Small Wars

This Week at War: An Arms Race America Can’t Win

The United States has no chance in ship-for-ship showdown with China. Luckily, it shouldn't have to have one.


In a speech delivered on June 2 to the Shangri-La Security Dialogue conference in Singapore, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta attempted to convince his audience that America’s "rebalancing" strategy to the Asia-Pacific region — previous called a "pivot" — is serious and will be backed by expanded military power. Panetta announced that by 2020, 60 percent of the U.S. Navy will be positioned in the Pacific. He also openly discussed the controversial Air-Sea Battle concept, while denying that the reinforcements and new plans are a challenge to China. He also promised to step up the presence of U.S. military forces in the region, both through new basing arrangements and by an expanded list of training exercises with partner military forces.

Panetta likely hoped his remarks would bolster the credibility of the administration’s strategy. On closer examination, there is less to Panetta’s Pacific naval buildup than meets the eye. The U.S. Navy’s intelligence office, by contrast, expects China’s naval expansion this decade to be more substantial, especially when it comes to its submarine force. The reinforcements that Panetta discussed and new ideas like the Air-Sea Battle concept are necessary but insufficient responses to the worsening military trends in the region. The United States should not expect to win an arms race in the Western Pacific. Instead, it will have to find other more enduring advantages if it hopes to craft a sustainable strategy for the region.

Panetta’s promise to base 60 percent of the U.S. fleet in the Pacific was not news — Navy Secretary Ray Mabus announced this intention in a speech back in March. Panetta’s assertion that there is currently a "50/50 percent split between the Pacific and the Atlantic" is also not quite right. According to the department’s website, of the Navy’s 186 major conventional warships (aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, amphibious ships, and attack and cruise missile submarines), 101, or 54 percent, current have home ports on the Pacific Ocean. The Navy’s latest 30-year shipbuilding plan forecasts 181 of these major combat ships in the fleet in 2020. A 60 percent allocation implies 109 major combatants in the Pacific in 2020, an increase of eight such ships from today.

On the other hand, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) forecasts that China’s navy will own 106 major warships in 2020, up from 86 in 2009. Seventy-two of these are expected to be attack submarines, compared to 29 for the United States in the Pacific in 2020, under the 60 percent allocation assumption. For the two decades beyond 2020, the U.S. Navy’s shipbuilding plan projects no increase in the number of major warships. China’s long-range shipbuilding plans are unknown; however, its defense budget has increased at an 11.8 percent compound annual rate, after inflation, between 2000 and 2012, with no indications of any changes to that trend.

Of course, counting ships does not tell the whole story. Even more critical are the missions assigned to these ships and the conditions under which they will fight. In a hypothetical conflict between the United States and China for control of the South and East China Seas, the continental power would enjoy substantial structural advantages over U.S. forces.

China, for instance, would be able to use its land-based air power, located at many dispersed and hardened bases, against naval targets. The ONI forecasts China’s inventory of maritime strike aircraft rising from 145 in 2009 to 348 by 2020. U.S. land-based air power in the Western Pacific operates from just a few bases, which are vulnerable to missile attack from China (the Cold War-era Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty prevents the United States from developing theater-based surface-to-surface missiles with ranges sufficient to put Chinese bases at risk). A comparison of ship counts similarly does not include China’s land-based anti-ship cruise missiles, fired from mobile truck launchers. Nor does it account for China’s fleet of coastal patrol boats, also armed with anti-ship cruise missiles.

The Air-Sea Battle concept began as an effort to improve staff coordination and planning between the Navy and the Air Force in an effort to address the structural disadvantages these forces would have when going up against a well-armed continental power like China. The concept is about creating operational synergies between the services. An example of this synergy occurred in last year’s campaign against Libya, when U.S. Navy cruise missiles destroyed Libya’s air defense system, clearing the way for the U.S. Air Force to operate freely over the country.

But Air-Sea Battle still faces enormous challenges in overcoming the "home court" advantage a continental power enjoys deploying its missile forces from hidden, dispersed, and hardened sites. In addition, the United States faces a steep "marginal cost" problem with an opponent like China; additional defenses for U.S. ships are more expensive than additional Chinese missiles. And China can acquire hundreds or even thousands of missiles for the cost of one major U.S. warship.

Given these structural weaknesses, Air-Sea Battle’s success will rely not on endlessly parrying the enemy’s missiles, but striking deeply at the adversary’s command posts, communications networks, reconnaissance systems, and basing hubs in order to prevent missiles from being launched in the first place. Such strikes would mean attacks on space systems, computer networks, and infrastructure, with implications for the broader civilian economy and society. Some critics of Air-Sea Battle reason that raising the stakes in this manner would make terminating a conflict much more difficult and would escalate the conflict into domains — such as space and cyber — that are particular vulnerabilities for the United States.

The United States won’t be able to win an arms race against China and currently has no plans to do so. Nor can the Pentagon count on superior military technology; China already has impressive scientific and engineering capabilities, which are only getting better. Instead, U.S. policymakers need to discover enduring strategic advantages that don’t require keeping a qualitative or quantitative lead in weapons. Geography may be one such benefit. In a conflict, the so-called First Island Chain that runs from Japan to Taiwan and then to the Philippines could become a barrier to the Chinese navy and provide outposts for U.S. and allied sensors and missiles. China would likely view such preparations as a provocation, but from the allied perspective, they will complicate Chinese military planning.

Second, the United States and its allies are far more experienced at planning and conducting complicated military operations that require coordination across countries and military services. With a long-established network of alliances and partnerships in the region, U.S. commanders and their counterparts have accumulated decades of experience operating together. One aspect of Air-Sea Battle is to further extend this advantage.  

The most powerful U.S. advantage is the alliance network itself. Washington’s long list of treaty allies and partners provides options for U.S. and allied policymakers and planners. The alliance network could also help convert the threat of escalation to a U.S. advantage. The more U.S. military forces are able to disperse across the region, at temporary or rotational basing arrangements, the more difficult it will be for China to gain an advantage with military power. In order to achieve such an advantage, China will have to attack a wider number of countries, bringing them into a war on the U.S. side. This prospect should deter conflict from beginning.

The more successful U.S. diplomacy is at building up a large network in the region, the stronger the deterrent effect and the less risk assumed by each member. With its outreach to ASEAN countries and others over the past decade, the United States seems to be on this path. New rotational basing deals with Australia, Singapore, and the Philippines are more evidence of this approach. But more diplomatic success will be required as the challenge from China increases.

U.S. military planners face unfavorable trends in the Western Pacific. Panetta and his lieutenants have sent reinforcements to the region and are rewriting their military doctrines. Although these measures necessary, U.S. policymakers will need another way. Good strategy requires finding enduring advantages. The alliance network in the region provides U.S. commanders with partner military forces, basing options, operational experience, and deterrence against escalation, advantages China won’t match any time soon. In this sense, the solution to the challenging military problem U.S. forces face in the Western Pacific will be found as much with more diplomacy as with more firepower.

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