Face Off: How America Can REALLY Stop China's Navy

"Prolonged, uneasy deterrence is not a strategy to relish—just better than the alternatives."

It’s dangerous to live by the unexamined assumption. Exhibit A: the oft-heard claim that U.S. sea and air forces sporting precision-guided arms will make short work of military facilities on South China Sea islets. “So what?” says one Pentagon official of Beijing’s island-building project. “If China wants to build vulnerable airstrips on these rocks, let them—they just constitute a bunch of easy targets that would be taken out within minutes of a real contingency.”

RAND, too, softpedals the islands’ longevity in combat. In a generally estimable report on the correlation of forces between America and China, RAND researchers maintain that South China Sea outposts could host only “a handful of SAMs and fighter aircraft.” It’s doubtful, they say, that People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces forward-deployed to “reclaimed” reefs or atolls would comprise “a significant factor in high-intensity military operations beyond the first hours of a conflict.” Nothing to see here, move along.

The syllogism behind such wartime prognoses seems to go like this: Island fortresses can’t stand against assault unless they’re entirely self-sufficient. China’s manmade islands aren’t self-sufficient in terms of defenses or logistics. So why fret about them?

To start with, a fundamental point: assuming away a foe’s ingenuity, martial skill, and thirst for victory ranks among the most egregious sins a strategist or tactician can commit. As military sage Carl von Clausewitz counsels, the enemy isn’t some lifeless, inert mass on which we work our will. Instead war involves a “collision of two living forces,” both intent on getting their way. “So long as I have not overthrown my opponent,” he adds, “I am bound to fear that he may overthrow me.”

“Thus,” concludes Clausewitz, “I am not in control: he dictates to me as much as I dictate to him.” Or, in simpler terms, respect the adversary. No serious competitor is a potted plant.

On to operational specifics. At first blush it makes sense that U.S. forces could pummel airfields, piers, and shore infrastructure from the sea and sky. We’ve seen missiles lofted by aircraft, surface vessels, or submarines hitting targets on CNN for the past quarter-century. And there’s no gainsaying the fact that these are tiny sites. Sparse real estate will compel their occupants to group warplanes, ships, and infrastructure closely—packaging targets neatly for destruction.

Right? Well, yes, if PLA commanders leave their island bastions isolated and exposed, subjecting them to American attack. But why would they? China is not Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, nor the Taliban, nor al Qaeda. It is a near-peer competitor vis-à-vis the United States. The PLA bears a panoply of high-tech armaments, is amassing more with gusto, and will be fighting on home ground. Unlike the second-tier adversaries the U.S. armed forces have faced since the Cold War, PLA gunners can shoot back with real prospects of success.

PLA commanders are apt to envelop the islands with overlapping, interlocking fields of fire emanating from nearby islands, ships and aircraft, and metropolitan China. Sea-power historian Alfred Thayer Mahan illuminates the intricacies of seizing and defending islands. Yes, he makes position, strength, and resources the litmus tests for coastal or island bases. Strength means defensibility, resources the base’s capacity to replenish stores and armaments without undue enemy interference.

Taken in isolation, no manmade Southeast Asian island fares well by Mahanian standards. Each is weak, and unable to resupply itself. But Mahan also notes that whoever commands the seas adjoining an island will ultimately control the island. If forces friendly to its defenders dominate the sea—and the sky, in this air-power age—they can guard it, augmenting its defenses, while ferrying stores to its tenants to help them ride out enemy action.

An island’s innate strength and resources recede in importance under these circumstances. Islands and naval forces, then, are interdependent—a point Mahan hammers home while recounting the Anglo-French maritime war of 1778. He likens naval war in the Caribbean Sea to a “war of posts”—the islands over which Britain and France were wrangling being the posts. Navies were the arbiters of maritime command in the age of sail. Mahan reproaches the French Navy in particular for shunning a decisive engagement against its British enemy.

Instead French commanders focused on wresting islands from Great Britain. Making real estate the main goal was their mistake in Mahan’s eyes. Defeat the forces that control the commons, and the islands will wilt on the vine—letting the victor collect the spoils. Fail to go after the enemy fleet, and the islanders may hold out.