A recently released U.S. Maritime warfare strategy document specifies China as the only major threat to the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard and Marines, given the fast-expanding size, scope and technological sophistication of its Navy. The strategy, called “Advantage at Sea: Prevailing With Integrated All Domain Naval Power,” specifies a number of particular concerns regarding Chinese maneuvers in the Pacific.
“China has implemented a strategy and revisionist approach that aims at the heart of the United States’ maritime power. It seeks to corrode international maritime governance, deny access to traditional logistical hubs, inhibit freedom of the seas, control use of key chokepoints, deter our engagement in regional disputes, and displace the United States as the preferred partner in countries around the world,” the strategy writes.
As part of its in depth description of the maritime threats posed by China, the strategy raises the significant point that China has a particular mass or concentration of large Naval forces in the Pacific, something quite larger than the U.S. presence in the region. While China is of course well known for having expansionist global ambitions to include Africa, and The Middle East, among others, its forces do operate in large concentrated numbers in the Pacific, creating a disproportionate advantage in the region.
It is perhaps with this in mind that the strategy details several aggressive Chinese efforts to include “militarizing” the South China Sea, asserting what the U.S. and its allies regard as “unlawful claims” to disputed territory in the area. The document also says China is “stealing” resources from other nations and building the world’s largest missile arsenal capable of threatening U.S. and allied forces in Guam and other areas throughout SouthEast Asia.
“Whereas U.S. naval forces are globally dispersed, supporting U.S. interests and deterring aggression from multiple threats, China’s numerically larger forces are primarily concentrated in the Western Pacific,” the strategy states. At the same time, the strategy makes a key point to emphasize Chinese expansionist aims in areas such as the Indian Ocean, Arctic and even the Atlantic Ocean.
Citing China’s “multi-layered” fleet, the strategy and growing arsenal of ballistic, nuclear and hypersonic missiles, the strategy seems to recognize that, when it comes to maritime warfare, China is by far the most serious and significant threat to the U.S. As part of this, China’s rapid military modernization, particularly its Naval forces, are now amid a massive expansion, as the country deploys new Type 075 amphibs, stealthy Type 055 destroyers and multiple new aircraft carriers bearing a resemblance to the U.S. Ford-class carriers. Added to the maritime threat equation is that China is known to be engineering a carrier-launched variant of its 5th-Gen J-31 stealth fighter in a clear attempt to rival the U.S. amphib-launched F-35B or carrier-launched F-35C. Undersea, China continues to build new Jin-class ballistic missile submarines, soon to be armed with JL-3 nuclear-armed missiles able to travel 4,000 nautical miles to a target.
When discussing the nature of the fast-growing Chinese Naval threat, the strategy calls upon the U.S. Navy to “act with urgency.”
“China’s aggressive actions are undermining the international rules-based order, while its growing military capacity and capabilities are eroding U.S. military advantages at an alarming rate. The Naval Service must act with urgency, clarity, and vision to take the bold steps required to reverse these trends,” the strategy states.
If the Chinese Navy is already larger than the U.S. Navy, and on track to reach as many as 500 ships by 2030, without even counting its militarized Coast Guard vessels …. could the U.S. Navy find itself spread too thin in the event that concentrated Chinese maritime forces in the Pacific were to mount some kind of offensive or aggressive military action?
The U.S. Navy places a massive priority upon operating forward in vital hotspots throughout the world, and while the Pentagon has been increasing its number of Naval assets in the Pacific, its forces are dispersed throughout the world to include the Batic Sea, Black Sea, Meditterannean Sea, Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf. Perhaps by virtue of being so wide spanning and global in scope, the U.S. Navy could find itself outnumbered and outgunned in certain concentrated areas by a larger Chinese Naval force should conflict erupt in the Pacific.
The Navy’s new tri-service maritime warfare strategy, called Advantage at Sea: Prevailing With Integrated All Domain Naval Power,” entertains and seeks to counter this risk by maintaining “forward-deployed, combat-credible forces” to “deter potential adversaries from escalating into conflict by making that fight unwinnable for them.”
Are there circumstances wherein an adversary might think it could launch a “winnable” fight in a particular area given the absence of a large scale Naval force of heavy warships? This may be part of why, at least as of the end of last year, the Navy still envisioned a 500-ship Navy as an aim point or goal toward which to strive. This would include a heavy mix of manned and unmanned vessels able to disperse yet network effectively and rely upon long-range sensors and weapons to exact any kind of needed warfare operations.
However, will the Navy maintain its plan to expand to 500 or more ships as quickly as possible, to keep pace with or at least rival China’s intent to hit that number within a decade? Perhaps the Biden administration will adjust the aim point to a smaller size as was the case during the Obama years. If so, could the Navy find itself spread way too thin to respond effectively in the event that larger numbers of concentrated enemy forces moved decisively to launch large-scale attacks or take over an area.
The Tri-service strategy does say that, while China of course has well known expansionist global ambitions, PLA Navy forces are very concentrated in the Pacific, a circumstance which presents the risk of U.S. forces being largely outnumbered in any kind of maritime engagement.
However, if properly fortified by a large, multi-domain network of meshed combat nodes such as surveillance planes, submarines, aerial, surface and undersea drones, could a smaller, more dispersed U.S. Naval force succeed in deterring or stopping any kind of Chinese offensive in the Pacific? There may be a case to be made, when one considers that weapons range, networking capabilities and multi-domain operational capability could potentially compensate for having a numerically smaller force. Perhaps weapons effectiveness and an ability to instantly share targeting specifics with fighter jets, surface ships, drones, submarines, or even ground-weapons along a coastline might prove much more decisive in warfare than simply having a certain number of ships?
“As existing elements of our force structure continue to provide combat-credible power and strategic deterrence, increased integration will enable us to do more with the forces we already have,” the strategy writes.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.