Belmont Club

The Pacific

A few months ago I was asked to write a short monograph on the general subject of Australian sea power for a journal and wound up examining candidates for the current class of Collins-class submarines. To my own surprise it turned out that an “empty ship” with a lot of energy was the logical candidate for the combatant of the future.

The reason is simple. The major components of modern naval combat are distributed. Therefore building a combatant around a single physical attribute (like AIP propulsion) was risky business because of its limited upgrade potential in the face of future developments. The safest way to go was to make ships upgrdeable, like server racks, or even virtual machines. And that meant any new Collins replacement needed hull space and lots of power.

The 2013 NATO ASW exercise “Proud Manta” was a recent test of underwater robots coordinated through communications gateways like the Wave Glider – a device one part of which rides above the waves in communication with the fleet while the lower half remains submerged to gather signals from other robots.

In this concept of operations, the robotic sensor grid finds, fixes and provides targeting data while the energy-rich USN fleet units – CVNs, SSNs and surface action groups – defend the network and fire the long-range shots. They cover or protect the sensor network in the same way that machine guns cover a terrestrial minefield. In turn, the sensor network allows them to engage previously hidden targets with near impunity. If the weaker power attacks the sensor network, it will expose itself to the fire of the fleet. Just as you can’t dig up the minefield until the covering machine guns are eliminated, neither can a weaker power dismantle the sensor grid without running afoul of the USN’s overwatch. …

High energy and big hulls give the USN the ability to host modular mission packages, enabling them to act like equipment racks in a modern server farm. Warships can be “versioned” to keep them compatible with the information grid by swapping the modules in and out.

The article is due out next year. But a friend sent  me a link to a  piece in Quadrant Magazine describing a hypothetical attack by China on its neighbors that recalled the whole subject. The article is interesting in itself, but the question it raised even more so: what is China’s grand strategy in the event of a conflict with nations in the first island chain?

Nations don’t plan for conflict without a framework, some kind of operational philosophy. During World War 2 the USN based its concepts on War Plan Orange, which envisioned a sequence of controlling time, space and logistics acorss the Pacific. The Japanese had theirs. It was called the Southern Strategy. War Plan Orange won.

So what is China’s idea in the event? That would of course be secret but China’s logical move, I wrote to a friend, was to take out Japan first, since there was no way the PLA could go up against Japan, South Korea and the USA together. However he replied that China might be bold and reverse the process, by going for America first, taking out Guam and Okinawa; basically recreating Pearl Harbor in the 21st century.

The reasoning behind this has many roots in the 2008 Rand Study which indicated that the US would lose in any confrontation with the Chinese. The RAND study was kicked around Canberra during the debate over the acquisition of the F-35.  It basically says that the US Pacific forces are as arthritic as the British were at Singapore and that we might get the same results.

According to the study, U.S. aircraft carriers and air bases would be threatened by Chinese development of anti-ship ballistic missiles, the fielding of diesel and nuclear submarines equipped with torpedoes and SS-N-22 and SS-N-27 anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), fighters and bombers carrying ASCMs and HARMs, and new ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. Related TopicsAmericas Asia & Pacific Rim Air Warfare The report states that 34 missiles with submunition warheads could cover all parking ramps at Kadena Air Force Base, Okinawa. An “attack like this could damage, destroy or strand 75 percent of aircraft based at Kadena,” it says. In contrast, many Chinese air bases are harder than Kadena, with some “super-hard underground hangers.” To make matters worse, Kadena is the only U.S. air base within 500 nautical miles of the Taiwan Strait, whereas China has 27. U.S. air bases in South Korea are more than 750 miles distant, and those in Japan are more than 885 miles away. Anderson Air Force Base, Guam, is 1,500 miles away. The result is that sortie rates will be low, with a “huge tanker demand.” The authors suggest China’s CETC Y-27 radar, which is similar to Russia’s Nebo SVU VHF Digital AESA, could counter U.S. stealth fighter technology. China is likely to outfit its fighters with improved radars and by “2020 even very stealthy targets likely [would be] detectable by Flanker radars at 25+ nm.” China is also likely to procure the new Su-35BM fighter by 2020, which will challenge the F-35 and possibly the F-22. The authors also question the reliability of U.S. beyond-visual-range weapons, such as the AIM-120 AMRAAM. U.S. fighters have recorded only 10 AIM-120 kills, none against targets equipped with the kinds of countermeasures carried by Chinese Su-27s and Su-30s. Of the 10, six were beyond-visual-range kills, and it required 13 missiles to get them. If a conflict breaks out between China and the U.S. over Taiwan, the authors say it is difficult to “predict who will have had the last move in the measure-countermeasure game.” Overall, the authors say, “China could enjoy a 3:1 edge in fighters if we can fly from Kadena – about 10:1 if forced to operate from Andersen. Overcoming these odds requires qualitative superiority of 9:1 or 100:1” – a differential that is “extremely difficult to achieve” against a like power. If beyond-visual-range missiles work, stealth technology is not countered and air bases are not destroyed, U.S. forces have a chance, but “history suggests there is a limit of about 3:1 where quality can no longer compensate for superior enemy numbers.” A 24-aircraft Su-27/30 regiment can carry around 300 air-to-air missiles (AAMs), whereas 24 F-22s can carry only 192 AAMs and 24 F-35s only 96 AAMs. Though current numbers assume the F-22 could shoot down 48 Chinese Flankers when “outnumbered 12:1 without loss,” these numbers do not take into account a less-than-perfect U.S. beyond-visual-range performance, partial or complete destruction of U.S. air bases and aircraft carriers, possible deployment of a new Chinese stealth fighter around 2020 or 2025, and the possible use of Chinese “robo-fighters” to deplete U.S. “fighters’ missile loadout prior to mass attack.” The authors write that Chinese counter stealth, anti-access, countermissile technologies are proliferating and the U.S. military needs “a plan that accounts for this.”

Some analysts have even penciled in the conquest of Taiwan for about 2021. However, the current Japanese prime minister takes a more sanguine view. Either that or Abe is courting disaster.  He’s going around fencing China in. The Asahi Shimbun writes: “With visits to all 10 ASEAN nations, Abe’s China containment strategy complete”.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe closed out a two-day visit to Laos and Cambodia, completing a swing to all 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to rally support for his push to counter China’s growing presence. …

The prime minister is counting on the Philippines and Vietnam to fall in line with Japan.

Last week, Japan decided to send 1,180 Self-Defense Forces personnel to the typhoon-hit Philippines. It will be one of Japan’s largest international emergency relief missions to date.

“That response is aimed at holding China in check as well,” said a Japanese government source of the deployment.

The conventional wisdom is that the Chinese can overwhelm the JMSDF, especially on its southern flank, the Senkaku Island gap between the Ryukyus.  On the face of things why not? China can act as titanic unsinkable aircraft carrier from which to sortie swarms of aircraft operating from its vast underground airbases; from which to fire sleets of missiles,effectively blanketing Japan itself with fire. James Holmes at Foreign Policy paints the picture.

Japan forms the northern arc of the first island chain that envelops the Asian coastline, forming the eastern frontier of the Yellow and East China seas. No island between the Tsushima Strait (which separates Japan from Korea) and Taiwan lies more than 500 miles off China’s coast. Most, including the Senkakus/Diaoyus, are far closer. Within these cramped waters, any likely battleground would fall within range of shore-based firepower. Both militaries field tactical aircraft that boast the combat radius to strike throughout the Yellow and East China seas and into the Western Pacific. Both possess shore-fired anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) and can add their hitting power to the mix.

There are some asymmetries, however. PLA conventional ballistic missiles can strike at land sites throughout Asia, putting Japanese assets at risk before they ever leave port or take to the sky. And China’s Second Artillery Corps, or missile force, has reportedly fielded anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) able to strike at moving ships at sea from the mainland. With a range estimated at more than 900 miles, the ASBM could strike anywhere in the China seas, at seaports throughout the Japanese islands, and far beyond.

Consider the Senkakus, the hardest assets to defend from the Japanese standpoint. They lie near the southwestern tip of the Ryukyu chain, closer to Taiwan than to Okinawa or Japan’s major islands. Defending them from distant bases would be difficult.

In this view Japan hasn’t got a chance. But as he astutely notes, historians have no way of knowing what really counts in modern day naval combat. The last naval conflicts happened too long ago to serve as a useful guide.  Holmes argues that maybe Japan isn’t the sitting duck it is believed to be.

But raw numbers can be misleading, for three main reasons. First, as strategist Edward Luttwak has observed, weapons are like “black boxes” until actually used in combat: no one knows for sure whether they will perform as advertised. Battle, not technical specifications, is the true arbiter of military technology’s value. Accurately forecasting how ships, planes, and missiles will perform amid the stresses and chaos of combat thus verges on impossible. This is especially true, adds Luttwak, when conflict pits an open society against a closed one. Open societies have a habit of debating their military failings in public, whereas closed societies tend to keep their deficiencies out of view. Luttwak was referring to the U.S.-Soviet naval competition, but it applies to Sino-Japanese competition as well. The Soviet Navy appeared imposing on paper. But Soviet warships on the high seas during the Cold War showed unmistakable symptoms of decay, from slipshod shiphandling to rusty hulls. The PLA Navy could be hiding something as well. The quality of the JMSDF’s platforms, and its human capabilities, could partially or wholly offset the PLA’s advantage of numbers.

Japan and China are apples and kumquats. Different beasts. It is possible to say, at the risk of some oversimplification, by examining the “best guesses” of each side, that the Chinese have invested in steel while the US/Japan have invested in the “black boxes”. It’s steel versus black boxes. Many of America’s upgrades are black box upgrades.

Recently, the Air Force announced the deployment of the Global Hawk Block 40s with a new type of radar. These upgrades tend to attract less attention than a new airframe or hull, but from one point of view the radar determines the quality of the system.

Defense One journalists were recently toured through the interior of a Zumwalt Class destroyer. The reporter noticed it looked strange, as if the ship itself had not been designed with people in mind, but for an unseen race of mechanical Krell.

The hallways are too wide. The ceilings are incredibly high. There’s barely an outdoor deck. No bridge tower. No lookout crow’s nests. Flat-screen TV mounts are everywhere. In fact, the only sign that this is a ship are the steep deck ladders and “knee-knocker” air lock doorways sailors and ironworkers duck through from bow to stern. …

Launched just last month, she is an impossibly spaceship-looking trapezoid tower jutting from the still water. The incredibly automated, totally electrical vessel will hold a smaller crew than any destroyer before her. She can house two helicopters that can land in higher seas than ever and then be automatically pulled inside a concealed hanger. There’s room for several drone aircraft. It can power a small city.

I realized what the Defense One was describing was something whose abstract properties I had deduced in my amateurish way. The large, empty, high energy hull. What goes in that hull is not much discussed in open source. But whatever it is has been considered the decisive element; probably stuff that can be swapped in an out as mission packages like expansion cards are changed on a server.

From the new Gerald Fords to the latest LPDs or LCS classes it appears that space and electrical power are the premium attributes of a new warship.

Who wins in the war of apples versus kumquats, steel against black boxes? I don’t know and really don’t want to find out. But as history won’t ask me, my guess is that any conflict would be decided not on the surface of the planet, but in high in space and deep beneath the sea, among the fiber optics and the satellites. The glue that binds the distributed sensor networks and robot swarms of modern combat  is the ether.

No one should underestimate China and yet, despite Beijing’s apparent material preponderance no one should underestimate Nippon.

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