The current issue of Proceedings has an article (1) which discusses the value of a “wall” strategy applied to the so-called First Island Chain (FIC) surrounding
. The author contends that the FIC not only serves as the current limits of the perceived Chinese A2/AD zone that US strategists are worrying over but also as a good base for a defensible wall sealing China within the East and South China Seas, unable to break out into the Pacific. He describes different types of wall strategies from purely defensive to a combination offensive/defensive wall behind which the China can launch offensive moves. US
The author describes the defensive attributes of the FIC at length and declares that a properly equipped chain of defensive island nodes will be impenetrable. Take a moment and reread the previous sentence. For you students of history (and if you’re reading this blog you should be a student of history!), does this ring a bell?
A string of fixed fortifications? Unbreakable. Impregnable.
This is a post, not a book so I won’t explain the Maginot Line and its implications. If you don’t recognize the reference, take a break, do some research, and come back when you’re done.
The success rate of defensive lines of this type is pretty spotty. In fact, the
theory of maneuver warfare is, in large measure, a response to defensive lines and a recognition that defensive lines are easily overcome. The defender is tied to a geographic location and gives up all initiative. US
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with taking advantage of geographic features that enhance one’s military capabilities as long as those capabilities are, ultimately, geared towards offense. Defense doesn’t win wars – offense does. A defensive mindset is a defeatist mindset. That said, the FIC offers chokepoints, shallower areas for ASW, opportunities to deploy SOSUS-like sensors, and so on that can be used to provide local defense during the course of an offensive campaign.
The author suggests that the FIC offers the ability to maintain a somewhat minimized defensive line behind which the
can maneuver and surge towards breakthrough attempts. Of course, this surge response concept neglects the speed of modern attacks. For example, ballistic missile attacks are difficult to surge in response to. By the time the attack is recognized it’s nearly over. US
In any event, the concept of breakthrough attempts brings us to the next problem with the FIC defensive wall concept: why does
want to break out into the Pacific, anyway? What’s out there that the Chinese care about? Do they want to seize China Pearl Harbor? Land on Guam? Attack ? California
I just don’t see any target beyond the FIC that has
’s interest, at the moment, at least in the context of seizure of land. That’s not to say that once they’ve seized and consolidated their hold on China they won’t set their sights further afield but that’s a conflict or two down the road, at least. I do, however, see the Chinese sending submarines to mine US harbors and attack merchant shipping off our shores. Such attacks would cause problems all out of proportion to the actual damage done. Using the FIC chokepoints to prevent that type of attack is exactly the type of advantageous use the FIC could be put to – a defensive effort in support of an overall offensive campaign, as previously stated. Taiwan
There’s one final problem with the concept of using the FIC as a defensive wall and that is the fact that the
doesn’t actually own any of the FIC and, therefore, has no rights to establish bases. Whether the owning countries would agree to allow such basing in the event of a war with US is a highly doubtful proposition. Would we invade and seize the territory of neutral or non-cooperative countries in the event of conflict? China
In summary, the FIC can be useful as a barrier to Chinese submarine activity against US harbors and shipping but would be difficult on a variety of levels to fortify for the entire length and establishes the wrong mindset strategically. Further, for China’s most likely initial move, the seizure of Taiwan (and you can bet they’re re-evaluating their options in response to our passive reaction towards Russia’s seizure of Crimea and probably the entire Ukraine), the resulting action would occur well outside the useful range of much of the FIC – a point driven home by the RAND report that we previously discussed.
Naval Institute Proceedings, “Defend the U.S. Chain”, James Holmes, p. 32, April 2014 First Island