime Incidents,” Defence Research and Development Canada, May 2018.

15. Joint Doctrine Note 1-19, “Competition Continuum,” 3 June 2019.

16. “Lockheed Martin Studying Integration of LRASM Anti-Ship Missile on USV Platforms,” Navy Recognition, 22 January 2018; and Jake Yeager, “Expeditionary Advanced Maritime Operations: How the Marine Corps Can Avoid Becoming a Second Land Army in the Pacific,” War on the Rocks, 26 December 2019.

17. Paul McLeary, “Centcom Confirms Reaper Shoot Down, Says Iran and Houthis Fired at Drones,” Breaking Defense, 14 June 2019; Sam LaGrone, “U.S. Says Iranian Missile Fired at Drone in Gulf of Oman Incident,” USNI News, 16 June 2019; Sam LaGrone, “Iran Shoots Down Navy Surveillance Drone in ‘Unprovoked Attack,’” USNI News, 20 June 2019; and Idrees Ali, “U.S. Drone Shot Down over Yemen: Officials,” Reuters, 21 August 2019. · June 1, 2020

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