In The Absence Of Doctrine

As expected, the China war prognostication talk ramped up over the weekend following a memo released on Friday by Air Mobility Command’s commanding general urging his officers to prepare for a war against China in the near future. Now on Monday morning, some US politicians are coming out in support of the AMC memo while the first signs of Chinese discontent are appearing on pro-China internet news sites. Recently, a handful of former and current US general officers have publicly warned that China appears to be moving nearer to using its military power against Taiwan and perhaps in other areas of the Western Pacific as well. It remains to be seen if these warnings will assimilate into a wakeup call for the United States or if they will go unheeded.

Realistically speaking, the prospect of a military conflict between the United States and China continues to rise with every passing week. Although the US has been preparing for a potential war with China in the Western Pacific, the arrangements have so far lacked a unifying element comparable to what was found in US military doctrines during the later years of the Cold War. Specifically, I’m referring to the US Navy’s Maritime Strategy and the combined US Army/USAF Airland Battle 2000. From the start these doctrines identified the Soviet Union as the adversary in the North Atlantic and in Western Europe respectively. Ten years ago, US attempts to fashion a doctrine for wartime operations in the Western Pacific created AirSea Battle, a combined US Navy/USAF plan to counter China’s increasing anti-access/area deniability. AirSea Battle evolved into JAM GC, the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons. JAM GC was intended to build upon the foundation of AirSea and finalize a doctrine for conducting operations against determined, capable, and elusive opponents who avoid U.S. strengths, emulate U.S. capabilities, attack vulnerabilities, and expand operations beyond physical battlegrounds.

Despite all the work done on AirSea Battle and its successor concept, the US has little to show for it at present in terms of an effective warfighting doctrine for a conflict against an increasingly aggressive and militarily capable China in the Western Pacific. In the absence of such a formal doctrine, the services have developed their own concepts, ostensibly for incorporation into JAM GC. However, it is unclear if the concepts will connect successfully and produce a war plan that will bring success in a future Sino-US war. Time is not on the side of the United States in this regard. With Ukraine still dominating attention, the prospect of the United States not being prepared to counter a Chinese attack against Taiwan remains real. General Minihan predicts such an attack will come around 2025. But it could also come sooner and if so, the US will not be as ready as it needs to be.

China and Russia To Join South Africa For Naval Exercises In February

The South African government today confirmed that joint naval exercises will take place off the country’s east coast next month involving South African, Russian, and Chinese naval units. The exercises will take place off of the South African ports of Durban and Richards Bay and are scheduled to take place from 17-26 February, 2023. The South African National Defense Force claims the war games are expected to “strengthen the already flourishing relations between South Africa, Russia and China.”

The timing of the exercise is questionable in the eyes of some opposition politicians in Pretoria. With Russia involved an increasingly bloody and protracted war in Ukraine, this doesn’t appear to be the proper time to welcome Russian warships to South Africa. In fact, despite the majority of South Africans opposing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the national government has been firmly in Moscow’s corner for the duration of the conflict. South Africa did not condemn Russia’s attack on Ukraine, to the frustration of its Western allies.

For China and Russia, the exercises with South African forces will be mostly of symbolic value. Highlighting the growing reach and influence of a still fledgling power bloc anchored by Beijing and Moscow. The appearance of Chinese warships in the western reaches of the Indian Ocean certainly sends a message to China’s competitors about the reach and capabilities of the PLAN though. South Africa, on the other hand, stands to gain little as a nation-state. But for its embattled president Cyril Ramaphosa, the exercises offer an opportunity to shift attention away from his recent political difficulties and the country’s continuing economic misfortunes.

The US Navy Has To Do More To Be Prepared To Fight China

Sino-US relations continue to deteriorate and storm clouds continue to gather on the horizon on the Western Pacific. To the surprise of many, the US Navy is only now starting to accept the possibility of a new Pacific War breaking out in the near future. In the same manner of Rip Van winkle, the US Navy is emerging from its extended slumber and coming to terms with a changed world and evolving threats. The reasons for the slumber are numerous and spurred by non-similar root causes ranging from a two-decade long Global War on Terror, budgetary constraints, broken-down procurement, and ship building programs. Last but hardly least is the reckless complacency that the ensconced the Navy since the end of the Cold War.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is growing by leaps and bounds. China has put together a navy intended to not only spearhead an effort to reclaim Taiwan, but also to challenge the US Navy and American allies on seas east of the Second Island Chain. The modern-day PLAN is a blue water navy in nearly every respect, having become the greatest threat to American supremacy of the seas in decades.

As the US Navy moves to address its current deficiencies and face the threat posed by China’s navy, it needs to keep in mind the importance of sound training centered on fighting and winning a modern war at sea. Many officers and senior NCOs cut their teeth in Iraq and Afghanistan. The lessons and experiences drawn from these conflicts are inapplicable to fighting a modern-day war against a near-peer opponent.  In short, the lost art of naval warfare will need to be relearned service wide.

Designing an effective doctrine to fight and win a war against China has proved to be difficult too. This is a military-wide problem with every service branch focusing on its own role in a future war, not looking at the big picture. AirSea Battle became the grand strategy in 2010, only to be replaced five years later by Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (JAM-GC), which is the same basic doctrine. However, since 2015 scant attention has been paid to overhauling and updating the doctrine to contend with the growing power and reach of the PLAN and PLAAF.  With the Navy growing more concerned about the prospect of having to fight China at some point before 2025, doctrine development needs to become a major priority for leadership.

A China Move Against Taiwan By 2024 Is The Nightmare Scenario For The US Navy

Over the last week, comments made by senior US government officials and general officers indicate the United States is taking seriously the prospect of China moving faster than earlier thought to take Taiwan. After Xi Jinping said at the Communist Party Congress that the PRC reserves the “option to take all necessary measures” to reunify with Taiwan the warning was sounded by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The secretary said Beijing has made the “fundamental decision that the status quo is no longer acceptable” and China is now pursuing “reunification on a much faster timeline.” On Friday, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday picked up where Blinken left off. He stated at the Atlantic Council that the US needs to be prepared for a possible Chinese military move to be made against Taiwan by 2024. Perhaps even by the end of this year.

Gilday’s warning flies in the face of estimates and forecasts that China will not be prepared to move against Taiwan until 2027. The 2027 window has become embedded into the thinking and planning of the US military and intelligence community. Since the Pelosi Trip to Taiwan back in August, circumstances have changed somewhat. Beijing wasted little time in flexing its military muscle in the air and sea space surrounding the island nation. It became clear the Chinese government was moving to permanently alter the status quo. With the Chinese Communist Party Congress coming to a close this weekend and Xi Jinping seeming to have been successful in consolidating his hold on power, the warnings by US officials might indicate growing concern about Xi and his intentions.

Or the warnings could be more self-serving, at least on the part of Gilday. An attempt to cover his own failings as CNO with the prospect of war growing larger amid global geopolitical uncertainty. The current condition of the US Navy is not good, to put it bluntly. Readiness issues, a shipbuilding program dominated by political considerations and lack of a coherent doctrine for taking on a near-peer opponent in the air and at sea plague the service. China, on the other hand, has been preparing the PLAN and PLAAF for an eventual confrontation with the US Navy in the Western Pacific. While Gilday promotes a woke culture and readiness plummets, China is pumping out warships and submarines from its shipyards like hotcakes and focusing on the US Navy as its main enemy.  

A Quick Glance At The Western Pacific (More Tomorrow)

As Nancy Pelosi leaves Taiwan, the Western Pacific is anxiously awaiting China’s next move. The ball is squarely in Beijing’s court now and with the US Speaker of the House of Representatives having departed, China is expected to begin flexing military muscle. It’s unclear exactly what China’s next step will be, but Southeast Asian governments are highly concerned. Today, governments around the region have urged China and the United States to stand back from taking actions that could inflame tensions. Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and other nations also affirmed publicly their support for the One China Policy, which is at the forefront of the brewing crisis at the moment.

China conducted live fire exercises near Taiwan Strait during Pelosi’s visit and has several larger ones planned for the waters around Taiwan. Parts of the designated exercise zones even appear to violate territorial waters claimed by Taiwan. If the exercises do materialize, they could bring about a major escalation in Western Pacific tensions. There is also a sizeable number of US Navy warships in the vicinity of Taiwan Strait including the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and the amphibious assault ship USS Tripoli. It is unclear how long these ships and their escorts will remain in the area.

It is not clear if or when the Chinese exercises will begin, but there will be a considerable amount of attention focused on the Western Pacific for some days to come.