The Pacific Dimension: Sizing the Challenge

By Ed Timperlake

The key to understanding any human conflicts in the Pacific is to first recognize both the natural power and size of that Ocean.

As the Father of the American Navy John Paul Jones said about the quality of a Naval Officer —“It is by no means enough that an officer of the Navy should be a capable mariner. He must be that, of course, but also a great deal more. He should be as well a gentleman of liberal education, refined manners, punctilious courtesy, and the nicest sense of personal honor.”

Being a capable mariner is thus a given by any Naval Force to simply survive to fight in the Pacific.

The Pacific is nothing like the name  –“Pacificum” or peaceful in Latin.   It is a violent and expansive Ocean. Rounding the tip of South America. Ferdinand Magellan, in perhaps one of the more significant “name branding” mistakes in history pronounced the body of water he saw as peaceful.

Before any consideration can be given to discussing the rise of the Peoples Republic of China in the Pacific to discuss US ability to deal with an ascendant China the simple size and magnitude of the that Ocean from the Arctic down must be acknowledged.

The answer to the question how large is the Pacific is very simple — it is huge.

“The Size of the Pacific Ocean is Massive; it covers more than one-third of the earth’s surface, which is approximately 165 million square kilometers (about 65 million square miles). It extends about 15,000 kilometers (9,600 miles).”

The question of how dangerous and violent is the Pacific was answered by Sir Francis Beaufort in the 19th Century in his code measuring storms at sea “The Beaufort Scale.”

After being wounded several times and commanding a Royal Navy ship of war Beaufort became Hydrographer of the Royal Navy for twenty-five years. In fact some of his charts are still used to this day.  Sir Francis was a visionary who specifically recognized the strategic importance of the entire Pacific and he also focused on the strategic importance of the Arctic.

His  “Beaufort Scale” runs from 1 to 12 with a Force 12 being “Hurricane Winds.” –“Huge waves and sea is completely white with foam and driving spray greatly reduces visibility”.

However, in 2006 the Peoples Republic of China adopted a scale that goes to a high of 17 to acknowledge what they saw as the power of a tropical cyclone off their shore known as a “Chinese Typhoon.”

Consequently, all ocean going mariners, from early explores on war canoes, to Chinese Junks, to European sailing vessels to modern battle fleets must have a very healthy respect for the pure raw power and also extremely significant distances involved with the Pacific Ocean.

It is still very true that even a 21st Century Navy can only venture forth with ships and planes that are rugged, survivable and have the range to go up against both nature and in combat against a reactive enemy — it is not as easy as the US Navy makes it look.

A famous World War Pacific Typhoon makes that startling point. Historians have debated the number of USN Ships sunk by Japanese Kamikaze attacks during all of WW II in the Pacific. Their counts vary from a low of 34 to a high of 47.

Compare that Kamikaze fight against a reactive enemy over a almost a four year war with a US Task Force caught in a Pacific Typhoon in one 24 hour period.

In the Pacific Typhoon of December 18, 1944 three Destroyers capsized; the USS Spence, USS Hull, USS Monaghan, with the loss of most of their crew–over 700 hundred sailors perished. Additionally, 146 aircraft on Fleet Carriers were struck from the rolls because of damage. So yes being capable mariners along with rugged ships and planes makes a huge difference.

The Arctic and Northern Pacific:

To look at distance a globe is required not a Mercator map. Looking at a globe gives one an appreciation of the great circle shipping lanes. There is a northern pacific trade route essentially from the Chinese Coast passing Japan, Russia, Alaska from the tip of the Attu, along the Aleutians, into Canadian and American west coast ports — of course “passing” is a relative term in distance especially to avoid bad weather.

However, the Imperial Japanese Navy took advantage of the Northern Pacific route to use that part of the ocean to both hide their Pearl Harbor attack fleet and also their Midway Strike Force. The American Navy learned in both the disaster at Pearl Harbor and their great war tipping victory in “the Miracle of Midway” to pay close attention to that part the largest Ocean in the world.

Additionally, the US Coast Guard, with undaunted courage is currently operating consistently in arctic and Alaskan waters. The Northern Pacific is a team effort with the US Navy and Coast Guard.

Carrying the fight to Imperial Japan was difficult. In World War II, for command and control and resource allocation American Commanders divided up the Pacific into essentially two complementary but independent Combat theaters.

Admiral Nimitz led his “Central Pacific” Island hopping campaign and General MacArthur his South West Pacific Campaign into the Philippines. Forces and battle tactics were similar but different. Regardless of each Commanders approach both were successful and victory achieved.

With respect to the Peoples Republic of China looking at the geography of the Pacific might be different than the WWII Japanese Island geographic model. There are still two areas of action but they can be looked at differently.

The “Blue Water Engagement Zone”:

There is a “Blue Water Engagement Zone” — picture a slightly askew great circle trapezoid from San Diego, to Tokyo to Hainan Island (PRC) to Darwin Australia. In order to traverse that trapezoid the journey is over 18,000 miles and inside that area is a lot of Blue Water for USN Carrier Battle Groups to maneuver while approaching the PRC Coast.

Of course, maneuvering far at sea is essentially trading distance for effectiveness and is a problem.  But it is not as easy as it looks to write off the USN surface battle force as a “wasting asset” — the Forum will discuss this concept of writing off the surface fleet because precision attack weapons with remote sensors are so deadly. So were Kamikazes.

However, it must be noted a combat airfield capable of sustained operations and maneuvering at over thirty knots is a force to contend with.  This Blue Water maneuvering force will eventually have to go into combat.  However, it must be noted and not minimized that the opposition is limited by geographically fixed points — airfields, IRBM missile sites and Command and Control bunkers.

Of course, the enemy always gets a vote so the PRC forces can also maneuver on the land air, sea and subsurface. That is the crux of this forum’s question.  But the PRC must realize that the US Navy has a long history of Blue Water Operations and is designed to be in its “Blue Water” element over such a vast expanse of Ocean.

This forum will discuss the awakening of the PRC to their need also for a Blue Water Navy.

Finally, even though Carrier Battle Groups (CBGs) have tremendous maneuvering room to greatly complicate any attack against them. They have to have forces to close with and engaged the enemy.  Consequently, when the time is right the third geographic issue comes into play — the Littoral.

The Littoral

“The Littoral” is a way of saying close to the shore-how close is a moving scale. It is simple to say in any potential Pacific Combat it is where the Navy/Marine Amphibious Ready Groups have to approach close enough to be effective-this is called “from the sea.”

In order to get into Littoral waters, ships must be capable of operating in the Blue Water Engagement Zone — speed range and endurance come into play. But the Amphibious force has to also be designed as a self contained combat survivable and capable swing force — sized appropriately to close with an enemy and engage in combat if required.

This forum will hopefully allow a robust debate on the rise of the PRC and the moves and counter moves that can be made by all US Forces maneuvering over the largest contiguous area on the globe — one third of the earth’s surface.


Bookmark this article.

4 responses to “The Pacific Dimension: Sizing the Challenge”

  1. Zorro says:

    The size of the Pacific is crucial in many ways; the numbers of platforms needed to engage throughout the Pacific and to work with allies is one key aspect. The Administration is cutting 2 cutters from the USCG fleet this year which is a trend which needs to be reversed if we are able to deal with our commercial and security needs in the Pacific

  2. Futurist says:

    The Chinese face major challenges as they try to build maritime and air capabilities reaching into the Pacific. If we invest and work with allies we can meet the challenge; if we don’t and just assume that good will come from our economic dependency on China we are in for a nasty surprise

  3. Michael Wynne says:

    To get the impact of China’s policy; don’t look from the perspective of the US; but from our Pacific Allies. The Australian Defense Plan has effectively written off the US as a dependable defender. The Indian MRCA Competition eliminated any ingratiating training as they eliminated the American Fighters. The Pakistani’s are telling the Afghan Government to get away from the American Sphere of Influence; which speaks volumes about their plans. Taiwan feels alone as the Chinese, with compliance from our Senior Admiral, have banned US warship travel between Formosa and the mainland.
    The Chinese Carrier; and new Naval Fighter; together with the J-20 introduced while our SecDef was in China as a demonstration of ‘Face’ have sent the message loud and clear–but America is tone deaf and in debt.

  4. momochii says:

    this post is very usefull thx!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *