The closing days of the First World War gave birth to modern combat. Previous to these developments, advances in firepower made titans of the trenchworks. For four years the trenches were assaulted: for four years storms of steel mowed all offensives down. But as the war reached its end tactics were developed to storm through the gauntlet. Stephen Biddle has called these tactics, and what evolved out of them, “the modern system of battle.”1 The closing developments of the 1918 made offensives possible again—but the playing field remained tilted towards the defender. 20th century operations specialists usually figured that—technology and training being equal—an attacking force needed a three to one numerical advantage to break through prepared defenses.
Stephen Biddle, Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).
I wonder if we properly appreciate how the inherent strength of the defense contributed to strategic stability during the Cold War. It mattered that most of the major crisis points—the DMZ separating North from South, the Fulda Gap funneling tanks East to West—were heavily fortified bits of land. Once defenses went up, a successful attack against them would require both advanced planning and concentrated mass. Neither could be had on a whim. Strategic stability was in part the fruits of a strong tactical defense.
I worry that politicians and military planners in Washington, Beijing, and Tokyo do not fully realize that what was true in Western Europe in the Cold War is not true in the Western Pacific. Battle at sea does not favor the defender. Naval tactics reward the side that hits first and hits fast. In 21st century conditions, war by missile and air raid follow a similar logic: weapons systems are too frail and too centralized to guarantee a secure second strike. The next bout of great power competition will not follow the logic of the last. In the conflicts to come the advantage will lie with he who strikes first. Leaders on both sides of the Pacific will face terrible pressures to seize this advantage lest their enemies seize it first.
In my recent podcast with Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Lauterbach of the US Marine Corp, we discussed how this works in the naval domain.2 An axiom of naval tacticians is that victory goes to he who “attacks effectively first.”3 The logic here is not hard to understand. War on land often revolves around maneuver and position. There is high ground and low, choke points and gaps, terrain difficult to move across, easy to hide in, or possible to fortify. In this environment the most successful tacticians are usually those who can identify weak points and exercise the energy needed to exploit them.
“Episode I: Fleet Tactics With Lt. Col Nathaniel Lauterbach,” Scholar’s Stage (podcast), 5 June 2021.
Wayen Hughes, Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, 2nd ed. (Annapolis, USNI Press, 1999), 47.
In naval combat there are no weak points—or rather, ships are nothing but weak points. Neptune is an unforgiving master: the ocean offers nowhere to hide and no way to fortify. With a few littoral features excepted, naval combat takes place on a featureless sea. One does not flank a fleet. “Forces at sea are not broken by encirclement; they are broken by destruction.”4 The problem is made worse by the delicate nature of a naval war machine. For all their cost—and fleets do cost—ships are fairly fragile things. They cannot survive sustained bombardment. This is one reason why the annals of naval warfare are far shorter than the chronicles of earth’s many armies. An army outgunned and outnumbered may offset their weakness by digging in. They can “hold the line” or even, if they are well trained enough, embark on a fighting retreat while reserves are called up and conscripts are trained. Not so at sea! A carrier strike group cannot “dig in.” Attrition at sea is a short, sharp affair. On the waves all the waste and horror of months in the trenches are condensed into a few hours of cataclysm. Admirals understand that a fleet so lost cannot easily be replaced. Little surprise that most outgunned navies stay in port.
The technological developments of the last century have only amplified the decisive nature of the naval contest. Since the advent of the aircraft carrier, offense on the water comes in pulses. An enemy is identified. A salvo of missiles or a wing of aircraft are sent his way. If your side succeeds in launching this attack before your opponent is aware of your presence, his ability to launch a counter-salvo is much reduced. Your strength assaults his strength—but if you moved first and hit well, his strength may no longer be sufficient to hit back. In modern naval conflict victory often goes not to the fleet that hits hardest, but to the fleet that sees farthest.
“Nothing about naval combat is understood if its two-sided nature is not grasped. Each side is simultaneously stalking the other.”5 War on the water is a duel of the desperate, each force both the hunter and the hunted. Yet in the twilight of peace, the hunter may be able to locate their prey before they turn predator. This is the logic of the surprise attack. Japanese commanders did not attack Pearl Harbor because the ships there were undefended, but because they thought that attacking from peace guaranteed they knew the location of their prey. Pearl Harbor was the natural culmination of the tactical maxim “attack effectively first.” That these tactical realities helped push Imperial Japan into such a terrific strategic blunder should give us pause. It is an unsettling precedent for the for the next round of great power competition over the Pacific.
In the podcast episode with Lieutenant Colonel Lauterbach much of our discussion of these issues is focused on what this all means for the US Marine Corps.6 But the problem detailed here is broader than the fleet’s fight at sea. I fear the Chinese, American, and Japanese fleets are not the only forces in the region ready made for the offensive.
See also Nathaniel Lauterbach and Heather Venable, “Between a Rocket and a Hard Place,” Marine Corps Gazette (Jan 2021).
The PLA Rocket Force and Air Force, the air and missile components of the Japanese Self Defense Force, and the majority of forces under INDOPACOM’s control are armed to the teeth with the same sort of weapons that make naval competition so precarious. Most of these systems are more resilient or defensible then assets at sea. Mobile missile artillery like the HIMARS can “scoot and shoot”—meaning they can fire off their missile payloads then scurry away to a fortified or camouflaged location. Airbase runways can be disabled by missile attacks, but unlike an aircraft carrier similarly damaged, a runway can be repaired quickly, returning to service within hours or days after disruption. But not all of systems on the East Asian littoral are so hardy. Radar and sensor installations, surveillance satellites, or command and control infrastructure may not be replaced once the shooting starts. A successful first strike promises to greatly reduce the enemy’s ability to reply in kind.
Speed is the handmaiden of surprise. A ballistic missile salvo from the PLA Rocket Force fired at American installations in Japan would take less than seven minutes to arrive at their targets. A few years back Tom Shugart and Javier Gonzales modeled what a Pearl Harbor style surprise attack might look like in this theater, were the PLARF to launch one. Shugart and Gonzales estimated that the first salvo of such an attack would sink all American ships in Yokosuka harbor, and destroy all U.S. missile defense systems, major fuel depots, and command and control centers, and crater all runways used by U.S. Forces-Japan. A follow-up salvo to be fired over the next few hours would destroy the aircraft stranded by the runways’ destruction.7
Thomas Shugart and Javier Gonzalez, China’s Missile Threat to U.S. Bases in Asia (Washington DC: Center for a New American Security, 2017).
There are many assumptions in Shugart-Gonzalez model which may not apply in reality. Their estimation of missile effectiveness might be optimistic; hopefully as tensions rise the Americans would be smart enough to disperse their aircraft among Japan’s many airports; most importantly, their projections imagine a two-way conflict between the United States and the PRC, whereas any real-world conflict would force the Chinese to divide their attention between American, Japanese, and Taiwanese targets. But the specifics are less important here than the broader dynamic that Shugart’s study illustrates. In a combat scenario dominated by powerful precision fires that can reach targets hundreds or thousands of miles away, an inherit advantage goes to the side that is able to dismantle the reconnaissance, scouting, C2, and strike capabilities at the outset of the campaign. 8The high economic cost and relative fragility of these platforms and their infrastructure—be they located at sea, in an air-hanger, or nailed in as part of a permanent installation—only increase the imperative to strike first.
On this point, see also Andrew Krepenivich, Maritime Competition in a Mature Precision-Strike Regime (Washington DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Studies, 2015)
Shugart and Gonzales assume this surprise attack must come from the PLA. I am not sure this is true. As Robert Haddick points out in his book Fire on the Water, one of the most important strategic implications of the PLARF’s growing power is that it incentives the Americans to attack first if they fear they are entering an escalating crisis.9 “American warships depend for survival on out-scouting the enemy and attacking him not only effectively, but decisively, first.”10 If a smaller dust-up (say, an exchange of fire between two ships in the South China Sea) suggests that an all-out attack is a real possibility, American commanders may push for this decisive first attack.
Robert Haddick, Fire on the Water: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2014), 115. For a broader consideration of this book, see my review: Tanner Greer, “#Reviewing: Fire on the Water and Meeting China Halfway,” Strategy Bridge (7 November 2016).
Hughes, Fleet Tactics, kindle location 26988.
The other scenario where all this matters, of course, is a Taiwan contingency. There American ambiguity might lead to instability in a moment of actual crisis. If Beijing believes the Americans might intervene then they will be pressured to act as if they will intervene. The logic of attack effectively first applies as much to their forces as it does to their enemies. Better to destroy the American assets in the region, they may conclude, before they have a chance to intervene and launch their own devastating first strike.
Tactics need not drive strategy, much less policy. But a policy or strategy that is not informed by tactical realities may produce disaster. Attack effectively first. That logic holds in the West Pacific. We must be aware of this, and carefully plan around it.
If you this post on military affairs was to your liking, you might also find my posts “Welcome to the Decade of Concern,” “Questions on the Future of the US Marine Corps,” “Losing Taiwan is Losing Japan,” “Why Taiwanese Leaders Put Political Symbolism Above Military Power,” and “At What Point is Defending Japan No Longer Worth It.” To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, Facebook Page, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.