Home » Aviation » Opinion: What if They Held a Salvo Competition and Nobody Came?

Opinion: What if They Held a Salvo Competition and Nobody Came?

Left to right, the guided missile cruiser USS Vicksburg (CG 69), and the guided missile destroyers USS Roosevelt (DDG 80), USS Carney (DDG 64) and USS The Sullivans (DDG 68) launch a coordinated volley of missiles in 2003. US Navy Photo

Left to right, the guided missile cruiser USS Vicksburg (CG 69), and the guided missile destroyers USS Roosevelt (DDG 80), USS Carney (DDG 64) and USS The Sullivans (DDG 68) launch a coordinated volley of missiles in 2003. US Navy Photo

After Vietnam, the Department of Defense turned its attention back to the Soviet threat in Europe. Faced with an opposing force that was numerically superior, land-power-focused, and strategically positioned to overrun Western Europe, the United States initially turned to nuclear weapons to offset a battlefield disadvantage.

When that advantage turned out to be short-lived (and somewhat dissatisfying), the DOD engaged in what is now called the “Second Offset Strategy”—a massive investment in guided munitions intended to counter a massed Soviet assault against Europe. That proved successful in Desert Storm, and was immediately emulated by potential adversaries.

Today China has almost matched us in precision capabilities, and the race is on to find a “Third Offset Strategy” to overcome Chinese technological parity and numerical superiority—a far more dangerous military mix than simple numerical superiority. Part of the emerging strategy is focused on the “salvo competition,” a conjectural force-on-force exchange where the United States and China whale away with precision munitions until somehow the exchange is resolved in favor of the United States. That approach is a logical follow-on to the technology investment that brought us precision weapons. It is also deeply flawed, in that China is not the Soviet Union, and Asia is certainly not Europe. Against the Soviets, we were dealing with a military challenge where the Red Army path to victory relied heavily on pushing massed forces against the adversary and slugging away until something broke. Victory in a Pacific conflict will be granted to the side that has the better strategy and that takes better advantage of geography and distance—exactly the way that the United States prevailed in World War II. The key to winning the salvo competition is not to have one.

“The first aspect of the Third Offset Strategy is to win a guided munitions salvo competition. That’s the jab. . . . The punch of the Third Offset Strategy is, how are we going to change what we are going to do once we get into a theater and solve that first competition? That is unknown, we are still trying to figure that out.”
— Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work

It was a foregone conclusion that potential adversaries would eventually gain precision weapons. When the United States introduced the first Paveway I laser-guided bomb in combat in 1968, other countries were bound to follow. What makes the Chinese threat so dangerous is that they exploited a critical gap in U.S. capabilities, a gap that opened up as a result of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1987. That treaty traded away U.S. nuclear-tipped Pershing II ballistic missiles and Gryphon cruise missiles in return for removing the Soviet nuclear equivalents, the older SS-4 and SS-5, and the new, triple-warhead SS-20. The treaty banned development, testing and possession of land-based ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,000 km. Air-launched weapons and weapons launched from warships or submarines were exempt. Crucially, the treaty only constrained the United States and the Soviet Union—not the People’s Republic of China.

F-15E Strike Eagles, from the 335th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, drop 2,000 pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions on a cave in eastern Afghanistan, 26 Nov. 2009. US Air Force Photo

The Chinese jumped into the gap, now boasting seven indigenously developed land attack cruise missiles, two of which fall into the INF range. Moving in parallel was a similarly robust development of modern theater ballistic missiles. Every conventional ballistic missile today in the PRC inventory was fielded after the INF treaty, and by 2010 China possessed more than 500 missiles that neither the United States nor Russia was allowed to produce. The PRC also introduced the precision ballistic missile, making the missile threat substantially more dangerous than any system fielded by the United States or Russia—the Pershing II and SS-20 only needed to be accurate enough to deliver a nuclear weapon.

F-15E Strike Eagles, from the 335th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, drop 2,000 pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions on a cave in eastern Afghanistan, 26 Nov. 2009. US Air Force Photo
As a result, the United States is at a substantial disadvantage in the Pacific. There is no credible way it can engage in a salvo competition in northeast Asia and expect any positive results. The Chinese have more missiles, more aircraft, and the ability to mass weapons against very few U.S. targets. There are only six U.S. fighter-capable airbases close to China—all of them on Japanese or South Korean territory. The nearest fighter/bomber bases on U.S. territory are in Guam, Hawaii or Alaska. By comparison, China has more than 60 military airfields just in the four military districts closest to Japan and Korea, and some of them are dug into mountainsides for protection. The reality is that China can put more weapons against fewer targets in less time than we have a hope of doing. The Chinese target analysis is easy—if they inhibit our ability to fly aircraft and dock ships, then the United States will be effectively neutralized in the western Pacific.

“There are only two ways to fight the U.S.: stupidly [conventionally] or asymmetrically”
— Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster

Equally, there are two ways to fight China: stupidly or asymmetrically. The salvo competition is inherently symmetrical, and is a poor choice for dealing with China. The deck is so deeply stacked in China’s favor that U.S. strategists would be foolish to meet them on their own terms. Given the geographical realities and China’s 28-year head start on theater ballistic missiles, the salvo competition is a losing game—an attrition battle which the United States historically has preferred to avoid.

So we shouldn’t play it.

Chinese Type 022 Houbei-class Fast Attack Missile Craft firing missiles. People's Liberation Army Navy Photo

Chinese Type 022 Houbei-class Fast Attack Missile Craft firing missiles. People’s Liberation Army Navy Photo

The salvo competition isn’t a warfighting strategy. It’s not even a good warfighting concept. Any time we envision going toe-to-toe with a peer competitor in their own back yard, we need to rethink the vision. In the Pacific War against Japan, we did not attempt to take on the Imperial Fleet immediately after Pearl Harbor, when we were materially and positionally disadvantaged. We raided, attacked maritime logistics, and engaged in an island-hopping campaign that bypassed island strongholds, only attacking where we could muster local naval and air superiority. Even when we could muster a massive superiority, we avoided major clashes, preferring not to engage in a symmetrical conflict. That is the template we should be considering for any conflict with China.

China, like Japan, is an island nation. We don’t think of it that way, because it isn’t surrounded by water. But in a conflict, China has to come out to fight, through two island chains dominated by U.S. allies and partners, into waters that have been successfully dominated by the United States for 70 years. China’s entire foreign trade is based on maritime traffic, which accounts for over 96 percent of all Chinese international trade (by weight). Given its massive dependency on imported oil supplies, China is extremely vulnerable to an offshore control or strategic interdiction campaign waged from a distance, in a way that the United States is not. We need to rediscover how to fight a war without engaging in a technologically heavy attrition model. The best way to win the salvo completion is to avoid it.

  • Roanoake

    China’s strategic position is constrained by geographic barriers and wary, ethnically antagonistic neighbors who make long-term foreign conquests implausible. At the same time, modern China’s economic lifeblood is trade based on export led industrialization and access to foreign markets. In the event of conflict with the US, this makes China vulnerable to economic warfare in all its forms: to a naval blockade and to having her commercial fleet swept from the seas; and to having her overseas properties and financial assets seized and her dollar denominated debt assets repudiated by the US and its allies.

    This would be unglamorous but tremendously effective because it would play to US strengths, avoid a major US versus China combat, and would leave China no effective reply. After a year or two, the world economy will reorganize with other countries accruing China’s share of trade and manufacturing for the long term. Against such a prospect, China’s best response would mean a peace deal on terms satisfactory to the US — preferably before a hungry and disillusioned Chinese public overthrew the regime.

    • vok

      China is moving away from dollar denominated assets and actively promoting its own currency for international trade. I guess at the end of the day, it’s the economy that determines who will come out as the top dog. US naval advantage can only last as long as her economy allows.
      China’s fast growth model probably is ending, but US is also facing economic tsunami when federal government has to choose entitlement vs defense. Saving social security or military modernization? I put my bets on the first. The myth that persists today regarding Chinese economy is the importance of export. As a matter of fact, domestic consumption especially real estate market is the drive engine of Chinese economy. Chinese domestic purchasing power is already larger than the US, and the gap is only getting bigger as time passes.
      Back to the original topic. US won both world wars due to her enormous manufacturing prowess. In a future war against China, the favorite of mass production is on the other side. The article touched a very thorny topic that most american strategists are reluctant to discuss. Make no mistake about it, Chinese military will enjoy both numeric and firepower advantages in the west pacific. Naval blockade is likely the only viable option. Force on force engagement is a losing preposition for the US military.

      • SixSixSix

        One war above all others set the rules for modern all-out warfare: the US Civil War. Although fought by relative hicks in the out back of the world at the time, that war introduced the concept of total warfare, and more importantly the side with the superior population numbers and industrial power will win any protracted conflict. This iron rule has held for all major conflicts since then. In a serious protracted military exchange, China wins hands down.

        First they collapse the US/International financial system through the vast sums under their control, including but hardly limited to US Government debt. The US power structure collapses, big money is in panic and who will pay for all the political decisions to be made relentlessly in their favor? Then they get even more serious with cyberwarfare reminiscent of Pearl Harbor in its sudden ferocity by smashing the poorly defended US IT infrastructure ranging from street lights to bank deposits, maybe even Ashley Madison. We have seen the US government has close to zero defensive ability in place. Then the Chinese embargo 90% of everything found in electronics, appliance, apparel, and hardware stores. Add to that parts embargoed for a myriad other manufactured items, including US military COTS systems and subsystem, that our economic elite handed over to them. We didn’t just hand over knowledge that was carefully restricted against the Soviets, we handed over the ability to enhance and produce more of it, indeed if we manufacture anything at all – no TVs, no microwaves, no LCDs. The lead in precision weapons, which will only widen in the years ahead, is the legacy of those policies. God help us if it comes down to a drone war of all sizes from the backyard to the Pacific theater.They got ahead using all that wonderful chip, mobile phone, computer, and telecommunications technology given to them by US profiteers. While they are at it, they will cut cables to Taiwan and India further terminating the ability of US companies function with large parts of the IT infrastructures cut out including disruption of an not inconsiderable part of US Federal and State, and city governments. As for destroying satellites, that is like stepping on snails, not particular hard to do and they can’t easily get out of the way. In terms of coastal defense China can move men and material from one side of the country to the other at 120 miles per hour. The US military would be lucky if its equipment didn’t break down as often as it does along the Interstate highway system on which it would be lucky to average 40 miles an hour moving over a number of bridges and structures already know to be seriously deficient.

        Obviously, the US would go nuclear rather than be defeated like Germany was twice in the 20th century, From a historical perspective, the current US position is not unlike the mid-century decline of the British Empire which on its own Germany would have defeated. Realistically, the US and China circle each other warily like the US and the USSR did and the US and Russia still do. Any major conflict would escalate quickly to nuclear level – just imagine when China takes out three use major US super carriers and 15,000+ sailors with it.

        Protracted warfare is not likely, although nuclear war has greater possibility for which “winning” is meaningless. If rational thinking prevails, the current US Presidential election not withstanding, both sides will refrain from direct conflict or one will tactfully draw away. China will clearly expand regionally and US will have decide how far back it is willing to go. Conflicts elsewhere will prove interesting. Of greater threat is the ethnic rivalry between China and its neighbors which is escalating dangerously. The current verbiage would lead one to believe that the the Chinese and their historical ethnic rivals think they live in Europe within a few months of August, 1914.

        • Vitonio

          For the side that has nothing left to lose, it will go nuclear. Limited perhaps but it will end that way.

  • Jim Valle

    What has been the great lesson of great power rivalry and warfare in the Twentieth Century? Isn’t it that wars undertaken to capture territory and resources have always exploded in the faces of the states that launch them. The late Twentieth and early Twenty-first Century has shown us that it is much cheaper and vastly safer just to trade peacefully for what a country needs. There really is no valid argument for resorting to warfare between major powers as a substitute for lawful trade and commerce. The risks are just too great and the outcomes too unpredictable.

  • magic3400

    The Third Offset Strategy is clearly directed energy weapon systems and the railgun.

  • Weaponeer

    Fixed vertical mount guns in the 250mm-L100 size (in my opinion, the minimum rational size) built into the hull-superstructure of reworked destroyer designs would bridge the missile gap described in this article. There is no need for turreting or traversing, they would be long range guns and going straight up and then down range once in near space would be the only mission profile that would be required. Internally mounting a long vertical gun would make structural support pretty straight-forward, apart from charging the recoil system to extend the muzzle up from the superstructure the gun would be very radar stealthy. The fixed arrangement would render the serial propellant chamber arrangement of the previous V-3 and Project Babylon guns an obvious route of development, with modern electronics and sensors making the use of high velocity electromagnetic gating and venting along the barrel in conjunction with cheap liquid propellants to produce a cooler running and faster firing weapon. All of the shells would have to be guided, but they would not require the costly turbojets of cruise missiles or the large rocket motors of high speed missiles; some shells could have relatively cheap laser INS guidance on a chip types for general area strikes (as for example an infantry formation that doesn’t have a precise location to begin with). The shells would present an economically viable counter to the DF-21 (provided of course, that one can successfully locate these weapons).

    I’m not a lawyer nor have any specific knowledge of the INF Treaty, but it seems to me such guns would completely circumvent the treaty without violating it or its intent to curtail an arms race in these types of intermediate range nuclear weapons. A nuclear shell wouldn’t be needed, its the efficient long range delivery of conventional PGM’s that is the purpose.

    The only downside I can foresee is that the Chinese will develop their own guns in turn, although such a land based weapon would not have the advantage of being geographically mobile as it would on a warship.

    Electromagnetic guns may seem a cleaner route, but they aren’t technologically viable yet and could have issues for many decades to come (as opposed to an approach that’s already been proven in whole or in part).

  • JohnQTaxPayer66

    Interesting and well argued thesis which I believe is accurate For us to move forward and counter any potential conflict we’re going to have to rely on three basic mechanics. The first front we’re already fighting on is cyber warfare. From all news and media accounts, we’re losing badly but we don’t really know that for sure. Bragging about success only means an adversary will identify and plug the hole. So lets hope we’re keeping that quiet (questionable). The second front is steath, we think we have an edge but we also have to consider that most of our lead has been compromised through our poor security at the cyber defense level. The last front where we could possibly maintain an edge is in electronic warfare. EW is probably our last force multiplier in the region after allowed China’s advances in the South China Sea over the last few years to move forward unchecked. While our ships are supposedly built to survive such threats, if we can build a better mouse trap and keep them from stealing it like our other technologies then we stand a better chance of containment. Between laser based defense technologies and other EWAR based approaches we’re not without a move forward strategy.

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