Small Wars

This Week at War: An Arms Race America Can’t Win

The United States has no chance in ship-for-ship showdown with China. Luckily, it shouldn't have to have one.

In a speech delivered on June 2 to the Shangri-La Security Dialogue conference in Singapore, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta attempted to convince his audience that America's "rebalancing" strategy to the Asia-Pacific region -- previous called a "pivot" -- is serious and will be backed by expanded military power. Panetta announced that by 2020, 60 percent of the U.S. Navy will be positioned in the Pacific. He also openly discussed the controversial Air-Sea Battle concept, while denying that the reinforcements and new plans are a challenge to China. He also promised to step up the presence of U.S. military forces in the region, both through new basing arrangements and by an expanded list of training exercises with partner military forces.

Panetta likely hoped his remarks would bolster the credibility of the administration's strategy. On closer examination, there is less to Panetta's Pacific naval buildup than meets the eye. The U.S. Navy's intelligence office, by contrast, expects China's naval expansion this decade to be more substantial, especially when it comes to its submarine force. The reinforcements that Panetta discussed and new ideas like the Air-Sea Battle concept are necessary but insufficient responses to the worsening military trends in the region. The United States should not expect to win an arms race in the Western Pacific. Instead, it will have to find other more enduring advantages if it hopes to craft a sustainable strategy for the region.

Panetta's promise to base 60 percent of the U.S. fleet in the Pacific was not news -- Navy Secretary Ray Mabus announced this intention in a speech back in March. Panetta's assertion that there is currently a "50/50 percent split between the Pacific and the Atlantic" is also not quite right. According to the department's website, of the Navy's 186 major conventional warships (aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, amphibious ships, and attack and cruise missile submarines), 101, or 54 percent, current have home ports on the Pacific Ocean. The Navy's latest 30-year shipbuilding plan forecasts 181 of these major combat ships in the fleet in 2020. A 60 percent allocation implies 109 major combatants in the Pacific in 2020, an increase of eight such ships from today.

On the other hand, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) forecasts that China's navy will own 106 major warships in 2020, up from 86 in 2009. Seventy-two of these are expected to be attack submarines, compared to 29 for the United States in the Pacific in 2020, under the 60 percent allocation assumption. For the two decades beyond 2020, the U.S. Navy's shipbuilding plan projects no increase in the number of major warships. China's long-range shipbuilding plans are unknown; however, its defense budget has increased at an 11.8 percent compound annual rate, after inflation, between 2000 and 2012, with no indications of any changes to that trend.

Of course, counting ships does not tell the whole story. Even more critical are the missions assigned to these ships and the conditions under which they will fight. In a hypothetical conflict between the United States and China for control of the South and East China Seas, the continental power would enjoy substantial structural advantages over U.S. forces.

China, for instance, would be able to use its land-based air power, located at many dispersed and hardened bases, against naval targets. The ONI forecasts China's inventory of maritime strike aircraft rising from 145 in 2009 to 348 by 2020. U.S. land-based air power in the Western Pacific operates from just a few bases, which are vulnerable to missile attack from China (the Cold War-era Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty prevents the United States from developing theater-based surface-to-surface missiles with ranges sufficient to put Chinese bases at risk). A comparison of ship counts similarly does not include China's land-based anti-ship cruise missiles, fired from mobile truck launchers. Nor does it account for China's fleet of coastal patrol boats, also armed with anti-ship cruise missiles.

The Air-Sea Battle concept began as an effort to improve staff coordination and planning between the Navy and the Air Force in an effort to address the structural disadvantages these forces would have when going up against a well-armed continental power like China. The concept is about creating operational synergies between the services. An example of this synergy occurred in last year's campaign against Libya, when U.S. Navy cruise missiles destroyed Libya's air defense system, clearing the way for the U.S. Air Force to operate freely over the country.

But Air-Sea Battle still faces enormous challenges in overcoming the "home court" advantage a continental power enjoys deploying its missile forces from hidden, dispersed, and hardened sites. In addition, the United States faces a steep "marginal cost" problem with an opponent like China; additional defenses for U.S. ships are more expensive than additional Chinese missiles. And China can acquire hundreds or even thousands of missiles for the cost of one major U.S. warship.

Given these structural weaknesses, Air-Sea Battle's success will rely not on endlessly parrying the enemy's missiles, but striking deeply at the adversary's command posts, communications networks, reconnaissance systems, and basing hubs in order to prevent missiles from being launched in the first place. Such strikes would mean attacks on space systems, computer networks, and infrastructure, with implications for the broader civilian economy and society. Some critics of Air-Sea Battle reason that raising the stakes in this manner would make terminating a conflict much more difficult and would escalate the conflict into domains -- such as space and cyber -- that are particular vulnerabilities for the United States.

The United States won't be able to win an arms race against China and currently has no plans to do so. Nor can the Pentagon count on superior military technology; China already has impressive scientific and engineering capabilities, which are only getting better. Instead, U.S. policymakers need to discover enduring strategic advantages that don't require keeping a qualitative or quantitative lead in weapons. Geography may be one such benefit. In a conflict, the so-called First Island Chain that runs from Japan to Taiwan and then to the Philippines could become a barrier to the Chinese navy and provide outposts for U.S. and allied sensors and missiles. China would likely view such preparations as a provocation, but from the allied perspective, they will complicate Chinese military planning.

Second, the United States and its allies are far more experienced at planning and conducting complicated military operations that require coordination across countries and military services. With a long-established network of alliances and partnerships in the region, U.S. commanders and their counterparts have accumulated decades of experience operating together. One aspect of Air-Sea Battle is to further extend this advantage.  

The most powerful U.S. advantage is the alliance network itself. Washington's long list of treaty allies and partners provides options for U.S. and allied policymakers and planners. The alliance network could also help convert the threat of escalation to a U.S. advantage. The more U.S. military forces are able to disperse across the region, at temporary or rotational basing arrangements, the more difficult it will be for China to gain an advantage with military power. In order to achieve such an advantage, China will have to attack a wider number of countries, bringing them into a war on the U.S. side. This prospect should deter conflict from beginning.

The more successful U.S. diplomacy is at building up a large network in the region, the stronger the deterrent effect and the less risk assumed by each member. With its outreach to ASEAN countries and others over the past decade, the United States seems to be on this path. New rotational basing deals with Australia, Singapore, and the Philippines are more evidence of this approach. But more diplomatic success will be required as the challenge from China increases.

U.S. military planners face unfavorable trends in the Western Pacific. Panetta and his lieutenants have sent reinforcements to the region and are rewriting their military doctrines. Although these measures necessary, U.S. policymakers will need another way. Good strategy requires finding enduring advantages. The alliance network in the region provides U.S. commanders with partner military forces, basing options, operational experience, and deterrence against escalation, advantages China won't match any time soon. In this sense, the solution to the challenging military problem U.S. forces face in the Western Pacific will be found as much with more diplomacy as with more firepower.


Small Wars

This Week At War: Enough Talk, Obama

Failures in Syria and Iran show the limits of diplomatic negotiation.

Over the past week, the Obama administration's hopes for negotiated resolutions to the violence in Syria as well as the standoff over Iran's nuclear program have slumped. A particularly brutal massacre in al Houla, Syria that left over a hundred civilians murdered and that resulted in the expulsion of Syrian diplomats around the world, is increasingly calling into question the value of continued talks with President Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, talks in Baghdad over Iran's nuclear program ended badly, and with Tehran pledging to sustain production of 20 percent enriched uranium in spite of international pleas to suspend such work. Meanwhile, fresh satellite imagery showed that Iran continued this week to cleanse its Parchin site, where analysts suspect it tested components for a nuclear weapon.

Both cases show the increasing risk the Obama administration may be assuming by maintaining a commitment to further talks. This commitment in the face of belligerent actions by Syria and Iran will increasingly be viewed as a display of naiveté and weakness rather than prudent patience. Acquiring such a reputation could hurt the administration's credibility on other foreign-policy issues as well.

To prevent its reputation from slipping further, the Obama team will come under pressure to get tougher over Syria and Iran. But how? With further economic sanctions either tapped out or blocked at the U.N. Security Council by Russia, the question of using military force in Syria and Iran will inevitably return to the surface. When it comes to deciding whether it is time to start using military tools against Syria and Iran, the Obama administration will likely arrive at two very different answers.

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, produced a grim prognosis for Syria. With no hope for self-restraint by Assad's enforcers, Rice concluded that the "most probable" case is a sectarian proxy war, with arms flowing into the conflict from other countries in the region. To avert this outcome, Rice urged the Security Council to place additional pressure on the Syrian regime, a course that would require Russia's acquiescence.

Rice's diagnosis was aimed at Moscow and implied that if her forecast proved true, Russia stood to lose both its ally in Damascus and any future influence in the country after the rebels eventually gained power. Rice was thus attempting to create an incentive for the Russians to cooperate on either pressuring Assad or helping to establish a post-Assad Syria.

But if the Obama administration is to obtain leverage over Moscow, it will have to show a willingness to help create the grim scenario Rice described, something the White House seems unwilling to contemplate, at least yet.

Direct U.S. military intervention in Syria is not required. Nor is the United States required to organize its own covert operation inside Syria to support the rebels. At this point, the United States need merely get onboard with allies such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and others which are apparently already arming the Syrian opposition. The U.S. government could provide certain items and services -- specialized communications equipment, portable anti-tank weapons, night-vision optics, and intelligence data -- and leave the provision of more common categories of weapons and supplies to the other suppliers.

U.S. willingness to escalate its assistance in this manner would bolster its credibility with its allies and the rebels, something that will be valuable in post-Assad Syria. And for little risk, it will provide Washington with some negotiating leverage over Moscow. For the United States, Syria is a case where a willingness to step up military support, even if indirectly, will boost its diplomatic leverage.

The administration faces a tougher calculation on Iran. In Syria, military assistance to the rebels will bolster the prospects for negotiations with Russia and with Assad himself. In Iran, there does not seem to be a similar entry-level military action the United States could take to increase its negotiating leverage. And the only other alternative military action -- a large-scale air campaign against Iran's nuclear complex -- is a step the White House wants both itself and Israel to avoid, at least until next year.

On Friday morning, the New York Times confirmed long-held suspicions that the U.S. government has waged a prolonged cyberwar against Iran. According to the article, President Barack Obama took up this war from the Bush administration and urged its acceleration. This week we also learned about the Flame computer virus, a large and sophisticated reconnaissance program that has listened in on Iran's computers for at least two years.

Yet in spite of all of the computer engineering talent put into Flame and Stuxnet, its more destructive sibling, Iran's nuclear fuel production continues to advance, with output currently triple its pre-Stuxnet rate, enough for two atomic bombs per year. Cyberwarfare, one type of entry-level military action, has neither held back Iran's nuclear production nor provided negotiating leverage over its leaders.

The White House faces a grim dilemma over Iran. In the midst of a reelection campaign, the Obama team is desperate to avoid the severe economic and financial market disruption that an air campaign against Iran would trigger. Tehran knows this, which encourages its obstinacy at the bargaining table. This in turn should give the White House an incentive to walk away from further negotiations to avoid the embarrassing spectacle of unanswered Iranian belligerence. But should the United States admit that negotiations are dead, Israel may conclude that it has to attack, which would cause the chaos the Obama administration is strenuously trying to avoid.

If the White House is to continue negotiations with Iran, it will need to come to the next round with more leverage and credibility than it has possessed thus far. Beyond the goal of actually making progress with Tehran, it will want that leverage to keep face and to persuade Israeli leaders to hold their fire.

Is there any leverage the Pentagon could provide that would be more effective than Flame and Stuxnet, but less dramatic than a large air campaign? In a recent interview, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared that his forces were "prepared for any contingency." A full list of contingencies should include options to support diplomacy, in addition to wrecking Iran's air defense system and nuclear complex.

When faced with the Iran problem, it is undoubtedly the case that both Obama and George W. Bush pleaded with the Pentagon to come up with options in addition to a major air campaign. Generating additional options has apparently not been easy. The United States has not taken military action against Iran because policymakers have concluded that the estimated costs and risks of the big air campaign -- the option that seems to get the most attention -- has thus far exceeded its perceived benefits.

But a dearth of options has left U.S. negotiators with Iran with little support, at least from the Pentagon. In spite of their sharpening intensity, Iranian leaders seem unimpressed with the economic sanctions now imposed on their country. Pentagon planners have options, such as indirect support for Syria's rebels, that will help U.S. negotiators there. They should come up with some ideas other than a big air war to support U.S. diplomacy with Tehran.