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In World War II, the strategic failure of Axis forces to conduct coalition warfare yields valuable operational lessons for the modern United States Navy regarding China and Russia.

After nearly a decade of externally fueled civil war in the Donbas, the conflict changed on February 24th, 0600 Moscow time. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” to “de-Nazify Ukraine.” Within minutes, explosions from over 100 missiles flared across Ukraine and struck military facilities in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Dnipro. By 0648, the first Russian armored columns rumbled across the border from Belarus, which comprised one of four axes of advance—Kyiv, Kharkiv, Donbas, and Crimea.

Ukraine’s 93rd Mechanized Brigade reportedly targeted a column from Russia’s 64th Motorized Rifle Brigade, including multiple T-80BV tanks, a BTR-82A, and trucks, with artillery fire in Kharkiv Oblast. Image: Screengrab VIA Twitter.

At approximately 1800, the Black Sea Fleet flagship Moskva demanded the surrender of the strategically important Snake Island; a garrison member replied with a now-legendary comeback, which deserves placement with the finest of mythical linguistic military ripostes such as General McAuliffe’s response to the German ultimatum to surrender Bastogne. The response galvanized Ukrainian defenses as the first example of popularized heroic defense. After a short bombardment, the defenders yielded until later released in a prisoner exchange on March 24th. April 14th, Ukraine, armed with American intelligence, adroitly employed drones to distract the Moskva and struck the ship with two Neptune missiles, which exploded the ship’s magazine and sank south of Odesa. Ukraine, committed to preventing uncontested Russian island control, continued to attack the island aerially by drones and aircraft to dissuade the Russians from the deployment of long-range anti-air systems, and finally abandoned the island on June 30th.

The Moskva strike demonstrated a new multi-dimensional attack method to overwhelm ship defenses. Snake Island, vital to western Black Sea dominance, represents the Russian campaign overall—aggressive tactics rebuked by Ukrainian ingenuity and intransigence.

The Shift of Polarity Winds

The outbreak of the first significant European war in seventy-seven years heralded a new age of military coalitions, symbolizing the alliance dichotomy of the new multi-polar world. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and left the United States in an unprecedented position as the first unipolar world power. The U.S. failed rapprochement with the Russian Federation, a missed opportunity to integrate Russia into the Western system or even make it a member of NATO, as once-Secretary of State James Baker suggested.

Today, the strategic miscalculation of the Ukrainian invasion diminished Russian capability to threaten the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and solidified China as the United States’ primary geopolitical foe. China scrupulously observed and opportunistically drew itself closer to Russia as an axis of convenience and expanded the purchase of raw materials from its partner, which offset the effect of Western sanctions. The two powers share aggressive parallel war objectives comparable to the Axis of World War II. The Axis, joined by like-minded parallel wars, failed to conduct coalition warfare, which partially determined the outcome of World War II. The strengthened Sino-Russian Axis requires strategic clarity of joint action to prevent the expansion of the Ukrainian War and to deter the invasion of Taiwan.

Alliance of Parallel Objectives or Strategic Convenience?

Sino-Russian relations represent a rollercoaster ride from close coordination in the Chinese Civil War to nuclear threats in the border crisis of 1969.

Today, Putin considers Russia analogous to China in a tripolar world; conversely, China regards Russia as a second-rate power unequal to themselves and the U.S. After World War II, Soviet assistance to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the 1950s concluded in the Treaty of Friendship Alliance and Mutual Assistance. However, the Soviet Union attempted to control the CCP, which caused a fracture of relations in the 1960s and culminated in the Sino-Soviet border conflict of 1969. China, in 1964, acquired atomic weapons with Russian help; ironically, Russia later weighed nuclear strikes against Chinese facilities and inquired about foreign government reactions to a first strike.

Sino-Russian relations significantly improved after the fall of the Soviet Union; in 2001, they reaffirmed the Treaty of Friendship. Before the 2022 Olympic games, they provided a joint statement that targeted NATO and openly demonstrated the nature of their de-facto military alliance. In the past decade, Russia and China drastically increased the frequency and scale of their joint military exercises, which exhibited expanded coordination in their military partnership.

Signed on 27 September 1940 in Berlin, the Tripartite Pact, written in English, divided the world into two distinct areas of operation demarcated by the 70th meridian east. Each Axis power viewed the pact with divergent interests and hoped “their parallel action might split the forces of the other powers and eventually paralyse them.” Hitler considered the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) a deterrent against American intervention, whereas Mussolini anticipated conducting a parallel war without interference from Germany. The Japanese based their decision to join the alliance on faulty intelligence on the military situation in Europe; they considered Germany on the verge of an outright victory against lone Britain in 1940. Deceit epitomized the German-Japanese relationship; Japan, unaware of the imminent invasion of the Soviet Union, concluded a neutrality pact with Moscow contrary to Germany’s wishes. Furthermore, the Japanese “envisioned expanding the Tripartite Pact to include the Soviet Union” and considered Operation Barbarossa a betrayal. Hitler’s unilateral approach against the Soviet Union ensured Japanese non-intervention, which fatefully allowed Stalin to rush twenty divisions westward to take part in Moscow’s defense and defeat the 1941 German advance.  Not until July 1942 did Ribbentrop ask the Japanese to join the war, apparently ignorant of the results of the Battle of Midway. The Japanese pretended to win a great victory at Midway instead of an irreversible loss, which presented an unrealistic view of their capabilities to their allies. Deceit and strategic differences doomed the Axis powers to defeat; the new Axis—Russia and China ostensibly employ clarity in their pursuits, but only the future will tell whether strategic convenience or parallel objectives define their partnership.

The Bear and the Dragon

Russia and China share a common objective to prevent the expansion of Western-influenced pro-Democratic color revolutions. Similarly, both powers maintain bordered satellite states—Belarus and North Korea, which demonstrates their capacity to conduct strong-arm diplomacy. Russian revanchism—the desire to gain their lost Soviet empire—defines their foreign policy objectives. Putin described the collapse as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Recently China encroached on the Russian sphere of influence in Central Asia with its Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). China regularly utilizes economic cooperation organizations such as the SCO and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to further its strategic interests. An estimated one trillion-dollar price tag for the BRI revivified the two-thousand-year-old Silk Road. Critics note that China predatorily lends money to entrap governments who accept developmental loans and debts them into their sphere of influence. Conversely, China reaffirmed its willingness to employ military force against Taiwan under its “One China Policy” in response to President Biden. President Biden publicly stated the U.S. would intervene militarily to defend Taiwan, an off-script reversal of the “strategic ambiguity” policy enacted by the Taiwan Relations Act. China attacked Taiwan in 1954 and 1958, to which the U.S. responded with the deployment of equipment to mainland Taiwan and threatened nuclear war. In support of China, Russia reaffirmed its approval for the “One China Policy;” however, China did not return the favor as U.S. officials reported they had not detected any Chinese support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In his centennial celebration speech, Xi Jinping contradicted himself and stated that China remained committed to “peaceful reunification” but would “smash” any attempt at Taiwanese independence. The Sino-Russian relationship portrays a peripheral purpose of revanchism but remains possibly exploitable due to differing strategic visions.

March Divided, Fight United

At its peak, the Axis included: Nazi Germany, Italy, Japan, Finland, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Thailand, Vichy France, and for two days, Yugoslavia. Ponderous non-coordination characterized the Axis alliance as they failed to form an equivalent to the Allied Combined Chiefs of Staff. The Tripartite Pact established a Military Commission, but the Axis refused to share operational pursuits and denied one another critical technical expertise. An over-complicated contract system guaranteed that German patents, specifically for their superior aircraft, could not be produced in sufficient numbers for their partners. German hubris ignored coalition warfare training in their professional military education at the Kriegsakademie. In North Africa, the Germans and Italians maintained separate chains of command, resulting in a slow decision-making process. In the East, the Japanese struggled with their Army-Navy dichotomy; without a unified command structure neither branch maintained control nor focused entirely on their operational theaters, unwilling to produce a joint strategy. As demonstrated by the language of the Tripartite Pact, the Axis powers best communicated in the language of their enemy. Few German officers learned the languages of their allies, and interpreters remained in short supply throughout the war, with few successful exceptions, such as a German-Italian dictionary provided to the troops in North Africa by Rommel. The Axis earned a failing grade for its conduct of coalition warfare; they distrusted one another too much to coordinate militarily and resigned themselves to fail separately in their parallel wars.

Ukraine War with Russia

A Ukrainian serviceman fires with a mortar at a position, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, at an unknown location in Kharkiv region, Ukraine May 9, 2022. REUTERS/Serhii Nuzhnenko TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

The counterfactual of the proposed joint Indian Ocean campaign in 1942 depicted the Axis high water mark—the German advance to the Volga, the Caucasus, Egypt, and the Japanese pre-Midway invasion of Burma. The campaign planned to unite Axis forces in the Middle East and cut off the vital Allied trade routes, and would sunder the alliance and the communications of their enemies.” Axis leadership agreed that the path to victory lay through control of the Indian Ocean. Germany requested the operation coincide with the Axis advance into Egypt. The fantastical Axis campaign instantly suffered reversals that epitomized their inability to militarily coordinate. The capture of the last Italian Red Sea base in June of 1941 restricted any Indian Ocean campaign to dependence on Japanese logistical support and left the impetus on the IJN to provide naval superiority.

The campaign never happened due to—the failure to develop a common strategy because of the lack of a joint strategic command, Japanese interservice rivalry, and the IJN’s withdrawal from their irreversible loss at Midway. The non-started attempt to block the foundational Allied dominant trade routes and relations resulted in the continuance of Allied supplies to General Montgomery and tipped the balance for the Commonwealth forces at El Alamein. Italy directly blamed the loss at El Alamein on the Japanese. An Axis join-up in the Middle East carried significant implications for the Allies—Subhas Chandra Bose stood ready to ignite the flame of rebellion in India, the addition of vital Middle Eastern oil supplies to the Axis logistical strategy, destruction of the Allied Iranian supply route, a southern Axis attack through the Caucasus on the Soviet Union, and worst of all—the expulsion of the Allies from the Mediterranean. Today the strategic significance of India remains as vital as in World War II; reliant on Russian military technology and energy, it stands in the middle of hardening alliances. A classical geopolitical foe of China, India must be courted by NATO and utilized to deter Chinese aggression.

Lessons of the Ukrainian War

The first major social media war, the Ukrainian War, provides the internet with a never-ending media supply of burnt-out Russian armor. From the first stone thrown in anger, offensive weapons and defensive capabilities developed in a never-ending competition—bow to armor, javelin to reactive armor. Modern shoulder-carried missile technology unquestionably defeated Russian combined armor offensives at the outset of the war. Should the U.S. Navy concern itself over a similar discrepancy with hypersonic weapons? Or did the Russian military fail to learn combined arms tactics in World War II and employ their tanks foolishly without infantry support? Perhaps both; Russia seems trapped in a World War II mindset of massed armor assaults, and current ship defenses have no answer for advanced Chinese missile technology. Hypersonic missiles significantly affect timeline dynamics of the kill chain—Find, Fix, Track, Target, Engage, Assess (F2T2EA) by drastically decreasing engagement times, which reduces the defensive options of U.S. warships and enables the enemy to operate within the OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) decision-making process of Allied commanders. The temporal effects of hypersonics disrupt battlefield dynamics and require a shift in defensive strategy and technology. The Chinese spared no cost in their ability to engage Allied ships effectively and leave little doubt of their future intentions with their creation of full-scale mockups in the Taklamakan Desert of American carriers. Hypersonic missiles such as the frightening anti-ship DF-17 require the first two links of Find and Fix to occur for a successful engagement; this leaves Naval strategists with options for detection evasion and potential for updates to defensive technology and decoying. High Energy Laser (HEL) defenses such as the Layered Laser Defense (LLD) provide the Navy with a possible solution to hypersonics. Satellite warfare in violation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty appears inevitable in modern peer conflict. Due to the priceless capabilities of Starlink to Ukrainian forces, Chinese scientists called for the development of options to disable Elon Musk’s satellites if required. Satellite imagery, invaluable to the Find and Fix component of the kill chain, will enable the PLARF (People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force) to blanket the ocean with anti-ship missiles and overwhelm naval defenses. Concerned planetary citizens should concern themselves with the potential of Kessler Syndrome and the future inability of orbital launches with anti-satellite warfare.

Taiwan Trepidation

China critically observed the Ukrainian invasion to gauge the temerity of the Western response to a possible invasion of Taiwan. The latest figures calculate the Russians have lost over 66,000 troops; however, China continues to move forward with its preparation for a military takeover of Taiwan. They carefully studied Russian shortcomings in Ukraine, such as the “necessity of a professional noncommissioned officer corps,” to modernize their own capabilities. The strategic significance of Taiwan exists primarily because of its position in the first island chain and the ability to keep the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) contained. If able to break out, the PLAN, well suited by Mahanian principles, will sweep across Southeast Asia. China set the stage for Pacific expansion with its China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision, a multilateral agreement that will expand Chinese influence in almost a dozen Pacific island nations. The Ukraine stalemate and increase in European attentiveness allow the U.S. to reconsider its 60-40 naval deployment strategy. The U.S. Navy must drastically increase its deployment forces to Asia to deter Chinese action through strategic clarity. A considerable majority—72.5% of Taiwanese in 2021, a nation of nearly 24 million people, declared they would fight a forced unification with China; thus, under the law of self-determination, they deserve their freedom to self-rule and democracy. Furthermore, Taiwan produces 92% of advanced semi-conductors, and the loss of this vital resource would cripple Western economies and militaries. Unlike Ukraine, an attack on Taiwan requires a cross-channel invasion of the Taiwan Strait—100 miles from coastal China. The requirement of a seaborne operation provides Taiwan with significant defensive opportunities, and the West must adequately equip Taiwanese forces with modern anti-ship and anti-air missiles for success. However, distance will prove the most critical challenge to Western powers, which reiterates the need for an expansion of the 7th Fleet.

China-Taiwan Invasion

ROC M60 tank. Image: Creative Commons.

The new Axis faces similar issues as the Axis of World War II. Cultural differences, comparable to German-Japan relations, remain rife with distrust and evoke friction in interpersonal strategic relationships. The interchange of language studies increased in the last decade but remains desperately short of proficient military coordination. Russians study English roughly a thousand times more than Chinese. Moreover, Chinese universities require their students to learn English, which demonstrates, like the Axis of World War II, the language of their adversary remains their most effective form of communication. Networking—communications, navigation, data fusion, and analysis— central to all military alliances represent a critical challenge for newfound allies. Evidence of deceit, such as China hacking Russian engineers at military-development institutes, begs whether close data coordination between totalitarian powers remains possible. What real-time intelligence do these two vastly different allies share? Hitler refused to notify or strategize with his partners, which ultimately ensured his defeat. The Five Eyes Intelligence Oversight and Review Council(FIORC), consisting of—Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the U.S., encourages intelligence transparency and close cooperation among culturally similar English-speaking military partners. Totalitarian powers, by their nature, refuse to compromise on strategic objectives. China and Russia share a broad goal—the destruction of Western influence, but can they overcome their differences to become an alliance of parallel objectives, or are they allies out of strategic convenience? The conflict in Ukraine unquestionably forced them closer together, which delineates an axis of convenience.

Today, an estimated 90% of trade travels by sea, which demonstrates the importance of navalism to U.S. foreign policy. One-third of global sea trade passes through the South China Sea and incentivizes China to aggressively expand into the sea lanes. The Axis of World War II distinctly failed to stem the overwhelming flow of material between the Allies. Recent wargames project the longevity of a new Axis-Allied conflict, which will incur dire consequences to world trade. Like World War II, the Ukrainian War began because of a strategic miscalculation of the Allied response. Putin, like Hitler, considered the Allied powers incapable or unwilling to respond decisively and failed to see the downside of his invasion. The West must not make the same mistake with China; there cannot be any ambiguity about Western resolve. Strategic clarity prevents conflict. In a prolonged eastern conflict, India again represents a strategic focal point to tip the balance of power. China, with a disparity of thirty-five million more men than women, grows increasingly desperate with its economic troubles and may gamble the regime’s future on a Taiwan distraction.

The American public, largely unaware of the encroaching Chinese threat, requires transparency and education on the situation. An indefatigable defense of freedom in the face of authoritarianism remains the burden of the Western world.

LT Jack Tribolet graduated in 2011 from the University of Arizona and enlisted in the Navy in 2013 working as a maintainer on F-18 Super Hornets for the VFA 146 Blue Diamonds. He was commissioned in 2015 from Officer Candidacy School in Newport, Rhode Island, and achieved his wings as a Naval Aviator in December 2017. LT Tribolet flew the MH-60S Knighthawk out of Norfolk, Virginia completing two tours to Bahrain with the HSC-26 Deserthawks in support of the 5th Fleet. He currently serves as an Officer Instructor teaching Introduction to Naval Science and Seapower & Maritime Affairs at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. 

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