The Buzz

If the U.S. Navy Wants to Win a War Against China They Need to Watch Star Trek First

If you’re China and confront an antagonist that opts to do without redundancy, you can deploy a troublemaking strategy. You whittle away at the center of gravity manifest in minimal manning. The object of such a strategy? Tire and bewilder crews that may already be overworked. Fling a variety of challenges at them, along as many axes as you can, as simultaneously as you can. Give each crewman more to do than he can, on the Cylon-esque reasoning that imposing numerous, repeated contingencies compounds the demands on people and hardware. Such tactics constitute the precursor to a crushing blow—or to an American withdrawal under duress.

China’s navy, in short, could ape the Cylons’ strategy. In purely martial terms, posing missile, gun, and torpedo threats from many points of the compass from as many domains as possible—from the surface, the depths, and aloft—would compel a ship’s beleaguered defenders to cope with more challenges, perhaps, than they could manage. Flooding an embattled zone with China Coast Guard vessels, fishing craft, and purportedly civilian sea and air traffic—interspersing combat units among nonmilitary ships and planes—would further complicate U.S. commanders’ picture of the surroundings. It would be hard to act for fear of hitting the wrong target—and having pictures of an errant shot splashed across TV and computer screens around the world.

How would you punk the U.S. Navy if the lords of naval warfare handed you the keys to, say, China’s navy? Well, you might do the obvious thing: read or watch some science fiction!

In the latest Star Trek flick, for instance, a new foe harnesses swarm tactics to eviscerate the starship Enterprise. A coordinated stream of small craft overpowers the starship’s defenses through the simple expedient of presenting more targets than the Enterprise crew can shoot down. Its overseer then concentrates fire at vital nodes to dismember the ship’s structure.

Such tactics are an otherworldly counterpart to saturation missile barrages meant to overwhelm U.S. surface combatants’ Aegis combat systems. Rather than try to evade Aegis defenses, attackers simply aim more rounds at this combination radar, fire-control and surface-to-air missile system than it can handle. Some get through—and sow havoc. Life imitates sci-fi.

And then there’s Battlestar Galactica, a TV show with a similar ripped-from-the-headlines feel. The conceit behind the show: rather than risk a slugfest against the human colonies’ fleet of capital ships and their Viper fighter squadrons, the archenemy Cylons insinuate a computer virus into the fleet. The virus spreads through the ubiquitous computer networks whereby commanders coordinate their endeavors. It disables heavy ships and fighter spacecraft alike, leaving the fleet easy prey.

Sound strategy, that. Why duel a stronger antagonist and risk losing when cyberwarfare can nullify combat power before shots are fired? Galactica, an aged man-of-war, rides out the onslaught because her old-school commander, William Adama, refuses to permit the computers on board to be networked. When modern Vipers—the F-35s of this faraway universe—shut down, the battlestar’s deck crew salvages obsolescent fighters. Old tech proves too low-tech for viruses to infect—yet still lethal enough for skilled aviators to repulse attack.

Network-centric warfare” remains U.S. forces’ warfighting method of choice, even though the phrase has fallen out of fashion. It comes with grave perils. Live by the computer network, die by the computer network.

But Battlestar Galactica also hints at subtler ways to outfight a stronger opponent. The weak need not vanquish the strong outright. They can harry the strong—enfeebling them until their margin of supremacy vanishes.

Wise combatants, then, study their foes, discern their strengths and frailties, and design operations to tame the former while exploiting the latter. A prospective enemy like China would try to divine the American “center of gravity” or, as Carl von Clausewitz describes it somewhat mystically, the “hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends.” Should a fight erupt, Chinese forces would then aim “blow after blow” at that center of gravity—pounding away until U.S. forces capitulated or, more likely, lost heart and went away.

There’s a curious thing about centers of gravity, though. They can be innocuous. Petroleum refineries turned out to be a center of gravity for Hitler’s war machine, humble freighters and tankers for Tojo’s. By pummeling industry and merchantmen from sky and sea, the Allies starved Axis forces of irreplaceable war materiel.