James R. Holmes

Flashpoints contributor and U.S. Naval War College analyst James Holmes answers your questions on the U.S. military in the Pacific.

Min Goo Lee (Facebook):
Is it realistic to suggest that, with the PLAAF and PLAN focusing more on counter-denial capabilities aimed at, for example, destroying U.S. aircraft carriers, the doctrine of AirSea Battle is likely to fail in preventing the escalation of a conflict in the Asia-Pacific region? Specifically, in the case of a cross-strait conflict, could it be possible that the U.S. 7th Fleet will find itself too slow to respond to a Chinese strike against Taiwan?

You sketch a realistic scenario, and one I worry about. We have the mixed fortune to live in interesting times. I would caution against assuming there will be a final winner and loser in any strategic competition between China and the United States, though. U.S.-China competition will be an interactive process, much like Clausewitz’s metaphor of two wrestlers continually struggling for strategic advantage. Think about it as two sumo wrestlers trying to throw each other in the Western Pacific through innovative operations, tactics, and technologies. The danger, to my mind, is that China will act at a point in the action-reaction cycle where it holds the advantage over the U.S. armed forces. That might let Beijing deter Washington from acting or, as you suggest, slow down U.S. decision making or action in the Taiwan Strait or elsewhere.

Michal Thim (Facebook):
What do you think about the idea of Australia leasing U.S. SSNs (fast attack submarines)?

It’s an intriguing idea that I had never thought about until the news broke that Australia might actually consider such a thing. A couple of preliminary thoughts. First, if the Australian Navy leased or bought existing Los Angeles-class boats, it would reach parity or superiority over the PLA Navy in a key area—SSNs—overnight. We should ask ourselves what the strategic and diplomatic effects of such a leap to parity would be. Second, from a practical standpoint, it would be a great move in terms of interoperability between Australian and American submariners, but bear in mind that some of that class—including the ones the United States would presumably be willing to part with—are already 30 or more years old. Shipyards can do a lot, but I would want to know what the maximum service life of those boats is. Otherwise the Australian taxpayer might get a bad deal for his tax money.

West North (Facebook):
Is it significant to have a U.S. base in Australia? And how important is it? Does the U.S. have any other plans for Australia in the future?

Some accounts have depicted it as basically symbolic because the U.S. and Australia already have such a close working relationship. I don’t discount the PR dimension, but I think such a move is significant in practical terms because it would deploy U.S. forces in a central location within the grand “Indo-Pacific” region, letting them swing to the Western Pacific or the Indian Ocean as need be, and without passing through what could be a contested South China Sea. Right now, we are at the extremes of the Indo-Pacific theater. Shifting to Australia would position our sea services far better to execute the U.S. Maritime Strategy, which envisions staging ‘credible combat power’ in both theaters.

Tory Matos (Facebook) :
Prof. Holmes, how vulnerable is the U.S. to a coordinated Chinese attack using a combination of cyber, anti-satellite missiles, anti-carrier missiles, and submarines?

It depends on where U.S. forces are operating. My answer is, our surface fleet is increasingly vulnerable to these anti-access systems the closer it approaches the Asian mainland. The advertised range for China’s anti-ship ballistic missile could be in the order of 1,500 miles, which would extend out near the second island chain. If that missile lives up to its hype—and we haven’t seen it tested, so who knows?—it will be a major complicating factor for U.S. strategy, which envisions surging forces across the Pacific in wartime.

For the submarine fleet the answer is more complicated. U.S. submariners don’t worry much about being detected or tracked by Chinese anti-submarine forces. But at the same time, they worry about their own ability to find, track, and sink Chinese diesel submarines, which are very quiet when lurking at very low speed in their patrol grounds. The upshot is that the U.S. undersea fleet still has enormous capacity for offensive submarine warfare—attacking shipping, launching cruise-missile strikes, and so forth—but anti-submarine warfare has atrophied since the Cold War. This is something Vice Adm. Richardson, the commander of the submarine service, appears intent on correcting—but you don’t make up for two decades of neglect in a few weeks or months.

Jay Richardson (Facebook):
With 5th generation air frames being cut, how does the Navy plan to counter a possible PLAAF/PLAN 5th generation fighter?

I’m not primarily an air-power guy, but I don’t sense a lot of worry in our aviation community. It will be some time before the PLA perfects such a fighter, while they are already in service with the U.S. Air Force. The concept seems to be to field a “high-low mix” with stealth aircraft suppressing enemy air defenses, conducting counter-air missions, and the like to clear the path for F-15s, F-16s, and other planes. That way, the U.S. armed forces get maximum bang for the buck out of older aircraft by adding in limited numbers of these new aircraft.

Judah Harvey (Facebook):
What is the American response to ultra-long range, Chinese “carrier killer” missiles?

The immediate response is to develop longer-range weaponry so U.S. forces can do their work from beyond effective firing range of anti-ship ballistic missiles. I’d also expect to see greater emphasis on submarine warfare. Submarines are completely immune to ASBMs and largely immune to other anti-access weapon systems. So, they can get in close for strike missions, to raid shipping, and so on. As far as shipboard defenses go, I doubt we will develop a ‘hard-kill’ defense—a missile that hits another missile—any time soon. The physics—speed, ballistic trajectories, maneuverability—of ASBMs may be too much to handle. Ultimately, some sort of directed-energy system probably offers the best defense, but how long it will take to design and build such a weapon is anyone’s guess.