war on the rocks

China’s A2/AD is a Far Cry from the Maginot Line

August 14, 2015

Robbie Gramer and Rachel Rizzo wrote a nifty article this week likening China’s anti-access/area-denial strategy (A2/AD) and forces to the Maginot Line, the defensive works that ringed interwar France. Rather than batter against this A2/AD frontier, say Gramer and Rizzo, U.S. and allied forces should try to outflank them. Avoid strength, attack weakness: classic wisdom from the strategic canon.

This all makes sense from a tactical and operational standpoint. It says little about strategy or politics. And indeed, the idea of vaulting over or bypassing the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) thicket of anti-ship and anti-air defenses isn’t especially novel. The debate over whether and how American naval forces should mount a “distant blockade” far from Chinese shores has raged for a decade or so now. Aviators, particularly of the U.S. Air Force variety, are big proponents of flying over Chinese ramparts to strike at vulnerable places behind them. To deploy a metaphor from siege warfare, some proposed strategies amount to erecting ultramodern counterwalls parallel to China’s anti-access zone — hemming in shipping without hitting the mainland. Everything old is new again, it seems.

Transposed to China, though, there’s a lot more to the Maginot Line analogy than tactics, operations, and widgets. Think about it. If Gramer and Rizzo say the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has constructed an offshore Maginot Line, they’ve cast China in the part of interwar France, the PLA in the part of the French Army. Doing so misleads.

Why? Consider what French commanders and officialdom were trying to accomplish through fixed defenses. The Maginot Line was a passive defensive strategy manifest in concrete and metal. Military engineers enclosed the French homeland within a static defense perimeter (except, fatally, for a segment along the northern frontier) in hopes of deterring Germany from attacking, or letting German armies dash themselves against fixed fortifications if deterrence failed. The fortifications were effective as passive defenses go — hence the German commanders’ decision to detour around them, finding the path of least resistance.

At the time, France needed defensive works to fend off an enemy offensive against its homeland from an immediate, predatory neighbor. China can rig a barricade that encloses not just its homeland but the maritime theaters and geographic features it cares about most. That gives its offshore defenses an offensive — not just defensive — character. Now, A2/AD is not a Maginot Line in any strict sense. It’s more like a shatterbelt than a solid barrier. A shatterbelt is a barrier designed to give but — preferably — not break. It’s much like the crumple zone in your car, which absorbs the impact from a collision and is demolished, but in the process protects the important thing: the passengers. If it works, nonetheless, A2/AD constitutes a defensive perimeter that aspires to lock the PLA’s most formidable opponent, the U.S. Pacific Fleet, out of the China seas; isolate the Japan-based Seventh Fleet from reinforcements steaming from Hawaii or North America; and seal in rivals such as Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam as well as geographic objectives such as the Senkaku Islands and South China Sea.

Isolating the theater would constitute a significant feat if successful, simplifying a host of strategic problems for PLA commanders. To continue the thought experiment, it’s as though pre-World War I France had managed to build a Maginot Line that not only hardened its own metropolitan frontiers against imperial German attack but also enclosed Alsace-Lorraine (territory along the Franco-German border that Germany had seized in 1871 and Paris dearly wanted back). Wall off something you want from intervention by your chief foe and you’ve pulled a strategic masterstroke.

Nor does China need an impenetrable defense line the way France did. A Chinese Maginot Line’s primary purpose is to buy the PLA time, not perfect protection. The PLA needs A2/AD to slow down U.S. Pacific Fleet reinforcements while China works its will in East Asia behind that protective shield. How long would it take Chinese forces to conquer Taiwan, or wrest the Senkakus from a Japan backed only by the Seventh Fleet and other U.S. joint forces already in the theater? That’s how long a Maginot needs to delay U.S. forces surging westward across the Pacific Ocean. Accomplish that and you hand Washington a fait accompli. That’s a low standard to meet, compared to barring Hitler’s legions from France.

Nor is PLA strategy inert, unlike French military strategy. A2/AD empowers the PLA to prosecute offensive operations against Asian antagonists within Asia, even while it remains on the strategic defensive vis-à-vis the United States. China’s military, furthermore, is amassing the wherewithal to strike out offensively beyond the access-denial zone. Namely, the blue water PLA Navy fleet. A truly effective Maginot Line would liberate China’s battle fleet to operate far from home — say, in the Indian Ocean — without running undue risks in East Asia. Secure frontiers at home lets the fleet roam the seven seas. A2/AD, then, is part of an intensely offensive-minded strategic defense.

And it’s a far cry from interwar French strategy despite outward similarities. From time to time, commentators have invoked the Maginot Line to disparage passive, defensive-minded maritime strategies. No less a figure than Secretary of the Navy Graham Claytor did so in the late 1970s, decrying the U.S. Navy’s post-Vietnam decline into near-decrepitude. The “hollow” Navy, implied Claytor, could do little apart from shield American seacoasts against assault. That logic hardly applies to China, a sea power on the make.

Some walls, like the Maginot Line, are meant for purely defensive purposes. Others — say, Hadrian’s Wall — help pacify rebellious territories while providing a staging point for raiding into an adversary’s territory. The quest for historical analogies that parse Chinese military strategy is a rich one, but comparing Chinese A2/AD to the Maginot Line has its limits.

 

James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.

 

Photo credit: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Shannon Renfroe, U.S. Navy