Strategic ASW in 2022 – A Stunningly Bad Idea

28 June 2022

Please see the full document on Google Docs.

Introductory Note

This post has been revised to take account of recent changes in the strategic environment that have at least called into question several of its earlier conclusions. The revisions mainly affect the paragraphs following the section entitled The Logic of SASW in the Current Era (pp. 3-7). The argument will continue to reflect several self-evident principles: 1) the party that is generally superior in conventional capabilities will never fire nuclear weapons first; 2) during the conventional phase and, especially after nuclear weapons have been fired, the conventionally superior party will avoid, as much as possible, actions that increase the enemy’s incentives to use/further use nuclear weapons; and 3) this principle applies with maximum force to actions that affect the intercontinental nuclear balance.


This blog aims to contribute to understanding the history of the US Navy and to draw lessons from the era of great power competition. I welcome your comments and follows.

Global Blockade: Sea Control on Strategic Offense

Blockade: Military-Economic Warfare vs. China

Strategic ASW in 2022 – A Stunningly Bad Idea

The Propulsion Disabler – A Strategic Weapon

The National Defense Strategy of the United States: Military-economic Warfare, Global Blockade, and Cyber

The National Security Strategy of the United States: Geopolitics

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

CNA’s Open Source Analysis of Soviet Military Writings

About the Author

The National Security Strategy of the United States: Geopolitics

3 June 2022

Please see the full document on Google Docs.

Introductory Note

This essay provides ideas for incorporation in the coming version of “The National Security Strategy of the US” (NSS) and its successors. It is paired with a second essay addressing “The National Defense Strategy of the US” (NDS). These national documents have a close, symbiotic relationship, as do these two essays, which share a common logic, structure, and multiple cross-references. However, the ideas in these two essays are severable. The reader does not have to subscribe to one to endorse the other — though they are written with that linkage in mind. Critique and suggestions for action are offered in a spirit of utmost respect for the offices involved.


Rewrite the National Security Strategy of the US; adopt a geopolitical perspective, specifically:

Acknowledge that the US is a geopolitical seapower engaged in long-term competition with great continental adversaries.

The ultimate stakes are control of Eurasia, either through a) a stable balance of power (with no single entity in control) or b) through the hegemony of one state or a duopoly.

The security of the US depends on preserving a) and preventing b) and requires maintenance of a favorable military balance in the key economic regions of Eurasia and on the world ocean.

Recognize that, if war cannot be prevented, the side that can exert control of the world ocean will, sought or unsought, deny its weaker adversary all access to the sea and may well force its adversary to face existential choices regarding its sea-based intercontinental nuclear forces, its economic well-being, and its very sovereignty. This sea-denial process provisionally designated “blockade”appears unavoidable and difficult, if not impossible, to modulate.

Defend the seapower’s vulnerabilities; the US has no greater vulnerability in conventional war than the sea lines of communication that link it to its allies; without defensible SLOCs, the US alliance will collapse, the US will lose the war, and then face a Eurasian hegemon alone — likely itself becoming the target of blockade.

Exploit the advantages that a seapower enjoys: 1)forming alliances, 2) prosecuting military-economic warfare, 3) exerting blockade (global sea denial) which has strategic meaning independent of what happens on land. Note that the third is conditional on acquiring and maintaining capabilities to control the sea an option that is open to continental powers as well.

Combine competitive strategies with cooperative ones to deal with the security dilemma.

Publicly express the NSS in ideological language; privately base its development on geopolitical principles.

About the Author

I’m a political scientist who worked at the Center for Naval Analyses (now known as CNA) 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.

For a number of years after I retired I did not closely follow the literature relating to the Navy’s strategic thinking. I only returned to it in 2017 when preparing a talk about CNA’s work on the Soviet navy as part CNA’s 75th anniversary. I was frankly appalled to find that ideas about SLOC protection and strategic ASW had marched zombie-like out of the Cold War and were being taken seriously in what was dubbed a new era of great power competition. A critique is provided in my article “The Return of Great-Power Competition—Cold War Lessons about Strategic Antisubmarine Warfare and Defense of Sea Lines of CommunicationNaval War College Review, Summer 2020.

I felt a professional and personal obligation to re-enter the public discussion of these matters. CNA’s analysis from the early 1970s had shown that the Soviet navy had zero intent to attack Western SLOCs, and CNA had been close to the center of the thinking that gave rise to strategic ASW. Today, Russia has even less interest in threatening Western SLOCs on the high seas than did the Soviets. Today, strategic ASW is such a stunningly bad idea that by speaking out I hope to help banish it from polite strategic discussion.

Most recently I have focused on blockade as a strategy that deserves analysis and likely adoption by the US Navy and the navies of allies in a  possible war with China and/or Russia. Russia’s invasion and blockade of Ukraine naturally led to attention on blockade- breaking and the role of blockade in war termination and peace settlements. I recognize that this blog steps  into the midst of a fast-moving debate that has produced a substantial body of literature that continues to grow. I hope it can make a contribution.

Bradford Dismukes

The National Defense Strategy of the United States: Military-economic Warfare, Global Blockade, and Cyber

24 January 2022

Please see the full document on Google Docs.

Introductory Note

This essay provides ideas for incorporation in the coming version of “The National Defense Strategy of the US” (NDS) and its successors. It is paired with a second essay addressing “The National Security Strategy of the US” (NSS). These two national-level documents have/should have a close, symbiotic relationship. Likewise, the writer’s NDS and NSS essays share a common logic, structure, and multiple cross-references. The ideas within them are severable, and the reader does not have to subscribe to one to endorse the other, though they are written with that linkage in mind. Suggestions for action are offered in a spirit of utmost respect for the offices involved.


Revise the National Defense Strategy of the US (NDS) to reflect the geopolitical perspective of a new National Security Strategy (NSS), specifically:

That the US, as a geopolitical sea power in competition with two great continental powers, must exploit its innate advantages, including formation of alliances that attract many, enduring allies, and a superior ability to prosecute military-economic warfare.

To the main effort directed at defeating the enemy’s armed forces in war, the NDS must add military-economic warfare:

  • To attack the enemy’s war and civil economy through blockade, supported by all elements of civil power of the US and its allies, plus with a new weapon, cyber.
  • To force the enemy into undesirable strategic choices and reduce as close to zero as possible his ability and willingness to fight.

Recognize that blockade is geographic escalation which must be global in scope; it is maritime, denying the enemy access to the world ocean for any purpose, military or civil; and it is to be conducted against targets at sea without, unless desired, strikes on the enemy’s homeland or other vertical escalation in the war’s level of violence.

Recognize that blockade is not an alternative to other uses of the nation’s seapower, that it will inevitably arise in a war with a great power, and that ad hoc blockade would be worse than no blockade at all.

Rectify the omission of the world ocean in the current NDS and acknowledge the reality that a military contest with continental adversaries can be decided by who controls the sea, as well as who can prevail on the ground in the key regions of Eurasia.

Recognize that the nation must always possess sea control capabilities for defensive use in the protection of the strategic sea lines of communication (SLOCs) that connect the US with its allies; without control of the SLOCs:

  • The alliance system on which the national strategy is centered will collapse.
  • The US will lose the war — regardless of how successful its ground and land-based air forces may prove to be.

Defensive sea control can also be used to deny the enemy use of waters needed to execute his own initiatives; for example, a submarine and mine warfare defense of Taiwan could defeat a Chinese attempt to invade or blockade the island and prevent resupply of any forces ashore there; action would be entirely at sea, manifestly defensive, and would not involve strikes on the Chinese homeland with consequent risk of a wider conflict.

Recognize that a revised NDS can, for the first time, put these same sea control capabilities to use on offense:
Namely, global blockade which utilizes all elements of US and allied sea power (including sea-based air) to sweep the seas of enemy civil and naval ships and is supported by the Joint Force on the ground in regions that impact the course of the battle at sea.

Recognize that economic and technological developments have made the US’s great continental competitors dependent on the use of the seas and so vulnerable to coercion by denial of that use. China, in particular, is well aware of this vulnerability.

Military-economic warfare, centered on blockade, would, as in the world wars of the 20th century, affect the course of major war in the 21st and could yield the margin of victory.

(The NDS can incorporate military-economic warfare before the NSS is rewritten with a geopolitical perspective, but ultimately the NDS and the NSS should be aligned with each other and with comparable plans of the military services to ensure the logical coherence of the national planning system.)

Global Blockade: Sea Control on Strategic Offense

23 January 2022

Please see the full document on Google Docs.


The Navy has all but ignored blockade as a strategic concept in the 75 years since World War II. Blockade is the offensive use of sea control; the Navy should add it to sea control’s (mandatory) defensive use on behalf of SLOC protection and make it part of a complete 21st century Maritime Strategy. 

The Navy: 

  1. has no strategic plan to deal with blockade, which will arise, sought or unsought, in a war with a great power adversary, particularly China; 
  2. forgoes a mission that affected the strategic course of both world wars of the 20th century, and will almost certainly do the same if there is major war in the 21st; and 
  3. casts itself in an ancillary, defensive role at sea; projection of power ashore is the only offensive element of its strategic concept.* 

Blockade (and cyber) are the military components of military-economic warfare in a revised national defense strategy.

Military-economic warfare uses the nation’s military capabilities to attack the enemy’s economy, force him into injudicious action, and reduce his ability and willingness to fight as close to zero as possible; it is additional and complementary to action aimed at defeating his armed forces.

If the NCA chooses, mil-economic warfare can extend to air/missile bombardment of the war-economic infrastructure on enemy territory.

Blockade is not an alternative but a complement to all other uses of the naval component of the Joint Force; it is global and maritime in scope; it denies the adversary all uses of the sea; it brings the total force to bear on the center of gravity of the adversary’s power, his (China’s) greatest vulnerability at sea.

Blockade can be used for defense where the geographic focus is on the relatively narrow sea areas the enemy seeks to control to execute his own plans; a leading example is a submarine and mine warfare defense of Taiwan aimed at directly defeating a Chinese attempt to invade or blockade the island or preventing China from resupplying any forces inserted ashore there; action would be entirely at sea, manifestly defensive, and would not involve strikes on the Chinese homeland with consequent risk of a wider conflict (never zero). 

Blockade is among the most robust strategies available; it is useful for deterrent effect to underwrite peacetime and crisis diplomacy and in all phases of war. It is particularly so in war termination, where it would give the US and its allies an advantageous position in a chaotic “postwar” where victory itself may be difficult to define.

A “mission-kill” propulsion-disabling weapon, though not absolutely necessary, would increase the  efficiency of blockade operations and reduce/eliminate blockade’s negative moral, legal, and political consequences. 

Blockade would position the Navy for what it was in the mid-1980s but is not today — a force that can affect the course of a major war and possibly determine its outcome. 

Re-thinking blockade faces many obstacles within the Navy which must be understood if they are to be overcome. 

In integrating blockade into its strategy, the Navy can and should engender change in the National Defense Strategy and the National Security Strategy to bring the three into coherent alignment.

The Navy effectively wrote the national strategy in 1987; it helped win the Cold War; the Navy can/should do the same again.

*Another exception is strategic anti-submarine warfare (SASW); this offensive mission does not appear in CNO strategy documents but has been publicly expressed as the Navy’s intention by flag-level officials; this is not the Cold War; SASW today is an indefensible mistake that opens the Navy to criticism. 

Blockade: Military-Economic Warfare vs. China

23 January 2022

Introductory Note

This post was formerly called Global Blockade vs. China. It has been revised, restructured, and retitled. It now recognizes that a naval blockade of China would be a leading component of a national strategy of military-economic warfare (described in the posts The National Defense Strategy of the United States: Military-economic Warfare, Global Blockade and Cyber and the National Security Strategy of the United States: Geopolitics.) This post shares language and logic with a parallel post on Russia. To avoid duplication cross references are occasionally made. In keeping with the Clio blog’s philosophy, the aim of the ideas being advanced is not to win battles but to win wars.


The unprecedented changes in geopolitics brought by globalization have made China dependent on unfettered use of the sea and therefore vulnerable to coercion from the sea.

Should there be war, the US, joined by its allies, should employ a sea-centered strategy of military-economic warfare against China.

Its immediate aims would be to attack the adversary’s war and civil economy and defend those of the US, its allies, and important neutrals. Its ultimate aims are to force China into unwise strategic choices and reduce China’s ability and willingness to wage war to close to zero.

To achieve these goals the strategy would 1) through military action prevent China from using the world ocean for any purpose (here designated “blockade”); 2) mobilize all the civil instruments of the power of the US and its allies (diplomatic, commercial, financial, communications) to attack China’s war economy and political cohesion; and 3) if the NCA chooses escalation, employ strategic bombardment for air/missile attacks on China’s military-economic infrastructure.

Blockade is the offensive use of sea control capabilities; it is not an alternative or substitute for other uses of the military forces of the US, particularly the Navy and Marine Corps. It is a complement to actions to defeat enemy armed forces, employed on a global scale, in a war with China (and/or in wars in other regions the US national defense strategy is framed to defend).

For the Navy/USMC, blockade operates at the fundamental level of Huntingtons strategic concept.” It is the most robust strategic option available. It operates across all scenarios irrespective of the wars stakes or geographic scope.

Blockade continues to provide the US a position of strength for dealing with a postwar” world. It would underpin US war termination strategies as long as the US can enforce it.

Blockade capitalizes on Chinas geographic disadvantages in accessing the world ocean and requires that planning encompass military exploitation of island and other land choke points as well as operations at sea.

Blockade on a less-than-global scale via submarine and concentrated mine warfare would be highly useful in the defense of Taiwan by directly defeating a Chinese attempt to invade or blockade the island or by preventing China from resupplying any forces ashore there.These actions would be geographically limited, entirely at sea, manifestly defensive, and would not involve strikes on the Chinese homeland with consequent risk of a wider conflict (never zero).

Authoritative analyses are a prerequisite to national decision: 1) the Joint Staff/OSD should direct NIE-level estimates of the likely effects on China’s behavior of a strategy of sea-centered military-economic warfare; 2) the Navy and Marine Corps should initiate an assessment of the operational feasibility of blockade — specifically to deprive China any use of the world ocean — and 3) planning should begin for the coordination of military blockade with the accompanying civil components of US national power and that of allies and friends.

If a strategy of military-economic warfare is judged likely to contribute to deterring war with China or producing an acceptable outcome in war, then 1) a blockade-fostering geopolitical rationale should be made part of the National Security Strategy and military-economic warfare (blockade and cyber) incorporated into the National Defense Strategy; and 2) blockade in a war vs. China (and/or other adversaries) should be quietly, deliberately incorporated into a 21st-century Maritime Strategy


This post assesses the potential of naval blockade as the principal component (along with cyber — not addressed) of a US national strategy of military-economic warfare versus China. Such a strategy may include strategic bombardment of China’s military-economic infrastructure which is optional, not required.

A war with China is entirely hypothetical. We are obliged to think about it even though its consequences would be calamitous, and the US should do everything in its power to avoid it. The writer strongly endorses this point, as does every other analyst who has commented in the public domain.

It will be argued that in addition to whatever other military measures the US and its allies may take in response to Chinese aggression, the US should mount a global, sea-centered blockade against China.* A key point: blockade here is qualified as “sea-centered” because the objective of military operations would be to deny the enemy the use the sea. The “Joint” military forces of the US and its allies would execute such operations with the Sea Services in a leading role. Wherever “naval” is used in what follows it is meant in a “Joint” context.


Let’s define terms, look at the place of blockade among other strategic tasks, examine its characteristics in the 21st century and review the pros and cons of actions to enforce blockade. After a brief excursion into the question of how blockade might affect China’s national and naval acquisition plans, the essay reviews how a war might (or might not) terminate.

Blockade in a National Strategy of Military-Economic Warfare

Globalization has made China, a great continental power, dependent on the use of the sea. China is thus vulnerable to coercion from the sea. In a war with China, the US, with the help of its allies and friends, should wage a sea-centered, military-economic campaign against China.

This would be a national strategy, employing all elements of national power and reflected in a revised The National Defense Strategy of the United States and a rewritten The National Security Strategy of the United States. The former should incorporate military-economic warfare and acknowledge that a major war can be lost or won on the world’s ocean as well as on land areas. The latter should recognize that the US is a geopolitical sea power in a long term competition with China and Russia, two great continental powers, and so possesses innate advantages that must be exploited to the fullest.

Blockade, military-economic warfare’s leading military component, would be primarily naval because the main military action would be enforcing a global maritime blockade of China. The immediate aim would be to cut off China from everything except what it can access via its land borders and through cyberspace—and these would inhibited as much as possible. A larger aim would be to reduce as close to zero as possible China’s ability and willingness to wage war. The ultimate objective would be to exploit the coercive effects of blockade in negotiations for war termination.

In addition to this offensive use of the sea power, an advantageous defensive use will be described. The US and its allies, through submarine and massive defensive mine warfare, can help protect Taiwan against sea-dependent Chinese initiatives (e.g., amphibious invasion, resupply of forces inserted onto the island, blockade of Taiwan’s commerce). Note, however, these actions would not fall into the category of military-economic warfare. Rather, they would constitute a war action aimed at countering and destroying the enemy’s armed forces.

Military-economic warfare requires that naval blockade and the non-naval, civil components be assessed in tandem. The civil elements are primarily economic in nature—commerce, finance, communications, global manufacturing, and global agriculture/fisheries. Their exploitation aims at 1) crippling the adversary’s economy (some suggest that disruption of the adversary’s social order and political cohesion might then ensue); while 2) defending that of the US and its allies; and 3) minimizing negative effects on the world economy, especially on important neutral states. Diplomatic-information actions are of equal weight. Their aims are to inhibit blockade-busting states, to cement and enlarge the pro-US coalition of allies and friends, and to maintain popular support at home and abroad for blockade and other war efforts.

The experience of Britain before and in the initial months of the First World War showed that blockading a great continental power has costly domestic and international consequences that may be mitigated but not avoided entirely. Blockade in the 21st century is unlikely to produce desired results without a simultaneous, effective civil counterpart. If getting the civil components right is not a decisive determinant, it is likely a sine qua non for the success of a strategy of military-economic coercion.

Blockade is Robust but not Singular

Blockade would for the Navy and Marine Corps operate at the level of Huntington’s “strategic concept.” This can be confirmed by noting that blockade appears likely to produce strategic effect regardless of scenario—regardless of the war’s geographic scope or the stakes over which it is being fought.

In this sense it is the most robust of any strategy currently being considered. In addition to its utility in support of peacetime diplomacy, in prewar crisis and in war itself, it provides important strategic options for dealing with adversaries and erstwhile allies in the war termination and postwar phases. Adversaries would doubtless take this reality into account in their decision whether to stop fighting. This seems likely should combat be moving toward an indecisive outcome.

Blockade exploits China’s geographic disadvantages. As Holmes has noted: “Commerce has oriented China toward the sea. Yet it faces potential barricades from occupants of the first island chain.” (James R. Holmes, A Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2019), p. 34). That same geography is marked by chokepoints where blockaders may focus their efforts — both with the Navy’s forces at sea and the Marine Corps’s land/amphibious power. (See the advocacy and critique of the latter in Dustin League and Dan Justice,“Sink ‘Em All: Envisioning Marine Corps Maritime Interdiction,” CIMSEC June 8, 2020.)

Characteristics of Blockade vs. China in the 21st Century

These descriptions lie at the level of strategic concept—the broad employment of all forces and means. Operations, tactics, platforms, weapons, CSIR, logistics, and so forth, are the province of warfighters.

There should be no limits on the geographic scope and nature of blockade enforcement actions. The US and its allies would employ an exhaustive mix of military and civil action. All Chinese seaborne trade and oceanic air traffic would be interdicted. Maritime states whose geography might permit them to help China circumvent such interdictions would become targets of US diplomacy and, if necessary, military action, including interdiction of their seaborne trade. (Continental states on China’s western border are addressed separately below.) All maritime activities of any importance including fisheries and scientific research would be targeted.

China would also be deprived of access to the new “blue economy” — marine energy, deep-sea mining, bio-prospecting, etc.— that some see as a bright new economic-ecologic frontier. China would be similarly deprived of access to any of its assets lying beyond its land borders. The Maritime Silk Road of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) would be shut down. Submarine communication cables lying on the seabed that connect China with the rest of the world would be severed.

With the cooperation of the host countries, the US and its allies would sequestrate all Chinese-owned properties in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa. This would be a post-colonial version of the Allies’ seizure during World War I of Germany’s colonies, German East Africa, German Southwest Africa, and Cameroon. Chinese-owned factories and agricultural enterprises would continue to operate but exclusively for the benefit of the host country. Chinese construction projects might be continued, where possible, under Western aegis.

Blockade would involve severance of China’s financial and technological links with the world. The US and its allies would force China to rely on indigenous means to finance and compete for technological superiority.

If the NCA chooses to escalate, blockade can be coupled with strategic bombardment of the infrastructure of China’s war economy, possibly focused on key sectors like shipbuilding and repair. This would be an all-service undertaking with the Navy contributing ample strike capabilities with CPS, cruise missiles, and, if conditions permit, carrier tactical aviation. The decision to attack Chinese territory for military-economic purposes or for purely military ones would be among the gravest faced by the US NCA—inviting, perhaps guaranteeing, answering Chinese strikes on the territory of the US and its allies.

Blockade would utilize advanced technologies and make maximum use of propulsion disablers (PDs). PDs, not yet produced or deployed (as far as is publicly known), are very small torpedoes that disable a ship by attacking its screws and rudders while minimizing human casualties or other damage. (PDs would be especially useful as mine warheads because of their low cost and ability to discriminate between own and enemy ships. See the post Propulsion Disablers). Need for board and search would be rare though resource-intensive effort would be required to deal with disabled ships and their crews. No Chinese civil ship would be allowed to sail. Third parties would be put on notice that if their ships enter US exclusion zones, they too would be subject to PD attack.

Military Assumptions

It is assumed that the US and its allies possess global naval dominance — meaning the capability to deny any other nation the use of the world ocean. This assumption is based on a broad reading of current relative naval capabilities, which, for the near term, seem likely to shift further in favor of the West as current US building programs are implemented and the military budgets of allies in Europe and the Pacific increase. (This says nothing about the longer term force balance.)

In local waters near China, China may or may not be able to prevent the US from achieving control, should it seek to. But the US can almost certainly deny China control even of waters near China. For example, China might try to express its “sovereignty” over the South China Sea by drilling oil wells there. But China would not be able to move any recovered oil to the mainland if the US chose to prevent that action.

However, the balance of forces is never static. China’s naval capabilities are improving at an accelerating rate. This assumption must be subjected to searching and continuing analysis, as do the politico-economic assumptions that follow.

Politico-Economic Assumptions

Before addressing this topic I must observe that all existing treatments of “blockade” — including this one — are heavy on intuitive logic but short on fact and data. Serious assessment cannot go forward without searching, expert analyses of the likely effects on China of a campaign of sea-centered military-economic warfare as well as China’s probable reactions to it. Also important would be assessments of how such a global campaign against China would affect the world economy. In particular, we need estimates of how neutral nations, especially in the regions given priority in the National Defense Strategy, might react. For example, China is Vietnam’s largest trading partner. Attacking China’s economy would likely inflict dire collateral damage on Vietnam’s. China would almost certainly deploy its substantial financial-commercial clout to entice/coerce neutral nations to oppose the US, if not actively join the Chinese side.

Blockade would likely have other direct and far-reaching consequences for China. The nation is already heavily dependent on seaborne import of energy, raw materials, and even foodstuffs. As for imports, the effects of blockade must be evaluated in light of their totality — fuel, raw materials, manufactured components, foodstuffs — not fuel alone (This is creatively analyzed by Collins and Murray (2008), and Collins (2018)).

In any case, it is not imports that are the first, or likely key, mechanism of blockade’s coercive effect. Rather, it is exports. Trade dominates China’s economy, accounting for over half of its GDP in 2012, according to the CIA Fact Book, cited by Hammes. The remarkable, decades-long growth of China’s economy has been driven by export of manufactured goods. Much of its economy is structured to produce and sell exports, many as intermediate products in global supply chains or as end products tailored exclusively for Western customers. Depriving China of its exports, as well as imports, would have a strong disruptive effect.

Reliance on sea-borne trade is the main source of China’s vulnerability. However trade does not tell the whole story. China has made immense investments in its merchant and fishing fleets and in its ship-building and port operation industries. Even if trade somehow became unimportant to China, the nation would almost certainly continue to pursue economic reward from operations requiring access to the world ocean. It simply has sunk huge sums and has placed outsized hopes in industries which have no meaning if China is cut off from the sea.

State-owned COSCO Shipping company describes itself as the world’s largest, with over 1,000 ocean-going ships. One must also consider China’s fishing fleet which is unquestionably by far the world’s largest. In sum, the monetary value of trade transactions alone, important as it is, does not capture all of China’s needs for unfettered use of the sea.

Regarding China’s vulnerability, more important than the lucubration’s of Western analysts are the views expressed by the Chinese themselves. In 2003, President Hu Jintao acknowledged that China faced a “Malacca dilemma,” alluding to its broad dependence on imports of oil from the Gulf and its inability to defend that vulnerability. Experts on China can give informed explanations for President Hu’s admission. More recently, 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….” (Mr. Hu is Director of the Center for Maritime Strategy Studies and Research Professor at the Institute of Ocean Research, Peking University and more recently director, South China Sea Strategic Probing Initiative.)**

It’s intriguing but probably impossible to know what President Hu and professor Hu think of some Westerners’ views that China is not vulnerable to coercion from the sea, or, if China might be, such effects would be too slow to have strategic utility in war. As noted, this latter possibility, also expressed by Collins, suggests a difference in planning horizons: US — short and eager; Chinese —  long and patient. Adoption of blockade, widely believed (though without thorough, authoritative analysis) as likely to be slow acting, would indicate that the US is itself patient, steadfast, and willing to stay the course on behalf the goals it seeks in war —  most likely confined to the restoration of the status quo ante.

The US and its allies must credibly threaten to deprive China the use of the world ocean for a strategically meaningful period of time. It is difficult to suggest what that duration could be. The experience of the world wars of the last century suggests years may be more likely. To strategists who find that the prospect of such a lengthy period disqualifies blockade from further consideration, the question must be posed: What planning horizon is deemed appropriate for war with a great, nuclear armed, continental power? What other offensive (or even defensive) employment plans for the nation’s sea power seem likely to produce acceptable results more quickly? Thus far none has been put forward for public discussion.

How Would China React to Blockade?

Before moving on to the nature of a possible war with China and proposed actions that the US might take against it, we have to look at a highly pertinent question: How would China likely react to US adoption of blockade?

Recalling that blockade is part of a larger strategy of military-economic warfare, the first answer is that China would seek to “harden” its economy and make it more resilient to the effects of blockade. One way to do that would be to increase domestic consumption and reduce the economy’s dependence on international trade. (As noted, questions of this sort are best explored by specialists in Chinese and international economics, not naval strategists.)

In the military sphere, China would likely react simply by continuing its naval building plans. This writer’s opinion is that China has long assumed that the US planned to blockade in war and that assumption is “baked into” the naval programs we see unfolding today. However, China could accelerate those programs and increase their focus on counter-blockade capabilities (e.g., on counter-mine warfare and ASW).

More generally, Dooley has asked whether China may be historically unique among nascent/maturing maritime powers in that it has produced a huge merchant fleet but thus far not a navy to guard it. (Howard J. Dooley, “The Great Leap Outward: China’s Maritime Renaissance,” The Journal of East Asian Affairs, vol. 26, no. 1, 2012, pp. 53–76. JSTOR.)

Eventually China will likely choose to acquire naval forces it regards as sufficient for that purpose. It may be too early to know whether that decision has already been taken. Knowledgeable analysts like Michael McDevitt have speculated that China might acquire a navy comparable to that of Imperial Japan which in the 1930s and 1940s challenged America’s. (Michael McDevitt (Radm, USN, ret.) “China’s Far Seas’ Navy: The Implications of the “Open Seas Protection” Mission,” A Paper for the “China as a Maritime Power” Conference, CNA Building, Arlington, Virginia, revised and updated April 2016, pp. 4-5.)

Regrettably, we may be looking at a classic expression of the security dilemma. If the US adopts a blockade strategy vs. China, that action would likely trigger China’s obvious reaction: acquisition of a “great” navy to counter the US — with resulting bad relations, if not an occasion for war, with America. Though China’s naval building programs may yet require years to achieve something approaching parity with the US, it is hardly too early to consider how to avoid adding a naval arms race to the many issues that have contributed to the downward slide of US relations with China over at least the last five years.

It must be added that, even if the US should formally eschew blockade, the situation would not necessarily change for the better. China’s planners — following the universal dictate that the planner’s first obligation is to defend the nation’s vulnerabilities, independent of any specific threat that may arise — will likely build a great navy for the purpose of national maritime defense. It would unwise for the US not to make its competitive and, especially, its cooperative plans based on that assumption.

Proposed Actions vs. China

The actions described here would have the same general shape as those against Russia (see the Russia post). However, because of China’s deep 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, to its own people and to regional neighbors, that 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 could achieve its possible military objectives only by controlling the seas along its periphery. The US has and would pursue the option of seeking to deny Chinese forces such control.

Hammes, Mirsky, and Collins distinguish between near and far blockade. Global blockade being addressed here at the strategic level does not make that distinction, though at the operational and tactical levels it is quite valid.

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 if the US chooses to deploy “tripwire” forces on Taiwanese soil.

In any case, blockade in defense of Taiwan would be a highly attractive option operationally and politically. Operationally, through submarine warfare and massive defensive mine fields (the latter all in Taiwan’s territorial waters, much of which could be of Taiwanese manufacture and deployment), China could be prevented from resupplying any forces it may manage to put ashore on the island. The strategy would be potent and difficult for China to counter.

Politically, because blockade mounted in Taiwan’s defense would be geographically limited to the waters that China must control to carry out its initiatives, all blockade action would be a response to China’s offense. All would be executed entirely at sea. It would be unnecessary to strike the Chinese homeland. China could not claim victim-hood, and, facing an untenable military situation, likely to be forced to accept a restoration of the status quo ante. The writer assumes that Chinese planners are well aware of this vulnerability and suggests that it be a leading candidate in Western discussions of Taiwan’s defense.

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.

Finally, there would be no NATO-like framework for military and political cooperation with Indo-Pacific friends and 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.

Blockade – Pros

  • Blockade would take advantage of China’s immutable geographic disadvantages in accessing the world ocean.
  • It would minimize exposure of US surface forces when entering Chinese A2/AD zones. Surface forces would be used for blockade in more distant areas while action nearer China would be executed mainly by SSNs and mines.
  • In executing blockade 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, seized, or sunk. These would be tactical/operational decisions made against the backdrop of the broader strategic context. There would be little reason for urgency arising from the prosecution of blockade itself.
  • Blockade uses the existing capabilities of the Navy. Upgrades in ISR (see below), improved Special Forces or other capabilities for ship seizure would be needed. Otherwise blockade might require relatively little in immediate additional expenditures.
  • Blockade would be a powerful coalition builder. US allies, Japan and Korea, would likely contribute, and friendly nations like India might well join in. As in times past, contributions by allies would be a great force multiplier, freeing US forces for other missions.
  • Blockade is an asymmetric response that would be difficult for China to answer, forcing it to face a difficult choice: Desist from aggressive military action or incur vast immediate economic loss and forgo longer term payoff from major overseas investments befitting a global great power.
  • As in the Russia case, many of these goals might be achieved through economic sanctions alone. But a shooting war would mean that economic sanctions had proven ineffective. In any case, the underlying threat of blockade might magnify the seriousness of security-related economic sanctions and, potentially, increase their efficacy.

Blockade – Cons

  • Blockade on a global scale may be judged too difficult to carry out. US ISR may not be up to the task of locating and identifying myriad ships in the Chinese merchant and fishing fleets.
  • Blockade may absorb forces needed urgently for other tasks. This question is more a long-standing objection to blockade where it is seen as an exclusive alternative to all other uses of the force. It has not been subjected to analysis; and the proposed “other tasks,” posed as alternatives, lack definition as to the what, why, where, and when of force employment.
  • 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.
  • As in the case of Russia, civil dimensions of military-economic warfare may lie beyond the capacity of the US and its allies to control. In addition, negative international and domestic consequences may combine to render naval blockade nugatory, as they did for Britain in the initial period of the First World War. This topic is in earnest need of expert assessment.
  • If analysis shows military-economic warfare, underwritten by naval blockade, could yield the promise suggested here, US strategic thinking may come to center too much on it and other conflictual dimensions of relations with China and so let cooperative possibilities atrophy. If possible, blockade should be kept in the background of US declaratory policy and US-Chinese military-to-military diplomacy. In short, if you think you have a genuine advantage, underplay it. Speak softly whilst you carry a big stick.
  • As in the Russia case, blockade vs. China might become oversold in US national security planning processes — its promise inflated and its risks understated.
  • The most dangerous — and today hypothetical — possibility is that the US NCA decides to exploit the threat or actual implementation of blockade on behalf of interests that are mainly economic in nature. Disentangling security from economic interests in the US relationship with China would become even more problematical than it is already. No matter what, China can be sure to label blockade a “gangster” strategy. If this hypothetical case should come to pass, the charge would carry some weight.

War Termination and the Critical Role of Russia

War Termination is a phase of planning that we do not give the attention that it demands. We should not conceive of war strategies, much less go into war, without having thought through how it might end. Given that the warring parties possess nuclear arsenals, unconditional surrender is a highly unlikely and highly dangerous objective. Defining and articulating plans for a lesser outcome is a complex and challenging task. Without addressing it, any strategy remains incomplete.

China’s internal measures to minimize blockade’s effects on its economy might be successful enough to prolong its war effort beyond the period of time the US and its allies wished to continue the fight. (External support, mainly from Russia, is taken up in a separate section below.) In the case of defending Taiwan, there is reason to believe that for the US that period might be quite prolonged. As noted, a geographically limited blockade of China on behalf of Taiwan’s defense would likely be a winning strategy.

In general, regardless of the war’s specific issues, if the US should suffer significant losses, say several strike groups, powerful momentum is likely to arise within the US domestic political system to fight on as long as it takes to avenge and justify such losses. (Similar sentiments for identical reasons would likely arise within China.)

Thus, planning must encompass a long war during which global blockade of China is likely to have growing effects on its behavior. If so, would war termination be on the horizon? As noted, a definitive answer must come from China specialists in close consultation with specialists in Russian affairs. Here follows some conjecture based on the logic of the strategic situation.

The Role of Russia

Russia is likely the most important factor in the war termination equation vs. China. Note that this is probably true whether the war termination question confronts China’s leaders as a result of blockade or any other US actions versus China. However, blockade is the most vulnerable to Russian counteraction. Mirsky terms Russia the “swing state” in this regard, the state whose actions can determine blockade’s success or failure.

The US-China-Russia triangle may well be the cosmic issue confronting geo-strategists in the first half of this century, if not beyond. It wilI doubtless take many unforeseen turns as the years unfold. These comments on this overarching matter are confined to the particular case of a US blockade in a war with China today.

As a result of classic balance-of-power reasoning, Russia would be highly likely to come to China’s aid to forestall its defeat. A war between the US and China would be a strategic gift to Russia that would surpass even the gift given to Iran by the US invasion of Iraq. It would put Russia in the “catbird’s seat”. Russia’s own interests would be advanced by prolonging a US-China war which would sap the strength of both warring parties. Russia might in effect determine the length of the conflict. By metering its material support for China, it would seek to ensure that the war could have no victor.

Russia’s leaders would recognize that a US-China war presents it with a difficult balancing act. If America emerged the victor, Russia would find itself facing alone an unrivaled and likely emboldened superpower. On the other hand, if China gained the upper hand, Russia might find might find itself once again in vassalage to its far more powerful Chinese neighbor—just as it was for several centuries to their Mongol predecessors in medieval times.

Regardless of how it attempts to shape the war’s final outcome, immediately Russia would likely seek handsome profit from selling China fuel and foodstuffs, both of which it has in abundance. Russia and other former Soviet states would become markets for Chinese exports. In return, Russia might well demand that China provide it high tech weapons and similar products with military potential.

Movement of goods in both directions has been eased considerably over the last decades. Through the BRI, China is steadily improving the network of transport connections — road, rail, cable, internal cargo ports like Khorgos, pipeline, and electrical power grid — that connect it with Russia. (The Power of Siberia pipeline opened October 2019 is a telling example.) Finally, It cannot be ruled out that, while the US is preoccupied with China, Russia might move aggressively in its own sphere.

Russia’s support could possibly prop up China’s economy for a lengthy period. The importance of the Russia-China dynamic dictates that policy statements, propaganda, 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 move toward something approaching or even constituting an alliance. (See the post “The National Security Strategy of the United States: Geopolitics.”)

Today, some see that, in response to the pressure of the West’s economic sanctions, a relatively weak Russia (GDP around one-eighth that of China’s) is being drawn, perhaps reluctantly, into China’s economic and technological orbit. That either nation might go war with the US seems certain to accelerate this trend toward its logical conclusion.

It is also conceivable that Russia might help China through covert military action, especially undersea operations, including mine warfare, in the Pacific. Guarding against such possibilities would absorb US forces. The US should frame US declaratory policy toward Russia and draw the boundaries of exclusion zones accordingly.

Other states like North Korea and Iran might seek to take advantage of a US-China war to advance toward their own security goals. Such actions would increase stress on US forces and indirectly aid China.

The obvious focus of blockade against China would be China itself. However, war between great powers can have 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 Fleet-in-Being) and other conservative principles.

China’s Unilateral Options

China possesses the capability to respond to blockade with military measures at the conventional level on its own. It would have strong reasons to do so. These are rooted in China’s historical grievances against the West. They play an important role in growing nationalist sentiment in China’s population at large, sentiment that is stoked and exploited by the regime. The regime does so as a matter of calculated self-interest, but that does not mean that it may not eventually become the captive of its own propaganda.

US planning must take account of the potency of growing Chinese nationalism. For example, US strikes on Chinese territory seem certain to generate popular support for the regime, perhaps more than enough to compensate for any loss of support which the hardships that blockade itself might generate. I am not commenting on the military need of such strikes, but that need would be imperative in view of the negative political consequences that US strikes would have on the Chinese body politic. Here too is a question that China specialists must address in the context of blockade and other possible strategic uses of the Navy, including anti-A2/AD. Similarly, the regime would likely view as a threat to its hold on power any moves that might be seen as capitulation to the US. Rational Chinese strategists, as well as more passionate Chinese nationalists, might fear that accepting defeat at the hands of blockade would turn China into a maritime vassal of a US-led alliance.

Responding to Blockade

China does have other options. With respect to blockade enforcement per se, China might choose a counter-campaign: a war of attrition at sea. China might withhold the high-value units of its civil fleets, accept attrition to the large numbers of remaining, less valuable units, and hope to inflict unacceptable losses on the attackers. It might bank on its US opponent’s impatience and unwillingness to accept losses of its own.

Beyond this, China might take radical measures. These 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 (if it had not already done so) and underwrite a North Korean invasion of the South (assuming the Kim regime had not already mounted one).

China could 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 Seoul and Taipei (though as noted, a PLA victory against the latter would not be sustainable if the US and its allies still possessed the means to blockade). Faced with the continuing ability of the US to deny it use of the world ocean, China might choose to ignore the blockade and take a historic step in the redrawing of the geopolitical map.

Despite its huge investments in industries that depend on use of the sea, it is conceivable that, with or without Taiwan in its orbit, China might basically turn its back on the global ocean. It might coerce its immediate Southeast Asian neighbors to become submissive states and, with its junior partner Russia, seek to dominate MacKinder’s Eurasian “World Island.” The US would find itself leading the many fractious states of the “Rimlands,” and dominating the oceans that connect it with them. In this scenario China would plan to marshal the resources of the world island and in due course turn again toward the sea to reclaim its rightful place at the top of the international order.

The possibility that China might become suzerain of the world island and the resulting existential threat that China might pose to the US is addressed in the post “The National Security Strategy of the United States: Geopolitics.”


Whether such tectonic changes lie in an unforeseeable future, US strategy must be shaped to deal with China in the world of today. If the strategy is to include military-economic warfare, enforced by (Joint) naval blockade, plans for its implementation must be made in close inter-agency coordination between Defense and other Executive Departments—State, Treasury, Commerce, etc. Like the Royal Navy before World War I, the US Navy should take the initiative (as part of a Joint effort) in mobilizing the nation’s civil components to make military blockade and the strategy it supports a success. Similarly, the military and political success of blockade will depend on the actions of allies, friends and neutrals. For further discussion see the post “The National Defense Strategy of the United States: Military-economic Warfare, Global Blockade, and Cyber.”

Effective military and non-military diplomacy will be crucial. Dealing with potential “blockade busters,” like Myanmar, will require careful thought and planning. The plight of friendly neutrals like Vietnam must be dealt with. Nations like India which would not wish to see China victorious might contribute significantly to policing blockade in ocean areas under its sway. The interests of Japan and Korea, today major trading partners with China, must be taken seriously into account.

Blockade would be the principal military component of a national strategy of military-economic warfare, It would be robust across all plausible scenarios. Its reach would extend into the war termination and postwar phases. It might be implemented at relatively low risk, at likely low economic costs, and with existing forces — and it would provide powerful arguments for more numerous, more effective naval forces in the future. It is not an alternative but a complement to anti-A2/AD, if the latter is pursued. At this time, blockade would be difficult for China to answer.

Blockade would also face a daunting roster of cons, and the Navy has historically ignored it. Recently published CNO documents, “Advantage at Sea” (December 2020) and “CNO Navplan 2021” (January 2021) indicate traditional Navy disregard of blockade prevails. It is respectfully submitted that this is a great mistake.

Further assessment of a strategy of military-economic warfare cannot go forward without expert analyses of its likely effects on China and the rest of the world, including the US itself. For reasons that seem difficult to explain, these assessments have heretofore been lacking. The promise of the strategy should be carefully estimated. Should we do it? The operational feasibility of blockade should be similarly scrutinized. Can we do it and also do the other things we may want to do? If the answer to these questions is Yes, blockade should be incorporated into a 21st century Maritime Strategy—slowly, deliberately, without fanfare—and the National Defense and National Security Strategies should be adjusted accordingly.

Note: Many of the ideas expressed in this post and other posts dealing with blockade will also appear in Bradford Dismukes, “US Naval Relations with Russia and China during the Vietnam War: What the U.S. Did Then and Should Do Now,” a chapter in a forthcoming edited book from the proceedings of a conference entitled The Naval War in Vietnam: Vietnamese and American Perspectives, 6-7 February 2020, at the U.S. Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island. The publisher will be the Naval War College Press.


* Others have made this argument albeit in different forms. The writer wishes to thank the following: Sean Mirsky, “Stranglehold: The Context, Conduct and Consequences of an American Naval Blockade of China,” Journal of Strategic Studies, 36, no. 3 (February 2013), ; T X Hammes “Off-shore Control: A Proposed Strategy for an Unlikely Conflict,” Strategic Forum, no. 278 (June 2012); Gabriel B. Collins and William S. Murray, “No Oil for the Lamps of China?,” Naval War College Review, Vol. 61, no 2 (Spring 2008); Gabriel B. Collins, “A Maritime Oil Blockade – Tactically Tempting But Strategically Flawed,” Naval War College Review, Vol. 71, No. 2 (Spring, 2018); Lieutenant Matthew Conners US Navy, “Blockade the First Island Chain” Proceedings, Vol. 145/6/1,396 (June 2019); Victor Vescovo  “Deterring the Dragon …From (Under) the Sea,” Proceedings,Vol. 140 (February 2014); Erik Sand, “Desperate Measures: The Effects of Economic Isolation on Warring Powers,” Texas National Security Review, Vol. 3 Issue 2 (Spring, 2020); Matthew Suarez,“Going to War with China? Ignore Corbett. Dust Off Mahan!,” Proceedings, Vol. 146/12/1,414 (December 2020). None is in any way responsible for these remarks. All have been duly ignored by the Navy.

**See also Xu Qi, Andrew S. Erickson, and Lyle J. Goldstein, “MARITIME GEOSTRATEGY AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE CHINESE NAVY IN THE EARLY TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY.” Naval War College Review 59, no. 4 (2006): 46-67.Translators, Erickson and Goldstein explain that Senior Captain Xu’s rationale for an expanded PLA Navy (expressed in 2004 in an article in China’s most prestigious military journal, China Military Science) rests on his contention that China’s “long period of prosperity [as well as] the Chinese nation’s existence, development, and great resurgence [all] increasingly rely on the sea.”

Bradford Dismukes, San Francisco, January 23, 2022

The Propulsion Disabler – A Strategic Weapon

31 December 2021

Introductory Note

This post’s name has been changed. Propulsion Disablers were introduced in Clio two years ago with the speculation that they might prove to be transformative in naval warfare. In the interval since (intellectual) experience indicates this may be true. They appear technically feasible. No specialist in undersea warfare has suggested that PDs cannot be built.  In addition, it seems clear that PD-armed minefields would be useful not only in strategically offensive sea control (global blockade) but also for defensive sea control on a lesser scale.  The obvious case of the latter, defense of Taiwan, is now addressed. The two-sided strategic potential of the PD means it is a weapon that can make strategies work. Though armed with conventional explosives, it is a “strategic” weapon. On the contrary, it may be possible to produce a workable PD that can discriminate with great accuracy enemy ships from its own and friendly ships and almost all others.


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 (theater-level) and tactical opportunities that PDs offer the US Navy; and, 2) the threat that PDs will likely pose to the surface ships of the Navy and those of friends and allies. Submarines are addressed in only one case.

Origins of the PD Idea

PDs were originally conceived as an ideal weapon to implement an offensive global blockade strategy. They are now viewed also as highly useful for defensive purposes. PDs are a weapon that can make strategies work. In this sense, though conventional, they are “strategic” weapons.

The PD is the product 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/Allied 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.


It is assumed that production of PDs is technically feasible today, or in the near 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 am I remotely qualified to offer 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).

Ships depend on their mobility to accomplish their reason for being. In the case of civil ships that reason is mainly the movement of cargo (among many others). In the case of naval ships that reason is mainly lethality. Depriving a naval 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.  (This combination of consequences may require that the definition of “mission kill” may need modification/expansion.)

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

Consequences of PD Employment

Unlike a sunk ship, a PD-ed ship would present no irreversible loss of an expensive asset that expresses national sovereignty. Thus, there might be a clouded, 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.

Although PDs are inherently less violent than torpedoes, they are not benign. A ship, naval or civil, helpless before an unforgiving sea would present its owner (and the disabling party) with complex choices that need careful analysis. The owner would first be concerned with rescuing the crew and then with recovering the ship and cargo, if any, but might lack the means to do either or may simply choose not to. In that case, those tasks would fall to the disabler who, as a matter of moral, political, and likely legal obligation, could not be indifferent to the fate of those he has put at risk. 

In the case of offensive blockade, disposing of, say, many tens or even hundreds of disabled or seized ships would have to be part of a blockader’s plans. The adversary’s civil ships would have to be towed to safe harbor, their crews interned or repatriated, and cargoes seized or returned to their rightful owners (assuming the ship’s or other documentation permits the owner(s) to be identified). In the case of navy ships, the platform would be confiscated and the crews would become prisoners of war. This would be likely be a lengthy and resource consuming process. (I am indebted to K.J. Moore for raising the problem posed by disabled ships. He is of course not responsible for my treatment of the matter.)

PD Capabilities

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 would be small. Many might be carried in the space occupied by a 3,000-pound torpedo. Their cost would also be a fraction that of a Mk48 (said to be in the range of $10 million each) and so tactics based on their use in large numbers would be affordable. (For example, specially designed, very small PDs could be expended in defense against swarms of small, possibly robot, enemy surface attackers.) They would be passive, constructed of stealthy, mainly non-ferrous materials and so difficult to detect. They would be capable of considerable range in both mobility and target detection, especially of large surface ships. 

PDs would also be smart. They would employ a high-fidelity library of the sonic signatures of the naval and civil ships of the adversary, the ships of friends and allies, and above all, US Navy ships, all collected in peacetime. PDs would distinguish with high accuracy between friendly and enemy ships and those of third parties, and between categories of enemy shipping, allowing excluded targets like ferries, passenger ships, and the like to be avoided. It is assumed that many of the adversary’s ships utilize common power trains simplifying their identification. (The PD threat may cause adversaries to explore and perhaps acquire ships with non-conventional means of propulsion or novel sonic signatures like hydrofoils.)

Emerging technologies are likely to enhance PD capabilities, while efforts to reduce, mask, or simulate the detectable signatures of traditional surface ships are less likely to keep pace. PDs would mainly be delivered by air or submarine, though surface ships would also be armed with them for use in offensive blockade. 

PD Minefields

A highly valuable use of the PD would be as the warhead for stationary mines. If technology allows, PD minefields could be osmotic, like the semipermeable membranes of the living world. It would allow the passage of friendly ships of all types but deny passage of enemy ships by detecting, attacking, and disabling them. PD minefields would give a new dimension to defense against amphibious landings, protection of ports and harbors, convoy routes, and at-sea locations where ships must assemble.le. 

The PD mine would be essentially un-sweepable because it could attack and disable the enemy minesweeper long before the sweeper could sweep it. (Obviously, PD minefields would be incomplete if they did not also defend against the adversary’s submarines. Attention here is confined to surface ships. Others will need to assess the PD as an ASW weapon.) 

Other Forms of PD Employment

Aircraft might deliver PDs against many enemy civil ships fairly rapidly over a wide area. Because of their size, it cannot be excluded that small numbers of PDs could be delivered by cruise or ballistic missiles. In the latter case, the missile would not have to hit its target—the golfer’s hole-in-one—it would only have to hit the green or just the frog’s hair. Submarines might deliver many tens of PDs from modules already under development for other uses, or of new specialized types.

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 could be completely disabled.

Opportunities for Use of PDs by the US and Allies

PD devices can be used for global blockade which is sea control for offensive purpose. They could also be highly useful in sea control for defensive purposes. In the defensive case PDs would be key weapons to defeat an adversary’s attempt to use of the sea to achieve military or politico-military objectives, as China might seek to do vs. Taiwan. Let’s first examine global blockade, then Taiwan.

PDs for Global Blockade – Strategic Offense

PD devices have potential for offensive blockade versus China, Russia, and lesser adversaries. The immediate aim would be to deny the adversary any use of the sea, civil or military. (For details see the posts Blockade: Military-Economic Warfare vs. China and Blockade: Military-Economic Warfare vs. Russia.) The ultimate aim would be to coerce the adversary into ending combat and accepting a return to the status quo ante.

Blockade would be global in scope (not localized as in Maritime Interception Operations) and total (third parties would enter defined exclusion zones at risk of being PD-ed). Blockade would not be the sole action at sea but would be prosecuted as a complement to other strategic tasks.

PD capability would provide useful payoff at all levels of planning for blockade and across all phases from prewar to planning for the post-war. In acute crisis, where threats might be ambiguous, the US NCA would not face a binary choice between sinking the adversary’s ship or letting it sail on. In war, PDs would be ideally suited for blockade enforcement. Blockade runners would be disabled, and blockade-breaking defeated with minimal side effects.

This is no minor matter. Enforcing blockades has been and remains fraught with moral, legal, and political problems. The propulsion disabler would likely transform blockade operations. Consider the historical example of Lusitania. An artist’s rendering of her sinking is below. This picture would have looked very different if she’d been hit not by a German torpedo but by a German PD. Lusitania was a British-flagged ship but had aboard several hundred US citizens, many of whom were among the 1200 who lost their lives when she went down. As a result of those unprecedented losses, American public opinion turned against Germany and stayed decisively so until the US entered World War I two years later. If she had been PD-ed, Lusitania would have gone dead in the water, likely then to be towed to Liverpool, and the war might have taken a different direction.

Sinking of the Lusitania. Engraving by Norman Wilkinson
The Illustrated London News, May 15, 1915

PDs today would reshape blockade and likely reshape naval warfare in general. No one needs reminding that throughout history new weapons have changed the ways navies have been employed. The propulsion disabler may prove to be such a weapon, both to use in blockade enforcement on offense, and—of equal importance—for the navies of the United States and its allies to defend against.

These observations are obviously hypothetical, used here to illustrate a point: a propulsion disabler would have given a radically new dimension to the submarine war against the SLOC a hundred years ago, just as it would change blockade enforcement today. There is little reason to expect that the PD will remain hypothetical. Whether the US fields one or not, adversaries almost certainly will.

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 (See the post Blockade: Military-Economic Warfare vs. China). 

Operationally, PDs’ low-cost, widespread deployability—air, surface, and subsurface—and likely efficiency would make them desirable. Politically, their ability to immunize the blockader against blockade’s highly undesirable side-effects make them necessary.

PDs for Defense of Taiwan – Strategic (Self)-Defense

PDs would play a central role in Taiwan’s self defense, holding promise to defeat China’s threat of amphibious invasion and, to a lesser degree, its threat of economic blockade. This would sharply reduce the need for the US to play a direct military role in supporting Taiwan. That action has been criticized as being of questionable legitimacy—the parallel has been drawn with the decision of the European powers not to intervene on behalf of the South during the US Civil War—and because it would be tantamount to war with China.

Taiwan’s action would be purely and manifestly defensive, posing no threat of any kind to China. Taiwan would adopt a broad defensive PD-mine strategy with the following shape:

  • Taiwan would acquire significant stocks of PDs  (purchased from the US/possibly domestically produced using Taiwan-produced computer chips and other electronics) 
  • Taiwanese forces would practice PD mine deployment and maintenance in peacetime. 
  • PD mines would be placed exclusively within Taiwan’s territorial waters through which Chinese ships must pass if they are to accomplish their mission(s). In some areas like port and harbor approaches and planned convoy routes many PD mines might be permanently installed. 
  • In times of severe crisis Taiwan would deploy many thousands more in all areas of expected Chinese attack. Should the crisis be satisfactorily resolved, deployed PDs would be recovered for reuse.
  • Taiwan’s description of the minefields’ ability to discriminate between unfriendly (i.e., PLAN ships), friendly ships, and ships of third parties would be carefully crafted. Its message would emphasize that only unfriendly ships need fear attack, and then only if they entered Taiwan’s territorial waters with hostile intent.

All mines would be programmed to give top priority to Chinese mine sweepers—a crucial step militarily and, especially, politically. Chinese minesweepers would necessarily be violating Taiwan’s sovereign waters when they are attacked by PD. A Chinese minesweeper-Taiwanese PD encounter would constitute a casus belli around which Taiwan (and its US-led allies) could expect to rally support.

To defeat a Chinese amphibious invasion Taiwan would deploy PD minefields in defense of the most likely beaches to be attacked. PD-mines would be programmed to concentrate on bona fide amphibious ships and landing craft, ignoring as much as possible accompanying militia and other the ships/craft meant to confuse and dilute the weight of Taiwan’s defensive fire of all kinds.

If PDs disabled attacking Chinese amphibious ships, loaded with equipment and personnel, the Chinese would face a serious problem they seem unlikely to be able to resolve. Any ships or tugs sent to retrieve or otherwise support disabled amphibs would themselves be disabled. Thus, relief efforts would only add to the size of a force that has become hostage to the Taiwanese enemy. Taiwan would then deal with its Chinese hostages—or not—as time and humanitarian imperative require and its surviving capabilities permit. 

The prospect of such a highly visible and humiliating defeat would be a likely deterrent to any of China’s plans for invasion. Were an invasion nonetheless undertaken and even to achieve a degree of success in putting troops ashore, China would be aware that its efforts to resupply its forces over captured beaches would be subject to PD attack (assuming depleted PD minefields can be reseeded).

More generally, China would not be able to exploit any military victories it may achieve over Taiwanese forces. This includes the case of its possible economic blockade of Taiwan, where PDs would aid in mounting a defense but to a limited degree in an immediate sense. That is because China has multiple means of interdicting surface ship traffic in/near Taiwanese waters. These include aircraft and cruise missiles (including sea launched). These do not, as in the case of amphibious landing, depend on China’s use of the sea surface. 

Successful military blockade does not however translate into political gain for China. Assume that a Chinese sea blockade on its own or as one component of a wider military campaign succeeds in strangling Taiwan’s economy. PD minefields, deployed by remaining Taiwanese forces and supported (clandestinely) by the US and its allies, would prevent China from bringing in and supporting occupying troops. No matter how such troops arrived, whether by sea or by air, they would have to be resupplied by sea.

Political Effects

The US and its allies could play a silent back-up role. As much as possible, the PD minefield strategy would be, and would be seen to be, Taiwan’s effort at self-defense. This would underline the case for Taiwan’s autonomy if not outright sovereignty. The ability and willingness to defend itself is the first attribute of a sovereign entity. (It is assumed that Taiwan’s “postwar” political status would still be subject to some level of negotiations with the mainland, in which an undefeated Taiwan would enjoy a position of strength.)

A key point about defeating Chinese resupply efforts: Like the defense against Chinese amphibious invasion, all action would be by Taiwanese forces operating in Taiwanese waters. These facts would likely be significant in a public relations and political campaign to build support for Taiwan and to force China to terminate combat operations on favorable terms. (The effect on the CCP’s leadership of a defeat of the nation’s effort to use military force to recover its “renegade” province is unknowable. Given that defeat was inflicted by a very small nation using a very small high-tech weapon—the PD—such effects would likely not be favorable.)

Events of this magnitude involving China’s attack on a longstanding US ally in all but name could too easily result in a wider US-China war. If so, China would be subject to global blockade, described earlier. The blockade would be focused first and foremost on interdicting China’s effort to support its forces in Taiwan. Interdiction might well prove possible to do—but perhaps unnecessary if Taiwan’s PD-mine defense had already accomplished that objective on its own.

Presumably China’s planners have thought through these possibilities. If amphibious landings are infeasible, and sea blockade produces a fruitless—and dangerous—victory, why pursue them? The answer to this question cannot be definitively predicted. But the propulsion disabler would be an important, possibly decisive, factor weighing against China’s choice to attack. 

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 potential 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 and whatever may be prove necessary for its defense against PDs.

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 will likely find a place in a mix with kinetic and explosive weapons. They may be the weapon of choice because of their unprecedented military advantage: putting ships out of action and at the same time forcing the opponent to deal (or not) with his disabled ships.

Suggested Actions

  • Develop PD capabilities for strategic offensive and strategic defensive uses as outlined here. It’s also critical to give counter-PD a high priority in Navy planning for the defense of the carriers and the rest of the surface Navy.
  • Evaluate the potential of PDs in an antisubmarine role, including the possibility of antisubmarine PD mines. As necessary, consider the possibility that US submarines may face a PD threat.
  • 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 attention to defense against an adversary’s non-lethal attack.
  • 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.
  • Assess the international and domestic legal implications of PDs and take legal and policy actions as necessary.


The US should develop and field PDs as quickly and with as little fanfare as possible. It seems highly likely that our adversaries will do so independent of US action. Even if that likelihood is estimated to be small today, the probability of the eventual appearance of PDs 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 for US strategic offense/defense and to counter them in defense of US and allied surface ships.

Note: A comprehensive overview, if now a bit dated, shows the direction of Navy thinking about mine warfare which would be a major —perhaps the major—means of exploiting PDs, especially for blockade, is Joshua J. Edwards and Captain Dennis M. Gallagher, USN, “Mine and Undersea Warfare for the Future,” Proceedings, August 2014 (Vol. 140/8/1,338). Currently a wide variety of Navy UUV efforts are underway, including some recent and soon-to-be-deployed hardware. None is focused on PD/counter-PD, as far as is publicly known. 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.

Bradford Dismukes, San Francisco, December 31, 2021

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

24 November 2020


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.1 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, not to fire but to keep SLBMs as a strategic nuclear reserve 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.


Defense Secretary James 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. There could be war in the 21st century of similar dimensions. It might have geopolitically tectonic consequences or even existential ones because of the arsenal of nuclear weapons possessed by the sides.

Equally, if not perhaps 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.2 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.


The primary advantage of the fleet-in-being strategy 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 Blockade: Military-Economic Warfare vs. Russia and Blockade: Military-Economic Warfare 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 has powerful effects on the adversary’s behavior but nonetheless conserves forces for commitment later in the war, attacking when conditions for success are favorable, negotiating a ceasefire from a position of strength, and dealing with the postwar world. It 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 a tragic 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 commit battle forces forward in as careful and calibrated a manner as the vicissitudes of war allow.


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. Along with its Cold War predecessors, the Maritime Strategy of the 1980s emphasized the forward commitment of the carrier force.

Fleet-in-being violates the offensive essence of the Navy. Many ask “what’s the Navy for in war if we are not going to use it?” In this case “using” means shooting at somebody or something. If you’re not doing that, you’re somehow not using your Navy.

This view seems misguided, ahistorical, and blind to the psychology of the adversary. Here, the dual-hatted warrior-strategist lets the first dominate the second. The Navy’s number one service to the nation is to be: to exist as a highly trained, powerful fighting force. This widely recognized capability protects the nation from attack from the sea and underpins the national security strategy of forward engagement through a system of alliances. This system depends on being able to use the seas connecting us with allies and projecting power ashore where needed. This peacetime expression of the Navy’s raison d’être is intensified when routine forward presence of forces is augmented in response to crisis.

In times of peace and of crisis the world takes notice—finds credible the inherent threat that the US Navy signifies. Allies, neutrals, and especially adversaries, make their long term plans and their immediate politico-military moves in light of their perception of this peacetime reality.

The notion that when peace turns to crisis and crisis to war the Navy must immediately start shooting, otherwise the adversary would find its inherent threat to do so incredible does not seem logical. Indeed, the fact of war would likely magnify the adversary’s concern with the threat the Navy poses. That is the psychological mechanism of the fleet-in-being’s effects on the adversary. Coupled with the two reasons for Jellicoe’s withholding—commitment forward would not have affected the course of the war and possible loss of naval superiority would likely have meant loss of the war as a whole—this is why the strategic case for fleet-in-being trumps, must hold in check, the warrior’s urge to go to battle.

Fleet-in-being is a universal effect. It knows no nationality. US planners would take it into account, perhaps without giving it that name. Consider the hypothetical of a US war with China. Navy planners would obviously focus maximum effort against the Chinese military. But they could not ignore Russia’s Pacific Fleet, particularly its submarines. These would pose a threat of covert action to the forces and infrastructure of the US and its allies. Forces would have to be allocated to deal with that potential whether or not Russia attempted such action. This allocation would likely be a permanent feature of the war. Indeed, a war with China would have to be fought with the danger of Russia’s overt intervention always in mind.

Fleet-in-being is in obvious conflict with the early forward commitment of the carriers that, as noted, was a principal feature of Navy thinking during the Cold War. 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 ever aware. Quite the contrary, attack, and the earlier the better, dominated.)

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.3 Whether such history might affect today’s leadership of the Navy is unknowable.


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.


1 – 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).

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

3 – Hattendorf, p. 167

Bradford Dismukes, San Francisco, November 24, 2020