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This blog aims to contribute to understanding the history of the US Navy during the Cold War and to draw lessons from that and earlier periods for the current era of great power competition.

I’m examining and evaluating some of the major components of what might together constitute a 21st century Maritime Strategy. I’m a political scientist who worked at the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) from 1969 to 1999, with a group that supported and critiqued ONI and OPNAV planners in what was then Op-06. Our main effort was devoted to the analysis of the Soviet military press. We had some success, as described in my “The Return of Great Power Competition: Cold War Lessons about Strategic Anti-Submarine Warfare and Defense of Sea Lines of Communication,” Naval War College Review, forthcoming. I served as the director of the group from 1974 to 1989. The job mainly involved trying not to get in the way of my talented and dedicated colleagues. With James McConnell, I was co-editor of, and a contributor to, Soviet Naval Diplomacy (Pergamon Press, 1979). I retired as a Captain in the Naval Reserve after service in Naval Intelligence.

While I am much in debt to Peter Swartz and Steve Wills—both currently at CNA—and former CNA-ers Bruce Powers and Tom Anger, the ideas expressed are my own. I offer five think pieces for critique and commentary. Each addresses a strategic mission of the Navy, cast at the level of using the Navy as a whole, to support the nation’s peacetime diplomacy and to deter—or, if unavoidable, to fight—a war with Russia or China and to deal with the “post-war” world. I approach these subjects via the logic of the strategic situation as seen from the US point of view. Any references to Russian or Chinese attitudes are drawn entirely from secondary sources. My focus is today. Future forces are not addressed. Each post opens with a statement of purpose, definition of terms, and descriptions of assumptions, followed by outlines of possible actions and assessments of their pros and cons. Though I try show the theoretical roots of these ideas, my aim is to suggest answers to the practical question: Okay, what do we do next?

I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more and please follow to be notified when I post updates.

Bradford Dismukes

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About the Author

I’m a political scientist who worked at the Center for Naval Analyses (1969-99) with a group that supported and critiqued ONI and OPNAV planners and analyzed the Soviet military press. I directed the group 1974-89. I retired as a Captain in the Naval Reserve after service in Naval Intelligence. This blog aims to contribute to an understanding of the history of the US Navy in the Cold War, to draw lessons from that and earlier periods for the current era, and to conjecture about possible future developments for which history may provide no guide.

Bradford Dismukes

Global Blockade vs. China

Introductory Note

This post was initially called “Global Blockade vs. Russia, China.” To shorten the read time and allow specialists and others to focus on each potential adversary, I have split it into two posts, this one and “Global Blockade vs. Russia.”

Each post now examines the possible nuclear implications of a successful blockade and includes a new section on war termination—a phase we don’t generally think about as much as we should. If analysis shows that blockade can deliver anything close to what the hypothesis underlying this post promises, then plausible conditions for war termination may well arise. However, because China and Russia would seem certain to come to the aid of the other should it face defeat at the hands of a US blockade, even a “small” war could become prolonged and geographically expanded. No one needs reminding that wars between the great powers can reshape the map of global politics. A US war vs. China – with Russia’s aid or even full participation — has a good chance of producing tectonic political change, including within the warring parties. I have used the term “war termination,” not “victory.” That’s because, with all the parties in possession of nuclear arsenals, the game will never be over. We need to plan accordingly.

Purpose

To assess the potential of the historic practice of naval blockade in the current era. The departure point is recognition that the US and its allies possess global command of the sea. Students of sea power have long known that command of the sea cannot be an end in itself but can only take significance from the larger military and political objectives it may be used to achieve. Today the West can deny the use of the world ocean to all other nations. No nation can use it except at the West’s sufferance. Other nations may be capable of using their local waters—perhaps under contested circumstances—but not the world ocean on which international commerce depends. This last contention is the key to the West’s exploitation of its dominant advantage of the sea: economic blockade. Geoffrey Till has described it as “sea-based coercion,” or “more a form of naval diplomacy than acts of war.”*

As outlined here, economic blockade is a form of warfare that may be exactly suited to great power competition in the current era. It has deep historical roots but would be carried out on a historically unprecedented scale with promise of unprecedented strategic results. As noted on Clio’s Welcome page, I am not drawing these recommendations from analysis of current Chinese attitudes regarding any possible blockade that China might face. I am arguing from the logic of today’s strategic situation as seen from the US point of view.

Military Assumptions

The assumption of Western naval dominance is based on a broad reading of current relative naval capabilities, which seem likely to shift further in favor of the West as US building programs are implemented, and the military budgets of allies in Europe and the Pacific increase. But China has a burgeoning naval building program, too, as well as home-grown prowess in technological innovation that many say rivals that of the US and its allies. Thus, this assumption must be subjected to searching analysis, as do the politico-economic assumptions that follow.

Politico-Economic Assumptions

Preventing China from using the sea might have direct and far reaching consequences. China is already heavily dependent on seaborne import of energy, raw materials, and even foodstuffs. Additionally, its exports depend on use of the sea. For China the premier expression of that dependence is the massive, multi-year Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), half of which is known as the Maritime Silk Road. In sum, unimpeded use of the sea is a sine qua non of the functioning and growth of the China’s economy and its aspirations for status as a great power.

What Kind of War with China?

Determinants of the desirability and the details of blockade against China would be dictated by the nature of the war to be deterred/fought: the stakes in contention; and, the nature of the aggressive actions that China might take that are to be deterred or, if need be, responded to. It is my assumption that the US would resort to blockade only in response to China’s actions of a military nature—and not to actions in the purely political, much less the economic, sphere.

As this is written in the summer of 2019, it is difficult to see beyond two issues that might lead to war between China and the US: 1) the security and sovereignty of Taiwan; and, 2) China’s territorial claims to waters and islands in the South and East China Seas. The first issue is the big case that requires planning for a major US response. Such a conflict would likely have a fairly discernible binary outcome: Either Taiwan remains independent or it is absorbed into China. The US would be unlikely to accept the latter outcome because of the ideals that underpin its security policy as well as raw Realpolitik. Such stakes mean that whatever else the US does in response, it should be prepared to impose a full global blockade against China and keep it in force until China agrees to the restoration of the status quo ante.

The second issue is more complicated because the stakes that may be in contention are ill-defined. It is difficult to specify in advance what would constitute victory or defeat: who wins or loses what. Purely for purposes of illustration, I will posit here that war with China could arise as a result of aggressive Chinese military actions to assert sovereignty over contested islands or waters. In this case, something less than all-out blockade might be employed—its extent and duration calibrated to meet the possibly ambiguous circumstances at hand.

Proposed Actions vs. China

These actions are generally the same as those against Russia, described in the “Blockade vs. Russia” post. However, because of China’s sense of historical grievance against the West, public characterization of blockade vs. China should be as carefully crafted as possible to minimize the danger that China could claim it is being “bullied” by a US antagonist who is over-exploiting a position of strength.

There are a number of other important differences. In contrast to Russia, China can achieve its possible military objectives only by controlling the seas along its periphery—to invade Taiwan or to exert sovereignty over claimed islands and waters. While the US always has the option of seeking to deny Chinese forces such control, blockade as it is used here is a sea denial strategy focused on more distant waters. (Other blockade options exist. See for example Lieutenant Matthew Conners, US Navy, “Blockade the First Island Chain” Proceedings, Vol. 145/6/1,396 (June 2019).

A second difference is the minimal involvement of US and allied ground forces. In the Taiwan case there would be land areas to be fought over, but not by US forces on the ground. (I assume that, because the US has never done so over many decades, it would be unlikely to deploy US forces on Taiwanese soil to serve as a tripwire.) In the second case, assertions of Chinese sovereignty over areas of the sea, the contest would be solely at sea—though obviously land-based air and missiles would play a role. Note, however, that blockade might nonetheless result in war on the ground. (See below under discussions “Cons” and “War Termination.”)

Finally, there would be no NATO-like framework for military and political cooperation with allies of the US who may have conflicting interests in the issues at stake. The review of pros and cons that follows here will focus mainly on the second scenario, assertions of Chinese sovereignty over areas at sea.

Pros

  • The overarching advantage of blockade vs. China is that it could be implemented at little additional risk to US or allied forces—beyond the threats they already face from China’s long range anti-ship capabilities. Because relatively few Chinese imports originate in ports near China, ships carrying oil, raw materials, or food to the country could be interdicted at distances from China where there is little or no possibility that it could take defensive counteractions. As with Russia, seizure would be better than sinking Chinese ships. It is assumed that few third parties would be willing to risk ships against a US blockade.
  • Almost as important, the US would hold the initiative at both the tactical and the operational—that is, theater-wide—levels. Individual Chinese ships could be shadowed, disabled (see the post “Propulsion Disablers“), seized, or sunk. These would tactical decisions to be made in light of the broader strategic context. At the theater level, the US would calibrate the intensity of the blockade to fit the changing situation on the strategic issue over which the war was being fought. There would be little reason for urgency arising from blockade itself. It can be presumed that, after several Chinese warships and merchant ships are disabled or sunk, Chinese decision makers would recognize the difficult position that blockade presents. China specialists can offer informed assessments of China’s possible responses. I offer a general one below under the heading “War Termination.”
  • Blockade uses the existing capabilities of the Navy. Aside from upgrades in ISR (see below), improved Special Forces capabilities for ship seizure (not further addressed here), and focused planning, it requires little in the way of additional expenditures.
  • Blockade is an asymmetric response that would be difficult for China to answer. It could be used to augment US sea denial efforts mounted directly in the South and East China Seas, or it could be used on its own. The latter would avoid sending US forces into Chinese area denial zone. (I am grateful to Steve Wills for pointing this out, which, like many such creative insights may, on reflection, seem obvious. In fact, some readers may share with Steve and me puzzlement why this advantage alone has not already made blockade a fixture of strategic thinking regarding China.)
  • Blockade would render useless half of China’s BRI, including its Ice Silk Road component in the Arctic. China would face a choice: Give up expected payoff from vast investments in the BRI and its aspirations for influence befitting a global power, or desist from aggressive military action.
  • Some believe that China well understands its vulnerability at sea. The Economist (July 6, 2019, p. 47) quotes “Hu Bo, a prominent naval strategist at Peking University…” as saying “…it would be a ‘suicide mission’ for China to take any actions that might provoke a blockade….”
  • As in the Russia case, many of these goals might be achieved through economic sanctions alone. But if sanctions prove ineffective, and war ensues, blockade would be implemented. In any case, the veiled threat of blockade might underline the seriousness of economic sanctions and, potentially, increase their efficacy.

Implications/Complicating Factors

In contrast to Russia’s nuclear bellicosity, China, as far as I know, has not emphasized any readiness to resort to nuclear use except to answer nuclear threats against it. For the prudent US planner, however, the possibility of China’s nuclear response to a successful blockade cannot be ruled out. As in the Russia case, because blockade’s injury to China originates from US actions at sea, the first focus of China’s response would be at sea—likely targeting a CVSG with missiles launched from submarines outside Chinese territorial waters. And, as with Russia, the absence of symmetrical targets at sea would make the decision regarding a US response extremely difficult—and so in need of intense study. As argued in the post “Fleet-in-Being,” the casualties resulting from the loss of a major US ship(s) even from conventional strikes, not to mention a nuclear one, could transform a “small” war into a big one. We should not undertake blockade without thinking through these issues and similar ones taken up under “War Termination,” below.

Cons

  • Blockade vs. China may be judged too difficult to carry out. In particular, US ISR may not be up to the task of identifying, locating, and sorting out the myriad ships in the Chinese merchant fleet—the largest national fleet in the world. (China’s state-owned COSCO shipping company alone reportedly owned over 1000 ships in 2017.) The picture is further complicated by China’s fishing fleet, which reportedly comprises over 200,000 motorized vessels including more than 25,000 ships of 100 tons or greater.
  • If ISR cannot be upgraded to meet requirements for distant blockade—where the task may in fact be simpler because Chinese ships may be easier to isolate against a less complicated background—then effort would have to be focused nearer to China proper. This would diminish one of the most attractive features of blockade at least with respect to the surface Navy. It is assumed that contribution of SSNs would be little affected. Nor would it affect US offensive mine warfare, which in due course may include propulsion disabling warheads. (As noted, the US would hold the initiative and could implement blockade at the pace it sees fit.)
  • Even if ISR is upgraded, the task of marshaling and coordinating US and allied forces for a global interdiction campaign could be extremely challenging because of the many ports from which China’s imports originate, the large oceanic areas, and the thousands of potential targets involved.
  • China might respond with offensive mining of the ports of US forward bases, the ports of US allies, or US ports in Hawaii or even the West Coast. A blockade strategy would dictate serious attention to US countermine capabilities.
  • If analysis shows blockade could yield the promise outlined above, US strategic thinking may come to center too much on the conflictual dimensions of relations with China and so let cooperative possibilities atrophy. If possible, blockade should be kept in the background of US-Chinese military-to-military diplomacy.
  • As in the Russia case, blockade vs. China might become oversold in US national security planning processes—its merits inflated and its risks understated. This danger might be acute because of blockade’s obvious advantages over sending Seventh Fleet forward to fight its way through China’s defensive barriers into area denial zones.

War Termination, the Critical Role of Russia, and China’s Unilateral Options

If a global blockade of China should prove a growing military success, would war termination be on the horizon? The answer may be found in a complex series of questions—some answerable, some less so. First, would the Chinese economy in general be forced into sharp contraction? How specifically would its war economy be affected? Could autarkical measures show prospect of providing relief? Could external aid from Russia (see below) permit China to fight on for a considerable period? Second, to the degree there is economic distress, would that distress translate into internal political instability and/or external military vulnerability? Specialists in Chinese economic and Chinese security affairs, inside and outside the US government, must address these questions to determine the desirability of a blockade strategy. The range of uncertainty can probably be narrowed considerably. China specialists will need deep liaison with specialists on Russia. The China-Russia relationship is likely the critical variable in the war termination equation vs. China.

Russia would be highly likely to come to China’s aid for exactly the balance-of-power motivation that China would feel if Russia were threatened with defeat by blockade. Russia shares a long border with China and has abundant, indeed growing, energy and grain surpluses. Through the BRI, China is steadily improving the network of transport connections—road, rail, pipeline, and electrical power grid—that connect it with Russia. Russia would have an obvious interest in keeping the US in war as long as possible and could move aggressively in its own sphere while the US is preoccupied with China.

Russia could support China through covert military action, especially undersea operations including mine warfare. Guarding against such possibilities would, at a minimum, absorb US forces. Planning for blockade vs China would need to take account Russia’s possible role, to frame US declaratory policy toward Russia, and to draw the boundaries of blockade exclusion zones accordingly.

Russia’s support could possibly prop up China’s economy for a lengthy period. The importance of the Russia-China dynamic dictates that declaratory policy and other public communications of both the Russians and the Chinese should be carefully analyzed for signs that the two continental powers may be overcoming their Cold War mistrust to prepare for something approaching or even constituting an alliance. Today, some see that in response to the pressure of the West’s economic sanctions, a relatively weak Russia (GDP around one-sixth that of China) is being drawn reluctantly into China’s economic and technological orbit. The possibility that either nation might go war with the US and its allies seems likely to accelerate this trend toward its logical conclusion.

Other states like North Korea and Iran might seek to take advantage of a US-China war to advance toward their own security objectives. Such actions would increase stress on US forces and indirectly aid China. The obvious focus of blockade against China would be China itself. However, a war versus a great power opponent can have fairly predictable but also unknowable consequences. Thus, decisions regarding forward commitment of US and allied naval forces should be made with an eye toward fleet-in-being (see the post on that subject) and other conservative principles.

Beyond benefiting from Russia’s support and in contrast to Russia itself, China possesses the capability to respond to blockade at the conventional level on its own and might have strong reasons to do so. Capitulation to the US could pose a threat to the regime in Beijing. Chinese nationalists might fear that accepting defeat at the hands of blockade would make China a maritime vassal of a US-led alliance.

Radical undertakings by China might seem unlikely today. However, we do have the precedent of China’s intervention in the Korea War. And, after all, our departure point is already a war between the US and China. If blockade is hurting China badly and the pain seems destined to get worse, China might well choose to invade Taiwan and underwrite a North Korean invasion of the South. (This assumes the Kim regime had not already mounted one.)

China would thus bring its greatest military asset, the PLA, into play. It could hope for quick victories on both fronts—especially if the US had not prepared for these eventualities. The result might be the loss of both Taipei and Seoul, and possibly a redrawn geo-political map: China and its junior partner Russia dominating MacKinder’s Eurasian “Heartland” and the US leading the many fractious states of the “Rimlands.”

Regardless of whether such tectonic change lies in the future, US plans for blockade of China today would have to be deeply Joint, starting at the strategic level. Blockade at sea means reinforcement on the ground in Korea. The Kim regime has almost certainly foreseen the opportunities that a US-China war would present. Delayed and urgent dispatch of US reinforcements might well “justify” and trigger an aggressive move south by Pyongyang. Similar thinking should be devoted to the stiffening the defense of Taiwan.

Conclusion

Global blockade against China holds considerable promise. It would operate at the level of national strategy, it could be applied in a variety of scenarios, and it might be implemented at relatively low risk with existing forces at low economic costs. Further, at this time, blockade would be difficult for China to answer. On the other hand, blockade would face a daunting roster of cons.

Blockade’s promise should be carefully assessed. What we need now are studies and games done by teams of people who combine expertise in naval operations, international economics, and knowledge of Chinese (and Russian) national security policy. If blockade is deemed likely to produce success and becomes incorporated into a 21st century Maritime Strategy, we need to think hard about China’s—and Russia’s—possible responses and how to deal with them.

*Geoffrey Till, Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-First Century (4th ed.) (London: Routledge, 2018), p. 203.

Bradford Dismukes, San Francisco, August 27, 2019

Global Blockade vs. Russia

Introductory Note

This post was initially called “Global Blockade vs. Russia, China.” To shorten the read time and allow specialists and others to focus on each potential adversary, I have split it into two posts, this one and “Global Blockade vs. China.”

Each post now examines the possible nuclear implications of a successful blockade and includes a new section on war termination—a phase we don’t generally think about as much as we should. If analysis shows that blockade can deliver anything close to what the hypothesis underlying this post promises, then plausible conditions for war termination could well arise. However, because China and Russia would each seem certain to come to the aid of the other should it face defeat at the hands of a US blockade, even a “small” war could become quite prolonged and geographically expanded.

No one needs reminding that wars between the great powers can reshape the map of global politics and the internal politics of the warring parties. A war between the US and Russia—supported, if not joined by, China—would have a good chance of producing tectonic political change. I have used the term “war termination,” not “victory.” That’s because, with all the parties in possession of nuclear arsenals, the game will never be over. We need to plan accordingly.

Purpose

To assess the potential of the historic practice of naval blockade in the current era. The departure point is recognition that the US and its allies possess global command of the sea. Students of sea power have long known that command of the sea cannot be an end in itself but can only take significance from the larger military and political objectives it may be used to achieve. Today the US and its allies can deny the use of the world ocean to all other nations. No nation can use it except at the West’s sufferance. Other nations may be capable of using their local waters—perhaps, under contested circumstances—but not the world ocean on which international commerce depends. This last contention is the key to the West’s exploitation of its dominant advantage of the sea: economic blockade. Geoffrey Till has described it as “sea-based coercion,” or “more a form of naval diplomacy than acts of war.”*

As outlined here, economic blockade is a form of warfare that may be exactly suited to great power competition in the current era. While it has deep roots in history, today it would be carried out on a historically unprecedented scale with promise of unprecedented strategic results. As noted on Clio’s Welcome page, I am not drawing these recommendations from analysis of current Russian attitudes regarding possible blockades that Russia may face. I am arguing from the logic of today’s strategic situation as seen from the US point of view.

Military Assumptions

The assumption of Western naval dominance is based on a broad reading of current relative naval capabilities, which seem likely to shift further in favor of the West as US building programs are implemented, and the military budgets of allies in Europe and the Pacific increase. But Russia has a naval building program too, as well as an inherited knack for technological innovation that surprised many analysts of the Soviet navy during the Cold War. Thus, this assumption must be subjected to searching analysis, as do the politico-economic assumptions that follow.

Politico-Economic Assumptions

As a result of the globalization of the world economy, even great continental powers like Russia have become dependent on the sea for their prosperity and for the economic growth necessary to underwrite their military and international security designs. The threat of denying access to the world ocean through blockade might not prevent Russia from waging a ground war on its periphery where it enjoys local superiority. However, it could exact heavy economic costs and perhaps inflict debilitating, if not fatal, damage to Russia’s long-term plans to promote internal economic development through the Northern Sea Route (NSR), and to engage the world economy on behalf of its aspirations as a great power.

Blockade vs. Russia

As always, specifying the kind of war that planning must address is mandatory. The occasion for war with Russia today that is of greatest concern is the Russian threat to a NATO ally on Russia’s western periphery. One scenario is particularly troubling: combined military-political-cyber-economic action where Russia’s specific means and intentions are ambiguous. However, Russia’s overall objectives are nonetheless clear: to intimidate a NATO ally, neutralize it, loosen its ties to NATO, or drive it out of the Alliance entirely.

A blockade has promise in contributing to NATO’s responses in this case and, perhaps, in other scenarios. Western naval thought has been, and continues to be, strongly influenced by concern with the defense of US vulnerabilities at sea, above all the sea lines of communications (SLOC) linking the US to its allies. The possibility that Russia also may have exploitable vulnerabilities at sea—its own “SLOC defense” problem—may strike some as wishful thinking. However, viewed from the vantage point of the naval planner in Moscow, it is not the West’s defensive potential at sea but its offensive potential that is likely the greater concern. The first obligation of the strategic planner, regardless of nationality, is to defend his own vulnerabilities, and Russia’s vulnerabilities at sea seem clear and growing.

The blockade concept is aimed at increasing the contribution that the US and allied naval power can make to achieve national and Alliance defense goals, specifically: 1) to deter Russian aggression against a NATO member; 2) if deterrence fails, to fight and terminate war on acceptable terms; and, 3) to provide the US NCA and NATO authorities with additional options to respond to crises where Russia’s threats and intentions may be ambiguous (e.g., hybrid warfare, “little green men,” etc.).

Proposed Actions vs. Russia

Blockade is not a substitute for action on the ground but is an additional, asymmetric measure. The US and its allies should make clear to Russia—through preparatory actions and declaratory policy—that aggression, specifically against NATO allies in the Baltic, will be met with blockade, regardless of the timing or shape of NATO’s response on the ground. All types of naval forces would be employed, including offensive mine warfare. The US Navy would also execute the blockade in other theaters, the Arctic, and especially the Pacific.

The West must credibly threaten to deprive Russia of the use of the world ocean to an extent and for a period of time that the US and its allies see as strategically valuable. Russia would face a choice between seeking or holding on to local gains on its periphery—specifically territory and/or the political compliance of NATO Baltic states—at the cost of being cut off from much of the world economy. The latter would mean a death knell for Russia’s LNG export designs.

Many of these objectives might conceivably be achieved through economic sanctions. Sanctions should undoubtedly be a part of the West’s response, and if sanctions alone were successful, this scenario would not arise. However, international economic sanctions would have no effect on the NSR, though sanctions would likely make use of the NSR yet more important to the Russians.

In an Article 5 war, commerce and other civil activities would cease in contested waters within the Baltic and Black Seas. These areas are not addressed here. In more distant waters, US and NATO forces would of course attack Russian naval ships wherever they are found, but they would be secondary targets. The main focus would be on non-military, economic assets: all ships of the merchant fleet, LNG carriers, fish factory ships and other fishers, and scientific research ships. (Russian cruise/passenger ships would be a special category to be safeguarded in all circumstances.)

This strategy is in the mold of allied blockades of Germany in the two world wars, but is tailored to deal with conflict on a lesser scale against a relatively weak Russia (compared with its Soviet predecessor). Blockade planning should be publicly discussed in US and NATO forums to enhance its deterrent effects. Public knowledge might well occur in any case because approval by NATO political councils will likely be required for such a departure from traditional NATO plans.

In this Article 5 war, the Danish and Turkish straits would be closed to Russian shipping by direct action. In a period of severe crisis—a period of neither peace but not yet war—Russian civil ships would be permitted to exit the Baltic and Black Seas but would be marked and shadowed by Western naval forces including land-based air. This would send a message that they could be seized or sunk when desired—an example of using the strategy to respond to ambiguous Russian threats. A capability ideally suited for blockade in this and later phases of conflict would be a propulsion disabling weapon. Propulsion disablers (PD) are small torpedo-like devices that destroy a ship’s screws and rudders. When they emerge, they are likely also to pose a serious threat to Western surface ships (see the post on PDs).

Once out on the world ocean Russian ships would obviously not be permitted to return to Russia. For reasons advanced below, seizure would be superior to sinking them. The US Navy would take the lead in organizing and backing up NATO operations in European waters and in synchronizing NATO and US-national plans, including for operations, operational security, and geographic deconfliction. The USN would also take the lead in the Arctic and the Pacific, possibly with Japanese and Korean support, and would deal with Russian maritime assets in other theaters, making the strategy global in scale. NATO’s maritime thinking—while focused on Europe—should not remain confined to European waters.

Pros

  • Does not directly threaten Russian territory nor the regime. A blockade strategy seems in keeping with NATO’s definition of itself as a defensive alliance.
  • Poses a threat that would be difficult if not impossible for Russia to answer in kind, except perhaps with mines, which it is likely to use in any case.
  • Shows that the US and NATO are capable of asymmetric response to today’s ambiguous threats.
  • Provides an important initial strategic task for the US carrier force: sweeping the seas of distant Russian naval and civil assets, while at the same time preserving the force as a fleet-in-being to compel the Russian navy to maintain a defensive stance (see the post “Fleet-in-Being“).
  • Exploits NATO naval forces which, under current plans, are tailored mainly to protect transatlantic SLOCs. Whatever threat the Russians might pose to the SLOCs of the North Atlantic—almost certainly small today and for the foreseeable future—would be deflected by further tying up Russian forces on the defense. This effect alone may well justify adopting blockade, whether or not blockade would actually produce the far-reaching strategic results that seem theoretically possible. In short, blockade adds offense to traditional SLOC defense (which can never be neglected, but should not remain the be-all, end-all of NATO plans).
  • Gives NATO’s new Joint Commands additional strategically meaningful tasks
  • Shows that NATO is a military alliance of navies just as much as of armies and land-based air, that in the 21st century sea power can play more than an ancillary role in war with a continental power.

Implications/Complicating Factors

In crisis, Russia would be forced to face painful choices. The Russians would be unlikely to shoot at sea before they are ready and willing to do so ashore because: 1) their planners’ top priority is war on the ground; and 2), they know they would face a massive response against all their civil and naval ships—a threat that the West will have made clear in advance. On the other hand, in crisis, US and allied surface ships and naval air would be free to shadow Russian civil ships in numbers likely calibrated in response to Russian actions ashore. The net effect would be unmistakable preparations for a global blockade. Such actions would be difficult for the Russians to respond to and can be presumed to have a deterrent effect. (Russia would doubtless protest that such Western actions violate international law—to which the obvious response would be that Russia cannot appeal to the protection of international law when Russia itself is in marked violation of such law. An all too real case in point: Russia’s recent blocking of the Kerch Strait against Ukraine.)

In war, Russian options to respond at sea at the conventional level would be limited. Naval escort of individual ships would be infeasible. Defended convoys might be conceivable for the Northern Sea Route. More likely, however, Russia would shut down the NSR because of the lack the assets to defend it, especially south of the Bering Strait. Russia’s other significant assets at sea include its large merchant marine. Russia ranks second—after China—in the number of nationally-flagged (i.e., not flag of convenience) merchant ships. They are largely older container ships and bulk carriers, and have relatively small intrinsic value. However, they, like the fishing fleet, are important earners of hard currency through service in cabotage and international hauling.

Seizing Russia’s assets at sea would starkly symbolize its impotence on the world stage. Seized assets might serve as bargaining chips in negotiations to terminate a conflict. Russian civil ships may be armed and resist seizure; however, Western forces would hold the tactical initiative and could enforce blockade at a pace commensurate with the course of the war elsewhere.

Whether loss of use of the world ocean would cause Russia to relinquish any NATO territory it may have gained is unknowable. The situation might become dangerously volatile if the leadership in Moscow should regard holding onto seized territory as a sine qua non of the regime’s survival.

A second unknowable is whether, in response to a successful Western blockade, Russia might escalate to the nuclear level. This possibility must be taken seriously in light of the exaggerated prominence of nuclear weapons in Russia declaratory policy and propaganda – hardly unexpected from the party that sees itself inferior at the conventional level – but also because of Russia’s concrete development/deployment of weapons to deliver them. Because blockade’s effects come the sea and because nuclear weapons fired at sea produce no immediate collateral damage, a possible Russian nuclear answer would first be at sea. Russia would likely proclaim that Western interdiction of its Northern Sea Route was little different from attacking the Transiberian Railway. A most likely target would be one or more US CVSGs at sea, with missiles launched by submarine(s) well outside Russian territorial waters.

Lacking symmetrical Russian targets at sea, the US would face extremely difficult decisions about its response. Russia would probably recognize that it could not (nuclear) bomb its way out of blockade – that is, though it might inflict horrendous losses on the US Navy, Russia could not prevent it from continuing to enforce the blockade. Thus, Russia’s strategic position would be essentially unchanged, and it would face the possibility that the US might answer its nuclear strikes in kind – widening a now-nuclear war to its own territory. At a minimum, Russia would face world opprobrium (perhaps a bit muted from its Chinese near-ally) as a consequence of its nuclear actions.

Thus, a decision to be the first to fire nuclear weapons would hardly be an easy one. Still, reckless, Hitlerian behavior by the leadership in Moscow cannot be ruled out. Rather than accepting what it regards as defeat, Russia might choose to fire tactical nuclear weapons at sea against Western naval forces for political reasons not related to military purpose. Russia could hope for a demonstration effect that might fracture the Alliance, causing some members to withdraw rather than face the prospect of further nuclear escalation. These subjects are special – and probably the most likely – cases of the broader question of how the US and its allies would deal with Russian nuclear threats. These issues will have to be addressed, but they lie outside the scope of this post.

We need to remind ourselves that the first purpose of blockade is to contribute to deterrence of war. War might nonetheless come and be fought at the conventional level. If so, blockade, pursued with strategic prudence, may be among the better options open to the West to strengthen its negotiating position for the restoration of the status quo ante. This last would define the minimal condition for “successful” war termination—and, because of nuclear arsenals, the likely maximal condition as well.

Cons

  • Immediate Russian reactions might be severe because of the humiliation the regime would face from being shown unable to defend sovereign Russian assets at sea. This effect would likely attenuate as the warring parties concentrate on the war on the ground.
  • In the longer term, however, severity of Russia’s reaction might intensify as Russian planners reckon the harmful effects on Russia’s economy of being cut off from world ocean-borne trade.
  • Russian SSBNs might be sunk accidentally. This could cause Russia’s leaders to fear that the US intended to engage in strategic ASW to try to shift the intercontinental nuclear balance in its favor. (See the post “Strategic ASW” for why that is an astonishingly bad idea). Every possible precaution should be taken to keep intercontinental nuclear forces out of play.
  • Gobal blockade may be viewed as too radical or grandiose to be implemented by a fractious NATO and might be blocked by those NATO members who could see it as overly aggressive.
  • Some may see US freedom of action as constrained by a closer linkage of US and NATO plans on a global scale. The USN may fear that operational security might become compromised.
  • Third parties, especially the Chinese, may become involved if their commerce is interfered with or their ships become accidental targets. China cannot be allowed to negate the effects of a blockade of Russia’s shipping. (A Propulsion Disabler weapon would be an ideal means to deal with blockade runners, under the Chinese or any other flag.) At the same time, China’s interests in unfettered seaborne commerce cannot be ignored entirely. Whatever the case, China can be expected to strongly denounce a global blockade against Russia not least because of its implications for a similar Chinese vulnerability (see the post “Global Blockade vs. China“). US plans for blockading Russia should take full account of possible Chinese responses, which are taken up below.
  • The potency and ease of implementation of a global blockade may be misunderstood or “oversold” in US national planning processes perhaps within the Navy/JCS/OSD, but more likely outside it. This could lead to its premature use in an unfolding crisis. Preparations for global blockade should be recognized as a significant step toward war—taken only in extremis.
  • Success (and perhaps sacrifice) at sea may lead some in the US to escalate the political terms demanded of Russia for ending the war. It may be argued that restoration of the status quo ante is insufficient. Having just demonstrated that global command of the sea can produce major strategic payoff, there may be a temptation to further exploit it vs. Russia or others. This prospect doubtless will have occurred to leaders in China.

War Termination and the Critical Role of China

If a NATO blockade proved a growing military success, would war termination be on the horizon? A series of interrelated questions must be answered. First, would the Russian economy in general face sharply negative growth? How specifically would its war economy be affected? Could autarkical measures show prospect of providing relief? Could external aid, especially from China (see below) permit Russia to fight on for a considerable period?

Second, to the degree there is economic distress, would that distress translate into internal political instability and/or external military vulnerability? Specialists in Russian economic and Russian security affairs, inside and outside the US government, must address these questions to determine the desirability of a blockade strategy. Not all appear answerable, but the range of uncertainty can probably be narrowed considerably. Russia specialists will need deep liaison with specialists on China. China is the critical variable in the war termination equation vs. Russia.

China, whatever its interests in any particular Russia-West conflict, would be almost certain to follow classic balance-of-power practice: support Russia, and oppose the West. China would not wish to see Russia’s defeat at the hands of the West. It would then find itself alone facing a powerful and perhaps emboldened US superpower supported by allies in the Pacific who are neutral, if not hostile, vis-à-vis China.

Thus, China would almost certainly come to Russia’s aid. At a minimum it could easily provide a market and overland conduit for Russian grain and other exports. Obviously it could be an overland supplier of needed goods and raw materials. (Iran might play similar roles through the Caspian.) Supplying Russia military equipment and advanced military technologies are well within China’s capabilities.

Conclusion

The likely three-way interaction between the West, Russia, and China raises a most important issue confronting strategic planners in the US: If neither Russia nor China would wish to allow the other to face defeat in a war with the West, US plans may have to encompass war, though not necessarily combat, with both parties simultaneously. This topic is taken up in more detail in the post “Global Blockade vs. China.”

More generally, blockade against Russia shows substantial potential to augment deterrence of war with Russia, help manage a (probably) ambiguous crisis that threatens a Balkan state, and improve the chances that a war could be terminated on satisfactory terms.

Given these possibilities, the immediate task is to analyze the likelihood that blockade could produce conditions leading to these promised results.

*Geoffrey Till, Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-First Century (4th ed.) (London: Routledge, 2018), p. 203.

Bradford Dismukes, San Francisco, August 27, 2019

Strategic ASW in 2019 – A Stunningly Bad Idea

Purpose

To assess the desirability of strategic ASW as a wartime mission of the Navy today and for the foreseeable future. The mission is defined as attacking Russian SSBNs to alter the intercontinental nuclear balance in the favor of the US on behalf of larger purposes. During the Cold War these strategic purposes included: 1) SLOC protection—by forcing the Russian GPF navy to stay tied up defending SSBNs; 2) reducing the overall strength of a possible Russian nuclear attack on the US and so protecting the US proper; and/or, 3) to gain strategic leverage to affect the course of the war on the ground. This is not a theoretical issue. A Navy spokesman recently let it be known that, in a war with Russia, the Navy intends to use its submarines “to deny bastions to the Russians,” on behalf of “defending the homeland:” presumably meaning reducing the weight of a Russian intercontinental nuclear strike.

Assumptions

It is not known how authoritative the “announcement” of intent to execute strategic ASW was. At a minimum, however, it must be assumed that the idea is being entertained in some parts of the Navy’s system of strategic planning. It is also not known whether the Navy possesses the capabilities to execute the mission. The Navy spokesman did not address the matter, nor will this writer. Still, strategic ASW will always be a possibility as long as SSBNs exist. The serious problems it raises must be recognized and dealt with via the actions suggested here or otherwise. It is one of those rare missions where failure would be a far better outcome than success.

The Logic of Strategic ASW in the Current Era

Although the mission is to be carried out with conventional weapons, its consequences are mainly nuclear. Let’s look at three likely effects of prosecuting the mission and the policy actions implied for each.

Intercontinental nuclear war. Is a strategic ASW campaign a sensible choice? The answer is an unqualified No. The logic of the Cold War cannot be extrapolated to the situation vis-à-vis Russia today, or in the foreseeable future. A particularly misguided idea is that a successful ASW campaign would significantly reduce the damage the US would suffer should there be an intercontinental nuclear exchange. “Defending the homeland” through strategic ASW, as the Navy spokesman suggested, is simply impossible. SLBMs comprise a relatively small fraction of Russian intercontinental strike power. Even if the entire SSBN fleet were eliminated, a huge strike potential would remain in Russian ICBMs ashore, and only a small fraction of that would be more than capable of destroying the US as a nation.

In addition, a strategic ASW campaign could destabilize the longstanding, stable intercontinental nuclear relationship. The Russians might reasonably conclude that US willingness to attack the most secure components of their triad—missiles the US knows are the ultimate guarantors of the Russian state, missiles whose principal targets are the cities of the United States—must presage dire intent: regime change in Moscow, seizure of Russian territory, or even a disarming nuclear first strike. This last, backed up by air and missile defense of US territory against Russian retaliation, would mean that the US contemplates fighting a nuclear war. This idea was correctly rejected as a lethally dangerous impossibility during the Cold War. It makes no more sense today.

Strategic ASW is a grave step. It can only be justified if undertaken on behalf of the defense of a value deemed vital to the survival of the US as an independent nation. During the Cold War the US saw the prevention of Soviet dominance of Western Europe as exactly such a vital interest. The US committed itself to escalate to the use of nuclear weapons on behalf of that goal—first at the tactical battlefield level, then at the theater level, and ultimately at the intercontinental nuclear level. The logic of strategic ASW during the Cold War—which a number of US strategic thinkers strongly rejected at the time—was simple: Faced with possible defeat on the ground at the conventional level, the US planned to engage in strategic ASW to gain leverage over the Soviets, avoid nuclear escalation, or add to its strategic effect. Strategic ASW was indirectly endorsed by US allies in NATO for obvious reason: It reinforced the US commitment to the Alliance by showing that the US was willing to put its territory immediately at the same, or even greater, level of nuclear risk that its allies in Europe already faced.

Today, no US interest of comparable magnitude has been identified that would justify the risks entailed by strategic ASW. Moreover, no threat at the conventional level to any such interest has been identified or foreseen. On the contrary, while Russia enjoys local conventional superiority on the ground along its immediate periphery, it is the West that has the greater overall potential at the conventional level, especially at sea. Indeed, Russian strategists are likely well aware that Russia can use the world ocean only at the sufferance of the US and its allies (see the post “Global Blockade vs. Russia“).

The general conventional superiority of the West, particularly at sea, in and of itself, is a powerful reason for the West to avoid any actions that push the Russians in the direction of nuclear use. Threat of escalation is a common feature of Russian strategic declarations and seems hardly unexpected from the party that knows itself inferior in conventional capabilities.

Beyond the veiled “announcement” cited, little is known about current Navy thinking regarding the strategic ASW mission. However, during the Cold War two arguments were made in favor of its execution. First, it was said that by attacking Soviet SSBNs the US would tie down the GPF navy on the defensive and thus protect Western SLOCs.But protect against what threat? It is now generally recognized that the Soviet navy never in its 70-year history had any intention of attacking Western SLOCs on the high seas and indeed was not up to that mission if it had been ordered to execute it. Faced by an opponent possessing 60-plus of the quietest SSNs in the world—a most potent “fleet-in-being”—Soviet planners had little choice but to hold their GPF navy in an essentially defensive stance under almost all circumstances. If SLOC defense were the goal, actually executing strategic ASW to achieve it would have been superfluous—pointlessly putting at risk irreplaceable resources. 

Second, some in the US argued that attacks on Soviet SSBNs would not have had immediate escalatory effects because Soviet planners expected them. This last is almost certainly true but says little about how the Soviets might respond to a generally successful US campaign, especially if success came fairly quickly. The “use-them-or-lose-them” decision would have been extremely fraught for the Soviets. In August 1991 the Soviets conveyed to the world that they were capable of the “use” option when, reportedly, a Delta IV launched all sixteen of its missiles in less than four minutes. However, if missiles in the nuclear reserve were fired early, then the reserve would have failed to fulfill its reason for being, undercutting the broader Soviet design for war. Reserve nuclear missiles are not like committing a reserve battalion of tanks. If the missiles are fired at their presumed targets—US cities—the result would be an answering salvo of US missiles against Soviet cities. Acknowledging that the Soviets would not have been surprised when they found their SSBNs under attack says nothing about how they might actually have responded.

Suggested actions: These assessments of probable consequences mean that careful analysis of Russian calculations must be completed before reaching a decision about the desirability of the strategic ASW mission—or the absence thereof. Such analysis should be carried out at a level within the government commensurate with the potentially dire national impact of its results. Perhaps an assessment akin to the Nuclear Posture Review would seem appropriate. It is obvious that decisions of such gravity for the nation should not be made by one of the military services on its own, especially where within the Navy its submarine service is uniquely central to Navy decision-making regarding the mission.**

During the Cold War the Navy introduced the concept for strategic ASW, first through intensely private planning but, after a fairly short interval, quite publicly. It has now put strategic ASW back into the public domain today. Thus far, it appears to be acting on its own. Saying things like “what we [the Navy] are doing [strategic ASW] aligns with the National Security Strategy” (based on a GAO report reflecting strong Navy input) does not suffice. A strategic ASW campaign would put the survival of the nation directly at risk. The national decision-making process should be fully engaged. The NCA should issue explicit directions to the Navy on what to do, and not do, regarding strategic ASW vis-à-vis the Russians and generically for the long-term future of a mission that will likely be a potential as long as SSBNs are a factor in naval planning.

If the NCA’s decision goes against strategic ASW, then the mission should, at a minimum, be held in abeyance and that decision should become the object of national declaratory policy and of military-to-military diplomacy with the Russians. Words should be accompanied by deeds. Navy operations that can be construed as preparations for strategic ASW should be reviewed and adjusted accordingly. The Navy should suspend or end its ICEX operations, the most recent having occurred in the summer of 2018. One of the high points of ICEX is to practice and display improving capabilities to fire torpedoes under Arctic ice. Under-ice torpedoes are uniquely target-specific weapons. Their only conceivable targets would be Russian submarines, obviously including Russian SSBNs: a reality doubtless not lost on Russian navy planners.

A decision if, when, and how to suspend ICEX should itself be subjected to careful analysis. It could be argued that if the US is “giving up” a strategic capability, it should seek some “concession” of comparable strategic weight from the Russian side. Possibly. But it does not seem logical to continue to develop capabilities like under-ice torpedoes that you never will want to use. Never is used here advisedly. It is up to proponents of the strategic ASW mission to articulate the circumstances, if any, under which it might be executed. If under-ice torpedoes are needed for non-strategic ASW purposes, those purposes should be articulated and evaluated in light of their inescapable strategic ASW implications.

If, despite the logic and evidence adduced above, the NCA should decide that strategic ASW is desirable, then the Navy should be prepared to address, and answer with confidence, two questions that arise should execution of the mission become successful: First, would it lead to tactical nuclear war at sea?; and/or, second, would it have undesirable nuclear ecological consequences of unknown scale?

Tactical nuclear war. The Russians would be highly unlikely to accept defeat at the hands of US conventional strategic ASW forces without resort to use of their tactical nuclear ASW weapons. The Russians, like their Soviet predecessors, have many such weapons in their arsenal,*** and the threshold for their use is low for at least two reasons: 1) in contrast to their use ashore, nuclear weapons fired at sea produce no immediate collateral damage; and, 2) the Russians have placed great emphasis on their readiness to go nuclear in response to Western conventional superiority. The US no longer possesses nuclear ASW weapons and so could not answer in kind at sea, even if it wanted to, and would have no reason to escalate ashore. Independent of these military factors, the Russians could reasonably expect their decision to use nuclear weapons at sea would have a powerful demonstration effect on their adversaries, perhaps producing a fracture in the Western alliance if the US is seen as taking actions at sea, on a unilateral basis, that lead to nuclear escalation.

Suggested Actions: The Intelligence Community should be directed to estimate the capabilities for, and likelihood of, the use of Russian nuclear ASW weapons. The Navy itself should evaluate its readiness to fight a strategic ASW campaign in a tactical nuclear environment with existing conventional ordinance or, if deemed necessary, a new generation of US nuclear ASW weapons. Analysis should focus on the expected effects on the West should the Russians cross the nuclear threshold at sea in a variety of scenarios of war ashore. The course of war ashore is likely to be an important, if not the dominant, factor in determining the decisions of the Alliance—primarily the US NCA—regarding responses at sea and ashore. The degree of endorsement of US strategic ASW plans by allies should be assessed and, if need be, sought in advance.

Nuclear Ecological Damage. A successful campaign to kill Russian SSBNs would result in unavoidable and possibly catastrophic damage to the environment. At a minimum it would leave the sea floors of the Arctic Ocean, the Sea of Okhotsk, and adjacent Pacific waters littered with large amounts of radioactive material from nuclear reactors and from the many megaton-scale missile warheads that would be destroyed or damaged. In a worst case, a missile warhead might detonate resulting in the vaporization of the considerable volume of nuclear materials in other warheads if not their detonations as well. The intensity of the radiation and the area of its dispersal could be large. Immediate effects on US territory in Alaska and on allies like Canada, Norway, the UK, Japan, and Korea might be severe. Should longer term contamination of the global ocean follow, the continental US itself could be threatened.

During the Cold War, ecological damage of this kind was a lesser-included case in the nuclear Armageddon that confronted the world. Today, there are no issues at stake between the US and Russia that are remotely comparable to those vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. (Indeed, some students of US national security policy regard Russia as a minor “regional” annoyance compared to the emerging strategic competition between the US and China.)

Suggested actions: Review existing studies or initiate new studies of the ecological consequences of even a moderately successful campaign against Russian SSBNs, including estimates of the probability that attacks might detonate strategic nuclear warheads. The aim would be to verify that a strategic ASW campaign would not be ecologically self-defeating: a 21st century definition of Pyrrhic victory—sea control of waters that can no longer be used by humans. The Navy obviously must study these ecological questions internally and be able to able to answer them satisfactorily in public. Such questions would seem certain arise in the Congress from Alaska’s delegation, for example, or from private parties with deep commercial commitments in the Arctic like Exxon-Mobil. They will likely come from close allies who may fear exposure to toxic waters. Indeed, it will be surprising if US critics abroad, who have long charged that the US is indifferent to the fate of its allies in war, do not pick up this line of argument. The specter of apocalyptic damage to the world ocean will likely be raised.

Conclusion

The weight of fact and logic means that strategic ASW in the new era is simply a stunningly bad idea.

* Jeffrey Barker, deputy branch head for Policy and Posture in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (Op 515B) in remarks delivered Dec. 4, 2018, at a forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, entitled “The Arctic and US National Security.” The Forum was streamed in real time and is available from the Center as a Webcast. Mr. Barker’s remarks were not a part of his prepared presentation. In Part 1, starting at 2h 9m, during Q&A, Mr. Barker observed that the purpose of bastion denial was “So that the Russians don’t have bastions to operate from—defending the homeland.” And “what we [the Navy] are doing [strategic ASW] aligns with the National Security Strategy.” First reported by Richard R. Burgess, “Navy Must Be Agile But Sustainable,” Sea Power Magazine, 04 Dec 18.

** The exact process through which strategic ASW was officially approved by the NCA is open to some uncertainty for future historians to resolve. That the Navy initiated the mission is not.

*** Wikipedia “R-29RM ‘Shtil’’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R-29RM_Shtil

Bradford Dismukes, San Francisco, July 1, 2019

Propulsion Disablers – A Game-Changing Opportunity and Possible Mortal Threat

Purpose

Propulsion disablers (PDs) are small torpedo-like devices that destroy a ship’s screws and rudders. The purpose of this essay is to describe: 1) the strategic, operational and tactical opportunities that PDs offer the US Navy; and, 2) the threat that PDs will likely pose to Navy surface ships. SSNs and SSBNs are not addressed.

Origins of the PD Idea

The PD concept has arisen purely to meet a strategic need. PDs appear to be an ideal weapon to implement a blockade strategy, sketched out below under “Opportunities for Use of PDs by the US and Allies” and detailed in the posts “Global Blockade vs. Russia” and “Global Blockade vs. China.” Here we have a strategy in search of a weapon rather than the reverse, as has too frequently been the case in the past. The PD is a child of strategic thinking, not technological development. The propulsion disablement idea has been around in principle for a long time. I first encountered it during the Cold War. The crisis intermingling between Sixth Fleet and the Fifth Eskadra led many to wonder: Why don’t we have a way to put our opponent’s ships out of action short of sinking them? What’s new today is the technical possibility of actually doing that. The idea that PDs might also threaten US surface ships is born of a simple maxim: If I can do it to him, he can probably do it to me; so I should think hard about my defenses.

Assumptions

It is assumed that production of PDs is technically feasible today, or in the foreseeable future, by the US and by its adversaries. Because the pace of innovation in the current era is so rapid, no attempt is made to estimate how quickly effective PDs might arrive (nor is the writer remotely capable of offering an opinion on that subject). However, their eventual appearance seems nearly certain and because of their attractiveness, the interval is likely to be short. The most likely form falls under the USN’s category of an underwater unmanned vehicle (UUV).

Naval ships depend on their mobility to employ their reason for being—their lethality. Depriving a ship of its mobility has essentially the same result as sinking it: the ship loses its lethality against targets beyond the range of onboard weapons. It also makes the ship a stationary target, vulnerable to seizure.

If a PD can deprive a ship of its mobility with minimal—ideally zero—damage to the platform itself or its crew, there would be military and unprecedented political consequences:

  • Unlike sinking, there would be no loss of an asset that expresses national sovereignty. Thus, there would be no, or at best an ambiguous, casus belli. In a situation where a PD was delivered by stealthy means, it might not be possible to identify with certainty the state or even non-state actor that “fired” it.
  • In a severe crisis or in war the propulsion disabler might be viewed as a qualitatively new form of warfare at sea not yet seen in the modern era. The world at large is rapidly being transformed by robotics and ever-growing computational power. It is obvious that navies are caught up in this vast transformation of human activity. One of its plausible long-term manifestations may well be many thousands of small, distributed, unmanned “robot” PDs challenging the dominance of the relatively few hundreds of manned warships that comprise established power on the surface of the sea today.

Capabilities and Employment Concepts

The Navy has long had in place a wide variety of UUV programs guided by Master Plans dating from the 2000’s. However, as publicly described, these plans do not give priority to PDs nor to defense against them. Existing technologies (e.g., miniaturization, computing power, extended battery storage, exotic propulsion means, etc.) and, critically, a warhead a small fraction of the size of torpedoes designed to sink ships—all suggest that a PD UUV might be small. It would also be passive, difficult to detect and capable of considerable range in both mobility and target detection, especially of large surface ships. PDs might be employed singly against civil ships, e.g., container ships, tankers, LNG carriers, etc. Against warships they might be employed singly, depending on their stealth, or perhaps in swarms. Swarms would seek to saturate defenses, overwhelm countermeasures and increase the probability that multi-screw ships can be completely disabled.

Emerging technologies are likely to enhance such capabilities, while efforts to reduce or mask the detectable signatures of traditional big ships are less likely to keep pace. PDs would mainly be delivered by air or submarine, though surface ships could also be armed with them for use in offensive blockade. A highly likely use would be as the warhead for stationary mines. Aircraft might deliver PDs against many enemy civil ships fairly rapidly over a wide area. Submarines might deliver many tens of PDs from modules already under development for other uses, or of new specialized types.

Opportunities for Use of PDs by the US and Allies

PD devices have potential for offensive use versus China, Russia, and lesser adversaries. PD capability would provide useful payoff at all levels of planning: At the tactical level in acute crisis, where threats may be ambiguous, the US NCA would not face a binary choice between sinking the adversary’s ship or letting it sail on. Deprived of its mobility, a PD-ed ship becomes a helpless, floating hulk to be seized or left for the adversary to retrieve and tow-away for repair. This latter would likely be a slow and arduous process. PDs would also be ideally suited to enforcing a blockade (see the posts “Global Blockade vs. China” and “Global Blockade vs. Russia“). Blockade runners could be disabled, and blockade-breaking defeated, with little or no issue of violating a state’s sovereignty coming into play.

At the operational level in war PDs might prove almost as effective as torpedoes in defeating the enemy because they would render target ships essentially useless and burden the enemy with retrieving ships and crews. At the strategic level mass use of PDs could yield considerable leverage. Consider the case of a hypothetical war with China: If a half-dozen Chinese warships and several dozen civil ships were disabled, the rest might then be kept in port—producing the effects of a successful blockade. China’s vulnerability to blockade is not yet widely recognized, but the nation is already highly dependent on seaborne importation of hydrocarbons, raw materials, and even foodstuffs (see the post “Global Blockade vs. China“). PDs are not a sine qua non of a strategic blockade design, but their low cost, widespread deployability—air, surface, and subsurface—and likely efficiency would make them an attractive component.

The Threat PDs May Pose to USN Surface Ships

The first obligation of the planner is to defend his own vulnerabilities. Our adversaries are surely as aware of the merits of PDs as are students of naval warfare in the West. They may be capable of producing large numbers of PDs from home-grown robotic and computer technologies, as well as strength in mass production of modern electronic devices. These factors suggest this threat should be taken seriously.

It remains to be seen whether PDs will prove to be just a new form of undersea threat to be answered with traditional ASW measures, or whether they may be transformative. It is hard to imagine an asymmetric capability more attractive to China or Russia: a fairly simple, inexpensive way, possibly difficult to defend against, to neutralize the surface ships of the world’s most powerful navy. Nor one where the disparity in costs were so great: many thousands of PDs produced at a fraction of the cost of a carrier strike group.

Possible Scenarios for Use of PDs by Adversaries

Consider three cases involving China:

(1) In peace, China successfully uses a PD against a US warship on a Freedom of Navigation operation near a Chinese-claimed area of the South China Sea. China denies all responsibility. The US searches for an appropriate response and is preoccupied with retrieving the ship.

(2) In a crisis at the brink of war, the Chinese do not fire explosives at an approaching CVSG. Rather they use PDs against the carrier. A successful attack would be a US nightmare: 110,000 tons of useless steel, drifting helplessly and displaying US impotence on worldwide television screens—a scene repeated over weeks until the ship can be towed away for repair—assuming China does not PD the tug. On the grounds of prudence, the US withholds commitment of the rest of the carrier force.

(3) In war, PDs may find a place as complements to kinetic or explosive weapons. They may be the weapon of choice because of their unprecedented military advantage: putting ships out of action, and forcing the opponent to rescue damaged ships and their crews.

Suggested Actions

  • Develop PD capabilities for offensive uses as outlined here. Just as important, give counter-PD a high priority in Navy planning for the defense of the carriers and the rest of the surface Navy.
  • Direct the Intelligence Community to search for signs of PD development in all of our adversaries’ actions, including in their open military writings.
  • Ensure that intra-Navy research and analysis addresses PD/counter-PD. (See the note below on some relevant Navy efforts.) The Navy should also request the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate to similarly adjust its focus. The JNLWD’s “Strategic Plan, 2016-2025” includes a category “Stop Large Vessels.” But the category had no content in 2018, and the Directorate’s general perspective is offensive with little corresponding concern about defending against an adversary’s non-lethal weapons.
  • Suggest to OSD national options to respond if a US Navy ship (or perhaps even a civil ship or ships of allies) were PD-ed. This should be done as a precautionary minimum to avoid being caught flatfooted by a surprise PD attack. Even today it may be possible that the Chinese could produce a primitive PD warhead for a stationary mine placed on the perimeter of claimed territorial waters. Should evidence come to light that an adversary has or may soon possess operational PD capabilities, policy decisions on the matter would be urgent and mandatory.

Conclusion

Even if the likelihood of the early emergence of PDs is assessed to be small today, the probability of their eventual appearance is high and the possible consequences of their introduction could prove revolutionary. This combination of probability and consequence dictates a serious need to think through immediate and long-term measures both to exploit PDs on offense and counter them on defense.

Note: Currently a wide variety of Navy UUV efforts are underway, including some recently and soon to be deployed hardware. None is focused on PD/counter-PD, as far as I have seen in information publicly available. The Coast Guard has shown specific interest in using a small torpedo—the Surface Ship Torpedo Defense (SSTD) currently being evaluated—for what is a PD in all but name. Employment of swarms of small underwater devices is in early stages of technical evaluation of their feasibility independent of a conception for their tactical use. https://news.usni.org/2018/06/26/navy-will-test-swarming-underwater-drones-summer-exercise and https://chuckhillscgblog.net/2013/06/20/navy-developing-small-anti-torpedo-torpedo-system-possible-cg-use.

Bradford Dismukes, San Francisco, June 30, 2019

Fleet-in-Being – The 17th Century Calls Out to the 21st Century

Purpose

To investigate the relevance of the fleet-in-being concept in US Navy planning for the new era of great power competition and to evaluate its possible place with respect to other strategic missions in a range of scenarios for future war.

Defining Terms

Fleet-in-being is defined as withholding the main force from battle to pose a threat to an adversary.* The aim is to tie up their forces in a defensive posture and prevent their use for other tasks. First adopted by the Royal Navy in the late 17th century—it has, for obvious reasons, been employed by the weaker side. But it has also been used by the stronger navy if its offensive commitment seemed unlikely to affect the course of the war as a whole and/or because the potential loss of forces might have catastrophic consequences. Admiral Jellicoe’s decision to withhold the Grand Fleet during the First World War is the celebrated example of the latter. Jellicoe was popularly recognized as the man who could lose the war in an afternoon.

Jellicoe’s withholding decision was famously—to students of Soviet naval strategy—praised by Admiral Gorshkov in the series of articles in Morskoy sbornik entitled “Navies in War and Peace” (1972-73). Gorshkov was not so much writing history as making a veiled “announcement” that the Soviet Union had adopted a withholding strategy that kept their SLBMs as a strategic nuclear reserve to be protected by the GPF navy. Gorshkov, however, was more the bona fide historian when he also praised the ability of naval forces in-being to favorably affect the course of postwar negotiations with defeated enemies and for dealing with “erstwhile allies.” Gorshkov lamented the Tsarist navy’s inferiority at the end of the Crimean war, which obliged Russia to accept the unfavorable terms of the Treaty of Paris. This he saw as an example of the political utility of—in this case, British and French—naval forces as fleets-in-being.

Background

Secretary Mattis announced in January 2018 that henceforth great power competition would constitute the basis for US defense planning. This historic change has dictated a review of the Navy’s experience during the Cold War in search of lessons relevant to the new era: Which strategic tasks should be carried forward unchanged (e.g., SLOC protection), which might need to be radically modified (e.g., early forward commitment of the carrier force), and which should be held in abeyance or even abandoned entirely (e.g., strategic ASW). Review of recent experience is not enough. The Navy must also consider historical concepts for the employment of naval power that played little or no role in its thinking during the Cold War. The fleet-in-being, along with the—global—blockade concept, is a leading example.

What Kind of War

The shape that war may take in the 21st century gives reason to reconsider the fleet-in-being concept. Clausewitz tells us “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish…the kind of war on which they are embarking.” While it is impossible to foresee the future, it is nonetheless necessary to specify “the kind of war”—the range of strategic scenarios—that Navy planning must address.

World War II and the Cold War involved great land powers with ground forces engaged or squared off on a continental scale. War in the 21st century might be of similar dimensions and have existential consequences if only because of the arsenal of nuclear weapons possessed by the sides.

Equally if not more likely is a “small” war even with powerful peer competitors like China or Russia. Such a war, fought over relatively small stakes, might come about by accident, misunderstanding, or miscalculation. It is fairly easy to envision a small war where the importance of the issue at stake becomes magnified by nationalist sentiments. Indeed, future-minded historians like Y.N. Harari have already speculated that a variety of emerging technological and economic factors—leaving aside human stupidity—make war between the great powers on a continental scale less and less likely. This line of thinking does not mean a big war is impossible. It simply means that Navy strategic thinking should also encompass the possibility of small wars whose outcomes fall short of decisive victory: either stalemate, or perhaps a “victory” by one side that leaves the other with accumulated grievances and revanchist impulses. Thus arises the possibility of a small war leading to a series of small wars.

Pros

The primary advantage of the fleet-in-being is its high efficiency—defined, like the concept in physics from which it arises, as the ratio of the useful effect on the adversary’s behavior compared to the effort expended. If you possess the ability to attack, you do not have to attack. The sheer existence of that ability—perhaps enhanced through deployment, maneuver and deception—forces your adversary to prepare to counter, precluding other damaging actions.

Thus, fleet-in-being holds considerable promise to meet SLOC protection needs. The existence of powerful offensive forces, both surface and subsurface, can tie down enemy forces in a defensive posture. The existence of the US submarine force alone seems nearly guaranteed to keep the Russian sub force close to home defending SSBN bastions. Put yourself at the desk of the prudent naval planner in Moscow. Would you send your submarines forward, leaving undefended your homeland and the SSBNs that guarantee its survival?

Fleet-in-being fits well with a blockade strategy (see the posts “Global Blockade vs. Russia” and “Global Blockade vs. China“). In that strategy the carrier force would be assigned the task of sweeping the adversary’s naval and civil ships off the world’s oceans. Thus the force would have a strategically important task that makes it unavailable for immediate forward commitment, in effect preserving the carriers as a fleet-in-being. Finally, fleet-in-being is a strategy that conserves forces and may be well suited to the kinds of wars—big and small—that Navy planning should confront. Big wars are examined below under “cons.”

In small wars, as outlined earlier, Pyrrhic victory would carry ignominy. The advantages accruing to the side that emerges with a strong fleet-in-being are obvious. Moreover, a “small” war could easily become a big one should US losses be unexpectedly large—say, the thousands of casualties involved in the loss of one or even several CVSGs, not to speak of the great psychological impact the loss of such prominent symbols of national sovereignty would entail. The political momentum within the US of demands for revenge or compensation could transform a conflict over a relatively small stake into something much larger and more difficult to contain. It would be an historic irony if Navy actions aimed at winning a small war contributed to or even triggered a massive escalation of hostilities. Some may find consideration of such possibilities distasteful or even defeatist. However, sentiment should not cloud thinking about how to deal with possible cold realities. This scenario seems plausible and provides another reason to withhold battle forces or commit them forward in as careful and calibrated a manner as the vicissitudes of war allow.

Cons

Fleet-in-being violates the offensive spirit of the Navy. It is probably fair to say that the idea of withholding superior forces from battle has found little, if any, favor in the Navy’s strategic thinking in the modern era. Indeed, starting with Midway, offense was the dominant ethos of the Pacific campaigns of the Second World War.

What’s more, Fleet-in-being is in obvious conflict with the early forward commitment of the carriers that was a principal feature of the Cold War’s Maritime Strategy. In a big war in the future, decisions regarding the forward commitment of carrier tactical aviation should be based, as before, on assessments of the adversary’s expected responses to Tacair strikes on its territory, and the contribution that carrier Tacair might be expected to make on the course of the war. To these, fleet-in-being considerations should be given equal weight. (I am indebted to Michael Kofman for pointing out that the Navy could have considered fleet-in-being options during the Cold War. As a Cold Warrior myself I can report that the idea never came up as far as I was aware. Quite the contrary, attack, and the earlier the better, dominated thinking.) Finally, historically, British naval leaders who adopted a fleet-in-being strategy, whether successful or not, often did not then fare well in the nation’s postwar political processes.*** Whether such history might affect today’s leadership of the Navy is unknowable.

Conclusion

Fleet-in-being is a concept that deserves careful consideration as the Navy thinks through strategies for future war, both big or small. It seems well suited to “small wars” that appear plausible, even with a peer competitor. Fleet-in-being complements a global blockade strategy should it be pursued.

The concept is in clear tension with the early forward commitment of the carriers that was the hallmark of the 1980s-era Maritime Strategy. A decision to commit the carriers forward need not be made simply because attack is their raison d’être—the mission that they have trained for and are eminently ready to carry out.

The dilemma that the Navy should consider is exactly the one that Jellicoe faced: My forces are the most powerful in the world. They are highly trained and eager to go to battle. But will their commitment at some particular point be likely to affect the course of the war as a whole? If not, why commit? Or, will their potential losses result in unsought escalation of the conflict, Pyrrhic victory, or worse? History has yielded a favorable judgment on Jellicoe’s decision. Twenty-first century strategic thinking should take history’s judgment of fleet-in-being into account.

*See John B. Hattendorf, “The Idea of a ‘Fleet in Being’ in Historical Perspective,” Naval War College Review (Winter 2014). For a general assessment see Geoffrey Till’s magisterial Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-First Century (4th ed.) (London: Routledge 2018).

**Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Ideas for the 21st Century (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2018), pp. 69-72.

***Hattendorf, p. 167

Bradford Dismukes, San Francisco, June 30, 2019

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