Avoiding the Charge of the Light Brigade Against China
Editor’s Note: This week, War on the Rocks is featuring some old favorites from the archives. This article was originally published in 2016.
Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them, Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell, Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death, Into the mouth of hell,
Rode the six hundred.
-Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Charge of the Light Brigade
C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre: c’est de la folie.
– Marshal Pierre François Joseph Bosquet, observing the Light Brigade
“The Charge of the Light Brigade” provides a classic example of the subordination of military skill in favor of courage and stubbornness, seasoned with a generous measure of poor leadership and a dash of sheer chaos. The 1854 charge in the Crimean War involved an unsupported light cavalry charge directed against the wrong objective at the conclusion of the Battle of Balaclava, which the British had already won. While the diminished brigade successfully reached the wrong Russian guns and slaughtered the gunners, the only objective that they secured was to ensure that they could retreat at no hazard from the artillery fire they had just attacked through. This illustrates, on the tactical level, the Pentagon’s current vision for dealing with the so-called anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) environment. The current view of dealing with a generic A2/AD environment is unnecessarily focused on a tech-heavy widget-on-widget battle fought at the tactical level, devoid of military objectives and with limited support from allied nations. A2/AD is a defensive strategy, focused on an intention to deprive American forces, particularly air and naval forces, of their preferred method of warfighting. The key to overcoming this strategy is to work around it — shunning the hyperactive, close-range, quick-kill strategy that underpins what was once called AirSea Battle and the third offset strategy, and doing something else entirely, enhanced by favorable geography and a long-standing alliance structure. Otherwise we risk repeating the Light Brigade’s experience on a grander scale — meaningless tactical victories gained at unacceptably high cost.
The description of the A2/AD challenge is an American creation, not a Chinese or Russian one. The Chinese equivalent developed from a “counter-intervention” doctrine that followed closely behind the success of Desert Storm and was originally designed to prevent U.S. intervention in a conflict between China and Taiwan. This basic doctrine has driven Chinese military development for almost a quarter century. Like AirLand Battle doctrine of the 1980s, Chinese counter-intervention doctrine is focused specifically on the United States and the capabilities demonstrated against Iraq in 1991. It is the equivalent of the second offset strategy, which was focused on blunting the Soviet threat in Europe. The U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) planners who initially developed and then sold AirLand Battle to the rest of the Department of Defense started by knowing who they would fight and where. They had a deep understanding of Soviet warfighting preferences, along with the relevant terrain, prevailing climate and weather, training techniques, and logistical capabilities of the adversary. Chinese military planners used the same basic methodology. Their efforts were enhanced by the fact that the United States has spent so long resting on its laurels and is still prepared to place its bets on the same basic stealth and precision technologies highlighted in the Gulf War, applied the same way.. China’s focus revolves around a credible and flexible missile threat to U.S. bases in the region, matched with an advanced counterair and countermaritime architecture intended to offer a dense, mobile, and flexible threat to the remnants of U.S. forces capable of projecting power against the mainland. Their solution to the threat posed by U.S. power projection capabilities is to combine a robust defense of near battlespace combined with an attack on the basing and logistical structure upon which U.S. forces depend.
China is not the only country using an anti-access strategy aimed at locally inhibiting the U.S. military. Iran relies heavily on mobile but inaccurate ballistic missiles and large numbers of small surface craft to limit U.S. utilization of land and seabasing. Russia, far less exposed to naval forces, leans on advanced air defenses specifically designed to detect and engage low-observable targets at any altitude. Russia’s efforts are comprehensive and aimed at NATO rather than solely against the United States, as Russia recognizes the comparative weakness of NATO’s land forces. The arrows in the Russian quiver also include nuclear, conventional, and unconventional intimidation along with their traditional staple of massed armor. Iranian and Russian A2/AD capabilities have the same genesis — the Gulf War. Indeed, the Chinese counter-intervention efforts used Russian-built equipment as the baseline for most counterair capabilities, a path that the Iranians are likely to follow.
Chinese A2/AD was designed to prevent a repeat a Desert Storm-like campaign employing large numbers of short-range fighters striking terrestrial targets from nearby bases. It is a defensive strategy designed to prevail against a specific set of conditions and threats. From an opposing perspective, there is little point in trying to double down on a tactically-focused, widget-on-widget pseudo-strategy that is inappropriate for both the adversary and the geography. So we should not.
There is a distinction between fighting over the first island chain and fighting from it. The United States has an inbuilt asymmetry with an alliance structure that our adversaries typically lack. With the possible exception of North Korea, China is hemmed in by countries with which it has an adversarial relationship or which are American allies like Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand. Taiwan occupies a uniquely and deliberately ambiguous position in U.S. defense policy, complicating anyChinese defense calculus. The effect of the geography of the Western Pacific is twofold: It provides a natural barrier to maritime and air power projection from China, and offers a very close forward position from which to threaten Chinese interests. This latter condition is a double-edged sword, as U.S. and allied forces in close proximity to China are likewise within range of a massive inventory of strike capability consisting of aircraft, cruise, and ballistic missiles. It may be that operations from terrain in close proximity to China, such as Okinawa, are militarily infeasible. This is a major barrier to executing a repeat of Desert Storm. The Chinese counter-intervention strategy has already succeeded in meeting its design objectives. It is simply not feasible to operate massed air or seapower from China’s front yard.
But the first island chain does not need to be defended from the islands closest to China. The island chain is long and confining. As such, the Pentagon should consider the warfighting implications of the entire chain rather than the tactical vulnerabilities of its weakest elements. Japan’s main islands are further away from China than Okinawa is. On Kyushu, the southernmiost main Japanese island, the airfield density is substantially greater than Okinawa’s, tipping the defensive balance in favor of Japan as the distance from China increases. The Philippine military airfields on Luzon are well out of short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) range and out of reach of unrefueled tactical aviation launched from the mainland. The Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia sit astride China’s primary maritime routes. Because of the U.S. bomber force, Guam and Darwin are credible locations for power projection, despite their distance from China. The tactical objective remains essentially defensive: deny Chinese power projection forces both time and sanctuary and make the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) come outside its protective shell to project power. The tactical defensive enables the strategic offensive, which is where any conflict will be settled.
On the Asian continent, the land domain is paramount, at least along Chinese borders. China largely expanded to natural boundaries, and there have always been formidable barriers to further expansion: rivers, mountains (including the Himalayas), dense jungle, and open desert. China’s ability to dominate this domain falls off rapidly outside China’s borders, although China can still project conventional power for some distance. Proximity aside, the limited transportation infrastructure limits the nature of the PLA’s reach to systems that can strike from a distance. Traditional land-centric force application is heavily constrained by terrain.
For modern China, the maritime domain is absolutely critical. China, in this sense, shares many of the attributes of an island nation. Roughly 98 percent of all traffic (by volume) crossing China’s borders arrives or departs by sea. The port complex of Shanghai moves substantially more volume in 60 days than every road and rail crossing combined move in an entire year. Where China’s portion of the land domain can be controlled effectively by China, the maritime domain extends globally and well outside of China’s capability to project power. Preparations for countering Chinese aggression should focus on the maritime domain because it can be affected from any of the other domains, often at significant distance. The land, air, space, cyber, and undersea domains all reach into the maritime domain.
A focus on the maritime domain moves any strategy discussion away from the political and military challenges with striking the Chinese mainland or fighting close to it. Declining to fight a close game in China’s home waters does not in any way surrender powerful leverage against China. It also partially obviates the challenges of tackling their A2/AD environment head on, instead reversing the advantage and making use of the commanding geographical positions held by Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam. In effect, The United States can counter an anti-access strategy with an anti-access strategy of our own, recognizing that the United States and its allies literally sit astride China’s sea lanes, subjecting them to interdiction. Geography that is unfavorable for a short range, high-intensity operation is much more favorable for a long-acting strategy fought from a distance, turning a U.S. strategic vulnerability into strategic depth. We should plan on fighting across and through domains as much as within them.
The poorest possible strategy option for offsetting China’s counter-intervention efforts is to remain in the air domain and charge headlong into the mouth of the guns. Late recognition by the United States of both the nature and the magnitude of the Chinese air and missile threat has placed us in an untenable position. We cannot today fight China at close range — and we should not expect that we would develop magic technologies that will enable us to do so in the future. Aside from the obvious cost issues and the deleterious effect of a moribund and ineffective acquisition system, geography trumps technology in the Western Pacific. We cannot attempt to repeat our successful template against Iraq, which used short-range airpower and nearby bases. Any assertion that we can bomb China into submission is at odds with historical reality, our limited magazine depth, and a hardened and distributed military target set. The Chinese regime survived the Cultural Revolution, and they could survive a short conventional air campaign even if we could execute one.
The strategy template we are looking for was successfully employed against Japan in World War II. The Pacific War was largely a long-duration counterlogistics strategy fought over the maritime domain from inside and outside the domain itself. This time we have advantages that we did not have in World War II — Japan is a strong ally and the Philippines are not an occupied nation that we need to return to. But the similarities are striking — China is almost completely dependent on maritime traffic for survival. The trade links and supply lines that exist overland are grossly insufficient to make up any lack caused by maritime interdiction. A strategic interdiction strategy could be conducted — indeed must be conducted — from far outside China’s local waters and airspace.
China’s unfavorable geographic position and dependency on maritime traffic flows combine to establish a unique vulnerability to strategic interdiction — a joint effort designed to prevent the movement of resources supporting military forces or operations. A more tailored variant of maritime interdiction or offshore control, strategic interdiction (SI) is a targeted, four-element campaign to interdict the production and transport of energy resources:
- A “counterforce” effort designed to attrit PLAAF and PLANANF air forces, particularly bombers, naval forces, and naval auxiliaries, to the point where they can neither project military power nor defend against U.S. power projection, at least far beyond China’s continental shelf.
- An “inshore” element, consisting of operations to interfere with unopposed traffic in coastal waters and rivers.
- A “distant” maritime strategy, which will interdict energy supplies close to their source, out of effective Chinese military reach. Aimed primarily at bulk petroleum carriers and secondarily at coal transports, this element ignores container, dry bulk, or passenger vessels. A traditional quarantine conducted at a nontraditional distance, the seizure or diversion of Chinese-flag or China-bound hulls need not involve lethal force.
- An “infrastructure degradation” plan intended to disrupt or destroy specific soft targets, such as oil terminals, oil refineries, pipelines, and railway chokepoints such as tunnels and bridges. This is intended to make any resource distribution problem created by distant interdiction much worse by chopping the internal supply and production networks into unsupported pieces.
The strategy is tailored to China’s vulnerabilities. The objective is to constrain military forces by starving them of energy. The proximate targets are naval and air forces, which rely on jet fuel and maritime diesel, leaving China to fight with domestic priorities for diesel fuel and gasoline. Without the PLAAF and the PLAN, China doesn’t ever leave the mainland. It is necessarily a long war strategy that takes time to implement. It departs from traditional kinetic-focused attacks, as it is a distant interdiction strategy enhanced by kinetic attacks and cyber on critical process chokepoints on the mainland. Kinetic attacks on the land domain occupy a supporting role as they are designed to make China’s bad problem worse by targeting oil refineries and transportation chokepoints, both difficult and time consuming to repair and both relatively soft and difficult to defend. Here we also can exploit the massive size of the country. In the initial version of the targeting strategy supporting a strategic interdiction campaign, all pipeline targets and the majority of rail, bridge, and refinery targets are in airspace undefended by ground-based air defense.
Changing the Game
In strategy the longest way round is often the shortest way there; a direct approach to the object exhausts the attacker and hardens the resistance by compression, whereas an indirect approach loosens the defender’s hold by upsetting his balance.
-Sir B.H. Liddell Hart
The Department of Defense spends entirely too much time talking about “game-changing” technologies and not enough time talking about game-changing strategies or considering an entirely different game. Game-changing technologies are difficult to find, and may not even exist. Even nuclear weapons were not game-changing so much as a harbinger of an entirely difficult game, which thus far no country has been willing to play. We can change the game by boycotting the Salvo Olympics and concentrating on China’s strategic vulnerabilities rather than trying to smash our way through their tactical strengths.
The “salvo competition” envisioned within DOD is an example of a symmetric force-on-force concept fought from a substantial disadvantage, and should be avoided. The reality is that it can be avoided, because it is not necessary to accomplish warfighting goals. Faced with the current A2/AD challenge, we should spend our time finding strategies that will enable us to avoid the challenge rather than seeking silver bullets that enable us to “win” it. Against China, we can establish our own A2/AD challenge, forcing China to defend its extended supply lines rather than trying to bludgeon our way into the teeth of their antiair and antiship defenses. Our advantages in this endeavor are more enduring than mere technological advantage or tactical innovation — we have geography that favors a distant strategy, we have committed allies, and we have intellectually flexible personnel with a substantial pool of combat experience. That combination of conditions should allow us to capitalize on strategic asymmetry rather than trying to match up against an adversary’s tactical strengths.
Col. Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha was an instructor electronic warfare officer in the F-4G Wild Weasel and the F-15E Strike Eagle, amassing 156 combat missions over 10 combat deployments. As an irregular warfare operations officer, Col. Pietrucha has two additional combat deployments in the company of U.S. Army infantry, combat engineer, and military police units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is currently assigned to Air Combat Command.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. government.