August 18, 2012

Thinking About War With China

My post title differs from the article I want to highlight primarily because I agree with the author's premise that the strategic culture of countries and of their military services shape how they think about competitions and therefore fundamentally inform the policies, concepts, tools, and physical preparations necessary to be prepared for conflict if and when it occurs. There's an old saying in the military: "The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war," (ascribed to Patton, among others) meaning the more effort you put into preparing for a potential conflict, the more likely you are to prevail and at less cost in lives and treasure. 

In his article "Preparing for War with China," James Holmes has this to say about service cultures and their influence on preparing for the next war:

"The hardware dimension of the U.S.-China strategic competition, however, is inextricable from the all-important human dimension. Weapons don’t fight wars, as strategic thinkers from U.S. Air Force colonel John Boyd to Chinese Communist Party chairman Mao Zedongremind us; people who operate weapons do. Both individuals and the big institutions they serve have deep-seated worldviews and ideas about how to cope with the strategic surroundings. A culture that comports with strategic and operational circumstances represents an asset. A culture that flouts reality is a huge liability.

"So the struggle between AirSea Battle and anti-access is about more than developing gee-whiz technologies. A culture war is brewing between two great powers with very different conceptions of the relationship among land, air and sea power. And again, ideas matter. As naval historian Julian S. Corbett explains, armaments are “the expression in material of strategical and tactical ideas that prevail at any given time.” What hardware a nation’s armed forces acquire speaks volumes about how strategic leaders think about war—and how they may wage it."

Keeping in mind "a picture is worth a thousand words" two graphics help highlight the importance of devoting ample thought to U.S. interests in Asia and what it might take to protect those interests.

This graphic depicts the long-running and increasingly contentious dispute in the South China Sea among a number of countries with economic interests in the area. Ownership of islands, even little-bitty ones, translates to fishing and mineral rights extending from them. China claims everything. It's neighbors have their own ideas.

Pulling back a bit, this graphic shows China's view of its 'defensive perimeter' often referred to in military circles as China's first and second island chains. 

You can see that if the U.S. felt compelled to respond to Chinese aggression in the region, whether to contest a grab for resources or come to the aid of an ally, it would have to penetrate and operate within an area well within China's ability to control. 

Our Defense Department should rightfully consider the implications of U.S. interests with respect to the military's potential need to act in support of those interests. In similar fashion, The White House and its State Department should keep geographic and military-related realities in mind as they develop positions and policies reflecting U.S. interests. 

Doing so in the midst of a crisis is too late. Far better to think about "what ifs" far in advance especially given the factors of organizational culture and bias raised by Holmes.


  1. Mr. Wood:

    I have a very un-PC question to ask that has to do with culture and warfighting.

    If there is war with Red China (please God don't let it happen) there will be much sea fighting, sea fighting of an intensity not seen since WWII.

    All of our fighting ships have or soon will have mixed sex crews, even subs. To my knowledge there has never been a fighting navy in the history of the world that has sent ships into serious battle with mixed sex crews. Ours may be the very first.

    What do you think of this?

  2. [Apologies for the lengthy response...]
    Sir: You ask great questions. Perhaps the un-PC questions are the questions most needing to be asked. As for what I think...I think it’s a bad idea. My only interest is in the ability of the crew to “fight the ship”; all other considerations pale by comparison. We have a navy to win battles at sea. Naval power has many other uses such as evacuations, humanitarian assistance, or supporting to operations ashore but they are secondary.

    Critical to ‘winning’ a sea battle is the ability of the crew to not only operate a ship’s weapon systems but also to effectively carry out ‘battle damage control’ when the ship is hit. Breached hulls, flooding, fires, damaged powerplants, etc. have to be dealt with immediately or the ship is lost. If you’ve not served aboard ship you’ve at least seen them in movies. They are cramped, have narrow passageways and ladders, and it seems like everything is made of heavy steel. Wrestling fire hoses, swinging axes, pounding materials into a breached bulkhead, manhandling hatches and cumbersome pieces of equipment against flooding waters...combatting punctured steam lines...battling a fuel-fed-fire...all while wearing emergency gear (firefighting clothing, breathing apparatus, helmets/masks and the like) in the heat and (likely) darkness, and in the midst of high-stress combat action will test the stamina of the hardiest of men.

    Yes, women ably serve as police officers, firefighters, EMTs, etc. Women also effectively serve (and have served with great honor) in every operational theater in which U.S. forces are deployed. But there is something about a ship at sea hundreds/thousands of miles from land, unable to be reinforced, to pause a moment or to withdraw out of harms way as can happen on land. I’m not dismissing ground actions where a convoy is ambushed or a supply point attacked, with men and women suddenly engaged in combat action. I’m just acknowledging that the respective environments are very different.

    This is exacerbated by our awful numbers at sea. We have the smallest Navy since 1916, with each ship accounting for a larger percentage of overall naval power. Each loss is therefor more detrimental to our ability to win at sea. The Navy’s efforts to reduce crew size for new ships introduces the same problem aboard ship that we see in the fleet. Fewer people aboard means each person is more critical to ship survival.

    We have great American women perfectly able to outmatch the vast majority of men in feats of strength, agility and stamina--examples are plentiful. But manpower within the Navy, as in the other military services, reflects the rough average of our population, not the exception. Accounting for this it is reasonable to observe that on average, the women aboard a warship will be less able than their male shipmates to meet the physical demands of fighting the ship.

    With fewer warships and the crews aboard those ships often smaller than desired, adopting a manpower policy that increases the stress on fighting and winning battles at sea seems quite foolish.

    Why do we do this? The answer lies in the ‘un-PC’ aspect of your question.

    I am aware that those favoring women-at-sea cite many examples of the intelligence, skills, accomplishments, reliability, professionalism, and patriotic service of women who have and are currently honorably serving aboard US Navy ships all over the world. I get it. But as you rightly point out, we’re betting a great deal that current peacetime experiences--even current naval operations in support of combat actions ashore (as in Iraq)--successfully predict effectiveness in at-sea battles of the type anticipated should we ever find ourselves at war with China...or anyone else for that matter. I am quite skeptical they do. I think our currently policy of manning U.S. Navy warships with mixed crews will introduce problems in a combat environment we will come to regret.

    1. Some additional things worry me that aren't quantifiable. Remember some of the scenes in The Cruel Sea, the one where the Capt dropped depth charges in the midst of some swimming merchantmen survivors because of a U-Boat contact immediately below them, and the one where the Compass Rose was took a torpedo and the men in the forward berthing compartment were trapped and the Capt could hear their screams as the ship went down? One of the points of the book and movie was that those things were intensely disturbing to the surviving crew and officers, especially the Capt, but duty demanded the he and everybody else carry on. It was extremely hard but they carried on. I worry that they may not carry on if some of the people floating in the water are 20 year old girls and a percentage of those screaming are women. I am not sure that men can turn off that instinct to protect the women no matter how often the Navy says a sailor is a sailor.

      Another thing I thought of is that a mixed sex ship's crew is sort of like an authoritarian small town. Men and women working together to sail the boat around. But in human history small towns don't go into battle, only a portion of the town goes out to fight. Now though, in the American Navy we have created a situation where the small town may go into battle, all of it. Humans don't fight like that but we intend to. I don't see it working. I don't know exactly how it won't but it won't.

      So that is what I worry about in addition to the things you mentioned. One of the things that got me to thinking on this some was the book Neptune's Inferno. If you haven't read it you should.

  3. I'm less concerned about the 'men protecting women' aspect given our forces' experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. I've not experienced, read or heard of any situations where a land battle was compromised because the men chose to do something different than they would normally have by virtue of women being present in a convoy or aboard a base.

    With regard to a leader's or crew's ability to handle a given situation as you describe, again I think it less a problem. In any well run unit with solid leadership and high morale there is a camaraderie, a unit cohesion, the exists that leads men to do extraordinary things to help each other and to suffer anguish in any loss. I think this holds true regardless the composition of the unit - male/female, racial mix, economic or religious backgrounds. In my time in the Marine Corps I simply didn't see or hear about any situations that lead me to believe the emotional toll taken by combat actions would be much different were women part of the mix.

    I also think the reverse situation is true regarding the character of a unit. Where leadership is poor, unit identity and how it handles situations is equally poor but that would also be the case for men-only units or units with a mix of men and women. I give high marks to the attitudes, discipline and intent of our men and women serving in today's military.

    My concerns largely rest with the physical abilities to perform tasks under extreme conditions and the social/relationship norms that carryover from 'regular' living to 'military living.' The more you have of something (troops, tanks, ships, aircraft) the better able you are to absorb losses and continue the mission. When numbers are quite low you become loss-sensitive. Consequently, any decision that might adversely effect the ability of the force to successfully carry out its mission should be quite carefully made.

    I think recent decisions have been made with too much regard for 'social engineering' or a desire for the force to reflect society at large with too little regard for potential operational impact. I may very well be entirely wrong on the matter but it will take a war of the type implied in this discussion to prove things one way or another.

    1. I can't strongly argue for or against my worry, because as you say, it will take the test of intense battle to figure it out. But my worry doesn't really extend so much to actions within a ship's crew so much a the effect upon command decisions. For example would Callaghan have decided as he did when he heard 2 battleships and 11 destroyers were coming down the slot? Or would the captain of the Glowworm done as he did? We won't know until the event.

      I have another observation and seek comment. I don't believe the people who desire to see the Navy used as a social engineering tool really sincerely believe that the ships will ever be called upon to fight hard battles again. They can't actually conceive of that happening in this modern age. They advocate the things they do because they just don't believe that it is possible that the U.S.S. Lincoln could ever be dead in the water, on fire from stem to stern and needed to be left to her fate, with her crew, because the other ships had to retreat. They can't see that happening so they are able to comfortably advocate the things they do.

  4. I think their thoughts are much less formed than you suppose, i.e. they don't seriously think about combat-capabilities much at all. The primary, if not exclusive, issue for them is 'equality' across the public regardless of impact on effectiveness or accounting for job/situation-unique factors. The major line of argument seems to be 'a person shouldn't be discriminated against--kept from doing whatever they want--regardless the factors we are discussing. I do agree there are folks who think about warfare and doubt that the U.S. will ever be in a major conventional war again especially one at sea, but I don't think the social engineering crowd pays much attention to such issues. As for why political leaders don't make counterarguments, they don't want to risk being labeled a bigot or discriminatory or less than the strongest supporter of 'equal rights.' Military leaders are painfully aware of the rules regarding policy execution vs. policy making. They do the former (though provide private opinion to the elected leaders) while politicians do the latter. Meanwhile, our 'public' is less experienced in military matters than perhaps any other time in history and our schools are miserable at discussing warfare in their curricula. Sadly, we'll have to learn lessons the hard way.

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