Washington’s Missing China Strategy
To Counter Beijing, the Biden Administration Needs to Decide What It Wants
ENGLAND is the most conservative of nations. This island country will long remain attached to the ships that made her great and kept her safe: indeed, her need for them has not yet passed. To the Englishman sea power is a trusted and tried thing and his understanding of it has been nourished by the constant presentation of the sight of the sea to the eyes of almost the whole people.
It took a world war to bring to England the realization that things were changing. It was with a great shock that she began to see that the navy which she had built up, and in which she took such pride, might not suffice for her security. The invention of the submarine, whose powers and potentialities British thought had been slow to recognize, faced the country with starvation in spite of having a navy supreme upon the surface. Somewhat tardily, a knack of rising to the occasion and the coöperation of the fleet of the United States enabled England to overcome the threat. But the submarine had shaken in other ways the pedestal on which she stood. No longer could she attempt to impose her will upon an enemy by the bombardment or close blockade of his ports and no longer could her ships sail the narrow seas or lie at rest in harbor with any peace of mind. At all times the fleet was nervous and had to take immense precautions against the hidden foe.
But the war brought to Englishmen a still greater awakening when they realized with horror that their land was no longer inviolate. Accustomed for many generations to fight their battles on other people's soil, they awoke with surprise and anger to the sight of bombs falling from the air on their own homes. In this new element of the air progress had been far greater in other lands than in England; at the outbreak of war there was not even a suitable British aero-engine with which to power British planes. But, prepared or not, the country was in the war, and if it was surprised by the fact that mechanized war had started in the air, that form of fighting suited an engineering people well enough. Methodically, and in a short space of time, England built up the world's finest air force and discovered that her people were able pilots, with less élan than the French, but with more stability, and with more imagination and dash than the average of her German enemies. When the Armistice came in November 1918 there were over 3,000 British aeroplanes in the first line, and, although the French may have exceeded this number by a few dozen, when the quality of the material and the personnel is taken into consideration it is a fair thing to say that the Royal Air Force was second to none.
Perhaps it is natural that the period just after a war should not be a time when great attention is paid to a country's defense forces. Minds turn naturally to reconstruction, and it is held that problems of defense may be left to future consideration. Thus it was that after the Armistice the British Government's main consideration was to demobilize the Royal Air Force, to disband the majority of trained personnel, and to sell off or destroy stocks of aeroplanes and engines. A modest program of 154 squadrons for the post-war Air Force was eventually whittled down to 24, of which 19 were needed for work overseas.
The test of war had shown that the division of British aerial forces into the Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Flying Corps was wasteful from the point of view of technical supply, and an Air Board had been constituted which did much to prevent competition and overlapping. But the divided responsibility for the defense of the country between two fighting services had remained. With stalemate in almost every battle area, the minds of politicians had turned to the possibility of influencing the outcome by action behind the various fronts. It was possible that demonstrations of air force might have a decisive effect, at least on peoples weary of war. However, the generals and admirals who controlled the British air forces then existent could not be expected to see far beyond their own immediate needs. From day to day the air army had been proving itself of greater and greater assistance to them, and they never had at their disposal enough aeroplanes for their new requirements.
So long as air power was only an ancillary to the older services this attitude was natural. But the question was whether it did not have a primary function and, if so, who would study that function? Only a separate service and a separate staff could be expected to give attention to this new problem. And so in spite of the difficulty of changing horses in mid-stream it was wisely decided by the Cabinet that the two separate air armies should disappear and a single Royal Air Force fleet be created. The change took effect in April 1918. It was never welcomed by the naval and army chiefs; and when time came for reflection after the war they decided that it had not been proved that air power had a separate rôle further than that of a handmaid to the older established fighting forces. Indeed in this they were right: whether under naval, military or air force command the limitations of aerial bombing had not been correctly assessed; there had been too much optimism, too much faith in the amount of damage which aerial bombing could do, too much dispersal of effort. The most ardent advocate of air power could not claim that air intervention had changed in any appreciable manner the course of the struggle; he could only say that if the war had gone on longer it might have been demonstrated that air pressure could have finished it. The British aeroplanes that stood by to bomb Berlin late in the war were never sent and had not been able to show their powers.
Holding, as they did, honest views of this kind, the chiefs of the older services could not be expected to acquiesce in the removal from their own control of a weapon which they felt was a necessity to their operations and whose claimed powers of independent action had been greatly exaggerated. Were the army and navy not to be able to fire long-range guns without the help of another service? Were they to rely on another service for essential reconnaissance? Were they to depend on another service to protect their navies, armies and establishments from attack from the air? And so the "Battle of a Hundred Days" which finished the Great War was succeeded by the "Battle of Whitehall" in which the older services made a powerful and concerted attack to dismember the Cinderella of the party.
Strangely enough, it was these attacks, continued over a period of perhaps ten years, which really made it necessary for succeeding governments to examine the possibilities of air power. Debate is a great stimulus to thought; slowly there began to grow a recognition of the facts of the situation. At present it is confined to a realization of how far this new invention, air power, has compromised the safety of the British islands. Beyond this imagination has hardly ventured. It is not in the British character to jump at conclusions, perhaps even to face events squarely until compelled to do so; but it proved sufficient to recognize that the capital and the country were in danger, and that steps must be taken to meet that danger. And so in 1923 the Government decided that the three squadrons allotted for purposes of home defense must be raised to 52, and a good start was made on that expansion.
It is necessary to add that, eleven years later, ten of the additional squadrons which so long ago appeared to be necessary are still lacking. True, the Air Budget for 1934-1935 made provision for four of these squadrons. But for a long time the country had existed "on the edge of risk." It was not the opposition of the other services nor was it political considerations which had dictated the slowing up of the modest 1923 program; rather it was the combination of the disarmament discussions and the great trade depression which dictated economy.
England meanwhile discovered new uses for her infant air force. It proved itself a humane and effective weapon for the maintenance of order in the wild lands of the Empire frontiers. In Somaliland in 1920 nine aeroplanes in three weeks finished a war which had lasted for twenty years, had cost millions of pounds and thousands of lives and had involved the country in considerable loss of prestige. That first success was strikingly repeated in Iraq. On the wild Indian frontier turbulent tribesmen can be kept in order by the aeroplane, which can overleap natural obstacles and put pressure on the offending tribe without stirring up complications on the way. In Aden and Palestine the R.A.F. is in "military" control; it has also done much to keep order in the Sudan and in the Persian Gulf. All these experiences have been on a small scale, but they have helped to give publicity to the R.A.F. and to strengthen its claim to the status of a primary force.
But the possible value of air forces in dealing with overseas problems to the British Empire is not confined to the wild frontier lands. Outposts such as Hong Kong, valuable as coaling stations or as bases for commercial expansion, were reasonably secure while the neighboring countries were ill-armed and ill-organized. With the spread of industrial civilization and the growth of the power which it gives, such isolated outposts became almost undefendable because of their liability to capture by a coup de main -- as the capture of Port Arthur by the Japanese bears witness. The problem of the defense of such distant possessions has always been one of time: relief must come from the general strength of the Empire, and the fortress must hold out until such relief arrives. Now an enemy nation is unlikely to risk valuable ships on bombarding a port which can retaliate with shore-based aeroplanes; it is still less likely to attempt a landing outside the range of the fortress guns but within the radius of aeroplane action. And by compelling the attacker to deploy at a great distance valuable time is gained.
Isolated but sparsely-populated Dominions, such as Australia, have another problem. Invasion is unlikely unless and until the defeat of the main British fleet gives the enemy secure overseas lines of communication; the expected attack is confined to damage by raiding ships, surface or submarine. These attacks may take place at five or six widely separated points on a coastline of several thousand miles, but they are unlikely to be tried if aeroplanes can pursue the raider a day's steaming from the shore.
In the defense of Britain proper the airplane must play a vital rôle. There are few rich areas in the world where so large a population is concentrated into so small a space; and this congested island is only separated from the Continent by six minutes of flight.
It was not until 1934 that the educational work of the Air League and the press brought about a full realization of the position. England saw then that the world would have none of its disarmament plans; found itself sixth among the air powers of the world; and discovered that its nearest neighbor -- a good friend, indeed, at the time -- could outnumber the Royal Air Force by two to one. Here are the comparative strengths of the leading air Powers in first-line aircraft as given officially in the British House of Commons at the end of 1933: United States, 1,800; France, 1,650; Russia, 1,500; Italy, 1,100; Japan, 1,000; Great Britain, 850. No boast of technical excellence, and no realization of the unrivalled training and morale of her personnel, could hide from England the fact that she -- the heart of the British Empire -- existed "on sufferance."
It may be difficult for American readers to realize the feeling of insecurity engendered by a realization of these facts -- an insecurity not new to continental nations, but one to which the people of the British Isles had long been strangers. Let Americans picture a position in which a hostile air force of superior strength might cross their borders in less than ten minutes, and where in an hour many of their chief cities might be severely bombed.
Once awakened, the Englishman understood his situation very well. Unconcerned with the arguments of theorists who debated whether air action would or would not be decisive; unaccustomed to trust his safety to some easily-broken pact; uncertain that he could rely on international forces to come to his aid, he saw merely that superior foreign air power might make his life unsafe. It might be, as some tried to tell him, that there was no possibility of defense in the air; with the evidence of the defeat of the Zeppelin and the Gotha in the war, he doubted it. It became quite definitely fixed in his mind that he would have an air force inferior to none which was within striking distance of his shores. Nothing less than parity -- a one-power standard -- in the air would content him. The Government could take no other view; early in 1934 that was accepted as the national policy; and by midsummer concrete steps had been taken to increase the strength of the R.A.F. by 41 more squadrons. The target is a good one at which to aim, though it must be admitted that it rests on no scientific foundation. Military forces cannot really be the subject of such hit-or-miss calculations: they must be adjusted to a given definite assumption and to the needs of the case. An Empire with many overseas possessions drawing her air power away from the heart may well find herself inferior to an enemy whose interests are concentrated nearer home and possessing numerical equality. It is necessary, therefore, in the present breathing space (which everyone hopes may be prolonged), and while the immediate increase is being built up, to review the position seriously: a definite policy is required.
Of one hundred million pounds spent on British defense forces the navy still takes over sixty millions, the army twenty-five, and the air force some fifteen. Is that a proper division? What is the comparative value of the different services?
The defense problems facing the country are many: chief among them is the question of food supply in war. These islands must be provisioned by sea, and the supply must be protected on the high seas by the only means possible, a superior navy. But it is not on the high seas that the danger is greatest: over 90 percent of all the sinkings of Allied merchant ships in the late war took place within 100 miles of the coast where traffic is densest. The shadow of the aeroplane's wings lies over these narrow waters. Wars may call the British army over the world, and it is the navy's responsibility to escort it to the scene of action. But no navy can guarantee the army safe passage through waters commanded by enemy shore-based aeroplanes: much of the burden must be shouldered by the air force. As science leads to fresh advances in the air, it is certain that some of the responsibility for defense of transportation on the sea must pass to air power. To some degree, therefore, the duties of the senior service will be transferred to the newest, and compensatory adjustments of expenditure must take place.
On the military side the situation is similar but less acute. Britain maintains an army largely as a garrison for her overseas possessions. Its task grows harder as some of its potential foes improve in education and armament. Reduction of the small British land forces does not appear very likely; it can only be said that the increased aid which the air forces can give will obviate increases in military strength which would otherwise be forced.
Attention may here be drawn to the question of a unified air force as compared with separate naval and military air services. Our problems are plainly not the problems of all countries, but examination of the remarks already made will make it clear that from England's point of view a unified air force is a necessity. Indeed, it is possible to go further and to foresee a time when a unified air force will expand to something even larger. Already there is a growing feeling that a start must be made with an Imperial Air Force. Today the Dominions of their free wish work in close consultation with the British Air Ministry, and adopt types of aeroplanes and engines which in case of war will be uniform with those of the Royal Air Force.
But if England's treatment of military air power has lacked vision, what can be said of her attitude to civil aviation? In 1921, at the time of the Washington Conference, it was predicted by all the experts that civil aeroplanes and military machines would tend to diverge rapidly in type. Hence, civil aeroplanes would become unsuitable for war, except for certain ancillary services such as training, supply, and troop carrying. It is more than doubtful whether that prophecy has been fulfilled. Great Britain has perhaps gone the furthest in developing airway material which is divergent from military types: in the effort to make aviation "fly by itself" attention has been concentrated on the large, economical, and somewhat slow biplane of great carrying power but ill-adapted from its construction to self-defense and, by reason of its lack of speed, incapable of evading attack. It is unnecessary to accuse others who have developed types of outstanding speed and climb -- and in this the United States has undoubtedly led the way -- of having had at the back of their mind the value of such types as reserves for the fighting forces in war. They may be credited merely with a most laudable anxiety to exploit the main commercial quality of the aeroplane -- outstanding speed. Germany must be understood as an exception to this general statement. Deprived of military types, she has intentionally moulded her civil aeroplanes to have potential war uses. Recent figures suggest that she could put into the air on the outbreak of a war at least 500 effective military machines converted from civil types. The fact remains, however, that whereas in Great Britain the gap between military and civil types has widened, in almost every country in the world it has closed up. Commercial demand for speed and performance may well cause us to retrace our steps, and in so doing create types which may be readily converted to war purposes, if war should unfortunately come.
But it is not from this point of view alone that vision has been lacking in the development of civil aviation. The British Empire's one weakness is that of the distance between its component parts; for with distance different points of view arise, touch and harmony is lost, and the ties which bind the daughters to the mother-country are difficult to maintain. The telegraph and telephone are inadequate to remedy the situation: business requires the exchange of specifications and contracts, and the personal touch is essential both to business and to administration. By modern aeroplanes flying the Great Circle route, Australia is but 54 hours' flying from England -- with all allowances, a weekly service is easily obtainable at the present day. Those who have eyes to see must admit that nothing can so help Empire "morale" as speedy and frequent air communication.
Apart from this question of unity of thought, a flourishing civil aviation industry is the foundation of military aviation. It has often been said that the Royal Navy is founded on the mercantile marine; by this is meant that the people are trained to know the sea, and that shipbuilding facilities exist which can be turned to use in war. The statement is even more true of aviation. In peace, the wastage of modern metal-built aeroplanes is comparatively small: in war, the enemy action, the inexperience of hastily-trained pilots, and expansion, all combine to cause far greater losses. It has been estimated on good authority that a country wishing to enter a war with a year's reserve of planes would have to hold nearly six years' peace-time supply. But within that period aeroplanes become obsolete, and with years of peace to look forward to, as we all may hope, many "reserve" aeroplanes would never fly. The only sensible and economical plan is to have small reserves, but large capacity for manufacture in case of war. The situation needs a small military aircraft industry, the best designs jigged and tooled, and a strong civil industry capable of turning to military manufacture when the need arises. Experience of manufacture is essential. In the late war all America's energy and genius for organization were unable to secure output of aeroplanes in less than a year and a half from firms unaccustomed to the work. The civil industry is the foundation of war strength in the air.
Finally, the British Government have so far failed to recognize the importance of strategic air routes. Though air communication can as yet hardly be called general, it has proved its value and is growing rapidly. In a few years air transportation for personnel and mails within the Empire will be commonplace. Yet, as things stand, at a time when rapid transportation became of incalculable value, these air routes would be closed. Empire air routes to the south and east cross several European countries, and in war time the passage of military machines over any neutral country will be forbidden as a breach of neutrality. This was shown in no uncertain way in the late war. An important factor in air power -- the possibility of rapid reinforcement -- is thus in a great measure denied the Empire. It is not even certain that considerations of neutrality and fear of espionage may not close the air above neutral countries to a combatant's civil aeroplanes: where the neutral country is close to a battle area such action is certain to be taken. A correct appreciation of the value of civil aviation would involve the laying out of Empire air routes across Europe in such a way as to pass over the territory of firm allies or over the sea. It is necessary to develop an "all-red" route at least as an alternative for use in war. With the increasing range of aeroplanes this is becoming more easy of accomplishment. In the past, capture, purchase, or exchange gave England coaling stations on its main sea routes. In the future, British foreign policy ought to be directed to the acquisition by alliance, purchase, or exchange of those refuelling bases which are so essential to the utilization of her air power, and to the maintenance of her civil air transportation in war.
It is a new thing for the British Empire to face up to the possibility of defeat in any war in which its heart is involved: since Britain established her position on the seas she has never dreamed of such a thing. The shield of the navy has made it possible for her to intervene at will, or to refrain from intervention; to choose the time for entering the war; to organize, in comparative leisure, her man-power or her armaments. It is hard for her to recognize that the position has radically changed, that war may be thrust on her overnight from the air, and that it may be crippling, or, indeed, decisive.
American citizens living in a country where civil aviation far transcends in importance military aviation, who have built up a vast network of air routes equipped with every service necessary for safe air travel by day and night and served by a multitude of magnificent airports, can hardly realize the backwardness of the British Empire in a sphere which may be vital to her very existence. Do they know that Great Britain has less than 50 air liners of any size and those slow of speed; and that only a few of the smallest of "feeder type" machines are flying in her Dominions? Is it conceivable to them that radio beacons and route lighting do not exist on all the length of the Empire airways? Can they imagine an England with a population of forty millions and only eighteen municipal airports? True, the United States is a big country and the British Isles are small and have unstable climatic conditions. But an Empire extending to a quarter of the earth's surface in every continent offers full opportunity for air development.