China’s Maginot Line


For the month of August, we have chosen to feature two original contributions in Strategic Outpost from our next generation of national security thinkers. We hope you enjoy these thoughtful pieces from young men and women already rising to be the future leaders in this field. We’ll return to our regular Barno & Bensahel columns in September. Meanwhile, best wishes for some great summertime reading!


In the 1930s, wary of a revanchist Germany, France constructed an elaborate fortification system stretching across its eastern border. This state-of-the-art defensive network, the Maginot Line, ultimately did little to protect France. Its effect was entirely negated by Nazi Germany’s innovative blitzkrieg strategy that wholly bypassed French defenses, unexpectedly striking through the Ardennes forest and neutral Belgium. The Maginot Line became a ubiquitous symbol of failure in defense planning; an adversary that adapted its offensive strategy to bypass the line quickly rendered one of the strongest and most elaborate defense networks the world had yet seen irrelevant. The lessons of the Maginot Line extend well into the 21st century, as China constructs a coastal and offshore defensive belt to defend both its maritime and territorial claims with high-tech and static capabilities.

With its Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy, China aims to force the U.S. military to operate at a much greater distance from the Chinese mainland. Its coastal missile defense installations are a key component of its overall A2/AD strategy, supporting the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s broader campaigns of air defense, counter-landing, and naval base defense. It further bolsters this strategy through an elaborate system of coastal land-based missiles and aircraft, radars, and the PLAN’s highly trained Coastal Defense Force. Furthermore, the new islands Beijing is building in the South China Sea add to the worries of U.S. defense planners observing China’s expanding A2/AD capabilities. But the islands also force China to consolidate its forces and rely heavily on these small islands in the same way France concentrated its best forces around its advanced and immobile defensive system in the 1930’s.

China’s nascent military presence in the East China Sea, the Straits of Formosa, and the South China Sea are meant to ensure regional dominance and reduce the U.S. ability to operate in the region. According to Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, China’s “coercive island building” is meant to provide new “forward operating bases” to extend the reach of its A2/AD capabilities. Although China argues its land reclamation activities are simply for peaceful purposes like marine research, it is no doubt demonstrating its military prowess. Harris also said he “believe[s] those facilities are clearly military in nature” and that the Chinese are “building revetted aircraft hangars at some of the facilities there that are clearly designed, in my view, to host tactical fighter aircraft.”

A conflict between the United States and China might be a last resort occurring after failed attempts at diplomatic solutions to a crisis. However, conflict could also arise through an accidental confrontation that escalates rather than through a deliberate provocation. Whatever the cause, defense planners must be prepared for every contingency.

Clearly, no U.S. policymakers want a war with China, nor should they. But in the unlikely event of a conflict, the U.S. military strategy for fighting China appears designed to rush headlong into China’s Maginot Line. U.S. countermeasures to Chinese capabilities have thus far been primarily reactive and based on building up capabilities that would directly face China’s hardened coastal defense systems rather than implementing innovative and flexible concepts that would render China’s defense ineffective, as Germany did in 1940 against France. For every anti-ship missile China develops, the United States responds by installing electronic warfare protection on its ships. For the ballistic missile systems China constructs, the United States parries by bolstering missile defense systems that face significant financial, technical, and interoperability hurdles. In nearly every conflict since World War II, the United States enjoyed unmatched technological and numerical superiority. A potential conflict with China is likely to prove an uncomfortable exception, a fact the U.S. military establishment must acknowledge and acclimate to. Innovation and adaptation is key if the United States is to prevail.

Such a conflict would likely hinge on control at sea and in the air rather than control of Chinese territory. Given the stipulations of this scenario, how could the United States bypass China’s emerging defensive belt in order to gain a military advantage in the event of a future conflict? There are at least three ways to do so.

Negate The Effects of the Line: Drone Swarms

Rather than investing in a limited number of cutting-edge, high-tech offensive systems for the Asia-Pacific, the U.S. military could use a massive onslaught of unmanned weapons, a concept defense research labs are already developing. This strategy could overwhelm China’s defense systems and make it difficult for China to determine where exactly to focus their defense. Most drones are cheaper than manned systems, and the Office of Naval Research emphasizes the utility of this technology, concluding “even hundreds of small autonomous UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] cost less than a single tactical aircraft.”

Autonomous swarms of hundreds or even thousands of drones, each equipped with electronic warfare pods, offensive jammers, smart missiles, and various other capabilities attacking China’s coastline defense systems could prove to be more effective than a handful of F-35s in this environment. Because small drones are cheap and unmanned, they are largely expendable. This could be decisive in a mercurial, high-tech warfare environment. Although drone technology would go head-to-head against China’s strongest capabilities, it could negate the effects of China’s Maginot line by overwhelming its defenses.

Go Around the Line: Strategic Bombers

This fall, the Defense Department will award the contract for a new Long-Range Strategic Bomber (LRS-B) to either Northrop Grumman or a team of Lockheed Martin and Boeing. The United States could use this new platform and its existing fleet of strategic bombers to inflict heavy damage on China’s command and control systems and other strategically important targets located deep in the mainland.

With the LRS-B, the United States could simply bypass China’s defense systems along its coast in the east — for example, by approaching China from the west after launching from its Diego Garcia airbase in the Indian Ocean. Any Chinese defense against this threat would require thinning out defense installations along the coast to defend further inland. Although measurements of success in 21st-century warfare aren’t necessarily defined by taking enemy capitals and holding territory, deep strikes in the mainland would significantly increase the pressure on the Chinese regime in the unlikely event of a conflict with the United States.

Make the Line Irrelevant: Energy Chokepoints

In the event of a prolonged military conflict, the United States could also block China’s worldwide energy chokepoints that have vital military importance. China imported 60 percent of its oil and 32 percent of its natural gas in 2014. The U.S. military should be prepared to block oil destined for China both in the Straits of Hormuz, where 43 percent of China’s oil imports must pass through from the Middle East, and in the Straits of Malacca, through which over 80 percent of China’s oil imports must pass. The United States should also plan to block Chinese gas pipelines with supplies emanating from key suppliers such as Russia and Kazakhstan. All of these chokepoints are outside China’s defensive belt and in range of U.S. air and sea capabilities. Given China’s dependence on energy imports — Beijing is the world’s largest energy consumer — any pressure on energy supply would force the PLA to substantially adapt its plans based on reduced energy sources.

In 1938, the year the Maginot Line was completed, France invested one-fifth of its government expenditures in its military. Yet Germany defeated France in just six weeks in 1940, rendering all of that spending and the entire sophisticated defense line obsolete. Germany proved that innovation and military flexibility can overcome even the most fortified and ostensibly well-defended territories. The United States should do the same as it faces the emerging Maginot Line along China’s coast. Taken together, the three options above will make any military operation against China much more effective, and by extension increase its chances of success. Utilizing mutually supportive platforms and new capabilities, the United States could force China to react to U.S. capabilities, rather than continuing to react to China’s. This is the modern lesson of the 1940 Maginot Line, and one that the United States should learn as it prepares for an increasingly contested Western Pacific.


Robbie Gramer is associate director of the Atlantic Council’s Transatlantic Security Initiative. Rachel Rizzo is a program assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Strategy Initiative.


Photo credit: CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative / DigitalGlobe