China's naval geography problem and the USN


Germany was at a near-hopeless geographic disadvantage in regard to maritime warfare in the First Wold War, and it wasn't much better during the Second World War because peacetime rearmament could not anticipate control over the ports of Western France.

“British Islands: Approximate Positions of Minefields. 19th August 1918.” Hydrographic Department of the Admiralty, under superintendence of Rear-Admiral J.F. Parry, C.B. Hydrographer, August 6th, 1917. William Rea Furlong map collection, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

The British were able to sail into the Atlantic Ocean directly, while Germany had to sail around the British Isles first. This was vastly more relevant than the question whether the nation is made of islands or continental.

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The situation is similarly bad for the PR China, even disregarding the talk of "island chains".

The Western potential opponents of the PR China enjoy the huge advantage that they can find and engage Chinese surface warships and find, inspect and board Chinese cargo ships from bases all over the Pacific, Indian and North Atlantic Ocean as well as the Mediterranean. 

China has almost no overseas bases to speak of during wartime. They have commercial shares of ports and some overseas naval basing arrangements, but IMO only Pakistan's ports would be useful to the PLAN in wartime. Pakistan is a close ally of the PRC due to its existential fears about India and it's a nuclear power. A Chinese warship in a port in neutral Myanmar would be bombed to scrap, but it would likely be blockaded only if in a port in Pakistan.

Land-based air power has ridiculous radii of action with midair refuelling and there's also the American carrier fleet, so PLAN surface vessels could be found, identified and engaged everywhere.

The existence of expensive dedicated air defence destroyers should not deceive anyone into thinking that these ships are anything close to a match for air power. They're based on USN 1943-1945 & USN Cold War approach of having some shipborne anti-air firepower to deal with what penetrated the fighter cover that a battlefleet needs. A hypothetical quality air defence destroyer with 100 quality air defence missiles would almost certainly be overwhelmed by a saturation attack by 100 quality anti-ship missiles, which cost only as much as its air defence missiles. The entire extra cost of the ship (a billion dollars or so) is the financial disadvantage of defence. 

Land-based air power can wipe out surface warships fairly easily if it was prepared for the job (especially with suitable munitions in sufficient quantities, but also with midair refuelling capacity and expeditionary airbases capacity).

This means the PRC has no better perspective at securing its overseas trade or part of it (such as a minimum influx of crude oil) than Germany had in the World Wars. 

The PRC could use the underdog's tool of submarines (the naval asset that can still be employed where hostile airpower is an undiminished threat), but that would merely hurt its enemies a bit, not solve any actual problem of China. Any commerce raiders such as auxiliary cruisers and any offensive minelayers (surface vessels) could only cause an indecisive strawfire comparable to the actions of German cruisers in 1914.

In other words; it's in my opinion ignorant to believe that the USN requires a surface fleet or carrier fleet parity. The PLAN surface fleet can be countered much more reliably, cheaper and with more versatility by land-based air power.

The rapid repair of damages by air attack in WW2 and in modern Ukraine indicates that a carrier- and cruise missile-based land attack strategy is similarly nonsense for the USN.

The USN needs instead most what it despises institutionally and ignored almost entirely post-Cold War: The ability to actually protect maritime trade (especially against submarines, including missile attacks by the same). There's the pretence that it does this, but it doesn't except for very narrow scenarios such as in the Persian Gulf or (marginal effort) against Somali pirates. Mine countermeasures are a notoriously neglected are in the USN as well.

Today's USN is an attack navy, capable of bombing distant countries and invading undefended beaches. It's ship-centric and naval aviation-centric. This is self-reinforcing, as it draws its admirals especially from these backgrounds.

The USN doesn't need a single amphibious warfare ship and not a single additional aircraft carrier. It doesn't need more ship hulls and could very well make do with less ship hulls. What it needs the most is a feasible approach to protect maritime trade against submarines. There are two options for this

  1. aggressive defence: Destroy PLAN submarines in or close to their bases. This requires naval action in proximity to where the PRC's military is the strongest; at and near its bases.
  2. (coastal sea lane protection and oceanic) convoying: Defence against submarine-launched missiles, putting PLAN submarines at great risk when they dare to come within torpedo range.

The latter was mostly about anti-submarine escorts (nowadays we'd say ASW frigates) and escort carriers (nowadays we'd say ASW helicopter carrier) during 1943-1945 and during the Cold War. This approach is not feasible, as shipbuilding in NATO is ridiculously tiny compared to Chinese shipbuilding. Japanese shipbuilding capacity could help out but let's face it; the DoD is not going to pay USD 50+ bn per year on Japanese shipyards for a naval arms race. The same is true regarding South Korea's shipbuilding industry, and it would endanger South Korea too much if it was the cornerstone of a U.:S naval arms race.

Maybe the USN could buy relatively cheap steel hulls (with American gas turbines) in Japan and outfit them with the pricey electronics and missiles in the U.S., but doing this in the required quantities may go well beyond U.S. shipbuilding capacity in the next 10 peacetime years as well. The Allies built hundreds of oceanic escorts during WW2, to secure American trade with Europe, Japan, Australia and through the Panama Canal alone would require hundreds of frigates and dozens of escort carriers as well. Moreover, they better be fast enough to keep the pace of civilian cargo ships, which cruise at 23 kts and more over oceanic distances. This means the frigates would end up being 10,000 tons ships due to the required diesel fuel bunkers.

I say the solution is much more simple, radical and utterly against everything that's holy to USN admirals: The USN should stop building surface warships and instead stockpile containers. It needs the ability to turn hundreds of cargo ships into auxiliary warships (especially for the operation of AEW and ASW VTOL aircraft and for launching AAW and ASW missiles). There should be more than a thousand container sets that provide basic self-protection (threat warning, CIWS, decoys, multispectral smoke) to cargo ships. There should be legislation drafted for buying cargo ships for the USN and U.S. merchant marine in wartime. There should be a contingency plan for the first half year of conflict until the maritime trade protection scheme can be realised. National stockpiles of critical materials are necessary, especially with the commercial just-in-time practices in mind (the economy had about six months worth of raw materials stocks when WW2 started!).

Land-based coastal lane protection schemes can help securing trade along CONUS' coastlines.

more related blog posts:





my huge series (worth 80 book pages) on oceanic convoy protection:






  1. In a war, would China use her proximity to disable or occupy East Asian ship production capacity? If so, they can outproduce the rest of the world. What use are your suggested measures if there's a bottleneck of new ships and Chinese subs sink all that floats?

    This is a German blog and you discovered shortcomings of the naval approach of our alliance. What can Germany do within a European framework to mitigate some of these effects due to resource misallocation in the US? I don't think the gigantic US navy will change anytime soon, while our current German navy is a small, relatively useless, appendix that would be easier to reform and re-equip, especially when they are threatened with abolishment.

    1. I think we should have midair refuelling-compatible (fixed probe is OK) Typhoons with decent anti-ship missiles. Germany has none such missiles these days, just HARMs and various bombs.

      A long range (300+ km) anti-ship missile would also enable the use of transport aircraft as anti-ship missile launchers, reducing strike fighters to escorts and anti-radar missile platforms.

      I see no need for dedicated ships or boats to counter the PLAN. Some container sets for convoying, land-based coastal lane corridor defence and some container sets for auxiliary cruisers that enforce a distant blockade would suffice.
      The Chinese aviation industry is hugely inferior to those in NATO.

      I think the German navy SHOULD be disbanded.

    2. I know that you want to abolish the navy, but someone must take care of the flying fishes and the containers. Replacing our current aged warships with weaponized container ships would be an idea that protects our sea lines of communication at minimal cost, while retaining trained personnel to do so and an ability to expand in wartime.

      Much of my disagreement with you is based on our different assessment of alliances. You put more trust into them, then I do. Imagine the US turns politically into an imitation of China and Russia as a possible future scenario. I do think, we would like to have a navy in such a case and not have to build one from scratch, because we aren't independent from transport via sea, be it data thru fiberoptic cables or goods and resources on ships.

    3. Fact is, the German navy as is and any German navy that is realistic till the 2040's would not matter in that scenario.
      A navy is a net burden until it reaches the threshold of (collective) dominance, and in case of collective dominance you still get to wonder whether your contribution is the best choice.
      I wrote about securing the coastal lanes from Copenhagen/Oslo to Gibraltar. That's something we could do (without boats or ships), but it would only make sense if the European allies do it as well, and there's simply no threat to justify the effort required for it.
      Europe can protect coastal and Med maritime transport without warships or subs.