The Strategic Interdiction Trilogy

The Strategic Interdiction trilogy is the outcome of three years of intermittent study of logistic vulnerabilities of the People’s Republic of China. Current airpower strategy regarding China tends to revolve around a replay of the DESERT STORM air campaign, a technique manifestly unsuitable for use against a major power like China, to say nothing of the fact that the People’s Liberation Army has spent a quarter century designing a force that could neutralize any such attempt. AirLand Battle remains aspirational and has never claimed to be a strategy, leaving a fairly significant hole in public writings on the subject. Strategic Interdiction is one of several strategic architectures that seek to identify options for countering potential Chinese military aggression.

The first article in the trilogy, Re-Fighting the Wrong War, takes a step back to the Pacific War and treats China as if it were an island. In reality, China is a major land power with such poor cross-border land transportation that it might as well be an island – the port of Shanghai moves more tonnage in six weeks than all the land crossings combined do in a year. Over 98% of China’s trade comes by sea, and for a country that is highly dependent on imported oil, this is an exploitable vulnerability. Using the Pacific War against Japan as a template, Refighting makes the case that a counter-logistic strategy is both viable and achievable with current force structure, taking advantage of China’s geographical disadvantage rather than trying to focus on technological superiority. Geography trumps technology, and China is subject to the same kind of maritime interdiction campaign that Japan was – an asymmetric approach where the US holds the cards and which can be conducted from outside China’s ability to project power.

The primary objective of such a campaign is to eventually neutralize certain elements of PRC military power by starving them of energy. A campaign would have four elements:

  • A “Counterforce” effort designed to attrit adversary air forces (particularly bombers), naval forces (gray hulls) and naval auxiliaries (replenishment) to the point where they can neither project military power nor defend against US power projection far beyond the Asian continental shelf.
  • An “Inshore” element, which consists of operations to deny effective use of home waters, including rivers and coastal waters. Standoff or covert aerial mining is a key component of this element.
  • An “Infrastructure Degradation” plan intended to disrupt or destroy specific soft targets, such as oil terminals, oil refineries, pipelines and railway chokepoints such as tunnels and bridges. Many of these targets would be in airspace not defended by ground-based air defense.
  • A “Distant Interdiction” effort outside of effective adversary military reach, intended to interdict energy supplies. This strategy is aimed primarily at bulk petroleum carriers (tankers) and secondarily at coal transports, and not at container, dry bulk, or passenger vessels. Such a strategy might not be lethally oriented, directed instead towards the seizure and internment of PRC-bound vessels.

A strategic interdiction strategy is not a short war strategy. It is a prolonged containment strategy derived from previous experience in the Pacific War.

The second article is a more in-depth analysis of Chinese vulnerabilities in the energy and transportation sectors.   Titled Reinventing the Cartwheel, it again draws inspiration from the Pacific War, in particular Operation Cartwheel, the deliberate neutralization of Rabaul through air attack and maritime interdiction. Energy is the key element of what is a classic interdiction strategy intended to deny the PLA the ability to produce, transport and employ jet fuel and maritime diesel. While strategic planners tend to lump oil products into the catch-all category of “POL” (Petroleum, Oil and Lubricants), it is worthwhile to deconstruct that category into the components that matter for power projection. Gasoline is useless for power projection, because military vehicles do not run on it. Without jet fuel, aircraft do not fly. Without maritime diesel or jet fuel, warships do not sail. The refining process to produce these fuels is not common to all refineries, making interdiction possible at the component, production and transportation levels. The article lays down a specific targeting strategy against readily identifiable bottlenecks, drawing out the nuts-and-bolts application of a strategic interdiction campaign. Unlike Offshore Control, Strategic Interdiction is not specifically an anti-commerce strategy, but a much more tailored counter-logistics one.

The final article, Airpower and Strategic Interdiction, ties the concept and strategy together and describes the structure and posture implications for the US Air Force. Rather than relying on a shapeless set of capabilities against a generic adversary, the article calls for specific airpower capabilities, tied to existing force structure and likely forward posture, and firmly grounded in existing forces. While the paper does call for development of capabilities that we do not currently field, it does not hinge on the future development of fancy tech in an attempt to offset Chinese advantages. Instead, it calls for refinements which would improve the ability to execute a strategy that we could execute today.

The trilogy is a departure point, not the end of the discussion. It is intended to stimulate examination of airpower application against China and ground it firmly in the nature of the adversary, rather than relying on slogans or the rote application of the DESERT STORM model. By returning to a tailored application of airpower, it is intended to highlight opportunities for airpower in the Pacific region and enhance the value of a conventional deterrent.

Col. Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha was an instructor electronic warfare officer in the F-4G Wild Weasel and the F-15E Strike Eagle, amassing 156 combat missions and taking part in 2.5 SAM kills over 10 combat deployments. As an irregular warfare operations officer, Colonel Pietrucha had two additional combat deployments in the company of US Army infantry, combat engineer, and military police units in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the US Government.

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