Taiwan, sea denial, and the bounding of US dominance

There was some fuss lately over US reluctance to sell the Republic of China F-16 fighters. Supposedly, the US was imperiling a fellow democracy by refusing to sell it F-16Cs, and then downgrading the deal to F-16As with upgrades. What is missing from the conversation, as David Axe points out, is that new fighter aircraft are a pretty poor return on the investment as far as Taiwanese security is concerned.

Anything that the Chinese can reliably hit with a conventional ballistic missile is useless, along with anything that relies on it, if the Taiwan Strait dispute goes hot in a big way. This includes airfields, which is why Taiwan is prepared for highway operations for F-16s. However, Taiwan is not a big place and it is only a matter of time before the PLA 2nd Artillery hit those as well. Indeed, even as a 2008 RAND study determined, even with USAF support and ridiculously high probability of kill statistics, the sheer mass of Chinese airpower, combined with a narrowing qualitative gap, is enough to keep the air war from deciding a conflict in Taipei’s favor.

Instead of doubling down on the sunk costs of an air-centric strategy for defending the island, commentators have rightly suggested investments in other areas. Robert Haddick suggests switching to mobile missile launchers, although it is hard to see how these would be able to overcome the sheer Chinese quantitative superiority at hand. Axe suggests something which might make more sense – diesel submarines:

Realistically, Taiwan can only hope to delay a Chinese assault on the island long enough for international pressure and US reinforcements to convince Beijing that war is a losing proposition.

The best weapons for delaying a Chinese attack are ones that can’t be targeted by ballistic missiles – and that could confront a Chinese invasion fleet far from Taiwan’s shores. That means submarines.

Today, the Taiwanese navy operates just two combat-ready submarines, bought from the Dutch during a rare period when European nations were willing to risk angering Beijing by selling weapons to Taipei. In 2001, Washington approved the sale of eight new diesel-powered subs to Taiwan, but no US shipyards currently build such boats. Ten years later, the deal is still pending.

Unlike the F-16 sale, Taipei’s inability to purchase new submarines has a real bearing on the island’s ability to defend itself.

Although Haddick insists on mobile missile sites, one assumes that submarines would be better platforms for cruise missiles, particularly those oriented towards sinking PLAN vessels. Nevertheless, judged by the metrics of the past, the assumed US capability of defending Taiwan, whether directly or through bolstering Taiwanese defenses, is increasingly coming into question.

Now, this is far from a disaster. However effective the PLA’s capability to fight and perhaps even win wars within SRBM and MRBM range is, means only increased regional power, not extra-regional hegemony. However, to avoid turning these setbacks into a geopolitical catastrophe, the US needs to understand that things in East Asia cannot carry on as normal, and neither burden sharing nor doubling down qualitative superiority can change that.

In fact, pursuing either of these tracks without reevaluating our broader grand strategy in the region will merely sow instability and weaken US power. The notion that the Chinese are interested in pursuing a vision of burden sharing that has implications for the unity of their claimed territory is rather puzzling. So too is the notion that China is interested in contributing to the maintaining a vision of upholding the global commons that allows foreigners to violate its sovereignty, at least in the Chinese view. With a hat tip to Daniel Larison, Lyle Goldstein explains why the US idea of freedom of navigation is so unappealing to the Chinese:

Washington’s focus on “freedom of navigation,” which has inexplicably become the main pillar of current U.S. policy in the region, is actually rather absurd. China, the world’s largest maritime trading nation by almost any measure, is very unlikely to threaten navigational freedoms — its own economy is almost wholly reliant on those very freedoms. The claim that China’s opposition to regular U.S. military surveillance activities in the South China Sea threatens “freedom of navigation” is likewise disingenuous and represents an unfortunate tendency to reach for the clever sound bite. In fact, such U.S. surveillance activities all along China’s coasts are excessive to the point of seriously disrupting the bilateral relationship and should thus be decreased, especially if linked to concrete progress on Chinese military transparency.

The case might actually be a bit more complicated. Put simply, China’s vision of freedom of navigation is strictly commercial. The Chinese interpretation of UNCLOS basically territorializes the Exclusive Economic Zone as far as military matters are concerned. This is not a minor issue for the United States, because the US vision of commanding the commons, as well as its security guarantees to overseas allies, rely on maritime military transit through strategic chokepoints around Eurasia. Such an interpretation would not only concern US policy towards China, but US policy towards any potential combat theater of operations near these Chinese seas, and within the range of land-based Chinese missiles, aircraft, and shorter-range Chinese attack subs.

In other words, freedom of navigation (and let us remember this issue helped turn the tide in American public opinion during World War I, and was responsible for a large amount of conflict in our republic’s early years) has become part and parcel in the greater grand strategic objective of commanding the global commons. While China is certainly not going to dismantle global maritime trade at whim, denying sea control to its maritime neighbors and the United States are a critical component of its maritime strategy. While essentially defensive in character, the capabilities of a Chinese active defense (or “deep sea defense,” as some documents refer to it) do have important implications for broader US policy involving not just Southeast Asia or Taiwan, but Japan and Korea.

US grand strategy requires that terrestrial space be easily penetrable to maritime force. On this foundation much of the architecture of modern notions of the US-led global system, humanitarian intervention, and manifold other norms and institutions sit. US sea power and the ability to navigate around the world are prerequisites to any strategies of humanitarian intervention, counterinsurgency, regime change, or nation-building elsewhere, because without sea access, and the ability of the US to deter or dominate continental powers from the sea, the US and its allies cannot field or support ground troops to effect control.

Active sea denial allows states such as China to significantly diminish their reliance on the commander of the maritime commons for their security and prosperity. With the ability to imperil strangulation through denial of basing and freedom of navigation for essential naval platforms, China can ensure freedom of navigation in part for itself. While there are other chokepoints beyond Chinese control, the ability to maintain diplomatic relations and show the flag would be more preferable than allowing a hegemonic power to maintain control in China’s backyard in the hopes that it might return the favor in China’s interest in the Persian Gulf. After all, China can still free ride on American naval power there and in other locales.

Rather than attempting to make an old paradigm robust, the US may need to ask itself how to adapt, rather than defeat, a world where technological and geopolitical developments are eating away at US naval dominance. After all, to assume that the US can only protect its interests in East Asia by strengthening its current posture is folly. Indeed, the current posture is woefully inadequate for reasons of basic geographic sense.

US military equipment and doctrine is still essentially built for Cold War-range warfighting. The distances between strategically-relevant airfields in Europe and the Middle East are not immensely different. For a long time, the US has been able to get along with combat fighters and attack aircraft with effective ranges appropriate to Central Europe, but vastly insufficient for the Pacific theater. The US only has one airbase within 500 miles of Taiwan, and it, along with many others, are vulnerable to Chinese missile attacks. It is questionable how many of those hosted into foreign countries could even remain in play should states such as South Korea or Japan decide that non-intervention in a US-China spat is better than joining in. Although there is much talk about the utter superiority of 5th generation American fighter aircraft over their opponents, they are extremely expensive – in part because the US is no longer interested in cashing in on economies of scale. But, to begin with, they have major limitations in an air war with China – they cannot make the sheer number of sorties and bring the sheer number of missiles necessary to dominate airspace beyond the opening exchanges of a conflict in waters of core Chinese interest. A quantitative fix might help, but would be insufficient, since American combat technology is only as good as the reliability of what puts it in theater. The vulnerability of US carriers and airbases should be quite apparent.

Yes, the Air Force and Navy are seeking to adopt a doctrine to confront these new conditions, but they cannot control everything. Even assuming Air-Sea battle gets off the ground, operational art cannot fill the gaping void in US grand strategy that the end of uncontested US freedom of navigation will impose. The politics of hardware purchases are unfortunately much more interesting than those of basing, but the debate about US basing seems to be very out of sync with US strategy in East Asia, arms procurement, and other issues. Bases do not bring money home to anybody’s district, unlike projects such as a new ship or combat aircraft. Yet the combination of hardening existing bases, and, in all likelihood, finding a way to create new ones outside of effective conventional missile range, will be of high importance. Hence the importance of the “Garrett plan” which recognized the utility of flexible basing agreements rather than relying further on permanent, forward presence becomes a key element of  US adaptation to the new era of sea denial.

Indeed, such an adaptation might actually give the US the flexibility and the widened menu of strategic options not just to counter, but to sidestep sea denial generally. Doing so, however, has to be part of a comprehensive rethinking of US military power and its role in the world. Unfortunately, so long as each of these debates are cloistered off from each other, such a rethink will prove quite difficult. Talking about grand strategy without considering the implications of changing military technology on politics tends towards ignominious outcomes. So too does talking about weapons systems without thinking through the diplomatic and geographic environment where they will be used. Changes on each level in each field will reverberate beyond them, challenging assumptions from the tactical level through the grand strategic. So long as the US tries to address issues in any one of them without reference to the others, it will be, at best, running to stand still.


18 thoughts on “Taiwan, sea denial, and the bounding of US dominance

  1. Wow! You cover a lot of ground and make important points. I was involved in a couple of industry day events for the Taiwan sub deal—and while no one said anything out loud, it was pretty clear the US submarine navy did not want the US to build diesel boats at a US shipyard, for the construction would invite questions from the American public “why” we’re building a diesel for a fraction of the cost of a nuke—which is a valid question—a question not often asked in the American all-nuke navy. There is a domestic insanity here w/respect to the nuke/diesel debate that I’ll not address, but it would not be career enhancing for a navy sub officer to advocate a diesel alternative too loudly…

    That said, I do wish we could build these boats for Taiwan and other nations who could use the stealth and flexibility these little boats provide—for stealthy submarines could upset China’s entire maritime infrastructure—over night.

    Good post!

  2. Thanks for the reply! Personally I don’t think the US should be using diesel submarines. Trying to “mirror image” PLAN force structure doesn’t really make sense to me. Yeah, they’re quiet, but 1) they’re much better vs surface platforms than other subs, 2) they’re too short ranged. Training vs quiet ASW platforms can be done by working with allied fleets, and honestly killing Chinese surface platforms is not a big concern for us at this point.

    Furthermore diesels subs would make us more reliant on forward naval bases in the region, which is something I’m wary about, as this post shows. So while I’m more open to the draw of them than perhaps those with professional experience or interests in the naval community, I think they’d be better for our allies than for us.

    Ink Spots crew had a great writeup on that report here:

  3. Given the cost of modern nuc boats, we could leverage the production of a platform for Taiwan into something for the US at a fraction of the cost of a capital nuc platform. Taiwan offered the US to pay for the R&D and allow the US manufacturer to retain the design.

    The performance of modern diesel boats against nuclear counter-parts makes our limited adoption seem advisable.

    I understand the advantages of nuc boats, but do not agree that we should retain them to the exclusion of diesel counterparts—particularly in this fiscal environment. In a world where Taiwan would be willing to pay up front…makes me want to get in the diesel boat business…and I just might.

  4. I can see the merits of building them for other allies, but I don’t see them of being of large value to the US, even at reduced cost. Diesel subs can’t do the things the US wants its submarines to do, since unlike virtually every other diesel sub operator the US doesn’t need them for brown/green water defense.

    To me, the cost thing isn’t an issue – it doesn’t matter how cheap diesels are, they can’t perform our current sub missions without a lot of forward support, and while some might be OK with signing on to that (as I suspect the authors in that piece would be), I’m a lot more skeptical since the US would have to invest *very* heavily in hardened sub bases in countries which might not want them to make diesel boats effectively fieldable in East Asia.

  5. One thing the navy could learn is to re-think logistics w/respect to DBs. Consider operating our diesel boats as they were operated before the early 1960s—they had broad op-orders and a lot of leeway—living off the land, as it were. We should stop thinking of the logistic model similar to a nuc counterpart—we’ve been thinking the same for too long and the nuc boats are becoming increasingly prohibitively expensive.

    In our current situation, cost is becoming everything. And while a US DB wouldn’t be used in defense, they could be used in littoral offensive ops.

    The other thing is we’re betting on the nuc sub in many ways like we cling to the super carrier. Undersea sensors are much more balanced, meaning our nuc boats could be vulnerable. With today’s sub weapons, it is largely a one-shot, one-kill environment; we’re betting our sensors are better and we’re quieter—when we have increasing evidence to the contrary—from diesel opponents.

    As for cost, cost is everything in this fiscal environment—our navy is shrinking, and with it our ability to project maritime dominance (as your article points out nicely). If Taiwan is still willing to front the R&D, that would be a net-gain for our maritime capabilities and theirs—not to mention the jobs in a high unemployment environment.

  6. I think the problem is that in a very “crowded” neighborhood like E Asia having nuclear boats that can operate from bases very far away is a feature that DBs can’t really match up with. The 1960s was a much more permissive environment for “living off the land.”

    Today sea-denial technologies are much more mature. How confident would we be that submarine tenders and bases in theater would be all that secure from PLAN attack? The independence and long mission time of an SSN is still a big advantage the USN has, in my mind. The US is chronically averse to building hardened bases overseas, and if the US doesn’t have the ability to defend its carriers I doubt it will be able to defend its tenders (which we will be much more reliant on than any other country should we go back to DBs). DBs would certainly help bolster US capabilities at reasonable cost on paper but we’d need a much broader rethink of our posture in E Asia that I’m not sure they’d really contribute much to counteracting sea denial strategies. Benefits to DB investment accrue disproportionately to the local power on the defensive, sure DBs would allow us to enter the race with the PLAN at cost but I’m not sure that’s a race we want to even be in if it occurs inder the aegis of the PLA ballistic missile trump card.

  7. If we built the Taiwanese hulls, they could populate E Asia with their hulls and we could complement with our SSNs. Odds are, once we built a few, others would have interest.

    My admiration for a modest American DB fleet is the potential unconventional flexibility (and as an old boat sailor, I know the ultimate flexibility of an SSN)—for a modest cost we could have “good enough” flexibility in locals/situations when our SSNs are over-taxed. Suppose one point I’m attempting to convey is not to think of DB support via a conventional lens—and maybe even reinvent a DB platform to give even longer legs… Rethink the whole concept what logistic support is, and what it looks like. Right now we don’t have the option to even consider the potential tactical and strategic advantages these small, stealthy platforms would provide. Building for Taiwan would give us insight, potential options and flexibility. Sure it scares Big Nuc Navy, but their thinking is stove-piped/parochial beyond words.

    I’m disturbed that we’re not even looking at the possibility when we have a potential customer and ally willing to pay.

  8. Definitely agree that the fear the Big Nuc folks have about us even reacquainting ourselves with designing, building DBs is pretty silly. I agree we should be open to building them, although paradoxically the cause of US DBs’d likely be better off if the possibility of them being prototypes for a US DB force were kept quiet, otherwise Big Nuc’ll shut the program entirely.

    Although one random thought that occurs to me is that we should be careful about selling Taiwan anything we don’t want to see ending up in Chinese hands in the next few decades.

  9. From what I saw ten years ago, Big Nuc stands ready to quash any attempt. As I said previously, the navy went through the motions—I attended the briefing out of curiosity and I was doing business development for a big Def contractor–and we did undersea stuff.

    To be sure, if the Chinese decided to instigate hostilities, DB’s could make the fight tougher. I’ll probably reference this exchange in a post over at zenpundit later today if I have the time.

    Your post reminded me of a business plan I penciled together a long time ago to build DBs…I’ve got to find the plan, in this economy we could use a boost.

  10. We need some kind of better, cheaper, faster tier of weaponry below our super expensive stuff. From reading ID, a good first step would be cheaper boats to patrol our own waters and its southern approaches.

  11. I’d rather see us sink our money into UUVs. Undewrater may not be ready for prime time quite yet, but they are doing pretty well: have you read about the “gliders” that oceanographers are using? Each SSGN can hold 24 semi-trailer-sized UUVs. Let’s iterate on the UUVs, a new model every five years,instead of building diesels that we’ll be stuck with for 20 or 30 years, while still lacking sufficient numbers. If we were going to build 30 new diesel subs, 2 a year for the next 15 years, that would be one thing, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.

  12. Fred, While the GN does have 24 tubes, it cannot hold that many UUVs of that size. Not all the tubes are are for mission payload. Also, we have less than 20 years of hull life on these platforms. They are very big and handle like pigs in shallow water (I used to ride one).

    I’m aware of the glider UUVs, but they are far from ready…I actually sat through a brief this morning that touched on the topic briefly—-we’re making headway, but not ready.

    I don’t believe we will build diesels just for our use, but their low cost and flexibility make ultimate sense for missions in very shallow water or missions to hazardous to risk a $2B platform. Also, from an accounting perspective, given their low cost we could build more than two per year.

    The point is moot absent another Taiwan-like opportunity as Big Navy will surely squash anything that potentially threatens the future of nuke boats—damn the cost or thinking.

  13. Pingback: Diesel Boats Forever!…or ever? | Fear, Honor, and Interest

  14. Most intriguing post and comments. Have been collecting multiple articles since I first was introduced to the AirSea Battle papers at CSBA and have talked to both the retired Navy and AF O-6 authors. If you have not, highly recommend Dr. Tony Wells article in May Proceedings: http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2011-05/strategy-east-asia-can-endure. Up front, Tony is long time friend/professional Colleague, former Royal Navy submarine commander and has consulted with navies in the South China Sea AOR.

    It would appear to me that given China’s national survival level concern in regard to their coastal waters and approaches, this is an area of competition, confrontation and conflict that will persistently ebb and flow. The dynamics will always include not only state-on-state diplomacy but interactions undersea, on sea, over sea in space and cyber cyber space. One might conjecture every sea captain a “stratgic corporal.” Tony makes the point that China could very well be looking to win the war they never fight. How many “doom of the carrier” articles can be written? Ships – particularly aircraft carriers – are meant to go in harm’s way and targeting is still not quite as easy as some seem to portray. And OBTW are we to make China’s operational and tactical problems simpler by just defaulting to the sunk carrier syndrome.

    It appears to me that even beyond the complexities of the Cold War and MAD, the long term problem set in the South China sea will persist with intertwining of possibilities and consequences far more difficult. Gerneral Sir Rupert Smith’s model of back and forth of persistent competition, confrontation, conflict while intended to explain “war amongst the people” is much more appropriate than peace-crisis-resolution peace. Diplomacy, technology, tactics, training and good sense will be on stage for better or worse. We most want to avoid open warfare, but can’t loose by not fighting easier. What tools need be applied?

  15. Ed, Thanks for posting your comment! Don’t know how I missed it. I’m wading into the Taiwan sub issue, so at some point I may want to reach out to Tony Wells. I skimmed his Proceedings essay, but will read it in the next day or two. Thanks again!

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