02/17/2011 06:02 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Chinese Missiles and U.S. Loss of Influence in Asia -- Round II

Revisiting my previous post "Aircraft Carriers and Chinese Missiles: Time to Rethink US Naval Doctrine" , I would like to approach the issue from a different angle of military analysis -- the reliance of projecting power on one single tactical -- in military jargon, the primary tactical unit.

At the core of most military victories or military innovation lies the primary tactical unit (or primary tactical formation) on which military strength and political influence depend. A solid core tactical element is a precondition for success on the operational or strategic level. It is the unit or formation on the tactical level that guarantees victory and hegemony. The ancient Egyptians based their power on their archer charioteers, the Greeks on their phalanx units, the Spanish on their Tercio formations, the Prussians on their three-men-deep infantry battalion, and the Germans on the their tank spearheads during the Second World War, to name a few.

The potential consequences of a successful launch of the DF-21D anti-ship missile against the primary tactical unit of the United States Navy, the carrier strike group (CSG), could result in the loss of US influence in the Pacific Asia region. A historic case study of France's loss of influence in Central Europe due to the destruction of its primary tactical unit, the column formation, supports my point.

France dominated Central Europe since the times of Richelieu in the 17th century. It exerted its influence through both hard and soft power similar to the United States in Asia in the 21st century. France's main foreign policy agenda was to keep Central Europe (Germany) divided. To obtain its objectives, France relied on key allies (Bavaria and Saxony) to assert its influence in the region just like the US asserts some of its influence through Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan.

The year 1805 represented the high water mark of French influence in Central Europe with the Battle of Austerlitz in December 1805 after which the Holy Roman Empire of German Nations was disbanded and the Confederation of the Rhine founded. At the core of French military successes (apart from the genius of Napoleon Bonaparte) lay the bayonet charge in column formation--the keystone to French military dominance in Europe since 1792 and the levee en masse. The French were known for "la furie française", the famed charge in columns with bayonets.

The bayonet charge in column formation remained the primary tactical unit long after the end of the First Empire (1815). The column formations were also the key to victory in the Crimean War in 1854 and the Franco-Austrian War in 1859, where the French outperformed both the British allies and Austrian enemies. It can even be seen in the famous battle of Cameron in Mexico in 1863, where as a last desperate measure, the surviving legionnaires charged the Mexicans with their bayonets.

It is true that France in 1815 had to capitulate, but this was rather due to overwhelming odds and depleting manpower rather than tactical counter-measures of its opponents. At the battle of Waterloo, the French Army was but a shadow of its past and the much famed British line formation probably would not have worked against the "Grande Armee" of 1805. France still retained its preeminence in European affairs. It invaded Spain in the 1830s; still had alliance treaties with its old German allies--Bavaria, Saxony, and Westphalia; and simultaneously, championed Italian unification and maintained large forces in the Italian peninsula to counter Hapsburg expansion.

France held its influence in Central Europe due to its uncontested primary tactical formation with which it still threatened the core of Germany. For a rising power such as Prussia, this was unacceptable. They feverishly worked to counter the French advantage and finally managed to produce a narrow technical response--the Krupp breech-loading cannon. With this weapon, the Prussians destroyed the column formations before engaging the enemy and consequently, shattered France's military foundation.

Despite the Krupp breech-loading gun, the French still held the technological edge in most aspects of war in the 19th century. For example, French artillery dominated the battlefield from 1796 to 1862. French (Chassepot) rifles were superior to all other nations from 1865 to 1884, and the French army was the first to introduce the machine gun (mitrailleuse) into its arsenal. By the end of 1871, however, France had lost its 300-year influence in Central Europe. Needless to say, there were countless other reasons such as French declining birth rates, the operational mobility of German forces, and the work of the German general staff, but all of that would not have necessarily precipitated the rapid collapse of the French war effort had the Germans not first countered France's primary tactical formation.

What does all of this mean for the US Navy?

As military analysts know, the fact of the matter is that the Chinese do not depend on the DF-21 to upset the dominance of the carrier; they have a variety of means for doing so -- a whole network of options ranging from submarines with torpedoes to cruise missiles to ballistic missiles. Whatever their methods, their aim is clear -- to counter the primary tactical unit of the United States Navy. It will be the linchpin of any strategic competition akin to the US-Soviet arms race of the Cold War.

Like the French army, the United States Navy owes its preponderance in the Asian Pacific region to the Carrier Strike Group. Since the battle of Midway in 1942, the United States Navy has never shifted its operational focus away from aircraft carriers (despite the heavy reliance on submarines during the Cold War year). Currently, the United States enjoys a technological edge over potential adversaries. As the French example above shows, however, this will not guarantee continuing US influence in Asia. China has found a narrow technological response in the DF-21 D. A successful Chinese attack on an aircraft strike force would have enormous military and political repercussions.

History shows that it is very difficult for an army or navy to shift its primary tactical unit during war. Neither the Romans at the Germanic frontier in 7AD nor the British during the French and Indian Wars in the 1750s were able to do that. Other cases in point would be the German tank division in 1943 or the Israeli tank divisions in 1973 when faced with anti-tank missiles. The First World War is the ideal example of the impossibility of switching primary tactical units until the appearance of German storm troopers in 1918.

The case of the United States Navy in the 1930s is an interesting one. Although the operational doctrine did not change until 1941, the foundations of the successful transformations were already laid in the 1930s during peace, where the aircraft carrier fleet increased from 2 to 6 carriers while the number of battleships merely increased from 12 to 14. Thus, changes would have to be made prior to any conflict. With the military defeat of its primary tactical unit, the United States would have a difficulty reorganizing its operational naval strategy.

U.S. Defense Secretary Gates in a speech in May 2010 cautiously broached the subject of reducing the carrier strike groups:

In terms of size and striking power, no other country has even one comparable ship. To be sure, the need to project power across the oceans will never go away, but consider the massive over-match the U.S. already enjoys. Consider, too, the growing anti-ship capabilities of adversaries. Do we really need eleven carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one? Any future plans must address these realities.

It is indeed these new realities that naval strategists will have to reconsider when reevaluating the United States Navy's overreliance on the aircraft carrier!

Franz-Stefan Gady is a defense analyst. He works for the EastWest Institute.