The Reckoning of Reform: Realigning the U.S. Navy for Near-Peer Conflict in the 21st Century
Lieutenant Jack W. Tribolet, USN
(Reprinted from Proceedings with permission; Copyright © (2021) U.S. Naval Institute/www.usni.org. Note: This essay is published, below, as it was originally submitted by the author.)
The year is 256 BCE; a Carthaginian quinquereme skims the water in the Mediterranean Sea, south of Sicily. Its crew pulls in unison, exerting maximum strength to achieve ramming speed. With a thunderous crash, the ship's bronze ram pierces its target. The impact reverberates throughout both ships as opposing missile troops exchange fire with deadly accuracy at close range. The Carthaginian crew reverses course with an echoed command to disentangle itself from its mortally wounded victim. Employing the periplous side-ramming tactic, the Carthaginian ship has made a fatal error by impacting too closely to the bow of the Roman ship. A pulley is released, dropping the Roman corvus, its spike penetrating deeply into the Carthaginian deck, locking the two ships into a fierce struggle. The Romans have effectively turned a sea battle into a land battle, advancing in formation across the impromptu bridge, engaging the outmatched Carthaginian marines with their short swords to lethal effect, swiftly overcoming their outnumbered foe.
The Roman military was renowned for its simplistic pragmatism, taking up the trident with no less vigor than their other military enterprises. In the space of just four years, they constructed one of the largest global navies, adopted the corvus, and embraced a cohesive naval doctrine overcoming Carthage, the hegemonic Mediterranean power of the day. Ancient lessons of near-peer conflict remain true and provide relevant insight in application today to the US Military's rising tensions with China, our primary geopolitical foe. The supremacy of innovation is a universal law of nature. To maintain naval dominance, we must understand and embrace the historical importance of modernization and unleash the innovative American spirit that is foundational to a free society.
The inevitable conflict between Carthage and Rome (who were previous allies) was preordained by the 3rd century BCE. As China is now, Rome was landlocked by hostile neighbors; however, by Mahanian principles, well suited for naval expansion due to its geographical position. In 260 BCE, Rome built its first 120 ships, copying a beached Carthaginian quinquereme; they would ultimately deploy a staggering 330 ships (an estimated 130,000 men) for the battle at Cape Ecnomus. Rome lacked a nautical tradition and the experience to deploy its fleet using the side ramming techniques of diekplous and periplous. Instead, they pragmatically opted for the simplistic stratagem of frontal ramming and boarding used by Corinth in their war against Athens. The frontal ramming technique was augmented by the corvus, provided to them by an unknown Sicilian inventor.  The corvus, an unwieldy ad hoc bridge, was designed to interlock two ships and allowed the Romans to utilize their greatest strength: the Roman legionary infantryman. Rome leapfrogged Carthage's naval capabilities by mimicking Carthaginian ship design and added insightful Roman modifications that leveraged their core strengths. In many ways, China may be imitating what they observe in order to surpass the US Navy.
Unhampered by a complex tradition of naval hegemony, Rome enjoyed the luxury of picking and choosing the best tactics, ships, and structural command. Much like ancient Rome, China is an astute student of history, both having been challenged with limited nautical experience and benefit from observing historical lessons with a critical eye. Rome developed a unique culture of adaptation, humbly recognizing when a competing power outperformed them militarily. Following its Asian predecessor, the Empire of Japan, China has opened itself to a military culture of adaptation after its poor performance in Korea by embracing western military doctrine. Unlike Rome, China suffers in the metric of innovation, a symptom of its repressive authoritarian regime. The authoritarianism of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has enabled rapid production and modernization but relies heavily on stolen or bought technology.
The Rising Dragon
China's modernization in the 21st century is characterized by vast economic expansion. In comparison, the United States may be completing a cycle of complacency from two decades of counter-insurgency operations dominated by asymmetrical warfare, directly resulting in atrophy of martial preparedness for near-peer conflict. My mentor, who served in the 8th fighter wing in Korea during the 1980s, commented, "We used to joke the invasion of Taiwan would be the million-man swim. We do not make that joke anymore." Under the directive of the "Chinese Dream,” Xi Jinping increased the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to 360 ships, a 300% increase from the year 2000, further projected to increase to 425 ships by 2030. This projected increase gives the PLAN the numerical edge over the US Navy's planned 355 ships. Regionally these numbers look even worse for the USN as our fleet is further divided 60/40 between the East and West. China does not suffer from the need to maintain supremacy in multiple theaters, with the entirety of the PLAN concentrating off its coast. Further increasing the numerical disparity, the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) has doubled its fleet in the last decade to 130 ships. The most positive naysayer would debate the quality of the Chinese naval forces, but as the idiom goes, "quantity has a quality of its own.”
Chinese buildup of armaments is one of the most significant peacetime increases of military forces in modern times, more than doubling its defense budget in the last decade; the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has grown on all fronts. With budgetary increases and a keen eye towards modern naval conflict, the Chinese have rationally focused on missile technology, evidenced by adopting the People's Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF), the fourth branch of the PLA. The PLARF has driven the most sophisticated long-range anti-ship missile into existence: the supersonic YJ-18. The YJ-18 boasts an impressive 290 NM range vis-à-vis the 140 NM of the US Navy's RGM-84. China's hypersonic DF-17 further affirms its accelerating modernization. The US is scrambling to find an answer with its missile programs, suffering setbacks such as the failure of the new hypersonic AGM-183A in April, a data point of an ever slowing development and fielding cycle. The multitude of homegrown sophisticated Chinese missile programs substantiate their pragmatic-focused approach to near-peer conflict and pose a significant threat to operations in the region. This reality begs the question, are we possibly the Carthage of the modern era?
The People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) constitutes the 3rd largest air force globally, relying primarily on fourth-generation fighters. However, the PLAAF is rapidly closing the gap with the deployment of its fifth-generation Chengdu J-20 fighter. Accurate public information on the J-20 is scarce, but we must consider using the worst-case scenario and assume its parity with the F-35; luckily, only an estimated 19 J-20's are in active service compared to 196 F-35s and 178 F-22s. US military air supremacy originated in World War II and has become synonymous with American military might. Nevertheless, US 5th generation programs are troubled with operational issues ranging from part replacement programs to an unprecedented flight hour cost. The F-35 took 24 years from concept to implementation and the F-22 19 years by the same metric and is evidence of the growing incapability of the peacetime US military to modernize at a similar pace to the PLAAF. The recently announced Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) sixth-generation fighter will undoubtedly complicate the future PLAAF strategy. However, given historic US implementation time and production cost, it is unlikely if the NGAD would apply to any approaching near-peer conflict and continues the inevitable trend towards violating Norman Augustine's 16th law: “In the year 2054, the entire defense budget will purchase just one aircraft. This aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and Navy 3-1/2 days each per week except for leap year, when it will be made available to the Marines for the extra day.”
By every metric of Mahanian principles, the PLAN stands poised to extend into the Pacific. Uniquely detrimental to Chinese sea power expansion is the first island chain, a natural barrier of islands spanning Malaysia in the South to Japan in the North. Multiple nations unfriendly to the PLAN project naval power into the first island chain and could effectively restrict their operations in the East and South China seas if adequately supported. The first island chain region ranges from heavily populated Taiwan and Japan to the jungle terrain of the Ryukyu Islands, complicating potential defense strategies reminiscent of the Pacific campaign of WW2. The US now finds itself in a mirrored and more vulnerable position since the Second World War, planning a defensive campaign. We must not forget that naval power is characteristically offensive and, quoting General George Patton, "Fixed fortifications are a monument to the stupidity of man."
With its newfound naval power, China has grown increasingly aggressive, substantiated by its illegal creation of artificial islands beginning in 2013. The resource-rich disputed South China Sea provides a possible catalyst for conflict between multiple regional players. China has claimed the entirety of the South China Sea with its "nine-dashed line" but has carefully avoided any action that would bolster cooperation between the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). China, well versed in hybrid warfare theory, understands that perceived aggression has the unintended effect of reinforcing the resolve of its adversaries. Increased cooperation between ASEAN is paramount to the defense of the South China Sea. Strengthening ASEAN is a diplomatic and public relations problem that the US must address by judiciously utilizing hybrid warfare methods of our own.
The primary defensive front of PLAN containment is the East China Sea, hinging on the resistance of the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan, which serves as the central strong point to the first island chain defensive line. Taiwan separated from China after twenty-two years of civil war in 1949, growing its national identity 72 years in existence. Now, two-thirds of the population consider themselves only Taiwanese, and 61% hold unfavorable opinions towards mainland China. Under the international law of self-determination, Taiwan has demonstrated by domestic opinion that unification under the CCP is unacceptable. Meanwhile, the CCP has displayed its willingness to use force in subjugating territory considered Chinese homeland with the annexation of Hong Kong. The invasion of Taiwan is the most probable catalyst for triggering a regional war and is a ripe target for a Pacific breakout point for the PLAN. Successful defense of the first island chain will depend entirely on Taiwan's willingness to conduct an asymmetrical total war.
The Illusion of Perpetual Military Readiness
Roman victory over Carthage in the Mediterranean gained its supremacy at sea and further expanded its dominance with the defeat of the Diadochi in the east. The phrase "mare nostrum" or "our sea" extended to the entirety of the Mediterranean, comparable to the US control of the Pacific post-WWII. More than a century of complacency as the hegemonic naval power led to an enormous increase of piracy in the Mediterranean. This complacency may be akin to our modern unpreparedness for war in the Pacific. In Caesar's era, Rome, led by Pompey Magnus, built an enormous fleet of 500 ships operated by 125,000 men and swept across the Mediterranean from East to West in a campaign of annihilation. A similar drastic contemporary response will be required, including a complete strategic reformation of our armed forces to maintain deterrence.
Military reforms are generally driven by wartime shortcomings rather than peacetime preconceived notions and unusually occur before fresh conflict. Rome's most famous military reform, the Marius reforms, was driven by decades of war professionalizing the legions. The scarcity of modern near-peer combat provides few examples for strategic and technological adjustments for application. Working from a peacetime posture has the inherent proclivity towards miscalculation in tactical development, and as Helmuth von Moltke said, "no plan survives first contact with the enemy." The US has historically lagged in military preparedness when entering previous near-peer conflicts, facing drastic differences from peacetime and wartime readiness.
In the third and fourth centuries CE, the Roman military underwent the most significant reforms since Augustus 300 years prior. Crumbling frontier defenses and incapable interior commanders led to rampant invasions of a numerically resurgent opportunistic Germanic enemy. Teetering on collapse, the emperor Constantine laid the groundwork for military reformation that Diocletian would complete, thus reinvigorating the Empire. The reformations would divide the military into two cooperating branches: the limitanei border guards and the mobile comitatenses, or the traditional legionary army. The limitanei consisted of auxiliary forces made up of non-Roman recruits and garrisoned newly reinforced defenses at strategic points along the border. The limitanei acted as both border guards and a projection of Roman power, interacting with native populations to build collaboration, and operated as a static defense to delay invading forces. The comitatenses numbers were expanded and positioned as a mobile strategic reserve at vital interior points, enhancing the capability to concentrate and move to answer any threat. This pragmatic military reformation staved off the collapse of the Western Roman Empire for nearly two centuries, delaying the inevitable of an overextended power which had gone, "From a Kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust."
The US Shifts Focus
US military leadership has recognized the imminent threat of a rising China and has begun a literary generation of reform in our manuals outlining future realignment goals. The Tentative Manual of Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) produces a complete remake of the USMC from Middle Eastern operations to Pacific first island chain defense. Under EABO, the USMC will be reformed into highly-trained mobile units equipped with modern anti-aircraft and ship missiles to establish Classification, Identification, and Engagement Areas (CIEA) within the enemy Weapon Employment Zones (WEZ). EABO will provide the US military with a limitanei force to delay and impede enemy movements. However, by not living in their Area of Operations (AO), these Marines will not benefit from becoming familiar with their terrain, constructing fortifications, or developing Human Intelligence (HUMINT) networks by fostering relationships with native populations. EABO will rely on the rapid deployment of Marines to key maritime terrain in the first island chain, expected to dig in and engage the enemy immediately for control of the littoral environment. The USMC must urgently consider incorporating the US Navy's Seabees for defensive point hardening and generating designated AO's to increase awareness of potential deployment zones. When instituting the same delaying tactic, the Japanese had years of preparation to harden an island's defenses, and without a relieving comitatenses force, EABO will amount to a suicidal mission within an enemy's WEZ, likely operating in a Command and Control Denied or Degraded Environment (C2D2E) five thousand miles from home. EABO success will be at risk without careful coordination and support.
EABO provides a transformational template for the USMC to become nautical limitanei. However, this stratagem implies creating hard-hitting comitatenses. The role of comitatenses would center on the US Navy's 7th Fleet stationed in Japan. Not numerous enough to counter Chinese aggression alone, a concentration of US Naval forces would be required by joining the 3rd and 5th Fleets to augment the 7th. In a war where response time will be critical, the ability of naval forces to consolidate is tantamount to success. A proficient deployment time is most importantly reliant on intelligence gathering and dissemination. In this scenario, intelligence is equally pertinent to success as Joseph Rochefort's codebreakers were to the Battle of Midway; however, this time, we have the probable enemy target, just not the timeline or strategy.
The Deadly Innovator's Dilemma
Two key factors caused the disastrous US invasion of Tarawa during WW2: a failure to scout the littoral terrain circling the island and the inability of the Higgins boat to deploy Marines on the beach due to shoal waters. To remedy these insufficiencies, the US Navy created the Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs) to scout landing zones and expanded the deployment of the Landing Vehicle Tracked (LVTs), capable of driving over shallow reefs. Two examples of a wartime feedback loop that enabled rapid adaptability in the wake of horrific losses. To rectify our current strategic and technological insufficiencies, the US military must enforce a culture of adaptability by encouraging the flow of feedback from our warfighters and, most importantly, demanding the development/acquisition community deliver timely results. One such relevant initiative is a program termed NavalX that has the goal to play a "matchmaker between those with ideas and those with knowledge and resources to further those ideas." Reaching out across the aviator community, not a single pilot has responded with awareness of the program’s existence. The nescience of NavalX's role could easily be rectified with the employment of a touring outreach program to engage the warfighter at their operational bases. NavalX ideally should operate as a sorting mechanism to take in thousands of concepts from Marines and Sailors at the vanguard to pair with the appropriate industry. Mission focusing our forces' untapped cumulative brainpower and then utilizing it would solidify a critical thought feedback loop and ensure that our men and women are optimally equipped for potential near-peer conflict in the 21st century.
An estimated 80% of global trade by volume is transported by sea, one-third of which passes through the South China Sea. It is painstakingly apparent that whoever controls the seas in the 21st century will govern trade and, therefore, world security. The United States stands at a crossroads. The first path codifies the Roman culture of adaptation into the legacy of the US, ensuring the ideology of freedom stands at the forefront. The second is the potential downward spiral of Carthage complacency, a slow or abrupt death that all previous hegemonic powers have suffered. In this particular instance, the dystopian veil of authoritarianism plausibly could spread under the guise of CCP hegemony. Few empires have surrendered power without a titanic struggle, and it is apparent that the American populace is largely unaware of the encroaching threat, sleepwalking towards an emboldened enemy. Alternatively, transparency of the menace of the CCP would bring public awareness and, in turn, demand the results of rapid action to sustain meaningful deterrence. An indefatigable defense of freedom must forever counter authoritarian aggression. “Si vis pacem, para bellum: Therefore let him who desires peace, prepare for war.”
 “Rare bronze rams from the First Punic War discovered”, History of the Ancient World, April 2013 https://www.historyoftheancientworld.com/2013/04/rare-bronze-rams-from-the-first-punic-war-discovered/#:~:text=The%20University%20of%20Oxford%20has,the%20western%20coast%20of%20Sicily.
 Polybius, Histories, p. 61-63, “https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/polybius/1*.html”
Description of the corvus or “ravens”: “On the prow stood a round pole four fathoms in height and three palms in diameter. This pole had a pulley at the summit and round it was put a gangway made of cross planks attached by nails, four feet in width and six fathoms in length. In this gangway was an oblong hole, and it went round the pole at a distance of two fathoms from its near end. The gangway also had a railing on each of its long sides as high as a man's knee. At its extremity was fastened an iron object like a pestle pointed at one end and with a ring at the other end, so that the whole looked like the machine for pounding corn. To this ring was attached a rope with which, when the ship charged an enemy, they raised the ravens by means of the pulley on the pole and let them down on the enemy's deck, sometimes from the prow and sometimes bringing them round when the ships collided broadsides. Once the ravens were fixed in the planks of the enemy's deck and grappled the ships together, if they were broadside on, they boarded from all directions but if they charged with the prow, they attacked by passing over the gangway of the raven itself two abreast. The leading pair protected the front by holding up their shields, and those who followed secured the two flanks by resting the rims of their shields on the top of the railing. Having, then, adopted this device, they awaited an opportunity for going into action.”
 U.S. Department of Defense, Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power, December 2020, https://media.defense.gov/2020/Dec/17/2002553481/-1/1/0/TRISERVICESTRATEGY.PDF/TRISERVICESTRATEGY.PDF.
 Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power on History 1660-1783, p. 28-9
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 DeSantis, Rome Seizes the Trident: The Defeat of Carthaginian Seapower & Forging of the Roman Empire, p. 86
 DeSantis, Rome Seizes the Trident: The Defeat of Carthaginian Seapower & Forging of the Roman Empire, p. 38,
“diekplous, or breakthrough, in which an attacking ship forced its way into the line of opposing warships and either struck them in the sides or passed through to strike at their sterns. The other was the periplous, in which an attacking vessel would row around the flank of an enemy formation to hit at the sides or sterns of those ships.”
 DeSantis, Rome Seizes the Trident: The Defeat of Carthaginian Seapower & Forging of the Roman Empire, p. 44
 DeSantis, Rome Seizes the Trident: The Defeat of Carthaginian Seapower & Forging of the Roman Empire, p. 64
 The inventor of the corvus is unknown, we know that it was attained on the island of Sicily from a non-Roman. Some historians theorize a young Archimedes may have provided it to the Roman fleet; however, there is no hard evidence of this occurring.
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 Source unknown, often attributed to Joseph Stalin
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 Reduced to popularized idiom from the complete “No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main enemy forces,” Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, chief of the Prussian General Staff from 1857 to 1887.
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 Vegetius, De Rei Militari, Bk. III
Lieutenant Jack W. Tribolet is an MH-60S pilot attached to the HSC-26 Chargers stationed at NAS Norfolk. He graduated from the University of Arizona in 2011 with a bachelor’s in political science with a focus on Russian international relations.