Thursday, August 30, 2012

Not As Comforting As You Might Think

This article rightly explains that China is not about to build a navy capable of crossing the Pacific and defeating our fleet in battle in order to project power ashore against Alaska, Hawaii, or even our West Coast. But China's inability to project power more than 1,000 miles out is no reason for complacency.

The conclusion:

The bottom line is that China’s present naval shipbuilding program aims to replace aging vessels and modernize the fleet, not to scale-up a modern fleet to the size and composition necessary to support and sustain high-end blue water power projection. China is building a two-layered navy with a high-end Near Seas component and a limited, low-end capability beyond, not the monolithic force that some assume.

That is China is seeking a blue water force only for limited training, crisis, and diplomatic purposes while their main focus is on the western Pacific. I think this is a very reasonable conclusion about China's naval goals.

That latter focus in scary enough and no reason to dismiss China's capabilities. If China can defeat our smaller forward-deployed fleet and dominate that area, South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, and even Australia and New Zealand become too exposed to Chinese power to remain closely allied to America. Maybe Russia and their strategic nukes means Russia can maintain their independence, but even they would be cowed at least a little bit if we are pushed away from Asia.

And as I've often written, China doesn't even need the ability to defeat just our smaller forward-deployed fleet to defeat us. If China can simply delay our fleet long enough to achieve their objective, the Chinese win. My prime example is Taiwan. China needs to defeat Taiwan and only needs to delay us long enough to defeat Taiwan. Do those things and we (and the Taiwanese, of course) lose. But that applies to other Chinese neighbors who need to hold long enough for our distant forces to reach them.

Further, I think we have finally grown used to the post-Cold War world if we think a war with China goes on as long as we like until we can mass our greater power to roll back whatever gains China makes in the early weeks of a war.

I recall thinking that one reason for our rapid conclusion of the Persian Gulf War in 1991 was that we still operated under the Cold War template of thinking of making quick gains before the threat of escalation to nuclear war compelled a halt in place for the conventional forces.

But after wars in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, we know that Russia is not about to limit us with threats of nuclear war the way the Soviet Union could threaten us.

But a rising nuclear-armed China is not a power to be pushed around at our option, even if our conventional forces remain superior across all potential battlefields.

China's nukes are limited, but will we risk a few of our cities for conventional gains? How long will China attempt to hold their limited gains in the face of our growing counter-attacks without threatening nuclear escalation to hold those gains?

We really need to remember why we once needed to make sure we or our allies could emerge with the upper hand after no more than a few weeks of fighting. At least in regard to China, we will one day be in that position. After three weeks of fighting, our side better hold the key terrain, no?

It would surely be a reason to be extremely concerned if China develops a navy capable of crossing the Pacific and fighting our fleet.

But it is a reason for concern if China only builds a navy sufficiently strong to lose slowly enough to slow down our fleet in the western Pacific long enough for China to achieve their objective in the western Pacific.