Go Diesel, Scare China: Why the Navy Should Deploy Diesel Submarines to Asia

September 1, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ChinaUS NavyPLANDiesel SubmarinesNuclear Submarines

Go Diesel, Scare China: Why the Navy Should Deploy Diesel Submarines to Asia

They're cheap. You can build a lot of them. And Beijing won't have an easy time responding. And our allies will be pleased. What could be wrong with that?

To answer the former, the bearable cost of diesel boats compared to SSNs makes them attractive at a time when the U.S. Navy cannot spend lavishly on shipbuilding. Nuclear power must not be a fetish. To answer the latter, consider the political uses of sea power once again. Unmanned submersibles boast negligible political impact compared to manned boats. They do little to show that the United States has “skin in the game” of alliance politics, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb might say , while putting American sailors in harm’s way telegraphs resolve.

Unmanned vehicles neither cow the Chinas of the world nor reassure allies of American commitment. They belong in the future fleet design to the extent the hardware and war-making methods for handling it prove out. But for diplomatic clout, they can never substitute for boats operated by human crews. No skin in the game, minor political import.

Let’s grant scholar-statesman Henry Kissinger the last word on the political uses of diesel submarines. Kissinger wrote that deterrence is a product of capability, the willpower to use that capability under well-defined circumstances, and an antagonist’s belief in American capability and will. This formula doesn’t involve addition; you multiply the three variables to estimate deterrence. Maximizing all three maximizes deterrence. There may be trouble when one or more variables plunge.

Danger looms when any element approaches zero. In strategy as in Algebra I, multiplying something by zero reduces the product to zero. No amount of physical might deters absent the will to use it; the strongest resolve avails little without adequate capability to wield; and neither capability nor resolve suffices unless we make the opponent a believer in our capability and our willpower to use it under the circumstances we specify.

The same Kissingerian logic holds for coercion except, as noted before, the goal is to spur rather than discourage some action. And it holds for reassurance except that allies, friends, or those we hope to recruit to be allies or friends represent the chief target audience.

Building a diesel flotilla, then, threatens costs Beijing would find unpalatable and might find unbearable. Conventional boats’ affordability adds to the mix, showing the allies could bulk up the fleet’s numbers yet further if conditions warrant. Forward-deploying diesel attack boats to allied ports as part of a standing fleet also signifies resolve. Forward-deployed vessels are always there—and being part of the landscape constitutes a meaningful talisman of resolve, as Woody and Wylie advise.

Political impact results. Washington may make believers of antagonists and friends alike if it does these things while conveying purpose in Asia. It can banish China’s leadership to the shadowland of doubt and indecision—and bolster the likelihood that Beijing will decide today is not the day to test allied solidarity or capability.


James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific . The views voiced here are his alone.

Image: Reuters