Streetwise Professor

March 26, 2023

Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition . . . If There Is Any

Filed under: China,Civil War,Houston,Military — cpirrong @ 1:17 pm

The war in Ukraine has pointed out the fact that modern combatants consume massive amounts of munitions. This can only be a surprise to those with short memories, or the ignorant. Hell, Saddam had it figured out. He cached massive stores of shells. His problem was he didn’t have time to use them because the US went through his army like crap through a goose. Twice. But he left behind enough to keep American EODs working OT for months to blow it up . . . and to supply the explosives for numerous IEDs deployed by his “dead-enders” against the American forces occupying Iraq.

Awakened from their post-Cold War reveries by the shock of Russia’s invasion and Chinese truculence, American, European, and Asian politicians have recognized the desperate need to increase their munitions stocks, and to expand their surge capacity to produce in the event of war. That’s good: better late than never. But rather than make everything willy-nilly, to respond to this awareness it is imperative to prioritize munition types–and the weapons used to fire them. This requires an appraisal of strategic priorities and likelihoods.

Ukraine needs primarily artillery shells, 155mm mainly, and lots of them. That’s because it is engaged in a war of attrition on a relatively static front against an enemy that employs artillery en masse. But such ammunition should not be an American priority because such the United States will not fight such a war, short of a major strategic blunder.

The inability of Russia to defeat Ukraine means that the likelihood of a land conflict against that country is low. And regardless, if it does break out, the Europeans should be the one to fight it, and therefore should be looking to their own munition supplies.

China is the United States’ main likely adversary in a major war. But it is highly unlikely that the US would be facing off against China in a major ground war. It would be beyond idiocy for the US to charge into China. It would also be idiocy for the US to deploy major ground forces to Taiwan in the event of an invasion, and risk getting trapped like, say, the British on Crete in 1941.

The most likely theater of a major ground war involving the US would be Korea. However, South Korea has proved to be the least free riding of any American ally, and has built up a credible military and a military industrial base to back it up. (Poland is also pretty much a non-free rider. Funny how countries on a front line take security threats more seriously, isn’t it?) I think South Korea can–and should–take care of itself, especially on the ground, with the US chipping in with air and sea support

Since a strategically sensible US would be unlikely to engage in a shell eating contest a la Ukraine, what should its munitions strategy focus on?

Again, China is the main potential adversary, the one that poses the greatest threat to the US, and the one which has the greatest capability. In the event war breaks out with China, what should US strategy be? That strategy should dictate procurement priorities.

I’ve never been all that fussed by China’s Anti-Access/Area Denial (“AA/AD”) strategy, precisely because it would be strategically insane–and unnecessary–for the US to attempt to contest the area that China wishes to deny access to, namely the South China Sea. In the event of war, the proper US strategy would be to flip the board and implement an AA/AD strategy against China. Specifically, to deny it access to the region beyond its AA/AD zone. That is, don’t try to get in–keep them from getting out. Turn the fortress they believe they’ve constructed into a prison.

This is a strategy akin to classic British sea power strategies, dating back to the 18th century, which relied on blockades against Continental enemies, first France, then Germany. In the wars against the French culminating in the Napoleonic Wars, the blockades were often “close.” In WWI, the blockade was “far.”*

A “far” blockade would work for the US against China because China faces some of the same vulnerabilities as Wilhelmine Germany, namely, a dependence on raw material imports, most notably an inability to feed itself, and sea lines of communication that are very vulnerable to being severed by myriad means.

China is acutely aware of its dependence on food imports, especially animal feed inputs. The “iron rice bowl” is a thing of the past: as China has developed, so has its consumption of mean protein, and its people’s expectation of it. Xi has prioritized making China self-sufficient in food–a sure tell that he realizes the vulnerability. But this will take a long time under the most ideal circumstances, and is unlikely to occur in any event, especially given how China has ravaged its soil and waters in the past decades, and the disaster that generally results when autocrats attempt to force increased agricultural production.

Imposing and maintaining a blockade of China will require primarily submarines, aircraft, and surface vessels armed with long range precision munitions. And also mines. Lots of mines. Mines are a relatively cheap, low casualty risk, highly leveraged way of blockade and area denial. A large fraction of Japanese merchant shipping was sunk by mines laid by subs and aircraft in WWII. The mining of Haiphong in Vietnam was probably more decisive than the Operation Linebacker bombing campaign. Mining the waters around Chinese ports would have a devastating impact.

PGMs will also be vital in deterring any attempt by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (a name that cracks me up) to break out of a US (and Japan, and Australia, etc.) cordon sanitaire around the South China Sea–or destroying it if it tries. They will also be the primary means by which the United States can strike long-range Chinese weapons that pose a threat to the ships of the US and its allies, and the land bases (on Guam, in Japan and in the Philippines) on which they will rely.

The networking of sensors and platforms, and the deployment of offensive weapons on virtually every US Navy platform, will serve to make a US judo move of denying access to an access denier very effective–if it is backed with adequate means. This will require lots of long range, precision munitions to work–so ramping up their production, stocks, and production capacity of such weapons should be the priority.

But although networking platforms and the employment of precision weapons greatly leverages US capabilities to implement this strategy, the fundamental fact is that the US has too few platforms. The USN is now at a mere 297 hulls, and the current Biden budget proposal will shrink that to 291. The Navy has not submitted a shipbuilding proposal, and the brass are pushing to decommission 11 ships. Navy construction capacity is woefully inadequate. The capacity to build the fleet’s backbone–Burke class destroyers–is limited to 2 per year. The DDG(X) is still a pipe dream. The first Constellation class frigate has just been laid down. Most importantly, production of Virginia class submarines (the most potent threat to China, as their absolute freak out over the AUKUS nuke sub deal shows) is limited to two per year, and US submarine construction capacity will be challenged by the necessity of also building new Columbia class SSBNs to replace the aging Ohios.

So it is not just ammunition–it is platforms to fire it from. And on that score the United States is at best treading water, and may actually be slipping under.

Yes. Ukraine is a wake-up call–although one that should have been unnecessary. But just because the Ukrainians are suffering a WWI-esque shell shortage does not mean that the United States should prioritize artillery ammunition to fight a major land war. Adapting capability to likely adversaries and strategies dictates a focus on long range sea- and air-launched anti-ship and land attack weapons, and crucially the means to employ them. Which means more hulls and more airframes.

These take a long time to build. The time is now to start producing the weapons, and to expanding the capacity to produce the things that can deploy them. Right now we are unduly dependent on hoping the Lord looks kindly on our praise (if we would even give it today), because there just isn’t enough of the right kind of ammunition to pass to fight the most likely and most dangerous conflicts.

*This strategy cuts against the US grain. It frequently takes a long time to implement and take effect. In WWI it took 4 years for the British blockade to bring German to the brink of starvation. In the Civil War, the blockade was also extremely important, but also took years to affect the military situation. The strangulation of Japan by US submarines and mines was also decisive, but took a good two years to have a real impact.

In WWII Churchill wanted to employ the classic British strategy against Germany. This drove the Americans (not to mention Stalin) nuts: they wanted to charge onto the Continent ASAP. Strategic patience is not an American virtue. But it will be a necessity if the US does get involved in a shooting war with China. In such a war, time would be on the US’s side, precisely because what has made China powerful has also made it vulnerable.

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  1. Mines: on other blog comment threads I’ve been an advocate of mines, for China locking up Taiwan, for China locking much of the USN in port, and for the US to use against China.

    These ideas seem to be unpopular. Americans seem to prefer to discuss gung-ho naval battles to be fought mid-ocean. I guess they are influenced by the Battle of Midway or perhaps cowboy films. They don’t seem to sympathise with my proposition that there is no nation so daft that it would want to fight the US in the middle of the Pacific.

    Comment by dearieme — March 26, 2023 @ 4:03 pm

  2. Artillery shells are fairly cheap to produce. This suggests that the USA was not preparing to encircle Russia using Ukraine as a proxy. Everyone thought this would be a long running border skirmish until Putin went on tilt.

    I can’t fault your strategy of blocking the Mallacca, Sunda straits, etc, Prof. But Russia is becoming a major agriculture power, and if they add Ukraine to the mix the combination of Russia, China and Ukraine will mean it will take decades to starve them out, if ever.

    Comment by philip — March 26, 2023 @ 5:04 pm

  3. Just a small note of caution. First if precision munitions are going to sink Chinese ships, it might be foolish to believe that American ships are missile proof. Second, Japan entered the second world war fight because of the American economic war against them. Third, underestimating your enemy. In the last few years of his life my Dad told me a little story from the second world war. When Japan entered the war the people on Yorke Peninsula gave them six months. Their aeroplanes would fall out of the sky, their ships would just stop or sink and their ground vehicles would be always broken down. Well we now know that the stuff Japan was exporting to Oz was designed for the cheap market, and all the high quality manufacturing was being kept in Japan for their own use. Their aeroplanes staffed by pilots who had been practicing their craft were as good as anyones, their ships also worked quite well, and had also been practicing warcraft. So the war against Japan lasted until superior manufacturing ability and greater numbers overwhelmed them. York Peninsula is in South Oz, and Dad told me that towards the end of the war there was hardly any men between eighteen and thirty left in the district.

    Comment by Peewhit — March 26, 2023 @ 6:53 pm

  4. Blockading China may not be that effective if its ground links to Russia and other continental sources of supply are firm. Moreover, the only plausible reason to be at war with China would be if they invaded Taiwan. To stop that invasion the key capability will be sinking every PLAN hull in the South China Sea. That means having enough access to get anti-ship missiles and torpedoes on target right off China’s shore. Some combination of submarines, mines (including CAPTOR-like systems), remotely operated launch platforms in the air and in the water, and longer-ranged missiles that can be fired from outside the area, will be needed.

    Comment by SRP — March 27, 2023 @ 8:40 pm

  5. reading the history of the second world war by Winston himself, and he talks about being the head of the admiralty-and the planning he had to do around shipbuilding. Britain needed to build ships quickly, and couldn’t at the beginning of the war in 1939. The US seems to be on similar footing today.

    Comment by Jeff Carter (@pointsnfigures1) — March 27, 2023 @ 11:07 pm

  6. @dearieme. 1. Oh, it’s a long tradition. Look at the US “color” plans prior to WWII, especially Plan Orange, which envisioned a grand slugging match between lines of American and Japanese battleships in the mid-Pacific. 2. There is an antipathy to mines in the USN (and I can speak from personal knowledge here). This is for at least a couple of reasons. For one, the mine has always been viewed as a sneaky weapon employed by weak powers. (This actually dates back to the Civil War when the South employed mines–“torpedoes” in the lexicon of the time–somewhat effectively against a much more powerful Union navy.). Therefore use of mines is viewed as a confession of naval inferiority (even though the US employed them very effectively in WWII). For another, the USN has suffered some embarrassing losses due to mines, e.g., the USS Tripoli and USS Princeton in the Persian Gulf in 1991.

    US Navy minesweeping capability has always been a red headed stepchild. The appalling Littoral Combat Ships were supposed to have a mine warfare module but that was just one of the type’s many failings.

    Comment by cpirrong — March 28, 2023 @ 12:07 pm

  7. @SRP. No way that supplies via Russia can replace the immense quantities of agricultural and other commodities China imports by sea. Hell, even now the oil and refined products that Russia used to sell to Europe is going to China by sea. Further, even overlooking logistical considerations, Russia cannot replace supplies China obtains from the US, South America, and Australia–especially oilseeds and corn from the first two.

    And the strategy you outline is basically exactly what I was advocating. A stand off strategy. No reason to go charging into the South China Sea with carrier battle groups.

    Comment by cpirrong — March 28, 2023 @ 12:12 pm

  8. @dearieme. Churchill’s first major disaster–the Dardanelles in 1915–was the result of mines. The Turks mined the straits and used gunfire to drive off the fishing trawlers (!) the British and French were using to sweep them. Several British and French battleships hit mines and sank. The navies slunk away. Of this was born Gallipoli.

    Fear of mines (and submarines) was also a major factor in Jellicoe’s cautious pursuit of the Germans after Jutland.

    Mines are a huge force multiplier.

    Comment by cpirrong — March 28, 2023 @ 12:36 pm

  9. How is the US military supposed to fight a war against China when, as you argued in your previous post, it is being destroyed from within by DEI/CRT and the Climate Change agenda? The military is already having trouble recruiting, and DEI-based promotion is probably a major factor discouraging potential recruits. The Climate Change agenda is also incompatible with the goal of expanding the production of weapons and networking platforms, since the latter depends on access to abundant and reliable energy sources. I don’t see how the clowns and lunatics running this country could pull off this strategy for fighting a war with China when they egged on Ukraine to fight a proxy war against Russia but can’t match Russia in the production of artillery shells (or, for that matter, missiles, tanks, air-defense systems, submarines, and so forth).

    Comment by Koshmap — March 28, 2023 @ 11:10 pm

  10. All this just seems to point to what we already know: the US will enter a war woefully underprepared and everyone will sort of wait 1-2 years while they get their act together before turning up en masse on the back of an industrial capacity nobody else can hope to match. As usual.

    Comment by Timothy Newman — April 3, 2023 @ 2:57 am

  11. Naval mines deployed by aircraft are a huge force multiplier.

    Refer to Operation Starvation, i.e.

    Key quote concerning “Operation Starvation”:

    “After the war, the commander of Japan’s minesweeping operations noted that he thought this mining campaign could have directly led to the defeat of Japan on its own had it begun earlier. Similar conclusions were reached by American analysts who reported in July 1946 in the United States Strategic Bombing Survey that it would have been more efficient to combine the United States’ effective anti-shipping submarine effort with land- and carrier-based air power to strike harder against merchant shipping and begin a more extensive aerial mining campaign earlier in the war. This would have starved Japan, forcing an earlier end to the war.”

    It has long been fashionable to argue about the ethics of nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki or fire bombing Tokyo.

    IMHO, that’s a sterile line-of-inquiry. A more interesting line-of-inquiry is whether we could have defeated Japan with magnetic influence mines mines on the seafloor that were deployed by B-29s.

    Comment by Eggplant — April 10, 2023 @ 3:40 pm

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