Don't Sweat AirSea Battle

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

The first problem is that Hammes’ replacement strategy just isn’t workable. In his summary, his strategy of “Offshore Control seeks to use a war of economic attrition to bring about a stalemate and cessation of conflict with a return to a modified version of the status quo.” The approach relies on a “distant blockade” enforced by U.S. forces operating outside the bands of Chinese military striking power to “intercept and divert the supertankers and post-Panamax container ships essential to China’s economy.” In other words, the United States would seek to win by interfering with China’s export/import-reliant economy.

There are multiple problems with this approach. First off, it’s of questionable operational feasibility and fiscal sustainability, at least in the longer term. If the Chinese know the United States has given up the close-in flight implied by AirSea Battle, then they can orient more of their military procurement and their research and development to contesting the distant fight presented by our attempt at blockade. Instead of spending more of their accumulating resources on land-based antiship missiles, then, the Chinese could spend more on air and sea escorts for their merchantmen, antisubmarine warfare, disruption of our command and control of our blockading forces, and so on. Moreover, it’s a basic principle that it’s usually more expensive to react to your opponent than to pick your own preferred battlefield. Given the budgetary strictures facing the Pentagon, is a strategy that requires that our forces enforce a blockade across the Pacific and Indian Oceans without also imposing pressure in the Western Pacific likely to be more or less expensive than AirSea Battle? Probably more.

Furthermore, a blockade of the type Hammes envisions would require extensive, substantial, and enduring cooperation from the widest possible array of other countries—including many not known as particularly friendly to U.S. interests, such as Russia. It is hard enough to keep a sanctions coalition against pariah countries like Cuba, North Korea, and Iran. What makes Hammes think that countries would have an interest in participating, let alone sustaining, a blockade against the world’s uber-emerging market?

But leave aside for a moment the issue of feasibility. A war between the United States and China would get both sides’ backs up, to say the least; issues of national pride and credibility would be very much at issue. Such a war would presumably involve the question of who would be the dominant power in East Asia and perhaps beyond. The stakes would be high and emotions heated. In this context, would a strategy of distant blockade really compel the Chinese to settle on terms we could accept? It’s worth noting that a strategy of blockade has never worked without actual military victory—it didn’t work in World War II, in World War I, or against Napoleon. It was important to victory—but it wasn’t anywhere near sufficient. Moreover, such a blockade would be a two-edged sword; we would be cutting off Americans from the world’s mega-exporter, and we can assume that the Chinese would be trying to interrupt our trade flows to boot. In this context, which side is more likely to be prepared to endure the privations involved? The country that underwent the Cultural Revolution, Great Leap Forward, and a ferocious civil war in the last century, and that is in living memory of fearsome poverty? Or the country that (blessedly) has been the world’s byword for prosperity and freedom from fear and destitution since, well, forever? And place this question in its proper context; the fight would not be over Puerto Rico or Nantucket Island, but rather over primacy in China’s neighborhood, about disputes that are familiar to Chinese ears rather than utterly obscure and exotic, as they would probably be to the vast majority of Americans.

Finally, distant blockade might work for Americans, but what about the U.S. allies and partners for whom U.S. aid would be equivalently “distant”? Obviously U.S. policy cannot be driven solely or even primarily by solicitude for its allies, but, given that any U.S. contest with China would almost certainly be at least to some degree motivated by fears for the security or autonomy of U.S. allies or partners, their concerns would logically need to be considered with great care and concern. But in Hammes’ vision they would be left essentially prey to Chinese military power. He and others of like mind argue that U.S. allies should be given capabilities to defend against Chinese aggression or coercion—a kind of porcupine model—but this essentially ignores the problem. If Chinese military power could be dealt with by selling Japan and other U.S. allies and partners advanced weapons of their own, then the problem would be easy—but it’s not. The likely size and sophistication of China’s future military is such that it will very likely be able to overcome and ultimately overwhelm the defensive capabilities of our allies in the region—that’s a big part of the reason why our allies are so insistent that we stick around. In Hammes’ vision, then, these allies would be exposed to Chinese air, naval, and missile attack, and perhaps more, without the chance of destroying or suppressing those sources of attack and without hope of real U.S. military intervention on their behalf. It’s not at all clear why U.S. allies and partners would regard this as credible or sufficient—with serious implications for how they would decide to behave in terms of their dealings with China and their own military-strategic courses of action. Kowtowing or, at the other extreme, pursuing independent nuclear-weapons programs, might make more sense than a military posture of waiting for the Americans a la Britain 1940.

AirSea Nuclear Danger?