Raw numbers aren't everything in a maritime fight with China and Russia

Is the U.S. Navy big enough to handle simultaneous wars in the Taiwan Strait and the Black Sea basin? The facile answer: no. Take the major antagonist. China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) already numbers 355 ships of war, making it the world’s largest in terms of brute numbers of hulls. And these figures are only trending upward. The PLA may deploy as many as 460 ships by 2030, judging from the latest estimates.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy trails behind China’s navy with just 295 hulls displacing water. And while the uniformed navy leadership envisions building up to a fleet numbering between 398 and 512 vessels, a hefty share of those totals — between 77 and 140 hulls — will be made up of unmanned surface and subsurface craft. The latter show promise but have yet to fully prove themselves battle-worthy. They could disappoint — leaving the navy in the lurch.

Moreover, the PLA Navy remains mostly concentrated in China’s environs, where most likely scenes of action lie, while the U.S. Navy scatters task forces about the globe performing sundry errands. Only a fraction of American sea power calls the Western Pacific home. Worse still, sea power is no longer all about navies. The PLA Air Force and Rocket Force operate land-based aircraft and missiles galore to back up the firepower of the Chinese fleet riding the main.

ADVERTISEMENT

This bodes ill.

The force that stages the most combat power at the time and place of battle biases the fortunes of war in its favor. Bambi tends to meet a grim fate when pitted against Godzilla. In the Taiwan Strait, in short, the combined might of a larger navy backed up by shore-based air and missile forces would collide with a fraction of a smaller navy. The outcome of a cross-strait war could turn on whether the larger U.S. Pacific Fleet could rush reinforcements to the Western Pacific in time to reverse aggression.

China has designed its military strategy precisely to prevent that from happening. Its multilayered “access denial” defenses can commence lashing out at the Pacific Fleet over 2,000 nautical miles from Asian shorelines. That’s a lot of water space to traverse under fire. U.S. naval forces will have to fight to get to the fight with the PLA Navy. They will suffer losses. The voyage will take time. And time is what China’s military needs — time to conquer Taiwan before anyone can intercede in force.

So it’s unclear, judging from raw numbers, whether the U.S. Navy has sufficient mass to prevail in the Taiwan Strait — never mind the Black Sea.

And yet, things may not be quite so bleak. There are four reasons for optimism. One, it’s doubtful the U.S. Navy would play a major part in a Russo-Ukraine war. Naval access to the Black Sea is sharply constrained by treaty, limiting the firepower an American task force could bring to bear in Ukraine’s defense. Furthermore, Turkey controls access to the Black Sea, and U.S.-Turkish relations are far from cordial. Ankara is a wildcard. It might blanch at offending Russia, a fellow Black Sea nation, by admitting NATO warships to the theater.

ADVERTISEMENT

Plus, the Black Sea is an almost entirely enclosed sea that lies within reach of Russian sea- and shore-based firepower. It could become a Russian shooting gallery in wartime. Rather than risk

making the fleet a target, the Pentagon probably would turn to air power as its weapon of choice against the Russian Black Sea Fleet. And indeed, U.S. Air Force bombers have staged mock missile attacks on the Russian fleet.

Chances are the Black Sea would not become a major combat theater for the U.S. Navy — simplifying the problem for naval commanders. The navy’s energies can remain locked on the Western Pacific.

Two, numbers of hulls aren’t everything. By the 1970s, the Soviet Navy outnumbered the U.S. Navy, and the mismatch wasn’t even close in categories such as nuclear-powered submarines. And yet few would have rated the Soviet armada the probable victor in a maritime clash. It was technologically backward in many respects; seamanship and tactical acumen were wanting. Likewise, U.S. forces probably retain material and human advantages over the Russian and Chinese navies, which are trying to make a massive leap to parity or superiority at sea.

Three, the United States boasts a deep bench of allies. If Russia overshadows the Black Sea, the geographic advantage lies with America in a Pacific conflagration. U.S. allies or friends occupy Asia’s “first island chain,” positioning them to bar access to the Western Pacific for Chinese sea and air forces. All they need to do is hold the islands and block the straits between.

ADVERTISEMENT

The good news is that it doesn’t take a hulking aircraft carrier or guided-missile cruiser to close a narrow sea. Small bodies of missile-armed troops could cut loose from the islands, operating in concert with aircraft overhead and surface and subsurface patrol craft prowling the straits and adjacent waters. Imprison the PLA Navy in the China seas, and you limit its options against Taiwan while reserving the option of sinking it.

Maritime geography is a silent partner for the U.S. Navy.

And lastly, lawmakers now take naval questions seriously and have taken measures to answer them. The U.S. Senate recently passed the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act by an overwhelming margin. Congress added some $25 billion to the Biden administration’s budget request for 2022. Much of the extra cash will go to boost the fleet’s size, field gee-whiz new technologies, and refurbish the nation’s decrepit shipbuilding infrastructure.

Strategic competition is an interactive clash of wills between competitors determined to get their way. It exhibits a seesaw quality as one competitor makes moves meant to bolster its standing vis-à-vis its rival, its rival reciprocates by making countermoves, and on and on. China and Russia were the first movers in the current competition, making their opening gambits while the United States was consumed with Middle East wars. Now America is attempting a comeback. Reciprocity is in the nature of power politics.

Let’s keep calm and carry on with the competition.

James R. Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a nonresident fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation & Future Warfare, Marine Corps University. The views voiced here are his alone.