The U.S. Navy Faces a New and Dangerous Foe: China's 'Long-Range Fires' (Think Missiles)

Robert Clifford

By 1914, artillery, machine guns, and ammunition were relatively cheap and could blow gaping, irreplaceable holes in enemy ranks. World War I and the advent of industrial age warfare brought an end to massed troop formations associated with Napoleonic warfare and the American Civil War, with the use of massed artillery and machine guns. Today the United States Navy faces a different but similar economy of force problem around China. Long-range precision missiles, including China’s ‘carrier killer’ DF-21D and the DF-26B Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles (ABSMs), have created an anti-access bubble around the South China Sea, beyond the striking distance of U.S. carrier deployed aircraft, if they stay outside of China’s missile threat ring.

Economically speaking, the “carrier killer” missiles are China’s equivalent to World War I’s massed artillery against large troop formations. China can produce them in large quantities and relatively cheap when compared to the cost of an aircraft carrier. While the cost of a DF-21D is unknown, they are certainly significantly cheaper than the cost of a $13 billion aircraft carrier, billions of dollars in aircraft, and the loss of over 6,000 US sailors. In any war of today or the future, those kinds of loses are avoidable and unacceptable.

The solution to the problems World War I’s generals faced was an enhanced form maneuver warfare augmented by technology that could survive under and over the enemy umbrella of machine gun and artillery fire: tanks and aircraft. They also learned small groups of tanks, and small groups of aircraft made little difference in an attack. Tanks could easily be overwhelmed, break down, outflanked, and cut off. What turned out to be decisive was the massed employment of tanks and aircraft to break through enemy defenses. The Navy and the Joint Force now need to figure out how to operate under and over the umbrella of enemy long-range precision missiles.

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