James Holmes

The Nightmare Scenario: A U.S.-China War: Part III

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James Holmes

The Nightmare Scenario: A U.S.-China War: Part III

U.S. commanders should be narrow-minded when plotting a Pacific offensive (in geospatial terms, anyway).

Read Part I, Part II, Part IV and Part V

Students of strategy tend to assume the classic works were all written long ago by people with German or Chinese names. That does an injustice to contemporary thinkers who push the field’s conceptual frontiers outward. Strategist Edward Luttwak is one such thinker. Indeed, his Strategy is a treatise U.S. naval commanders and their political overseers should consult when contemplating how to force entry into maritime Asia in wartime.

And regaining access will be a must. The last installment in this series pointed out that while the People’s Liberation Army can dispute U.S. command of the maritime commons, it will be unable to shut U.S. and allied forces out of Asia altogether. Contested command, a.k.a. a mess, will typify the early phases of war. While allied forces will have options, however, U.S. reinforcements must ultimately fight their way into the region to concentrate enough combat power to defeat China on China’s turf.

For Luttwak the “great choice” in offensive theater strategy is “between the broad advance that only the very strong may employ”—for otherwise the advancing force will find itself outnumbered everywhere—“and the narrow advance that offers the opportunity of victory even to the weak.” By focusing ships, aircraft, weaponry, and manpower at select places on the map, that is, the weaker contender can amass superior strength at points of contact with enemy forces. The downside: a belligerent that risks a narrow advance courts danger by weakening itself away from the main line of advance. It could be clobbered along vulnerable flanks or other places where its defenses are feeble.

The very strong can afford the broad approach. It leaves no flanks exposed. Caution, oddly, is the province of commanders of dominant forces. The not-so-strong lack that margin of material superiority. They must dare all to gain all, accepting risk in hopes of a lavish payoff. Luttwak portrays blitzkrieg as a prototypical narrow-front strategy. It’s about punching “pencil-thin penetrations” through enemy frontiers, sending columns rapidly through the gaps, and sowing mayhem in enemy rear areas. It is “part adventure and part confidence trick,” and not for the faint of heart.

The strong, then, can bludgeon lesser opponents; the weak must use a spear against more numerous foemen. The American way of war is the way of the strong. Ever since World War I—when the United States raised an army bigger than the French Army, built enough ships to transport that army across the Atlantic, deployed it along the Western Front, tipped the balance in favor of the Western Allies, and helped put an end to the bloodletting, all in nineteen months—U.S. commanders have predicated their strategies on overwhelming material superiority. They incline to broad-front strategies.

In the closing stages of World War II in Europe, for instance, Allied commanders debated whether Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery should head a narrow-front dash across Germany, or whether the less daring broad-front approach was more prudent. Monty told anyone who would listen that he would make a splendid leader for such a charge, but U.S. leaders successfully pushed to overrule him. Or, U.S. forces were so preponderant by the latter phases of World War II in the Pacific that they could pursue twin offensives across the Central and Southwest Pacific. This “whipsaw” strategy kept the beleaguered Japanese perpetually off-balance, unable to defeat both offensives or to decide whether to concentrate dwindling naval forces to blunt one of them.

U.S. planners should break with American traditions when designing strategy and plans for a new Pacific war. It would be prudent for them to embrace Luttwak’s strategy of the weak rather than patterning their efforts on World War II. While Chinese anti-access strategy—the subject of the next installment in this series—is in important ways a replay of Japan’s anti-access strategy for World War II, Washington must not assume it can replay U.S. strategy from that conflict.

Why not? Because Admiral Chester Nimitz and General Douglas MacArthur, who oversaw the dual offensives, were the beneficiaries of a colossal defense buildup that commenced long before the United States entered the war. Pearl Harbor administered a blow to U.S. power and prestige, to be sure. But shipwrights back home had been bolting together an entirely new, bigger, higher-tech fleet since 1940. Units from that fleet started arriving in the Pacific in 1943, far sooner than they would have had the buildup started after Pearl Harbor. After some desperate days in 1942, massive reinforcements afforded Nimitz and MacArthur the luxury of reverting to strategies of the strong.

That history is unlikely to repeat itself. No new U.S. Navy is under construction; nor is the nation likely to lay down massive numbers of new hulls in times of fiscal malaise, and when the prospective adversary, unlike Imperial Japan, has refrained from provocative actions like invading its neighbors. America will steam off to war in the Pacific with the navy it has. Custodians of U.S. military strategy should plan on the assumption that they must win with the assets already in the fleet. Foresight and ingenuity will be at a premium if the United States hopes to prevail. Let’s think like the weak.

Tomorrow we’ll consider the sequence in which China may bring anti-access weaponry to bear against U.S. forces venturing into likely battlegrounds along the Asian seaboard.