Sunday, September 16, 2012

Listen To Your Enemy

Listen to your enemy.  He’ll tell you what he fears most.

Let’s take the case of China.  The U.S. military is dithering over its overall force structure and the Navy seems totally lost as far as having a coherent vision of what the fleet should look like.  More LCSs?  Less?  Are carriers obsolete or still a potent weapon system?  Do we need more amphibious ships?  With or without well decks?  Anybody want a frigate?  Should we have small missile boats? 

In theory, we should be able to turn to our uniformed, professional naval strategists for guidance although that seems to be producing nothing but conflicting signals.  Fortunately, there is one other source of expert opinion on the Navy’s fleet composition and that is China.  Who better to tell us what our strengths and weaknesses are and what weapons and platforms threaten them the most?  But they’d never tell us that, you say?  Sure they will – if we listen closely.  In fact, they’ve been telling us all along.

China's Biggest Fear?

The Navy moves ships through Chinese “controlled” waters all the time.  Which ship movements do the Chinese protest the loudest about?  The carriers!  China has repeatedly warned the U.S. against deploying carriers in “Chinese waters”.  They don’t protest destroyers and they’re certainly not going to protest the LCS anytime soon.  The Chinese fear the U.S. aircraft carrier.

What else is China telling us?  In addition to verbal protests, the Chinese are telling us what platforms they see as valuable by their own building program.  Obviously, they’re trying to build platforms that they believe have the most value.  What are they trying to build?  Two ship types jump out.  One is the aircraft carrier.  They’re pushing hard to develop their own carrier capability.  That should tell us how they perceive the value of a carrier.  Odd, isn’t it, that at the very moment when we’re debating whether the carrier is obsolete, the Chinese are trying desperately to develop their own?  They’re telling us something if we’ll only listen.

The other ship type is the submarine which has been a point of emphasis by the Chinese for many years.  They’re rapidly increasing both the numbers and quality of their submarine fleet.  Interestingly, they have a significant non-nuclear submarine force although that may be more a cost and construction/operational expertise limitation than a long term plan.  On the other hand, maybe they see value in a submarine type that we don’t.

What else might the Chinese be telling us?  That intermediate range ballistic missiles are a potent threat?  That small missile boats that disperse striking power among multiple platforms are a difficult threat to counter?  That long range conventional bombers carrying long range anti-ship missiles constitute a significant anti-shipping threat?  That mine warfare produces results all out of proportion to their cost and technology?  That quantity matters more than quality?

Admittedly, some of the trends in Chinese military development may be due more to their own unique requirements than to a direct fear-based response to our capabilities but, still, if we listen closely and consider what we hear wisely, we can learn a lot about what our best platforms and weapons are, or should be. 

Your enemy will tell you what you want to know if you’re willing to listen.


  1. The Chinese are also pumping out Type 022s and Type 056s like crazy.

  2. A good observation. Now... What do you think it's telling us, if anything?

  3. Area denial, they want to keep the U.S. out of the South China and East China seas among other places. They fear the CV becuase a CVBG could annihilate a squadron of missile boats from long range. Frankly, the solution to the missile boat problem would be a decent class of FFGs in stead of the naval abomination that is the LCS.

    1. You're jumping around a bit. If I understand you correctly, you're saying that China is building 022s and 056s for their own purposes rather than because they fear an equivalent platform of ours. I agree with that. Further, I think those ships are more for peacetime area control and use in territorial disputes and enforcing political desires.

      Think deeper about the reason they fear the carrier. China has been adamant about keeping carriers away from "their" waters for many years, even before they had a significant missile boat fleet. What deeper, more serious, threat do they see from our carriers? Why do they want to develop their own carriers since we don't have missile boats. There must be more to their fear of carriers.

      In what way would FFGs solve the missile boat problem? I'm not saying I disagree, I'm just curious how you see FFGs solving the problem given that FFGs would have both a limited anti-ship capability and a limited anti-missile self defense in the face of missile boat attacks.


    2. Terribly sorry about the jumping around bit, but yes, as you said: "If I understand you correctly, you're saying that China is building 022s and 056s for their own purposes rather than because they fear an equivalent platform of ours.", is pretty much what I'm saying. As to why China fear our CVs, that is because a CV and it's battle-group are a force to be reckoned with. And also because when they are around they keep China from flexing it's full muscles, keeping them from overrunning the Spratleys or attacking Japan over the Senkakus, they limit China, they contain China. That is why they fear them. As to FFGs, they are cheap, can produced in quantity, and a specialized anti-ship/anti-air versions could theoretically be produced for specific missions (see Cassard-class FFGs in terms of an AA frigate).

    3. Your comment about the FFG as a specialized anti-ship/anti-air platform is interesting but runs the risk of being contradictory, to an extent. A frigate is, by definition, a non-specialized vessel capable of doing a little bit of everything. You're proposing a specialized anti-missile boat ship. Nothing wrong with that, however, if you retain all the other frigate characteristics such as ASW, helos, a light gun fit, and so on, combined with specialized, intensive anti-ship/anti-air you've basically created an advanced capability destroyer. Hmm... Like a Burke. Again, nothing wrong with that but we've already got them. You see the problem with frigates in the popular imagination? Everyone wants to load all kinds of capabilities on them and then they're no longer frigates.

      The Cassard class is bigger than the US Perry class frigates and had only a single MK13 one-armed Standard missile launcher. A modern version would need VLS of around 48 cells which takes up a fair amount of deck space and internal volume. Also, an improved radar suite to handle the latest anti-ship missiles. Again, you can see where this is headed.

      All of this leads me to ask, do you think frigates are they best way to counter numerous small missile boats? I'm not saying they're not, just asking if you've considered other options such as small anti-missile boat boats, carrier based air power, etc.?

    4. I think a frigate is necessary to prop up escort/combatant numbers (especially focused on USW), but not specifically to combat missile boats/corvettes. Leave that to air power and submarines.

      Frigate helos can be part of it, but fixed-wing aircraft are just so much better at it. The Type 022 and 056 anti-missile/anti-air armaments are pathetic - just a few MANPADs. LGB-armed MPAs, UAVs or fighters can send these ships to the bottom as fast as they can be found.

  4. I don't know if PRC fears our aircraft carriers. They respect them to be sure, but they've also studied their weaknesses and limitations for decades.

    Our carrier-centric naval force structure is incredibly powerful - but also increasingly vulnerable. Damaging or even destroying a CVN would have a tremendous impact on our military operations and national morale.

    The question is do we really need to keep investing in a platform that may have reached its technological apogee and is on the down-slope?

    1. OK, now reread the post. The whole point was that China will tell us what they fear most and that's the carrier. Before we throw away the carrier, perhaps we should ask ourselves why China fears the platform that we're considering getting rid of.

      Why do you think China fears our carriers? And shouldn't we think real hard before we get rid of something that our enemy fears? And shouldn't we try to understand why they fear it so that we can emphasize the characteristics they fear? After all that careful consideration on our part, if we still believe we have a better platform(s) than the carrier than, by all means, let's get rid of them. However, I think we'll find that carriers still offer enormous advantages that no other platform can offer and that no other country has.

    2. I believe I get the point of your post. I just don't happen to agree with it.

      I don't think China 'fears' our carriers. The PLAN's open-source writings seem to indicate that they view our carrier-centric force structure with respect, but that they can counter it.

      If I were China, I would want US to keep spending enormous amounts of money to maintain and defend our carrier groups - while China pursues relatively inexpensive counters (diesel subs, ASCMs, coastal radars, ballistic missiles.)

      As an aside - USN didn't keep throwing much money to maintain relevance of battleships after it was revealed how incredibly vulnerable they were.

    3. Ahh, excellent! The blog would be kind of boring if everyone agreed with everything I've said.

      To summarize the post, the Navy seems to be lost as far as having a vision about the necessary fleet structure and I'm suggesting that China is telling us something significant about that.

      So, do you think there's nothing to be learned from our enemies, relative to what we should be doing, and that my entire premise is invalid?

      Or, do you think there's something to be learned from our enemies but that I've learned the wrong lesson? If so, what lesson do you see?

      On a related note, if you think China wants us to waste time and money on carrier groups and they, presumably, think that's a waste of our resources, why are they pursuing development of carrier groups of their own?

    4. Battleships became irrelevant because their warfighting "value for the dollar" fell off a cliff. There just aren't many situations where their relatively short-ranged NGFS and a handful of TLAMs offsets the battleship's massive cost of operation.

      Big deck carriers are still supremely valuable, even with their acknowledged vulnerabilities and costs.

    5. I apologize up front for the late, long, and somewhat rambling response. A couple of caveats. First, I don’t see China as an enemy. I see her as a rising peer competitor akin to how UK viewed Germany in 1870-1914. And second, a war between the US and China is not inevitable. Planning for such a conflict to some extent makes sense, but not to the extent that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

      If one chooses to see China as our most likely future enemy, then there's undoubtedly something to be learned from her. But I don't think one can draw direct correlations between China's maritime ambitions and actions and our own. Our two countries have **VASTLY** different security requirements and strategies:

      - The US is an established maritime power with relatively stable and democratic neighbors. We’ve got two immense maritime frontiers separating us from any sort of any nation-state aggression short of an ICBM. Our SLOCs are comparatively secure, and we import a large share of our energy from Canada and Mexico.

      - China is a continental power encircled by a host of potential enemies. It is surrounded by countries with which she conflicts on ideological or historical grounds – or which are in direct competition for territory. And it is reliant upon tenuous sea lines of communications (SLOCs), passing through several vulnerable choke points, for nearly all of her energy imports.

      Put simply, US fleet requirements in the Pacific are strategically offensive but operationally defensive. We operate forward in defense of our allies, which generally puts us at risk to the first attack.

      China's fleet requirements are strategically defensive but operationally offensive: she protects her maritime frontier by threatening anyone that chooses to operate within it.

      In that context, I think one can see that China's maritime acquisitions make a lot of sense. She pursues capabilities which allows it to threaten any enemy operating in the Western Pacific (diesel submarines, fast attack craft, anti-ship ballistic missiles, land-based strike bombers). China's nascent carrier force will - unlike ours - appears to be a supporting capability for the larger fleet and not the centerpiece. AAW, ASW and ASUW. Probably not much in the way of strike warfare.

      China is building an "anti-navy" (not my term - but I like it!) - based on years of studying our naval operations. For decades we have relied on a force-structure centered on aircraft carriers. Yet even during the Cold War it was shown that a CVBG required an inordinate amount of defensive firepower (lots of Aegis cruisers, F-14 Tomcats and S-3 Vikings) just to survive when within range of USSR. The threat has gotten worse, yet our defensive capabilities and capacity have atrophied.

      We've been "telegraphing the punch" from our aircraft carrier years. A crisis erupts and we surge in a carrier or two. China saw what our carriers could do during Korean War first hand when we have uncontested control of the seas. She saw what happened when we surge a carrier during the '95-96 Straits Crisis. She won't allow that to happen again.

      And what is more China knows that probably can't win in a drawn out fight with the US and its worldwide military power. The obvious solution is to hurt us very badly and very quickly. Take out the bulk of our combat capability and cause a lot of casualties. Sinking a forward deployed carrier (with 5,000 sailors) in the first hours (minutes?) of a conflict would do that very nicely.

      It's really not surprising to me that China's building a maritime complex intended to detect and kill our carriers. It's what I would do if I were in her shoes. What is surprising to me is we keep throwing more money at the same solution we used in 1952 and expect them to work in 2012. The battleship was widely seen as a viable capability - right up until December '41. What is our plan B?

    6. I'm not quite sure how or what to respond to, if anything. I think you might be saying that my entire premise is invalid based largely on what you see as the unlikely possibility of war with China. On the other hand, you note that China has seen the power of our carriers and "won't allow that to happen again" which actually proves my point about your enemy telling you what they fear.

      I think you badly misjudge the peacefulness of China. They are already at war with us. However, that's a topic for another time. You might consider, though, that even if we don't view China as a war threat, they may view us as a threat. They certainly are preparing for war with someone!

      You make a few good observations throughout your comment though not directly related to the topic (that's OK!).

      So, I'm not really sure what to respond to. I fear I may have missed your point? Is your point that you don't see the carrier as having value any more? If so, that's not a requirement for my proposition. China is telling us they fear the carrier. Whether we see any continued value in the carrier doesn't negate that though it certainly should give us reason to think before we dump our carriers.

      If you want to discuss this further, help me out by letting me know what particular aspect of your (or my) comments you'd like to focus on.


    7. I don’t think your overall premise is invalid, I just disagree with the interpretation. I think we need to listen to China. But we also need to understand from what position and context they are talking from.

      I don’t want to dwell on the grand strategic issues, but if you think we're currently at war with China, then you and I may have irreconcilable viewpoints considering: (1) PRC is our #2 trading partner behind Canada; (2) we cooperate with them on counterpiracy and a host of other issues in the maritime commons; (3) we've had regular military-military talks and; (4) we just invited them to RIMPAC 2014.

      I'm not saying that a war is impossible – nations have often gone to war against their best interests. I'm only that we are not currently at war and that we can control the pace and scale of escalation. And undoubtedly the PRC are concerned about US power. We have a string of allies throughout the region and the most active and capable military in the world. There are bound to be brush-ups.

      The PRCs geographic situation is much more complex than simply US vs. China. They have ongoing disputes or “bad history” with Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, Japan, Russia, India, Singapore and Philippines. Hence my overall point that drawing direct comparisons to PRC building program and ours is problematic. As you allude to in your last paragraph, many of the acquisitions and choices PRC has made are specific to its circumstances.

      Even if one can make the leap that China’s acquisitions are aimed directly at countering US military power, it certainly isn’t always the smartest idea to continue investing in capabilites that a potential enemy has chosen to counter or bypass. See impact of HMS Dreadnought on fleet design.

      I believe the threat to our carriers is increasing at a greater rate than our capability to defend them, and hence we will have to continue to commit greater proportions of our fleet for screening and escort. It stands to reason that the CVBG will eventually become the world’s most expensive “self-licking ice cream cone”, sucking up the entire resources of the Navy to defend itself.

      I certainly don't think that the US should instantaneously 'dump' our carriers, but it makes sense to start weaning ourselves from a capability which will likely provide us diminishing returns in a Pacific fight. If China continues to pursue measures (ASCMs, ASBMs, diesel subs, Backfires) which present a very real threat to the core of our fighting power, it makes sense to explore other means to deliver that same capability.

      Yet we clearly aren’t. The Navy’s shipbuilding plan shows that we will continue to build increasingly more expensive aircraft carriers for the next 30 yrs. That’s a real problem. At a minimum, our mid-20th century carrier-centric Navy will become increasing irrelevant - such that we cannot do anything in a crisis because the risk in lives and ships is simply too great. Worse scenarios are not hard to imagine.

    8. I can present an entire litany of reasons and examples of why we're already at war with China but this is clearly not the time/place. I do have exactly such a post on my list of possible future posts. We'll see.

      I also have a post on the role of the carrier in the future Navy on my to-do list. Perhaps I should have you guest-write an opposing post and present both sides of the issue? Any interest?

      Clearly, we're at opposite ends of the spectrum on some major issues and that's fine. Also, clear is that neither of us is likely to convince the other to change their mind so this seems like a good spot to leave things!

      I encourage you to leave a username in your posts just so I can recognize you. You have the advantage on me, there!

      I look forward to future discussions! Thanks!

    9. I look forward to your China post. I don't think you are alone in your opinion.



      PS - I'd also love to play counterpoint on the carrier issue.

  5. I think you are right about carriers and China. A CVN is a huge "wild card" in any Chinese attempt to plan or war-game a Spratley Islands or Taiwan scenario.

    China’s interest in ASBMs, SSKs, and missile boats is an attempt to take advantage of China’s current technology levels and western Pacific ambitions. If China’s goals are geographically close like the Senkaku, which are in the news again, diesel subs and corvettes can arguably do the job.

    Technology and institutional knowledge are two areas that take time to develop. The Chinese can buy an incomplete Russian carrier and read up on the open sources about USN tactics, but that doesn’t mean they will suddenly start running complex evolutions on the former Varyag.

    It’s the same for SSNs. The PLAN has had nuclear submarines in service since 1974 but no one takes their SSNs seriously. Why? They rushed the development of naval reactors and had weak engineering behind sub construction. They had all the faults of Russia’s earlier HEN boats a generation earlier. And the newest Type 093 SSN isn’t looking a lot better. And the endurance of a reactor is not really needed in the South China Sea.

    Remember, the USN and Royal Navy have pretty much the entire globe to cover. How much longer would the Florida have taken to get to Libya if it had been a diesel SSG? Even forward deployed USN ships in Guam and Japan have longer distances to travel to the South China Sea than the PLAN.

    The aircraft carrier’s demise has been predicted since the 1960’s but it remains relevant. That doesn’t mean it’s invulnerable, just that it is still a very good asset to have. What did the battleships in after WWII was their increasing vulnerability to aerial unguided weapons, as well as the very limited range of their primary weapon. Carriers at the time were vulnerable, but they had long reach and heavy firepower.


  6. Could you argue that China isn't building carriers to counter our carriers?

    There hasn't been a CV vs CV battle since 1944.

    But, our carriers have been enormously valuable in being what that have become: convenient portable airfields to fight small wars attacking land targets in areas where we don't have handy access to air bases... Or to supplement them.

    The DF-21, the subs, the cruise missiles, the bombers are to take out our navy.

    The Chinese carriers are to dominate China's obsession... Trade routes and islands they want to dominate and take from their much less capable neighbors.

    1. Jon, you make a very good point that China may not be developing carriers for the sole purpose of directly fighting our carriers but, rather, for other purposes. You'll note, though, that the requirement for China to build their own carriers in direct opposition to ours is not part of my point. The point is that China sees the power and value inherent in our carriers (the fear aspect) and, therefore, wants carriers of their own. How they choose to make use of them is a separate issue. I do, however, like your take on China's intended use of carriers, especially early in their development while they're still building operating experience and institutional knowledge.

  7. Kind of reminds me of the Soviet Navy back in the late 80's.


Comments will be moderated for posts older than 7 days in order to reduce spam.