What If We Are Wrong?
Consider a Chinese Alaskan Assault
The recently published Department of Defense documents, the department shifted to the Chinese pacing threat after years of focusing on Counter-Terrorism. (De Lea 2021) Each military service is developing requirements, advocating for increased budgets, and clamoring for relevant missions in a hypothetical conflict with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) even as the land war in Ukraine grinds on. Fears of a volley of ballistic missiles raining down on Taiwan, naval bases in Okinawa, and facilities in Guam appear to be keeping U.S. policy makers up at night, among many other potential kinetic capabilities the PLA’s Navy (PLAN) has rapidly developed over the years. Prior to Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, China’s own rhetoric points to a potential invasion of Taiwan by force, though the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) leadership would likely rather assert dominance through less kinetic means, especially consider the economic and military backlash the world has displayed towards Russia. (Suliman 2021) Everything in Chinese open press points to Taiwan as the focus for the PRC’s next step in establishing their regional hegemony. (Garcia and Tian 2021) Government and civilian researchers catalog English and Chinese press releases, analysts comb over every word spoke by Chinese officials, and regional air/naval forces monitor every time the Chinese penetrate the Taiwanese Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). Everything points to Taiwan, which is why the U.S. Government (USG) should consider other targets first that may set the stage for an invasion of Taiwan. Taiwan is clearly the end goal and assuming control of the island is a requirement for securing regional hegemony in the Pacific. However, should the USG consider a naval assault launched on Alaska as a reasonable deception operation to draw forces away from the defense of Taiwan? Bold actions illicit bold responses.
Is an attack on Alaska really unrealistic? Granted, this bold, hypothetical operation is risky for the PLA, but is it within the realm of the possible? During the Command and General Staff Officers Course, students are bombarded with the viewpoints of famous military theorists on how to wage war. Many U.S. officers gravitate towards the teachings of A. T. Mahan and his views on the role of naval forces to secure regional hegemony (many PLA planners and officers also study Mahan). (Holmes and Yoshihara, the Influience of Mahan Upon China's Maritime Strategy 2005, 26-27) However, in the hypothetical Alaskan shaping operation mentioned above, Sun Tzu’s Art of War (among other more current works) is the stepping stone to seize Taiwan.
In his book, the One Hundred Year Marathon, Michael Pillsbury, highlights the role of deception operations used in eastern planning operations. (Pillsbury 2016) Sun Tzu influences eastern thinkers to this day and understanding Tzu’s teachings can provide a reasonable, cautionary justification for an Alaskan assault. If the USG seeks to understand our foe and ourselves, as Sun Tzu advocates, the USG need to understand how the PLA thinks and plans. (Yuen 2014, 113) Concealing movements and focusing on an economy of force (for example, using civilian maritime crafts as landing vessels, small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) to logistically supply PLAN SEALs/SAPPERs, and naval fires platforms masquerading as Coast Guard Vessels) fits well with a limited naval based deception assault on an Alaskan island to draw attention away from a larger decisive operations against Taiwan. (Lord 2000, 302, 304) Deception operations should be anticipated at every level of PLA military planning (tactical, operational, and strategic) while not discounting even unlikely scenarios. Alaska could prove a new avenue for strategic war gaming to counter the growing PLAN threat.
Guam, bases in the Republic of Korea, and various bases in Japan are constantly brought up in Chinese military speculation and are likely integrated into USG and allied war gaming scenarios between the U.S. and PLA. The USG should also consider integrating Alaskan installations. First, the Shemya Island complex with follow-on operations directed against inland locations like Fort Greely are top of the list. Deception provides the attacker time; time is key due to the vastness of the Pacific and trading space and time are essential if the USG believes the PRC will follow the Art of War’s teachings regarding feigning activity and pulling troops away from the true objective. (Tzu and Sawyers 1994, 136) Drawing U.S. commanders’ attention to Alaska could provide the valuable time and maneuver space needed to ensure the seizure of Taiwan with as little U.S. response as possible. While the capability to seize Taiwan might be a proverbial “bridge too far” for China in the near term, the U.S. should consider and plan for any advantage Beijing may exploit to ensure the completion of their decisive operation.
Hypothetically, a deception operation based on a small Chinese Naval Task Force made up of naval Special Forces (SF), using sUAS, coupled with naval fires are all potential threats to isolated locations such as the Aleutian chain and should be a planning consideration for U.S. policymakers. Remember, much like Holmes and Yoshihara point out in their book, the Red Star Over the Pacific, “the PLAN does not need a bigger Navy than the U.S., just a larger capability in the space they are operating in”. (Holmes and Yoshihara, Red Star Over the Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy 2018) In this example, harkening back to Sun Tzu, a scenario taking advantage of a lack of intelligence, and a combination of surprise, space, and boldness can easily deceive the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) to overreact. If the USG panics and devotes too many forces to expel the hypnotical invaders; that would leave the door open to Taiwan and sowing further panic and discord in the U.S. homeland and in the wider Pacific. (Tzu and Sawyers 1994, 136)
While this scenario might be a stretch for some in the USG, there is a historical case for an attack on the Aleutians. In 1943, the Japanese Army held the Island of Attu before being expelled by U.S. forces after a significant period of time. Oddly enough, the islands' strategic value was highlighted as far back as 1935 when the sometimes controversial, Billy Mitchell, stated to the Congress that, "(he) believes that in the future, whoever holds Alaska will hold the world. I (Mitchel) think it is the most important strategic place in the world”. (Pike 2016, 1003) The northern Pacific approach from Alaska is vital for cutting the transit time to Continental U.S. (CONUS) across the vast Pacific Ocean. Alaska will likely increase in strategic and economic importance because of its proximity to these northern trade routes and several natural resources. That World War Two battle was almost 80 years ago and, while radar, satellites, and other collection means would likely tip U.S. commanders off to Chinese movements, the probability of an Alaskan assault becomes more likely and palatable if China believes the U.S. would overreact to attacks on the homeland.
As mentioned, a hypothetical assault and potential seizure of Shemya could serve as a shaping operation for a follow-on assault on the U.S. ground based ballistic missile interceptors on Fort Greely. (the Associated Press 2014) A combined, SF, naval, and manned/unmanned aerial assault on Shemya’s airfield could set the stage for follow-on operations against Fort Greely which could have lasting effects for the U.S. missile defense networks and sow panic across the CONUS and Canada. Even if the attacking forces were repelled after a few days, systems such as the Cobra Dane radar or the missile defense systems on Fort Greely could be compromised. Those first days after an assault would be critical to mounting an adequate response to a Chinese assault. Days and distance, however, create a planning problem for U.S. commanders. The USG should once again reference Sun Tzu for guidance. In the Art of War, turning your opponent’s strengths into weaknesses are key to victory. (Lord 2000, 304) In our nation’s past, our strength was not our military, but our ocean borders. The Pacific and Atlantic provided the U.S. needed stand off from the threat of attack except for special historical cases like the American Revolution, War of 1812, a few Mexican incursions, and German U-boats commanded by the likes of Reinhart Hardegen sinking U.S. ships in the Gulf Coast. (Goldstein 2018) China would likely seek to turn this distance between CONUS based forces and Alaska into a disadvantage further causing panic and likely eliciting an overreaction of troops moving north to repel the invaders.
Now to be clear, Alaska has troops and aircraft garrisoned across the state, but any support or reinforcements needed from CONUS based forces require aircraft (to include Airborne), an unthinkable road march of armor up the Canadian coast, or naval forces travelling hours, if not days, to reach Alaska. There is some debate regarding if a small Chinese Naval Task Force could move into position to threaten islands, such as Shemya, given modern radar and satellites. Assuming the U.S. spots the flotilla, this reporting still illicit a response, and responses take military planners and policymakers time to organize to repel and attack assuming they knew the Chinese intent beforehand. The PLAN likely cannot hold Shemya with a limited SF presence, naval task force, and long-range bombers. However, if cyber effects and UAS were used at any of these targets in Alaska, the PLA could cause significant damage to the U.S. responding forces while only sacrificing a relatively small naval task force. Also consider the land distances across Canada/Alaska and the unforgiving climate. CONUS troops will have to contend with a likely contested EO environment, ongoing cyber-attacks, and kinetic strikes from UAS, all while braving the unforgiving climate of the high north as they cross hundreds of miles. One can easily point to UAS strikes on long Russian armored columns engaged by small unit and UAS to further the risk U.S. commanders could potentially encounter as they maneuvered against PLA troops in Alaska. While the U.S. does not fight alone and would likely claim the Article Five Clause with NATO, moving Canadian and European-based troops all the way to Alaska would likely negate their effects in the short term. In effect, Alaskan based troops would be on their own in the short term.
Some might claim this scenario is the badly conceived script from a “Red Dawn” remake; and while unlikely, this Alaskan scenario is arguably within the realm of the possible. The next reasonable criticism is why would the PRC risk even a limited assault on Alaska? China’s hypothetical actions would likely start a world war that neither the U.S. nor China wants or needs in the near term. So why risk it if the focus is actually reunification with Taiwan? The potential answer has many considerations. First, consider the view point that China has not fought a major war in years (see China’s brief conflict with Vietnam). Unlike Russia, who has used the Syrian intervention, and war in Ukraine to get troops potentially valuable combat experience (some might question the value of this combat experience, especially as their offensives in the East slow to a crawl) the Chinese have not been given that opportunity for true force on force combat. (Thomas 2020) A potentially quick success in Alaska can provide valuable combat experience for junior soldiers, commanders, and General Staffs while providing a controlled environment for lessons learned even if the force was expelled. Some may discount this point, and that’s fair, but consider the PLA’s view points on the Russo-Ukraine War and their likely concerns about the U.S. responding to Taiwan, supporting the defenders with weapons, and their own lack of combat experience. Why would they not seek every advantage possible?
A more realistic Chinese motivation might be focused on the information operations (IO) benefits of defeating the U.S. on its home turf. The role of IO and battlefield imagery in recent battles, such as in Nagorno-Karabakh, cannot be overstated. (Wey 2021) Azerbaijani drones equipped with high-definition cameras, struck military targets, conducted battle damage assessments (BDA) after artillery strikes, and pushed these gruesome videos to the internet for all to see. These IO campaigns helped crush Armenian morale while reshaping how many in the west viewed the importance of UAS and IO campaigns in modern warfare. Chinese UAS, operated by naval-based SF on the beach, or larger UAS platforms launched and operated from nearby ships, can capture every strike and U.S. loss in high definition. War propaganda could quickly affect U.S. resolve and would likely cause politicians in Washington to take pause, potentially move for a quick cease fire, and lessening the nation’s appetite to arm (see Ukraine in 2022) defend, or retake Taiwan in a future protracted conflict. Ukraine’s own IO campaign against invading Russians has galvanized the world against Moscow and further attacked Putin’s pre-war narrative about a quick “special military operation”.
If you are still on the fence when considering Chinese motivations for an attack on Alaska, consider if the unlikely happened. What if the Chinese held Shemya and repelled the U.S. counter attacks, occupying the airfield in a quasi-Crimea style annexation? (Note: Shemya has a limited military and civilian contingent on site.) While the international community would likely call foul, a collection of nations clamoring in the press would like not deter the PRC from militarizing the site and furthering their claims as a near-Arctic nation. (UNK 2018) China is actively fighting for a seat at the Arctic table to gain access to new shipping routes, natural resources, and to further project power to counter the U.S. Seizing the island might “check a lot of blocks” for the PRC and might outweigh the risks.
There is another economic advantage to taking the fight north and away from Taiwan, and that’s the vital shipping lanes China depends on in the South China Sea (SCS) are kept open. Any fight around Taiwan will have devastating effects on the global economy. A quick seizure of Taiwan after drawing American forces north would likely lessen the direct effects felt on Chinese shipping in the short term. Eventually the U.S. Navy could respond, but China might be willing to risk some shipping degradation in the short term for a long-term strategic win.
If you are still not convinced the PLAN might risk a limited assault on Alaska, consider that if seized, even for a short period, any degradation of U.S. ballistic missile defense, either the radar site on Shemya or the missile silos on Fort Greely, would likely open CONUS up to several ballistic missile threats from any number of opportunistic actors (see the DPRK). Either legitimately or perceived, any gaps in the U.S. missile defense “armor” would terrify most civilians and policy makers. The compromise of the technology and tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) used in strategic missile defense could also be crippling in the short term.
All is not lost. The USG can take steps to protect Alaska and make the risk of an attack not worth the likely required escalation. First, the U.S. Navy and USINDOPACOM should take the lead and deploy available naval forces to conduct more freedom of navigation patrols to monitor ongoing Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) and spy ships deployments in the far north. (Trevithick, Chinese Warships Sailing Near Alaska's Aleutian Islands Shadowed By U.S. Coast Guard (Updated) 2021)(Trevithick, Chinese Spy Ship Was Snooping Off Alaska For the First Time During THAAD Test 2017) It is important to note that the CCG, while depicted outwardly as a police force, is actually larger than many of the Navies unitized by many of China’s neighbors and becomes an extension of the PLAN in war time. Second, deploy and temporarily station rotational ground forces to include SF, U.S. Marines, and even NATO partners to the island chains, and across Alaska, to deter any Chinese actions that threaten the state or its assets (NOTE: some have already advocated for this action to be taken). (Williams 2021) (Rogoway 2021) Third, the DOD should increase the number of kinetic and non-kinetic counter-UAS systems (C-UAS) deployed on Shemya and Fort Greely to help combat any potential Chinese UAS that may be used against forces on the island chain or on the mainland. Fourth, sporadically, increase troop rotations to Alaska to augment the Joint Forces in the state and to further utilize the Arctic climate for advanced cold weather training, island hopping exercises, A2AD training, and familiarity (NOTE: again, the U.S. Army is taking steps to establish a national training center in the far north). This can even be an avenue to increase military to military training opportunities like the recent training deployment of Indian troops to Alaska in October 2021. (Hughes 2021) Fifth, take a page from China and look to the Belt and Road Initiative ( BRI) to advance additional heavy rail systems capable of moving armor and other infrastructure through ally, Canada, to bridge the gap with Alaska. While different that the BRI China uses in Southeast Asia, the fundamental concept of spreading infrastructure to Canada and Alaska benefits all parties. All five recommendations could give the PLA pause in attacking Alaska and would likely provide Alaskan natives the peace of mind that they are not alone in America’s last frontier.
De Lea, Brittany. 2021. Biden Defense Chief Dubs China the ‘Pacing Threat’ Amid Ascendancy. Fox. JAN 19. Accessed OCT 22, 2021. https://www.foxbusiness.com/politics/biden-defense-chief-china-pacing-amid-ascendancy.
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Hughes, Zachariah. 2021. India Military Units Join Army Paratroopers in Alaska for Cold-Weather Joint Exercises. OCT 23. Accessed OCT 26, 2021. https://www.adn.com/alaska-news/military/2021/10/23/indian-military-units-join-army-paratroopers-in-alaska-for-cold-weather-joint-exercises/.
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Rogoway, Tyler. 2021. Special Ops Train To Defend Strategic Aleutian Islands Radar Outpost During All-Out War. OCT 18. Accessed OCT 22, 2021. https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/42783/special-ops-train-to-defend-strategic-radar-outpost-in-the-aleutian-islands-during-all-out-war.
Suliman, Adela. 2021. China’s Xi Vows Peaceful ‘Unification’ with Taiwan, Days After Sending a Surge of Warplanes Near the Island. OCT 9. Accessed OCT 22, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/10/09/china-xi-taiwan-unification-speech/.
the Associated Press. 2014. Fort Greely to Get $50 Million Toward Missile Defense System. DEC 14. Accessed OCT 22, 2021. https://www.armytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2014/12/16/fort-greely-to-get-50-million-toward-missile-defense-system/.
Thomas, Timothy. 2020. Russian Lessons Learned in Syria: an Assessment. Provided to the US Government, the Mitre Corperation. Accessed OCT 22, 2021. https://www.mitre.org/sites/default/files/publications/pr-19-3483-russian-lessons-learned-in-syria.pdf.
Trevithick, Joseph. 2017. Chinese Spy Ship Was Snooping Off Alaska For the First Time During THAAD Test. JUL 17. Accessed OCT 22, 2021. https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/12542/chinese-spy-ship-was-snooping-off-alaska-for-the-first-time-during-thaad-test.
—. 2021. Chinese Warships Sailing Near Alaska's Aleutian Islands Shadowed By U.S. Coast Guard (Updated). SEP 13. Accessed OCT 22, 2021. https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/42352/chinese-warships-sailing-near-alaskas-aleutian-islands-shadowed-by-u-s-coast-guard.
Tzu, Sun, and Ralph D. Sawyers. 1994. the Art of War. ProQuest Ebook Central: Basic Books. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/norwich/detail.action?docID=618907.
UNK. 2018. China Wants to be a Polar Power. AUG 14. Accessed OCT 22, 2021. https://www.economist.com/china/2018/04/14/china-wants-to-be-a-polar-power.
Wey, Adam Leong Kok. 2021. Has Azerbaijan’s Use of Drones in Karabakh Transformed Warfare? MAR 30. Accessed OCT 22, 2021. https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/has-azerbaijan%E2%80%99s-use-drones-karabakh-transformed-warfare-181526.
Williams, Noel. 2021. Send the Marines to Alaska. AUG 17. Accessed OCT 22, 2021. https://warontherocks.com/2021/08/send-the-marines-to-alaska/.
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Mr. Jeremiah Shenefield is a DOD contractor working for the Joint Counter-Small Unmanned Aerial Systems (C-sUAS) Office (JCO). Mr. Shenefield is a U.S. Army Reservist and is currently a graduate student at Norwich University (VT). His views do not represent the views or policies of the JCO, the U.S. Army Reserves, or Norwich University.
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