Pivot To Asia; Force Projection, Part 3

The authors of the pivot might prefer euphemistic phrasing, such as, “For decades, U.S. naval presence has helped to keep the peace in the western Pacific…”

The use of hard power to “manage China”  has roots in gunboat diplomacy, which was the traditional way for the European powers to deal with the weak China of the Qing dynasty.  In the 90’s and early 2000’s, defense columnists were heard to use the phrase “manage China” to justify development of the Zumwalt class destroyer.  When the pace of China’s development made a reprise of The Sand Pebbles unlikely, the build was cut from 29 to 3.

It was a brave decision by Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations. The program should never have progressed that far. But rather than an example of military bloat, it represents a failure to extrapolate a threat climate into the future.  In 1995, the Zumwalt might have survived off the shores of China. In 2005, it could not. It took three more years for Roughead to axe it. And this is not a singular error, it is a systematic one, the result of a continuing inability to extrapolate China’s trajectory.

China’s visceral awareness of the U.S. carriers as the lynchpin of power projection came about during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis. In March of 1996, the Nimitz group sailed through the Strait, and there wasn’t a weapon in the Chinese arsenal that could do anything about it. In 1996, the carriers were an incontestable projection of U.S. power. They were, from the perspective of weapons targeting, invisible to the shore radars of the day. This was accomplished by phase-locked jamming signals broadcast by multiple ships, both hiding the ships and creating phantoms in their stead. Although the U.S. Navy has more large surface combatant ships than any time since World War II, the increased order of battle is nullified by an asymmetric threat. Most of the above-surface threat could be effectively countered by the free-electron laser, but the power requirements of the weapon are greatly in excess of the Nimitz Class of carriers. The Gerald R. Ford class anticipates this weapon, but it will take many years for replacement of the current fleet.

Against the underwater supercavitating torpedo, and  the supersonic cruise missile, there are no current countermeasures with the kind of kill ratio you’d like. If you were with an infantry platoon, with bullets whizzing past, would you feel comfortable if told that the chances that any particular bullet had your name on it was one in a hundred?  This belongs to the pithy argument for quantity: “Quantity has a quality all its own.” See the Congressional Research Report.

While the cruise missiles and torpedos may evoke spears against muskets, China developed their own version of a grand-slam weapon, the DF-21 anti-carrier ballistic missile. It is guided by satellite synthetic aperture radar operating at much shorter frequencies than land based radar, producing actual images of the target. With a conventional warhead, the kinetic energy of the kill vehicle would severely damage a carrier. With a small nuclear weapon, a single missile could take out an entire carrier battle group.

The modern relevance of the loss of strength gradient, devised by Kenneth E. Boulding in 1962, comes into play. “Gradient” is an exaggeration of exactitude, since, in asymmetric conflicts with unsophisticated adversaries, the U.S. and allies have projected tremendous force. But against a sophisticated adversary, when the first strike advantage does not come into play, it probably has practical, if not mathematical, validity. The South China Sea is very close to China, very far from us, and the carrier is no longer the invulnerable vehicle of force projection.

For every measure, there is a countermeasure. A favorite word  in the weaponeer’s trade  is daedal, reference with admiration to the intricacies of a weapon system. It is the fruit of an engineering establishment that brought most of the modern world into being. This kind of human resource was once exclusive to the U.S. and Western Europe, but it has diffused on many levels. Problems of what formerly were dark arts, such as terrain-guided cruise missiles, are being solved in third world countries.

The  advantage in technology which the U.S. formerly enjoyed is in a state of relative decline. The counter of  Boulding’s law by advanced technology will shortly become untenable.  For every measure, daedal will produce a countermeasure, but these pairs cannot restore the advantage previously enjoyed, which was that of a technologically sophisticated civilization against one unsophisticated.

The costs of miscalculating the trajectory of China are both tactical and strategic. The tactical cost manifests  in the failure to extrapolate the viability of a weapon system. Without the costs of the Zumwalt program, notwithstanding “paralysis in government”, there might be money for another viable weapon.

This is the problem of power projection. But the subject ignites, in many, a hypnotic fear  that makes us want to reach for a bigger gun.  Perhaps fear defines our game, without agreement by the other player as to the definition. This incurs the strategic cost. Since statements of diplomacy almost have the tradition of deception,  China’s strategists may not  intend any more misdirection than is par for the course.

The game is not about hard power; it’s about soft.  With failure to understand this,  our score, when it comes to “game-set-match”, will be  entirely our own fault.

Next: hard versus soft.