Features | Security | East Asia

The Meaning of Sea Power

Those trying to understand China’s naval ambitions should be wary of the tacticization of strategy. Sea power isn’t just about the latest hardware.

By James Holmes & Toshi Yoshihara for

Give Norman Friedman credit for candor. He confesses his limits. While reviewing our book Red Star over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to US Maritime Strategy in the latest issue of the Naval War College Review, Friedman admits that while we “read the Chinese literature” – the primary source material on which we based the book – he “does not.” It shows. He deems one of our chief findings, that China is building an oceangoing navy, “so obvious that it is not really worth arguing.” And he insists that “it is necessary to read other languages…such as those of naval hardware and of naval tactics” to glean insight into the make-up of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) and the strategy governing Chinese naval operations.

Well, sort of. This is more than a quarrel over a nasty book review.Indeed, in the year Red Star over the Pacific has been in print, we have been flattered by mostly favorable reviews while carrying on civil discourse with our critics. Friedman’s review falls into a different category. His mistakes are so many and so flagrant that they demand a response, lest unwary readers think we concede them. But what really worries us is that officials who make and execute policy may heed Friedman’s advice. If they disregard what Chinese strategists say while founding their judgments only on the facts and figures found in, say, Jane’s Fighting Ships, they will take a grub’s-eye perspective on China’s emergence as a great seafaring nation.

Short-sightedness begets faulty strategy. And Red Star over the Pacific is a book about strategy. We investigate tactical and technical matters only insofar as they illuminate it. Ours is a book about “sea power” and “maritime strategy,” concepts that encompass far more than armaments and tactics, the relevant but constricted language Friedman insists on speaking. Like many Chinese commentators, we take our lead from Alfred Thayer Mahan, who defined sea power as a product of (1) international trade and commerce, (2) overseas bases, and (3) merchant and naval shipping. Take note: the navy constitutes only half of one-third of Mahan’s triad of sea power.

Friedman mostly excludes the human factor from naval affairs, further narrowing his vision. A fleet’s technical characteristics on paper – tonnages, fuel capacity, missile ranges, and so forth – say little about how, and how well, seamen and airmen will handle it in battle and other competitive endeavors. Our book concentrates on the human factor, and in particular on how China thinks about the sea. That’s why we draw overwhelmingly on Chinese sources.

As noted up front, Friedman admits this discomfits him because he doesn’t read the literature. We salute him for being frank, but that is a damning confession for any reviewer – a person chosen for his subject-matter expertise – to make. What was missing from the literature, and the void we try to fill, is a volume that applies strategic theory – the writings of great thinkers like Mao Zedong and Alfred Thayer Mahan – to China’s maritime rise while exploring patterns of Chinese strategic thought about the sea. How, we ask, will Beijing interpret these writings and put them into practice – if at all? Friedman is largely silent on these matters, the heart of our analysis. His review misses the point. Unable to comment knowledgeably, he nit-picks, and rather clumsily at that.

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Let’s take his comments in turn. He first contends that “the recent appearance of the refitted Chinese aircraft carrier formerly known as Varyag is an indication” of China’s naval ambitions “that should be obvious to all.” Whether reactivating an old carrier really signifies the PLA Navy’s coming-out as a great navy is debatable. But taking Friedman on his terms, we point out that the flattop’s shakedown cruise took place ten months after Red Star over the Pacific appeared, and that Beijing officially announced its carrier program only on the eve of that maiden voyage. So much for being behind the times.

We also note that the naval build-up Friedman deems so obvious because of the Varyag’s refurbishment was well underway by the time he published Seapower as Strategy (2001), his last major treatise on maritime strategy. Beijing purchased the Varyag in 1998, three years beforehand. It had also acquired the retired Australian carrier Melbourne and the ex-Soviet hulk Kiev by then. (It later bought the Minsk as well.) Yet China is nearly invisible in that book, which says next to nothing about China’s future aspirations on the high seas. Why not?

Friedman makes much of the fact that Beijing refuses to divulge important technical and tactical literature. Thus open-source research represents the “tip of the iceberg” of information relevant to China’s seaborne rise. From this he concludes that we should have “taken into account much more completely Chinese internal politics as well as pertinent material from non-Chinese sources.” He evidently skipped Chapter 2, which we spend exploring what it means to say China is “Mahanian.” Chinese sea-power advocates are no monolith. Some Mahanians beseech Beijing to impose absolute command on the Asian seas. Others harbor more limited goals. Still other experts dispute China’s need for sea power altogether. Land-power proponents exhort Chinese Communist leaders to confine their energies to continental Asia, abjuring competition with a dominant United States. In short, many schools of thought clamor for policy attention in China – a point even casual readers should take away from the early chapters of Red Star.

It’s worth pointing out that the People’s Republic of China is no Soviet Union, morbidly obsessed with secrecy. It is open and transparent for a closed society. Indeed, we would rate China above democratic India and Japan along this axis. Chinese debates are far richer than we encounter when studying Indian or Japanese maritime strategy. We recently had a Chinese book on fleet tactics – a counterpart to U.S. Navy Capt. Wayne Hughes’s renowned work onFleet Tactics and Coastal Combat – delivered to our doorstep in Rhode Island, courtesy of Amazon.cn.

More to the point, Friedman is simply wrong that the Chinese have kept mum about supposedly secret technologies needed to wage modern combat at sea. For example, he casts doubt on whether open Chinese literature examines surveillance assets designed to identify and track naval vessels. It does – as it has for years. Mark Stokes, executive director of the Project 2049 Institute, unequivocally demonstrated (in Chapter 5 of a study published in 2002) that the Chinese started openly considering ocean surveillance by the late 1990s. Another random data point: an article about how an “anti-ship ballistic missile,” or ASBM, could overpower the defenses of an Arleigh Burke-class Aegis destroyer appeared in a technical journal in 2002, nearly a decade before U.S. Pacific Command chief Adm. Robert Willard informed reporters that this perhaps revolutionary system had reached “initial operational capability” with the Chinese Second Artillery Corps, or missile force.

Data about recent developments, then, are far more abundant than Friedman supposes. Next, he alleges that we slight Soviet and Russian influence on Chinese maritime strategy, pronouncing this a “surprising” oversight. Indeed, he seems to consider the PLA Navy a direct descendant of the Soviet Navy, and to assume we can transpose the Cold War experience to maritime Asia today. A careful reader of our book would grasp that the Chinese, like other defense communities before them, selectively borrow foreign ideas to synthesize with their own strategic traditions and preferences. It may be true that Russian traditions shape Chinese assumptions, but if so, Chinese commentators show little sign of it. The PLA Navy, like the Soviet Navy before it, conceives of operating surface forces within range of shore fire support. But that proves nothing about the reasons for Chinese commanders’ preferences. Imperial Japan, too, harnessed land-based air power to support naval operations throughout the Pacific Ocean. Extrapolating from Japan then to China now – interpreting Chinese operational art as a direct offspring of Japanese naval thought – would scarcely pass the giggle test. Correlation is not causation.

These days, Chinese pundits are far more apt to cite past thinkers like Mahan, Julian S. Corbett, and K. M. Panikkar, contemporary Western scholars such as Geoffrey Till, or mainland theorists like Ni Lexiong and Zhang Wenmu than they are Sergei Gorshkov or Stepan Makarov, two giants of Russian sea power. Adm. Gorshkov, the father of the Soviet Navy, seldom puts in an appearance in Chinese discourses. When he starts, we’ll be sure to incorporate it into our work. It would mark a noteworthy break with past commentary, one worthy of Western observers’ attention. But it would be scholarly malpractice to simply assume that the Sino-Soviet past guides China’s approach to maritime affairs in the here-and-now. If Friedman wishes to make such a case in a future book, we look forward to reviewing it!

Friedman’s worst sin, though, is to succumb to (if not revel in) what the late Michael Handel termed the “tacticization of strategy.” Battlefield commanders and many civilians are prone to become spellbound by technological and tactical wizardry. In so doing, they lose sight of the higher – and ultimately decisive – levels of competition and warfare. Since World War II, observes Handel, “technological means have started to wag the strategic dog.” Andrew Krepinevich strikes a similar note in The Army and Vietnam, faulting the U.S. Army for prosecuting a “strategy of tactics.” U.S. forces seldom lost a tactical engagement with Vietnamese regular or irregular forces, yet they were unable to derive strategic or political gains from these engagements. Conflating equipment and tactics with strategy rendered an unbroken string of battlefield triumphs largely moot.

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Like army commanders in Vietnam, Friedman obsesses over minutiae. But he errs even here. Ocean surveillance – one of the great unknowns about the efficacy of ASBMs – is supposedly absent from our analysis. He professes shock. He may take comfort in consulting page 106 of Red Star over the Pacific, where we review precisely that aspect of the ASBM problem. Chinese assessments of how many tactical aircraft it takes to defeat warships equipped with the Aegis combat system – a combination phased-array radar, computer, and fire-control suite – “do not reflect any detailed classified work, but rather are intended to inspire the reader.” So? We note on page 118 that Chinese commentary on how to defeat Aegis, the state-of-the-art for U.S. Navy air defense, remains in its infancy. It’s noteworthy, moreover, that open-source publications now espouse killing high-tech U.S. combatants, and that the Chinese military can contemplate doing so with fair prospects of success. This fires imaginations. Such commentaries probably are meant to inspire, alongside their main purpose of providing technical and tactical analysis. We never wrote otherwise.

Other passages in Red Star over the Pacific leave Friedman “uncomfortable.” We observe that shore-based combat aircraft and missiles, coupled with seagoing assets like diesel submarines and fast patrol craft, could hold off U.S. Navy carrier strike groups – letting the PLA Navy surface fleet operate under protective cover. He interprets this as our declaring that shore fire support renders the Chinese fleet completely invulnerable to attack. Far from it. If it lives up to its hype, the ASBM will boast the capacity to impose high costs on U.S. expeditionary forces that venture within range – as they might if commanders are willing to pay the price. This point is conveniently located on page 97. Friedman implies that we believe the ASBM also excludes the U.S. submarine fleet from the Western Pacific. We make no such silly claim; the ASBM has no capability against submerged craft. Furthermore, we have portrayed offensive submarine warfare (here, and in a forthcoming volume from Stanford University Press) as Asian powers’ most promising implement for strategic competition with China. We hardly depict undersea warfare as impotent against Chinese defenses.

But the ASBM – used in concert with the larger family of missiles examined in Chapter 5 – could eliminate or severely attenuate the air and surface threats from U.S. Navy forces. The ASBM is not just a “carrier killer,” as we point out explicitly on page 120. Science of Second Artillery Campaigns, an authoritative guide to Chinese missile operations, envisions bombarding an enemy fleet with a barrage of ASBMs armed with conventional, anti-radiation, and electromagnetic-pulse warheads to “[paralyze] the enemy’s command and control system.” (Electromagnetic pulses burn out sensitive electronics from a distance.) All surface ships, not just aircraft carriers, will find themselves in Second Artillery crosshairs. This represents a contribution of enormous magnitude, whether or not it qualifies as a “game-changer” in maritime Asia.

Friedman frets over our claim that if Second Artillery rocketeers can fend off U.S. surface forces, the PLA Navy will have little need to construct super-carriers to compete with likely adversaries, namely lesser Asian powers that also fall under the shadow of Chinese weaponry. The size of a carrier, he advises, is “dictated” by “its potential striking power” rather than “its ability to beat off opposition.” Why is this an either/or question? If a carrier navy faces a fellow carrier navy, its leadership would be foolish to ignore the threat posed by enemy flattops, their air wings, and their escort ships. A navy that doesn’t command the sea does have to worry about fighting off opposition – how will it get into position to project power otherwise? – and that molds the configuration of its seagoing forces.

On the other hand, if a navy inhabits a “permissive” setting in which it confronts only vastly outmatched foes, it can focus exclusively on strike missions. While he doesn’t appear to realize it, then, Friedman accepts our finding that the PLA Navy will face no serious regional competitor if the People’s Liberation Army can hold off U.S. Navy groups and menace Asian fleets with “layered” “anti-access/area-denial” forces. Then the PLA Navy can calibrate a carrier fleet to its needs without undue fear of outside interference. Only then will it have the luxury to design a fleet solely around how much striking power the leadership deems necessary – letting power projection determine how large, capable, and expensive PLA Navy ships ought to be.

And finally, Friedman says it is a “straw man” to think Chinese maritime ambitions may stop with recovering Taiwan. He thereby reveals – yet again – how little he follows the discourse among Western commentators. That Taiwan constitutes the raison d’être for a strong Chinese fleet has long been the default assumption among China-watchers. Only now are Western analysts starting to grapple with the idea that there may come a “day after Taiwan” when Beijing turns its nautical energies elsewhere. Friedman should at least entertain the prospect that the default assumption is correct – that Beijing might treat the island as “dessert” rather than an “appetizer.” Once China fulfills its goal of regaining this last parcel of lost Chinese territory, it may turn inward and assume a more benign posture. We doubt that will transpire, but to deny it is even possible is obtuse. It slights reputable scholars with whom we happen to disagree.

Norman Friedman reviewed some book. We’re just not sure it was ours.

James Holmes is a former U.S. Navy engineering and weapons officer and Associate Professor of Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College. Toshi Yoshihara is Professor of Strategy and John A. van Beuren Chair of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Naval War College. They are the co-authors most recently of Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic MonthlyBest Book of 2010 and a U.S. Naval Institute Notable Naval Book of 2010. The views voiced here are theirs alone.