Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Problem? What problem?

Robert Farley discusses the question of sea-lane control facing the delightfully named People's Liberation Army Navy.
"China faces a very basic set of maritime problems. The PRC draws its most important resources from across an ocean that it cannot control, and exports most of its finished goods to overseas partners who similarly lay beyond the reach of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Whether or not the PLAN can deter or defeat the U.S. Navy (USN) in China’s littoral, the organization’s true test lies in its ability to secure the PRC’s critical lines of communication."
I link to the article here not so much as a recommendation of Farley's analysis but as a conversation starter.

Much has been made recently of the U.S. "turn east"; renewed interest in and contemplation of the situation along the West Pacific littoral as well as curiosity over the PRC's intentions regarding her maritime "near abroad". Farley comes to what I would consider the "textbook" conclusion:
" skipping ahead the PLAN has left itself bereft of the kind of low cost, medium size platforms that can support sea control operations at a distance from home. The lack of these sea control platforms (or suitable alternatives) will leave the PLAN at a serious disadvantage when and if it needs to protect lines of communication in unfriendly environments. Liaoning can only operate in one place at a time, and only for a limited time period. The PLAN might have been better served by adopting the more evolutionary Soviet approach to naval aviation."
But I guess my question here would be; why would the PLAN really need much naval aviation at all?

The PRC, although more "maritime" today than at nearly any period in her history, is still largely a continental power. One of the reasons she has been so interested in central Asia is securing access to Afghan natural gas, Iranian and Pakistani oil, and similar petroleum resources in the former Soviet 'stans.

She also has to consider what her naval options are. To attempt to compete with the USN and its likely allies' naval airpower would require a 1914-Kriegsmarine-like naval race complete with a fairly significant aircraft and shipbuilding program. But what if, instead, the PLAN could concentrate in sinking the USN's carrier platforms? What if, instead, China concentrated on sea-denial, depending on deterrence to keep the enemy airstrikes away from its merchies? What if her submarine force became, in effect, the "escort carriers" of the US-China Pacific War, chasing off and sinking the US carriers much as the CVEs did the U-boats of 1944? And what, if anything, should the U.S. and the USN do about that?

(Mind you - the FIRST thought that occurs to me is "Don't get involved in a war with China", so there's that...)


(Oh, and as we know, the Taiwanese aren't worried. Because they have mastered Decepticon technology...)

Update 3/28: As a counter to the Farley piece, here's Jim Holmes over at The Diplomat arguing that the increased range of modern aircraft actually makes the expense and technical complexity of carrier aviation a greater liability than you'd think:
"First, if future combat aircraft boast ranges measured in thousands of miles, it's worth asking at what point navies can dispense with mobile airfields altogether. UCAVs could operate from strategically placed islands or landmasses abutting important theaters — in effect converting land into an unsinkable aircraft carrier. Persuading allies to host air bases that might expose them to attack could prove tricky. Still, it's worth asking what a world without carriers would look like."


  1. I think you are on the right track. Soviet naval aviation wasn't about commerce or Sea Control, it was about sea-denial. It's purpose was to prevent US Aircraft carriers from reaching strike range (carriers carried nukes at that time and so were strategic platforms) as well as prevent resupply and deployment of forces to Europe and, to a lesser extent, Asia. Along with naval aviation, the Soviets used attack and missile submarines to complete the sea-denial toolkit. The Soviet SSGN's were anti-ship platforms and they generally operated in the Soviet littoral. The Soviet carriers were defensive platforms intended mainly to protect direct littoral areas and, in particular, SSBN bastions from US attack subs.

    So I don't think Farley really understands what the Soviets were doing WRT sea control.

    As for the Chinese, they remain internally focused and aren't as concerned about protecting commerce in blue waters as Farley seems to think they are (or should be). The ability to globally project power for "sea lane control" is a pretty tall order and probably not worth the cost for the Chinese.

  2. One thing about this I think we're not seeing, Andy, is the competition going on between the PLAN submarine arm and USN ASW branches. That seems to me to be entirely more critical that this farkling about with aeroplanes.

    Given that getting into a shooting war with the PRC would be bad idea on first principles, ISTM that if such a clusterfuck WERE to happen that it would matter a great deal if the PLAN submarines were effective at neutralizing the USN naval airpower meaning that the question of how effective the USN's ASW platforms would be is critical as well.

    A USN unable to eliminate the threat to their carriers from a PLAN submarine arm would seem to me to be in a serious sea-denial sort of trouble. Likewise the PLAN would need to feel some sort of confidence that they could degrade the effectiveness of the USN's premier strike arm before they got too cocky at sea.

    Farley has done this before; he seems very 1945ish in his continued fixation on carrier aviation.

  3. Chief,

    I've been out of the Navy for long enough now that my knowledge level is dated and limited enough to be dangerous, but my sense is that, technologically speaking, ASW is best performed by subs. With quieting technologies and long-range homing torpedoes available, it's hard for surface ships and aircraft to compete with the submarine.

  4. My understanding of naval tactics and techniques is limited to the purely academic but my understanding is that you're correct with the caveat that a lot of ASW is a team effort, with multiple layers of security; the subs hunt the subs at distance while escort vessels and aircraft are used for a screen around the carriers.

    But whatever the means and methods I think the trick is to make the PLAN so uncertain of their ability to deny critical sea-lanes to the USN that they won't even try. If they can figure out some combination of SSNs, land-based aviation, and ballistic antiship missiles then they might actually be in a position to take a whack, if they were crazy and desperate enough on all other levels.

    One suspects that won't happen, but military planners almost have to assume that even the impossible occurs now and then...

  5. Concur with Andy regarding his comments on Farley's misunderstandings and also on subs being the ultimate sub-hunter/killers. On the other hand I think Farley has a point on the Chinese Navy's problem in deep blue water. They are the ones with a huge merchant fleet and with vital exports to protect. Why would they even want to start a war with their best customer, destroy their trade routes, and potentially their economy. As of now there is no way they could keep those trade routes open. Could they in the future, perhaps? But not for a long time. IMHO they don't want a war with us, they just want to bully a few of their small neighbors into territorial concessions. And just use their crazy proxy - Kim Il-Sung's grandson - to try to keep us off of the table and out of their business.

    I have been following James Holmes at his Naval Diplomat blog for awhile. He is a professor at the Naval War College, a former Naval Officer and an all-around smart cookie. A bio is here: Holmes Bio

    Having followed Holmes' blog I believe he is only asking the question about land based sea power to stimulate thought and is not advocating getting rid of carriers - or not at this time anyway. He is doing it to get the conversation going as Chief did above in the second paragraph of his post: "I link to the article here not so much as a recommendation of Farley's analysis but as a conversation starter."

    Many of Holmes' commentators made some valid points:

    1] The PLAN anti-ship ballistic missile requires some very sophisticated over-the-horizon targeting which is open to disruption. Could they pull a surprise 'Pearl Harbor' or a 'Mirs-el-Kebir' or a 9/11? Of course, but hopefully only once.

    2] 2000 nmi combat radius of drones does not put their unsinkable island base out of harms way. Those immovable island airfielda are easily targeted by China's ballistic missiles and are a lot easier to target than a moving task force. No sophisticated OTH targeting tricks are required.

    3] Whose islands are we talking about? Which allies are going to allow us to build drone airbases? Whoever it is they will extract a pound of flesh in both dollars and diplomatic concessions.

    4] What about the SM-3 and AEGIS? Haven't they intercepted ballistic missiles in a dozen or more tests? I am not up to date but they have been around for about 15 years so I would think the latest versions are damn sophisticated and a match for this ChiCom Navy ASBM. How many re-entry vehicles does that thing have.

    5] On the other hand an archipelago of island based aircraft carriers is not a new idea. Island based airfields were used throughout WW2 by the IJN, USN and RAF in all theaters: Iceland, the Azores, Malta throughout the Caribbean, and in all major island groups of the Pacific. They were used to supplement (not replace) carrier based aircraft which is till a good idea.

    6] Drones and current cruise missiles are both subsonic, but cruise missiles are a lot cheaper and a lot less complicated. Instead of continuing the work on drones, put your acquisition money into a supersonic (or even hypersonic) cruise missiles. Build up a non-ballistic Prompt Global Strike, or restart Waverider, or ????? Make them air or sub launched.

    Anyway my guess is that carrier based aviation will be around for awhile.

  6. mike: I'm guessing you're right, and that the big flattops will still be sailing the bounding main for some time yet. They do provide a lot of value for their large costs, especially for the U.S.

    But I don't see that the PRC would get a similar benefit for that cost. ISTM that the PLAN would be both cost- and geopolitically-effective as a sea-denial force, and that means a much smaller investment in naval aviation. Not saying that there's no reason to fool around with it. But I do think that with carrier decks there's little point in having more than a handful or less unless you're planning to try and fight the next Pacific War. And, as you point out, that on its face makes little sense for the PRC.

  7. On the other hand:

    Jim Holmes has another post on the big flattops at the USNI website titled "Opinion: History’s Costliest Fleet Auxiliary".

    Maybe he is right? $13.5B for the next supercarrier USS Gerald R Ford is not something to sneeze at and that does not count the cost of crew and five plus squadrons of air.

    Holmes is an old battleship sailor though so maybe he is just sounding off old bias. Or maybe not, he has some good points.

  8. Well, I think the issue here is what my old sensei Rummy would have called the "unknown unknowns". Specifically, how survivable is a modern CVN? The point that Holmes makes that's hard to simply ignore is the effect of the "missile revolution"; an enemy no longer has to sail or fly a human within sight of a USN carrier to attack it. And we don't really have any sort of idea how effective those attacks might be.

    Obviously the USN still believes that the CVN is a "capital ship" and is worth even that ginormous cost. But we don't really know and never will until that naval battle is fought. It may be that there is a Midway waiting out there with the SSM or the guided torpedo playing the part of the aircraft of 1942...

    Hopefully we won't know in our lifetimes...

  9. And, just as an aside, can we fucking STOP with the naming of the premier capital ships of the USN after goddamn mediocre politicians. Bad enough that a racist POS like Carl Vinson gets one, but at least he was a rabid Navy fanatic back in the day. But Ford? Bush 41? Christ, how indifferent a pol can you be and still get a carrier named after you? It would be like the British naming a ship after Stanley Baldwin or the French one after Édouard Daladier...

  10. I agree Chief. The Continental Navy did much better: Constitution, Independence, Congress, Enterprise, Diligent, or names of small creatures with a potent sting Hornet and Wasp. But even then there was political gamesmanship as the USS Bonhomme Richard was reportedly named in honor of Ben Franklin's Almanac.

    We also did better 70+ years ago naming capitol ships after states, battles, heroes, cities, even counties, islands or forts for many amphibs.

    You gotta love the ship names of the Japanese.
    A/C Carriers were named after birds or mythical creatures, e.g.: Prancing Dragon, Fortunate Phoenix, Flying Crane.
    Battleships were after provinces, cruisers after mountains or rivers, destroyers after occurrences in nature such as: Thunder, Twilight, Typhoon, Black Tide, Autumn Wind. Poetry!