“The line between disorder and order lies in logistics.”
Throughout history, thoughtful and responsive logistics plans have played a crucial role in such dramatic victories as the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Conversely, the lack of logistics planning has led to catastrophic defeats such as Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. In 1959, NATO’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics, Counter-Administrator Henry Eccles, defined logistics: “Logistics is the bridge between the nation’s economy and the tactical operations of its own armed forces.” This bridge must be expanded and maintained if the armed forces are to be fed and equipped for conflicts.
With its vast expanses of open oceans and seas, and thousands of remote islands with little or no infrastructure, the Asia-Pacific theater poses numerous challenges for this bridge between the United States and US armed forces in the region. US forces operating in the region are separated from the “economy of the nation” by the world’s largest ocean. China is exerting influence and expanding claims in its East and South China Seas backyard. The lack of infrastructure prevents large cargo planes from landing and large ships from entering a port.
The logistical challenges that a conflict with China would face are enormous.
China’s expansion targets are mainly focused on the Spratly and Paracel Islands. They are strategically important for their abundant fisheries, vast reserves of oil and natural gas, and the trillion dollars of ships that flow through the area. These chain of islands, which span 1.35 million square miles, are made up of hundreds of small islands and reefs with little or no infrastructure.
According to the CIA, the Spratly Islands only have eight airports, five helipads and no port facilities. On the Paracel Islands, the Chinese have built an artificial harbor and airfield on Woody Island, which houses over 1,000 armed forces of the People’s Liberation Army.
With the Chinese Navy now outnumbering the US Navy, more force multipliers, such as the next generation of vertical lift and a more robust strategic sealift fleet, are needed to fill that void.
The Chinese understand the importance of logistics in the western Pacific. The expansion of their reach in the South and East China Seas is an attempt to increase their logistical advantage in the region. The seas will provide food to feed their people, oil and gas to fuel their machines, and control about 20 percent of world trade.
If China’s expansion in the South China Sea continues unabated, China could exert influence far beyond its borders and undermine international law of the sea.
A 2020 study by the think tank Rand concluded that “once occupied [by Chinese forces,] China will be able to exert its influence thousands of miles south, projecting energy deep into the ocean. “This will not only threaten our partners and allies in the region, but also previously undisputed maritime communication lines. The main tenant of this threat is the rain cover / denial of territory screen that China is building to deny maneuvers in the disputed regions.
To negate the A2 / AD shield of long-range sensors and missiles, a January 2019 Medium article stated that the first component of the plan is “to distribute forces and capabilities for maneuvering across many locations.”
This spreads the risk across US assets and potentially expands the sphere of influence. Supporting a mobile and disaggregated force in the South China Sea requires a large, responsive sealift fleet and a robust heavy vertical lift.
Unfortunately, the Sealift fleet has been neglected for decades and passed over to investments in aircraft carriers and submarines. These platforms continue to offer the United States a strategic military advantage. However, you cannot go to work without food to supply the crews and parts to repair planes, ships and submarines. This lack of investment has resulted in a predictable decrease in preparedness.
According to a January National Defense article during a recent Sealift mobilization exercise, “only 64% [of ships] were ready for use and only 40% of the fleet was ready to conduct operations at the level they expected. The article goes on to say, “This is a major problem as the military’s sealift capabilities would be vital in the event of a great power war.”
Fortunately, an October 16 Forbes article reported that improvements to Sealift would be low-cost and currently have the backing of both bipartite parties and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. The approach is threefold: extend the life of the most modern ships in the Ready Reserve fleet; buy used foreign merchant ships for modification; and build a new class of auxiliary vessels in domestic shipyards.
A 2014 Rand study of the army’s role, viewed primarily as a land force, concluded that supporting the joint armed forces could prove to be one of the army’s key roles in a major conflict with China – and one that currently programmed armed forces may prove inadequate. ”
In a maritime environment with very little infrastructure, this means adding heavy vertical lift on board. The army’s heavy lift helicopter is the CH-47. While the CH-47 has proven to be a reliable workhorse for the land-based army, it does have some drawbacks when it comes to operating aboard ships, and the lack of an in-flight refueling probe limits its range.
The Marines are preparing their next generation of heavy vertical lifts, the CH-53K, for use after successfully completing the sea trials in June this year. The CH-53K offers several advantages over the CH-47 for maintaining disaggregated operations in a marine environment. It has 50 percent more external lifting capacity, air refueling, marine compatibility and a digital fly-by-wire design.
While the CH-47 will continue to play the lead role in heavy vertical lifting of the Army, a heavy lift aircraft compatible with the ship would increase the Army’s heavy lifting capabilities and help fill the gap in maintenance.
The longer the sustainability gap in the South China Sea, the higher the risk of Chinese expansion. This expansion could lead to a dramatic shift towards Chinese hegemony at the expense of the US and our allies in the region.
Building a robust logistics infrastructure is not easy or quick. Fortunately, there are solutions to revive the strategic Sealift fleet and expand the Army’s CH-47 with CH-53K. Making helicopters and training their crews for a naval mission by the army will take time. The construction and renovation of ships and the training and recruitment of the crews who will sail them will take even longer.
The question is: will military planners realize that time is running out and act before China follows the advice of old General Sun Tzu? “The quality of the decision is like a falcon swooping in time to enable it to strike and destroy its prey.”
Scott Trail is a retired Marine CH-46 and V-22 Development Test Pilot who is now a senior research engineer for the Georgia Tech Research Institute. He has flown the CH-53E once and used it twice (once to Afghanistan in 2001) with a squadron reinforced by CH-53E helicopters.