A Small-Ship Strategy for Countering China

Armidale-class patrol boats

Armidale-class patrol boats

by David Axe

After more than a decade in rework, China’s first aircraft carrier should set sail from the port of Dalian in northeast China any day now. The former Soviet carrier Varyag, reportedly named Shi Lang, is a potent symbol of the People Liberation Army’s intention, and potential, to control the western Pacific.

Some analysts see China’s fast-growing navy and air force as direct threats to U.S. interests in the Pacific. “China’s military modernization is focused on anti-access and area capabilities that can only be directed against the United States,” wrote Daniel Goure, from the Washington, D.C.-based Lexington Institute. “These capabilities include anti-ship ballistic missiles, advanced strike aircraft, so-called ‘triple-digit’ surface-to-air missiles, cyber attack, long-range and space-based sensors and space denial … weapons.”

What exactly should the United States do about it?

To date, the Pentagon has attempted to counter each of China’s new capabilities with a capability of its own. China is developing anti-ship ballistic missiles, so the U.S. is building a fleet of warships capable of shooting down the missiles. China has new surface-to-air missiles, so America is working on robotic decoys and a new stealth bomber. And so on.

But one professor at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School advised a more focused approach. “We do not need an anti-access capability against China,” Wayne Hughes wrote in prepared remarks for a February speech. “We need a sea-denial capability of our own that comes with U. S. Navy sea control.”

“We won’t invade China, so ground forces don’t play,” Hughes added. “We won’t conduct a first nuclear strike. We should not adopt an air-sea strike plan against the mainland, because that is a sure way to start World War IV; but insofar as possible and affordable, we must demonstrate survivable air-sea strike capability to respond to the remote but ugly possibility of a Chinese first strike. We need only enough access to threaten a war at sea that destroys Chinese trade and curtails energy imports.”

In other words, to balance China, the U.S. Navy and Air Force need only be capable of thwarting Chinese attempts to utterly dominate the western Pacific, while holding at risk the Chinese commercial trade that lies at the heart of Chinese strategy. That’s not the same as the U.S. itself completely controlling and defending the western Pacific.

A fleet optimized for countering China would, in Hughes’ view, “consist of small maritime interdiction vessels covered by big, blue-water ships sufficient to execute a distant blockade, and many submarines to threaten destruction of all Chinese warships and commercial vessels in the China Seas.”

The submarine component of this fleet is arguably already in place, with Congress purchasing new Virginia-class attack boats at a rate of two annually starting next year. (Hughes did advocate adding small, diesel-powered submarines to the mix.) But assembling a fleet of “small maritime interdiction vessels” would require the Navy to rethink its current approach to surface warfare.

Today, the Navy builds only large surface warships. The smallest surface combatant under construction in the U.S. is the lightly-armed, 3,000-ton Littoral Combat Ship. Cost is proportional to displacement, so with its roughly $15 billion-a-year shipbuilding budget, the Navy can afford to maintain a long-term force of only 120 Littoral Combat Ships, cruisers and destroyers.

Hughes argued that a single anti-ship missile is usually adequate to defeat most warships, regardless of their size. For that reason, he insists, it’s better to buy “offensively potent warships distributed in mutually supporting task groups such that the fleet can afford the loss of some of them and their people while they destroy the enemy and gain access close to land for the projection of national power.

“These smaller, more single-purpose warships are the capital ships of a 21st-century fleet.”

In a 2009 planning exercise with fellow faculty, Hughes described the vessels that would comprise his ideal fleet. By diverting just 10 percent of the shipbuilding budget to new, small warships, Hughes claimed the Navy could afford to expand the fleet from today’s 280 hulls to 650.

The sharp end of the new fleet would be 30 coastal combatants equivalent to the 650-ton Swedish Visby class of missile corvettes complemented by 160 even smaller patrol vessels similar to Australia’s 250-ton Armidales. A large flotilla of minesweepers, sub-hunters and supply ships would support the corvettes, while 10 light aircraft carriers each embarking 20 jump jets would provide air cover.

While the submarines and interdiction vessels complicate Chinese naval movements and threaten sea trade, the U.S. legacy fleet of large surface combatants would presumably remain deeper at sea, shielding the interdictors from flank attacks and standing ready to deliver additional air or missile power — or Marines — once the waters are clear of enemy threats.

“No strategy is fool-proof but the Chinese are no fools, so it’s a good bet that a war-at-sea strategy, not an access strategy, is the best one to influence China, sustain our Asian alliances, and keep the competition peaceful,” Hughes wrote.

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