How to Tie China Down

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How to Tie China Down

The U.S. should build large numbers of small attack vessels and export them to allies. It would keep China guessing.

The last few weeks’ conversation about the makeup and disposition of fleets in North America and Asia has taken on a stream-of-consciousness feel. Most recently, Commander Bryan McGrath took the time to agree in print with my Flashpoints post from last week, which depicted the U.S. Navy’s decision to forward-deploy Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) to Singapore and perhaps the Philippine Islands as a throwback to the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, the standard-bearer for U.S. interests in China and the Western Pacific in the decades preceding World War II. Bryan (a classmate from way back, hence the first-name terms) accentuates the need for adequate numbers of ships, both to telegraph resolve to Asian allies and partners, and to deter a China that has a habit of overstepping its diplomatic and legal bounds in the near seas.

The quality of a fleet’s ships, aircraft, and weaponry counts for a lot, of course. But as Adm. Sergei Gorshkov, the father of the Soviet Navy, liked to say, quantity has a quality all its own. Small, simple craft can be mass-produced at less expense and in greater numbers than complex men-of-war. They can also be sent into harm’s way with less fear of political blowback should the fleet suffer heavy losses in battle. An aircraft carrier or Aegis cruiser is “lumpy capital,” meaning that the American taxpayer invested lavishly in building, equipping, and manning it. Commanders and political leaders think twice before hazarding such resource-intensive assets in combat, where they could be crippled or sunk – vitiating that investment of lives and treasure. Lesser craft like the LCS are less prone to activate decisionmakers’ reflex for risk aversion.

McGrath takes Gorshkov’s logic a step further, urging the U.S. Navy to think ahead now about augmenting its nascent Southeast Asian squadron with an entirely new class of small combatants comparable to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) Type 022 Houbei fast patrol boats. “These would be fast, lightly armored but well-armed patrol boats,” he writes, “networked, equipped with integrated topside guns and an over the horizon surface to surface missile capability.” Rather than add them to the U.S. fleet amid tight shipbuilding budgets, they “would be built in numbers, and offered IMMEDIATELY for export to partners throughout the region.” I agree wholeheartedly. Houbeis sport eight surface-to-surface missiles. They punch far above their weight in a sea fight.

That’s a mix of firepower and elusiveness that keeps U.S. Seventh Fleet skippers awake at night. And it’s the kind of capability that belongs in the inventories of America’s friends in Asia, where it can cause PLAN skippers sleepless nights while prompting Beijing to act with caution in regional controversies. With a defense budget totaling only about $2.5 billion, for instance, the Philippines could use a flotilla of inexpensive yet lethal ships to restore some semblance of a naval balance off its western shores. The same logic holds for other South China Sea states. But it also applies to navies in the East China and Yellow seas. Accordingly, any new missile boats should be offered to allies throughout the Western Pacific, not just Southeast Asia.

The Taiwan Navy in particular could use a stealthy, affordable ship that packs serious heat. Taiwan’s rugged coastline boasts countless caves and inlets suitable for concealment and protection. Such features favor what Alfred Thayer Mahan called “a kind of guerrilla sea warfare” fought by swarms of small combatants. (Mahan was assessing Cuban geography.) Rather than try to outduel a bigger, more advanced PLAN in a futile fleet action, why not turn loose fast patrol boats crewed by enterprising mariners to make the waters around Formosa a no-man’s land for PLAN forces? The Taiwan Navy is starting to reinvent itself as a sea-denial force, but its progress at fielding an adequate patrol-boat design has been fitful. It could use some outside help. One hopes the newly reelected Ma Ying-jeou administration will persevere with this project, in which President Ma has taken a personal if intermittent interest.

Japan, too, might find use for such a platform as it considers how to defend the Ryukyu Islands and adjacent straits. Like the Taiwan Navy, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) has traditionally long thought of itself as a force destined to win command of the sea in fleet engagements. But like the Taiwan Navy, it may ultimately prove unable to stand against Chinese sea power – meaning not just the PLAN fleet, but land-based implements like antiship cruise and ballistic missiles and tactical aircraft that can shape events at sea – in a toe-to-toe fight. Wolfpacks of JMSDF fast attack craft prowling along the Ryukyus in concert with diesel submarines could exact steep costs should PLAN task forces attempt to break out of the “first island chain” in wartime. They could also menace north-south movement along Chinese shores.

Scholar Thomas Schelling portrays deterrence as the process of issuing a threat backed by adequate capability and irrevocable resolve to carry it out. Unlike its pre-World War II forbear – a fleet comprised of castoff vessels – a multinational, 21st century Asiatic Fleet would boast considerable combat punch rather than simply showing the flag in maritime Asia. It would give Beijing pause while dispersing PLAN strength all along the Chinese seaboard, attenuating Chinese attempts to concentrate superior force at any single point on the map. A latter-day Asiatic Fleet could never rule the waves without help from heavy forces. Nevertheless, McGrath’s vision of a seagoing deterrent is worth entertaining – both in the South China Sea and elsewhere along Asian coasts.


James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and co-author of ‘Red Star over the Pacific.’The views voiced here are his alone.