The Skeptics

Three Paths to Nuclear Escalation with China

The U.S. military has enjoyed extraordinary freedom of maneuver since the end of the Cold War. The fall of the Soviet Union meant that no one else was left to seriously challenge the United States when it decided to act abroad. Today, however, strategists worry that U.S. rivals are developing weapons that will make it difficult or impossible to gain access to contested areas. Dealing with the so-called “anti-access” problem has become a central task for civilian and military planners—and something close to an obsession for the navy.

One popular solution is AirSea Battle (ASB). In its most general sense, ASB is about increasing integration between the navy and the air force. Service leaders argue that without serious advance planning, coordination is likely to break down in the midst of a conflict. This must include not just operational discussions about war fighting but also integrated training, data sharing and weapons procurement. As the air force and navy service chiefs put it in a recent article, the idea is to “take ‘jointness’ to a new level.” Jointness is a favorite buzzword in Washington, and enthusiastic defense officials recently opened the AirSea Battle Office in the Pentagon.

Strangely, much of the discussion about AirSea Battle has been about what it is not. Officials have stressed that ASB is not a single operational concept about how to fight wars; they simply say that they want to maximize interservice integration so that regional combatant commanders have maximum confidence in their ability to carry out their operational decisions. Officials also have stressed that ASB is not about China or any other country. At a press conference describing the purposes of the AirSea Battle Office, they went to great lengths to fend off such suggestions from incredulous reporters.

Not everyone buys these arguments. In theory, the proliferation of anti-access weapons means that any country could create problems for forward-deployed U.S. forces. In reality, there is a very short list of countries that have both the interest and wherewithal to make life nasty for the United States. China is first on the list. No one is investing more in anti-access capabilities than China, which in the last decade has acquired an impressive array of submarines, antiship ballistic missiles, antiship cruise missiles and antisatellite weapons. And no one has a clearer interest in denying U.S. forces entry in the event of a crisis. China has particularly strong reasons for wanting to keep the U.S. Navy from undertaking a show of force in or around the Taiwan Strait, as it did during previous crises. U.S. planners are not naive about China's motives, and they seek new ways of undermining China's new capabilities. “Let's just say it,” two Naval War College professors recently wrote, “AirSea Battle in East Asia is about China.”

Nor is it the case that AirSea Battle is just about jointness. Last year the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) published a long monograph on the concept, which remains the most comprehensive treatment to date. According to CSBA, AirSea Battle envisions a sequence of operations designed to overcome enemy obstacles and guarantee U.S. access. The first step is a “blinding attack” on key facilities, including long-range weapons that threaten U.S. bases and carrier groups, along with the radar systems needed to cue them. This initial volley would deliberately strike the enemy’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems and make it impossible to organize an attack in the aftermath. The second step includes efforts to bottle up the enemy’s naval fleet behind a distant blockade, which would allow the United States plenty of time to bring superior forces to the theater.

While officials have not been specific about AirSea Battle, there are reasons to believe that the CSBA version is close to the mark. The United States, after all, has danced the same two-step in all of its recent conventional wars. And despite arguments that ASB is not a single operational approach, the service chiefs and officers from the AirSea Battle Office write that it relies on a construct called “disrupt-destroy-defeat” that closely follows the CSBA script. By disrupt they mean attacking the enemy's ISR and command-and-control facilities. By destroy they mean killing things like “ships, submarines, aircraft, and missile launchers.” Defeating the enemy will be much easier after these two steps are complete.

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