07 December 2009

Mahan’s Lingering Ghost

James R. Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, Mahan’s Lingering Ghost,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 135, No. 12 (December 2009).

Alfred Thayer Mahan remains as relevant today in his logic and operational grammar as he was in the 19th century with his doctrines of capital ship and major fleet action.

The future of American sea power turns on the U.S. Navy’s ability to preserve ready access to East Asia, one of two central theaters for U.S. maritime operations. The other, the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf, lies off South and Southwest Asian shores. America’s strategic gaze is now fixed squarely on maritime Asia. But costs are escalating while acquisition budgets are stagnant. The result is inexorable downward pressure on the size of the Fleet. The Sea Services’ ability to execute the 2007 Maritime Strategy is, as a result, increasingly in doubt.

Meanwhile, the Navy’s most likely antagonist, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), is on the opposite trajectory. The PLAN has armed itself with a panoply of new ships, submarines, and aircraft. Few would claim that these assets equal their American counterparts on a one-to-one basis, but the Chinese fleet has the luxury of focusing on Asia, whereas the United States has commitments spanning the globe. Washington cannot apply maximum force to any single theater, however important. Quantity matters at vital points—as does proximity to the theater.

An antiship ballistic missile (ASBM) reportedly in the works could change the rules of the game altogether, holding off U.S. forces while the Chinese navy pursues its aims in regard to fellow Asian nations. ASBM bombardment—or even the threat of it—could dissuade U.S. expeditionary groups from venturing into the region, or cause severe problems if they did. The PLAN would have denied a superior adversary the use of nearby expanses such as the Yellow, East China, and South China seas while positioning itself to exercise sea control.

Debates over access take place mainly on the operational, tactical, and force-structure levels. This is understandable. Antiaccess strategy is the most direct way China might attempt to shut America out of its maritime environs, and it is dramatic. For Americans, the image of a flattop engulfed in flames conjures up memories of World War II, the last time U.S. Navy carrier task forces found themselves in mortal jeopardy. (See Proceedings, May 2009.) This concentrates minds.

From an operational standpoint, access equates to the ability to force entry into the region despite stubborn resistance. One RAND Corporation study depicts access denial as combined military and nonmilitary measures that delay U.S. and allied forces’ arrival in-theater, hinder or prevent those forces from using bases in the region, and keep power-projection assets as far away as possible. This is a working definition of how China might bar entry to its offshore “contested zone,” exploiting nearby assets, manpower, and the myriad advantages enjoyed by the home team. …