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.

This entry was posted in Authors, David Axe, English.

22 Responses to A Small-Ship Strategy for Countering China

  1. aubrey says:

    The problem with small ships is that they launch their 4 missiles and then they’re done. I can picture the utility in maritime guerrilla warfare in Indonesia or something like that, but on the open ocean I believe you need staying power, considering how far Pearl Harbor is from China.

  2. Chuck Hill says:

    If you look at what the US Coast Guard is building now, you will see ships like the Armidales and larger ships designed for interdiction.

  3. John says:

    HMAS Hammersley will soon be out of a job, that could form the nucleus of such a small fleet 😉

  4. Trevor Pyle says:

    This is an excellent idea. You don’t have to invade, and you don’t have to have deep strike, you need to have the ability to choke off their supply and their international trade, and they are done. Straits of Malacca, Singapore, Philippines, and Japan can take care of itself. South Korea is a different problem entirely since there is a land route for invasion, so they have their own short-term problems in such a situation. Taiwan just has to hold out as long as they can following an invasion, causing as many losses as they can while protecting their civilian population.
    In any event, controlling the choke points can be done with subs, small boys, and Navy and Air Force tac air, since China won’t be able to sustain operations in blue water for any extended period of time.

  5. dylanjones says:

    All those small vessels will need forward bases, in the region. Hence you open yourself up to a potential Chinese counter-strategy of shutting down your basing rights in peacetime through a judicious application of blandishments and threats. Without forward bases and the means to sustain themselves in the region, your blockade strategy through small ships is dead in the water.

  6. Tarl says:

    The idea that striking the mainland is going to “start World War IV” but that strangling their trade and cutting off their energy imports is NOT going to start World War IV is preposterous. If you are going to fight the Chinese AT ALL, then you are in World War IV whether you like it or not, so you might as well have the capability to punish them and destroy their military capabilities with strikes on the mainland.

    As for “sustaining our alliances”, what are our allies going to do as soon as they see that we have no intention of even TRYING to command the seas in the Western Pacific (and thus securing the SLOCs to them) but instead are going to stand back and do a “distant blockade” while they are blockaded and bombarded and even invaded? If I were Taiwan or Japan or South Korea, I would seek terms with China immediately and pull the plug on my security relationship with the USA, as the USA had clearly abdicated its obligation to protect me.

    Sea denial is appropriate if you don’t NEED to command the sea. But so long as we have allies in the Western Pacific, we DO need to command the sea. Small sea-denial ships ain’t gonna cut it for that purpose. Small Visby-type ships are useful for small powers like Sweden, not for the United States.

  7. Paralus says:

    A swarm of smaller ships, built on a scale to make them affordable and in enough numbers, would be like light infantry, pelting the enemy’s main body, annoying and harassing the enemy, but able to break contact if the enemy’s main body were to face off to deal with them.

    Both China and Taiwan are building small, fast attack craft armed with anti-ship missiles.

    Re-supplied at sea, like U-boots were, and supported by armed, long-rang maritime patrol craft and diesel subs, these formations could buy enough time until suitable forces are organized to regain control of the seas.

  8. I agree with Paralus, I think the tactic he describes is very useable.

  9. Sea denial is the right strategy, but gold-plated PT boats are the wrong tool. We just need to build more subs.

    It is worth noting that modern supertankers can be a lot more survivable than warships. That is why in Gulf War I the supertankers were used as mine clearers for their escorting warships.

    • Cuyahoga says:

      “Gold plated PT boats” do have some notable advantages over subs however.

      Most, obviously there is cost, and stemming from this, volume.

      But also, there is the ability to neutralize high volumes of low-threat targets over a long period of time. A torpedo is just as expended whether it was fired against a 50-ton fishing vessel pressed into service as an ersatz minelayer or the Liaonang. The situation for a 76mm rapid fire gun is markedly different. Furthermore, this kind of ability to engage nuisance threats would be of paramount importance in any USN vs PLAN scenario played out in the Western Pacific owing to the PLAN’s heavy emphasis on the use of “People’s Milita” in conducting mine warfare as well document by Andrew Erikson back in 2009.


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  17. Vaughn Conrad says:

    There is something to this. We can’t simply think about a conventional war with China; it is possible China, looking at our performance in Iraq and Afghanistan would opt for an asymmetrical strategy against US military power. And if we defeat China in a conventional war, we will still have to deal with the “after-war”, the political and economic turmoil that comes after major combat. We still need aircraft carriers and other “big” ships, but the US Navy, and military at large, needs to prepare for a wide range of contingencies and operations. Flexibility is the key.

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