The U.S. Military Needs To Study World War II If It Wants to Beat China in a War

The U.S. Military Needs To Study World War II If It Wants to Beat China in a War

The U.S. Pacific strategy was to intercept and deny the enemy's energy resources.

Worse for China, its naval power projection capability is limited, and the maritime geography is strategically unfavorable. The first and second island chains contrain China, putting it in a position where all of its maritime trade must pass through waterways that can fall under the control of foreign powers. China’s maritime trade generally passes through a number of chokepoints, most especially the Straits of Malacca.

Overland transport of oil via pipeline and rail accounts for less than 10 percent of all oil imports, and this only from Russia and Kazakhstan. Even Russia relies on maritime transport for oil. In 2014, 55 percent of the oil imported from Russia went by sea rather than pipeline or rail.

Looking at the rest of the totals, it’s clear that around 85 percent of the oil imported into China passes through the Straits of Malacca — 77 percent — or the Panama Canal, which comprises eight percent. Around 50 percent of the PRC’s oil imports pass through two chokepoints rather than just one — the Straits of Hormuz, the Panama Canal or Bab Al Mandar as well as Malacca.

The limits on the Strait of Malacca have a real impact on ship design, as ships too long or deep for the narrow passageway have to detour around Indonesia and sail through the Lombok Strait.

Tanker sizes have actually shrunk since the 1970s partly because of this. “Malaccamax” designs are the largest ships able to transit Malacca, and are classed a Very Large Crude Carriers. A typical VLCC can carry two million barrels of oil, but is reliant on offshore terminals or smaller tankers for loading and offloading. A single VLCC carries about four days maximum flow for the Siberian and Kazakh pipelines combined. Eleven to 15 of these vessels pass through Malacca daily, in both directions.

From a military standpoint, the majority of maritime trade is irrelevant. Container ships, which move commercial goods, constitute the majority of maritime traffic and are not militarily relevant except for spare parts and system components.

Similarly, while China imports vast quantities of raw materials, particularly iron, its domestic production of most raw materials — such as metal ores, minerals, rare earths and potash — counts it among the top three global producers, depending on the year.

In the 1930s, Japanese military expansion looked towards China’s resources as a solution to Japan’s natural resource shortages, recognizing that China is comparatively resource rich. While China cannot fuel its industrial machine with domestic products alone, it has the capacity to maintain its military industry almost entirely with domestic supplies of raw materials.

But China’s vulnerability comes from the fact that while its resources are large, the country’s massive consumption exceeds the capability of domestic resource production. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the energy sector, where Chinese demand for coal, petroleum and natural gas is satiated only through foreign imports. Indeed, it is these energy imports that could provide a key degree of leverage on the military front.

China’s power projection capabilities depend on maritime energy imports— along with the industries that produce it and the transportation networks that supply and move it.


The vast majority of China’s imports come from well outside the capability of the Chinese air force and navy to effectively protect. Unlike Japan and South Korea, which could reasonably expect to maintain northern supply routes to Alaska against Chinese opposition, the Chinese have no such geographical advantage or supporting alliance structure.

Moreover, in any conflict with China, the United States would start in a much more favorable position than it did against Japan in 1941. Washington has more combat power forward, and its partners are nations in their own right and not poorly defended colonial outposts.

China today cannot compare with Imperial Japan for amphibious sealift, and will not have a decade-long running start on territorial expansion on the Asian mainland. Certainly, America’s forward basing posture leaves U.S. forces subject to direct attack from the PRC proper, but the islands which host these bases are not under the threat of occupation.

The unfavorable maritime geography and dependency on overseas trade leaves China vulnerable to a strategic interdiction strategy — a joint effort designed to prevent the movement of resources related to military forces or operations.

In contrast with maritime interdiction, strategic interdiction is not a broad blockade but is a targeted effort to interdict primarily the production and transport of energy resources.

A campaign would have four elements.

1.) A “counterforce” effort designed to attrit the adversary air forces (particularly bombers), naval forces (gray hulls) and naval auxiliaries (replenishment) to the point where they can neither project military power nor defend against U.S. power projection, at least far beyond the PRC continental shelf.

2.) An “inshore” element, which consists of operations to deny effective use of home waters, including rivers and coastal waters. Standoff or covert aerial mining is a key component of this element.

3.) An “infrastructure degradation” plan intended to disrupt or destroy specific soft targets, such as oil terminals, oil refineries, pipelines and railway chokepoints such as tunnels and bridges. Many of these targets would be in airspace not defended by ground-based air defense.

4.) A “distant” maritime strategy, which occurs out of effective adversary military reach, intended to interdict energy supplies. This strategy is aimed primarily at bulk petroleum carriers (tankers) and secondarily at coal transports, and not at container, dry bulk or passenger vessels. Such a strategy might not be lethally oriented, directed instead towards the seizure and internment of PRC-bound vessels.

A strategic interdiction campaign is fundamentally a logistically based strategy. The primary objective is to effectively neutralize certain elements of PRC military power by starving it of energy. In effect, this strategy targets naval and air forces, which rely on jet fuel, and leaves the gasoline and diesel-dependent army to compete with domestic fuel needs — because without the PLAAF and the PLAN, the PLA cannot leave the mainland.

The primary targets are primarily air and secondarily naval forces, affecting them by an indirect route that is difficult to counter over the medium to long term.

Much has been said, with respect to PRC missile forces, that the objective is to “shoot the archer,” the implication being that such an action would prevent the archer from launching standoff weapons against air or surface targets.

An SI campaign is designed to starve the archer — the forces which protect the archer, the folks who make, carry and deliver the arrows, and the people who brought the archer to the battlefield in the first place. A complete campaign design would take advantage of the relationship between energy and infrastructure to disrupt a slice of the energy web in as many places as possible.

Such a strategy is inherently asymmetric and favors the United States, in that it cannot succeed against the American mainland. The United States’ maritime geography is extremely favorable, with four coasts that are difficult to interdict, two of which are not adjacent to the Pacific. The power projection capability required to conduct a maritime interdiction campaign against the homeland is well outside any projected PLAN capability.

The strategy also takes advantage of the U.S. advantage on blue-water naval capabilities and long-range strike aircraft. Indeed, the U.S. air power advantage is critical to any interdiction campaign, just as it was in World War II.

Against the Soviet Union, the United States elected not to undertake an approach to directly offset the Soviet advantage in numbers and the vulnerabilities of Europe to a ground invasion. Instead, it adopted offset strategies to asymmetrically counter the USSR’s strengths, leading to both tactical nuclear weapons and a revolution in precision munitions and sensors.

A quarter century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is perhaps time to adopt a third offset strategy aimed squarely at the PRC. For more than two decades, the standing U.S. Air Force template for applying combat air power against a target country has been the Desert Storm model. While this model may still have some applicability, it is long past time to abandon it for a conflict against a peer or near-peer nation.

The United States conducted Desert Storm against an adversary that was surrounded by enemies, outnumbered and technologically outmatched by a force with unlimited local basing, better training, leadership and equipment.

None of those conditions will apply in a conflict with China, where the United States will likely have parity in a number of these areas, a slight degree of superiority in others, and a critical disadvantage in basing, numbers and magazine depth.

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.

The key to a successful strategy then is to maximize the potential of real, existing advantages — long range aviation, advanced naval forces and a combat-experienced enterprise — and match them against China’s import vulnerabilities, long sea lines of communication, energy requirements and unfavorable maritime geography.