Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Protracted War

Cdr. Salamander has a blog post describing the similarities between 1914 and 2014 as regards the possibility of war and the attitudes prevalent then and now.  I won’t cite the article because I’m not going to use anything from it.  The topic merely sets the stage for this post. 

Many commenters dismiss the possibility of war with China.  The reasons are varied:  the Chinese are just friendly world neighbors, our countries are so interconnected economically that they would never risk a war, the devastation would be too great for a country as reasonable as China, our military is more powerful than the next [however many] militaries combined so China would never attempt a war, and so on.

Of course, history suggests that many of the same reasons for the unlikeliness of war were put forth prior to every war ever fought – and yet they were fought.

Well, fine, many of these commenters sniff and snort, if war does come we’ll win, of course.  This, despite the fact that we have nowhere near the quantities of munitions, ships, planes, etc. to wage a protracted war – and there’s absolutely nothing to suggest that war with China will be short.  Not to be discouraged, the commenters simply state that we’ll build more ships and planes and munitions and whatever else we need to compensate for attrition.  After all, we did it in WWII so we’ll do it again.

Unfortunately, this could not be more wrong.

Unlike the pre-WWII era when we had dozens of major shipyards already in existence, we currently only have a few.  Likewise, the labor force has dwindled to just those few. 

No problem.  We’ll just build new shipyards and hire new workers.

This isn’t even remotely in the realm of reality.  Shipyards capable of building modern ships don’t just spring up overnight.  Even more limiting, the labor to build ships doesn’t exist today.  The basic welding, pipefitting, and electrical skills no longer exist to anywhere near the degree they used to.  We’ve farmed much of our skilled manufacturing labor out to foreign countries.  High schools have largely abandoned vocational education programs in favor of the every-child-must-attend-college-or-be-deemed-a-failure philosophy.  The pool of skilled labor just doesn’t exist and it can’t be reconstituted overnight.

Even if the shipyards and skilled labor could be magically created in a useful time frame, the more serious shortcoming is the dependence of modern ships, systems, and munitions on computer chips.  Computer chips are already in short supply with periodic shortages a current reality.  Ominously, computer chip manufacturing facilities are extremely complex and take years to build.  If welders, electricians, and pipefitters are in short supply, the supply of computer chip engineers and technicians is even more limited. 

In short, we would have no hope of ramping up ship, aircraft, and munition production in under five years and probably longer, much longer.  While it’s a truism that war is a come as you are affair, future war will probably be a “fight with what you have because you aren’t getting any more”, affair.  ComNavOps has already pointed out that numbers is the most important factor in winning a war and this inability to replace attrition makes numbers even more important.

An extension of the attrition and lack of replacement issue is that victory may come down to numbers of second rate assets.  Think about it.  Once both sides have blown up each other’s top of the line assets they’ll be fighting with second rate assets and whoever has more will likely win.  That reserve fleet that the US refuses to maintain because, in part, the ships are hopelessly outclassed by modern standards, may turn out to be the highest tech still functioning after the initial stages of war.  That entire class of Spruances that we sent to the bottom of the sea might look awfully good after the Burkes are destroyed.  Those old supercarriers that we’re scrapping might be the class of the world at some point.

Consider that the US used WWII gravity bombs as recently as the Desert Storm conflict and we were lucky we had them in storage.  Where is today’s vast storage of low tech munitions that we can call on in a pinch in the future?

The Navy has made the conscious decision to travel the path of quality over quantity.  For a short term conflict that’s a viable path.  For a protracted war that’s the path to defeat.


  1. I'll let you have shipyards and skilled labor to run them, but the computer chip issue is fairly incorrect.

    The US has as many fabs as any other country in the world and can more than meet demand of all the chips that would be needed to ramp up production of weapon systems. Intel alone has enough capacity to supply all the chips the military would need using only 1 fab. In addition, Intel currently has 1 mega fab in reserve that can be ramped up if needed. Combine that with the Samsung Megafab in Austin, the Globalfoundries mega fab in Malta NY, the IBM/Globalfoundries fab in East Fishkill NY, Micron Fab in Boise ID, TI fabs in Dallas, etc. And that's not even counting the fab resources in the EU and Israel.

    The fabs at risk in a war would likely be the South Korean fabs and the Taiwan fabs. And yes that's a decent chunk of the semi industry, but in a China-US war, most of the production would be moot anyways as the manufacturing chain for PCs would largely be disrupted anyways. The fabs in the US basically already make the majority of the chips used by the US DOD anyways for reasons that should be obvious.

    Where the crunch would likely be in in circuit board manufacturing as a large chunk of that is currently in the china sea area, but circuit board manufacturing is something that can be ramped quickly with the vast bulk of the machines made in the US and Europe.

    So as far as Imaging, power, wireless, cpus/socs, memory, etc, the US can be entirely self sufficient.

    The only case where computer chips have impacted procurement of US weapon systems that I know of is the F22 Raptor where Lockheed declined to buy additional quantities of the Intel i960 chips even after Intel had given almost a decade of notice of EOL. That's not a shortage, that just simple piss poor management on the part of Lockheed and the DoD.

    1. ats, the commercial sector is constantly fighting chip shortages. Unless you envision suddenly and completely halting production of all commercial electronics in the event of war, we simply don't have manf capacity. If you believe we do, then why are chip shortages a way of life in industry?

    2. Shortages usually revolve around the latest and greatest chips, not chips that have been in production for years (unless the chips are at EOL).

    3. Quite right! That's been exactly my experience in industry. The latest chips are unavailable and the older chips are EOL because of the constant drive to develop new ones. So, the question is, if the military suddenly wanted to ramp up production, what chips do they need and where would they come from. I suspect the answer is that most of the needed chips are EOL and ramp up would extremely problematic.

    4. The commercial sector isn't actually fighting chip shortages. In fact they are extremely rare and pretty much only come about because of external factors such as natural disasters. And it should be pointed out, that these really don't result in "shortages" but instead increased prices.

      If you have some specific reference of a shortage, I can address it, but there is sufficient semiconductor manufacturing capacity ex asia that providing semiconductor products to ramp production should not be an issue.

      As I reference, I've worked in the semiconductor industry for almost 2 decades.

    5. What about memory, hard drives, mother boards,etc? Doesn't something like 90% of memory cards come from Taiwan? If we "lose" Taiwan or South Korea/Japan, it might not be losing the chips than hurt us but all the other small ancillary stuff, like memory, boards, etc...

      I tend to agree with ComNavOps. If you look at WWII experience, how many men were farmers, had experience with guns, knew how to fix a car or tractor, had a general common sense and knowledge compared to today? How many people today know how to change the oil in their car? Tires? Funny thing is the computer part might not be as bad as ComNavOps mentioned since so many people know how to trouble shoot their computer or phone but if we have to go back to a more traditional "mechanical" form of warfare after all the top line assets are destroyed, a more "backwards" third world country might be a better advantage then the USA, it's people being more used to lower quality, fix it yourself kind of machinery...they might also not have the bad habit of always counting on someone else to fix it for them. Just my 2 cents....

    6. Memory is produced in quantity in both the US and europe. In fact, one of Samsung's largest memory fabs in the world is in Austin Texas.

      Memory cards are simply flash memory. The US actually produces enough flash memory to satisfy our own needs.

      Anyone using anything but SSDs in new build is pretty much doing it wrong, so not so worried about HDDs.

      Motherboards are actually pretty low tech and can be ramped up pretty much anywhere and we do have the infrastructure in place to ramp it up in the US.

      I think some of you aren't understanding the full dynamics of the supply chains that use a lot of these things. If there is a shooting war with china, there won't be shortages of many of these components, but rather massive excess of these components. Most of the volume us of these parts is into assembly lines in china. If China is at war with the US, then basically 90% of the current use case on both sides is basically blocked. That means there will be significant surpluses of pretty much all the components.

    7. ats, at one point, I spent 15 yrs on the consumer side of chips in the production of automation instrumentation and electronics and chip shortages were a near constant fact of life. The shortages affected which products could be produced and what the production schedules were. At one point, we had a family of new products that were delayed for 14 months waiting for availability of chips. We turned away millions of dollars worth of orders because we couldn't produce the products.

      The most common reason for shortages, according to the chip manfs, was the massive demand from the very top users who produced the consumer electronics like IPads and smartphones. By comparison, we were a mid level user. Most of the chip users I ever spoke to had the same issues with chip availability.

    8. That sounds much more like a management/finance issue than an actual supply issue.

      What you are really getting at is allocation issues, which can effect low volume and mid tier producers at fab-less semi companies that rely on spot wafer ordering instead of pre-purchasing slots (mostly a financial issue, someone like say qualcomm or Nvidia has enough money to pre-book production slots, small one off producers don't, doesn't really effect government contract work as they already have standing slots).

      Well the good news/bad news is that in an actual fighting war with China, pretty much none of the pre-booked slots are going to be used because the follow on flow of the consumer market is going to be non-existent for quite a while (aka China isn't going to be simultaneously in a war with the US and doing cheap manual labor for the US). So if semiconductors are needed for a US warfighting effort they should be plentiful as the consumer market will be pretty much non-existent.

      Also timeframe is somewhat important. During the late 90s until the late 2000s there was definitely a crunch at the few contract fabs due to a reduction in the number of companies doing contract fab work and the explosion of companies converting over to a fab-less model. That's largely gone these days from a combination of new players and existing players building out significantly more infrastructure.

  2. You have some good points here. Of course most of our potential opponents have far less depth of front line assets than we do.

    This points to is the oft mentioned need to preserve the "industrial base". It is important, strategically, to keep hot production lines open, even at the cost of running them below capacity.

    1. "This points to is the oft mentioned need to preserve the "industrial base". It is important, strategically, to keep hot production lines open, even at the cost of running them below capacity."

      This ties into your comment in the preceeding post about low end conflicts. We need simple, capable systems that we can afford to buy in quantity. That can go a long way toward keeping production lines open.

    2. I wasn't speaking about just "low end" conflicts. I was talking about everything short of apocalyptic scenarios against nuclear-armed, near peers (e.g.China or Russia). ODS, OIF, OEF, Korea, and the Vietnam war were hardly "low end" conflicts.

      But I do agree about quantity. I would've been perfectly happy to have an AF with useful numbers of F-22s and FB-22s, with F-16s to provide numbers.

  3. Although you raise erious points, it may not be as bleak as you say.

    The word from the Gulf shipbuilders is the trades have gone to the oil platform and fracking sectors so there may be a larger pool than you think of skilled people.

    Also look at the WWII experience, we had no arms industry for large items - tanks, airplanes, and ships. We did have the small arms arsemal systems but even that was insufficient to arm the millions we did. My point is it took time but we converted inductry to produce these items. it took time but within a year we were on the offensive.

    No one wants to spend more moeny on defense items that age and are not needed. Maybe a better way would be to make sure the existing ship designs are producible and pay the other yards to review the design and production data and build one once every 5 years.

    Given the experince of the LPD 17 engine alignment bolts and the cost overruns on the Ford, I do d not want to grow more Government only yards that cost this much.

    But we have to address your valid concern.

    1. Anon, I'm sure you recognize that gearing up for production of WWII equipment was an easier task than gearing up for modern equipment would be. The sheer complexity of today's equipment means that you can't just grab any woman off the street and teach them to weld together a tank in a day. Consider the complexity of an F-22/35 or even a Hornet compared to a Hellcat.

      Consider today's use of rare earth elements and exotic metals. WWII equipment was made of simple steel. How are we going to ramp up rare earths and metals when much of our supply comes from outside the US (and would be subject to attack during transportation)?

      Consider a "simple" aircraft. A WWII Hellcat had an automobile engine (for all intents and purposes) and sheet metal held together by rivets. An F-22/35 has sophisticated stealth structures and coatings as well as miles of wiring and computers. That's not something that can be hammered together by unskilled labor.

      Also, consider the size of today's equipment. A Sherman tank is a fraction of the size and weight of an Abrams. A modern carrier is enormously larger than a WWII carrier. And so on.

      Finally, consider the development of new designs during war. How many new aircraft designs came out during WWII? Several dozen? Now, how long does it take us to produce a new design today? Well, we've been working on the JSF for almost two decades and we're nowhere near complete. I'm sure we could speed that up somewhat but we're still realistically looking at 5-10 development cycles even under the stimulus of war.

      I'm afraid it may be bleaker than I've portrayed!

    2. I am coming form the perspective of, and I didn't make it clear - sorry, that production requirements and complexities are relative. The population today is MUCH more comfortable with Computers, CNC machines, etc.

      As to the complexity of the equipment we are designing and building, we need to go back to simpler! The aircraft and ships are not maintainable now. Complex systems have low MTBF and operational availability.

      I would condone would be a high low mix of 1/10 quality vs 9/10 quantity. That might satisfy the techo weenies while providing us with a realistic long war capability.

      Having the Naval Ship yards build some of the volume ships (Cruiders, LPDs and below) might also be a solution to verify producibility of the designs and skill requirements.

      But I didn't hear you proposing a solution, and unlimited funding is NOT a solution.

    3. I've proposed my solutions many times throughout the various blog posts. You've read all of them, right? - they're thinking about making reading this blog part of the new citizenship test, you know!

      I did not specifically list all my solutions because that runs the risk of being too repetitive for regular readers and bloating the size of the post (sadly, most people want their posts in short, bite size lengths).

      Very briefly, my solutions involve reprioritizing our spending to free up large sums of money and then emphasizing simplicity and numbers - basically what you said!

      Good comment.

  4. based on IAF's experience in lebanon 2006 (out of smart bombs in just 10 days of air campaign) and NATO's air campaign in libya (out of smarts bombs and have to ask USA for replacements).. i dont think a gigantic country like china (gigantic compared to the size of libya or lebanon) , can be subjugated by only air campaign, smart bombs or not..

    Land war in a country like china, with population numbering billions, defending their country, that might be a bit costly for america.. if not total defeat like korean war and vietnam war..

    the only option would be blocking chinese sea routes .. until nukes started to destroy US cities..

    1. "b", I'd like to request that you refrain from making unsupported statements that come across as deliberately provocative such as your "nuke" comment. If you actually believe that's a possibility then present some facts and logic to back it up. Facts and logic are the standard for this blog.

      I believe you have something to contribute to this blog. For instance, you raise a very good point about the limitations of air power in war. Now, take it a step further. If you don't believe that air power can defeat China then what alternative do you suggest? You suggest that land combat in China would be a failure - a view I happen to agree with. Again, with that in mind, how would you suggest the US proceed in the event of war?

      You mention blockades as the only option. How do you see that playing out?

      I hope you're serious about contributing and I look forward to your thoughts.

    2. alas commy, a war between china and US will be an unwinnable war for both sides.. blockading is the less risky but it certainly will escalate into nuclear blackmail, since if one side got on the ropes (as in china got strangled by blockade and suffocate slowly) , the last option always nuke.

      There should be no war with china, it should be politic and diplomacy , with carrots rathen than with sticks..

      but if it come to war, what happened will be another vietnam on a grander scale. China , for all its modernization , still soak up human cost like sponge. but what happened in america if they saw their sailors and marines got shot up for real with casualties in high thousands ?

      i thinkmthe possibility is high for american forces to use tac nukes if they commit invasion force into mainland china. Didnt NATO doctrine also include possibility to use TacNukes against soviet back then ?

    3. Commy, it is like crassus's legion in the height of roman empire trying to conquer persia, and got destroyed by persian archers. How ? the best legions (this is rome at it's height of military power) got defeated by a force smaller and less sophisticated than them.. why ?

      You agreed that airpower and landpower are impossible or too costly in a war with china. as i said, blockade is the casualties-light (relative) solution , playing the long waiting game and see which one exhausted first.

      The joker will be russia, how will she react to this conflict.. I think russia also want a less strong china on her borders, but with russia and china now tied up economically, it will be dangerous for america to have russia siding with china (supplying weapon and tech to china in the war)..

      Russia and Japan are both the wildcard here.

    4. "b", no serious military analyst that I'm aware of is suggesting a ground war with China.

      You make a good point about the impact Russia might have on China. I would also suggest that India would have a significant impact with a fairly modern and large military and a shared border.

    5. "b", I very much see a US-China war as winnable for either side, more so for China. China has a very definite and readily achievable set of goals: capture of Taiwan in the near term and domination of the E/S China Seas in the longer term. I've previously posted very simple and realistic strategies for China to win a war (the surrender strategy, for example).

      The US, on the other hand, could win a war but, at the moment, lacks a clear definition of what victory would consist of. You can't win a war that you can't even define what a win is. The US, at the moment, would probably be satisfied with a stalemate resulting in China achieving most or all of their objectives. I've also proposed both realistic victory conditions for the US and a strategy to achieve that victory.

      I further believe that the likelihood of a Chinese win is what's encouraging China to act so aggressively now.

      There is little likelihood of China resorting to nukes. They lack the either the first strike or follow up capability to inflict a decisive blow and would, therefore, only ensure their own destruction by using nukes. That said, China is far more likely to initiate nuclear use than the US as they are far more likely to be willing to accept massive damage. In their long view, they can always rebuild and grow more population.

    6. my apologies commy , i was thinking of the total war with both nations gearing their country for war footing and with zero sum result. Yes war can indeed end with stalemate or uneasy truce , you are correct in your assesment in china's probability to win against america in conflict without nukes. America' military is too spread out all around the world, and it is surely impossible to guarantee other hotspot would flare out and suck up US's resources.. Imagine at vietnam war , US have to send troops to middle east at the same time fighting a war with iran (hypothetical scenario) , it would stretch the supply lines to breaking point..

      why this chia vs USA reminded me of the punic wars ? it started just by regional dispute by a naval superpower and rich carthage against an upstart romans over sicily. The first punic war ended up in uneasy truce/peace that lead into the 2nd punic war which pretty devastating to carthage and totally removed it from regional superpower list..

      people more intelligent than me said history never repeat but it rhymes.. i believed that.. every superpower/nation have it phase , we saw america rise up at the decline of british empire, now we see china rise up today at what many people said the end of pax americana..

  5. Very valid thought and one that has concerned me greatly for quite some time.

    We could get into a debate about a sustained NATO engagement and the numbers and shipyards \ manufacturers involved there.

    But for me the crux would be in the “kill ratio” and tempo of any given warfare. We on this side of the fence have chosen to go for technological superiority and quality over numbers, with a hope ( a somewhat provable hope ) that this gives us a superior kill ratio.

    There will be losses, we have to assume that, but in a war of attrition will these happen at a favorable RATE to us or the enemy. Looking at a lot of China’s (say) more modern knock off, I mean assets, I would imagine at this time they could stand to lose many too fast. They are MORE THAN capable of defending their soil (certainly in the short to medium term) but they would take quite a while to advance a battle line much further than the South China Sea for I would expect a year or two years.

    Could that buy the U.S. 5 years to really kick into gear, and like WW2 totally reconfigure civilian production to military?

    (And p.s. I think you might well be able to do it in less than that)

    It’s a bit of a flip a coin moment, but yes, baring main land strikes I think you could.


    1. Beno, ask yourself what the Chinese objectives in a war would be. "Reunification" of Taiwan is their number one short term objective. Securing the East and South China Seas is their number two short term objective and that probably amounts to seizing and securing some of the disputed territories. Thus, I doubt they have any plans or objectives beyond the first island chain.

      They undoubtedly have longer term objectives in the hundred year range but they're nowhere near ready to actively pursue those yet.

      So, if China can secure their short term objectives while we're still gearing up, the war is over. I've offered this scenario before - all China has to do is quickly secure their objectives plus a few extra and then surrender. At that point, we can't really attack without having the entire world opinion turn on us and China can drag out negotiations forever (look at the example of Korea - China has noted that) while tossing a few of the extras back as signs of good faith.

  6. Interesting set of comments, and interesting to use World War II as an example. However, as I'm sure most of the readers already know, the World War II example can go only so far because the development of many/most of the weapons that changed the course of that war were well on there way before Pearl Harbor was bombed. The P-51, Hellcat, and Corsair fighter aircraft had all experienced their first flights, as well as the B-17 and B-24 bombers. The Sherman tank was already in development. The Essex class carrier was already ordered. And so on. I believe many casual history buffs might think that the US turned on its arsenal of democracy after the US had entered the war, but the truth is that much of what won the war was already on the drawing boards and being ordered before the US officially entered the war. Do we today have those same systems under development, ready for serial production if the need arose? Is there sufficient lead time to allow the significant quantities to be produced, if needed? Or does there need to be sufficient inventory of "high" class weapons with a corresponding "low" class inventory to ensure enough weapons to fill the shooters? As I had always heard when discussing the difference between the US army and Soviet army in Germany - "Quantity has a quality all of its own".

    - interested party

    1. ip, you're correct that many WWII designs were initiated pre-war, however, the point is the speed with which those designs were brought to production. In the space of just a few years they moved from drawing board to production. The follow on designs which were initiated during the war (the Bearcat, for example, or the Midway) were likewise brought to production in just a few years.

      The other point is the sheer volume of designs. Many dozens of new aircraft, ships, and armor were conceived and built in just a few years.

      Contrast that to today. The JSF has been in development for close to 20 years and is nowhere near operational service, yet. Also consider the very small number of designs being developed. At any given moment we have only one or two aircraft designs under development and the same for ships. Even armor has very few designs under development. There hasn't been a new tank designed for decades (when did the Abrams come out?). The Marines have been fiddling with an AAV replacement for decades.

      You raise an excellent question about whether we have designs on the shelf, ready for potential use. I suspect we don't.

    2. Good point...the timeline from first flight to introduction is highly truncated compared to what we see today, and the number of different designs is pretty incredible. You look at the history of many of those designs and you realize that they were conceived as competitions, with the "winner" determined by how best the system performed within just a few short years of conception and fielding.

      The consolidation of ship designs (a single class of CGs, essentially one class of DDGs, etc) is boon for commonality and logistics, but what happens if an adversary is able to counter the systems on that class? I think you see some areas where their is a robust competition (think lightweight air launched weapons and guided small diameter rockets/missiles) but there is little competition in the high end arena since the money just isn't there to keep multiple systems going.


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