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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

Anti-Access Bubbles: How to Stop China from Militarily Dominating Asia?

Harpoon Block II
Harpoon Block II. Image Credit: Boeing.

Anti-Access Bubbles: An Idea Whose Time Has Come? Help others help themselves. That’s the gist of a new report out of the London-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), Great Britain’s premier think tank on defense and security affairs. If Britain wants to help beleaguered Asian states guard their maritime sovereignty against such predators as China, say coauthors Sidharth Kaushal, John Louth, and Andrew Young, it should supply them with “anti-access bubbles” inflated by anti-ship and anti-air weaponry, sensors, and command-and-control systems.

Yes.

Thus armed, local powers can defend offshore waters and skies apportioned to them by the law of the sea while potentially competing to better effect in the gray zone. The weak can make things tough on a stronger aggressor bent on purloining their marine territory and resources. In effect the RUSI team wants to mimic what China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has done vis-à-vis the U.S. Navy and affiliated joint and allied forces. The PLA has strewn swarms of low-cost anti-ship weapons around Fortress China while constructing a sea-denial fleet founded on missile-armed submarines and surface patrol craft. PLA rocketeers can try to deter U.S. forces from coming within reach of anti-access weaponry, or make them pay dearly should they defy the threat and venture within range anyway.

Anti-Access Bubbles, The Concept

Anti-access bubbles are arcs sketched on the map or nautical chart to depict the range of a weapon system, and thus the danger zone around its firing position. The bubble’s centerpoint is where the weapon system is emplaced, and the weapon’s firing range is the arc’s radius. Swing a circle and there’s your bubble. A hostile ship or aircraft goes into harm’s way when it enters that contested geographic space.

But the logic of access denial works both ways; it’s not just a Chinese thing. Weaker coastal states can turn it against the PLA Navy and Air Force, not to mention paramilitary sea services like the China Coast Guard and maritime militia. It promises military efficacy. Better yet, Southeast Asian governments can preserve their strategic autonomy while they reclaim their sovereignty. Liberty of action is of no small consequence. Government chieftains in such coastal states as the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia are acutely aware that they have to live with China forever—and that it will be a wrathful China should they side with America in the incipient great-power competition.

Instead Kaushal, Louth, and Young observe that small Asian states prefer to maintain a sort of armed neutrality whereby they enlist with neither major competitor yet uphold their sovereign rights through unilateral measures. They’re chary of alliance entanglements. And with the exception of long-time U.S. treaty allies like the Philippines or Thailand, it’s hard to blame them for taking such a standoffish stance.

J-20 Fighter

J-20 Fighter. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Wouldn’t you if you were in their place?

But it’s not all about local partners. The RUSI coauthors are trying to help the U.K. government and the Royal Navy manage a secondary theater on the cheap. Martial sage Carl von Clausewitz helps strategists evaluate how to handle less-than-paramount commitments while keeping their gaze firmly fixed on what matters most. After all, strategy is about setting and enforcing priorities. If everything is a top priority, nothing is. What I call Clausewitz’s “Three Rs” of secondary theaters go something like this: to justify the effort, such a commitment must promise exceptional reward; a contender must enjoy “decisive superiority” of resources in the primary theater to take care of affairs there; and thus it can afford to divert resources to the secondary theater without undue risk in the primary theater.

Reward, resources, risk. That’s the Clausewitzian calculus.

Europe and NATO comprise the theater that matters most to Britain, but the Indo-Pacific matters a great deal as well. It meets the first Clausewitzian test, promising exceptional reward. But the United Kingdom is a middle-rank power without decisive resources even to safeguard NATO-Europe without help. That being the case, the Indo-Pacific theater fails the Clausewitzian tests of resources and risk. By necessity it is an economy-of-force theater for the United Kingdom. The Royal Navy keeps a couple of offshore patrol vessels on station in East Asia, and occasionally a heavy task force puts in an appearance in the region. But Britain can’t afford an expeditionary battle fleet comparable to the U.S. Seventh Fleet.

Nor should it make the attempt. If London committed one of just two carrier strike groups in the Royal Navy inventory to expeditionary duty east of Suez, it would risk forfeiting security in Europe. Clausewitz would blanch at such a foolhardy undertaking. And so do British political and military leaders.

Wisely.

To conserve Royal Navy resources for European waters, Kaushal, Louth, and Young propose that the navy and British industry work togther to furnish Asian militaries with an array of low-cost armaments. In so doing London can abide by Clausewitzian strictures while still accomplishing its aims in the East. The coauthors observe that small states can afford to purchase finished weapons, sensors, and command-and-control systems, but by and large they can’t afford to develop them. Britain, they conclude, should shoulder the R&D costs while regional partners buy the hardware at a humble per-unit price.

U.S. Navy

BLACK SEA (Nov 4, 2021) The Blue Ridge-class command and control ship USS Mount Whitney (LCC 20), the Arliegh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG-78), and the Bulgarian navy frigate Gordi (BGS 43) perform ship maneuvering exercises in the Black Sea, Nov 4, 2021. Mount Whitney, forward deployed to Gaeta, Italy operates with a combined crew of Sailors and Military Sealift Command civil service mariners in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of operations in support of U.S. national security interests in Europe and Africa. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Andrew Eder) 211104-N-NO067-2261

This is an eminently sensible proposal. It harvests reward while enforcing strategic discipline with regard to resources and risk. A region of fully sovereign nation-states able to provide for their own defense would have less need for outsiders like Britain or America to brace up the balance of power. That would be a welcome development all around. One hopes London heeds—and acts on—the report’s findings and recommendations.

Arm the weak—and watch the domineering weep bitter tears. Get those Anti-acess bubbles ready.

Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the U.S. 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.

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.”

14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. David Chang

    November 12, 2022 at 9:29 am

    God bless people in the world.

    Anti-Access is a trap, because C.C.P. want to sink CVBG.
    Even though Sun Tzu’s Art of War is not about morality,
    but we can learn something important from him.

    He say:
    “In all fighting, the direct method may be used for joining battle, but indirect methods will be needed in order to secure victory.”

    CVBG are big family, are expensive military bases, so CVBG should not be given up easily, nor should be sacrificed easily.

    With low-cost armaments, we can stop socialism warfare.

    God bless America.

  2. Simon Beerstecher

    November 12, 2022 at 10:13 am

    A far better option would be to organise a south east asia version of NATO,led by Japan,South Korea and Australia.Likely candidates could be Malaysia,Thailand,Phillipines,Singapore,Vietnam,New Zealand and Indonesia.Perhaps the USA and European arms manufacturers standardise weapons productions to shared platforms across all these countries,help with training and command and control.It would need a very defined role , not only of mutualdefence but also to protect the internationally recognised economic boundaries of each state, from land and sea.

  3. Simon Beerstecher

    November 12, 2022 at 10:30 am

    Further to a SE Asian Nato the combined GDP would be $11.6 trillion so an expenditure of 2.5% of gdp would be £291 billion for defence.Currently China is estimated to spend $229 billion so would match China,procurement and standardization is key,with the Wests help they could form an Independant bulwark to China’s attempt to dominate SE Asia.It would allow SE Asian countries stake a cliam to their own independant voice and place in the world.

  4. self

    November 12, 2022 at 10:32 am

    The only deterrent that will stop the Chinese juggernaut from taking over Taiwan is nuclear weapons. A nuclear power will not be stopped by conventional weapons.
    Taiwan needs to have 25-50, 100+ kiloton weapons in a triad.
    Do you think Israel would exist as a nation today if they only convectional arms?
    You fancy-pants writers with the Mercurial degrees need to get real.

  5. Commentar

    November 12, 2022 at 11:55 am

    USA needs to grow up & becum an adult & start worshipping peace & vow to forsake wars & leave chaina alone.

    That mouthful aside, biden and co must remember the last time USA got involved with china, the chinese people found thenselves facing great great big danger with their lives hanging by a thread.

    But sadly, people like biden have a really, really aweful hazy sense of history and think that china is the next iraq or the next afghanistan or the next yemen or next grenada.

    USA’s stupendous admirals and generals and smarts like steve bannon refuse to admit US nuclear subs regularly prowl near chinese coasts with their onboard weapons fully cocked and loaded YET ceaselessly cry wolf and forever moan about chinese agression and growing chinese area access denial.

    Sounds very much like a case of ma baker and gang grumbling about high street banks hiring extra security guards.

    USA old timer politicians like biden and steve bannon need to be aware US military personnel are right at the front doorstep, in japan, korea and in taiwan, covertly of course. Though very unmistakably, there’s a huge US-made phased array radar facility that peers deeply into china on the island.

    Would USA accept a chinese radar peering 24/7 into the KSC or cape canaveral and its nearby areas from cuba. Of course not.

    But USA does it nearly everyday everywhere around the globe and even in space. Hail star wars! USA even has the ssecretive x-37B and USA 270 inspector satellite types peering devices flying around or prowling around world today.

    But people like biden and bannon aren’t aware of all that of course. They can’t leave china alone. China to them is just a huge treasure house full of treasures just waiting and waiting for some bold fella to claim them.

    Now, who’s the fella, hunter, or big guy. Or some future mcArthur.

  6. phil stacy

    November 12, 2022 at 12:23 pm

    Stop China by not voting for Democrats.

  7. pagar

    November 12, 2022 at 1:23 pm

    It’s a big shame biden will be meeting his warm old friend xi in bali in a few days’ time.

    Biden has fomented a hi-stakes proxy war against putin even though putin isn’t in any way responsible for the one million-plus covid deaths in america.

    Putin has smartly declined to go to bali lest biden has SEAL Team Six members hiding in the bali summit hotel’s rafters.

    Putin is smart, unlike biden who obviously or clearly can’t distinguish the dense tall forest from the big tree.

    When biden meets up with xi, he surely can’t wait to thank his benefactor enough for all the dollops of dollars doled out to the family, and so, the thought of who’s just might be directly or indirectly responsible for the million plus covid deaths is unlikely to lurk inside biden’s head.

    Aloha, biden. Kumbaya, my lord. Kumbaya.

  8. HAT451

    November 12, 2022 at 2:11 pm

    There was such an organization, SEATO, Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, formed on 19 Feb 1955 and disbanded on 30 June 1977.

  9. mihai

    November 13, 2022 at 3:45 am

    Indo-Pacific Treaty Organization. Japan,S.Korea,Philippines,Indonezia,Australia,New Zealand ,French Polinesia, USA, Canada- for the beginning. Otherwise in 10-20 years China will have a Great Sphere of Coprosperity there…

  10. pagar

    November 13, 2022 at 7:14 am

    Maritime predators, historically, were (and still are) associated with nations peddling gunboat diplomacy.

    Such nations forced open foreign ports for trade and religious work, and when people were reluctant to obey, they activated their shipboard cannons without much hesitation.

    Today, instead of forcing open ports for trade, the maritime predator countries brazenly meddle in the internal affairs of other nations, attempting to brute force them into adopting their modern culture, their up-to-date lifestyles and other practices like celebrating gay parades, aping the Kardashians and following their woke ethics.

    To back up their modern maritime predatorship, they often have a military facility or even multiple facilities and bases just nearby.

    For example, US often brazenly and repeatedly interfered in the internal matters of Venezuela, an independent & sovereign nation in Latin America.

    It got so bad the authorities in Caracas attempted to expel the US diplomatic staff, but they simply refused to leave !

    Main reason for their extremely bold stance is US has a military facility just right off the northern coast of Venezuela.

    The USAF has a forward location base at Caracao international Airport on the island of Caracao, which incidentally is a property of the Netherlands, a country that once actively practised gunboat diplomacy.

    In Asia, US is seen attempting to replicate what it does in the Americas, though there is pushback from certain people like the Chinese navy.

    So, Chinese navy must study what US has done in the new hemisphere and duly carry out preventive measures like establishing anti-access obstacles.

    Better, produce and operate very large or ultra large destroyers that mean business ! Business at the business end of the ship.

  11. John

    November 13, 2022 at 7:22 am

    Ukraine war has shown that smaller countries have to go nuclear.
    Sk, Japan, Germany, Australia, Indonesia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Singapore, Taiwan.
    They need to realize USA unable to protect them.
    Plus they need to build up their own missile and drone forces

  12. Arash P

    November 13, 2022 at 4:43 pm

    Taiwan is part of China. Every western country including US and UK have recognized that.
    They have a right to give or deny access or anyone in their own territory.

  13. Shaolin Prophet

    November 14, 2022 at 3:20 pm

    Taiwan should be learning the hard lesson Ukraine is learning: never, ever give up nukes if you want a real deterrent against a determined adversary.

    Every nation that borders Russia that can get nukes & delivery systems should do so if they want to make a real commitment to security. Poland & Hungary certainly have the resources coupled with ability as does Taiwan.

    This is academic double-speak from someone who has spent too long in the think-tank/school house bubble. Taiwan faces an existential threat, that requires a real threat to deter. Tactical nukes that can zap invasion fleets in one shot is what they need.

  14. ATM

    November 19, 2022 at 4:01 pm

    Beware of British bearing gifts. Nearly every US dummy move as of 1945 originated in GB think tanks. Exactly why did the US decide to play the so called great game. Why are we taking advice from dead empires.

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