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Taiwan, sea denial, and the bounding of US dominance

July 13, 2011

There was some fuss lately over US reluctance to sell the Republic of China F-16 fighters. Supposedly, the US was imperiling a fellow democracy by refusing to sell it F-16Cs, and then downgrading the deal to F-16As with upgrades. What is missing from the conversation, as David Axe points out, is that new fighter aircraft are a pretty poor return on the investment as far as Taiwanese security is concerned.

Anything that the Chinese can reliably hit with a conventional ballistic missile is useless, along with anything that relies on it, if the Taiwan Strait dispute goes hot in a big way. This includes airfields, which is why Taiwan is prepared for highway operations for F-16s. However, Taiwan is not a big place and it is only a matter of time before the PLA 2nd Artillery hit those as well. Indeed, even as a 2008 RAND study determined, even with USAF support and ridiculously high probability of kill statistics, the sheer mass of Chinese airpower, combined with a narrowing qualitative gap, is enough to keep the air war from deciding a conflict in Taipei’s favor.

Instead of doubling down on the sunk costs of an air-centric strategy for defending the island, commentators have rightly suggested investments in other areas. Robert Haddick suggests switching to mobile missile launchers, although it is hard to see how these would be able to overcome the sheer Chinese quantitative superiority at hand. Axe suggests something which might make more sense – diesel submarines:

Realistically, Taiwan can only hope to delay a Chinese assault on the island long enough for international pressure and US reinforcements to convince Beijing that war is a losing proposition.

The best weapons for delaying a Chinese attack are ones that can’t be targeted by ballistic missiles – and that could confront a Chinese invasion fleet far from Taiwan’s shores. That means submarines.

Today, the Taiwanese navy operates just two combat-ready submarines, bought from the Dutch during a rare period when European nations were willing to risk angering Beijing by selling weapons to Taipei. In 2001, Washington approved the sale of eight new diesel-powered subs to Taiwan, but no US shipyards currently build such boats. Ten years later, the deal is still pending.

Unlike the F-16 sale, Taipei’s inability to purchase new submarines has a real bearing on the island’s ability to defend itself.

Although Haddick insists on mobile missile sites, one assumes that submarines would be better platforms for cruise missiles, particularly those oriented towards sinking PLAN vessels. Nevertheless, judged by the metrics of the past, the assumed US capability of defending Taiwan, whether directly or through bolstering Taiwanese defenses, is increasingly coming into question.

Now, this is far from a disaster. However effective the PLA’s capability to fight and perhaps even win wars within SRBM and MRBM range is, means only increased regional power, not extra-regional hegemony. However, to avoid turning these setbacks into a geopolitical catastrophe, the US needs to understand that things in East Asia cannot carry on as normal, and neither burden sharing nor doubling down qualitative superiority can change that.

In fact, pursuing either of these tracks without reevaluating our broader grand strategy in the region will merely sow instability and weaken US power. The notion that the Chinese are interested in pursuing a vision of burden sharing that has implications for the unity of their claimed territory is rather puzzling. So too is the notion that China is interested in contributing to the maintaining a vision of upholding the global commons that allows foreigners to violate its sovereignty, at least in the Chinese view. With a hat tip to Daniel Larison, Lyle Goldstein explains why the US idea of freedom of navigation is so unappealing to the Chinese:

Washington’s focus on “freedom of navigation,” which has inexplicably become the main pillar of current U.S. policy in the region, is actually rather absurd. China, the world’s largest maritime trading nation by almost any measure, is very unlikely to threaten navigational freedoms — its own economy is almost wholly reliant on those very freedoms. The claim that China’s opposition to regular U.S. military surveillance activities in the South China Sea threatens “freedom of navigation” is likewise disingenuous and represents an unfortunate tendency to reach for the clever sound bite. In fact, such U.S. surveillance activities all along China’s coasts are excessive to the point of seriously disrupting the bilateral relationship and should thus be decreased, especially if linked to concrete progress on Chinese military transparency.

The case might actually be a bit more complicated. Put simply, China’s vision of freedom of navigation is strictly commercial. The Chinese interpretation of UNCLOS basically territorializes the Exclusive Economic Zone as far as military matters are concerned. This is not a minor issue for the United States, because the US vision of commanding the commons, as well as its security guarantees to overseas allies, rely on maritime military transit through strategic chokepoints around Eurasia. Such an interpretation would not only concern US policy towards China, but US policy towards any potential combat theater of operations near these Chinese seas, and within the range of land-based Chinese missiles, aircraft, and shorter-range Chinese attack subs.

In other words, freedom of navigation (and let us remember this issue helped turn the tide in American public opinion during World War I, and was responsible for a large amount of conflict in our republic’s early years) has become part and parcel in the greater grand strategic objective of commanding the global commons. While China is certainly not going to dismantle global maritime trade at whim, denying sea control to its maritime neighbors and the United States are a critical component of its maritime strategy. While essentially defensive in character, the capabilities of a Chinese active defense (or “deep sea defense,” as some documents refer to it) do have important implications for broader US policy involving not just Southeast Asia or Taiwan, but Japan and Korea.

US grand strategy requires that terrestrial space be easily penetrable to maritime force. On this foundation much of the architecture of modern notions of the US-led global system, humanitarian intervention, and manifold other norms and institutions sit. US sea power and the ability to navigate around the world are prerequisites to any strategies of humanitarian intervention, counterinsurgency, regime change, or nation-building elsewhere, because without sea access, and the ability of the US to deter or dominate continental powers from the sea, the US and its allies cannot field or support ground troops to effect control.

Active sea denial allows states such as China to significantly diminish their reliance on the commander of the maritime commons for their security and prosperity. With the ability to imperil strangulation through denial of basing and freedom of navigation for essential naval platforms, China can ensure freedom of navigation in part for itself. While there are other chokepoints beyond Chinese control, the ability to maintain diplomatic relations and show the flag would be more preferable than allowing a hegemonic power to maintain control in China’s backyard in the hopes that it might return the favor in China’s interest in the Persian Gulf. After all, China can still free ride on American naval power there and in other locales.

Rather than attempting to make an old paradigm robust, the US may need to ask itself how to adapt, rather than defeat, a world where technological and geopolitical developments are eating away at US naval dominance. After all, to assume that the US can only protect its interests in East Asia by strengthening its current posture is folly. Indeed, the current posture is woefully inadequate for reasons of basic geographic sense.

US military equipment and doctrine is still essentially built for Cold War-range warfighting. The distances between strategically-relevant airfields in Europe and the Middle East are not immensely different. For a long time, the US has been able to get along with combat fighters and attack aircraft with effective ranges appropriate to Central Europe, but vastly insufficient for the Pacific theater. The US only has one airbase within 500 miles of Taiwan, and it, along with many others, are vulnerable to Chinese missile attacks. It is questionable how many of those hosted into foreign countries could even remain in play should states such as South Korea or Japan decide that non-intervention in a US-China spat is better than joining in. Although there is much talk about the utter superiority of 5th generation American fighter aircraft over their opponents, they are extremely expensive – in part because the US is no longer interested in cashing in on economies of scale. But, to begin with, they have major limitations in an air war with China – they cannot make the sheer number of sorties and bring the sheer number of missiles necessary to dominate airspace beyond the opening exchanges of a conflict in waters of core Chinese interest. A quantitative fix might help, but would be insufficient, since American combat technology is only as good as the reliability of what puts it in theater. The vulnerability of US carriers and airbases should be quite apparent.

Yes, the Air Force and Navy are seeking to adopt a doctrine to confront these new conditions, but they cannot control everything. Even assuming Air-Sea battle gets off the ground, operational art cannot fill the gaping void in US grand strategy that the end of uncontested US freedom of navigation will impose. The politics of hardware purchases are unfortunately much more interesting than those of basing, but the debate about US basing seems to be very out of sync with US strategy in East Asia, arms procurement, and other issues. Bases do not bring money home to anybody’s district, unlike projects such as a new ship or combat aircraft. Yet the combination of hardening existing bases, and, in all likelihood, finding a way to create new ones outside of effective conventional missile range, will be of high importance. Hence the importance of the “Garrett plan” which recognized the utility of flexible basing agreements rather than relying further on permanent, forward presence becomes a key element of  US adaptation to the new era of sea denial.

Indeed, such an adaptation might actually give the US the flexibility and the widened menu of strategic options not just to counter, but to sidestep sea denial generally. Doing so, however, has to be part of a comprehensive rethinking of US military power and its role in the world. Unfortunately, so long as each of these debates are cloistered off from each other, such a rethink will prove quite difficult. Talking about grand strategy without considering the implications of changing military technology on politics tends towards ignominious outcomes. So too does talking about weapons systems without thinking through the diplomatic and geographic environment where they will be used. Changes on each level in each field will reverberate beyond them, challenging assumptions from the tactical level through the grand strategic. So long as the US tries to address issues in any one of them without reference to the others, it will be, at best, running to stand still.

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