How Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica Can Teach the U.S. Navy to Defeat China

An F/A-18C Hornet breaks the sound barrier during an air power demonstration. Flickr/U.S. Navy

Should China’s navy look to the Cylons?

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.

A related idea from Prussia’s master of strategy: Clausewitz advises strategists that, in the folksy terms I like to employ in Newport, the enemy is not a potted plant. In strategy, in other words, one antagonist doesn’t work its will on a lifeless mass that’s unable to strike a counterblow. Rather, warfare involves an intensely interactive “collision of two living forces”—both imbued with ingenuity and with zeal for their causes. It’s the Golden Rule of combat: the foe does unto you even as you do unto him.

But here’s the thing. It may be possible, through dexterous strategy and operations, to transform a foe into a potted plant—dulling his reactions and material capacity until he’s little more than an inert mass with little prospect of protecting himself or thwarting your will. Better yet, such operations could yield an opponent prone to self-defeating mistakes. Inert pugilists make easy pickings.

By the Golden Rule, moreover, he may do things to reduce you to a potted plant, hampering your ability to adapt to change to the tactical surroundings—change he himself may have wrought. If he renders you inert, you can no longer compete effectively or efficiently. He imposes his will on you—and wins.

Which brings us back to the sci-fi universe. In the very second episode of Battlestar Galactica, titled “33,” the Cylons hit upon an ingenious stratagem: weary Galactica’s and the colonial fleet’s defenders through small-scale but frequent assaults, then strike a fatal blow against a foe too tired, addle-brained and mistake-prone to fight back effectively.