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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat

The ‘Ulcer’ Strategy: How the US Military Could Wage War on China

China
Marines with Romeo Battery, 5th Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 7, fire rockets from a M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) on Camp Leatherneck, Helmand province, Afghanistan, June 1, 2013. Marines with 5/11 are deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Anthony L. Ortiz / Released)

David Berger wants to give Xi Jinping an ulcer. Early this month the U.S. Marine Corps commandant signed out the “Concept for Stand-in Forces,” a strategic directive that outlines how small marine units will operate along Asia’s first island chain in concert with the U.S. Navy fleet to make things tough on China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) during a conflict in the East China Sea, Taiwan Strait, or South China Sea.

Think of the “Concept for Stand-in Forces” as a statement in the ongoing armed debate that is the U.S.-China strategic competition. In strategic competition, each competitor develops and flourishes implements of armed might in an effort to convince audiences able to sway the competition’s outcome that it would be the victor should a dispute come to blows.

If successful a competitor deters or coerces its antagonist, persuades the antagonist’s allies and partners to desert what looks like a losing cause, and woos allies and partners into rallying with what looks like the winning cause.

China was the first mover in the U.S.-China competition, developing concepts for access and area denial and fielding armaments to make A2/AD a working reality. This marked the PLA’s opening statement in the armed debate. Namely, PLA rocketeers, aviators, and mariners would pummel U.S. forces forward-deployed in the theater at the outbreak of war while preventing a union between those forces and reinforcements steaming westward across the Pacific from U.S. seaports.

In the process, the PLA would give itself time to conquer Taiwan or otherwise fulfill its goals before anyone could intercede in force. And for a time the U.S. military seemed to accept the premise of A2/AD, namely that U.S. forces would back out of the region in wartime before battling their way back in. The Pentagon’s short-lived AirSea Battle concept seemed founded on this precept.

Yet rerunning World War II would have given China precisely the time it coveted. Nearly four years elapsed between the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the surrender ceremony on board the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Few would give Taiwan, Japan, or China’s other Asian rivals much chance of holding out that long without American succor.

Evacuating the Western Pacific to preserve the force would have been tantamount to surrendering.

Hence the U.S. sea services’ casting around in recent years for ways to defy A2/AD and stay in the region to balk Beijing’s designs. The U.S. Marine Corps and Navy intend to break up their fleets and ground forces into smaller, cheaper, and more numerous components while equipping them with new technology so they still pack a wallop.

The navy wants swarms of light combatant ships able to fight in a “distributed” fashion, dispersing in space to evade the brunt of access denial. A smaller percentage of the fleet’s combat power would reside in each hull, and thus the fleet could afford to take losses in action yet retain enough combat power to fight on to victory.

Which is the point, after all.

The marines likewise want to decompose the force into lighter, nimbler units equipped with missiles and advanced sensors. Light amphibious warships would ferry these units from island to island when need be. They would help out the fleet through scouting and counter-scouting while sporting the ability to land a blow.

In short, naval forces will stand in, defying China’s efforts to impose its desires by force, rather than standoff in hopes of reversing aggression later. Stand-in forces and the associated family of concepts comprise the sea services’ rejoinder to PLA A2/AD.

The approach owes homage to the British Army and Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1807 Sir Arthur Wellesley, later Lord Wellington, led a modest-sized army ashore in Portugal. In the ensuing seven years Wellington’s army, supported from the sea, fought alongside Portuguese and Spanish partisans.

The allies’ directive: plague the French. The expedition had no determinate aims. The authorities in London allocated Wellington a certain amount of resources and sent him forth to sow mayhem. Napoleon had little desire to wage war to France’s west when the major fighting raged to its east. And yet he had to—or acquiesce in a hybrid threat on the Iberian Peninsula.

And that was the point.

The Iberian campaign siphoned away forces from Napoleon’s primary theaters of interest while deflecting his mind from more important things. Maritime historian Julian Corbett calls this mode of warfare “war limited by contingent,” meaning war governed not by specific aims sought but by the means assigned to commanders. Strategists normally think in terms of ends, ways, and means: figuring out ways to use assigned means to accomplish certain ends. The goal sought determines the resources apportioned and how they are used.

In effect war by contingent dethrones ends—in normal times the paramount factor—from the strategic formula, putting ways and means in charge of the enterprise. Operations and tactics are good when they throw the enemy’s efforts awry.

War by contingent, then, is a troublemaking strategy. Napoleon outdid Corbett in branding it. The little emperor called the Peninsular War his “Spanish ulcer.” An ulcer isn’t fatal, but it nags constantly. It distracts and enfeebles. For Corbett, an ulcer strategy means “the intrusion into a war plan which our enemy has designed without allowing for our intervention, and to which he is irrevocably committed by his opening movements,” or “intervention to deprive the enemy of the fruits of victory.”

Such a strategy makes mischief for an enemy in a larger struggle, promises gains disproportionate to the resources allotted, and compels the enemy to respond at a steep cost whether its leadership wants to or not. It works best in a theater that can be isolated from the sea. It deploys a joint land/sea “disposal force,” an amphibian contingent made up of enough assets to do the foe harm, but not enough to cause the primary effort to fail once it’s detached from the main force.

Napoleon had his Spanish ulcer; now let’s give Xi Jinping a Pacific ulcer.

Dr. James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”

22 Comments

22 Comments

  1. Ernest R Schwink

    December 19, 2021 at 10:41 am

    Has anyone considered that the Chinese, who readily study the same strategies, have been building throughout the ring of fire for dual purposes? Taiwan reunification would be a costly, as well as troublesome, misadventure for decades. Our “Check/Checkmate” move strategy should be to cut off Chinese access to the raw minerals and supply chains that they need for future development and current needs while following through with our current deployment plans.

  2. Joe Comment

    December 19, 2021 at 1:10 pm

    Each of the scenarios (Senkakus, Taiwan, Spratlys) are a different political reality and the strategy needs to be aware of that. Senkakus: It’s about Japan’s role in the world after starting and losing WWII. Taiwan: It’s about the struggle for China’s soul. Spratlys: It’s about China’s relationships with its neighbors and how to share the waters around China. How do you change attitudes about those things? Yes, we should have the best possible naval strategies, but political strategies are more important.

  3. David O

    December 19, 2021 at 3:13 pm

    Thats an honest to god strategy?!? Endless supply lines and fight china on its own continent? Take losses to land a punch? We couldn’t beat the taliban in toyota pickups.

  4. David Chang

    December 19, 2021 at 11:44 pm

    Thank you, Mr. Holmes.

    We have the zero-sum war.

    Marine Corps announced the reasonable and responsible strategic policy.

    Naval strategy in Western Pacific and South China Sea is the same thought.

    To resist socialism.

  5. kent boyles

    December 20, 2021 at 9:08 am

    Sorry Mr. Holmes,
    Your strategy would amount to a slight annoyance of the Chinese, who would simply squash the whole thing when annoyed enough. Our problem is relying on these cockamamy “Strategies” (oh, there were lots of “strategies” in Afghanistan…just ask any of the area commanders) and all of them were total bullshit….much like your strategy is. What we need is a very simple strategy of “if we go to war, we are going in to win…and by the way, you’ll know if we’re going to war because Congress will declare it”….will that ever happen….probably not, so we might as well go with your “strategy” and dick around for 20 years or so without accomplishing anything.

  6. David Chang

    December 20, 2021 at 10:01 am

    Mr. Holmes talks about small and defense operation of Navy.
    It is not the total war.

    This is the substitute.

    If people do not want to anger China Socialism Party,
    people should promote truth in Bible to people in Asia and let socialism disappear.

  7. John S C Lewis

    December 20, 2021 at 11:14 am

    This sounds like the Japanese strategy when they entered the war. Create mayhem in the Pacific, with no long term strategy (or “end”) to defeat an unassailable enemy on another continent. Look where it got them.

  8. TrustbutVerify

    December 20, 2021 at 2:09 pm

    Or, you know, we launch a long range bomber strike with B-1s, B-2s and B-21s (when ready, if ready in time) and hit them with LRASMs and sink their entire surface fleet in one or two days…from outside their range. No way to invade Taiwan then. No need to invade the mainland. Just suspend all trade, kick them out of the international banking system, and blockade them. It will all be over in time.

  9. Rich

    December 20, 2021 at 2:21 pm

    The harsh reality is that if the Chinese are determined to cross the straight and occupy Taiwan there is little we could do except raise the cost of the adventure. Its not only in their backyard, it’s on their back porch while Pearl is 5000 miles away. Any serious defense by US forces would require striking logistic and marshalling ports/sites on the Chinese mainland. Its one thing to attack Chinese forces in the strait or on Taiwan itself, but hitting targets in, say, Xiamen or Quanzhou is quite another proposition and would risk escalating a local conflict into a much larger one that would almost assuredly see US take losses outside the theatre. I would suggest that there is really no winning military hand that the US could play. A better approach would be economic, freezing all Chinese assets, embargo and cancelling the massive debt that they are holding. While we would feel the pain, if the West acted in concert, the Chinese would have to really question if a political victory would be worth the economic collapse of the nation.

  10. Chuck Hill

    December 20, 2021 at 3:08 pm

    The key is not what we can do, it is what Taiwan can do. Can they hold the Chinese on a small beachhead for weeks, as the US comes to their aid?

    If they can, when the US arrives in strength, we can destroy their logistical support and the Chinese Army, isolated and cut off will be forced to surrender.

  11. John Rein

    December 20, 2021 at 3:38 pm

    It is likely that conflict could lead to combat on the ground. When this happens, the boots on the Chinese soldiers will fall apart, but half the boots on U.S. soldiers (those labelled correctly on country of origin) will stay sound. And the U.S. soldiers will gain the victory.

  12. David Chang

    December 20, 2021 at 10:57 pm

    As Eisenhower knew at Normandy, in warfare, nothing is for certain. Against great odds, the troops who assaulted the beaches on D-Day achieved victory. Their legacy calls on us to be ready when our time comes. We must be masters in the basics and prepared to fight on a moment’s notice. Regardless of branch, unit, or component, every Soldier will have a role in the next conflict. Together, we will preserve our freedom just as our predecessors did seventy-five years ago.

    God bless people in America.

  13. mrmusterstone

    December 21, 2021 at 1:30 am

    Thank you Dr. Holmes another enjoyable and instructive post.

    Myself? I’m sick to death of war, particularly over a country that has not done all that it could to defend itself!

    China is in a difficult, I sometimes think impossible, position geographically, economically and politically.

    The US has a self sustaining consumer economy, which coupled with Nafta, could, with some hurt, sustain itself for all the foreseeable future. China is a mercantile economy, producing more than it can consume at home (ditto Germany) and it must sell those goods over seas. I say seas because there are not enough rail lines to move enough product to sustain its economy but even if there were, the needed inflow of oil and other critical raw materials don’t travel by rail.

    So, it needs to be widely known that if Taiwan is invaded no ships will ingress or egress the choke point of the first island chain (insurance company’s will see to it that no foreign ship even attempts passage). One hour after the announcement of blockade the count down to the crash of the Chinese economy begins.

    But more, is the hundreds of billions China has invested all over the globe with its Belt and Road initiative. Enormous economic and political pressure can be put on all of these investments souring many.

    The legitimacy of Xi and the CCP rest on an improving economy, what the poorer elements of the society would do if they found themselves in a stalled economy sliding back into poverty is a proposition that I doubt anyone in the party from Xi on down would be enthusiastic about testing.

    And all the “targets” mentioned above are indefensible with an measure of certainty.

  14. H. Fan

    December 21, 2021 at 1:47 am

    Use submarines (unattributed, but US, allied, Taiwanese) to sink every Chinese ship (military or merchant) inside the island chain. Taiwan can also use their missiles to destroy every port on China’s mainland. Shut down Chinese trade and access to raw materials, food and oil and the whole country will collapse. Make clear this will be the response and it’s likely war will never happen.

  15. David Chang

    December 21, 2021 at 4:44 am

    Democratic Party once want to help CCP by economic cooperation to avoid war, but it has proved that Democratic Party is wrong.

    Trump once urge CCP to follow the right international trade, unfortunately, it was stopped by virus.

    CCP still don’t press true fiscal report and monetary policy with international practices, and still manufacture various weapons to cooperate with Russia.

    Moreover, EU’s failure to cooperate with US, make NATO to be impractical.

    So in the end, we think about military.

    But we must avoid the mistakes of strategy made in Vietnam War,
    because this war is the fight against socialism.

  16. truthalwayswinsout

    December 21, 2021 at 6:25 am

    Here is a strategy.

    Get the proper weapons that give stand off strike capability.

    Something the US current lacks but can easily develop in another year or so. Then get massive strike capability by building 100 missile ships that can care 300-600 missiles each and be accessed by land, air, submarine and other task forces. 100 such fast ships would only cost $250 million each to build and would give the US a first or second strike capability that would wipe out the Communist Party.

    Then have a strategy not of limited war but of MAD.

    And then most of all get our lame ass “allies” to start to spend the money they need to defend themselves. Taiwan only spends 2.3% per year of GDP on its military. With the threats 4% sounds a lot better and would give them the ability to severely cripple Communist Forces in an attack.

    And to top it off double or triple the tariffs on Communist China on all goods including Apple phones and all the rest and stop doing business with people who want us dead.

    Automation is taking over factories and there is no reason to build anything in Communist China any more.

  17. truthalwayswinsout

    December 21, 2021 at 6:28 am

    Here is a strategy.

    Get the proper weapons that give stand off strike capability.

    Something the US current lacks but can easily develop in another year or so. Then get massive strike capability by building 100 missile ships that can carry 300-600 missiles each and be accessed by land, air, submarine and other task forces. 100 such fast ships would only cost $250 million each to build and would give the US a first or second strike capability that would wipe out the Communist Party.

    Then have a strategy not of limited war but of MAD.

    And then most of all get our lame ass “allies” to start to spend the money they need to defend themselves. Taiwan only spends 2.3% per year of GDP on its military. With the threats 4% sounds a lot better and would give them the ability to severely cripple Communist Forces in an attack.

    And to top it off double or triple the tariffs on Communist China on all goods including Apple phones and all the rest and stop doing business with people who want us dead.

    Automation is taking over factories and there is no reason to build anything in Communist China any more.

  18. Eric-ji

    December 23, 2021 at 11:47 am

    Don’t go to war with an aggressor until the American people are pissed off at and/or full of fear of the aggressor. Then go all out to win as fast as you can. Otherwise the American people will soon tire of the death and destruction over something they’re not totally angry at or fearful of.

  19. Gunny

    December 29, 2021 at 1:24 pm

    Reading these comments about winning and losing is naive and does not take into the very real possibility this goes full nuclear and then there are no winners

  20. Jesse Moreland

    January 6, 2022 at 4:55 am

    I’m a bit late to the party, but I have some comments.

    1. The Marines strategy is sound but it needs to be followed up by a tactical air bridge, There should be a tanker basket someplace past the 1st island chain, that’s constantly escorted by F-22s and F-35s or F-15s. The limited number of F-35bs at the marines disposal could be overwhelmed.

    2. There needs to be a massive sub deployment in the SCS, either laying mines in Chinese waters, or actively sinking ships. Sub and anti-Sub warfare is a field that we still have the upper hand in.

    3. The 1st day of the war there needs to be a massive missile strike to get china’s attention for instance.

    20X B-52-H with 16 cruise missiles each =320
    20X B-1 with 16 jassem-er=320
    10x B-2 SDB 80 each= 800 targets
    10x F-22 8 SDB each for sead= 80
    4 x Ohio class subs with 150 TLAMS each =600
    10 x Los Angeles class subs firing 25 tlams each 250
    10x Virginia Class subs firing 10 TLAMS each = 100

    so that’s roughly 2470 targets hit on the 1st day, and the 7th fleets hasn’t set sail.
    No F-35s or burkes, and fired a shot, no carries have sortied. The difficulty would be running out of smart weapons, before we run out of targets. How Does a Chinese landing fleet survive this kind of bombardment? Hitting Guam and Japan doesn’t matter in this case. when the subs have fired all of their rounds then the Burks, and carriers move in. Shooting at U.S. carriers and islands is the rope a dope. Our bomber and sub forces are more than adequate.

    4. Chinese supply lines are far to long to sustain a prolonged fight. How to you secure the sea-lanes all the way back to the Persian gulf?
    5. and lastly China has angered nearly every neighbor that’s near a major sea lane. Even the Philippines are buying bramhos. Do you think India will let china cheat a blockade? Its not just china versus the U.S. and Taiwan, its China versus Japan, India, Britain, SK. Australia and I’m sure there is more I forgot. take what I wrote for point 3 and not add allied ships and subs.
    6. Even if it goes nuclear, they lose. why risk the future of the entire nation over delusions of grandeur, and imperialism Can they survive an exchange now? No, they barely have enough weapons to wipe out conus. Can they win in 10 years? maybe with a huge increase in nukes, and the FOB aircraft. what do they do when the U.S. strikes with a fob or space plane? how do you stop B-21s in 10 years from roaming the Chinese interior, and prosecuting a 1st strike.
    The entire thing is a fools adventure.

  21. dave

    January 9, 2022 at 7:39 pm

    Physiologically at least and in some regards this is a positive roll reversal for a weary American nation thats tierd of playing the roll of ‘world policeman’in the post War on Terror era.

    For once we are the underdog and I suspect we are ever more dangerous in this roll.

    Perhaps now we can fight smart while someone else trys to police the neighborhood.

    To put it simply we are a problem they have to solve.

  22. Matt Musson

    January 18, 2022 at 5:01 pm

    The Chinese are a maritime dependent empire with a brown water navy. The largest cities import 75% of their calories by sea. And, 90% of their oil.

    A hundred floating mines alone would invalidate the Insurance on commercial shipping and raise the cost immediately by at least a factor of 10. The Export driven Chinese economy would be over and done.

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