April 1, 2008  

Cold wars at sea

It might be tempting to dismiss the U.S. Navy’s potential focus on China as a passing fad — part of the now-familiar phenomena of “China fever.” Another perspective holds that this focus can best be explained by a simple case of enemy deprivation syndrome. While there is a kernel of truth in both of these intellectual approaches, facts on, above and especially under the water increasingly belie these conclusions and demand serious attention from American strategists.

China has launched more than 36 new submarines since 1995 — far outpacing U.S. intelligence estimates from a decade ago. Additionally, supersonic indigenous cruise missiles, rumored development of an anti-ship ballistic missile, dynamic mine warfare and amphibious warfare programs, invigorated aerial maritime strike capabilities, as well as a variety of new, sleek and modern surface combatants, suggest a broad front effort by the People’s Liberation Army Navy.

The U.S. Navy, in partnership with the Marine Corps and Coast Guard, unveiled the new Maritime Strategy in October, but this document makes no mention of China and its dynamic naval development. This does not mean that the Navy can or should “set aside” the China question. Some informed critics have questioned whether the Navy was being honest with itself in considering the scope of China’s buildup. In developing its response to Beijing’s rapid naval development, Washington would do well to consider carefully the experience of the original Cold War at Sea. Among other reasons to engage in such comparative history is the fact that current Chinese naval strategy owes its original naval doctrines, the education of some of its foremost leaders and much of its advanced weaponry to the fleet of its northern neighbor. Such a historical comparative analysis should highlight the differences as well as similarities in these cases. In doing so, the analysis may yield an approach to Chinese sea power that simultaneously guards American pre-eminence at sea while actively seeking to avoid a rivalry costly in lives and treasure, to say nothing of the dangerous interplay of warships that could quite easily culminate in a war of catastrophic proportions.


Fresh research from the Kremlin archives by Russian historian Natalia Yegorova yields a new level of understanding regarding Soviet naval development during the early Cold War. Yegorova shows that Stalin’s approach to maritime power was defensive, focusing on the USSR’s maritime boundaries. During 1950, according to one document, the Soviet dictator rejected the more ambitious plans of his naval advisers, admonishing them: “You are blindly copying the American and English. They have different conditions. Their ships go far into the ocean, breaking away from their bases. We are not thinking about conducting ocean battles, but will fight close to our shores.” Nevertheless, Stalin hardly rejected the importance of naval power, as for example in calling for the Soviet Union to have a large Black Sea Fleet, “ten times larger than right now,” or opting to double submarine production in early 1952. Yegorova underlines the constraint the Kremlin faced in coping with the “utterly dire state of the Soviet economy” in this period, and she documents how shipbuilding targets were rarely achieved.

This early period of the Cold War at Sea, long forgotten by most, has important insights into contemporary Chinese naval development. The first and most important perspective is the land power ethos evident in both cases. This ethos manifests itself in the strong focus on the state’s maritime boundaries, which are prioritized well ahead of any blue-water aspirations. A recent incarnation of this approach in Chinese strategy is the concept of yilu zhihai – using the land to control the sea. . More concretely, China’s focus on submarine development over the last decade is now widely accepted, and the same logic of sea denial applies as in the Soviet case. Finally, a major difference between the cases needs to considered as well. The Soviet economy had been devastated by World War II. China’s economy, by contrast, has enormous vitality — such that it may surpass the size of U.S. economy within a couple of decades. China’s shipbuilding and technology sectors are globally driven and export-oriented in a way that Moscow would have viewed as completely alien.

The next phase of the Cold War at Sea was the most dangerous. This time of transition, which saw the Soviet Navy evolve from a strong coastal fleet to a genuine blue-water Navy, was marked by grave instability. True, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Washington possessed and capitalized on both its impressive nuclear and naval superiority. But troubling details of the Cuban Missile Crisis continue to emerge — for example that the Soviet diesel submarines dispatched by the Kremlin, and aggressively prosecuted by U.S. Navy anti-submarine warfare forces, were actually each equipped with a so-called “special weapon” — a newly developed nuclear-armed torpedo. U.S. Navy commanders apparently were not aware that the Russian diesel submarines carried nuclear weapons. A description of the period following the Cuban Missile Crisis by Adm. Ronald Kurth, former naval attache in Moscow, sounds quite familiar to those watching contemporary developments in the Western Pacific: “Because of the steadily increasing size and presence of the Soviet naval units … contact between the two navies was increasing. Some of these contacts became assertive, aggressive and dangerous.” During the Arab-Israeli conflict of October 1973, the new Soviet Navy maneuvered its way to a hair-trigger stalemate with the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean. What was so shocking about this episode was that the Soviet Navy had established a permanent presence and a very substantial threat to the U.S. Navy in what had hitherto been a NATO lake.

The Chinese Navy does not at present demonstrate a growth trend truly comparable to the expansion of the Soviet fleet in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1969, the USSR already possessed 380 submarines and continued to build at a high rate. Beijing, perhaps already inclined toward a more rational balance of civilian and military sectors, also seems acutely sensitive to the problem of intensifying regional arms races that might result if the PLA Navy expanded the quantity of its warships at a Cold War pace. Nevertheless, the scope of modernization within the PLA Navy is quite remarkable: until recently, at least, building four classes of submarines simultaneously. Indeed, the PLA Navy may enjoy some distinct advantages associated with youth. Kurth observes that nearly 60 percent of U.S. Navy vessels were more than 20 years old in 1969, while less then 1 percent of Soviet warships were that old. Nevertheless, it is likely that the Chinese naval leadership faces a severe shortage of trained, let alone experienced, officers. And it is precisely these experienced (and perhaps even cautious) commanders who might be required to keep their cool in crisis situations. Indeed, it is unfortunately the case that the EP-3 incident of 2001 is not likely to be the last case of a crisis precipitated by aircraft or warships operating in close proximity. Adm. William Fallon’s immediate reaction to the surfacing of a Chinese submarine near the carrier Kitty Hawk in November 2006 was to say that such maneuvers could ignite a conflict by accident.


The final period of the Cold War was a golden age for U.S. maritime strategy because of the seeming national unity regarding the nature of the threat posed by Soviet naval expansion, and also because of the daring and often successful intelligence missions that supported an advantageous position, vis-à-vis the Soviet Navy. But the U.S. Navy was challenged during the 1980s by much quieter Soviet submarines, by the new tactic of Soviet ballistic missile submarines seeking protection under the polar ice, and by the new ability of Soviet submarines to remain in heavily fortified “bastions” — areas off the Soviet coast protected by layers of defenses, including the combined operations of air, surface and undersea assets. Some Navy submarine commanders commented with a certain bravado that Soviet bastions merely concentrated the target set. On the other hand, other Navy leaders were much less sanguine about the strategic implications and overall feasibility of a naval strategy that sought to take the naval fight directly into Soviet “bastions.”

The late Cold War is probably less applicable then other periods of the Cold War at Sea to China’s current naval posture. True, it has been reported that China is likely to build at least five new SSBNs in the near future — a significant ramp-up in Beijing’s sea-based nuclear deterrent. And some Chinese strategists have viewed SSBNs as a trump card against Washington in any Taiwan crisis. But there is little evidence to suggest that Beijing will move decisively away from its traditional strategy of minimal deterrence. Still, one concept from the late Cold War at Sea does seem rather applicable to contemporary Chinese naval development: the concept of the “bastion.” Western naval officers may deride this strategy as naval strategy formulated by ground-force generals who can only conceptualize positional defense of coastal areas. But China does not seem terribly interested in power projection — yet. Rather, there appears to be a single-minded focus on developing ever stronger belts of control that radiate outward from the Chinese coast. Notable in this regard is the Chinese choice to build a submarine force consisting of both nuclear and diesel boats. This model comports with Soviet-style naval strategy, as Moscow deployed over 100 diesel submarines at the end of the Cold War. Other key defense mechanisms for Chinese bastions include robust mine warfare, rapidly improving land-based aerial strike and, most innovative, the ballistic homing missile designed to attack targets at sea. With improved missile ranges, Beijing may indeed seek to protect SSBNs within heavily fortified bastions. However, when it is considered that Taiwan, the East China Sea, the South China Sea and even the Korean Peninsula are either within or adjacent to such bastions, it becomes clear that such a naval concept probably encompasses far more then nuclear strategy.


As noted above, China’s pace of naval development, as least in quantitative terms, is not really comparable to Soviet naval development during much of the Cold War at Sea. Nevertheless, the pace of advance is still impressive and actually could prove more sustainable over the long run, drawing as it will on China’s expanded “comprehensive national power.” In the last decade, the PLA Navy has advanced from a vastly inferior force populated by largely obsolete platforms to one that can pose a credible threat to neighbors, as well as to the U.S. Navy in the Western Pacific, now and in the future.

Even focusing on the capabilities of the present-day PLA Navy, the results of more than a decade of intense reform are evident. At the core of China’s naval development has been undersea warfare. More than 30 new submarines have been constructed over the last decade — a stunning figure when compared to the four submarines that the U.S. has built in roughly the same period. When China launched the new Yuan-class diesel submarine in 2004, global naval analysts were confronted with the shocking reality that China was building four classes of submarines indigenously, while simultaneously importing the formidable Russian Kilo-class submarines in large numbers — 12 by 2006. The very recent appearance of pictures of a new generation of Chinese nuclear submarines has caused defense analysts to grapple with strategic implications of a more robust sea deterrent, not to mention the potential for truly global Chinese power projection.

The less glamorous, but more feasible near-term objective for Chinese naval development is to facilitate greater control over the waters of the East Asian littoral. As a complement to its energetic submarine program, Beijing has invested heavily in mine warfare capabilities, appraising Washington’s capabilities in this area as particularly weak. The Chinese Navy apparently has been fielding rocket rising mines since the 1980s and may try to employ these weapons to hold U.S. Navy submarines in check during a naval conflict. Another potent niche weapon is the new, stealthy Type 2208 missile catamarans that China has been building at a prodigious rate. This new class of boats is equipped with indigenous, supersonic, long-range C803 anti-ship missiles. This system is quite interesting, because it demonstrates Chinese confidence in naval design innovation. Respectable major surface combatants also have appeared in the last few years — for example, the 052C air defense destroyers with phased array radars, vertical launch systems and close-in weapons systems. Related aerospace systems form vital complements for China’s new naval capacity. In January 2007, Beijing also demonstrated an anti-satellite capability — a way to potentially even the battlefield in space. In the air, China’s military aircraft inventory is also rapidly modernizing. Beijing may already field 300-400 fourth-generation fighter aircraft, and is working on both aerial refueling as well as improved long-range strike aircraft. Finally, new land- and sea-based nuclear systems mean that China might have more confidence in a crisis situation.


If the PLA forms a credible threat today, by 2020 this force will be even much more formidable. At that time, Beijing will likely field a significant nuclear submarine force to augment its already large and modern conventional submarine force. Using advanced quieting and likely equipped with land-attack cruise missiles, these forces will give China both robust defenses and assured power projection. As China fills out its surface fleet with modern surface combatants, it may begin to experiment with large surface action groups operating regularly in both the Indian Ocean and the Eastern Pacific. The advent of Chinese carriers and even carrier battle groups cannot be ruled out — though the operational impact of such a development may not match its symbolic import. China’s long focus on Taiwan will provide it with robust amphibious forces in the future, which could provide Beijing with options in a range of scenarios. By 2020, China’s air forces, moreover, will provide the Navy with significant cover, especially in Asian waters, because they will have fully mastered aerial refueling and will possess a large force of modern aircraft — likely including stealth aircraft, as well as unmanned systems. Whether or not Beijing has the actual inclination to become a truly global military power, it will have the capabilities to support such grand ambitions if they emerge.

The above factors do not suggest that a confrontational (containment) strategy is required vis-à-vis China. It is probably appropriate that the new Maritime Strategy does not explicitly mention China — and its focus on seaborne trade as the “lifeblood of a global system” opens the door to finding common interests with the Chinese trading juggernaut. The Navy needs to adopt a Janus-faced approach to China — one that simultaneously directly hedges against a possible challenge from China, while embracing the possibility of genuine maritime cooperation with a Chinese Navy that is much more powerful than it has been in the past.

In hedging against a possible Chinese threat, the Navy is only doing what all responsible military organizations must do — worry about the worst case. It is worth noting that the Navy has paid a high cost in lives for failure to do this effectively in the past. While there is considerable reason for optimism regarding Chinese intentions, there is also a strong tendency for states to develop more ambitious national interests as they become more capable. Given the lethality of China’s new access-denial capabilities, a “hedge” strategy will no doubt put a premium on the Navy submarine force, since all other assets will be severely challenged to defend themselves when entering an operationally significant range from China’s coast. Even if China is not explicitly discussed in the 2007 Maritime Strategy, there are indirect references to “challenges to our ability to exercise sea control,” as well as concerns about “wider claims of sovereignty over greater expanses of ocean, waterways and natural resources.” There is the statement that “credible combat power will be continuously postured in the Western Pacific,” but this statement might be inadequate. An explicit hedging strategy may well have to be promulgated in the future to help the Navy to make difficult choices among various priorities — placing emphasis, as it must, on its unique sea control capabilities versus strike and Special Forces missions that are related to the Long War and are shared with the other services.


Of course, Taiwan remains the key component of the China question. If the Taiwan issue is resolved peacefully over the next decade (e.g., by forming a confederation), then the pace of China’s military modernization will likely slacken — but more to the point, the risk of U.S.-China war will diminish considerably. Such a development would permit the Navy to take a relatively relaxed approach to China’s rise. Nor is this scenario so far-fetched: The KMT’s Ma Yingjeou, decisively won in the Mar. 22 2008 presidential contest in Taipei, and a major part of his platform was the pursuit of a less confrontational course with China. The consequences for the Navy of such a rapprochement between Taipei and Beijing cannot be overstated. On the other hand, if the unstable status quo remains, wherein there are no substantive negotiations between the mainland and Taiwan, while Taiwan nationalists persist with their “salami tactics” (e.g. renaming companies — for example, China Airlines, Taiwan’s flagship air carrier, to Taiwan Airlines), then the issue will continue to take center stage in U.S.-China relations, and this relationship will continue to be wracked by periodic war-threatening crises. Assuming that the U.S. remains committed to Taiwan’s defense, then both the Chinese and the U.S. armed forces will continue to quietly refine and develop their respective options, but these options grow ever more challenging for the U.S. side. Unfortunately for the Navy, the warfare requirements of protecting an island just 100 miles off the Chinese coast (and 5,000 miles from the U.S. mainland) are extraordinarily high. Especially given the momentum of Ma’s March election victory in Taipei, Navy leaders need to gently prod U.S. civilian leaders to face the reality of a changing military balance in the Western Pacific — so to try to push for direct Taipei-Beijing negotiations in attempt to untie the Gordian knot of the exceedingly dangerous Taiwan issue.

Finally, the U.S. Navy needs to put a very high priority on developing a genuine cooperative relationship with the PLA Navy, though this has often proven difficult in practice, as, for example, when the Kitty Hawk battle group was suddenly refused permission to visit Hong Kong in November. Despite inevitable “turbulence,” a pattern of enlarged cooperation needs to be developed, building upon a strong basis in the search-and-rescue domain (10 Chinese crew from the merchant vessel Haitong 7 were saved in a rescue involving both U.S. Navy and Coast Guard assets in July 2007) to encompass robust educational components as well as joint patrols and more complex exercises. Today, there are real opportunities for intensive maritime cooperation in the arenas of port security, coast guard operations, energy transport, peacekeeping and disaster relief. China is quickly ramping up its naval cooperation agenda and so should be more and more receptive, where formerly the PLA Navy was reluctant because of a fear of making embarrassing mistakes in front of foreign navies. The U.S. need not fear that China will gain intelligence on U.S. operations from these joint activities. In fact, the U.S. Navy is very transparent, and so China already collects an immense amount of data on it. These activities will not alter that situation significantly. The Chinese Navy is much less transparent, and so the Navy will learn (in a relative sense) much more about the PLA Navy through such activities. A strategy of robust engagement with China has the best chance to assist the PLA Navy in becoming a “maritime stakeholder” and helping to facilitate the transformative breakthrough in U.S.-China relations that could cause armed forces on both sides of the Pacific to stand down from the war footing they each presently occupy.

China’s naval development is now quite rapid, especially when gauged by qualitative improvements. Indeed, if Beijing continues to enhance its maritime power at the pace of the last decade, China will emerge a decade hence with one of the world’s most powerful navies. Still, this paper is not intended as a “call to arms.” The challenge posed by Chinese military power has been exaggerated in some analyses, to be sure. China’s naval development is hindered by a fundamental lack of blue-water experience, vulnerability in the energy dimension, and competing social and military priorities, not to mention wary and powerful neighbors (e.g. Japan and India).

As China inevitably strengthens its maritime power, a new cold war at sea is not inevitable. However, the above discussion suggests that each of the periods of the Cold War at Sea is applicable to certain aspects of Chinese naval development. In many ways, the early Cold War at Sea is the most compelling comparison with contemporary China, because during this period the Kremlin focused primarily on coastal defense, but also began to consider how to drive U.S. naval power away from the coasts with enhanced maritime forces. The age of crises at sea from Cuba in 1962 to the Mediterranean in 1973 is also important to study, as it may illustrate the instability that flows from a rapid change in the naval balance of power. Finally, with respect to the late Cold War at Sea, it can be said the Soviet “bastion strategy” might have applicability to China, even if the Chinese system of layered defenses is more focused on proximate territorial disputes then nuclear operations. The most important similarities between Soviet and evolving Chinese naval doctrines are the strong focus on asymmetric strategies, as well as the continental approach to naval warfare that emphasizes concentric belts of strength over more expeditionary, blue-water capabilities.

Nevertheless, some differences between Soviet and contemporary Chinese naval development may ultimately be more important for U.S. policymakers to grasp. First, China’s economy is already more robust then was the Soviet economy, which will give the Chinese Navy more resources over the long run. But it is also significant that China is open to the world through its commercial relationships, and therefore Chinese technology will pace Western technology and already does in some critical areas, such as anti-ship cruise missiles. Nor is China likely to fall into some of the resource traps to which the Kremlin was vulnerable, as Beijing is more cautious and deliberate in its building programs, and appears to understand the critical role that maintenance plays in naval development — this had been the Achilles heel of the Soviet Navy.

As important are the many geostrategic differences that favor Chinese naval development. The Kremlin, since czarist times, was transfixed by the notion of securing a warm-water port and passage through narrow straits. Soviet naval bases in the extreme north or eastern expanses of the country proved to be exceedingly costly to set up and maintain, let alone prepare for conflict. And the Soviet Navy, like its czarist predecessor, could not count on any kind of mutual support among its fleets, given their scattered positions across the globe. China’s geography, by contrast, is relatively favorable for the development of maritime power. Beijing’s diplomacy has successfully put to rest many of the disputes along the continental periphery, permitting a greater focus on the maritime flank. It has innumerable warm-water anchorages and can achieve unity of force among its three fleets with relative ease. Chinese naval development does face some geographic obstacles to its development. Thus, Taiwan has been described as a kind of a “cork in the bottle” of Chinese maritime strategy. However, another way to look at the Taiwan issue is to consider that the PLA’s strong focus on Taiwan gives strong impetus to the development of Chinese maritime power. It is interesting to consider what the Soviet Navy might have looked like if the Kremlin’s full strategic focus had been on some offshore territory, as opposed to the so-called “Fulda Gap” on the central German Plain. Strategic focus on maritime development is an important advantage for the PLA, especially relative to the U.S. armed forces, which are pulled in many directions by the current situation.

Naval rivalries are extremely dangerous and require prudent and wise management to prevent them from spinning out of control. During the Cold War at Sea, apocalyptic conflict was narrowly avoided on more than one occasion. To prevent the nascent rivalry already extant in the Western Pacific from developing into a major threat to world peace and security, Washington must pursue a maritime strategy that hedges against conflict to be sure, but that simultaneously pursues robust engagement with Beijing with the sincere goal of building a durable maritime security partnership. Chinese naval writings suggest that there is some reasonable prospect that the Chinese Navy would accept such a partnership, for example in protecting sea lanes of vital interest to both countries, so that a new cold war at sea can be avoided. Where China policy is concerned, the new U.S. maritime strategy is precisely correct in concluding that “although our forces can surge when necessary … trust and cooperation cannot be surged.”