James Holmes

The Danger Zone in Naval Arms Races

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James Holmes

The Danger Zone in Naval Arms Races

China’s naval advantages are wasting assets, giving Beijing ever more reason to seize the initiative.

We scribblers are embarking on a phase of our careers that will span the rest of our careers — and far beyond. Namely, centennial retrospectives on the seismic events of the 20th century.

Think about it. Last Saturday marked 100 years since Gavrilo Princip felled Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. The 1914 slaying put an end to the long peace following the Congress of Vienna in 1815. It ushered in 75 years of big events galore, culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. World War I, the Versailles Treaty fight, interwar arms control, World War II, the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam — there will be a regular stream of centennials from now until the Naval Diplomat is well into a second career as zombie pundit!!!

Here’s a Great War retrospective geared not to the assassination of an Austrian archduke but to the Anglo-German naval arms race that helped precipitate war. This story concerns the “danger zone” where the German and British navies found themselves during the years leading up to world war. China and America inhabit such a time of peril today, but with a twist. Hence it’s imperative to look back to look ahead, sifting through history for such guidance as it supplies.

Why did a continental power like Germany go to sea? In part because it coveted its own colonial empire, in part to keep up with the Joneses across the North Sea in Britain, in part because warships are too damn sexy for ambitious powers to pass up. Battleship enthusiast Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz masterminded the Imperial German Navy’s rise to eminence vis-á-vis Great Britain’s Royal Navy. Around the turn of the century, Tirpitz shepherded a series of navy bills through the imperial Reichstag, or parliament, to fund construction of Germany’s first oceangoing battle fleet.

Tirpitz freely confessed that his strategy was to build ships, not attain political or strategic aims. Unsurprisingly, there was a slapdash, after-the-fact character to his rationale for a capital-ship navy. Rather than formulate goals and figure out what kind of fleet would achieve them, he retrofitted strategy to a preconceived fleet design. This was a strategy of widgets.

Here’s the theory, such as it is. Tirpitz seemed to think Germany should point a gun at Britain, manifest in an armored High Seas Fleet, in order to face down Britain and carve out its own “place in the sun” of empire. Yet he seemed to think the gun only needed to be of sufficient caliber to wound the opposing gunman. It need not kill. One suspects Clint Eastwood, Hollywood’s prophet of heavy artillery, would disapprove.

Rather than vanquish a stronger Royal Navy outright, Tirpitz envisioned putting to sea a fleet lethal enough to impose unbearable costs on that foe. In other words, the High Seas Fleet need not win a decisive engagement to accomplish Berlin’s goals. It merely needed the capacity to do heavy damage. If it could take to the seas and batter a stronger opponent — even in defeat — it could cost Britain the naval supremacy that the empire on which the sun never set depended. London, believed the admiral, would become pliant to avoid such a fate. It would accommodate itself to Berlin’s desires, and might even agree to a nautical alliance. Either way, Germany could win without fighting.

Such an entente would have proved neither stable nor durable. An alliance formed at gunpoint lasts only until the ally being strong-armed picks up a gun of his own, recruits friendlier allies who pack heat, or otherwise finds a way out of the arrangement. That was the fallacy underlying Tirpitz’s strategy. To his credit, though, he did espy the danger zone through which Germany must pass to fulfill the grand destiny he foresaw. There would be an interval, that is, when the High Seas Fleet had grown powerful enough to alarm Royal Navy leaders — and prompt British countermeasures — but not powerful enough to win a showdown on the high seas.

Again, Tirpitz’s strategic thinking was a muddle. He seemed to doubt British leaders would make defending the British Isles, the homeland, a higher priority than defending a far-flung empire. They wouldn’t withdraw ships assigned to uphold British interests in Africa, the Indian Ocean, or the Far East to preserve the balance in home waters. Except that London did do these obvious things. Vessels came home from foreign stations. The Royal Navy matched German efforts with a naval buildup of its own. Weaponeers devised game-changing technologies, most famously HMS Dreadnought, the world’s first turbine-driven, all-big-gun battlewagon. London sought allies to help shore up the balance or, in the case of Japan, guard British interests in distant theaters. It made do.

Worst of all, from Berlin’s standpoint, the psychology of the danger zone tempted London to strike preemptively, while the Royal Navy still held the upper hand. War, it seems, becomes more likely when a bellicose-seeming challenger imperils a dominant power’s standing.

Germany’s misfortune was to execute Tirpitz’s shipbuilding vision well enough to reach the danger zone, but not well enough to exit out the far side into relative safety. The German failure was intellectual and material. Faulty reasoning on Tirpitz’s part stranded the navy in the danger zone while assuring commanders that was a good place to be. Wrong. And in material terms, land defense siphoned off resources in the years immediately preceding the war, while naval construction shifted to asymmetric platforms like submarines. The Royal Navy remained well ahead in 1914.

I believe China and the United States inhabit a danger zone of a different sort today. In this case, the stronger contender let its margin of military supremacy dip temporarily. Shipwrights, aeronautical engineers, and weapons scientists are working to restore that margin. But while they do so, the lesser contender holds certain advantages and enjoys time and maneuvering space. It also understands that today’s opportunity could prove fleeting. A now-or-never mentality may prevail in Beijing.

In a way this inverts the Anglo-German competition. Then, the Royal Navy, the foremost armada of its age, contemplated preempting the German Navy. Today, the weaker competitor, China’s People’s Liberation Army, may discern a chance to lock in gains before the stronger competitor, the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force, reasserts mastery over the commons. Beijing can take what it believes it needs to take in maritime East Asia, then — defense being the stronger form of warfare — dare rejuvenated U.S. forces to take it back at prohibitive cost in a few years.

How did this come about? Over the past two decades the PLA has amassed an array of sea- and shore-based weaponry to contest U.S. military access to the Western Pacific and China seas. Beijing can now hope to make itself stronger at critical places on the map for long enough to accomplish its goals.

For its part, America took a holiday from history following the Cold War, letting the tactics and technologies needed to command East Asian seas and skies slip. Its inattention let the PLA narrow the military gap. The U.S. armed forces have belatedly returned from holiday and begun to compete. Defense firms are working with service officials to develop technology meant to restore American maritime supremacy.

Many promising systems are in the works, from newfangled destroyers to stealth aircraft to anti-ship missiles to electromagnetic railguns and shipboard lasers. That’s all to the good. Or it will be, once the new gadgetry is operationally deployed in ships and squadrons. If these systems live up to their hype, Washington may regain undoubted command of the commons — and deter Beijing. But the new weaponry remains under development or testing. It remains to be proven — and working the kinks out of innovative hardware takes time. That working-out process will proceed fitfully in all likelihood, judging from recent experience fielding high-tech armaments.

Meanwhile, the U.S.-China danger zone will persist. For example, the U.S. Navy has commissioned its first new anti-ship cruise missile in two decades. Navy warships are currently outranged by their Chinese counterparts, and thus unhealthily reliant on aircraft-carrier air wings for fleet defense. Once aboard ship, the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile should restore parity — or better — in long-range hitting power.

Similar examples are legion. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter? Still suffering through growing pains, and in low-rate production. Lasers and railguns? Years off, no matter how swimmingly testing may go. The Zumwalt guided-missile destroyer? Looks good, but the cruiser-sized DDGs aren’t yet at sea. And with a pricetag that drove the number of hulls down to three, the Zumwalts represent a fleet experiment more than anything.

And so forth. In short, lots of gee-whiz hardware is coming down the way. But it isn’t here yet — and hypothetical capability is unlikely to deter Beijing. Indeed, the more imposing potential U.S. capabilities look, the greater the incentive for weaker competitors to act now — before the window of opportunity slams shut. In this case, then, it’s the strong who stand to lose most in the danger zone. To the weak, danger looks like last call.

So if honorary Harlem Globetrotter Henry Kissinger is right — if indeed deterrence is a product of capability, resolve, and the opponent’s belief in our capability and resolve — then it will prove difficult for U.S. and allied officials to navigate the danger zone. American capability is in question, and Chinese belief in local U.S. supremacy is dubious as well. The outlook for Beijing may be entirely different — and worse — a few years off. Why not act now?

Non-honorary Globetrotter Carl von Clausewitz observes that it makes sense for the weaker power to strike now if an unfavorable situation is only likely to get worse. It gets the best deal it can under suboptimal circumstances. To my mind, that’s as good an explanation as any for China’s strong-arm policies toward its neighbors. Now what are these neighbors — and their American patron — prepared to do to exit the danger zone?