Don't Sweat AirSea Battle

The new U.S. military concept doesn't make war with China more likely or more risky.

Another source of opposition is fiscal in nature—that the United States can’t afford the expensive programs required to maintain the conventional upper hand. But this seems to be giving up far too soon. We already spend far more on defense than anyone else, including China, and we can clearly spend our money more intelligently, chiefly by focusing on maintaining high-end conventional superiority rather than on low-payoff investments in extremely expensive counterinsurgency operations of dubious utility. Moreover, if we wish to maintain the international order that we’ve established and benefited from for over half a century—and we should—we’ll need to spend something.

But there are those who think we must prepare for war to avoid it and who are willing to spend the money—but still think AirSea Battle and its kin are a bad idea. They worry that preparing for a war with China would exacerbate Sino-American arms competition and really worry that, in the event of war, the actions the United States would need to take to beat China would be so threatening or insulting to Beijing that they could very well lead to unrestrained and ultimately nuclear war. Amitai Etzioni, a respected scholar and leading critic of AirSea Battle, recently summarized this view: “Critics of Air-Sea Battle warn that it is inherently escalatory and could even precipitate a nuclear war.”

This set of opponents of AirSea Battle think we should go another way. Retired Marine colonel T.X. Hammes of the National Defense University, a highly regarded strategist and perhaps the leading member of this school, argues, “[T]he United States must accept that China’s nuclear arsenal imposes restrictions on the way American forces might attack Chinese assets. The United States must select ways that minimize the probability of escalation to nuclear conflict.” To Hammes, this means, for instance, “[n]o operations should penetrate Chinese airspace. Prohibiting penetration is intended to reduce the possibility of nuclear escalation and to make war termination easier.” Hammes proposes an alternative strategy of “Offshore Control” that relies on a “distant blockade” of China to bring it to heel. And Hammes is not alone—this point of view has an influential following, including in Congress.

The Pentagon hasn’t said publicly what an AirSea Battle-style campaign would look like. But what the Defense Department has released makes it absolutely clear that Hammes and co’s strategy would completely emasculate the approach. The AirSea Battle concept, for instance, states that the “central idea” of the concept is that the United would undertake “attacks-in-depth to disrupt, destroy and defeat adversary forces,” specifically against the most dangerous adversary assets—such as precision-guided missiles, tactical command and control, reconnaissance sensors, and the like. Now, you don’t need to be a China expert or a cunning strategist to see that basically all of those items would be in China in the event of war between our nations. Taking them off the table would mean allowing the Chinese to operate those forces with impunity in a conflict.

If Hammes’ strategy of Offshore Control were workable or if he were right that anything like penetration of Chinese airspace would pose too much of a risk of nuclear escalation, then he would have a very powerful point. Naturally, the United States should avoid doing things that stand even a very low but real chance of resulting in nuclear attacks against our country or our allies. But the problem with his and his confreres’ argument is twofold. First, their strategy is very unlikely to work, and so something like AirSea Battle that enables effective American power projection is needed; second, an AirSea Battle-style approach, properly conducted, would almost certainly not lead to nuclear Armageddon.

The Trouble with Offshore Control