Monday, January 31, 2011

Asymmetry rules the waves

Some lessons about naval power, and being the underdog, which we may have forgotten.

China, the U.S., and 1812

By Stephen Budiansky

From Theodore Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet” to Ronald Reagan’s 600-ship force, proponents of a strong U.S. Navy have long been accustomed to making their case a matter of raw numbers. 

Or at least, a matter of raw force: The great late-nineteenth-century American seapower theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan argued that only a large and powerful sea force, built to defeat any potential enemy navy in a decisive blue-water sea battle, could maintain control of the oceans in peace or war. Mahan’s basic calculus has guided American navalists’ thinking ever since.

So it’s no surprise that recent concerns over China’s growing naval capacity have been expressed in familiar Mahanian terms,
weighing numbers against numbers, weapon system against weapon system. Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), the new chairman of the Readiness Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, last year pointed to the “unnerving” fact that “China’s navy is larger than our navy,” its 290 ships now surpassing America’s fleet by 6. The new chairman of the committee, Rep. Howard McKeon (R-Calif.), recently warned that “while China today may not intend to attack our carriers, neutralize our bases in Japan and Guam, or push back our naval presence out of the South China Sea, they are without question making the investments and developing capabilities to do just that. The question is whether we will be ready and capable to respond.”

Skeptics who play down the Chinese threat by and large cite the same traditional calculus of naval power, implicitly assuming a head-to-head, fleet vs. fleet clash as well — but pointing to limitations in China’s ability to prevail in such a direct conflict: Many of its ships are old and less capable models, despite a modernization program that began in the 1990s; 54 of its 60 attacks submarines are diesel-electric models, with limited range and underwater speed; and even China’s much vaunted anti-ship ballistic missile now under development may be less of a threat than it has been made to be, its effectiveness hinging on extraordinarily demanding, advanced surveillance technology in order to target an American aircraft carrier.

But there’s a very different way of thinking about naval power that has implications quite different from what either the alarmists or skeptics propose as the proper response to China’s capabilities. Ironically, it is a lesson that goes back to the earliest days of our own navy, some two hundred years ago—when America was the vastly outnumbered underdog and stunned the mightiest sea power in the world by demonstrating that military victories have as much to with psychology, politics, and perception as they do with any quantitative measures of military might.

Today we’d call it “asymmetric warfare,” and while roadside bombs and suicide attacks are daily reminders in Iraq and Afghanistan of this threat to America’s superpower high-tech military on land, we have tended to forget that asymmetry can be a potent threat at sea as well. In fact, the very vastness of the oceans and the difficulty of locating an enemy threat even in this modern age of radar and satellites makes the dangers of asymmetric warfare all the greater in naval warfare.

In the War of 1812, America’s miniscule navy had fewer guns than Britain’s Royal Navy had ships. (“Our navy is so Lilliputian,” scoffed crusty old John Adams at the outbreak of the war, “that Gulliver might bury it in the deep by making water on it.”) Three early victories by American frigates in single ship actions, though of trivial strategic significance to a navy that ruled the waves with more than 700 warships to America’s 20, profoundly shook British complacency and offered a perfect illustration of the huge psychological impact that occurs when a seemingly outclassed foe gets in even one lucky blow. “I like these little events,” commented the American secretary of the navy William Jones after another single-ship victory, by an American sloop of war. “They . . . produce an effect infinitely beyond their intrinsic importance.”

But it was William Jones’s shrewdly calculated strategy to avoid as much as possible such gallant warship-on-warship actions and instead hit Britain in the soft underbelly of its oceangoing commerce in a kind of seaborne guerilla warfare that would truly be the key to fighting the mighty Royal Navy to a standstill. As Jones noted with satisfaction, a single tiny American raider could tie up a hugely disproportionate enemy force vainly chasing across the ocean in futile pursuit: “Five British frigates cannot counteract the depredations of one sloop of war.”

It is deliciously satisfying even two hundred years later to read the increasingly irate chastisements from the British Admiralty to its North American commanding admiral, and his obsequious apologies and excuses, after the American frigate President led no fewer than 25 British warships on a wild goose chase across the entire Atlantic Ocean before slipping past the British blockade off Rhode Island and making it safely back home (and not before snapping up the British admiral’s personal schooner as a prize on the way in).

The impunity with which American warships and privateers continued to evade the British blockade of the American coast in itself shook British opinion, given complacent British public confidence in the Royal Navy’s preeminence; the raids by American ships against British merchant vessels carried out right up to the mouth of the English Channel in the summer of 1814 convinced British merchants that the time had come to end the war as quickly as possible.

Are there lessons for us in this experience from our own past, in an age when the U.S. Navy now fills the superpower role the Royal Navy held in the nineteenth century? One is the irreducible vulnerability even in this modern age of sea lines of communication. More than $5 trillion worth of commerce passes through the South China Sea a year, $1.3 trillion of that American. As the British learned in 1812, there aren’t enough warships in the world to protect sprawling ocean trade against the depredations of an even moderately determined enemy. It is a vulnerability that no amount of conventional naval force can ever adequately protect against.

A more important point, however, is that perceptions matter hugely in war, and in a putative clash with China’s navy even the loss of a single American capital ship could have a stunningly disproportionate blow on American prestige and expectations.

All of which argues for thinking more about meeting asymmetry with asymmetry than with conventional naval power. Representative McKeon among others has been pressing for increased purchases of the F-35 strike aircraft and the naval lobby as always wants more ships. But American naval preparedness in the Pacific needs to take into account not just the direct balance of force but the kind of asymmetric threats America herself once excelled at.
Any simple quantitative accounting of the War of 1812 would easily have concluded that Britain had won the naval conflict, capturing far more American warships and merchant vessels than her enemy did of hers. Yet British naval officers realized that there was more to war than mere numbers. As one commented of America at the war’s end, “Soon will the rising greatness of this distant empire . . . astonish the nations who have looked on with wonder, and seen the mightiest efforts of Britain, at the era of her greatest power, so easily parried, so completely foiled.”

In countering the rising greatness of Chinese naval power, a strategy that relies more on American technological superiority in surveillance, information, and very-long range missiles and unmanned aircraft — and less on sending traditional naval assets like aircraft carriers and their short-range strike aircraft sailing directly into harm’s way — could effectively constrain Chinese naval forces’ freedom of action while at the same time while denying them the crucial opportunity to get in a psychologically potent blow against American prestige. But perhaps we have so long played the part of the lumbering Goliath that we have forgotten how we once astonished the world as the nimble David.

Stephen Budiansky is the author of Perilous Fight: America’s Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812–1815.