Would the U.S. Still Lose the Naval War of 2015?

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Over the last few days I have begun the exhausting, yet wonderful process of moving. Considering the fact I have not moved in twelve years and I am relocating from a suburban single-family home to a small apartment urban setting in Washington D.C. I have some tough decisions to make on what to keep and what to trash.

In going through my endless collection of foreign policy, national security and defense articles (I print everything) I found quite the gem that needless to say made the save box. Instead of cleaning out our soon-to-be former home, I decided to take a small break (please don't tell my wife) and travel down memory lane.

The article in question is one you may know.  From the Winter 2010 edition of Orbis, James Kraska's "How the United States Lost the Naval War of 2015" was always a piece that I have gone back to over and over again. In fact, the article was one that sparked my interest in anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) and the DF-21D. Several years back, myself and fellow CSIS:PACNET WSD Handa scholar Daryl Morini had planned to write a follow-up piece -- but alas -- other projects always seemed to get in the way (I am still willing if you are my friend!).

The article creates a fictional scenario where China "sinks" a U.S. carrier. The scenario itself is rather, well, interesting:

"Americans woke up to a different world the day after the attack. The war was over almost as soon as it had started. Outmaneuvered tactically and strategically, the United States suffered its greatest defeat at sea since Pearl Harbor. The incident—could it really be called a 'war'?—had been preceded by a shallow diplomatic crisis between the two great powers. No one in the West expected the dispute to spiral out of control. George Washington was conducting routine patrols off the coast of China to send a signal of U.S. resolve. China responded with a signal of its own—sinking the massive ship. The ship broke in two and sank in twenty minutes. The Chinese medium-range ballistic missile had a penetrator warhead that drilled through all fourteen decks of the ship and punched a cavernous hole measuring twenty-feet wide from the flat-top landing deck through to the bottom of the hull. Ammunition stores ignited secondary explosions. Two million gallons of JP-5 jet fuel poured into the sea. The attack was calamitous and damage control was pointless."

The next paragraph then crafts a rather clever Chinese response:

"While the Pentagon was reeling to determine exactly what happened, a well-orchestrated and pre-planned 'rescue' effort was already underway by a flotilla of first responders from China. The Chinese media reported on the bravery of Chinese naval forces, fisheries enforcement police and common fishermen who happened to be in the vicinity of the disaster and were able to save numerous lives. The massive warship had a crew of 3,200 sailors, and there were nearly 1,800 additional sailors and airmen embarked with the wing of aircraft on board the ship. Among this floating city, thousands of souls either incinerated or drowned. In the end, China saved hundreds of desperate survivors floating in the water. Chinese state television filmed distraught young U.S. navy personnel, weeping, grateful to be alive as they were plucked from the oily water. Family members back in the States rushed to Beijing to reunite with their sons and daughters, hosted by the Chinese government and state media."

While the plot certainly thickens (read the article, it's very much worth your time) I never cared for the scenario, but always appreciated the article's ideas as a thought exercise in terms of how another nation with robust A2/AD capabilities could take advantage of a larger powers unpreparedness to confront anti-access challenges. Obviously, Kraska's piece is before the mighty pivot/rebalance/insert-new-Washington-marketing-Asia-slogan of the last several years. It is also before the operational concept known as AirSea Battle, the JOAC and efforts by many to drive home the dangers the United States and other nations face now and in the future thanks to the proliferation of A2/AD technologies.    

The piece, besides going down the well-warn path of dreaming up a U.S.-China war, does something else:

"The shock of the sinking of George Washington transformed Asian security. Clearly, the United States had been unseated. Only more slowly did people begin to realize that the maintenance of world order had rested on U.S. military power, and the foundation of that power was U.S. command of the global commons. The Army could fail, as it did in Vietnam; the Air Force was ancillary to the Army. To secure the U.S. position and the nation’s security— and indeed for world order—the Navy could never fail. This was an unexpected wake-up call to the United States and its NATO partners who had become increasingly obsessed with counter-insurgency tactics and small wars doctrine in Iraq and Afghanistan, forgetting the lessons of history and great power conflict."

American military power -- specifically naval power --  has clearly underwritten the idea that the global commons are a space that are to be protected and preserved for all nations to use. America's navy insures the seas are an open area of trade, commerce, and free of those who would use the oceans sweeping commons as a place to cause others harm. Indeed, the global order, whether you like it or not, is still underwritten by American military might.

Today, while still the world's dominate naval power by leaps and bounds, America's Navy is aging with numbers that may call into question if it can continue its role as guardian of the commons. Combined with the threat faced by nations developing anti-access capabilities, far more is in question than just the superiority of the U.S. Navy. While many call for America to shed responsibilities abroad, retrench, or whatever buzz-word of  the day is used, a slippery slope develops at some point. Budget cuts and sequestration have already taken a sizeable chuck out of America's military might. How far does can one go? At what point can U.S. planners credibly pivot to Asia? And what about that anti-access thing? But most important of all: At what point can America's military still guarantee unfettered access to the global commons?

My personal opinion, I don't love the scenario Kraska dreams up, but the piece seems to ask much deeper questions, or at least hint at them. Although I doubt the global order would collapse overnight, international norms and rules of the road in place since the end of the Second World War could be questioned even more than they are now. While combat with China seems as likely as me keeping my prized Star Trek: The Next Generation comic collection over my wives endless array of designer bags in our battle for apartment space, thinking about what could happen next makes for interesting analysis.

What if America was no longer the assumed guarantor of the global commons?

Harry J. Kazianis serves as Editor of RealClearDefense, a member of the RealClearPolitics family of websites. Mr. Kazianis is also a Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Center for the National Interest (non-resident) and a Senior Fellow at the China Policy Institute (non-resident). He is the former Executive Editor of The National Interest and former Editor of The Diplomat. Follow him on Twitter: @grecianformula.

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