James Holmes

Reality Check: US Naval Primacy Is Not Guaranteed

If the U.S. Navy wants to continue controlling the seas, it may have to fight.

Reality Check: US Naval Primacy Is Not Guaranteed
Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Keith Devinney

Beware of straw men. This is an elementary lesson we professorial types try to get across to our students when discussing essay-writing techniques. By all means, try to identify people whose views differ from yours and answer their criticisms up front. Counterargument, rebuttal. This is a routine part of give-and-take, and a required element of Naval War College essays. The trick is always to present critics’ views fully and fairly. Never quote them selectively, or oversimplify their views. Doing so sets up a caricature, a straw man to be batted down.

Plus, a straw man may read your work — and hit back.

Reporter Otto Kreisher could use a refresher on such finer points. Writing in Air Force Magazine, Kreisher bludgeons a platoon of straw men. The topic: China’s anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM). According to him, “The DF-21D missile is a legitimate threat to carrier-based airpower, but at times the concern has bordered on hysteria.”

Hysteria? Someone must be weeping. Teeth are being gnashed, and garments rent asunder!! Well, no. Here’s a sample of what Kreisher considers histrionics, from Naval Diplomat coauthor Toshi Yoshihara. To quote his quotation, this “professor at the Naval War College, in 2010 wrote, ‘China can reach out and hit the US well before the US can get close enough to the mainland to hit back …. It underscores more broadly that the US Navy no longer rules the waves as it has since the end of World War II.'” Sounds ominous, as though our navy has been evicted from Asia.

Take the point about weapons ranges first. A carrier air wing’s range is about 600 nautical miles, the Pentagon’s low-end guesstimate for the ASBM about 900 nautical miles. My back-of-the-envelope arithmetic indicates that … an operational ASBM will be able to reach out and hit U.S. naval forces well before they get close enough to the mainland to hit back. Three hundred miles before, to be precise. That’s a lot of water to traverse under fire — especially when the defender combines ASBMs with subs, patrol craft, and tactical aircraft packing anti-ship cruise missiles. Anything hyperbolic about grade-school math?

Now to the point about American naval mastery. Through the wonders of Google, you can trace Toshi’s (and fellow worrywart Patrick Cronin’s) words to a Fox News story. Kreisher quotes Toshi accurately … except he leaves out the punchline. To wit: “The stark reality is that sea control cannot be taken for granted anymore.”

That puts a different gloss on matters, doesn’t it? The purported hyperbole comes down to a simple range calculation and an observation that the U.S. Navy can no longer assume it holds absolute command of the waters washing up against a rising great power’s shores. American mariners, that is, may have to fight for control of the sea. That adversary’s shore-based weaponry outranges their shipboard weaponry — and will score some hits, probabilities being what they are.

If that’s hysteria, it’s hysteria shared by commanders since time immemorial.