Canary In The Coal Mine: The US Navy’s Dilemmas As An Indication Of A Culminating Point In National Grand Strategy

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 8, No. 4, April 2020

By Captain Robert C. Rubel USN (Ret)


June 20, 2000 – The U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln Battle Group and ships from Australia, Chile, Japan, Canada, and Korea steam alongside one another for a Carrier Battle Group Photo during RIMPAC 2000. US Navy.

From a resource point of view, the US Navy has not been doing well lately, its program to expand fleet size to 355 ships, a number that seems to be accepted by the Administration and Congress, has been suffering a series of setbacks.  Whether being raided for money to build a border wall, forced to fund the replacement ballistic missile submarine program or constricted due to the need to bolster current readiness, the Navy’s shipbuilding budget is under tremendous pressure, and Congress, despite a desire for a bigger fleet, has not increased the Navy’s top line sufficiently to accelerate ship construction.  Moreover, and perhaps worse, the Navy has been unable to produce a fleet structure assessment (FSA) that passes muster with the Secretary of Defense, who doubts the validity of a key assumption that underpins the study.[1]

Many, including a number of my colleagues, feel that the answer is a significantly increased Navy budget, as if the only problem is money.  While there is no doubt that a bigger budget would lubricate shipbuilding, it would not necessarily solve the bigger problem of fleet structure analysis and fleet design; how many of what kinds of ships should the Navy have in the future and the uses of each kind.  But more money does not seem to be in the cards, and correcting assumptions about the effectiveness of the Navy’s principal force generation process, the Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP) does not bode well for what an adjusted FSA would reveal.  The Navy is facing a no-win situation, and to find a way out, we have to engage in a deeper strategic diagnosis of the problem. Continue reading

Defeating China: Five Strategies

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 8, No. 4, April 2020

By Anders Corr, Ph.D.

Fighter jets of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels demonstration squadron fly over the Lincoln Memorial during the Fourth of July Celebration ‘Salute to America’ event in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, July 4, 2019. Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Since 1989, when China massacred thousands of its own people in Tiananmen Square to stop a pro-democracy protest, the country has arguably grown into the world’s most powerful and centralized state. China’s GDP by purchasing power parity (PPP) is approximately $25.4 trillion, while the U.S. GDP PPP is only about $20.5 trillion.[1] One man, Chinese President Xi Jinping, has almost total control of China’s economy and a leadership position for life. China’s authoritarian system, most recently, allowed the COVID-19 virus to become a pandemic. By the time it is controlled, it may have killed up to millions of people.

Compared to Xi Jinping, political leaders in democracies have comparatively little economic power. U.S. President Donald Trump, for example, has only partial control of the smaller (by purchasing power parity when compared to China) U.S. economy, and must be reelected in 2020 to continue his tenure for a maximum of an additional four years.

China’s accelerating economy has fueled its military spending, which increased approximately three-fold since 2008 to $177.5 billion in 2019,[2] not including substantial programs hidden from public sight. Military and political analysts estimate that in the South China Sea and environs, China’s military capabilities already match or exceed those of the United States in many respects, as does China’s diplomatic influence. This puts pressure on the U.S. military to withdraw from the region, claimed as territory by Beijing. Over the next 30 years, China’s global military capabilities could exceed those of the United States, which would make it difficult for the U.S. to pose a credible threat against China’s already ongoing territorial expansion. Europe and Japan are similarly militarily weak when compared with their near competitors, Russia and China respectively. [3]

China’s actions are now indistinguishable from those that would serve a goal of China’s global rule in perpetuity. Hopes for engagement as a strategy to turn China into a democracy have now been dashed. Instead of us changing them, they are changing us through influencing our own political and economic leadership. There is a danger that as China ascends to the world’s most powerful nation, other nations will follow its lead through bandwagoning. The dual and increasing danger of bandwagoning and China’s influence means that a shift in strategy is needed.

Engagement should give way to a more aggressive strategy against China in order to defend freedom, democracy and human rights globally, and to incentivize allies and potential allies to declare themselves on the right side of the dispute before they enter the gravitational field of China’s economic influence.[4]

As argued below, this should include labeling China as not just a competitor, which would imply that all play by the same rules, but as an adversary or even an enemy. Strategies must be calibrated accordingly to defeat the country, and more specifically, its guiding organization, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

There are at least five interrelated and overlapping strategies required to defeat the CCP: 1) Defend, 2) Ally, 3) Contain, 4) Divide, and 5) Democratize. Many of these strategies are overlapping, and have been proposed previously by a range of authors, cited here. They are all underway to some extent in various countries, however they are not being implemented at the scale and intensity needed to win. That should change now, or we risk continued relative weakening against the enemy.

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War In The Taiwan Strait Is Not Unthinkable: Some Will Lose More Than Others

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 11, November 2019

By Grant Newsham

Screen capture of Chinese state media video of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops training for an assault on Taiwan’s presidential office. Pictured is a mock building at the Zhurihe military base in China, that mimics the actual building in Taipei. The video aired July 5, 2015. CCTV via Apple Daily.

Whether anyone actually ‘wins’ a war is a philosophical debate.  The Germans and Japanese in 1945 might have thought wars do indeed have winners.  But perhaps it’s better said that in most conflicts some parties ‘lose more than others.’

Such would be the case if Beijing attempted to militarily subjugate Taiwan.  And Xi Jinping just might do so.  He declared in a January 2019 speech that “we (China) do not promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option to use all necessary measures (to take Taiwan.)”[1]

The Battle for Taiwan would have truly global consequences, akin to the invasion of Poland by the Soviets and Germans in 1939.

However, much of the debate over a Taiwan Strait conflict focuses on preparation for and conduct of the PRC’s attack: whether Beijing will or won’t attack, what an attack might look like and Taiwan’s ability to defend itself, whether the US will or should get involved and whether it ought to sell Taiwan ‘this or that’ weapon.  Such discussion is useful, but the actual consequences and longer-term ripple effects of a fight over Taiwan deserve much more attention.[2]

This paper examines key aspects of what happens once the shooting starts, and the follow-on global economic and political effects.  The envisioned scenario is a full-scale PLA assault against Taiwan, but it’s worth noting that even a ‘limited’ assault–such as against one of Taiwan’s offshore islands–may not stay limited for very long: given Beijing’s oft-stated determination to take all of Taiwan, an off-shore island assault would only constitute a tactical objective in the march on Taipei, and would also have serious and wide-ranging political and economic consequences.

Continue reading

China and the War of Shipyards and Factories

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 10, October 2019

By William R. Hawkins

Chinese aircraft carrier group, including J-15 fighters and helicopters, trains in the South China Sea in late December, 2016. Visual China Group via Getty Images.

Satellite images show that China is making rapid progress in building its new Type 02 aircraft carrier at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai. The Type 02 is a larger design than Beijing’s first two carriers which were based on Soviet-era light carriers of about 67,000 tons and which lacked catapults for launching first-rate fighters. They used “ski jumps” to put planes into the air, limiting them to the small, short-range J-15 “Flying Shark” fighter-bombers. The Russian-built/China modified Type 01 can only carry 24 of these warbirds, though the China-built 01A, which is about to deploy, may be able to carry a few more. The Type 02 is a much larger design more in line with American carriers. At an estimated 80,000+ tons, it will be able to carry 40+ fighters as well as supporting aircraft such as early warning and control planes. In comparison, the typical U.S. Navy carrier has 60+ fighters along with other support aircraft. They are also nuclear-powered which the Chinese carriers are not. This does not mean, however, that American naval-air superiority is assured. Continue reading

Arctic Enterprise: The China Dream Goes North

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 9, September 2019

By Jonathan Hall

Arctic Ocean, ship on Barents Sea. Getty.

Until recent years, harsh weather and unmanageable navigation routes have precluded all but the most determined crews from venturing through the Arctic. As climate change continues to take effect, however, warming temperatures are opening up the region to new opportunities. In 2017, for example, merchant ships were able to pass through a shipping lane, known as the Northern Sea Route (NSR), for the first time without icebreaker escort.

The NSR has since been discussed as a logistical windfall that will revolutionize the world of international shipping. The often-cited reasoning is the potential 5,000 mi (8,000 km), or 10-15 days saved in transit, as compared to more traditionally used routes such as the Strait of Malacca, or the Suez Canal. While the NSR is only open three months per year, climatologists predict it will be traversable for 9 months out of the year by 2030, and completely ice free within the next two decades. As these changes are coming into effect, no state seems to understand the geopolitical advantage a strong presence in the Arctic will bring more so than the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Continue reading