Friday, April 11, 2014

The First Island Chain

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 China.  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 US can launch offensive moves.

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. 

Maginot Line?

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 US 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.

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 US 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. 

In any event, the concept of breakthrough attempts brings us to the next problem with the FIC defensive wall concept:  why does China want to break out into the Pacific, anyway?  What’s out there that the Chinese care about?  Do they want to seize Pearl Harbor?  Land on Guam?  Attack California?

I just don’t see any target beyond the FIC that has China’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 Taiwan 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.

There’s one final problem with the concept of using the FIC as a defensive wall and that is the fact that the US 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 China is a highly doubtful proposition.  Would we invade and seize the territory of neutral or non-cooperative countries in the event of conflict?

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.

(1) U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, “Defend the First Island Chain”, James Holmes, p. 32, April 2014


  1. Again, I think its dangerous to link a specific example to a concept. The Maginot Line reference will force the reader to infer that all defenses are bad, that defensive lines are all easily overcome, that a defensive mindset is a defeatist mindset. While no defense is impenetrable ,unbreakable or Impregnable its not that simple. Sometimes a tactical or strategic defense is the strategy for victory.

    “Defense doesn’t win wars – offense does.” – expect for the South in the Civil War, NATO during WWIII, the Greeks during the Persian Wars, Japan during World War II…

    A tactical or strategic defense would be an offshoot of national policy, and thus would allow a “win”. What is the end state you are shooting for? During the Cold War, we sought to contain the Soviet Union (Containment was a defensive strategy). We had no plans to go to Moscow. It was a strategic defense; with tactical offensives to counterattack and eventually reestablish the borders of Europe (status quo) should the Soviets have crossed the Fulda Gap. During the American Civil War a successful strategy of defense for the South would have been a win for them, a loss for the Union. During the Persian wars, Thermopolis offers an example of a strategic and tactical defense (as did the subsequent Battle of Plataea), both of which were victories (in different ways) for the Greeks. A defensive mindset was not a defeatist mindset. It all depends on what your goals are.

    Should China invade Taiwan, I don’t think anyone would argue we should go to Beijing. So where would the offense start? We are in a defense now, we aren’t fighting a wawr. That is a win. If China invades, there would be an offense to get back to the status quo, but then it would be back to defense. If your goal is to take Beijing, Moscow, Athens, Washington DC, etc, you need total offense. If your goal is to hold what you have or protect gains, your strategy for victory lies in the strategic defense, with an element of tactical or operational offense.

    “A recognition that defensive lines are easily overcome”, this isn’t historically accurate. From the Battle of the Somme to Kursk, from Pickett’s Charge to Iwo Jima and Okinawa, battle after battle shows that defenses are actually NOT easily to overcome. The majority of causalities we suffered during World War II (~450 per DAY) were from overcoming defenses. A good defense is incredibly hard to overcome, but it takes extensive manpower and firepower to do so. The changes you describe aren’t “A recognition that defensive lines are easily overcome”, more that society won’t accept the bill in blood and money that are needed to successfully overcome them. Military doctrine sometimes follows society. See the problems the Marines are having with justifying a frontal beach invasion.

    A balanced battle plan has elements of both offense and defense at all three levels of war, a hold and strike plan. I agree with the author that “the FIC offers the ability to maintain a somewhat minimized defensive line behind which the US can maneuver and surge towards breakthrough attempts.” Again, by using a specific example (i.e. ballistic missile attacks) the point is missed altogether. A Carrier Battle Groups move at 30 knots, a Soldier or Marine moving through the jungle even slower. Ballistic missile attacks represent just one aspect of movement during a war, but not the only one. It’s a chess board and to focus on just your Queen (lightening fast), means you don’t pay attention to the slower moving pieces like your Pawns (grunts) or knights (BCGs). How do you think a ballistic missile will get to a firing position? A slow moving TEL, a slow moving sub, or a slow moving ship.

  2. Should China decide to invade Tawain they will look at the same map the Japanese did in the 1930s. No battlefield of theater of war is geographically distinct or isolated. The Chinese would be forced to move beyond the FIC. To neutralize American logistics hubs in the Pacific, to protect the nautical support routes that supply them with the majority of their oil for instance, to mitigate anything that would complicate their seizure. And lets not forget that any cyber attack would be beyond the FIC.

    In a real shooting war, property rights aren’t the first thing on people’s mind. We don’t own the FIC, however we do control it. No country on the FIC would support China in a war. If anything they would fight with us or declare their neutrality. Worrying about being surrounded along the FIC, I would argue the Chinese wouldn’t test that neutrality (See Kentucky during the Civil War), if they did, we gain an ally. Either way, strategically we win. Unless you plan on taking over China, using the FIC as a “red line” is exactly the right mindset strategically.

    As for Ukraine, there isn’t much anyone could have done about it. If a country is going to do something like that, irrational actor theory says they are going to do it. Look at 2008. The United States was spending $700 billion on defense; we had invaded two countries and were dropping Hellfires all over the place. Did that stop Putin from invading Georgia? Nope. How do you stop something like that from happening? Understand that country borders are the status quo, what we have no we want to keep. And to protect them, and deter someone from messing with the status quo you need a good defense. Not having to fight is the first victory. If you lose that fight, have the ability to take the offensive, get back what you lost and then again, revert back to the defense. Thus you win.

  3. And as for Ukraine – if you’re eventual goal is to neutralize Russia as a major economic and global player, then you let them take Crimea. Russia faces incredible problems from demographic trends, economic stagnation, single source economic principals, corruption, alcoholism, and a host so other factors. I don’t support throwing away international stability and doing a soft-invasion, and thus don’t agree that Russia should have annexed anyone. However, by all means, now that its done, let them accelerate their own decline. Just due to this crisis, Moscow itself has revised their GDP growth downward to barely 0.5%, foreign capital is leaving the country to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars, the EU is looking to get away from Russian gas and oil (gas and oil that provides Russia with 40% of its GDP), the EU is coming together in a way it hasn’t before (they are still terrible), NATO finally has a mission and focus post-Afghanistan, Eastern Europe is consolidated and made it clear that if Brussels won’t help them, they’ll help themselves, even Sweden is thinking about NATO. Remember that Crimea actually COST Ukraine money. It’s one of the poorest, least industrial, backwaters there is. Was it worth it?

    So by all means Russia, have at it. And I agree with you, the Chinese might be seeing our “passive” response to it (it wasn't all that passive), but they will also see the economic and political consequences and isolation of that decision. They are much more tied into the international system than Russia and thus have much more to lose (Russia went from 2.5% growth to .5% because they wanted to annex Chimera, a similar drop for the Chinese' 7+% GDP would be horrific for them and the world). The world isn’t always views through a radar or rifle scope, in this case its the international stability index.

    1. OK, you realize you wrote more than I did in the original post?! You also realize that, being a post, I'm limited to a few paragraphs and some follow up comments? I can't write a book expounding on the depth and details of most of what I post.

      Now, to address your central theme. You need to consider the full ramifications of the examples you cite. Had the South achieved its defensive "victory", what would have happened? Was the North going to abandon its federalist, anti-slavery, etc. positions? No, the North would have regrouped, built more weapons and bigger armies and Civil War II would have been fought. As it was, the North offensively crushed the South and the issue was permanently decided.

      The same would have applied to NATO and the Soviet Union.

      I can't comment on ancient times (not my area of knowledge) plus they have a unique set of circumstances due to travel times, logistics, and other factors.

      Consider the US Desert Storm conflict. By stopping with a defensive "victory" the US ensured the need for a repeat war.

      Fighting China to restore Taiwan and the pre-war status quo would be a defeat even if successful in that it would ensure an even costlier conflict further down the road. China isn't going to give up its goals. They'll simply regroup, learn lessons, and come back harder.

      Regarding defensive lines, I never said that prepared defenses are easy to overcome in a frontal attack. I said that maneuver warfare was a recognition that defensive lines are easily overcome. I implied that in order to do so you had to actually apply maneuver warfare.

      To address your example of WWII Pacific island invasions, you're aware that the entire island hopping campaign was maneuver warfare that avoided having to directly assault every defensive "line" (or island, in this case). You can reason out the rest of the examples and more such as Lee's use of maneuver warfare in the Civil War. Were there instances throughout history of stupid frontal assaults against prepared defenses that didn't succeed or resulted in horrible losses? Of course! However, when maneuver warfare has been applied against fixed defenses, the defenses have been generally easily overcome. Heck, the entire Marine Corps doctrine is based on that philosophy.

      Your thoughts on Russia and Crimea are fascinating. Our lack of response has certainly gotten China's attention. How they'll interpret it remains to be seen but I have no doubt that it has encouraged their thoughts of similar action. Remember, they take the long view of history. Paying a short term economic price might seem quite reasonable to them for the long term gain.

  4. It's Lend Lease time!
    I say 2 Tico's to the Koreans 2 Tico's to the Japanese.
    This will roughly double their ballistic missile capabilities and relieve us of the responsibility of refurbishment.Also frees up our DDG's. from static patrol.
    Now we lend lease 2 Perrys to the Philippines
    and station one Burke and two Ticos( USN manned) with the Phillipine manned Perrys as a joint task force (Subic Bay available NOW).
    For the Philippines and Vietnam, finance local construction of many Swarm like attack missile and torpedo boats, to keep the PLAN destroyers, CG cutters and any landing craft away from the coast. Oh ya everybody on our list gets a dozen A-10's, Lend Lease of course, in case the Chinese missile boats attempt a South Seas crossing or a cutter gets a little to froggy.
    These actions, while costing little, will rapidly beefup our allies. After all, our defensive ring is their home. Who better to protect it. Now we got a few Battleships lying around.................

  5. Clausewitz has a few things to say about defense:

    “Defense is the stronger form of waging war.”

    “Although the concept of defense is parrying a blow and its characteristic feature is awaiting the blow, "if we are really waging war, we must return the enemy's blows... Thus a defensive campaign can be fought with offensive battles. . . "The defensive form of war is not a simple shield, but a shield made up of well-directed blows."

    “The object of defense is preservation; and since it is easier to hold ground than to take it, defense is easier than attack.”

    "But defense has a passive purpose: preservation; and attack a positive one: conquest.”

    “If defense is the stronger form of war, yet has a negative object, if follows that it should be used only so long as weakness compels, and be abandoned as soon as we are strong enough to pursue a positive object."



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