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Haze Grey Matters

August 12, 2012

James Holmes has an interesting post up on his naval affairs blog at The Diplomat sketching out what he believes are necessary attributes for China to achieve a “blue-water” naval capability. To summarize, he identifies these as:

  1. “Think like a blue-water fleet”
  2. Going to sea – building the human capital of seapower
  3. Building “unsexy ships” – the logistical tail that backs up blue-water punch
  4. Antisubmarine Warfare
  5. Mine Warfare

They’re all worthwhile points, and all shine a light on some of the misleading standards by which we judge foreign military power and strategic positions, and our own. As Holmes points out:

My list neglects items with sex appeal, like aircraft carriers, nuclear-driven submarines, and land-attack cruise missiles. And deliberately so. There are many varieties of blue-water navy. A lot depends on what Beijing wants its navy to accomplish. But the PLA Navy will need the skills, cultural traits, and hardware I prescribe here, regardless of whether it ends up accentuating carrier aviation, undersea warfare, or surface operations.

Take mine warfare, for example. Since the end of World War II, enemy mines have wrought much more havoc for American ships than hostile aircraft or missiles. In the Korean War, Tanker War, the Gulf of Sidra and Gulf War, mines caused significant damage to American or friendly shipping. All the lovely hardware the PLAN might like to purchase will not be particularly useful if it can’t wrangle with the defenses of even a Libya or Iraq-level hostile state. This goes as well for antisubmarine warfare. Not only does the United States maintain a deadly effective submarine force, the proliferation of submarines throughout Asia poses another major threat for Chinese forces seeking to operate out of area.

As for unsexy ships, they are even more important if one considers the demands of actual power projection. To park a combat effective fleet thousands of miles from home is one feat – and a significant one at that – and to effectively conduct any kind of amphibious operations or even efficacious offshore strikes is quite another. Sustaining a useful tempo of overseas combat operations remains a significant challenge even for many of America’s allied fleets, let alone their younger Asian counterparts.

The first two items on Holmes’s list speak to the advantages and even luxuries the United States has as a geographically isolated superpower. Even when America wishes to wage land or air wars, its navy must still show up on the scene to play a supporting, co-equal, or even leading role. Before the railroads and the Panama Canal, even projecting military power into what is now the American West required significant naval activity, which is why in say, Sherman’s memoirs, one finds passages about sailing through Rio de Janeiro during the Mexican-American War. Of course, America did not become a true “blue-water” fleet by the standards of Mahanians until the end of the 19th century, but nevertheless the necessity of blue-water operations for maintaining the lifeblood of trade in the Atlantic and Pacific, and even significant naval operations to maintain influence in the Caribbean, meant that the U.S. had significant naval institutions such as Annapolis and the Naval War College to inculcate the blue-water mentality Holmes describes long before it rose to naval dominance.

China, for its part, has until recently had neither the necessity of frequent blue-water operations nor the luxury of adopting blue-water thinking. China faces significant continental and littoral concerns in Northeast, Southeast, South and Central Asia, as well as a massive internal security burden, meaning what resources it does not pour into its land and internal security forces it must tailor to the needs of defense rather than a potentially offensive blue-water capability. Indeed, given the expense and opportunity cost of the measures Holmes describes, it’s easy to see the argument that China, at this stage, may not be best served by an overly ambitious naval vision. Imperial Japan, though America’s encounter with it was dominated by maritime and amphibious operations, ultimately had massive resources invested in being a Eurasian continental power through the enormous Kwangtung Army. China, though the dilemma it faces is obviously less severe in every possible way, nevertheless must grapple between these security concerns. It should also give Americans some pause when considering foreign naval threats in the future. China’s construction of aircraft carriers, submarines, and other vessels is all important, but unless it’s followed up with investments in the areas such as the ones Holmes describes, Americans ought moderate their fears about maritime decline somewhat.

Of course, issues such as these challenge American complacency in other ways. It’s been a significant assumption of American maritime strategic concepts and foreign policy generally that shifting the burdens of dominion over the maritime commons and other activities reliant on that dominion is a feasible approach for national security policymakers. The reality, unfortunately, is that the problems China faces are also problems that will impede rising powers such as Brazil and India from playing the “burden-sharing” role America desires of them. India, though certainly interested in projecting power within the Indian Ocean, faces, like China, significant continental and local concerns that will limit its appetite and availability for blue-water power projection. As India’s Chief of Naval Staff confirmed, the Pacific remains a distant second to the Indian Ocean in the navy’s security priorities.

This leaves much of the potential burden-bearing powers within the realm of America’s traditional allies, most of which are undergoing relative decline. Japan, the most frequently-cited candidate for American burden-sharing in Asia, does indeed invest in some of the capabilities Holmes speaks of. But a truly assertive Japanese blue-water presence would also dangerously strain the ties upholding the American alliance system within Asia. South Korea and Japan, for example, are still at odds in the maritime realm, and developing a genuine blue-water fleet would be a deeply controversial and politically perilous problem within Japan, for obvious domestic political reasons. On top of that, Japan’s anemic economy and the even gloomier turn forecasts have taken lately suggest it will not be eager to develop a blue-water fleet ready for burden-sharing. As for America’s European partners, Britain’s fleet is in a rather perilous state and many other countries may lack the will or resources to maintain the foundations of their own blue-water fleets, particularly when America still seems ready and able to take on their burdens when they might require a large blue-water presence.

Human capital, logistics, and the unglamorous business of ASW and MIW generally get short shrift in most naval commentary, and indeed, the mechanics of actually sharing the burden of commanding the commons does as well. All of these elements are potential limiting factors on the more impressive and awe-inspiring capital vessels and submarines that take the spotlight in most mainstream discussion of naval warfare. Without the context of the factors Holmes mentions, it is all too easy to exaggerate the threat of maritime foes and miscalculate the strength and readiness of friends. Since American engagement in the revived multipolar order has an enduring maritime character, the basis of naval power – and all attendant forms of power projection – is essential to critically appraising security policy options going forward.

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