“The line between disorder and order lies in logistics.”

— Sun Tzu

Throughout history, thoughtful and responsive logistics plans have played decisive roles in such dramatic victories as the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Conversely, the lack of logistics planning has led to disastrous defeats such as Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. In 1959, the assistant chief of staff for logistics to NATO, Rear Adm. Henry Eccles, defined logistics: “Logistics is the bridge between the economy of the nation and the tactical operations of its own combat forces.” This bridge must be developed and sustained if the forces are to be fed and equipped for conflict.

With its vast expanses of open ocean and seas as well as thousands of remote islands with little or no infrastructure, the Asia-Pacific theater presents multiple challenges to that bridge between the United States and U.S. armed forces in the region. U.S. troops operating in the region are separated from the “economy of the nation” by the world’s largest ocean. China exerts influence and expands claims in its backyard of the East and South China seas. The lack of infrastructure prevents large cargo planes from landing and large ships from pulling into a port.

The logistical challenges that would be faced in a conflict with China are daunting.

The terrain

China’s expansionist aims center primarily around the Spratly and Paracel islands. They are strategic for their rich fisheries, vast oil and natural gas reserves, and the trillions of dollars of shipping that pass through the area. These island chains, spread over 1.35 million square miles, consist of hundreds of small islands and reefs with little or no infrastructure.

According to the CIA, the Spratly Islands have only eight airports, five helipads and zero port facilities. In the Paracel Islands, the Chinese have built an artificial harbor and airfield on Woody Island that houses over 1,000 People’s Liberation Army forces.

With China’s Navy now outnumbering the U.S. Navy, more force multipliers, such as the next generation of vertical lift and a more robust strategic sealift fleet, are needed to fill the gap.

The threat

The Chinese understand the importance of logistics in the Western Pacific. Extending their reach in the South and East China seas is an attempt at increasing their logistical advantage in the region. The seas will provide food to feed their people, oil and gas to fuel their machines, and control of approximately 20 percent of the world’s trade.

This photo taken Feb. 25, 2014, and received from the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs on April 13, 2015, shows an aerial shot of what appears to be a large-scale reclamation by China on the Chinese-held Johnson South Reef, which is also claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam, in what is part of the disputed Spratly chain. (AFP via Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs)
This photo taken Feb. 25, 2014, and received from the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs on April 13, 2015, shows an aerial shot of what appears to be a large-scale reclamation by China on the Chinese-held Johnson South Reef, which is also claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam, in what is part of the disputed Spratly chain. (AFP via Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs)

If Chinese expansion in the South China Sea remains unabated, China could exert influence well beyond its borders, undermining the international law of the sea.

A 2020 study by the think tank Rand concluded that “once occupied [by Chinese forces,] China will be able to exert its influence thousands of miles south and project power deep into the ocean.” This will threaten not only our partners and allies in the region, but previously uncontested sea lines of communication. The central tenant to this threat is the anti-access/area denial umbrella China is building to deny maneuver in the contested regions.

The challenge

To negate the A2/AD umbrella of long-range sensors and missiles, a January 2019 Medium article stated the first component of the plan is to “disperse forces and capabilities to many locations for operational maneuver.”

This spreads the risk to U.S. assets and potentially expands the sphere of influence. Supporting a mobile and disaggregated force in the South China Sea will require a large, responsive sealift fleet and robust heavy vertical lift.

Unfortunately, the sealift fleet has been neglected for decades, passed over for investments in aircraft carriers and submarines. Those platforms continue to provide the United States a strategic military advantage. But they can’t operate without food to feed the crews and parts to fix the aircraft, ships and submarines. This lack of investment has led to a predictable reduction in readiness.

According to a January National Defense article during a recent sealift mobilization exercise, “only 64% [of ships] were ready for tasking, and only 40% of the fleet was prepared to conduct operations at the level they were expected to.” The article went on to state: “That’s a major problem because the military’s sealift capabilities would be critical in the event of a great power war.”

Fortunately, an Oct. 16 Forbes article reported that improvements to sealift would come at a modest cost and currently enjoy bipartisan support as well the support of Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. The approach is three-pronged: Extend the service life of the most modern vessels in the Ready Reserve Fleet; buy secondhand foreign commercial ships for modification; and build a new class of auxiliary vessels in domestic shipyards.

The Army’s role

Thought of as primarily a land force, a 2014 Rand study on the Army’s role concluded that supporting the joint force “may prove to be among the Army’s most important roles in a major conflict with China — and one for which currently programmed forces might prove inadequate.”

In a maritime environment with very little infrastructure, that means expanding shipboard heavy vertical lift. The Army’s heavy-lift helicopter is the CH-47. While the CH-47 has proven a reliable workhorse for the land-based Army, it has some disadvantages when it comes to operating aboard ships, and the lack of an aerial refueling probe limit its range.

The Marines are readying their next generation of heavy vertical lift, the CH-53K, for deployment, having just successfully completed sea trials this June. The CH-53K has several advantages over the CH-47 for sustaining disaggregated operations in a maritime environment. It has 50 percent greater external lift capacity, aerial refueling, shipboard compatibility, and a fly-by-wire, digital design.

While the CH-47 will continue to play the lead role in Army heavy vertical lift, having a shipboard-compatible, heavy-lift aircraft would increase the Army’s heavy lift capabilities and help to close the sustainment gap.

The longer the sustainment gap continues in the South China Sea, the higher the risk of Chinese expansion. That expansion could result in a dramatic shift to Chinese hegemony at the expense of the U.S. and our allies in the region.

Developing robust logistics infrastructure does not come easy or quickly. Fortunately, there are solutions to revitalize the strategic sealift fleet and augment the Army’s CH-47s with CH-53Ks. Manufacturing helicopters and training their crews for an Army maritime mission will take time. Building and refurbishing ships, and training and recruiting the crews that will sail them, will take an even longer time.

The question is: Will military planners realize time is running out and act before China takes the advice of its ancient general, Sun Tzu? “The quality of decision is like the well-timed swoop of a falcon which enables it to strike and destroy its victim.”

Time will tell.

Scott Trail is a retired Marine CH-46 and V-22 developmental test pilot who now works as a senior research engineer for the Georgia Tech Research Institute. He has flown the CH-53E once and deployed twice (once to Afghanistan in 2001) with a squadron reinforced by CH-53E helicopters.