The ‘Ulcer’ Strategy: How The US Military Could Wage War On China

David Berger wants to give Xi Jinping an ulcer. Early this month the U.S. Marine Corps commandant signed out the “Concept for Stand-in Forces,” a strategic directive that outlines how small marine units will operate along Asia’s first island chain in concert with the U.S. Navy fleet to make things tough on China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) during a conflict in the East China Sea, Taiwan Strait, or South China Sea.

Think of the “Concept for Stand-in Forces” as a statement in the ongoing armed debate that is the U.S.-China strategic competition. In strategic competition, each competitor develops and flourishes implements of armed might in an effort to convince audiences able to sway the competition’s outcome that it would be the victor should a dispute come to blows.

If successful a competitor deters or coerces its antagonist, persuades the antagonist’s allies and partners to desert what looks like a losing cause, and woos allies and partners into rallying with what looks like the winning cause.

China was the first mover in the U.S.-China competition, developing concepts for access and area denial and fielding armaments to make A2/AD a working reality. This marked the PLA’s opening statement in the armed debate. Namely, PLA rocketeers, aviators, and mariners would pummel U.S. forces forward-deployed in the theater at the outbreak of war while preventing a union between those forces and reinforcements steaming westward across the Pacific from U.S. seaports.

In the process, the PLA would give itself time to conquer Taiwan or otherwise fulfill its goals before anyone could intercede in force. And for a time the U.S. military seemed to accept the premise of A2/AD, namely that U.S. forces would back out of the region in wartime before battling their way back in. The Pentagon’s short-lived AirSea Battle concept seemed founded on this precept.

Yet rerunning World War II would have given China precisely the time it coveted. Nearly four years elapsed between the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the surrender ceremony on board the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Few would give Taiwan, Japan, or China’s other Asian rivals much chance of holding out that long without American succor.

Hence the U.S. sea services’ casting around in recent years for ways to defy A2/AD and stay in the region to balk Beijing’s designs. The U.S. Marine Corps and Navy intend to break up their fleets and ground forces into smaller, cheaper, and more numerous components while equipping them with new technology so they still pack a wallop.

The navy wants swarms of light combatant ships able to fight in a “distributed” fashion, dispersing in space to evade the brunt of access denial. A smaller percentage of the fleet’s combat power would reside in each hull, and thus the fleet could afford to take losses in action yet retain enough combat power to fight on to victory.

Which is the point, after all.

The marines likewise want to decompose the force into lighter, nimbler units equipped with missiles and advanced sensors. Light amphibious warships would ferry these units from island to island when need be. They would help out the fleet through scouting and counter-scouting while sporting the ability to land a blow.

In short, naval forces will stand in, defying China’s efforts to impose its desires by force, rather than standoff in hopes of reversing aggression later. Stand-in forces and the associated family of concepts comprise the sea services’ rejoinder to PLA A2/AD.

The approach owes homage to the British Army and Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1807 Sir Arthur Wellesley, later Lord Wellington led a modest-sized army ashore in Portugal. In the ensuing seven years Wellington’s army, supported from the sea, fought alongside Portuguese and Spanish partisans.

The allies’ directive: plague the French. The expedition had no determinate aims. The authorities in London allocated Wellington a certain amount of resources and sent him forth to sow mayhem. Napoleon had little desire to wage war to France’s west when the major fighting raged to its east. And yet he had to—or acquiesce in a hybrid threat on the Iberian Peninsula.

And that was the point.

The Iberian campaign siphoned away forces from Napoleon’s primary theaters of interest while deflecting his mind from more important things. Maritime historian Julian Corbett calls this mode of warfare “war limited by contingent,” meaning war governed not by specific aims sought but by the means assigned to commanders. Strategists normally think in terms of ends, ways, and means: figuring out ways to use assigned means to accomplish certain ends. The goal sought determines the resources apportioned and how they are used.

In effect war by contingent dethrones ends—in normal times the paramount factor—from the strategic formula, putting ways and means in charge of the enterprise. Operations and tactics are good when they throw the enemy’s efforts awry.

War by contingent, then, is a troublemaking strategy. Napoleon outdid Corbett in branding it. The little emperor called the Peninsular War his “Spanish ulcer.” An ulcer isn’t fatal, but it nags constantly. It distracts and enfeebles. For Corbett, an ulcer strategy means “the intrusion into a war plan which our enemy has designed without allowing for our intervention, and to which he is irrevocably committed by his opening movements,” or “intervention to deprive the enemy of the fruits of victory.”

Such a strategy makes mischief for an enemy in a larger struggle, promises gains disproportionate to the resources allotted, and compels the enemy to respond at a steep cost whether its leadership wants to or not. It works best in a theater that can be isolated from the sea. It deploys a joint land/sea “disposal force,” an amphibian contingent made up of enough assets to do the foe harm, but not enough to cause the primary effort to fail once it’s detached from the main force.

Napoleon had his Spanish ulcer; now let’s give Xi Jinping a Pacific ulcer.

Dr. James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”

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