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Confronting China: Restoring U.S. Military Hegemony in East Asia

Over the last decade, Americans of all political parties have been waking up to the threat posed by China. With rapidly growing military and economic might, China seems determined to further its own interests at the expense of the freedom, liberties, and sovereignty of neighboring countries and the liberal-democratic institutions which underpin the global order. However, the U.S. as it stands today is ill-equipped to defend itself and its allies against Chinese aggression. Therefore, it must rethink its strategy to counter the threat that cheap Chinese missiles pose by shifting away from classic aircraft carrier based power projection and investing more heavily in drone, cyber, and missile technologies. 

I have explained China’s strategy in East Asia and how the current balance of power stacks up at length in a previous article. To recap, China is honing an Anti Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy in East Asia, which essentially means they are amassing sufficient armaments and assets to deny the U.S. the ability to operate within certain waters. In China’s case, they are first seeking to put an A2/AD perimeter around what they call the First Island Chain before later expanding it to the Second Island Chain, both of which are seen in the photo below. 

Pacific Sentinel: News Story: Powers Jockey for Pacific Island Chain Influence

East Asia’s first and second island chains

By using an A2/AD strategy, China doesn’t need to match the U.S. with raw military force. They can instead use guided missiles to make it too costly in lives and resources for the U.S. to operate near China, thus eliminating our ability to defend our allies, including Taiwan, the Philippines, Japan, and Korea. A single aircraft carrier costs up to $17.5 billion and has a crew of 4,500 to 6,000. China possesses the (theoretical) technology to blow one out of the water from 2000 miles away with their $21 million DF-26 missile. If we cannot get our ships and planes close enough to threaten China, our military deterrence will be effectively useless. 

China’s A2/AD strategy is so effective not because of how big their ships are or how stealthy they can make their planes, but because of how cheap it is for them to destroy our big ships and stealthy planes. Essentially the entire U.S. power projection strategy is designed around aircraft carriers, which are big, expensive, and have a lot of lives aboard. This made a lot of sense for the past few decades, but now that China can destroy ships costing billions with missiles costing millions, the math becomes quite questionable. Maintaining a force of aircraft carriers remains critical, as they send a strong and visible signal of our military might and provide the essential ability to surge a military presence nearly anywhere in the world, thus helping deter potential aggressors. But the great power wars of the future will not be fought with WWII-era aircraft carrier vs aircraft carrier tactics. It will likely be fought with (at least at first) drones, missiles, and cyberspace experts. The U.S. needs to be ready for this. We cannot afford to have half our aircraft carriers blown out of the water in the opening months of a conflict because of antiquated strategies. 

Some might argue that the U.S. should invest in technology to negate China’s A2/AD defense, such as by increasing the missile defense capabilities of existing ships. However, even if the U.S. were able to negate Chinese missile and drone technology at only the cost of a couple carrier strike groups — which is an unlikely proposition — the U.S. still might not be able to win in a conventional war. According to Gen. David Berger, the commandant of the Marine Corps,  “replacing ships lost in combat will be problematic, inasmuch as our industrial base has shrunk, while peer adversaries have expanded their shipbuilding capacity.” Our limited capacity is barely enough to maintain the existing force during peacetime, with a Government Accountability Office report finding that 75 percent of Navy ship repairs are completed late. Furthermore, only about 50 percent of F-35 and F-22 jets — the U.S.’s most advanced stealth jets and thus most useful against China — are ready for combat at any given time due to a shortage of parts. As war with a peer power would result in increased damage to current equipment combined with demands for new equipment, it is an open question whether the U.S. has the industry left to cope with such a scenario. Take a key historical example from WWII: one of the U.S.’s biggest assets in its war against Japan was that while Japan started with a stronger Pacific naval presence, the U.S. was able to build ships and planes much more quickly and thus beat Japan in the protracted conflict. This advantage would be reversed today, with the U.S. being the country that would fall behind in a protracted conflict due to limited industrial capabilities. 

Any conflict with China could easily become a protracted war. Throughout most of history, nations were forced to capitulate once an enemy army pushed too deep into its territory. And invading China, with their massive population and home-field advantage over the U.S., is pretty much out of the question for the U.S. Army. Other ways of forcing China to capitulate include nuclear weapons (a non-starter) and relentless aerial bombardment to devastate their industrial, military, and economic power (which would be difficult to do en masse due to China’s strategic depth, air defenses, and strong air force). Therefore, it would likely be only a matter of time before U.S. casualties catch up with them and China’s industrial strength wins out, turning the tide of this hypothetical war. 

Perhaps the only way that the U.S. could hope to win a war with China is to devastate their economy so quickly and severely that they have no choice but to sue for peace or face the possibility of internal revolution. China is a net importer of food and energy by a significant margin, with a net of $45 billion in food imports in 2017 and relied on oil imports for 70 percent of their petroleum needs in 2018. As over 60 percent of its trade is conducted by sea, a blockade would be exceedingly effective at crippling their economy and causing internal strife. China knows this, which is why they have invested in A2/AD. They know that the U.S. Navy is composed of relatively few but large ships (the U.S. only has 293 ships compared to China’s more than 350 ships) and that with an A2/AD system in place, the U.S. would not have the numbers to maintain a blockade of China.

Therefore, it is critical that the U.S. reexamine how to approach a conflict with China and make the necessary investments to be able to penetrate their A2/AD perimeter. As previously mentioned, this would not involve replacing conventional military assets, like critical carrier strike groups. However, the congressional mandate for a minimum of eleven operational carriers at a time is rather high. Maintaining and operating carrier strike groups is even more expensive than building them, with each strike group costing $6.5 million a day to operate, so reductions to this figure will not only alleviate some of the burden on shipyards, but also serve to cut spending significantly. Furthermore, because carriers are (on average) only deployable for half the year due to maintenance and crew break requirements, a robust fleet will still be required in order to rapidly respond to crises as they arise. This means that if the U.S. were to bring down its carrier fleet to eight, they would have roughly four carriers deployed at any given time. While the absence of the fifth or sixth carrier will be missed, the federal budget is strained as the U.S. takes on debt to fund its fight against COVID-19, among other things. Cutting carriers will also free up the smaller and more agile escort ships that make up carrier strike groups for other missions. 

With the savings reaped from this carrier force reduction, the U.S. should focus on investing in partially and fully autonomous ships and submarines. About 27 percent of the Navy’s budget goes to personnel costs, so the fewer sailors that are needed, the more ships that we can afford, and the fewer lives lost. A2/AD works because it is cheaper and easier to destroy a large military vessel than it is to build and maintain them. But if the U.S. can bring large qualities of autonomous ships to bear, then they would be able to more efficiently blockade China and neutralize their defenses. 

While much of these new investments will be needed in the Navy — as it is the Navy that will do the bulk of combat with China — the Air Force should also look at shifting the type of hardware it procures. Firstly, the Air Force should shift some of its F-35A orders to F-35B’s. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the F-35A, like many other jets, it requires a runway to take off. These are easy to spot on a satellite, meaning China could use cruise missiles to quickly destroy  runways (and stationed F-35A’s) as far away as Guam. This would leave the Air Force’s capability to wage war crippled. Therefore, the Air Force should consider purchasing F-35B’s, which are capable of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL). These could be stationed almost anywhere, such as on parking lots and meadows, and make it substantially harder for China to find and destroy American planes and infrastructure. The Marine Corps already operates this variant for Navy ships, but the Air Force could benefit from planes with VTOL capabilities, like the F-35B. In the long term, the Air Force should look at using fully autonomous planes to replace non-combat utility aircraft, and look into how to use and defend against drone swarms (large quantities of drones that overwhelm enemy defenses). 

Both the Navy and Air Force will also require substantially better missiles in order to stand against China, as U.S. missile technology is sorely lacking. The U.S. is currently procuring missiles with more than 200 miles of range, and is actively upgrading its tomahawk missile (which are launched from ships to destroy fixed targets on land) to be able to target enemy naval ships as well. Furthermore, the U.S. is playing catch up to China and Russia in the development of hypersonic missiles. Both China and Russia (claim to) have deployed such weapons, while the U.S. is currently targeting 2023 to declare their first hypersonic missiles operational.

The more autonomous the U.S. makes its ships and planes, the more important cybersecurity and cyber warfare becomes. Cybersecurity is a fast evolving realm of warfare and is outside the scope of the article. It is simply much harder to measure than the number and capabilities of hardware due to the lack of publicly available information about countries’ cyber capabilities. However, the U.S. cannot afford to lose the cyber war and parts of the Pentagon specializing in it should get whatever funding they need. 

All of these investments sound expensive, and they are. Even though I recommended some steps in paying for these investments by reducing costs in other defense segments, it is important to recognize that the U.S. will likely need to increase military spending. Some Americans may point to the fact that on paper, the U.S. spends about 4.5 times as much as China on defense ($686 billion vs $160 billion). It is not this simple. Most third parties peg Chinese defense spending at closer to $260 billion due to China’s lack of spending transparency. This figure has more than doubled since 2010, while U.S. defense spending has dropped by $130 billion in the same period. Comparing these figures using purchasing power parity, or PPP, narrows the gap even further. PPP recognizes that the cost of labor and goods is significantly less in China than in the U.S., meaning the Chinese military can get a lot more for $1 than the U.S. military. After adjusting for PPP, I calculate that the Chinese military budget is equivalent to about $540 billion. If you subtract money used on active conflicts known as the overseas contingency operations fund from the DoD budget, it comes down to $617 billion. This means that on a consistent basis, the DoD is only getting about 14% more funding than the Chinese military by my calculations, which is in line with Heritage Foundation estimates. Americans can no longer afford to be lulled into a false sense of security with misleading statistics that fail to adjust for the above factors. We need to make the necessary investments in our military now before we fall further behind China in East Asia military capabilities.

We are in the middle of a pandemic. No one wants to worry about a hypothetical war with another great power as we all fear for our health and pour tax dollars into supporting the economy. However, we must remain vigilant and plan for the worst. It is only by being able to deter our foes that we can avoid war altogether and maintain peaceful coexistence. Should we rise to the challenge, we will be able to avoid the great power struggles of the early 20th century and continue to maintain peace through strength.


Featured Image: Foreign Affairs

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