To Deter China, the Naval Services Must Integrate
Change on the scale envisioned by the National Defense Strategy isn’t always easy, or pretty. Observers of American strategy often wonder how the United States will focus on great power competition when it cannot escape the gravitational pull of the Middle East. This is a worthy topic of debate and causes me no small amount of consternation as well. But even as Washington might look for ways to bring its commitments in the Middle East to a more sustainable level, let’s not ignore the lessons simmering conflicts there and elsewhere have for facing down great powers in the Indo-Pacific and Europe.
As most War on the Rocks readers will know, just a few months ago an Iranian drone and missile attack against the Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities forced Saudi Arabia to shut down half of its oil production. There were Patriot missile batteries in the area, but these were optimized to combat ballistic missiles rather than low-flying cruise missiles. Then, in October, five U.S. marines were wounded in a rocket attack on a U.S. base in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. This month, a small number of al-Shabaab militants killed three Americans and damaged several aircraft in an attack on a base in Kenya. And of course, after the president ordered the killing of Qasem Soleimani, roughly a dozen Iranian ballistic missiles struck joint U.S.-Iraqi bases. No one was killed in this final attack, but it is widely recognized that Iran’s response was restrained and signaled in advance to Baghdad. If Iran’s leaders actually wanted to kill many American servicemembers on Iraqi bases, could the United States have stopped them?
All of these attacks demonstrate an important, uncomfortable truth: Fixed bases are increasingly vulnerable to attack, especially by missiles and rockets, but also low-tech ground assault. Given the small number of large fixed bases we have in Indo-Pacific Command, the warning signs are flashing red. If weaker adversaries using less sophisticated weapons can catch us off-guard in the Middle East and East Africa, China could do far more damage in the Indo-Pacific.
Not only did the National Defense Strategy designate Indo-Pacific Command’s area of responsibility, rather than that of Central Command, the priority theater, it signaled the need to shift the U.S. military’s posture from one of deterrence by punishment to deterrence by denial. This means the U.S. military ought to be able to deny potential adversaries their objectives in the first place, rather than relying on the threat of extraordinary costs against the aggressor after the fact. Deterrence by denial hinges upon forward forces. No matter how lethal they might be, forces stationed at home are too far away to deny adversary aggression in real time, or to bolster allied resolve in the face of peacetime coercion. The U.S. military cannot do the job the American people need it to do without forces positioned forward to constantly signal to rivals and enemies that America and its allies stand united.
How does all this tie together? So, the new U.S. defense strategy prioritizes forward forces as the key to deterring aggression by denial, yet recent history against relatively less capable opponents suggests these forward forces are increasingly vulnerable in large, concentrated ports and bases. Under these circumstances, the U.S. military’s current forward posture in the Indo-Pacific is less a deterrent and more an invitation to aggression. Those who think deterrence by denial is possible under these circumstances are in a state of denial themselves.
The course correction I’d propose is simple, but not easy. The Department of the Navy offers the United States the ability to operate forward in the strategically decisive first island chain and its surrounding seas and littorals. If the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps adopt a unified concept of operations, and if they are willing to make big changes to truly integrate as a forward-positioned naval force, they can deny America’s primary adversary, the Chinese Communist Party, its core objectives.
There Is Some Good News…
We will look back at the publication of the Commandant’s Planning Guidance as the moment when the National Defense Strategy started to go from concept to reality. The commandant deserves credit for marking sacred cows for slaughter and charting a course for the Marine Corps to play a key role in deterrence by denial. But he is also the third commandant in my lifetime to emphasize naval integration, which suggests he will need help to bring his vision to life.
At its heart, the commandant’s vision involves a concept known as “expeditionary advanced basing operations” — small teams of combat-credible marines deployed forward “with sufficient resilience to persist within the weapons engagement-zone once actively contested” and create denied spaces for the enemy. The current force is not organized to do this. Therefore, the Marine Corps needs to change dramatically. This means accepting risk in areas where it must shed certain legacy capabilities and reinvesting those savings in capabilities it does not yet have, such as intermediate-range, ground-based fires.
Yet the Marine Corps is only half of the equation. The Navy-Marine Corps team (and I’d emphasize the word “team”) needs to integrate, down to the level of wargaming and budget development. The chief of naval operations’ Fragmentary Order, outlining the Navy’s key efforts towards warfighting, personnel and modernization, likewise emphasizes integrated American naval power as the linchpin of the National Defense Strategy. As the chief of naval operations put it, “We fight and win as a team. We are greater when we integrate more closely with the Marine Corps.”
Acting Secretary Thomas B. Modly is on the same page. In his first “vector” to the fleet, he emphasized that successful implementation of core Navy objectives “will depend upon an integrated Navy and Marine Corps leadership team.” In fact, writes the secretary, “All future high-level strategies, visions, and guidance emanating from our Navy and Marine Corps team must start and finish as integrated efforts, not as final phase ‘bolt-ons’ from one to the other.” This is an extraordinary commitment.
…But There Is More to Do
While there is a lot to smile about, even those who are paying attention still don’t know what this integrated naval force would look like, how it would fight, and how it would deter by denial. For instance, Congress does not yet have answers to what new specific platforms the naval services would need, how they would facilitate new concepts of operations, and how they would deny adversary objectives. What is both strategically necessary and politically possible?
This integrated force ought to be persistently present and dispersed throughout the first island chain, both reassuring America’s allies and complicating Chinese targeting. Whereas currently Chinese military leaders only have to worry about neutralizing a handful of concentrated American naval and air bases in the Western Pacific, the United States should make them worry about a more numerous and constantly shifting array of locations. As suggested in these pages, this can be done by small teams of marines equipped with ground-launched missiles and loitering munitions of intermediate ranges, dispersed and constantly moving throughout the first island chain. Some of these missiles could be loaded onto mobile, fast-moving platforms such as autonomous Joint Light Tactical Vehicles.
It is also time to start “containerizing” intermediate-range missiles. This administration and its military leaders should seriously consider scattering conex boxes across the first island chain. Some of these boxes would have anti-ship, anti-air, and perhaps even land-attack missiles; others wouldn’t. But in the tradition of the “ghost army” of World War II, the U.S. military would use deception to keep the adversary on its toes and force it to account for both real and decoy targets — all of which could frequently be on the move. In peacetime, the goal would be to reassure allies and create enough “aim points” that the Chinese could not guarantee a successful first strike — and therefore deter one. In wartime, these missiles would form a picket line that would deny the enemy control of the sea around the first island chain and buy time for the blunt force to arrive.
At sea, Marine units can also contribute to the maritime defense of the first island chain. We’re already seeing work to integrate the long-range anti-ship missile onto Mark VI patrol boats. You could imagine a fleet of small boats to harass, interdict, and destroy much larger combatants, not unlike the PT boats of World War II, Iran’s fleet of fast-attack craft in the Persian Gulf, or the small boats and daring men of the Navy’s earliest days. In peacetime, these boats would constantly be on patrol, guarding key geographic features and choke points such as the Strait of Malacca.
Further out at sea, the Navy would likewise play a critical role. As envisioned by the authors of the distributed lethality concept, every ship forward should be expected to be able to destroy enemy surface targets at long ranges, from the smallest surface combatant to amphibious transports. If it floats, it fights, and at long range. As on land, the Chinese should have to worry about a large number of hulls in theater at the zero hour. Surface combatants like the forthcoming frigate should constantly circle contested areas like the South China Sea, ready at a moment’s notice to jump into action. Once the shooting starts, of course attack submarines will play a critical role in degrading the enemy fleet and suppressing its battle networks, and carriers will help the blunt force land a decisive blow as they make their way across the Pacific. Yet denial of the adversary’s objectives will largely rest on the backs of the forward-deployed surface fleet. It’s the surface fleet that, in concert with marines ashore and in the littorals, will be the first and foremost line of defense. It’s up to policymakers in Congress and the Navy to ensure they have the range and capacity to be effective.
That’s a broad vision for how the integrated Navy-Marine Corps team can actually do what the National Defense Strategy asks it to do. How do we make this happen? If we are still having this exact same conversation about naval integration in a decade, we will have failed in a way the United States cannot afford.
First, the United States ought to develop intermediate-range conventional missiles as rapidly as possible. Since the overdue death of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the U.S. military has conducted two intermediate-range missile tests based on capabilities coming out of the Strategic Capabilities Office: the ground-launched cruise missile and the ground-launched ballistic missile. Although these tests were successful, both the Marine Corps and Army seem determined to develop service-native capabilities. I cannot overstate the foolishness of such a decision. The Strategic Capabilities Office has done great work to get these capabilities to the test range. The services should build on those successes and get them operational as soon as possible, along with an enabling intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance architecture, while the State Department works hard to write and sign military access agreements with allies and partners. While China has explicitly threatened U.S. allies that might consider hosting intermediate-range missiles, it simultaneously maintains an arsenal of thousands of intermediate-range ground-based missiles. Without downplaying the diplomatic challenges this will entail, it defies self-interest to expect the countries most threatened by China will permanently cede to Beijing an entire class of conventional weapons that could be defending their shores.
Second, there is a clear need for new ships to support, resupply, and maneuver marines around the first island chain’s littorals. In a high-threat environment where speed and mobility serve as the primary defense, hulking L-class amphibious ships do not make sense for every situation. I applaud Gen. David Berger for embracing possible solutions from unmanned craft, stern landing vessels, and new intertheater connectors, while making clear that he is moving on from legacy amphibious fleet goals that are less relevant today.
I’ve saved the most difficult step for last. The U.S. Navy is in dire need of structural changes. If America’s maritime services are not integrating their planning and budgeting, they are failing the nation. If we think of the Navy and Marine Corps as subsystems of a larger integrated naval fight — as we should — then these component parts only make sense if they magnify each other’s strengths and cover weaknesses. It is time to pull the Navy and Marine Corps’ staffs responsible for aligning programs and resources, known respectively as Navy N8 and Marine Corps Programs and Resources, out from their respective service chains of command and co-locate them on equal footing under the secretary of the Navy. Without top-down integration from the earliest steps in the planning, programming, budgeting, and execution process, integration will never happen.
These three supporting lines of effort are wrapped up in a fourth and overarching main effort for the naval services. Modly and the chief of naval operations are right: The Navy has to substantially and rapidly grow the fleet and provide more resources to the naval capabilities that most directly support the objectives of the National Defense Strategy. Calling for more resources to get to 355 is not enough. As I have said and written before, we need a national conversation about seapower and the value of an integrated naval force that Congress and the American people can understand.
A truly integrated Navy-Marine Corps team holds the key to unlocking a successful future for the United States and is therefore worthy of a disproportionate share of the budget. Correspondingly I believe that within the Department of the Navy, accounts like shipbuilding that directly facilitate naval force structure should receive priority.
To get there, the White House will need to adjudicate the conflicts we’ve seen between the Pentagon, the Navy, and the Office of Management and Budget. Recent leaks and mixed messages troubled me. We all need to row in the same direction. At a time when the United States ought to be growing its fleet with haste, we instead appear to be steaming toward cuts to naval force structure. This is unacceptable. After all, with about 100 ships at sea on any given day, the U.S. Navy cannot be truly “ready” until it is large enough to find the slack time in its home cycle to go through the yards for maintenance. The siren song of budget cutters is indeed enticing, but do not be fooled: We cannot substitute capacity with capability.
To help enable this, Congress ought to make tough choices that help the Navy-Marine Corps team rebalance its investments away from systems that don’t allow U.S. forces to deter rivals by denial. I suggest we start by taking a hard look at amphibious L-class ships and short-range aviation, both fixed- and rotary-wing.
An Ambitious and Necessary Agenda
Recently, the world watched a crisis play out between the United States and a dangerous yet second-tier adversary. Deterrence held. Missiles failed. The missiles that did launch successfully against forward bases appear to have been calibrated to avoid harming Americans. Tragically, over the course of this crisis the incompetence of the Iranian regime led to the murder of 176 individuals — many of them Iranian — aboard Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752.
We can count on precisely none of this in an escalating crisis against China, where the United States ought to be able to deny in near-real time instead of relying on the threat of punishment. China is already the largest naval force in the Pacific. China’s missiles won’t fail. Washington won’t be able to sanction Beijing’s economy to the point of collapse.
Therefore, we have to up our game. We’ll have to make big changes to our concepts of operations, our programming, our budgets, and our bureaucracy. I wish I could tell you failure is not an option. But it is. History is full of navies that have failed to adapt to changing circumstances and thereby fatally weakened their countries. Let’s work together, as a team, to avoid this fate.
Mike Gallagher is a Marine Corps veteran and Republican Congressman from Wisconsin’s 8th district. He is a member of the House Armed Services Committee.