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Responding To Catastrophic Losses In A Future Naval Conflict

By Taylor Marvin

In Foreign Policy, Robert Kaplan has a new piece about naval power and the future of conflict in the South China Sea. Interestingly, Kaplan argues that because East Asia’s geography favors naval conflict, the Asian-dominated 21st century is likely to be less brutal than the primarily land-based wars of the 20th:

“There is nothing romantic about this new front, void as it is of moral struggles. In naval conflicts, unless there is shelling onshore, there are no victims per se; nor is there a philosophical enemy to confront. Nothing on the scale of ethnic cleansing is likely to occur in this new central theater of conflict.”

I think Kaplan presents a fundamentally good argument here: even if China was to improbably launch a horrific war against Taiwan, it’s unimaginable that the conflict would be anywhere near as costly as previous Asian wars, simply because naval warfare is less likely to directly affect civilians than land wars.

Dan Trombly has a characteristically good response to Kaplan’s piece, and notably takes issue with Kaplan’s assertion that a future conflict in the South China Sea will be largely inexpensive for combatants:

“One issue Kaplan fails to consider is just how devastating the loss of even a single warship would be to the country and to the national psyche – of any state. The sinking of the ARA Belgrano in the Falklands war resulted in the loss of hundreds of lives and drew that war out further. On a much smaller scale, the missile attack on the USS Stark during the “Tanker War” killed 37, though the results of that were blunted by the eventual understanding that it was a potentially mistaken launch by an Iraqi aircraft. Still, the notion that the loss of dozens or hundreds of lives to naval warfare is insufficient to unleash the forces of passion less amenable to cold-blooded power politics is obvious. A sinking resulting in the loss of life on the scale of the Belgrano to the US would be an unprecedented single-day loss of combat personnel in modern American history, and deaths on a similar scale as a result of naval action could easily begin the disintegration of the fragile equilibrium into a major conflict.”

This is a perceptive point, and one I’d take a bit farther. I’m curious whether any modern naval power is prepared to bear the costs of a future naval conflict over anything but their core national interests, simply because the costs of even a limited future naval war are likely to be extremely high. Trombly is right to cite the Falklands War — as the only modern large-scale naval conflict between near-peer adversaries, it is an extremely informative tool for attempting to understand how a future naval war could develop. Despite the relatively limited capabilities of Argentine naval and air assets (during the war, Argentine combat aircraft, launched from bases on the Argentine mainland, were at the edge of their range over the Falklands and were only able to loiter for a short amount of time in the combat area) and the extreme logistical difficulties British forces faced, surface ships had trouble surviving in the Falklands. In addition to the ARA Belgrano’s sinking at the hands of a Royal Navy nuclear submarine Trombly mentions, the war also saw the loss of a British destoyer to an Exocet anti-ship missile launched by an Argentine fighter aircraft. These losses were significant: the Belgrano was one of the most important and formidable ships in the Argentine Navy, and the sinking of the British HMS Sheffield shocked the British public into recognizing that the far-off Falklands conflict was a real war.

The Belgrano sinking, killing 323 of her crew.

The ARA Belgrano sinks, killing 323 of her crew.

Trombly is right to note that traumatic naval losses like the sinking of the Belgrano can lengthen wars by inflaming public opinion, escalating the stakes of conflicts and making a negotiated peace much less likely. However, I’m not convinced that this logic applies in this specific case, because even before the Belgrano’s loss the commanding Argentine junta never had a real incentive to back down over the Falklands. Argentina’s ruling junta had begun to war in a desperate attempt to shore up the regime’s popular legitimacy that the civil violence of the Dirty War and popular discord sown by the collapse of Peronism had eroded. Given these war aims, anything less than an outcome that could be presented to the Argentine people as a British humiliation would not be acceptable, leaving little room for negotiation. The social breakdown of the post-Peronist era and the Dirty War had irrevocably demonstrated that the military was an incompetent public administrator, and if an unfavorable end to the manufactured Falklands crisis destroyed the public’s perception of the junta’s military competence the generals’ administration — and possibly their personal freedom — would be at risk. Of course, the junta had massively misjudged the Thatcher government’s willingness to go to war to defend the Falklands, but once the war had actually begun and the extent of this miscalculation became apparent it likely didn’t change the options available to the junta: only a negotiated peace that was clearly unacceptable to the British government was would been seen as a victory by the Argentines increasingly opposed to military rule. This suggests that, in this case, the traumatic loss of a costly naval asset did not significantly alter the loser’s incentives to escalate or deescalate the conflict.

However, the Falklands War is a special case. Unlike 1982 Argentina, most potential combatants in the South China Sea are not nations controlled by a military government motivated by a fear of its domestic population. A costly loss in a restricted naval conflict there could potentially, as Trombly argues, lead to a dangerous escalation. However, it is possible that an incident like this could go both ways: instead of sparking an escalation into a wider conflict, a costly naval loss in a future war could potentially led to a deescalation of hostilities by demonstrating that excessively costly further losses are likely for both sides if the conflict continues. Again, the Falklands conflict is a useful example. While the sinking of the ARA Belgrano arguably did strengthen the junta’s resolve and lengthen the war, it also paradoxically deescalated the conflict by prompting a withdraw of the Argentine fleet. The loss of the Belgrano was a shock to Argentine admirals — it definitively demonstrated that Royal Navy submarines were active in the south Atlantic, and that the Argentine Navy had no way to counter them. In the day after the sinking, the Argentine Navy withdrew all of its naval forces back to port (with the exception of one disel submarine), including the single Argentine aircraft carrier Veinticinco de Mayo. This is significant: despite its deficiencies the Veinticinco, ironically an antiquated ex-British ship acquired by the Argentines in 1968, did possess formidable A-4 Skyhawk ground attack aircraft that could have complicated the British landing had the Veinticinco remained in the Falklands theater. In the Falklands example, a costly naval loss early in the war arguably reduced the ultimate aggregate cost of the conflict by reducing the number of assets one side were willing to commit, and possibly lose, to the conflict.

How likely is this logic to apply to a future naval conflict in the South China Sea? This is debatable. One the one hand, the scenario Trombly proposes — a costly loss breaking the stable committed-force equilibrium of a restricted conflict, allowing it to escalate — is supported by numerous historical examples: the Spanish-American war, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and as Trombly documents, many others. However, it is also possible to imagine a scenario evolving along the lines of the ARA Belgrano sinking, where the suddenly apparent vulnerability of surface ships forces one or both actors to deescalate the conflict for fear of further costly losses. This scenario has other historical precedents: though the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing killed nearly 250 American servicemen, it led to an immediate reduction of US involvement in Lebanon. Of course, there are many differences between the Beirut barracks bombing as an American naval loss in a potential war in the South China Sea, the most obvious being that the sinking of a US ship could potentially kill thousands, rather than hundredds, of American servicemen. Additionally, most American policymakers would rank East Asia today as much less peripheral to US interests than the Eastern Mediterranean in the 1980s, meaning that the level of losses required to trigger an American withdraw from an ongoing conflict would likely be much higher. However, if a conflict in the western Pacific did not involve a direct attack on the US, most Americans would likely have trouble understanding why it required US involvement, especially in the case of heavy US losses. Ultimately the direction US involvement would evolve towards after a costly US naval loss — towards further escalation, or disengagement — would likely depend on how the loss was presented in US media. If Americans viewed the loss of hundreds of US sailors as a deliberate attack by a foreign power US voters would likely support retaliation, as in the case of the 1898 sinking of the USS Maine in Havanna harbor. However, if the dominante media narrative depicted this loss as the result of presidential incompetence or unnecessary US involvement in a foreign conflict few Americans saw as integral to US interests — similar to the Beriut barracks bombing or the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu — voters would likely demand a withdrawal. These domestic demands for deescalation would likely be stronger if there was a strong public perception that the US military — like the Argentine Navy in 1982 — could not prevent further, increasingly catastrophic losses if the war continued. Which domestic narrative would dominate is likely dependent on the specific circumstances of the specific conflict. An unprovoked Chinese attack on Japan would likely fit the criteria for popular US demands for a response; a more complicated dispute between China and a less important US ally likely would not.

Attempting to understand potential American responses to a US naval loss similar to or more costly than the sinking of the ARA Belgrano is important because even a limited future naval shooting war is likely to be extremely costly, especially if it occurs in the western Pacific. Unlike the rest of the world, where defense budgets have been generally shrinking, East Asian military budgets have expanded over the past decade. Most notably China, in an attempt to mitigate US naval superiority, has acquired a threatening arsenal of extremely capable anti-ship ballistic missiles that would likely threaten US carriers in an open conflict. Despite efforts invested by the US Navy in developing defensive technologies capable of detecting and destroying anti-ship missiles before they can reach their targets, it is likely that a determined Chinese attack against a specific US naval asset would be successful, potentially killing thousands of US sailors. If the US government is serious about developing a workable plan for fighting in the western Pacific, it should also plan on how to explain extremely high casualties to the US public, and determining what criteria would merit a US withdrawal from the conflict.

This is important because in most scenarios for a potential US/Chinese naval conflict the US has simultaneously less to gain and more to lose than the Chinese. The western Pacific will always be more peripheral to US interests than to those of the Chinese, for simple geographic reasons: the Chinese public sees the South China Sea as irrevocably their core sphere of influence, while the US does not. Similarly, if a naval conflict between the US and China could be counted on by both sides to remain limited to the naval sphere US military assets would remain much more vulnerable than their Chinese counterparts. The advent of long-range Chinese land-based anti-ship cruise missiles and maritime attack aircraft (like the H-6 and potentially, in the longer-term, the J-20 or its derivatives) grant the PLA the ability to deny the USN access to the South China Sea without investing significant naval assets, while a US entry into the conflict would likely require the commitment of at least one carrier strike group. The lopsided nature of a potential US/Chinese naval conflict means that the US policymakers should plan on suffering US casualties unprecedented in modern history in anything more than an extremely limited conflict. Questioning whether these casualties would escalate the conflict or moderate it by proving unbearable for both parties is an important question.

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. REM #

    Two small quibbles:
    1) “[E]ven if China was to improbably launch a horrific war against Taiwan, it’s unimaginable that the conflict would be anywhere near as costly as previous Asian wars, simply because naval warfare is less likely to directly affect civilians than land wars.”
    It depends what sort of war we’re talking about. If it’s a PRC invasion, the “naval” portion of that war will quickly be replaced by a land war – it’s a short trip across the Taiwan Strait. I’m not sure about US involvement in the ground phase of such a war, but either way I suppose you’re right – we’re unlikely to take 50-60k KIA.
    2) “The advent of long-range Chinese land-based anti-ship cruise missiles and maritime attack aircraft … grant the PLA the ability to deny the USN access to the South China Sea without investing significant naval assets, while a US entry into the conflict would likely require the commitment of at least one carrier strike group.”
    It would assist them in denying access for surface forces. Our submarines would rapidly run up against the problem of too many targets, too little time. As far as area denial goes, too little attention is given to a major Chinese weakness: over-the-horizon weapons are only as good as your over-the-horizon targeting and information sharing. This idea needs more fleshing out, but we can approach this problem asymmetrically ourselves – prevent them denying us access by eliminating or obstructing their anything-but-robust ability to find and target our carriers.

    August 17, 2011
  2. cnsouth #

    A couple of things. For starters, I do not see a scenario wherein US deaths resulting from Chinese naval action would not result in retaliation, not only because the US media currently does focus on the importance of China (as evident in all of the columns lamenting America’s supposed declinism), but also because there is significant diplomatic pressure from Japan et al. on the United States to provide a security umbrella in the Pacific and to slow Chinese expansion. Were deliberate Chinese military actions to result in the loss of American lives, in my opinion, only incredibly shrewd diplomacy or a successful cover operation could prevent escalation on the part of the United States.

    More importantly, while I’ll certainly agree with you that that China has much more of a stake in the Pacific vis a vis national interest than the United States, ultimately decisions to go to war involve certain thresholds. Consequently the true question is not about which country cares more about the area, but whether or not each country cares *enough* about it to risk a conflict. Now while America’s passivity in regards to the recent Georgian conflict demonstrates that the US certainly doesn’t enter blindly into conflicts with major powers, given the massive media pressure that would surely result from a loss of American lives, I am concerned that the United States would be more likely to escalate conflict with China for reasons of maintaining “credibility” in the region. Obviously that would not be the decisive factor, but that it could potentially be one is disturbing to me.

    August 17, 2011

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