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China appears to be adopting Soviet military doctrine

January 12, 2011

Much hay is being made over China testing a “stealth fighter” a few days ago.  While interesting, I am more concerned with other military developments that the Chinese are working on, most notably their aircraft carriers and anti-ship missiles.  Fortunately, we are intimately familiar with the doctrine these two particular technologies would suggest, as I will detail below.

The aircraft carrier they are set to commission this year (or next) is a Russian design, the Admiral Kuznetsov class, that they purchased from the Ukraine.  The ship, the Varyag, was stripped of weapons and power plant before the transfer.  Some people suggest this is an attempt by China to build a “blue water” navy, or a navy that is capable of operating on the high-seas.  It is important to note the difficulties and costs inherent in operating a blue-water navy which by description equates to self-contained task forces not tied to any land mass (like US Carrier Groups).  In point of fact, the US is the only country with a true blue-water navy.  The Soviet Union could not even accomplish this feat, although the carrier class we are currently discussing was meant to rectify that situation.

But it is one thing to build the boat, it is quite another to be able to handle the logistics necessary to keep that boat sailing in waters far from any friendly ports.  First off, there is the need to keep her, and all her escorts, fueled.  Despite what some may think, not all carriers are nuclear, this one uses standard oil-burning boilers.  Plus you need fuel for the planes that a carrier exists to launch and recover.  This fuel is different than what the ships need.  The reason we use nuclear carriers is because it removes one requirement to refuel out of the equation – our carriers can go for years without doing so.

All this leads me to believe the Chinese are not seriously contemplating a blue-water navy, or if they are, they are seriously underestimating the costs involved (much as the Soviet Union did).  If they are shooting for a more regional “brown-water” navy, then all you who are getting your panties in a bunch about China’s “new technology” need to take a breather.

Which leads to their second development, which is an anti-ship missile.  This is not new technology, we have used and been ready to defend anti-ship missiles for decades now.  The British faced them in the Falkland Islands in the form of Exocet missiles fired from Argentine Mirages.  The press it labeling China’s new missile a “carrier killer” – uhh, yeah, that is the freaking point.  You don’t shoot at the weakest ship in the fleet, you go for the big dog.

Now what do these two technologies suggest?

Well, the carrier is designed to carry Su-33 FlankerD “multi-role” fighter.  Unfortunately, the carrier does not use catapults, it has a ski-jump that helps “toss” the birds in the air.  This is important because it limits the weight of ordnance a plane can launch with.  The SU-33, while called a multi-role, would mostly be used in a fleet defense role.  In fact, the carrier itself is referred to by the Russians as a “heavy aircraft carrying cruiser”.  As in, the fact it carries planes is secondary.

All the leads to only one conclusion, the Chinese are looking to adopt the Soviet Union’s doctrine for naval warfare.

This doctrine was predicated on the knowledge that the Soviets could not beat the West in a drawn-out fight on the seas.  At best, they could effectively engage us for six weeks before the wear and tear of combat surpassed the Soviet’s logistics to keep their navy operating.

Hence, they decided to try a different concept, one of many smaller ships riddled with cruise missiles designed to overwhelm the defenses of our carrier groups.  The idea would be, a Soviet Task Force would sally forth and engage our task force with the “shock and awe” of the total inundation of anti-ship missiles.  Their hopes are, that a few would get through, forcing us to withdraw and lick our wounds.  You see, this doctrine was not about winning, but delaying the inevitable defeat that would come from our superior naval power.

Why a delay, what would that get them?  Russia never was a naval power.  They accepted this fact when the Japanese happily proved it to them at the Battle of Tsushima, and ever since they have never truly tried to become a super-power on the seas.  But what they were good at was making huge land based Armies.  Armies that dwarfed ours in comparison.  For sure, they didn’t have the technology ours did, but large numbers can offset that rather easily.

So the Soviet Navy was meant to be an auxiliary to the true power of the Soviet military, their land forces.  This would have played out in Western Europe by them charging through the Fulda Gap and spreading out across the plains of central Europe.  But even then, the Russians were aware the heavy fighting couldn’t go on for more than 6 weeks, once again for the logistical considerations.  The idea was to grab land, and settle down to peace negotiations.

Now, China is a mirror image of the Soviet Union.  Huge army, small navy, and no qualms about losing tons of casualties, as the Korean War teaches us.  Is there territory the Chinese desperately desire?  Hell yes.

Taiwan has always pissed them off.  The two Koreas are definitely in their sphere of influence.  They have never settled a border dispute with India.  This Soviet doctrine plays very well to a future of quick Chinese raids into neighboring territory, then a “settled” peace.

The good news is, we are intimately familiar with this doctrine.  It was what our military was focused on defeating for almost 50 years, and only recently have we shifted to something different.

So, should we worry about an increasingly militarized China?  Hell yes, but not for the reasons some of you are.  We need not worry them threatening us directly, but we do need to worry for our allies in the East.  The next decade will be interesting to keep on eye on.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. bunkerville permalink
    January 12, 2011 9:41 am

    Yes, and they were not really nice to Gates recently, now were they. I have tried to find the vid with a military type with Gates at a press conference with no luck. It was not a happy occasion,
    I think we need to keep in mind that the Chinese have a different frame of reference regarding time. While we may not need to worry for ourselves at this point, they have a much longer time horizen in planning as I understand.
    We couldn’t even stay with our gas shortage in the ’70’s and fix it. Out of sight, out of mind.

    • January 12, 2011 10:21 am

      For sure, we definitely have a much shorter horizon then they. Be interesting to see who they will go after first. My guess is Taiwan. Small Island, not strategically important to anyone, real close to home. Would be a good test to see how resolved the West is in supporting their Asian allies.

  2. January 12, 2011 9:13 pm

    Another area of contention is the Spratly Islands, I believe. There are several countries which consider the islands to be in their own. sphere of influence.


    • January 12, 2011 9:24 pm

      Yes, good point. Clancy wrote an interesting “What if” novel about China trying to take the Spratlys, it is called SSN.

  3. January 12, 2011 11:16 pm

    Good point about them sending millions into a fight. The next fight will be an electronic one with the threat of nukes and the hopes that a weak president, beset on all sides with other challenges, will let China get away with taking Taiwan. Japan and Korea are alarmed, and we should be, too.

    • January 13, 2011 2:56 am

      Yep, we have become so weak kneed in the last 4 years, we would be hard pressed to lift a finger to any Chinese expansionism.

  4. January 13, 2011 12:29 am

    Great analysis Colin. I think a great deal of this is smoke and mirror. Kinda like power perceived is power achieved.

    • January 13, 2011 2:57 am

      Oh for sure. Soviet Union did the same thing. But even a huge paper tiger scares the crap out of the nations unfortunate enough to neighbor it.


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