And yet Moore & Co. weren’t just relevant. They prevailed in the Battle of Ia Drang despite an overpowering numerical mismatch. On-call artillery from rear areas coupled with air strikes from U.S. Navy and Air Force warplanes overhead evened the balance against the North Vietnamese Army. Distant fire support empowered the American contingent to fight and win. Ripping a local tactical engagement out of its larger context, then, can mislead observers about the likelihood of victory or defeat. Flyspecks in the South China Sea may look helpless on the map—but they could prove far from helpless if the PLA can support them from afar.
Yes, this is an age of precision weaponry—but more than one combatant fields a precision-strike complex in Asia. And it’s the home team, boasting all the advantages defending your own turf confers. Take it from a one-time denizen of the fire-support and precision-strike worlds: don’t discount the island-building enterprise in Southeast Asia so blithely.
This is a grim diagnosis, to be sure. What’s the remedy? For one, take a page from Clausewitz. Refuse to lowball the rival competitor’s creativity and desire to get its way. Dredging up artificial islands would have sounded like a madcap idea as recently as two years ago, wouldn’t it? And yet here we are, debating how to manage these artifacts of Chinese ingenuity. Once Washington and its allies take the challenge seriously, they will improve their prospects of managing the situation in Southeast Asia in the cause of peace and maritime freedom.
Bear in mind that I’ve consciously oversimplified the situation in the South China Sea—and understated the PLA’s potential options in the bargain. For example, Hainan is far from the only candidate site for anti-access forces (although it does occupy a central, if northward, position). PLA commanders could compound the difficulties confronting U.S. air and sea forces by, say, forward-deploying mobile ASBMs to sites farther to the south. Including the islands themselves: military engineers could build hardened emplacements to protect these truck-launched weapons from enemy fire until the time comes to use them. That may or may not provide foolproof protection, but in all likelihood it would consume additional U.S. rounds during an offensive—raising the cost to the United States of reducing the islands.
Or, why should the PLA settle for static defenses? If ASBMs prove affordable in substantial numbers, why not deploy them aboard mobile landing platforms, or even aboard merchantmen anchored or loitering within reach of the islands? Doing so would extend PLA missile coverage even farther beyond the South China Sea rim. Better yet from Beijing’s standpoint, launch platforms could move around periodically to complicate the task of finding and targeting them. And think about the political optics: if a U.S. missile struck a harmless-looking commercial vessel, who would look like the bad guy once propagandists in China spun their narrative about the incident?
For another, U.S. military officials should lose no opportunity to fashion creative options of their own. If the South China Sea constitutes an increasingly lethal environment for airmen and surface-ship mariners, it also affords opportunities. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Why not take a page from the PLA’s playbook, for example, and transform islands into outposts of sea power? The Philippines is an archipelago, and it’s on the business end of Chinese aggression. Beleaguered Manila might well grant the U.S. Army permission to station missile-armed ground units on outlying islands—thence to threaten PLA ships, aircraft, and ground support facilities from dug-in positions. Let’s ask.
If the army wants to find its place in Asia-Pacific strategy, there could scarcely be a better venue. Ground pounders could help conserve precious U.S. Navy and Air Force platforms for bigger things. In so doing the army would spare the platforms able to penetrate the anti-access envelope with relative impunity—chiefly B-2 stealth bombers, nuclear-powered guided-missile submarines, or nuclear-powered attack submarines fitted with extra missile payload capacity—from wasting rounds better used to defend Taiwan, or Japan, or whatever may have come under threat.
Call it asymmetric warfare, American style, or archipelagic defense, or whatever your favorite catchy slogan might be. Let’s borrow from Mahan and stage some mutual access denial. Denying the PLA control of the seas and skies around its artificial islands would consign them to oblivion, should the worst happen. Knowing that, Beijing might refrain from further troublemaking in the region so long as the deterrent remains robust. Prolonged, uneasy deterrence is not a strategy to relish—just better than the alternatives.
James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010. The views voiced here are his alone.
This article first appeared in October 2015.
Image: U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Bryce Hadley