China’s Maginot Line

August 11, 2015

For special access to experts and other members of the national security community, check out the new War on the Rocks membership.

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

We have retired our comments section, but if you want to talk to other members of the natsec community about War on the Rocks articles, the War Hall is the place for you. Check out our membership at!

11 thoughts on “China’s Maginot Line

  1. Assuming what China is doing out there, is just that, from the perspective of “they must be up to no good, otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it”. Comparing apples and oranges, doesn’t exactly instill confidence, though it may bring some recognition to the authors thinking process. For better or worse, as the saying goes, “what happens in China’s back yard, is their business, until it intrudes on everyone else.

    1. 1. Except it’s way BEYOND their legal territory and well WITHIN the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone.

      2. They’ve intruded in the way of intimidating local Filipino fishers by shoving huge naval ships too near their wooden boats.

      3. The Philippines has been trying to resolve the issue diplomatically to no avail.

    2. Why do people always get stuck on right and wrong? Its pretty simple, the US sponsors a security architecture in Asia which has kept the region peaceful and prosperous for half a century. Part of maintaining that architecture is being able to do things like intervene in the Taiwan straights and defend Taipei from aggression. What China is doing threatens the USN’s ability to support its allies in the western pacific. That’s pretty much all of it. Does the US value its position in the western pacific or not? Or would it prefer Chinese hegemony or a re-militarised and nuclear Japan and large scale regional arms race? Its response to China’s actions are the answer to that question.

  2. China’s awareness of its vulnerability to energy choke points is a major factor driving the One Belt, One Road initiative and other infrastructure projects. That being said, it’s hard to tell if this will significantly improve their trade security, particularly as they seek to build in areas like Balochistan and Kachin.

  3. The focus of U.S. policymakers is on the South China Sea, however, there is a continuation of the “One Road, One Belt” that extends towards the oilfields of the Middle East. China has a invested in building shipping facilities and ports in Africa and the Indian Ocean and a proposed oil line from Pakistan to China. This will create a route bypassing the Malacca Straits and interference by the U.S. or neighboring countries.

  4. A very interesting article. However, it must be said that France did not tie its best forces to the Maginot Line in 1940. In fact, the French Army’s best and most modern formations were arrayed along the Belgian border. When Germany attacked Norway, Denmark and Holland, the cream of the French Army (along with the BEF) advanced into Belgium to meet the enemy onslaught. As we all know, this turned out to be a feint and the main German attack came through the Ardennes at Sedan. Thus the best of the French Army and the BEF were cut off. On the other hand, the Maginot Line held out until the armistice.

  5. Unfortunately this article fails to look at what circumstances might bring rise to a conflict needing such US responses. One could argue that the way in which the argument is framed makes it look like a hostile US action – I’m not sure that the U.S. would appreciate an analogy that paints them as the aggressors, let alone the Nazis. If the Chinese preparations are defensive in nature as this article suggests, then it is more important to identify WHY the U.S. would be on the offensive rather than the means it would use to achieve success. Perhaps it is articles such as this that lead the Chinese to believe they need a Maginot line… Now surely that is a more interesting historical analogy to discuss?

  6. Just a few small points;

    1) the maginot line was held by Frances weakest forces, not its best.

    2) It was fatally weakened by the Belgian declaration of neutrality in 1937. Before that it effectively linked up with the Belgian fortress zone near Leige.

    3) Neither party expected any real fighting across the southern part of the front. The Maginot line was designed to divert the conflict into Belgium, and the allies deployed their best mobile formations there. It was successful in achieving this.

    4) France was always going to be on the strategic defensive until Britain could effectively mobilise, given the military disparity between Germany and France. This rationale is not the same for the PLA, as unlike France it is not the status quo power.

  7. US planners are constantly talking about the vulnerability of US basing on the first island chain, but IMHO the PLA outposts are just as vulnerable. A single B1-B with 26 JASSM-ER’s would devastate an island facility just as this, and with a 500nm engagement envelope would be very, very difficult to stop. Thus this defensive line appears extremely vulnerable to me, given the limited local fighter protection and distance from PLAAF basing on the mainland, not to mentions the PLAAF’s reasonably meagre AEW and tanker assets. How would the PLA stop a concerted assault on its outer defences by strategic air power with standoff weapons – which could be launched directly from CONUS – or TACTOMS fired from SSN’s? Given the USAF’s formidable capability in this arm, I personally don’t see how.

    Thus, rather than the Maginot Line, perhaps a better analogy is the German Belgian offensive of 1914. The Belgians had invested in massive fortifications on its border with Germany, much like the Maginot forts in design. After an initial assault by three picked German divisions was bloodily repulsed by the Belgians, the Germans moved up a pair of 15 inch siege ‘mortars’. In less than a week these formidable fortifications were demolished by indirect fire to which the Belgians had no answer. Perhaps a B1-B with 26 JASSM-ER’s is 2020’s 17 inch siege gun?