Belmont Club

The Return of Billy Mitchell

Captain Mark F. Morris, USN, a military faculty member in the Department of Security Studies at the National War College, compares and contrasts two ways in which a maritime power can defeat China. He calls it the debate between the “AirSea Battle” crowd versus the “Offshore Controllers”.

He characterizes the AirSea Battlers as being unrealistically reliant on force to defeat a great power.

Power projection takes two forms: attack from the air (using the ways of manned aircraft or unmanned missiles) and invading with troops (by land from neighboring countries or by amphibious assault from the sea). Since no one in the lively ASB debate has written or said that we need to think about invading any of our perceived adversaries, I think we can assume that the ASB supporters are talking about power projection through air power. From that one can deduce that this unknown strategy that includes the concept of ASB has a theory of victory stipulating that we can blow up enough of the adversary’s stuff though aerial attacks that they will ask for terms.

But mere tactical military defeats have never been enough to collapse a great and powerful state. By contrast the Offshore Controllers rely on blockade in all its forms to basically shut China down thereby causing it to implode. Morris writes:

First I will start with The Knowns:

1. The Chinese Communist Party wishes to stay in power.

2. The Chinese Communist Party maintains legitimacy through economic growth.

3. The Chinese economy must have a minimum of 6% growth to absorb new entrants into the labor force (some sources give a higher figure).

4. The Chinese economic model is export driven and production for export accounts for a large percentage of their economy.

5. China has about 150 million internal migrant workers that work in provinces different from that of their birth (i.e., they are entitled to work in a different province, but without a job, may not stay); some sources say this number may currently be as high as 200 million and another source says there may be an additional 240 million by 2025.

6. A significant percentage of this 150 million move from factory to factory following seasonal production patterns.

By applying distant blockade to these resources, certain bad effects are guaranteed. Morris explains what will happen:

War starts and the United States and its allies begin offshore controlling. Chinese seaborne imports and exports are reduced drastically. Factory production drops and millions of workers are laid off; soon the numbers soar to tens of millions and perhaps a hundred million. Many of these unemployed are mobile and are used to moving from job to job, so they begin to move. When jobs are not found, they start protesting (hungry people are sometimes like that). Now the Chinese Communist Party is faced with tens of millions of unemployed protesters. It will try to blame some enemy that can’t be seen (ASB, on the other hand, will provide a visible enemy that may rally the people to the party). Not believing the party, discontent grows and protests increase. The Chinese Communist Party orders the People’s Liberation Army to break the blockade, but the People’s Liberation Army-Navy replies that China doesn’t have the right type of Navy for that and are unable to comply with the orders. Discontent grows and protests become more worrisome to party leaders. The Chinese Communist Party declares that it has taught the foreign dog a lesson and seeks a conference at Geneva.

Now, let’s look at the competing strategy’s scenario story to see if it makes sense. The strategy that contains ASB as a means would have a scenario story like this:

War starts, and the U.S. and allies begin AirSea Battling. This includes direct attacks on targets in a continental-sized power. Factory production may or may not drop (it certainly will should we decide to target civilian manned factories); Chinese seaborne imports and exports may or may not be affected. These direct attacks on the homeland change the legitimacy equation of the Chinese Communist Party to that of the defender of the Middle Kingdom against the foreigners, rather than the source of wealth and economic growth. Any war would most likely have negative effects on the economy, but ASB gives the party the excuse to ignore the economy and rally the people to defending their homes. So, what next? Does the U.S. keep escalating the attacks? Do we attack factories? Hydroelectric dams? What if we run out of munitions before we run out of targets?

As with most military concepts, this owes its lineage to something far older idea: strategic bombing. The goal of strategic bombing was not counter-force but the destruction of enemy society. “Not only would such attacks weaken the enemy by destroying important military infrastructure, they would also break the morale of the civilian population, forcing their government to capitulate.”

Information Dissemination offers a similar but more navalized concept: the Blockade of the South China Sea. Readers will notice the similarity between Information Dissemination’s idea and Storm Over the South China Sea.  Blockade China and its industry collapses.

The lifeblood of Asia

The lifeblood of Asia

Of course, as I point out in Storm, so would the industries of Japan, Korea and Taiwan collapse, which is why China should never want a war in those waters in the first place. It would blockade itself, as I note in Storm.

In any case, a blockade on such a scale would derail the entire global economy. The cuts in output inflicted on China would ramp down demand for the rest of the world. To a great extent the Navy would also be blockading Europe and the US itself.

However that may be, USA Today’s Tom Vanden Brook notes that any US installations loser to China than 1,000 miles are under threat. Hence, bases — particularly hardened bases in Australia — are now going to be at a premium.

RAND identified three options for dealing with the threat: moving bases out of missile range, hardening aircraft hangars and dispersing aircraft to limit the damage any one attack could exact.

Pentagon strategists are re-examining bases such as Kadena on Okinawa because its proximity to China makes it particularly vulnerable, a senior officer said. The other reason to explore options, according to another senior officer, is to disrupt planning by the Chinese military and keep it guessing. Both officers spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

If history is any guide the latter day Billy Mitchells will be right, but only partly right. Blockades have always been employed in conjunction with regular operations. The AirSea crowd will have something to do at all events. In the aftermath of the Cold War the Air Force persuaded Truman to cancel the Navy’s planned supercarrier, arguing that the nuclear armed bombers could do it all.

This led to the Revolt of the Admirals, whose successors got their revenge when the outbreak of the Korean War presented Truman with a scenario he could not solve with B-29s or B-36s. “Where are the carriers?”, was the cry. And the Navy gleefully said, “what did you say Mr. President?”

In June 1950, the lightly armed South Korean Army and its U.S. advisors found themselves under attack from North Korean aircraft and waves of well-trained infantry equipped with Soviet tanks and artillery. In an initial response, Truman called for a naval blockade of North Korea, and was shocked to learn that such a blockade could only be imposed ‘on paper’, since the U.S. Navy no longer had the warships with which to carry out his request.

Having survived the Cold War we have simply earned the chance of doing it all again. May Sarah Connor was right: “The future, always so clear to me, has become like a black highway at night. We were in uncharted territory now… making up history as we went along. ”


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No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea $0.99, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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