Mass Matters: Why America Needs More Ships to Deter China

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February 8, 2021 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ChinaAmericaU.S. NavyShipbuildingPLA Navy

Mass Matters: Why America Needs More Ships to Deter China

It takes multiple ships to ensure one is forward deployed and actually ready for action.

Over at Stars & Stripes this week, Caitlin Doornbos reported that the newish guided-missile destroyer USS Rafael Peralta had moored at its new home port of Yokosuka for the first time. Commissioned in 2017, Rafael Peralta bears the latest advances in sensor, computer, and weapons technology, including “Aegis Baseline 9,” which integrates the ship’s SPY-1 radar, vertical launch system, and Standard Missile-3 surface-to-air missiles to allow defenders to engage hostile aircraft and cruise and ballistic missiles simultaneously. Pre-Baseline 9 Aegis ships had to choose between air and ballistic-missile defense—a potentially fatal choice in an age when anti-ship cruise missiles remain an omnipresent low-altitude threat and ballistic missiles can evidently crash down on ships from on high.

More capability is always welcome. Tacticians relish it. From the standpoint of operations and strategy, though, forward-deploying Rafael Peralta to Japan is important because it provides mass both for the U.S. Seventh Fleet and for the combined U.S.-Japanese armada that has squared off against China’s navy and air and missile forces. And, as the masters of strategy teach, massed firepower at the scene of battle constitutes the arbiter between victory and defeat. The combatant that’s stronger at the decisive place and decisive time tends to emerge the victor. QED.

Mass is in short supply in the Western Pacific, where China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) can back up the power of the PLA Navy fleet with shore-based aircraft and missiles. The PLA and PLA Navy help make Beijing stronger at hotspots in the China seas and potentially beyond. The PLA Navy now outnumbers the U.S. Navy as a whole. Meanwhile, the Seventh Fleet, a detachment of the U.S. Navy, typically has some fifty-to-seventy ships of all types under its purview. (The actual tally depends on what U.S.-based forces are roaming the Western Pacific on a given day.) The Seventh Fleet commonly operates in company with Japan’s high-quality but compact Maritime Self-Defense Force, partly ameliorating the numerical mismatch.

The allied total may sound impressive, but bear in mind that substantially fewer warships are available at a moment’s notice than that figure suggests. Some vessels are in extended refits or routine maintenance; others are relaxing after recent deployments or working up for their next at-sea periods. A navy thumb rule familiar to seafarers of Cold War vintage holds that it takes three ships in the U.S.-based inventory to keep one forward-deployed. (The thumb rule actually understates the problem. It takes more hulls than three—and far more for some ship types.) A contingent such as the Seventh Fleet can get by with fewer ships because much of the fleet is permanently on station. Even so, it takes a fleet homeported overseas 1.2 surface combatant ships to keep one on cruise.

Rafael Peralta joins a surface-warfare contingent in Yokosuka that’s made up of seven destroyers and three cruisers. Run the numbers, and it appears the Seventh Fleet commander can count on about eight surface combatants—not ten—to be ready for action at any time (plus a few that the San Diego-based Third Fleet may have sent to the region). That’s a lean force to take on the combined might of the PLA Navy on its own operating grounds.

That the numbers game is turning against the allies is not news to the U.S. Navy leadership or the Pentagon, let alone to the Japan Ministry of Defense. Successive presidential administrations have acknowledged the problem and sought to do something about it. As early as 2011 the Obama administration resolved to “pivot” to Asia, swinging forces from Atlantic to Pacific in an effort to redress the force imbalance then looming. Make what you will of the Trump administration’s handling of alliance relations, but U.S. forward deployments to the Pacific remained in place. Nor does the Biden administration seem inclined to withdraw forces or fundamentally depart from its predecessors’ course—just the opposite judging from its early days.

Mass is a must if Washington intends to pursue a strategy aimed at deterring Communist China. It must back that strategy with steel in a credible way to daunt Beijing into forbearance vis-à-vis American allies and friends.

Now, Beijing gets a say in U.S. naval readiness in the region, and thus in the credibility of deterrent threats issuing from Washington. Studying the U.S. sea services, detecting their weaknesses, and figuring out how to assail them in wartime is obviously a focal point of PLA preparations in peacetime. The PLA has made impressive strides. As former deputy secretary of defense and under secretary of the Navy Robert Work points out in a recent think-tank report, PLA strategists think in terms of “systems-destruction warfare,” meaning a clash of opposing systems rather than armed forces as traditionally understood. I made an initial effort at explaining the approach a couple of years back, but Secretary Work probes far deeper. His take on PLA strategy is a mindbender but well worth your time.

Martial sage Carl von Clausewitz expressed the logic underlying systems-destruction well. Clausewitz goes on and on about “destruction” of enemy forces, implying mass slaughter of enemy soldiers and wholesale demolition of enemy military hardware. But as is generally the case, Clausewitzian ideas are subtler than he lets on. On a close reading it becomes clear that he believes destruction means destruction of an enemy force as a fighting force. In theory it is possible to render a hostile force inert, and thus “destroy” it for military purposes, without inflicting massive damage or casualties.

How? Armies, fleets, and air forces are indeed systems, as PLA strategists observe. Something binds any system—or “system of systems,” a common term of art—together. An opponent may be able to sever that something—decomposing the system into individual components that can be overcome one by one. In the days of sail, naval commanders depended chiefly on flag signals to issue orders and coordinate fleet movements and actions. If an opponent had wanted to wage systems-destruction warfare against, say, Lord Nelson’s fleet, interfering with visual signals was one way to do it. Getting the fleet to spread out, taking advantage of wind or weather, or deploying smoke or other obscurants could have hampered Nelson’s command. Individual Royal Navy men-of-war would have made easy prey once blinded and cut off from one another.

Today, of course, naval systems rely on high-tech methods involving the electromagnetic spectrum to coordinate actions in space and time. But the principle remains. If the PLA can cut the lineaments that bind a U.S. force together, it can deal with constituent parts of that force, one by one, at its leisure. As Work notes, there are three basic ways to do that: incorporate resiliency into the system to help it resist disruption; identify backup procedures and hardware ahead of time in case the system does fail; and, perhaps most importantly, develop and instill doctrine so that commanders and crews know what to do if they find themselves cut off from the rest of the system and without guidance. That way the system can continue on—albeit perhaps in a degraded state—despite PLA efforts to derange it.

Back to Rafael Peralta and the rest of the Seventh Fleet, though. If wartime PLA strategy is about attacking American and allied systems—again, meaning dividing up enemy forces into digestible bits like ships and planes—peacetime PLA strategy is partly about wearing down those individual elements ahead of time in case war comes. A debilitated foe makes easy pickings in combat. This is an approach grounded in Chinese Communist traditions. For instance, classical Chinese general Sun Tzu makes much of taking control of the surroundings, changing them, and compelling the foe to react. That’s wearisome. His guileful approach disorients the antagonist while wearing it out before Chinese forces administer a killing blow. Sun Tzu also stresses taking deceptive measures to keep the enemy constantly scurrying about and tiring itself out before the decisive stroke.

The modern Chinese innovation is to transpose these strategies to peacetime competition. PLA thinkers understand well that their forces are abundant in the Western Pacific and China seas while U.S. forces are few by contrast. The PLA can impose a high operating tempo on the U.S. Seventh Fleet and affiliated forces simply through constant activity. Much as PLA Air Force feints toward Taiwan keep the smaller Taiwan Air Force constantly flying, and incurring wear and tear on aviators and airframes in the bargain, the PLA Navy can impose wear and tear on the Seventh Fleet through frequent mischief-making around the mainland’s periphery. In the tradition of Sun Tzu, more numerous Chinese forces have the option to create numerous situations to which U.S. and allied forces must respond. Mass is China’s friend, and the allies struggle to keep pace.

The options for Washington and allied capitals? Three general recommendations stand out. First, be choosy when issuing mandates to the Seventh Fleet. A self-disciplined, strategically minded force stands a better chance of keeping up the operational pace necessary to compete successfully over the long term. Refuse to let China dictate the tempo. Second, shift more assets to the Seventh Fleet while ensuring the larger U.S. Pacific Fleet can reinforce the Seventh Fleet from Hawaii and the west coast when need be. PLA defenders will try to hamper the fleet’s westward voyage. Accordingly, force designers must exert themselves tirelessly to develop methods and hardware for puncturing PLA anti-access defenses and allowing that junction to take place. And third, build a bigger and more resilient fleet—assuring the navy can amass superior combat power at times and places of commanders’ choosing. Let’s give Rafael Peralta plenty of company in the region—and restore mass to its rightful place in U.S. maritime strategy.