China’s Way of Naval War: Mahan’s Logic, Mao’s Grammar

This study posits that Alfred Thayer Mahan supplies the “logic” of Chinese maritime strategy by which Beijing expands its commercial and naval fleets, international commerce, and forward naval stations—the trappings of sea power, while Mao Zedong provides the “grammar” by which it will execute naval operations offshore. The study ranks Wayne Hughes’s three generic models of fleet tactics according to Chinese strategic preferences, concluding that Chinese commanders are inclined to dispersed attack, sequential attack, and massed attack, in that order. 

By acquainting themselves with Chinese preferences, U.S. naval commanders are offered a glimpse on how this prospective naval adversary will wage war. Holmes therefore provides the U.S Navy with a guide for fighting surface-warfare in Asia, arguing that the People’s Liberation Army Navy is a more likely adversary than any other navy in the world, and the probability of a conflict is growing. The ability of the PLA Navy to integrate surface-warfare and underwater-warfare with aerial warfare is expanding, and the strategic environment in Asian waters is rapidly changing. The U.S. must adapt its methods and weapons promptly if it seeks to maintain the long-running maritime superiority that has supported its interests, and those of its allies in the region.

The analyses by Hughes in his book Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations provide the basis by which Holmes presents the challenges of countering Chinese anti-ship tactics. However, Hughes generally does not address operational issues, nor does he include political, cultural or strategic contexts; his analysis can – like any theory– be adapted to suit different conditions. Hughes’ abstract approach to naval warfare, when addressed in isolation to anything else, strongly suggests that technology is the primary determinant of the outcome in naval military confrontations, with enemy fleets fighting in open seas, using a large collection of high-precision weapons. Fights near enemy shores can complicate things, as coastal defenses may launch surface-to-surface missiles on U.S. Navy vessels, land-based aircraft can fire anti-ship missiles from above, and silent diesel-electric submarines may lurk beneath the surface, waiting to fire their torpedoes. In all events, both sides will use all the weapons and technology at their disposal, and victory, according to Hughes, will come to whomever delivers the first blow.

Hughes ranks the determinants of high-tech naval warfare as: first, the “effectiveness of reconnaissance operations”, which includes the use of sea and land-based sensors, combat systems, and computer networking for information exchange; second, “the range of weapons”, or the ability to strike from a distance; and Third, the tactics determined by the effectiveness of reconnaissance operations, and the range of the fleet’s weapons. The analysis Hughes presents is precise, but limited, according to Holmes, who argues that the effectiveness of detection systems, or detection algorithms for the engagement, will be a far greater determinant of the results of any naval engagement between China and the U.S.

The study contextualizes China’s emergence as a potential adversary, and seeks to enhance U.S. knowledge of Chinese naval objectives, ways and means in times of crises or war. It does this by making the following points:

– Mahan’s geopolitical logic explains China’s expansionist marine strategy; and also reveals how this could lead to an armed conflict with the U.S.

– The South China Sea is the arena where Beijing will most likely deploy its armed forces in order to achieve its geopolitical and strategic goals; this includes combined arms offensives designed to counter and outrun U.S. task force defenses.

– In the event of an armed conflict, whether it is near Taiwan, in the South China Sea, or anywhere else, China will likely rely on the operational tactics and practices presented in Mao Zedong’s works.

– Chinese forces will merge new weapons systems with old ones to perform joint “conventional” and “non-conventional” offensives, executing highly offensive operations to fulfill its strategic defense objectives. Air strikes will form just one component of its operations.

– Among the three tactical scenarios proposed, Chinese naval planners and their commanders will likely prefer dispersed attack, sequential attack, and massed attack, in that order.

The author notes in his conclusion that he does not foresee a naval war breaking out in Asia, as there is ample room for discussion of China’s intentions and maritime vision. However, Washington cannot neglect preparation for conflict with China, even if it views the probability of such conflict as low. Therefore, understanding the logic and grammar of the Chinese Navy will allow American military strategists to envisage the integrated defense system the People’s Liberation Army Navy will use to defend itself against U.S. carrier and submarine task forces in Asian waters.

About the Author:

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994 as the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star Over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List.

Publisher: Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research

Year of Publication: 2011

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