Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Deterring War, Conducting War, Ending War: What Seapower Does

Arguments create policy. Policies drive budgets. In the various argument about seapower, too many default to their comfort areas; platforms and warfighting. As one prepares for a war, what about deterrence and war termination? How do those drive requirements

In today's guest post by Bryan McGrath, he sets out the playing board. 

Over to you Bryan.
In the last week, I happened across two essays that together have made important impressions on me. After reading them, I am even more energized in my avocation of proselytizing for American Seapower. Whereas I previously have talked about two broad functions of Seapower—deterrence and warfighting (with the protection and sustainment of our prosperity a function of deterrence)—I now point to three: deterrence, warfighting, and war-termination. For the purposes of this essay, I concentrate on deterrence and war-termination, although warfighting remains a critical function. Additionally, deterrence in this post is almost exclusively meant to denote conventional deterrence, but there will be obvious and important references to strategic deterrence to come. 

The first essay of note is by former Obama-era Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy at Foreign Affairs and is titled “How to Prevent a War in Asia.” The piece is important for two reasons. The first is that Flournoy is likely to be nominated for high office in a potential Biden Administration, and so any insight into her thinking opens a window on potential national security objectives a new administration might pursue. 

Of even greater interest to me though, is a specific passage in her piece, and I quote it here for emphasis: “For example, if the U.S. military had the capability to credibly threaten to sink all of China’s military vessels, submarines, and merchant ships in the South China Sea within 72 hours, Chinese leaders might think twice before, say, launching a blockade or invasion of Taiwan; they would have to wonder whether it was worth putting their entire fleet at risk.” Flournoy’s essay eloquently conveys her view of a decline in American conventional deterrence effectiveness in the Western Pacific and the need to re-establish deterrence with alacrity. 

The beauty of Flournoy’s example is that it can be planned against. The South China Sea is a known body of water with known “boundaries,” known border states, known weather and oceanography, known air and surface traffic densities and routes, known Chinese naval bases, force structure, and operating patterns, known Chinese surveillance capabilities, and known Chinese offensive and defensive military capabilities. If a Secretary of Defense Flournoy were to tell the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs that this requirement was to be pursued, the Joint Staff would transmit it to the Indo-Pacific Commander whose staff would begin the process of determining the degree to which it could be accomplished today with today’s Joint force providing the ships, airplanes, submarines, missiles, and space assets arrayed in today’s posture. The Math Majors at Indo-PACOM and in the Pentagon would do their magic. They would create realistic reference scenarios, they would assess the degree to which the intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting (ISRT) available achieves the desired end, they would assess the degree to which the weapons in theater sufficed to neutralize (or whatever term they choose to describe damage in this scenario) Chinese military vessels, submarines, and merchant ships in the South China Sea. They would evaluate the effectiveness of ISRT networks to include their extensibility and durability. 

Were this effort undertaken by Flournoy or any other Secretary of Defense, it would likely reveal considerable gaps in virtually all aspects of the force posture arrayed in the Western Pacific. More importantly, it would suggest by inference, an architecture that would be capable of meeting the requirement. This “to be” architecture is compared with the “as is” architecture, and the differences would comprise a set of detailed operational requirements for Service acquisition organizations to pursue. Flournoy’s challenge then, is a good one, because it provides the military establishment with specific commander’s intent and specific operational objectives. 

Flournoy’s idea is important not only as a useful force structure and planning goal, but also as a thoughtful contribution to the concept of conventional deterrence. And while she couches it in the language of “deterrence by denial” (as in, an adversary is deterred from aggression because of doubt that military objectives would be achieved, rather than through a fear of future punishment afterward, our national approach to conventional deterrence since the initial Trump National Security Strategy) it also suggests conventional deterrence by punishment. Irrespective of the brand of conventional deterrence, what Flournoy is suggesting is the creation of the same level of certainty in the minds of Chinese Navy and merchant captains that they are constantly targeted, as currently exists in the minds of U.S. Navy surface ship commanding officers transiting the South China Sea. While Flournoy is far too politically deft to term it this way, it suggests the creation of a modern conventional deterrence “balance of terror”, in which all sides know where the other side’s assets are (or mostly know) and have them constantly targeted with actual weapons assigned and tracked against each known target. This is important to grasp, because left unsaid in her piece is the degree to which the current local balance (or imbalance, more to the point) is strategically destabilizing. 

And though her words speak ecumenically to the Joint Force, it seems likely that the posture necessary to support her requirement would fall principally to naval and aerospace forces but not exclusively. 

It is tempting to read too much into Flournoy’s piece, in that what she is suggesting is a peacetime posture consideration and not a war fighting or winning approach. Some may read her words and believe that she has fallen victim to the “short, sharp, war” fallacy. I am sensitive to these charges, but I do not find evidence in her words to support them. Maintaining the forward presence posture necessary to support “round-the-clock” surveillance and targeting in the South China Sea must be matched by the capacity to follow up to this initial, violent, 72 hours with a long-term effort to end the conflict. And by long term, I mean years. This too is a force structure and force planning construct, that while somewhat more difficult to pin down than the one she has articulated, is nevertheless critical to plan to. And this is where the second article of my eye-opening week comes into play. 

It hails from a chapter in a 1987 book edited by Stephen Cimbala and Keith Dunn called “Conflict Termination and Military Strategy: Coercion, Persuasion, and War.” The chapter in question is contributed by Linton Brooks and is entitled “Conflict Termination Through Maritime Leverage.” In it, Brooks provides supporting fires for the then-raging debates over how to deal with the Soviet threat. The Navy had recently put forward its now famous “Maritime Strategy,” and Brooks sets out to think through what war with the Soviets would look like, and more importantly, how it would end. Critical to his thinking was the debatable proposition that war with the Soviets could be fought on a “limited” level, as in neither side would resort to massive, strategic nuclear strikes, and that therefore strategy must account for other ways in which such a war can terminate. In Brooks’ estimation, powerful, globally arrayed naval forces provide tailor-made means for just this kind of strategy, in that over time, Soviet interests around the world could be threatened in order to achieve a level of discontent within the Politburo leading to an achievable war aim of returning to the status quo ante

This article hit me like a ton of bricks. I have been working my ass off for fourteen years either actively making naval strategy or suggesting how it is made, and I have professional relationships and deep friendships with virtually everyone else who does this stuff. And in that time, I have never—not once—had a conversation about the degree to which naval forces are critical to war termination, especially a war with a powerful, nuclear-armed opponent. This is obviously my failure, but having had my eyes opened, it strikes me as axiomatic that whenever navalists, naval strategists, or Navy/Marine Corps leadership talk about Integrated American Seapower, they MUST begin to cite the obvious benefits a naval force can confer in viable war-termination. This includes conversations within the upper levels of the national security establishment as we think about what a war with China looks like. 

What exactly does “winning” look like when the opponent is China? Unconditional surrender? This seems unlikely, and any strategy that sought this would raise the likelihood of strategic nuclear exchange. No, it seems to me that the objective U.S. and allies would aim at in a war with China is a return to the status quo ante, not unlike the way many thought about a war with the Soviet Union. This is unsatisfying to the American ear, what with our unease with anything but clear-cut victory, but it represents a reasonable and achievable war aim that offers the hope of escalation off-ramps. Given the geography of the Western Pacific, our network of friends and allies in the region, and the vulnerability of Chinese supply lines at sea and on land, naval forces (and grist for a whole other exploration, cyber forces) would have an immense responsibility in bringing about conditions that incentivize the CCP to negotiate war termination on terms the U.S. and its allies can support. 

And where all of this—Flournoy’s deterrence and Brooks’ termination—leads me, is that naval forces should have an outsized role in how this country plans for the possibility of conflict with China. Moreover, planners need to understand the unique military requirements of both deterrence and termination and understand that both functions place claims upon a naval force that are not necessarily perfectly aligned with the war-fighting function of naval forces. Put another way, the Navy you deter with, the Navy you fight with, and the Navy you win with—are not necessarily the same navies. All things being equal, a deterrence Navy could privilege ISRT, networking, and missiles, a war-fighting Navy could privilege undersea dominance, and a Navy to “win” with could privilege the netted distribution of more numerous platforms. Winter is coming. It is time to get serious, and this week’s reading provides for some interesting thinking that needs to be done. 

Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC, a defense and national security consultancy. The U.S. Navy is a client. All views here are his own.

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