James Holmes

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

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James Holmes

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

China’s Rope-a-Dope Strategy: Don’t expect the PLA to pit strength against strength until it has to.

Read Part I, Part II, Part III and Part V

Debates over China’s anti-access strategy typically concentrate on weapons technology rather than how Chinese defenders will handle that technology in combat. And understandably so. One of Murphys Laws of Combat reminds the warrior that the weapon he’s carrying was made by the lowest bidder. That world-weary jest says something true and serious about the importance of hardware to martial enterprises. Or as the dean of American fleet tactics, retired U.S. Navy captain Wayne Hughes, points out, strategy is a function both of tactical acumen and of equipment that works as designed.

For Hughes, that is, strategic and operational artistry means little if forces in the field cannot win tactical encounters. Strategy means using battles and engagements for strategic and political gain. If systems like anti-ship ballistic missiles, Aegis-like destroyers, or stealth fighters underperform their hype, Beijing’s anti-access strategy is apt to underperform as well.

Suppose these systems indeed live up to their hype. How will People’s Liberation Army commanders wield them during an anti-access campaign? Here are a couple of things they won’t do. First, they won’t try to mount a rigid perimeter defense. Think about it. For Clausewitz, the first act of strategy is to concentrate superior might at the decisive spot on the map at the right time. Now try to concentrate superior might at every point along a perimeter enclosing the Western Pacific. That’s tough to do without thinning finite manpower and assets into irrelevance. Defending everywhere along lengthy ramparts means defending weakly everywhere.

That’s true in land warfare as well. Even fixed fortifications such as the Great Wall or Hadrian’s Wall were never impermeable to enemy action. Their chief function was to limit and slow down incursions, giving mobile garrisons and rear-area striking forces time to deploy to the site of a breach and clobber the intruders. The same logic applies at sea. PLA defenders will try to hobble a cross-Pacific offensive with extended-range firepower delivered from land. That will render the PLA Navy’s mission more manageable and less perilous if and when it undertakes a fleet engagement.

Second, PLA defenders will refuse decisive battle until U.S. forces are well within the outer limits of the anti-access zone. Like boxing virtuoso Muhammad Ali, they will take a “rope-a-dope” approach to the strategic question before them. Ali deployed rope-a-dope tactics against the great George Foreman during their 1974 Rumble in the Jungle. He let the bigger Foreman wallop him repeatedly—and weary himself—before seizing the initiative and winning the bout.

Beijing has something similar in mind for a Rumble in the Pacific. Indeed, Ali’s approach conforms to Chinese Communist strategic traditions. Though not in so many words, Mao Zedong urged Red Army forces to take a rope-a-dope approach in struggles against stronger adversaries. The savvy boxer refused to rush in at the opening bell; instead he retreated. “We all know,” proclaimed Mao, “that when two boxers fight, the clever boxer usually gives a little ground at first, while the foolish one rushes in furiously and uses up all his resources at the very start, and in the end he is often beaten by the man who has given ground.” Muhammad Ali could scarcely have put it better.

What does this mean in practical terms? Unlike Mao’s and Ali’s boxers, the PLA can inflict punishment at a distance without tiring the “boxer”—the PLA Navy fleet—and indeed without putting that fleet in harm’s way. Extended-range fire support from land-based aircraft and missile launchers, as well as from picket warships like submarines and fast patrol craft, can strike at approaching U.S. task forces soon after they pass through the “second island chain” centered on Guam. Not only can Chinese defenders count on the U.S. Pacific Fleet to overextend itself by steaming across vast distances, but they can hasten the rope-a-dope effect by harrying the fleet. Constant harassing attacks would damage ships and planes while enfeebling their crews. Eventually, the PLA Navy fleet could risk combat somewhere between the island chains with reasonable prospects of success.

In what order would the PLA unleash its shore-based weaponry? To thwart a Pacific advance, PLA gunners would probably do the obvious: open fire with each anti-access weapon as the U.S. fleet came within reach of that weapon. Strike aircraft and anti-ship ballistic missiles would presumably cut loose first, followed by missile- and torpedo-firing submarines lurking offshore, then missile-armed patrol craft, and finally shore cruise-missile batteries. Resistance would become denser and denser as the Pacific Fleet closed in on Asian coastlines. That’s what layered defense is all about.

It’s worth noting, however, that this pattern may not hold outside the Western Pacific. The broad Pacific resembles a featureless plain, an open arena for combat. But U.S. forces might also approach through the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Anti-access weapons boast the reach to strike throughout the South China Sea and Bay of Bengal from Chinese territory. But weapons range isn't the problem. Politics is.

Lobbing missiles into the Indian Ocean would mean waging war in a fellow Asian power's backyard, and in a region on which China depends for fuel and raw materials. And the South China Sea is a congested, densely populated expanse compared to the empty Pacific Ocean. Ill-considered military actions could squander goodwill China needs for long-term prosperity and to consolidate its standing as Asia’s leading power.

Tactical minutiae can carry strategic and political import. Detecting, classifying, and targeting enemies at long range is an uncertain business. The U.S. Navy withdrew an anti-ship variant of its Tomahawk cruise missile from service in the 1990s for precisely that reason. Similarly, Beijing might balk at the prospect of errant missiles’ mistakenly hitting neutral shipping. The diplomatic repercussions of seemingly reckless actions could be profound. Rather than run that risk, the PLA might hold long-range fire support in reserve and open the campaign with shorter-range weaponry that can be used with greater precision. Such discretion would reduce the chances of a costly error.

A rope-a-dope strategy, then, appears harder for the PLA to prosecute against U.S. forces approaching from the west and south than from the east. If it does exercise restraint with long-range assets, Beijing might feel compelled to hazard the PLA Navy fleet earlier in a Southeast Asian conflict than in the wider Pacific theater. That would improve the United States’ prospects of achieving decisive combat results. That’s something to consider as military commanders ponder the best axis, or axes, along which to converge on maritime East Asia. Tomorrow we'll close out this series with a few thoughts on how a U.S.-China conflagration would end—and what might come after the end.