…but Beijing doesn’t seem to take into account U.S. submarines.
prevent the United States from intervening in the event of a Chinese invasion of
Taiwan or some other military assault by Beijing.
disregards the decisive power of America’s nuclear-powered submarines.
window in which to use its military to alter the world’s power structure. If China
doesn’t make a major military move in the next couple decades, it probably never will.
order—must hold the line against China for another 20 years. After that,
America can declare a sort of quiet victory in the increasingly chilly Cold War
The bad news came from Lee Fuell, from the U.S. Air Force’s National Air
and Space Intelligence Center, during Fuell’s testimony before the
For years, Chinese military planning assumed that any attack by the
People’s Liberation Army on Taiwan or a disputed island would have to begin
with a Pearl Harbor-style preemptive missile strike by China against U.S.
forces in Japan and Guam. The PLA was so afraid of overwhelming American
intervention that it genuinely believed it could not win unless the Americans
were removed from the battlefield before the main campaign even began.
A preemptive strike was, needless to say, a highly risky proposition.
If it worked,
the PLA just might secure enough space and time to defeat defending troops,
seize territory and position itself for a favorable post-war settlement.
But if China failed to disable American forces with a surprise attack, Beijing could
find itself fighting a full-scale war on at least two fronts: against the country it
was invading plus the full might of U.S. Pacific Command, fully mobilized and
probably strongly backed by the rest of the world.
That was then. But after two decades of sustained military modernization, the
Chinese military has fundamentally changed its strategy in just the last year or so.
According to Fuell, recent writings by PLA officers indicate “a growing confidence
within the PLA that they can more-readily withstand U.S. involvement.”
The preemptive strike is off the table—and with it, the risk of a full-scale
American counterattack. Instead, Beijing believes it can attack Taiwan or another
neighbor while also bloodlessly deterring U.S. intervention. It would do so by
deploying such overwhelmingly strong military forces—ballistic missiles, aircraft
carriers, jet fighters
and the like—that Washington dare not get involved.
The knock-on effects of deterring America could be world-changing. “Backing
away from our commitments to protect Taiwan, Japan or the Philippines
would be tantamount to ceding East Asia to China’s domination,” Roger Cliff, a
fellow at the Atlantic Council, said at the same U.S.-China Economic and
Security Review Commission hearing on Jan. 30.
Worse, the world’s liberal economic order—and indeed, the whole notion of
democracy—could suffer irreparable harm. “The United States has both a
moral and a material interest in a world in which democratic nations can survive
and thrive,” Cliff asserted.
Fortunately for that liberal order, America possesses by far the world’s most
powerful submarine force—one poised to quickly sink any Chinese invasion fleet.
In announcing its readiness to hold off the U.S. military, the PLA seems to
have ignored Washington’s huge undersea advantage.
The Silent Service
It’s not surprising that Beijing would overlook America’s subs. Most Americans
overlook their own undersea fleet—and that’s not entirely their own fault.
The U.S. sub force takes pains to avoid media coverage in order to maximize its secrecy and stealth. “The submarine cruises the world’s oceans unseen,” the Navy stated on
Unseen and unheard. That why the sub force calls itself the “Silent Service.”
The Navy has 74 submarines, 60 of which are attack or missile submarines
optimized for finding and sinking other ships or blasting land targets. The balance
is ballistic-missile boats that carry nuclear missiles and would not routinely
participate in military campaigns short of an atomic World War III.
Thirty-three of the attack and missile boats belong to the Pacific Fleet, with major
bases in Washington State, California, Hawaii and Guam. Deploying for six months
or so roughly every year and a half, America’s Pacific subs frequently stop over in Japan
and South Korea and occasionally evenventure under the Arctic ice.
According to Adm. Cecil Haney, the former commander of Pacific Fleet subs,
on any given day 17 boats are underway and eight are “forward-deployed,” meaning
they are on station in a potential combat zone. To the Pacific Fleet, that pretty much means
waters near China.
America has several submarine types. The numerous Los Angeles-class attack
boats are Cold War stalwarts that are steadily being replaced by newer
Virginia-class boats with improved stealth and sensors. The secretive Seawolfs,
numbering just three—all of them in the Pacific—are big, fast and more heavily
armed than other subs. The Ohio-class missile submarines are former ballistic
missile boats each packing 154 cruise missile.
U.S. subs are, on average, bigger, faster, quieter and more powerful than the rest
of the world’s subs. And there are more of them. The U.K. is building just seven new Astute
attack boats. Russia aims to maintain around 12 modern attack subs. China is
struggling to deploy a handful of rudimentary nuclear boats.
Able to lurk silently under the waves and strike suddenly with torpedoes and
missiles, submarines have tactical and strategic effect greatly disproportionate
to their relatively small numbers. During the 1982 Falklands War,
the British sub Conqueror torpedoed and sank the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano,
killing 323 men. The sinking kept the rest of the Argentine fleet bottled up for the
duration of the conflict.
America’s eight-at-a-time submarine picket in or near Chinese waters could
be equally destructive to Chinese military plans, especially considering the PLA’s
limited anti-submarine skills. “Although China might control the surface of the sea
around Taiwan, its ability to find and sink U.S. submarines will be extremely limited
for the foreseeable future,” Cliff testified. “Those submarines would likely be able to
intercept and sink Chinese amphibious transports as they transited toward Taiwan.”
So it almost doesn’t matter that a modernized PLA thinks it possesses the means
to fight America above the waves, on land and in the air. If it can’t safely sail an
invasion fleet as part of its territorial ambitions, it can’t achieve its strategic
goals—capturing Taiwan and or some island also claimed by a neighboring
country—through overtly military means.
That reality should inform Washington’s own strategy. As the United States has
already largely achieved the world order it struggled for over the last century,
it need only preserve and defend this order. In other words, America has the strategic
high ground against China, as the latter mustattack and alter the world in order to
get what it wants.
In practical military terms, that means the Pentagon can more or less ignore most
of China’s military capabilities, including those that appear to threaten traditional
U.S. advantages in nukes, air warfare, mechanized ground operations and
surface naval maneuvers.
“We won’t invade China, so ground forces don’t play,” pointed out Wayne Hughes,
a professor at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. “We won’t conduct a first nuclear
strike. We should not adopt an air-sea strike plan against the mainland, because that
is a sure way to start World War IV.”
Rather, America must deny the Chinese free access to their near waters.
“We need only enough access to threaten a war at sea,” Hughes said. In his
view, a fleet optimized for
countering China would have large numbers of small surface ships for enforcing a trade
But the main combatants would be submarines, “to threaten destruction of all Chinese
warships and commercial vessels in the China Seas.”
Cliff estimated that in wartime, each American submarine would be able to get
off “a few torpedo shots” before needing to “withdraw for self-preservation.” But
eight subs each fire three torpedoes, and just half those torpedoes hit, the American
attack boats could destroy all of China’s major amphibious ships—and with them,
Beijing’s capacity for invading Taiwan or seizing a disputed island.
Waiting out the Chinese decline
If American subs can hold the line for another 20 years, China might age right
out of its current, aggressive posture without ever having attacked anyone.
That’s because economic and demographic trends in China point towards a rapidly
aging population, flattening economic growth and fewer resources available for
military modernization.To be fair, almost all developed countries are also
experiencing this aging, slowing and increasing peacefulness. But China’s trends are
pronounced owing to a particularly steep drop in the birth rate traceable back to
the Chinese Communist Party’s one-child policy.
Another factor is the unusual speed with which the Chinese economy has expanded
to its true potential, thanks to the focused investment made possible by an
authoritarian government … and also thanks to that government’s utter
disregard for the natural environment and for the rights of everyday Chinese people.
“The economic model that propelled China through three decades of meteoric
growth appears unsustainable,” Andrew Erickson, a Naval War College analyst,
told the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
What Erickson described as China’s “pent-up national potential” could begin
expiring as early as 2030, by which point “China will have world’s highest proportion
of people over 65,” he predicted. “An aging society with rising expectations,
burdened with rates of chronic diseases exacerbated by sedentary lifestyles,
will probably divert spending from both military development and the economic
growth that sustains it.”
Wisely, American political and military leaders have made the investments necessary to sustain U.S. undersea power for at least that long. After a worrying dip in submarine production, starting in 2012 the Pentagon asked for—and Congress funded—the
acquisition of two Virginia-class submarines per year for around $2.5 billion apiece,
a purchase rate adequate to maintain the world’s biggest nuclear submarine fleet
The Pentagon is also improving the Virginia design, adding undersea-launched drones,
Given China’s place in the world, its underlying national trends and America’s
pointed advantage in just that aspect of military power that’s especially damaging to
Chinese plans, it seems optimistic for PLA officers to assume they can launch an
attack on China’s neighbors without first knocking out U.S. forces.
Not that a preemptive strike would make any difference, as the only American forces
that truly matter for containing China are the very ones that China
For they are deep underwater.