Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) is worried — worried about the U.S. Navy’s prospects during a war against Communist China in the Western Pacific. Last week, Sen. Gardner, who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy, told the Washington Examiner that Chinese ballistic missiles could compel “all of our planning, all of our equipment, all of our systems” to “basically vacate” the region at outset of fighting. Both large bases and ships riding the waves, he noted, are vulnerable to missile attack.
Sen. Gardner joined a group of Republican lawmakers to coauthor the “STRATEGIC Act,” a bill aimed at restoring deterrence and U.S. combat supremacy. To oversimplify, the act’s framers envision spreading out U.S. bases across the region, deploying new weaponry to make things tough on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and rejuvenating U.S. alliances and partnerships around the exterior crescent that sweeps from Japan westward around the Asian periphery toward India. Their goal: to convince Chinese Communist Party (CCP) potentates that attacking America’s friends and allies would be a hopeless cause or, failing that, that the effort would cost China more than the gains were worth to Xi Jinping & Co.
Either way, Beijing should forego aggression.
How did the U.S. Navy get into such straits? Chiefly by talking itself into believing that victory in the Cold War was forever. In 1992, top Navy and Marine Corps leaders issued a strategy document titled “... From the Sea” that declared, in effect, that there was no one left to fight now that the Soviet Navy sat rusting at its moorings. The sea belonged to the United States and its allies. It was a safe sanctuary from which to project power onto distant shores. Since there was no one left to fight — and never would be, service leaders seemed to think — the sea services no longer should bother developing new weapons and tactics for fighting enemy fleets on the high seas.
“... From the Sea” ordered the services to remake themselves into “a fundamentally different naval force.” And so they did. Trouble is, Beijing evidently didn’t get the message that naval history had ended. The U.S. Navy lay down arms at almost the exact moment CCP leaders resolved to construct a great navy of their own, backed up by an array of land-based aircraft and cruise and ballistic missiles. Their project succeeded — producing the sea force that so vexes Sen. Gardner.
He’s right to fret.
But the U.S. armed forces have options of their own — turning geography to advantage, for one. Look at your map. You will notice that the “first island chain,” which meanders from northern Japan around to the Strait of Malacca, is made up of U.S. allies and friends, and that it forms a natural barrier to air and sea movement between the China seas and the Western Pacific. No Chinese seaport outflanks it. Small bodies of missile-armed troops on the islands, operating in concert with warships and warplanes prowling adjacent waters and skies, could bar the straits Chinese vessels must traverse to escape home waters.
In essence, Washington can threaten to lock up the PLA within the island chain. The military implications alone might give Beijing pause. So might the implications of cutting off the export- and import-driven Chinese economy from foreign harbors. Adm. Liu Huaqing, the founder of the modern PLA Navy, likened the first island chain to a “metal chain” fettering Chinese aspirations. Inventive U.S. strategy and force deployments could make Liu’s nightmare come true.
Sobriety could prevail in Beijing.
Scattering forces on and around the island chain would help ease the senators’ minds with regard to the ballistic-missile threat. Gen. David Berger, the Marine Corps commandant, advocates reengineering U.S. forces in the Western Pacific as “stand-in forces.” Rather than vacate the region to avoid PLA missile barrages, small units that pack a punch would defy them. Instead of big and glamorous, ships, planes and bases would be small, cheap, plentiful and elusive. PLA rocketeers might pick off some of them; the force as a whole would fight on.
And lastly, “naval integration” is all the rage nowadays in U.S. Navy and Marine circles. In the past, Marines were little more than passengers on board Navy transports ferrying them to faraway beaches. No more. Berger wants embarked Marines to take an active hand in fleet operations, especially those near shore. At the same time, the U.S. Air Force and Army are refreshing their own hardware and skills for war at sea. For example, Air Force bombers now drop sea mines ideal for plugging up straits. They also sport long-range anti-ship missiles, ship killers tailor-made for striking along the island chain.
The Pentagon’s goal is to forge a composite implement of sea power of which all the services — sea- and ground-based — form integral parts.
Turnabout is fair play in diplomacy and warfare. PLA commanders can try to deny the U.S. armed forces access to Western Pacific seas, skies and shores all they like. But American commanders can reciprocate if they apply intellect and material resources to this strategic problem, and do so with imagination and verve.
Lawmakers should make sure they do.
James R. Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and co-author of “Red Star over the Pacific.” The views voiced here are his alone.