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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

The United States Has Entered the ‘Danger Zone’ with China

U.S. Navy China
221013-N-LK647-1031 ATLANTIC OCEAN—A view of the first-in-class aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) from aboard the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Normandy (CG 60) as Normandy participates in a Tactical Force Exercise as part of the Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group, Oct. 13, 2022. Ford is on its inaugural deployment conducting training and operations alongside NATO Allies and partners to enhance integration for future operations and demonstrate the U.S. Navy’s commitment to a peaceful, stable and conflict-free Atlantic region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Malachi Lakey)

China and U.S. Have Entered the Danger Zone Says Dr. James HolmesThis week Wisconsin congressman Mike Gallagher delivered a brusque speech at the Washington, DC-based Heritage Foundation sounding the alarm klaxon about the state of the U.S. armed forces. Occasioning his remarks was the release of the annual Heritage Index of U.S. Military Strength, which rates the services’ capability and capacity to discharge the missions entrusted to them.

This year, for the first time, the report’s coauthors adjudged the armed forces “weak” relative to commitments set before them in such embattled theaters as the Western Pacific. Representative Gallagher ascribed the United States’ martial plight to a nexus of a worsening strategic environment, policy drift in Washington, and the Pentagon’s efforts to recapitalize the joint force after its post-Cold War strategic holiday and years of counterinsurgent warfare.

As he sees it, the seascape has turned hostile in the Pacific for a variety of reasons foreign and domestic.

Time is the crucial factor for Gallagher, and it’s hard to gainsay his analysis. Although he didn’t use the term at Heritage, he believes the United States has entered into a “danger zone” in its strategic competition against Communist China. A danger zone is an interval when a competitor sees an opportunity to resolve some strategic quandary in its favor, usually by force of arms. And it’s a finite interval. Such a competitor estimates that trendlines—in military power, economic growth, demographics, whatever—will soon turn against it.

In other words, it regards opportunity as fleeting. A competitor contemplating a danger zone believes it’s on a deadline. It must act now or never. Its leadership finds itself tempted to do something bold, even courting stark peril, before timebound opportunity slips away.

The situation in the Western Pacific today echoes the situation in imperial Germany a century-plus ago, when Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the state secretary for the navy, informed Kaiser Wilhelm II that the fast-growing German navy would have to traverse a “danger zone” relative to Great Britain and its Royal Navy, the natural foe of German sea power.

By that, he meant that British leaders might act to forestall the rise of a strategic competitor across the North Sea. Danger-zone logic might prompt them to order a preemptive assault on the High Seas Fleet, the capital-ship armada Tirpitz and Wilhelm had willed into being, while the fleet remained under construction. And thus before it could mature into a mortal challenge to British saltwater supremacy.

While the situation in today’s Western Pacific echoes with fin de siècle Western Europe, the echo is distorted. Then, an established maritime power, Britain, was tempted to use force to thwart an emerging rival, Germany. Today, an emerging maritime power, China, is tempted to use force before America, a long-established maritime power in decline, can regain its standing as an oceangoing hegemon. But in both cases, one competitor was in a hurry because of how its leadership sized up the geostrategic setting.

Now, Great Britain navigated the danger zone by running a successful naval arms race with imperial Germany. It never relinquished its lead by most metrics of seaborne combat power, including the all-important tally of armored dreadnought battleships. If Gallagher and the Heritage team are correct, the United States has surrendered its advantage at sea through neglect. It needs time as well as political resolve to stage a come-from-behind campaign to resume its customary superiority over China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

How to buy time? Not through the British method of accelerating naval construction to keep ahead of a burgeoning challenger. That option is lost. In fact, Gallagher observes that the U.S. Navy, far from swelling in numbers and firepower to meet the China challenge, is set to decline in numbers from today’s 292 battle-force ships to 280 in the coming years as it discards aged or supposedly less-than-useful hulls. This at a time when Congress has mandated a 355-ship inventory and uniformed navy magnates say the nation needs a fleet exceeding 500 crewed and uncrewed vessels to accomplish its goals in the world.

Fujian Aircraft Carrier China

Fujian, China’s new aircraft carrier. Image Credit: Chinese Internet.

The trough in fleet numbers yawns before the American fleet at a time when China—which may see the strategic surroundings turning against it—feels impelled to settle longstanding grudges, in the Taiwan Strait in particular, to communist leaders’ satisfaction. Gallagher makes much of the “Davidson Window,” named for Admiral Phil Davidson, the former U.S. Indo-Pacific Command chief who last year prophesied that China might strike against Taiwan by 2027.

If Davidson has it right, Beijing has set itself a five-year deadline at a time when its military prowess stands at its zenith and Washington finds itself struggling to rebuild its own naval and military machine. That’s its window of opportunity—and a quintessential danger zone.

But all is not lost. While the U.S. Navy and affiliated joint forces replenish their strength, Gallagher urged the Pentagon to construct an “anti-navy.” That’s a term of novel coinage, but the underlying concept is far from new. Before World War I the British marine historian and theorist Sir Julian Corbett outlined a strategic option known as “active defense,” whereby a nautical competitor that finds itself at a temporary disadvantage plays for time until it can amass superior combat power to outmatch its foe.

He prescribed an interim solution. If a competitor—the Royal Navy in the days of Corbett, or the U.S. Navy today—can’t yet win a naval war outright, it can fashion a “sea denial” force to deny its opponent the blessings of maritime command. Gallagher’s anti-navy is Corbett’s “flotilla,” a swarm of superempowered small craft able to prevent a hostile force from controlling important seaways. But as Gallagher notes, in this age of long-range precision firepower a flotilla need not be a contingent of ships. U.S. Marine, Army, and Air Force units operating from land can radiate power far out to sea—helping confound aggression against Taiwan or elsewhere along China’s nautical ramparts.

An anti-navy can fight from dry earth.

China DF-21D

Military vehicles carrying DF-21D ballistic missiles roll to Tiananmen Square during a military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two, in Beijing, China, September 3, 2015. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Precision-guided missiles stationed throughout the Pacific could menace the PLA Navy, denying it the marine supremacy it must possess to invade Taiwan. Gallagher envisions emplacing missile-armed units in three rings centered on continental Asia. Namely, along the first island chain and second island chain, and at more remote locations such as Alaska or Hawaii. If a U.S. (and allied) anti-navy can prevent Chinese amphibian forces from landing on Taiwan, it can balk Chinese strategy. And frustrating an antagonist’s strategy constitutes the gold standard for strategic efficacy.

Once the U.S. Navy has rebuilt its numbers and harnessed newfangled technology, presumably in the 2030s, it can reassert command of the sea. Deny command, win command, exploit command. That’s the Corbettian way. It’s how the temporarily weak win.

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The only quibble I have with Gallagher’s strategic prescription is that the United States and its allies should also field a seagoing adjunct to land-based missiles and warplanes. A flotilla of winsome, low-cost, missile-armed surface combatants and diesel submarines could dish out punishment while helping the extended, land-based sea-denial force arrayed around the Pacific detect, track, and target hostile warships and aircraft. Allies such as Japan already operate such forces in modest numbers; the United States should follow their lead.

An anti-navy, then, can and should rest in part on a naval contingent—as Julian Corbett might say were he among the quick today. Such a composite joint force would underwrite a formidable active defense, helping America, its allies, and its friends cross through the danger zone without war. The Pentagon would be wise to heed Corbett’s—and Gallagher’s—counsel.

Pronto.

Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation & Future Warfare, Marine Corps University. The views voiced here are his alone. He is a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor. 

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.”

20 Comments

20 Comments

  1. The Al U Know

    October 19, 2022 at 5:42 pm

    I’m going to be an optimist. Unless those 12 ships that are going to be gone in the next few years are imical carriers or even nuke subs, then what is the big deal?
    Budget wanting 330??
    And naval magnates wanting 500???

    Hopefully quality will still be there, as quality over quantity.

    And, yes, I know that in those war games it comes pretty close and very destructive. In a war like that there may very well be no winners.

  2. Steven

    October 19, 2022 at 7:10 pm

    And again no mention of our cyber-warfare abilities.

    • Scotty D

      October 21, 2022 at 2:08 pm

      “Because of the lack of open-source reporting, it
      is also nearly impossible to assess the readiness of
      America’s cyber forces”. (Index of US Military Strength)

  3. 403Forbidden

    October 19, 2022 at 9:44 pm

    Biden is ailing and greatly troubled by dementia and cognitive decline and so he hasn’t any clue on how to deal with china.

    He thinks going to war is a cinch as his pacific forces today are 10,000x stronger than kido butai of 1941.

    Well, kido butai eventually found out war wasn’t a very good idea for anybody.

    Biden needs to issue arrest warrant for xi jinping and get CPB to stop all china imports until xi steps down and is under investigation by china authorities for role in covid spread in Jan 2020 with massive inflows and outflows of people when cases of ‘SARS’ had already been confirmed by foreign media such as AFP at the time.

  4. pagar

    October 20, 2022 at 12:06 am

    Taiwan seems always to be preoccupying US great minds, especially great warhawks, who strangely are unaware of an island called haiti that’s just stone’s throw from another idland called puerto rico where US ran its independence activists to the ground in 70s & early 80s.

    About taiwan, msm and co like to portray it as a bastion of democracy while critically hiding it as a vital mulitary asset to USAF and USN and USSF. Taiwan is just a cuba in western pacific.

    Cuba remains socialist but has zero foreign mikitary presence so very unlike taiwan but US great minds are always and always preoccupied with both islands.

    Dealing with taiean is very very very simple.

    First get across all the false narratives and present true picture and articulate real time position and facts.

    Second, develop best nuke atsrnal anf test neutron bomb.

    Third, ban all flughts crossing airspace. This will kneecap economy prompting uncke sam to do a miscalculation to ‘protect’ silicon-based <3nm cmos ic industry while ignoring advent of photonic chips.

    Then subsequently, a nuke strike or threat of nuke strike would force uncle sam become properly re-oriented to his srnses because he can't ignore other nuke powers like russia taking over after a stupid nuke battle or war with china.

    Taiwan ain't haiti. Lrave it alone. Doesn't need uncle sam's coddlung. Remenber words or writings of mark twain.

  5. vetlance

    October 20, 2022 at 7:59 am

    The aircraft carrier in the picture is not the Fujian. Fujian does not have a ski ramp.

  6. TrustbutVerify

    October 20, 2022 at 9:05 am

    Save the B-1s until the B-21s are on line – then make sure we have enough LRASM-ERs. With just the current force of B-1s we can launch over 1,000 LRASM-ERs in a single sortie (if we have that many) from beyond the defensive range of the Chinese Navy. This is more than enough to sink all the capital ships in the Chinese PLAN in one sortie.

    No Navy, no invasion of Taiwan.

  7. afhack62

    October 20, 2022 at 9:54 am

    The Chicoms do not have military parity with the US. The PLA and PLAN are far inferior in capability. Even if the author’s goal is to persuade the public that Xi is dangerously delusional about China’s military capabilities, it’s not a good argument to give them parity. It only stokes his megalomania.

  8. Stefan Stackhouse

    October 20, 2022 at 3:08 pm

    The last I checked, the Pacific spanned nearly half the globe. Would really be the end of the world if Taiwan failed to withstand an invasion? It seems to me that a very substantial amount of strategic depth would remain. Fewer ships and generous strategic depth really is preferable to having many ships and little strategic depth.

  9. Stephen Kennedy

    October 20, 2022 at 3:36 pm

    I do not see China risking the global catastrophe of a war over Taiwan. Taiwan has never been an integral part of China and until the defeated Nationalists fled to the island, it did not have a majority ethnic Chinese population. Throughout its history Taiwan was basically an independent island that sometimes paid tribute to China. The people living there were similar to the people inhabiting the Rykyu Islands, which include Okinawa, that are now generally recognized as part of Japan. In fact, Taiwan itself was once part of Japan.

    China has never looked to expand east into the Pacific. The only time in history that China attempted to invade Japan was in the 1300s when China was ruled by the Mongol Dynasty. China has always expanded west, starting from a number of small states in what is now Northeast China, all the way west until it now actually has a border with Afghanistan. The Himalaya Mountains and the heavily populated Indian sub-continent preclude southward Chinese expansion. If China is going to again pursue territorial expansion, North Asia is very sparsely populated and is under the control of a country that started a war in Europe which may lead to its disintegration. If China decides it needs more land, it will be looking towards the Russian Far East. The major other claiment to this land will likely be Japan, not the United States which itself seems heading for possible disintegration.

  10. GhostTomahawk

    October 21, 2022 at 5:09 pm

    China isn’t a near peer. They have a bloated over estimated strength military based on Russian tech (which is garbage) and stolen tech. Their army is a giant dinosaur. It’s big and slow and impossible to feed.

    You want to win a war against China? Embargo. Prohibit shipping in and out of China.

    It won’t take long for the US economy and businesses to adjust. Then ensure we never empower China’s economy again by not doing business with them.

  11. Bender

    October 21, 2022 at 10:37 pm

    Good article.
    Hopefully the pentagon and the administration are listening…

  12. JMIII

    October 29, 2022 at 12:44 pm

    Need more battleforce ships. Quantity is important, as is quality.
    We should also consider employing the B-1B bombers that the USAF seems so eager to mothball as fast anti-ship missile carriers and base them in Australia, Guam and Japan.

  13. ATM

    October 30, 2022 at 12:43 am

    The logical way to take Taiwan is to nuke all the US fleets and ports of call at the same time. The US can initiate MAD after that if it wants to sacrifice the homeland.

  14. Larry

    October 30, 2022 at 11:42 am

    Is Taiwan no longer recognized as well a part of China? Is it the us mission to cleave parts of territory off from competitors now? It’s fine if it is, maybe we can drop the democracy and human rights bit then. It’s obviously not a factor and if we can just acknowledge the us isn’t morally superior to China then maybe we can focus on the actual dynamics of great power strategy.

  15. David Chang

    November 10, 2022 at 9:06 am

    God bless people in the world.

    America and China Democratic Party cooperate with Communist Party to destroy the world.

    C.C.P. is not going to occupy Taiwan, they have occupied one-China by promoting socialism, evolution, and liberation Theology.

    Moreover, military shall learn from socialism war in Vietnam and Afghan. Because people in Vietnam and Afghan do not obey Ten Commandments, military lost with wrong strategy. At this time, C.C.P. are propagating socialism to Republic of China for decades, most people in Taiwan province worship democracy, do not obey Ten Commandments.

    So it’s hard to stop socialism parties for protecting our faith and U.S.A.. Because democratic parties threaten USN to agree with Green New Deal for more USN budgets.

    But I hope military trust God and resist this threat.
    Marine Corps and Navy should not move into the trap, so let CVBG to manifest combat skills for defending OKINAWA, and we should think about Leapfrogging,

    MacArthur explained his and Admiral Halsey’s strategy:

    “My strategic conception for the Pacific Theater, which I outlined after the Papuan Campaign and have since consistently advocated, contemplates massive strokes against only main strategic objectives, utilizing surprise and air-ground striking power supported and assisted by the fleet. This is the very opposite of what is termed “island hopping” which is the gradual pushing back of the enemy by direct frontal pressure with the consequent heavy casualties which will certainly be involved. Key points must of course be taken but a wise choice of such will obviate the need for storming the mass of islands now in enemy possession. “Island hopping” with extravagant losses and slow progress … is not my idea of how to end the war as soon and as cheaply as possible. New conditions require for solution and new weapons require for maximum application new and imaginative methods. Wars are never won in the past.”

    Or people in Taiwan province, Korea, and Japan shall take major risk in socialism warfare, like socialism war in Ukraine .

    Socialism warfare is begun, from 1789 to today, and not over.

    God bless America.

  16. Murrr

    November 15, 2022 at 6:10 am

    The United States Has Entered The ‘Danger Zone’ With China

  17. milamula

    November 15, 2022 at 6:11 am

    The views voiced here are his alone. He is a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.

  18. will

    November 23, 2022 at 11:45 pm

    China has no intention of challenging U.S. world leadership. The Taiwan issue is an internal problem left over from China’s civil war, and China cannot tolerate long-term secession, just as the United States cannot tolerate Alaska’s independence. China is a rapidly developing power, and the world will only be stable, prosperous and developing if the United States cooperates with China. If the United States interferes in China’s internal affairs and goes to war with China over Taiwan, there is no certainty of winning, and it also harms American interests.

  19. Brent

    November 27, 2022 at 1:05 pm

    Meh. Gallagher is a republican. In a few weeks, all he’ll be thinking about is investigating Benghazi or some other piece of long dead history. The GOP has degenerated into a flock of whining losers; no one serious pays attention to them anymore.

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