It makes no sense to attempt to enter a fight on Chinese terms, in their own front yard, against a massive opponent who has historically demonstrated the ability to take a great number of punches on home ground and still stay in the fight.
Military organizations are often accused of fighting the last war. In the case of the U.S. Air Force, the war in question is Desert Storm, the last unambiguous U.S. victory and a major milestone in the development of American air power.
(This first appeared in 2015.)
The Gulf War was a major success, demonstrating effective applications of stealth, precision and electronic warfare. But the war was fought with overwhelming logistical, numerical and technological superiority against an adversary that was geographically isolated, poorly trained, badly equipped and ineptly led.
It is unlikely that the United States will operate from such a position of advantage again. Pentagon planners should give up on the fantasy of a short, decisive war against the People’s Republic of China — any “short, decisive war” involving the PRC is likely to end in a PRC victory.
In a potential conflict with China, it is the U.S. that is geographically and numerically disadvantaged. Further, China has organized military developments for the past two decades around one key principle — that the U.S. would not be allowed to repeat Desert Storm.
The U.S. Department of Defense summarizes the Chinese approach under an “anti-access, area denial,” a.k.a A2AD label, but is overly focused on finding technological means to operate in the A2AD environment in order to attempt a repeat of the Gulf War’s air campaign. China is perhaps the least likely country to succumb to such a strategy, which is really an attempt to match strength against strength in an epic, mano-a-mano battle where China holds advantages in distance and mass that we are unlikely to ever overcome conventionally.
If the Air Force is going to do its part in deterring the PRC, the Pentagon must contribute to a viable offset strategy that relies as much on geography as technology. This is not to say that the United States cannot effectively fight the PRC, only that it cannot do so with a replay of techniques that proved successful more than two decades ago over Iraq.
The war the United States should base its strategy upon is another conflict in which it fought an island nation that had successfully executed an “A2AD” strategy by physically occupying much of the Asian landmass from Manchuria to Burma — to Wake Island and the Solomons.
The example we are looking for, and should be planning to, is the Pacific War from 1941 to 1945.
An analysis of the flow of goods and materials into and out of China reveals that with 98 percent of all freight moving by sea, China is practically, if not geographically, an island nation.
As such, it is vulnerable to interdiction of trade routes and energy supplies to a far greater degree than a land power, and this is a national vulnerability that air power is well-positioned to exploit — if applied properly.
The Pacific War against Japan was not a quick war. Excepting the very end, it had no “shock and awe” component. It was a grinding advance across limited real estate to approach the Japanese home islands from the south while maintaining pressure on other fronts, including the interior of China, New Guinea and the Philippines, India and Burma.
Fundamentally, it was a series of campaigns focused on establishing a logistical chain for Allied forces. That allowed the application of air power against Japan until such time as a massive amphibious assault could be undertaken or the home islands could be starved into submission.
Equally important, it was a sustained counter-logistics campaign conducted against an island nation occupying island territory across the theater.
The U.S. executed a sustained maritime interdiction campaign beginning at the outset of the war. Admittedly, it was the only option available to the U.S. Navy, but also one that had received a great deal of thought prior to the outbreak of war. Adm. Thomas Hart, commander of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, authorized unrestricted submarine warfare before the Japanese second wave had recovered aboard its carriers following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
While air power accounted for sinking more warships; submarines and mine warfare accounted for 1,360 of the 2,117 large merchant ships sunk by U.S. forces. Despite the fact that Japan impressed captured ships into service, its merchant marine shrank continuously during the war because of relentless Allied attack.
Eventually, the Japanese merchant fleet was unable to perform its most basic functions — it could not replenish forward naval forces, move resources to Japan, supply outposts, or evacuate forces that could not be resupplied.
The maritime interdiction campaign was essentially a joint campaign intended in what we would characterize today as an A2AD environment. Land-based air was the major source of air power in the west, while carrier-based air supported island-hopping campaigns beginning in November 1943. Fifth Air Force’s first responsibility was to gain control of the air, which entailed substantive offensive and defensive components with limited fighter resources.
In 1942, 5AF bombers spent the majority of its time conducting logistics and counter-logistics, attacking Japanese maritime traffic, ports, airfields and oil refineries while moving critical supplies to New Guinea. In its efforts to prevent the Japanese from reinforcing their troops in New Guinea, 5AF routinely attacked anything that moved on the water.
While merchant ships loss statistics tell some of the story, they do not tell all of it. The official statistics only count ships of 500 tons displacement or greater used for long-haul routes. Japan supplemented its short haul supply fleet with small watercraft of less than 500 tons displacement.
5AF in particular attacked watercraft during the day, from locally-built barges to tramp steamers and small warships, sinking them quite literally in the hundreds. In sea areas beyond the routine reach of aircraft and in joint attack areas by night, PT Boats and submarines applied constant pressure.
By November 1942, Japanese naval forces in and around the Solomons ceased all offensive operations and dedicated its light forces almost entirely to resupply. By May 1943, the Imperial Japanese Navy’s abandoned its defensive perimeter around New Guinea. Japanese troops deaths on New Guinea alone exceeded 148,000, the vast majority through disease and starvation. From November 1942 until the end of the war, 5AF claimed to have sunk 1.75 million tons of enemy shipping, excluding barges and similar small craft.
In the home islands, the effects of maritime interdiction were substantial. In 1941, Japan’s industrial development was a fairly recent event. Japan began orienting the economy towards war in 1928, multiplying its heavy industrial production by 500 percent by 1940.
Japan’s industry needed to import raw materials, including and especially oil, ferro-alloys and nonferrous metals. Tokyo established strategic reserves in bauxite and oil. But attacks on shipping reduced the Japanese industrial base far below capacity.
Japan’s economy was not structured or resourced for a long war against an industrial power. By 1943, the Allies were successfully interdicting oil in part, and the flow of oil from the Dutch East Indies completely halted in April 1945.
The successful interdiction of the Indies did not completely shut off the flow of materials to Japan. Manchuria provided iron, coking coal, salt, bauxite and arable land, but did not provide significant sources of petroleum. Taiwan, a Japanese territory since 1895, provided resources including petroleum, but not nearly in sufficient quantities for wartime Japan’s needs.
Japanese centered its synthetic fuel production in China and Manchuria. By 1944, Japan had reached its peak production, with 15 plants producing 717,000 barrels of oil. Combined with domestic production in 1944 of 1.6 million barrels from the Japanese home islands, only nine percent of the annual oil demand was not subject to maritime interdiction.
For the majority of the war, Allied vessels did not carry out interdiction operations in the short water route across from Korea to Japan. The Sea of Japan had proven a particularly difficult operating area for submarines, and it was not within reach of U.S. aircraft. After the submarine USS Wahoo sank in November 1943, and no American sub re-entered the Sea of Japan until June 1945.
But in March 1945, Tinian-based B-29s began the largest aerial mining effort in history, codenamed Operation Starvation.
The U.S.’s intention was to close the Shimonoseki Strait, blockade Tokyo and Nagoya in the adjacent inland sea — and mine ports in Korea and the northern Japanese coast. At the time, the strait was Japan’s key maritime chokepoint, with 80 percent of the country’s maritime traffic passing through. Total monthly traffic consisted of 1.25 million metric tons of shipping, consisting of 20–30 ships above 500 tons and 100–200 ships below 500 tons.
Operation Starvation effectively shut down maritime traffic in targeted areas, accounting for more ships damaged or sunk during the last six months of the war than all other sources over the entire Pacific Theater combined.