Wednesday, January 30, 2013

America's Pacific Maginot Line Advantage in the Pacific

     Following the first World War, the war-weary state of France looked for a way to contain the defeated German state from pursuing a future military  offensive campaign  against it.  The final decision made by the French government was to invest in what was called the Maginot Line.  The defensive structure stretched for hundreds of miles across the French-German border, and was equipped with the most advanced artillery, anti-tank weaponry, turrets, and logistical capabilities that were available at the time.  The decision making process behind the process was simple: To make the border impenetrable from a German offensive.  The costs behind the construction and maintenance of the project would in today's monetary values run the total cost of the line to well over  6 billion dollars. 

While highly expensive, the French government felt that if the finished line would protect its borders against a German attack, then the investment would be justified.  However, as most history buffs are aware, the line was a massive failure.  While the Maginot Line has been confirmed by historians as being a viable defensive structure,the line only ran the length of the German border, and left its northern border with Belgium vulnerable.  While the French believed that the geographic terrain of the Ardennes Forest would be impossible for German tank divisions to maneuver through, they discovered in 1940 that they made a fatal error in assumption, as the German army stormed through the Belgian lowlands, flanked allied reinforcements that were assembled near the Northern of the Maginot Line, then proceeded to move nearly unopposed westward to Paris, forcing the surrender of the French government.  Now, one may ask "what does 1940s European military strategy have to do with present day east Asia?"  It is the argument of this author that if it is the United States government and military asking this question, the answer would be one word:  Plenty.

     As one examines the geographic layout of the East Asian Pacific region, it becomes apparent that China has major military  limitations to unimpeded access to large open areas in the Pacific Ocean.

In what is known as the first island chain, the countries of South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines comprise most of the area in this chain.  There are other states that are included in this chain as well such as Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia, which each has territory on the island of Borneo, and Vietnam, which occupies a strategic position closest to China's Hainan Province, which is the home to the PLAN's Yulin Naval base (榆林海军基地), which is often referred to as the "tip of the Chinese navy spear".  All of the countries listed have varying levels of concern regarding present and future ambitions of China in the region, in both a military and geopolitical sense, which further complicates China's desire to move from a green to a blue-water navy.  As the primary global force in the region since the end of the Second World War, the United States has created an atmosphere of stability in East Asia, which has allowed many of the above-mentioned states to thrive economically, and all actors in the region have strong reasons to maintain the current state of affairs in the region.  Thus, the United States Navy has two distinct advantages over the PLAN at the current time.  First it holds a geographic advantage that, in effect "box in" the Chinese Navy to a certain extent by limiting the options to which its Naval vessels can move towards the open sea.  Secondly, as previously mentioned, the United States holds a distinct advantage politically over China, due to the fact that many of these states see the United States as the stabilizer in the region, and are wary of what increased Chinese influence in the region may bring.  In essence the United States has a virtual Maginot Line in place in the East Asian region, as long as it utilized properly. 

Yet there are a number of eerie similarities between the French line in the 1930s, and the American Pacific line in 2013.  While the French poured in billions of dollars to ensure that the line had the latest military capabilities to counter any German threat, in the end it was the weak northern link and miscalculations in the geography of the region that allowed for a successful German operation into France.  Japan and South Korea  both have invested billions in modernizing and maintaining what are widely regarded as the two most advanced and capable naval fleets in the region, if not the world.  The United States has supplied  the state of the art  AEGIS combat weapon system that have been implemented into ships from both fleets, which allows for multiple target engagement simultaneously, a technology that matches the PLAN's 052C capabilities.  Both states allow for a solid northern defense of the virtual Pacific line from the American perspective. 

The Philippines in the central area of the line have begun a major overhaul of their naval capacity, including receiving transfers of decommissioned American vessels, including cutters equipped with harpoon anti-ship missiles, and modern over-the-horizon radar systems.  While not on par with their South Korean and Japanese counterparts, Manila has realized that it cannot protect its interests in the Scarborough Shoal area, and recent provocative language and actions by various Chinese military agencies in the area have pushed the Philippines to restructure its naval capabilities.  While this central area of the Pacific line is considerably weaker than the northern area, a mutual defense treaty between the United States and the Philippines, as well as a long history of cooperation and trust between the countries continue to solidify this area in terms of American power projection. 

In the South, Vietnam's recent purchase of six Kilo-class Russian submarines is widely regarded as a "game changer" in terms of its capabilities of area access denial.  Vietnam has long viewed Chinese ambitions in the region with suspicion, and learned of its naval shortcomings against the PLAN in 1988, where a short but intense battle took place over the Johnson South Reef, leaving 70 Vietnamese military personnel dead, while the PLAN only reported suffering one soldier with injury.  Vietnam has also thrown out diplomatic feelers to the United States regarding access to its newly refurbished Cam Ranh Bay, which is known as one of the premier deep water ports in the South China Sea region.

Russian made Kilo-class submarine model purchased by Vietnam, the entire fleet will be delivered to Vietnam by 2016

 With all of the above listed states recently adding significant upgrades to their respective Naval capabilities, it would appear that the American Pacific line is intact.  Washington has strong historical ties with many of the states listed, and conduct regular military exercises with these states.  In the case of Vietnam, all indications seem to point that closer military ties are on the horizon, yet when one looks at a map of the first island chain once more, there appears to be a glaring omission.

Taiwan, the country that a former U.S. ambassador once referred to as "the cork in China's bottle", is increasingly becoming the Ardennes Forest of the American Pacific line. 

While Taiwanese naval capabilities can still be considered modern and formidable, there are glaring weaknesses that could be exploited by an increasingly capable PLAN.  Since 1949, China has made no secret of its final objective of bringing Taiwan "back into the fold of the motherland", as it perceives Taiwan as a part of the People's Republic of China, even though it has not ever had a second of governing authority over the island during the course of its existence. Many of the resources, newly developed military platforms, and planning of the PLA have been done with a military operation towards Taiwan in mind.  Perhaps the primary reason that the backbone of the PLA is based upon development of effective short and medium range ballistic missiles (with over 1,400 based in China's southern provinces) is to allow for a massive crippling strike on the island, forcing a swift surrender.  While Taiwan's Navy continues to be upgraded by domestic development, as well as sporadic purchases from the United States, its naval bases fall well within the umbrella of Chinese missile range, raising the fear that it would not be able to withstand a first-strike attack from the PLA. Much similar to the French Maginot Line, in the case of conflict with Taiwan, Beijing could elect to simply bypass confrontation with the other advanced navies of the region, and if the United States was not able (or chose not to respond with military action) to stop such an attack, push through this defensive line at its weakest point. 

     Although at the present time it is a highly unlikely scenario, how would a Taiwan that was swallowed by China benefit the PRC in terms of naval power projection, and how would this effect the regional states, as well as the United States? Immediately, China would have access to two major deep water ports in Taiwan, Keelung in the north, and Khaosuing in the south.  The cork in the bottle would be taken out, and it would give a major boost to the PLAN's ability to project power in the region. Taiping island would then come under the jurisdiction of the PRC, allowing it a vital airstrip in the South China Sea, a region where it has claimed most of the territory as being sovereign Chinese territory.  The ability to have closer access to these areas could essentially push out weaker claimants, and potentially even cut off vital shipping lanes via naval blockades.  Regional states then could elect to a-) Rapidly increase naval capabilities with increased funding, or b-) increasingly side with a new power player in the region, thus severely reducing American influence in the region.  The PLAN would also have a dangerous proximity to American military bases in Okinawa, as well as a straight path to American installations in Guam.  Once the bottle is opened, it would likely be impossible to close it once more.

     In conclusion, it is a highly unlikely scenario in the short term that China will take overt military action towards Taiwan.  The scenario, however, is not out of the realm of possibility.  A weak link in the Pacific line, however, will open possibilities for the PLAN to expand its reach, and weaken American power projection in the region. Additionally, it does not take a full blown conflict with Taiwan for China to gain access through the Pacific wall.  The lack of routine military maneuvers by a modern Taiwanese navy could mean PLA encroachment into the Taiwan Strait area, weakening the wall, which could be detrimental in a future conflict in the region. There are a number of steps that could be taken to avoid this scenario including American cooperation in Taiwan's long standing quest to acquire a modern submarine fleet.  Anti-submarine warfare has long been  a weakness in the PLAN, and having such a fleet would be a major upgrade for the Taiwanese navy, allowing it to patrol its waters, and lessening a chance of conflict between the countries, as the chance for a successful military blockade against Taiwan would be severely diminished, taking a potential military option off the table for Beijing.  The US could also agree to sell Taiwan the AEGIS radar systems in naval vessels that it sells to Taiwan, allowing Taiwan to reallocate valuable research dollars away from developing their own domestic  system.  Training exercises between the two countries could also allow for valuable communication and logistical cooperation between the two countries that could be vital in a conflict scenario. Although the current navy fielded by Taiwan could be considered formidable and capable, it also must be prepared for myriad scenarios in which tensions with China are once again raised, scenarios that involve China's half-century mindset that Taiwan belongs to them, a problem not faced by other states in the region.  Taiwan has the potential to be considered a major block in the "Pacific Maginot Line" that is vital in maintaining order and stability in the region, unfortunately, it also has the potential to be the Ardennes Forest of a 21st century Pacific conflict.

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