Why the US should consider a completely different military strategy to deal with China

The Navy’s carriers and submarines might be the most technically sophisticated in the world. But they’re also the most expensive. And  Federal Drive Host Tom Temin guest argues that they also might not be the most effective in dealing with the rise of China. Dan Grazier, a military fellow at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), contends that alternative strategies and technology exist.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin And you’re looking at these carriers, which cost well, the price tag is 13 billion. It’s really untold numbers of billions. I think the forward is 20 years in testing. I don’t even think it’s deployed yet. Submarines at 4 billion apiece and so on. So you’re arguing for a different approach to equipment. But let’s talk about the different approach maybe to China in the first place that you’re questioning, which is to seem to be able to take them on head on in a sea and land war.

Dan Grazier Correct. The current narrative in Washington defense circles is a rising China presents this imminent military threat to the United States. And the only way to really deal with that is head on, which is essentially attacking directly into China’s strongest military position, which throughout military history, such a strategy rarely works out for for the for the attacker in that role.

Tom Temin And that’s not really what China is planning to do to invade the United States. What you’re saying is that their strategy is keep everybody away from here and we can shoot you if you come too close. And maybe that’s something we should think about as a sustainable strategy for ourselves?

Dan Grazier Exactly.  throughout China’s history, there’s only been a tiny handful of instances where the Chinese have been the aggressors beyond their borders. The history of China is the Chinese trying to maintain control over their own territory. And that’s what they’re doing now. But in the 21st century, the very sophisticated defensive network that they’re establishing with their anti-access area denial strategy they have a lot of missiles. They’re just trying to keep outsiders as far away from their shores as possible. Yet we’re continuing to sink untold billions, tens, hundreds of billions of dollars into this strategy to attack directly into that defensive network.

Tom Temin Right. And of course, we also have a different type of network than they do so far, and that is we’re in NATO and we are kind of pledged to be the umbrella for a lot of different places. So could an adaptation of the Chinese strategy work for the United States? That is to say, to have that denial of access not just for the two main coasts of the United States, but, say, Japan or Taiwan.

Dan Grazier It’s possible. I think such a strategy would would look very different for the United States and its allies. And that’s why I suggest in my report that the United States and its allies adopts a kind of a spoiling strategy as far as naval affairs go. And the best tool for that are submarines, but not necessarily the $300 billion Virginia class attack submarines. There are other options that are hugely effective. The Swedish have built a number of air independent propulsion attack submarines. They’re a lot smaller, they’re a lot less expensive than the nuclear attack submarines. And so we could buy them in numbers that would really matter. And particularly for our allies, instead of asking the Australians to buy five Virginia class attack submarines — and it’s unclear if our own shipyards can even provide those — instead of buying five of those for the same cost, they could have upwards of 30 air independent propulsion attack submarines, which would be hugely effective spoiling weapons for any potential Chinese naval aggression.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Dan Grazier, senior military fellow at the Project on Government Oversight. So these submarines that the Swedish have, when you say air independent, the United States has always had either diesel which are no longer in existence, which have to be on the surface for a certain amount of time or nuclear would stay under for months. These are things that can stay under for a long time and don’t need to breathe on the air to run their engines.

Dan Grazier Correct.

Tom Temin And they’re not battery powered either.

Dan Grazier Not exactly. So an air independent, a modern era dependent propulsion submarine, it runs on diesel, but also liquid oxygen. So use that for combustion. And there’s a couple of different ways the Swedish submarines use a Stirling engine. It’s older technology where you heat up an expansion chamber which then creates mechanical propulsion and —

Tom Temin  somehow it turns a screw at the back.

Dan Grazier It does. The screws turn by an electric motor. But the Stirling engine, that’s what powers the generator to create that charge for the for propulsion and then for the ship systems. But it’s —

Tom Temin So it gets its oxygen from within the system and not from the air.

Dan Grazier Correct. Got it. Okay. Right. And so it can remain submerged for upwards of like two weeks, like 14 days. Some of the specifics are classified, but around two weeks is the publicly available information we have.

Tom Temin Well, it sounds like the best thing since the Wankel. I was going to say, if anyone remembers of the Wankel engine. Probably not, just me. But the United States would have to change not only technology and training, but basic doctrine for what a submarine is and what it does.

Dan Grazier Right.  to be clear, I’m not suggesting that we abandon nuclear submarines, because especially for the United States with the Pacific on one side, and the Atlantic on the other we need to have a capability to bridge that distance. But we also have allies in the region if we’re talking about the Western Pacific. We have United States territories in the Western Pacific that could be used as operating bases for these submarines. But, yes, it would be a doctrinal shift. There would definitely have to be an increased capacity as far as schools and things like that in the Navy to operate these. But if we trade some other structure, you mentioned the $13 billion plus nuclear aircraft carriers that are hugely vulnerable to these very type of air independent propulsion submarines. The famous story about the USS Ronald Reagan being sunk and I’m using the finger quotes by Swedish submarines a number of times, and they could never —

Tom Temin In exercises.

Dan Grazier In exercises, right. And the carrier was never able to find these very quiet little attack submarines that the Swedish have. But I think it would be worth it over time to adopt this different strategy by changing some of our spending priorities. I think we could save a lot of money, which would be good, but we’d have a much more effective spoiling capability to any potential Chinese aggression. We should be adopting a defensive strategy.

Tom Temin Or a deterrent strategy.

Dan Grazier Right, a deterrent strategy is probably a better word for it, but it would help, I think, kind of de-escalate some of some of the tensions that exist between the United States and China right now, because in the long run, a direct military confrontation between the Chinese and the United States benefits no one, which is one of the reasons I think, that the Chinese still 70 plus years on have not invaded Taiwan. They haven’t even been able to capture any the obviously not the main island of Taiwan, but even the smaller islands that are within visual distance, artillery range of the main mainland of China. Those are difficult propositions. But beyond that, it doesn’t make any political or economic sense to have that kind of direct military confrontation.

Tom Temin And of course, our procurement systems are geared around to what they’re geared around. So I would think that would need to change, because what you’re implying is that large numbers of more nimble types of weapons, both to operate and to maintain and to acquire, means that you’ve got numbers where we have great power, but smaller numbers. And I mean, isn’t there also the idea that numbers matter in any kind of conflict and also large numbers give you greater flexibility?

Dan Grazier Right. Numbers do matter, particularly in naval campaigns. One of the pieces I cite in my big report was a report done by a naval historian who found that I think it was in 28 naval campaigns that he studied, the larger force won in 25 or 26 of them. And the exceptions were a long, long time ago when there were a whole lot of extenuating circumstances. So the larger fleet does win.

Tom Temin One side had metal and one side had wood.

Dan Grazier It would have been yes, it was something there was there was some very major offset that accounted for those anomalies. But right now if you think about the fact that we’re on the cusp of an $800 billion defense budget that supports a fleet of 50 nuclear attack submarines, which is not that many particularly when you think that fleet has to be split between two different oceans. And now the balance of that is in the Pacific, but that’s still less than 30 submarines.

Tom Temin In a 10 to 1 cost ratio, you can have a lot of these.

Dan Grazier Yes. And it’s not just sheer numbers. You have to think about the effect on military operations when you have those bigger numbers. So if you have a smaller fleet of more sophisticated weapons, those more sophisticated weapons present a bigger challenge. But because there’s so there’s fewer of them. That’s an easier problem set for the adversary to deal with. When you are able to flood the zone with a whole bunch of weapon systems, then you create just this myriad of problems that eventually just becomes overwhelming for the enemy to deal with. You overwhelm his defenses and your overwhelm his ability to even mentally deal with that challenge.

Tom Temin Plus, if they sink a carrier, well, it’s not World War II anymore. You want to build a new one? Yeah, well, we’ll be ready in 20 years with it.

Dan Grazier Right. The USS Ford was laid down in 2009, and the Ford actually left on its first full scale deployment at the beginning of May of this year. Right. So you’re talking 13, 14 years from —

Tom Temin It was already rusty by the time it went out.

Dan Grazier And so it just takes forever for the United States to build these kind of things, you know?  go back to my one of my favorite topics, the F-35. That contract was awarded in October of 2001. We are now in July of 2023. That program has still not met the criteria for full-weight production.

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