The United States is engaged in efforts to reshape its military and wider national posture in response to the evolving strategic environment, characterised particularly by the resurgence of great power rivalry. The unclassified synopsis of the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) states thus: ‘Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security’. The NDS highlights the challenges posed by Russia, Iran, North Korea, and describes China as a ‘strategic competitor using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbors while militarizing features in the South China Sea’. The South China Sea itself represents a microcosm of the growing Sino-US rivalry across the politico-diplomatic, economic and military spheres, especially with regard to contrasting interpretations of the rules-based order and international law, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) versus the US vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, and the trajectory and implications of China’s military modernisation.
China’s developing naval and wider maritime capabilities are viewed with much concern in the US and are seen to constitute ‘a major challenge to the U.S. Navy’s ability to achieve and maintain wartime control of blue-water ocean areas in the Western Pacific’. The new Tri-Service Maritime Strategy, Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power, published in December 2020, states that ‘The People’s Republic of China represents the most pressing, long-term strategic threat’. With specific regard to the South China Sea, Admiral Philip Davidson, then nominee to be Commander, US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), stated in April 2018 that ‘China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States’. How does the US view the strategic context and the evolving operating environment in the South China Sea? What are the key concepts and thinking underpinning contemporary US maritime strategy and its future development? What are the implications for US-China relations, regional and international security?
Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power
The Evolving Strategic and Operational Environment
The US recognises the growing strategic significance of the Indo-Pacific, highlighted by the region’s increasing economic importance, and the rise of China. The Department of Defense’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: Preparedness, Partnerships and Promoting a Networked Region describes the Indo-Pacific as the ‘…single most consequential region for America’s future’, highlights the US position as a Pacific power, and outlines the region’s economic importance: ‘…America’s annual two-way trade with the region is $2.3 trillion, with U.S. foreign direct investment of $1.3 trillion in the region – more than China’s, Japan’s, and South Korea’s combined’. Further, the report adds ‘…60 percent of global maritime trade transits through Asia, with roughly one-third of global shipping passing through the South China Sea alone’. In strategic terms, the shift in the global balance of power from the Euro-Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific, is for example, highlighted by the region’s defence spending surpassing that of Europe in 2011, and the US ‘pivot’/‘rebalance’ to Asia, also announced in 2011. As Lord and Erickson suggest, the pivot constitutes:
…the most striking manifestation of what appears to be a new determination on the part of the Obama administration to reassert the United States’ traditional interests in the Asia-Pacific region, to reassure the United States’ friends and allies there of the long-term nature of its commitment to them, and to send an unmistakeable signal to the People’s Republic of China that the United States is and intends to remain a “Pacific power” fully prepared to meet the challenge of China’s rise and its regional ambitions.
Whilst Raine and Le Mière note that ‘…despite US efforts to frame its increased engagement as being focused on something more than the management of China’s rise, there is little doubt that it has fuelled Chinese suspicions of US intentions, further adding to the levels of mistrust between these two important partners’. Indeed, as Mingjiang Li highlights, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was in part formulated to provide ‘a way of coping with the worsening security environment in China’s neighbourhood between 2009 and 2012, owing to conflicts in the East and South China seas and Washington’s strategic rebalance to Asia’. Hu observes with regard to the BRI, launched in 2013, that ‘…even if China does not wish to confer too much strategic significance to the BRI, the implementation of these two key initiatives help to increase China’s strategic space for maneuver, change the passive situation facing the United States and hedge against negative effects of “Asia Pacific Rebalancing” to China’. The 2017 US National Security Strategy argues that China seeks to ‘displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model and reorder the region in its favor’.
In 2017, the US articulated its vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, founded on four principles: respect for sovereignty and independence of all nations; peaceful resolution of disputes; free, fair, and reciprocal trade based on open investment, transparent agreements, and connectivity; and adherence to international rules and norms, including those of freedom of navigation and overflight. The Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision explicitly ‘recognizes the linkages between economics, governance, and security that are part of the competitive landscape throughout the region, and that economic security is national security’, and provides a counter to China’s BRI. The FOIP vision is particularly emphasised with regard to the South China Sea. In July 2020, the then US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, issued a statement on the ‘US Position on Maritime Claims in the South China Sea’, declaring:
The United States champions a free and open Indo-Pacific. Today we are strengthening U.S. policy in a vital, contentious part of that region — the South China Sea…In the South China Sea, we seek to preserve peace and stability, uphold freedom of the seas in a manner consistent with international law, maintain the unimpeded flow of commerce, and oppose any attempt to use coercion or force to settle disputes. We share these deep and abiding interests with our many allies and partners who have long endorsed a rules-based international order. These shared interests have come under unprecedented threat from the People’s Republic of China...
The latest iteration of the US Marine Corps’ Commandant’s Planning Guidance explicitly refers to the ‘malign activities of China, Russia, Iran and their proxies – with a prioritized focus on China’s One Belt One Road Initiative and Chinese malign activities in the East and South China Seas’. The US also argues that the BRI constitutes a means by which China is seeking to secure access or deployment rights for the Chinese military, or deny access, basing and overflight (ABO) rights to the US. Admiral Davidson stated in testimony to the US Senate Armed Services Committee on 12 February 2019 that:
Beijing is leveraging its economic instrument of power in ways that can undermine the autonomy of countries across the region. Beijing offers easy money in the short term, but these funds come with strings attached: unsustainable debt, decreased transparency, restrictions on market economies, and the potential loss of control of natural resources. Beijing’s actions in this regard have potential military ramifications as well. Beijing touts its need to safeguard its citizens abroad and defend its expanding global interests in order to justify increased permanent PLA overseas basing and presence. Beijing is also exploiting growing debt burdens to access strategic infrastructure in the region. In December 2017, Sri Lanka handed over control of the newly-built Hambantota seaport to Beijing with a 99-year lease because Sri Lanka could no longer afford its debt payments to China.
The US National Defense Strategy, published in 2018, cites the ‘reemergence of long-term, strategic competition by what the National Security Strategy classifies as revisionist powers’, namely China and Russia, as the ‘central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security’. The then Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, appointed to the role in July 2019, established a list of ten targeted goals for the implementation of the NDS; this included focusing the Department of Defense on China:
First, in light of challenges to the international rules-based order by our strategic competitors in this era of Great Power Competition, one of our top ten goals – the priority that drives and underlies many of our efforts today – is to focus the Department on China. This is the primary lens through which we are advancing each line of effort under the NDS, which guides us in addressing near-term challenges while preparing us once again for high-intensity conflict in the future.
The NDS states with regard to China that it is:
…leveraging military modernization, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce neighboring countries to reorder the Indo-Pacific region to their advantage. As China continues its economic and military ascendance, asserting power through an all-of-nation long-term strategy, it will continue to pursue a military modernization program that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future.
In terms of maritime forces, the Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020 highlights that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), ‘now the largest in the world’, is:
an increasingly modern and flexible force that has focused on replacing previous generations of platforms with limited capabilities in favor of larger, modern multi-role combatants. As of 2019, the PLAN is largely composed of modern multi-role platforms featuring advanced anti-ship, anti- air, and anti-submarine weapons and sensors.
Whilst Advantage at Sea describes China’s naval modernisation in the following terms:
Already commanding the world’s largest naval force, the PRC is building modern surface combatants, submarines, aircraft carriers, fighter jets, amphibious assault ships, ballistic nuclear missile submarines, large coast guard cutters, and polar icebreakers at alarming speed. China’s navy battle force has more than tripled in size in only two decades…
China is also developing an extensive maritime strike capability, including air and ground-launched ballistic and cruise missile systems (in particular, the DF-21D, DF-26, YJ-12, YJ-18 and potentially, the DF-100). Bryan Clark and Timothy A. Walton describe Chinese capabilities in the following terms: ‘China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has established a comprehensive network of counter-intervention capabilities… including long-range land attack and anti-ship missiles; land, air, sea, and space-based ISRT [intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting] systems; resilient C3 [command, control and communications] networks; cyber and EW [electronic warfare] weapons; and anti-satellite capabilities’. Moreover, China possesses a significant coast guard and maritime militia (the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia), which may operate in support of the PLAN and wider maritime strike forces, including in providing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance ISR) support. In an October 2020 speech to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, then Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, stated that:
The Chinese Communist Party, in particular, intends to complete the modernization of its Armed Forces by 2035 and to field a world class military by 2049. At that time, Beijing wants to achieve parity with the United States Navy, if not exceed our capabilities in certain areas and to offset our overmatch in several others.
In this context, Ronald O’Rourke suggests that:
Regarding the U.S.-China balance of naval power in general, U.S. and other observers generally assess that while the United States today has more naval capability overall, China’s naval modernization effort since the 1990s has substantially reduced the U.S. advantage, and that if current U.S. and Chinese naval capability trend lines…do not change, China might eventually draw even with or surpass the United States in overall naval capability.
With specific regard to the South China Sea, O’Rourke adds ‘…some observers are concerned that China has already drawn even with or even surpassed the United States’. The implications are summarised thus:
In a conflict with the United States, Chinese bases in the SCS [South China Sea] and forces operating from them…would add to a regional network of Chinese anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities intended to keep U.S. military forces outside the first island chain (and thus away from China’s mainland and Taiwan)…Chinese bases in the SCS and forces operating from them could also help create a bastion (i.e., a defended operating sanctuary) in the SCS for China’s emerging sea-based strategic deterrent force of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs).
More broadly, the development of new technologies is enabling states to pose a threat to maritime forces at greater ranges, as A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, the updated 2015 version of the 2007 maritime strategy, stated:
…the proliferation of technologies that allows potential adversaries to threaten naval and air forces at greater ranges complicates our access to some maritime regions (anti-access), as well as our ability to maneuver within those regions (area denial), including the littoral and landward access. These include long-range ballistic and cruise missiles supported by state-of-the-art command and control (C2) and integrated targeting networks; guided rockets, artillery, missiles, and mortars; advanced submarines and “smart” mines; advanced integrated air defense systems; fifth-generation fighter aircraft with enhanced sensors and weapons; and electronic war-fare (EW), cyber, and space capabilities.
In this context, Advantage at Sea cites the ‘profound impacts’ of ‘new and converging technologies’ on the international security environment: ‘Artificial intelligence, autonomy, additive manufacturing, quantum computing, and new communications and energy technologies could each, individually, generate enormous disruptive change. In combination, the effects of these technologies, and others, will be multiplicative and unpredictable. Militaries that effectively integrate them will undoubtedly gain significant warfighting advantages’.
The US is responding to the evolving strategic context and operational environment with a revised national military strategy – the National Defense Strategy, a new maritime strategy – Advantage at Sea, and new operational concepts at the single service and joint levels, the latter highlighted by the concept of All-Domain Operations. In the maritime domain, the US Navy and Marine Corps are developing new operational concepts together with advanced technologies to underpin a future fleet architecture to ‘sustain a free and open international order in the years ahead while also guaranteeing victory in a high-end fight, should deterrence fail’.
Contemporary US Maritime Strategy and Conceptual Development
The overarching framework for US military strategy is provided by the NDS, which as previously discussed, is intended to refocus the US armed forces on the requirements of and challenges posed by great power rivalry, and particularly responding to China’s growing strength. The focus on Russia and particularly China, is articulated in the latest US maritime strategy, Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power, published in December 2020 and replacing the previous A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (first promulgated in 2007 and updated in 2015). Advantage at Sea provides: ‘…a Tri-Service Maritime Strategy [that is, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard] that focuses on China and Russia, the two most significant threats to this era of global peace and prosperity’. With regard to China, Advantage at Sea states:
We prioritize competition with China due to its growing economic and military strength, increasing aggressiveness, and demonstrated intent to dominate its regional waters and remake the international order. Until China chooses to act as a responsible stakeholder rather than brandish its power to further its authoritarian interests, it represents the most comprehensive threat to the United States, our allies, and all nations supporting a free and open system.
The new strategy also acknowledges the challenge posed by ‘rivals, including Iran and North Korea’, and ‘violent extremist organizations, transnational criminal organizations’ that ‘continue to subvert the international rules-based order’. Advantage at Sea aims to ‘prevail across a continuum of competition – composed of interactions with other nations from cooperation to conflict’, and sets out five core themes:
We must fully leverage the complementary authorities and capabilities of the Naval Service to generate Integrated All-Domain Naval Power. We must strengthen our alliances and partnerships…We must operate more assertively to prevail in day-to-day competition as we uphold the rules-based order and deter our competitors from pursuing armed aggression. If our rivals escalate into conflict, becoming our adversaries, we must control the seas to deny their objectives, defeat their forces, protect our homeland, and defend our allies…we must boldly modernize the future naval force to maintain credible deterrence and preserve our advantage at sea.
Central to Advantage at Sea is the concept of integrated all-domain naval power, defined as ‘…synchronizing the complementary capabilities, capacities, roles, investments, and authorities of the Naval Service—[which] multiplies the traditional influence of sea power to produce a more competitive and lethal total force’. The concept, in seeking to generate ‘all-domain naval power’, emphasises a cross and multi-domain approach: ‘we expand our ability to deliver effects across the competition continuum and in all domains: from the sea floor to space; across the world’s oceans, littorals, and coastal areas ashore; and in the information environment, cyber domain, and electromagnetic spectrum’. The new strategy affirms the importance of sea control, stating that the ‘…maritime domain can no longer be considered a permissive environment. Establishing sea control is a critical enabler for all other naval missions that support the Joint Force, including power projection and sealift’. The importance of sea control and denial is explained thus:
Controlling the seas enables the Naval Service to project power in support of Joint Force efforts and protect joint and allied forces surging to conflict theaters. Where adversaries must cross open water, sea denial robs them of the initiative, impedes a fait accompli, and prevents them achieving their objectives. We control or deny the seas by destroying an adversary’s fleet, containing it in areas that prevent meaningful operations, prohibiting it from leaving port, or by controlling sea lines of communication. In collaboration with allies and partners, we will be capable of controlling critical choke points, enabling us to safeguard joint forces…and to impose military and economic costs on our adversaries.
In order to achieve sea control, and deny the adversary freedom of manoeuvre, the US Navy and Marine Corps will ‘combine distributed fleet operations and mobile, expeditionary formations with sea control and sea denial capabilities’, including ‘low-footprint and low-signature Marine Corps elements operating from the sea to the shore…to employ lethal long-range precision fires’. Moreover, it is intended to ‘…create new formations that tightly integrate Marine Corps and Navy land-based and sea-based firepower…designed for rapid deployment and maximum lethality for controlling the seas in crisis or conflict’.
As will be discussed further below, both the US Marine Corps and the Army are looking to deploy ground-launched, long-range anti-ship missile systems, including the maritime strike variant of the Tomahawk and the developmental Precision Strike Missile. The development of cross and multi-domain operations is reflective of the evolving contemporary and prospective operating environment, in particular, responding to the challenge posed by anti-access and area denial capabilities and the ability of potential adversaries to contest multiple domains and at greater ranges, including globally. In this context, Advantage at Sea states that naval forces will be developed that can ‘…operate, survive, and sustain themselves under threat in a constantly, persistently surveilled environment…[and] provide persistent, all-domain, long-range precision fires, supported by agile, resilient, integrated networks, to deny adversary objectives and destroy adversary forces’.
Advantage at Sea also incorporates the three naval operational concepts - Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO), Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE), and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO), that have been developed over the past decade in response to the evolving operational environment. DMO, LOCE and EABO are also central to the Navy’s Battle Force 2045 vision.
The DMO concept was debuted in 2017 and defined as ‘a central, overarching operational concept that will weave together the principles of integration, distribution and maneuver to maximize the effectiveness of the fleet Maritime Operations Centers to synchronize all-domain effects’. DMO evolved from earlier thinking on Distributed Lethality, as explained by Geoffrey Till:
The concept achieved some prominence from 2014 in a US Navy concerned about the global rise of sea denial capabilities and the lack of long-range firepower in its own surface fleet (excluding its carriers). The basic idea is to diffuse the fleet’s combat power around a larger number of platforms so as to pose a greater offensive threat to any adversary…
However, as Clark and Walton explain, the concept of Distributed Lethality was flawed:
The central idea of Distributed Lethality was that each surface combatant, amphibious warship, and logistics ship should have an offensive capability. Expanding the number and distribution of U.S. surface threats would complicate an enemy’s targeting and give U.S. forces more opportunities to take the initiative by engaging the enemy first…Adding weapons to new platforms lacking organic sensors would make them dependent on receiving targeting information in a potentially highly contested electromagnetic environment. Platforms without robust defenses might likewise not survive long enough to effectively employ their offensive weapons.
In contrast, Clark and Walton highlight that ‘…naval forces employing DMO would only place offensive weapons on combatant ships; warship defenses would be improved by deploying decoys to draw enemy fire and incorporating directed energy weapons (such as lasers and high-powered microwave [HPM]) onto surface combatants’. The implication is that ‘By combining distribution, decoys, and better defenses, DMO would increase the size of an attack needed for an adversary to defeat U.S. naval forces, thereby deterring aggression’. Moreover, DMO is focused on the operational level, rather than tactical action, and the integration of ‘naval forces across domains throughout a theater to provide targeting and coordinate fires’.
The development of DMO was identified as a priority within A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, Version 2.0 (the first iteration was published in 2016), promulgated by the US Navy in 2018, which sought to update the Navy’s plans in line with the revised National Security Strategy and NDS published in 2017 and 2018 respectively. An update to A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority was promulgated in December 2019. A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority sought to enhance the Navy’s agility in response to the evolving strategic and operational environments, stating:
The Navy will develop concepts and technology to “expand the competitive space” as the 2018 NDS directs. With the Joint Force, we will restore agility—conceptual, geographic, and technological—to impose cost on our adversaries across the competition-conflict spectrum. Our efforts will be prioritized to exploit our strengths against our competitors’ weaknesses.
It added that the Navy will ‘control the high end of maritime conflict’, and ‘The Navy is a key enabler of the Joint Force’s ability to prevent China and Russia from controlling the Eurasian rimland and its adjacent seas. We will protect the sea lines of communication between the United States and its allies and partners’. Advantage at Sea defines DMO in the following terms:
An operations concept that leverages the principles of distribution, integration, and maneuver to mass overwhelming combat power and effects at the time and place of our choosing. This integration of distributed platforms, weapons, systems, and sensors via low probability of intercept and detection networks, improves our battlespace awareness while complicating the enemy’s own scouting efforts. Applying combat power through maneuver within and across all domains allows our forces to exploit uncertainty and achieve surprise.
LOCE recognises the increasingly contested nature of the littoral battlespace, the proliferation of long precision strike systems and threat to high-value units, and that: ‘some potential adversaries are attempting to expand their sea denial capabilities into the ability to achieve sea control. These conditions call for a paradigm shift and the reinvigoration of a unified naval approach that effectively integrates sea control and maritime power projection capabilities’. The LOCE concept is intended to ‘…create a modular, scalable, and integrated naval network of sea-based and land-based sensors, shooters, and sustainers that provides the capabilities, capacities, and persistent yet mobile forward presence necessary to effectively respond to crises, address larger contingencies, and deter aggression in contested littorals’.
EABO was developed separately, but complementary to Distributed Lethality, and ‘further distributes lethality by providing land-based options for increasing the number of sensors and shooters beyond the upper limit imposed by the quantity of seagoing platforms available’. The concept ‘espouses employing mobile, relatively low-cost capabilities in austere, temporary locations forward’ in support of maritime operations, and is intended to ‘opportunity to “turn the sea denial table” on potential adversaries and deter fait accompli actions’. EABO seeks to exploit cross and multi-domain synergies, and ‘network sea-based and land-based sensors and shooters’. General David H. Berger, Commandant of the US Marine Corps, describes EABO in the following terms:
EABO are driven by the aforementioned adversary deployment of long-range precision fires designed to support a strategy of “counter-intervention” directed against U.S. and coalition forces. EABO, as an operational concept, enables the naval force to persist forward within the arc of adversary long-range precision fires…[and] are designed to restore force resiliency and enable the persistent naval forward presence… By developing a new expeditionary naval force structure that is not dependent on concentrated, vulnerable, and expensive forward infrastructure and platforms, we will frustrate enemy efforts to separate U.S. Forces from our allies and interests. EABO enable naval forces to partner and persist forward to control and deny contested areas where legacy naval forces cannot be prudently employed without accepting disproportionate risk.
In this context, the Marine Corps is developing in support of DMO, the Stand-In Forces concept, which is intended to ‘…restore the strategic initiative to naval forces and empower our allies and partners to successfully confront regional hegemons that infringe on their territorial boundaries and interests’. Stand-In Forces are intended to: ‘take advantage of the relative strength of the contemporary defense and rapidly-emerging new technologies to create an integrated maritime defense that is optimized to operate in close and confined seas in defiance of adversary long-range precision “stand-off capabilities”’. Moreover, it is intended that Stand-In forces ‘will complement the low signature of the EABs with an equally low signature force structure comprised largely of unmanned platforms that operate ashore, afloat, submerged, and aloft in close concert to overwhelm enemy platforms’. Notably, in 2019, Mahnken, et. al., proposed an ‘Inside-Out Defense’ operational concept, which:
… combines lethal and resilient “inside” forces able to fight and persist within highly contested environments with agile, long-range “outside” forces capable of fighting from standoff distances or penetrating A2/AD networks….Together, these inside and outside forces could create a responsive, yet survivable, forward defense-in-depth in the Western Pacific capable of rapidly blunting Chinese aggression at the outset of a conflict.
The development of a distributed, cross and multi-domain approach to maritime operations points to the US Navy seeking a ‘decision-making advantage over adversaries’, which as Clark, Walton and Cropsey suggest: ‘would combine defensive operations to foreclose enemy attack options with a diversity of offensive capabilities and complex force presentations to degrade adversary decision-making’. Clark, Walton and Cropsey articulate the requirements for a fleet design ‘to implement decision-centric warfare’:
defensive capacity in each platform or force package to defeat a prompt adversary attack and enable US forces to effectively fire their offensive weapons;
offensive weapons capacity distributed across numerous platforms and able to sustain strike and counter-maritime operations;
force package diversity at various scales to enable proportional and sustainable responses to aggression;
force package complexity to counter adversary decision- making, based on the number of different ways a force package can deliver a warfighting effect; and
affordable procurement and sustainment costs.
It warrants highlighting that the Battle Force 2045 vision announced on 6 October 2020 was developed by the US Navy in partnership with the Hudson Institute and the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Cost Assessment and Program Analysis Division. Battle Force 2045 is derived from the future naval forces study, which as Esper explained, was tasked with evaluating current US naval forces, the trajectory of Chinese naval development, and three potential future force options that were modelled and war-gamed across different scenarios and mission sets, in order to maintain the US ‘overmatch in this new era of great power competition long into the future’. The rationale for the future fleet force structure is, as Esper explained:
…if we are to sustain a free and open international order in the years ahead while also guaranteeing victory in a high-end fight, should deterrence fail, we propose a future fleet that optimizes the following core operational attributes. First, distributed lethality and awareness. Second, survivability in a high intensity conflict. Third, adaptability for a complex world. Fourth, ability to project power, control the seas, and demonstrate presence. And fifth, capability to deliver precision effects at very long ranges.
Central to the Battle Force 2045 vision is a significant expansion in the size of the US Navy from its current 296 to 355 ‘prior to 2035, the time at which the PRC aims to fully modernize its military’, and by 2045, a force of ‘over 500 manned and unmanned ships’. The proposed future force will include: an expanded nuclear-powered attack submarine component (70 to 80 boats); a nuclear-powered carrier force of eight to 11 ships and up to six light carriers; ‘140 to 240 unmanned and optionally manned surface and sub-surface vessels of all types with the potential to perform a wide range of missions from resupply and surveillance to mine laying and missile strikes…’ to enable distributed maritime operations; the introduction of 60 to 70 smaller surface combatants, again to facilitate DMO; an expanded amphibious warfare capability of 50 to 60 ships, building on the Marine Corps’ Commandant’s revised force structure plan; and ‘unmanned ship based aircraft of all types. The Navy must develop and deploy carrier based unmanned aircraft of all types. This includes fighters, refuelers, early warning, and electronic attack aircraft’.
The new force is intended to be a ‘…more lethal, survivable, adaptable, sustainable, modern, and larger force than we have seen in many years…. A more balanced naval force that will have a greater number of smaller surface combatants and unmanned or optionally manned ships. Along with an ample submarine force and a modern strategic deterrent’. Moreover, it will be able to:
…deliver overwhelming fires balanced across four domains from the air, from the land, from the sea, and from under the sea. And it align [sic] with the national defense strategy as we optimize force posture and implement novel concepts that make us more agile, less predictable, and fully capable of rapidly shifting to combat operations when needed.
Ultimately, Battle Force 2045 is intended to enable the US Navy and Marine Corps to be:
…an ever present, resilient, and dominant fighting force that our adversaries dare not challenge. We will project power through long-range fires, more capable ships and next-generation aircraft, linked by advanced sensors and enabled by A.I., to stay ahead of the competitive [sic] and retain our decisive over match for decades to come. We will employ Marines, trained and equipped for littoral warfare, synchronized with unmanned systems and networked to the advanced weapons systems and firepower of the total force and we will operate at the forward edge of American interests…
With specific regard to China, Esper stated: ‘…we recognize China's direction and we know what we need to do…we want to be in a position by 2045 to prevent conflict and again, if deterrence fails, to win decisively, because their goal is to have that world class military by 2049’. The new Biden administration is expected to review the shipbuilding plans and proposed future naval force structures, it thus remains to be seen whether the Battle Force 2045 vision is developed further. It warrants highlighting that Advantage at Sea also articulates a future force structure that prioritises ‘greater numbers of distributable capabilities over fewer exquisite platforms’, and configured to: ‘…support distributed operating concepts that rely on lower signature, highly maneuverable forces. Naval forces will mix larger platforms with standoff capabilities and smaller, more-affordable platforms—including optionally manned or unmanned assets—that increase our offensive lethality and speed of maneuver’.
As noted above, the US Marine Corps is currently revising its force design, as the Commandant explains in Force Design 2030:
The 2018 National Defense Strategy redirected the Marine Corps’ mission focus from countering violent extremists in the Middle East to great power/peer-level competition, with special emphasis on the Indo-Pacific. Such a profound shift in missions, from inland to littoral, and from non-state actor to peer competitor, necessarily requires substantial adjustments in how we organize, train, and equip our Corps.
Force Design 2030 articulates a new ‘Objective Force’ that will see significant changes to the existing force, including divestment of the Marine Corps’ entire tank component and 16 cannon artillery batteries, whilst investing in the acquisition of 14 rocket artillery batteries to provide enhanced ‘long-range, precision expeditionary anti-ship missile fires’. As David B. Larter explains, ‘…the Marines want to be able to spread their forces in small groups around islands in the Pacific and deny freedom of maneuver to the Chinese fleet’. The new force design sets out key requirements, including a ‘focus on capabilities and force postures that maximize conventional deterrence’, ‘the capabilities required to satisfy approved naval concepts of DMO, EABO, and LOCE’, maintain ‘an all-domain (air, surface, subsurface, space, cyberspace) perspective’, the capabilities required to ‘create a competitive, asymmetrical advantage in maritime gray zone operations globally’, and develop a network-enabled multi-axis, multi-domain precision fires capability.
Force Design 2030
The US Army and Air Force are adjusting their force postures, in particular developing multi-domain and maritime strike capabilities. The US Army, for example, is investing in an enhanced ground-launched long-range precision strike capability encompassing the Strategic Long-Range Cannon, Precision Strike Missile and the Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon. The US Air Force is also seeking to expand its maritime capabilities, as General Charles Brown, Chief of Staff of the US Air Force, explains:
…what you can expect from PACAF and the United States Air Force is to increase our capability in the maritime – to support the maritime environment, to also to assure and deter – so you can expect increased numbers as we go under future budget cycles for long-range, anti-ship missile as well as the Quickstrike mine.
In July 2020, two US Air Force B-1B bombers operating from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, conducted a flight over the Philippine and South China Seas, and integrated with the USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group. The B-1B is capable of carrying up to 24 AGM-158C Long-Range Anti-Ship Missiles (LRASM), whilst the US Air Force is believed to be developing classified anti-ship weapon systems. The integration of assets, in this case, a carrier strike group and Air Force strategic bombers, will be central to the execution of all-domain operations. In the maritime context, the utilisation of long-range bombers such as the B-1B and the forthcoming B-21, for stand-off cruise missile strikes or offensive mine-laying, will provide a significant contribution to efforts such as the securing of sea control, sea denial (for example, to counter adversary amphibious operations), and power projection. Advantage at Sea states with regard to the wider Joint Force contribution to maritime operations, that: ‘Bombers and fighters will mass overwhelming anti-surface and land-attack fires’.
The development of partnerships, interoperability with key allies, and capacity building also warrant mention. The Indo-Pacific Strategy Report states in this regard that:
U.S. engagement in the Indo-Pacific is rooted in our long-standing security alliances – the bedrock on which our strategy rests. Mutually beneficial alliances and partnerships are crucial to our strategy, providing a durable, asymmetric strategic advantage that no competitor or rival can match. Expanding our interoperability with allies and partners will ensure that our respective defense enterprises can work together effectively during day-to-day competition, crisis, and conflict.
The US military, for example, undertakes joint training with key regional and extra-regional allies, in particular Japan, Australia, and the UK, and supports capacity building via mechanisms such as the Maritime Security Initiative, which:
…authorizes the provision of training, equipment, supplies, and small-scale construction to the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh to enhance their ability to “sense, share, and contribute” to maritime security and MDA; to create a common Regional Maritime Picture; and to empower them to observe and control more effectively their own sovereign maritime spaces, both individually and jointly.
The US Coast Guard is also undertaking operations in support of maritime security and capacity building in the South China Sea. Advantage at Sea highlights the role of the Coast Guard in contributing, alongside the Navy and Marine Corps, to particularly maritime security tasks:
The Coast Guard’s mission profile makes it the preferred maritime security partner for many nations vulnerable to coercion. Integrating its unique authorities—law- enforcement, fisheries protection, marine safety, and maritime security—with Navy and Marine Corps capabilities expands the options we provide to joint force commanders for cooperation and competition.
Conclusion - Implications
The US is developing its maritime, and wider national defence strategy explicitly to counter its great power competitors – China and Russia. Advantage at Sea stresses the importance of forward deployed, combat credible forces for deterrence, stating that: ‘We will deter potential adversaries from escalating into conflict by making that fight unwinnable for them. Should our adversaries choose the path of war, naval and joint forces will defeat adversary forces and impose global costs by leveraging our wartime operational concepts’.
Under what circumstances would the US engage in conflict with China in the South China Sea? The Indo-Pacific Strategy Report highlights then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s March 2019 statement affirming that the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the US and the Philippines applies to the South China Sea: ‘as the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft, or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations under Article IV of our Mutual Defense Treaty’. In this context, the US could be called upon to assist the Philippines in the event of a confrontation over disputed areas of the South China Sea. Similarly, a potential US intervention in a cross-strait conflict with Taiwan, or a Sino-US clash as a result of renewed hostilities on the Korean Peninsula would also likely involve operations in the South China Sea. For China, ensuring the security of the near seas, that is, the Bohai, the Yellow, East and South China Seas and waters east of Taiwan, is strategically vital. Conversely, Washington could pursue a number of potential approaches in the South China Sea, encompassing such options as attempting to secure sea control, the targeting of Chinese-controlled islands and bases in the region, imposing an economic blockade, through to operations against targets in mainland China.
Notably, in a June 2020 article for Foreign Affairs, Michèle A. Flournoy, US Undersecretary of Defense for Policy from 2009 to 2012, writing on enhancing the US deterrent posture in Asia, suggested:
…if the U.S. military had the capability to credibly threaten to sink all of China’s military vessels, submarines, and merchant ships in the South China Sea within 72 hours, Chinese leaders might think twice before, say, launching a blockade or invasion of Taiwan; they would have to wonder whether it was worth putting their entire fleet at risk.
Flournoy’s thinking reflects the possibility that, in contrast to the US-Soviet bipolar relationship, that between the US and China may be at greater risk of limited war, as Øystein Tunsjø explains:
The land-sea regional geopolitics of East Asia is more dynamic and unstable than the static European geopolitics of the Cold War…The stakes of inadvertent escalation were so high that they effectively stabilized the European continent. In contrast, the contested areas in East Asia today are in the maritime domain, where a battle at sea could largely be confined to East Asian waters and not pose a direct existential threat in the form of a land invasion.
The implication, according to Tunsjø, is that:
Decision makers might risk a limited war or battle at sea in maritime East Asia, calculating that the possibility of a major war is less likely. The risk of escalation to the use of nuclear weapons is, therefore, less likely; this might paradoxically increase the risk of limited conventional war at sea.
However, as Tunsjø adds:
…a battle at sea between the U.S. and Chinese navies would be a battle for regional hegemony in East Asia and could involve vast military encounters. Water may prevent a third world war, but it also makes an extensive limited war between the superpowers in the first half of the twenty-first century more likely.
In this light, the strategic importance of the South China Sea to the US is highlighted. If China were to attain the capability to control the South China Sea under the conditions of war with the United States, it would constitute a qualitative shift in the regional balance of power in China’s favour. However, whilst the US maintains the ability to dispute, or at the least, deny control of the South China Sea to China, Chinese operational and strategic choices are constrained. That is, given the strategic significance of the South China Sea to China, contesting, and if possible, denying, US access to the region is of critical importance; Hu describes China’s off-shore waters as a ‘must-win strategic maritime space’. Conversely, if as Hu explains, China is able to secure an ascendant position, via the US being:
Deterred by China’s powerful capabilities in anti-access/area denial…the United States will no longer enjoy supremacy in the Western Pacific’s First Island Chain…the arena for Sino-US contests will shift to the waters of the Pacific Ocean between the First Island Chain and the Second Island Chain, together with the vast expanses of the Indian Ocean.
Thus, for the US, it is of critical importance to maintain the ability for its maritime, and wider armed forces, to operate in the Indo-Pacific, including the South China Sea, in the face of China’s maritime forces and wider anti-access/area denial capabilities in order to preserve the current US-led regional order. The Advantage at Sea strategy and supporting concepts, the wider Battle Force 2045 vision, as well as the wider All-Domain Operations concept, are intended to enable the US to respond to China’s growing power, maintain a credible deterrent posture, and if necessary, secure victory in a conflict on US terms. It remains to be seen whether the expansion of the Navy from its current 296 to 355 and then 500 ships and submarines is achievable, nonetheless the statement of intent is important. In this regard, although there may be some efforts to de-escalate tensions and improve cooperation with China in some areas, there will also likely be a significant degree of continuity under President Biden with the preceding Trump and Obama administrations.
The wider strategic context will also be a major factor in determining US strategy toward the Indo-Pacific: in particular, will Russia’s challenge to international security become more pronounced, thereby diverting attention to Europe; and will tensions with Iran remain at the sub-threshold level or will the situation escalate to open conflict? Moreover, how will China respond to the evolving US strategy; will relations between Washington and Beijing continue to deteriorate, and what implications do the US plans have for China’s maritime and wider force development? More broadly, what impact will the evolving US maritime force posture in the Indo-Pacific have on perceptions in Beijing of the Sino-US relationship and the balance of power? Ultimately, the peace, prosperity and security of the South China Sea and wider Indo-Pacific will depend on the China-US relationship remaining stable and the avoidance of conflict.