Would America Lose the Great Naval War of 2020 to China?

September 1, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ChinaUS-China WarWar With China

Would America Lose the Great Naval War of 2020 to China?

A look back at a classic scholarly essay begs the question: Does America have what it takes to win a military contest against China in the near future?


Back in the Winter 2010 edition of Orbis, the always smart James Kraska, at the time an investigator at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, presented his readers with a terrifying prospect: the possibility that China would be able sink a U.S. Aircraft Carriervirtually at will. In professional publications, the possibility had been raised before. However, thanks to various mentions in more-mainstream media, the rise of China’s military mightand specifically advanced missile technologywould soon become a dominant topic of conversation in national-security circles around the globe.

America now faces a very real threat to its ability to project power in the Asia-Pacific; and it’s a problemconsidering how fast Beijing’s missile technology is progressingthat will likely only get worse as the years go by.


A Frightening Scenario

The scenario Kraska presents in his article “How the United States Lost the Naval War of 2015,” which I have discussed at length before, is quite interesting to say the least:

“George Washington was conducting routine patrols off the coast of China to send a signal of U.S. resolve. China responded with a signal of its own—sinking the massive ship. The ship broke in two and sank in twenty minutes. The Chinese medium-range ballistic missile had a penetrator warhead that drilled through all fourteen decks of the ship and punched a cavernous hole measuring twenty-feet wide from the flat-top landing deck through to the bottom of the hull. Ammunition stores ignited secondary explosions. Two million gallons of JP-5 jet fuel poured into the sea. The attack was calamitous and damage control was pointless.”

China’s pre-planned reaction, while cleaver but certainly far-fetched, is too long to excerpt for limitations of time and space. And while there is a great deal of substance and information worth reading in the article’s full text, it is what happens next that is even more interesting:

“A month would pass before the United States was able to position more than three aircraft carriers in the region, and then what?”

To be fair, the actual article does not depict a “naval war” in the sense of ship-on-ship engagementsbut more a Chinese attack and carefully crafted response that gives Beijing deniability. In such a scenario, as presented by the author, U.S. allies or partners in the region would have a hard time coming to Washington’s aid. Nevertheless, Kraska presents us with a unique question to ponder: How should America respond to the growing anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) challenge presented by China, Iran and now Russia?

Now might just be the time to think of what a real U.S.-China “naval war” would look like in the near futureand if Washington has truly worked to preserve its power-projection capabilities in Asia and beyond over the last several years. Would the United States fare any better against China looking out five years from now (just as Kraska did) in 2020?

Over the next several weeks, I will lay out various different thoughts on this issue. The one theme you will see throughout this occasional series: America is presented with quite a challenge when it comes to Chinese military might and specifically A2/AD challenges. However, today’s post focuses on the positive.

The Good News: America’s War Fighters Understand the Problem

While Kraska’s article certainly introduced this issue to a much broader audience, America’s armed forces had been aware of the problem for some time. Over the last ten years (or possibly more), the U.S. military has been working to ensure that various types of anti-access technologiesnot just the much-discussed DF-21D carrier-killer missile Kraska depictswon’t limit or altogether negate American power-projection capabilities across all domains of possible conflict, kinetic or otherwise.

Enter Air-Sea Battle/JAM-GC

Take, for example, the operational concept formerly known as Air-Sea Battle, now known as JAM-GC. The Pentagon clearly sees what the future may hold, where the fog of war is back with a vengeance, thanks to A2/AD.

In a recent January article for TNI that lays out the founding vision of JAM-GC, members of the Air-Sea Battle Office and Joint Staff explained that “based on recent assessments, current doctrinal command-and-control methodologies will likely be inadequate to address A2/AD environments where beyond-line-of-sight communications and other connectivity between units can be disrupted or denied by an adversary.” Things seem to get worse, as the authors articulate that “U.S. and allied forces must be able to operate with only localized domain control,” a scary thought to say the least. They go on to note that “a joint or combined force may not be able to achieve either theater-wide domain superiority or an enduring and constant superiority, but that it can achieve operational objectives with control that is limited in time or space.” It seems we have come a long way from the days when American forces could automatically count on cross-domain superiority against any military on the planet.

While we might not have all the details yet, the Pentagon’s successor to the Air-Sea Battle concept seems to be quite bold in its approach to the problem of retaining U.S. power-projection capabilities in an era of denied access to possibly large stretches of the global commons. JAM-GC, at least as of January of this year,

“will include capabilities to: deploy into a theater of operation to a position where Joint Forces can be employed effectively, and with acceptable levels of risk; effectively command and control Joint Forces in a heavily disrupted electromagnetic-spectrum environment; deter an adversary from proscribed action through demonstration of capability, presence and will; conduct operational maneuver (movement in combination with fires) in an operational area with acceptable levels of risk; project power as needed to achieve objectives; and sustain and supply operations in the face of determined opposition.”

Clearly, Pentagon planners understand the problem on the most intimate of levels and are working on ways to ensure America retains its power-projection capabilities in the future. U.S. military planners have been hard at work developing future weapons platforms, operational know-how and eventual strategies to combat Chinese or any other nation’s A2/AD capabilities. You can’t solve a problem unless you understand itand America’s military clearly understands this one.

Sadly, things only get uglier from here. More to come...

Harry J. Kazianis serves as Executive Editor of The National Interest and a Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Center for the National Interest. He is the co-author and editor of the recent Center for the National Interest report: Tackling Asia’s Greatest Challenges - A U.S. Japan-Vietnam Trilateral Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @grecianformula and on Linkedin.