Defeating China’s Fortress Fleet and A2/AD Strategy: Lessons for the United States and Her Allies

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Defeating China’s Fortress Fleet and A2/AD Strategy: Lessons for the United States and Her Allies

China’s built a fortress fleet to operationalize its A2/AD ambitions. How can the U.S. and her allies counter this?

Defeating China’s Fortress Fleet and A2/AD Strategy: Lessons for the United States and Her Allies
Credit: Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

To borrow from the strategist Obi-wan Kenobi: Japan and South Korea have the mixed fortune to inhabit a wretched hive of scum and villainy, populated by the likes of China and North Korea. The same goes for U.S. forces based in Northeast Asia. We are all in this together.

But how does an alliance like ours uphold freedom of the sea and other important interests in such a neighborhood? How do you deter an ambitious, seafaring great power like China that wants to abridge freedom of the sea, when your navy and its supporting ground and air forces lie constantly within effective weapons range? Can you deter such a power?

Henry Kissinger says Yes. You can make a believer out of your opponent by amassing impressive capabilities—capabilities meaning not just widgets but the obvious ability to use them effectively for operational and strategic gain. And you make him a believer by convincing him of your resolve to use those capabilities to defeat his aims should he do things you want to deter.

Deterrence is thus a product of multiplying capability by resolve by belief. That’s Kissinger’s equation. As we remember from grade-school algebra, if any variable in a series of variables multiplied by one another is zero, so is the product. If any one of Kissinger’s three factors is zero, so is deterrence. Maximize all three and you have a fighting chance to deter.

Let summarize the strategic predicament facing our three countries, then briefly go through those three elements of deterrence—capability, resolve, and belief—and close by sketching one of many prospective strategic courses of action the U.S.-Japan-South Korea alliance could embrace to deter a China that seems bent on remaking the Asian maritime order to our—and the region’s—detriment.

Let’s first review the maritime strategic situation. China has constructed a “fortress fleet,” and this represents savvy strategy on its part.

Fortress fleet is an obscure term but not a new one. A bit over a century ago, naval historian Alfred Thayer Mahan, the second president of the Naval War College and probably history’s most influential proponent of sea power, savaged the imperial Russian Navy for operating such a fleet—for deploying a fleet, that is, that sheltered timidly under the guns of Port Arthur for protection against the big, bad Imperial Japanese Navy commanded by Admiral Tōgō.

The logic of a fortress fleet is straightforward. Forts and other land bases generally outgun fleets. If a hostile fleet comes with range, the fort’s gunnery can pound it. A battleship or a cruiser—the capital ships of yesteryear—is a big gun platform by naval standards, but it’s small by contrast with a fortress that can sprawl out on shore. Forts house bigger weapons boasting greater range and more ammunition. So if a fleet enjoys fire support from a fort, it can hope to withstand or even defeat a stronger foe.

That’s what Russian commanders tried to do during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. When the Russian squadron stayed close to Port Arthur, Tōgō’s fleet typically kept its distance to avoid getting whacked. When the Russians ventured beyond range of Port Arthur’s gunners, they lost—catastrophically so. Two Russian fleets were reduced to artificial reefs by the end of the conflict.

So there’s safety in fire support. But merely existing is not a navy’s purpose. A century ago artillery had extremely short effective firing ranges, measured in just a few miles. Staying within reach of shore fire support thus meant staying within a very cramped sea area—and surrendering the high seas to the enemy. A fortress fleet could stay safe, then, but if it did it accomplished next to nothing of value. That’s why Mahan blasted Russian commanders for pursuing a “radically erroneous” naval strategy against Japan.

Does his critique hold up today? No. I think the day of the fortress fleet has come, courtesy of extended-range, precision, guided-missile technology. Ask yourself: what if the guns of Port Arthur could have rained accurate fire on ships throughout the Yellow Sea or beyond? How would the Russo-Japanese War have turned out if Tōgō had had to worry about getting pummeled as soon as he left port? That would have put a different complexion on things.

Technology has granted China’s navy the luxury of operating within range of shore fire support throughout vast sea areas. No longer are ships confined within a short radius of a single point along the coast. Assuming they fulfill their hype, systems like the DF-31D and DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missiles will provide protective cover for PLA Navy warships operating well beyond the first island chain—beyond the second island chain if the DF-26 reaches the upper limit of its estimated firing range. In other words, PLA weaponry can, at least hypothetically, strike at enemy fleets throughout the waters Beijing cares about most—the Western Pacific and China seas.

And that’s not all. PLA ASBM batteries are mobile. They’re mounted on trucks. Latter-day “fortresses” can be positioned up and down Chinese shorelines, and repositioned to concentrate fire near potential trouble spots. The imperial Russian Navy had Port Arthur, a single point on the Liaotung Peninsula that could sweep a small offshore area clear of hostile vessels. The PLA Navy has Fortress China, which adjoins all of the embattled expanses just offshore.

One imagines this technological progress would give Mahan pause. I doubt the prophet of sea power would castigate China for radically erroneous strategy, the way he did Russia. China has the long arm of advanced weaponry. It can operate a free-range navy while still reaching out from land to smite China’s foes. Weapons technology has superseded Mahan’s critique.

I need not remind anyone here what this means in geographic terms. Korea is a half-island appended to continental Asia. Japan is an archipelago five hundred or fewer miles offshore, depending on the latitude. Japanese and Koreans live within the anti-access/area-denial zone, as do the U.S. Seventh Fleet and affiliated joint forces.

How do you deter a China that has such an arsenal at its disposal, when you’re permanently in close quarters with it? For one thing, let’s construe “capability” broadly rather than limit it to weapons, tactics, and operational methods. Anti-access/area denial is about more than guns and ammo. It is a strategy if not a grand strategy.

China gets this.

For instance, it harnesses not just strategic rocket forces and PLA Navy and Air Force assets to deter and coerce, but also psychological, media, and legal operations—its so-called three warfares. Beijing wages the three warfares 24/7/365 to shape opinion in its favor, with the goal of disheartening potential opponents or convincing them the costs of bucking China’s will would be unbearable.

There’s wisdom in China’s methods, however much we might deplore China’s aims. We should reciprocate—taking stock of all the resources we can pool as an alliance, not just our military forces. In Kissinger’s lingo, these are all elements of capability. Let’s leave no implement—diplomatic, economic, or military—on the shelf in this high-stakes competition.

Unity—what Kissinger calls will—is one of these implements. Carl von Clausewitz, the grand wizard of all things military, reminds us that the “community of interest” constitutes the “center of gravity” for multinational consortiums. Disrupt the community of interest through an effective military blow, the compelling threat of such a blow, or political means, and you splinter the alliance into manageable bits.

China’s approach to diplomacy is reminiscent of Sun Tzu’s Hegemonic King, who overawes outmatched neighbors into not combining against him, then deals with them piecemeal. It doubtless pleases Beijing when diplomats from smaller neighbors utter sentiments like, “When the dragon roars, the little countries need to stay away from the fire coming out of its mouth.” That’s how one ASEAN diplomat explained ASEAN’s retraction of a strong statement against Chinese lawlessness in the South China Sea last week.

Let’s firm up our allied unity—and deny China the easy victory promised by its Hegemonic King strategy.

If our alliance maintains solidarity while deploying formidable diplomatic, economic, and military means, we will stand a good chance of making believers out of China. It’s doubtful Beijing will ever formally relinquish such goals as Taiwan, the Senkaku Islands, or its claims to sovereignty over sea and sky. Nor is it likely to dismantle its fortress-fleet strategy, or the navy that takes refuge underneath. But we gain time if we deter China. And if we gain enough time, good things may happen. China may mellow, postponing a reckoning on contentious matters into the indefinite future. Stringing out the strategic competition may be the best we can achieve.

Up to now I’ve spoken in general terms about allied power and purpose. What about strategy? Others here are far better qualified than I to comment on how the allies can preserve and deepen their sense of common purpose—their community of interest. Such diplomatic endeavors are of fundamental importance to our cause. Since time is short, however, let me stick to the naval and military dimensions for now and we can widen the aperture during the Q&A if you so desire.

How do you blunt a fortress-fleet strategy?

Well, for one thing, we can take the fleet out of fortress fleet. The PLA may operate ASBMs, but the allies have anti-ship capability of their own. We have systems that can span the waters we care about, and our reach will only grow in the coming years as we distribute lethality throughout our fighting forces.

We could, say, deploy mobile batteries of anti-air and anti-ship missiles along the island chain, turning geography to advantage. Ground-pounders thus could assail shipping that attempts east-west movement from the China seas into the Western Pacific and back. The Ryukyus and other island groups would become de facto missile emplacements—hard to root out short of amphibious assault.

Offensive sea mines in the straits would complete the offshore cordon, while submarines lurking behind the island chain would provide mobile striking forces to plug gaps should PLA Navy surface or undersea forces stage a breakout anyway. Meanwhile, a few allied subs could slip into the Yellow and East China seas to raid shipping from below. In short: the ROK Navy, JMSDF, and U.S. Navy could bottle up China’s navy within the first island chain while making the waters within dangerous indeed.

If China’s A2/AD strategy constitutes Beijing’s challenge, joint and combined island warfare—or, in peacetime, the imposing threat thereof—would constitute the allied reply. The result would be a kind of mutually assured sea and air denial—in other words, a form of conventional deterrence. Over time, considering China’s reliance on seaborne imports of natural resources and exports of finished goods, blockading China from afar would probably hurt them more, economically and militarily, than it would hurt us.

That’s the hardware part. Lifting our gaze, the allies could negotiate a geographic division of labor to execute such a strategy. Japan could apply its efforts mainly along a southwestern axis, minding the islands and straits between the home islands and Taiwan. Korea could look eastward and northward, closing the Tsushima Strait to north-south Chinese movements while policing the Sea of Japan in case of a breakthrough. Such a partition of duties would let each partner harness its competitive advantages, operate on the ground it knows best, and, in the case of Japan, continue what it’s already doing as it fields a dynamic defense force to guard or recover the Ryukyus.

Japan and Korea, then, can help the United States by helping themselves. To the extent that Tokyo and Seoul can manage events in Northeast Asia, they will free up U.S. joint forces for operations to the south—letting them tighten the cordon around the South China Sea, take down China’s manufactured islands, or whatever. Such a strategy would pay off in a wider strategic competition or war.

And it would send a message. China is prone to hubris, or overweening pride. It believes History with a capital H is on China’s side, and will remain there.

But if the allies work out a counterstrategy, field the implements necessary to execute it, and conspicuously practice executing it, they can sow doubt in Chinese minds. They can counteract hubris, reminding Beijing of what the ancient Greeks knew: that the gods punish outrageous human arrogance. Nemesis, or divine retribution, follows hubris inexorably. Pride goes before a fall.

In so doing, the allies can deflate China’s confidence in its fortress-fleet strategy. And Kenobi, Kissinger, and Mahan—wherever they are—will smile.

James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College. This is a slightly revised version of remarks delivered at a U.S.-Japan-Korea Trilateral Dialogue Workshop, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, DC, June 17, 2016. The views voiced here are his alone.