At times of national security peril — and we are in such times, with conflicts brewing in the South China Sea and Eastern Europe, and an administration in Washington that appears to be reacting in an ad hoc and nonstrategic manner to each day’s events in those parts of the world — the nation should look to strategists and thinkers who grasp geopolitical realities and understand the elements of national power that must be brought to bear if we are to deter war or achieve victory if war breaks out.
One such strategist and thinker is Thomas G. Mahnken, the president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense (in the Bush ’43 administration) who served in the Defense Department’s Office of Net Assessment (DOD’s version of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff). Mahnken also served for 24 years as an officer in the Navy Reserve. He has written an important article titled “A Maritime Strategy to Deal with China” in the February 2022 issue of Proceedings, the flagship journal of the U.S. Naval Institute.
Mahnken asserts that the United States “suffers from a critical deficit in strategic thinking … about the rise of China and the threat it poses to U.S. interests in the western Pacific and beyond.” The nation’s armed forces, he writes, must be “prepared to fight and win the nation’s wars.” That means focusing on strategy and the logistics to implement strategy. Fundamentally, it means paying attention to geography — in this instance, the geography of the western Pacific.
The most important geography for a maritime strategy to deter Chinese aggression or to defeat China in war is known as the “first island chain” — Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and peninsular Southeast Asia. That geographical barrier, Mahnken writes, “limits Chinese entry to the greater Pacific and Indian Oceans, through just a handful of narrow straits.” The great American geopolitical thinker Nicholas Spykman called this maritime region the “Asiatic Mediterranean.” Mahnken compares its significance in our struggle with China to the Fulda Gap in Germany during the Cold War and writes that the U.S. “must, in concert with allies and friends, defend” this key maritime terrain. And that defense must include “land-based, expeditionary, naval, and air forces, backed by space and cyber capabilities.”
Logistically, such a maritime strategy would consist, Mahnken explains, of “two mutually supporting forces: an inside force and an outside force.” The inside force would include “mobile and dispersed ground and expeditionary forces” on the archipelagos of the first island chain, transforming them into “defensive bastions bristling with multidomain capabilities such as sensors, missiles, and electronic warfare systems.” And those inside forces could be augmented, he writes, with “subsurface platforms” (manned and unmanned). And such a strategy will involve Marine, Army, and Navy forces supporting each other as part of a joint force.
The outside forces, mostly air and naval surface forces, would use their mobility to “challenge Chinese forces at times and places of their choosing to maximize their effectiveness,” and would “bring the sustained firepower needed to reinforce inside forces” and to “threaten China from multiple axes.” The outside forces should also be prepared if necessary to hold “Chinese overseas assets at risk,” interdict commerce, safeguard important sea lanes, and control maritime chokepoints. Such force deployments and maritime strategy, Mahnken notes, “should allow the U.S. military, in conjunction with allies and partners, to create the [Clausewitzian] virtues of mass without the vulnerabilities of concentration.”
Mahnken believes that such deployments would “attack China’s strategy by reducing Beijing’s confidence in its ability to control the course and outcome of a conflict.” “Strategy,” he writes, “is meant to influence an adversary’s decision-making calculus.” Chinese leaders and strategists understand what it means to attack an opponent’s strategy — it was Sun Tzu who famously wrote: “What is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy.”
The goals of Mahnken’s maritime strategy are first to confront China with a force posture and strategy in and around the first island chain that lessens China’s confidence in its ability to prevail in a war there with the United States, thereby effectuating deterrence, and if deterrence fails, to enable U.S. and allied forces in the region to fight and win such a war. Mahnken the strategist understands the importance of what Gen. Douglas MacArthur once reminded the cadets at West Point: “Your mission remains fixed, determined, inviolable; it is to win our wars.”