As tensions rise between China and the West, there are growing fears that the United States and Australia do not have what it takes to defeat China.
“We lose a lot of people. We are losing a lot of material. We usually fail to achieve our goal.
David Ochmanek, RAND war analyst and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, condemned the West’s ability to defend Taiwan as early as 2019.
“In our games, when we fight Russia and China, the ‘blue’ (the West) gives it ass,” he said.
It shouldn’t have been entirely unexpected.
The goal of war games is not to win. It is to learn.
Indeed, in a recent issue of The diplomat, US Navy Commander Jeffrey Vanak wrote that such war games are not synonymous with failure. It’s about finding out what isn’t working – without paying the price in the blood.
There is no doubt that a war scenario in Taiwan is intimidating. The odds are against anyone who tries to help him.
But the American war games in the 1930s were just as devastating, he said, even prompting some to call for the Far East to be abandoned.
“The match resulted in unacceptable losses which forced the United States to re-evaluate their perspective on their opponent and the means by which they could achieve victory,” he said.
“Subsequent changes brought the United States to victory in the Pacific theater. “
Are we also willing and able to learn?
The era of “big missiles”
World War II marks the end of an era. The “big gun” battleships no longer reigned supreme. Instead, the power shifted to the planes – and the ships that launched and supported them.
Fast. Soft. Numerous. Cheap. Reconnaissance planes could guide waves of attack planes hundreds of kilometers outside the range of a battleship’s guns.
But things have changed. Again.
Now the aircraft carrier is losing its preeminence.
The same force that gave the carriers their might – flexible, cheap, long-range strike – now belongs to the realm of “big missiles.”
Stealthy. Swift like lightning. Extreme distances. Guided by swarms of satellites and drones. These missiles can deliver crippling blows long before a transporter can react.
What this precisely means is not yet fully understood.
The surprises are sure to come fast and hard.
But military think tanks around the world are doing the math and running the scenarios to anticipate what they might be, especially at sea.
“The current design of the fleet revolves around the bomb delivered by the aircraft,” explains former captain Robert Rubel at the US Naval Institute. “Accepted without dispute since Pearl Harbor, the logic of the air attack underpinned the construction of the ‘Big Blue Fleet’ and formed the basis of the Cold War Navy. However, with the rise of a controversial China and a revengeful Russia, both armed with large stocks of anti-ship, anti-aircraft and other types of high-performance missiles, a new logic of naval warfare may be needed. ”
Nowhere to run
For centuries, the greatest strengths of a warship have been endurance and surprise. They could come anywhere in the world, anytime, and place their weapons on an unprepared target.
Those days are long gone.
“Things that sail on the surface of the sea are going to have a hard time,” said David Ochmanek, analyst for the California think tank RAND.
“The losses the Chinese could inflict on us could be staggering,” added RAND analyst Timothy Heath. “Anti-ship cruise missiles could destroy US aircraft carriers and warships; surface-to-air missiles could destroy our fighters and bombers.
The Cold War saw the introduction of powerful but limited satellite surveillance. But those were only the first days. Now, quick-launch lunchbox-sized CubeSats with smartphone-like sensors cover almost the entire Earth.
It is a hobby for some to follow aircraft carriers using open source satellite imagery. But national intelligence agencies have much wider access to this data. They probably know the position of a given vessel within a few tens of kilometers at all times.
This makes missile attacks a huge risk.
Submarines can be pre-positioned to block their path. Drones can fly – or swim – within visual range to accurately guide missiles launched thousands of kilometers to their target.
Dozens of warheads can appear out of nowhere at any time. Yet Australia’s new air war destroyers carry only 48 large missiles of the type capable of defending nearby ships. Once exhausted, they cannot be restocked at sea.
“If the missile has supplanted the bomb delivered by air as the decisive weapon of the future, then the future design of the fleet must be based on the logic of missile combat,” said Captain Rubel.
Nowhere to hide
It’s not exactly an unknown risk. He has been distressed for more than half a century.
It is the vulnerability of aircraft on the ground.
Cold War efforts to address this issue produced the rugged and relatively simple Harrier jet-jump. But the increased size and complexity of aircraft such as the F-35 Lightning has tied modern warplanes even more closely to their hangar apron chains.
What does it mean?
These vast expanses of tarmac, fuel and ammunition depots, hangars and administrative buildings cannot be dodged. And most don’t have serious missile defenses.
They are also easy to observe.
RAAF Williamtown, RAAF Tindal, Edinburgh, Scherger, Darwin, Curtin, Learmouth, and Pearce – they’re all open to commercial satellites flying the skies above them, and worse.
Repeated war games over the past decade have reached a consensus that even the best fighter in the sky is destroyed in large numbers on the ground, usually in the first moves of any conflict.
The F-35 cannot stay in the air forever. Its pilots need food and rest. Its delicate systems require intensive maintenance. They are already struggling, in peacetime, to make these machines fly. And, as soon as they land, they are vulnerable.
They have always been, since the first aerial combat in the skies during the First World War.
What’s different now is that masses of missiles – launched from land, sea or air – can reach entire oceans to crash into the fixed structures where the F-35s must go.
Reinforcing Taiwan in the event of an invasion will not be another Korea. Nor a Vietnam.
In both scenarios, Western forces had overwhelming control of the sea, as well as much of the air.
Taiwan, however, is deeply rooted in China’s air, sea and anti-missile embrace.
Frogmen and paratroopers will be raiding major Taiwanese installations. Landing craft will come ashore in dozens of places. Trails of rockets and planes will flow above our heads.
Any attempt to strengthen island democracy will be costly. Staying there will be difficult. Escape, as in World War II from the failures of Dunkirk or Crete, probably impossible.
“Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics,” said a US Marine Corps general in 1980.
Logistics – the ability to get what is needed, where it’s needed, when it’s needed – wins wars.
But logistics don’t elect politicians. Or senior officers promoted.
And this is reflected in the inventories and force structures of many countries.
The Chinese mainland is only 150 km from the coast of Taiwan.
But Taiwan is far from the United States or Australia.
Moving cargoes of troops, ammunition, food, medicine and many other vital goods – through thousands of miles of missile cover – presents a formidable challenge.
This is why there is a renewed interest in geography.
Ships actively surveyed the narrow canals in and around Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. They learn all they can about “choke points,” such as the Strait of Malacca near Singapore, and the Bashi Canal and Miyako Strait in southern and northern Taiwan.
Any attempt to “break and enter” into the East and South China Seas will have to use these routes. As would any effort to “burst”.
And something as simple as explosives hidden at the bottom of the sea could stop it all.
Are we going to play a game?
The scenarios are bleak. The expected results are disastrous.
“Similar to the sentiment that followed the war game of 1933, there is growing concern within some national security circles that today’s war game losses portend defeat in the real world,” Commander Vanak said. “The military has and must continue to learn from recent war game losses to make the improvements necessary to win modern combat in the Pacific.”
Modern warfare is different. Complicated.
There are VR glasses that guide the troops. AI “tips” for commanders. Complex networks of data and communications – and disinformation.
The implications and limitations of these need to be explored.
“War games are not intended to determine the winners in combat but rather to test concepts, plans and people in the most demanding scenarios the military may face,” wrote Commander Vanak.
Not everyone accepts it.
There is politics at stake. Egos involved. Peer pressure.
Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto during WWII fell victim to all of the above. He oversaw war games intended to test his invasion plans for Midway. But he canceled any scenario that was not in his favor. Including the one that led to the destruction of his forces on June 4, 1942.
Modern war games reveal that long-range missiles play a central role. The vulnerability of static databases has been demonstrated time and time again. Just like that of surface fleets.
And that spurs change.
New mobility concepts are tested, “distributed lethality” tactics explored and new technologies tested.
“All of these things are doable,” Ochmanek said. “There is no magic here, no technological breakthroughs.”
But budgets are tight and shrinking. Resources are limited. Time can be running out.
“It is imperative that (the military) learn from the losses of the war game to develop innovative solutions to overcome the myriad of challenges it faces,” Commander Vanak said. “Achieving this will require a culture willing to risk failure in a synthetic environment to achieve victory in the real world.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel