What If We Are Wrong?
Consider a Chinese Alaskan Assault
By Jeremiah Shenefield
The recently published Department of Defense documents, the department shifted to the Chinese pacing threat after years of focusing on Counter-Terrorism.
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).
In his book, the One Hundred Year Marathon, Michael Pillsbury, highlights the role of deception operations used in eastern planning operations.
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.
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”.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Garcia, Carlos, and Yew Lin Tian. 2021. China's Xi Vows 'Reunification' With Taiwan. OCT 09. Accessed OCT 22, 2021. https://www.reuters.com/world/china/chinas-xi-says-reunification-with-taiwan-must-will-be-realised-2021-10-09/.
Goldstein, Richard. 2018. "Reinhard Hardegen, Who Led U-Boats to America’s Shore, Dies at 105." the New York Times online, JUN 18. Accessed OCT 22, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/17/obituaries/reinhard-hardegen-who-led-u-boats-to-americas-shore-dies-at-105.html.
Holmes, James R., and Toshi Yoshihara. 2018. Red Star Over the Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy. Second. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press.
Holmes, James R., and Toshi Yoshihara. 2005. "the Influience of Mahan Upon China's Maritime Strategy." Comparative Strategy 24 (1): 23-51.
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/.
Lord, Carnes. 2000. "a Note on Sun Tzu." Comparative Strategy 19 (4): 301-307. doi:10.1080/0149590008403217.
Pike, Francis. 2016. Hirohito's War: the Pacific 1941-1945. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Pillsbury, Michael. 2016. the Hundred Year Marathon: China's Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower. New York: St. Martin's Press.
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/.
Yuen, Derek M.C. 2014. Deciphering Sun Tzu: How to Read the Art of War. Oxford: Oxford University press. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/norwich/detail.action?docID=1920738.