Don't Sweat AirSea Battle

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

So Hammes and Co.’s replacement strategy doesn’t make much sense. But he and those who agree with him would still have a very powerful point if they were right that an AirSea Battle-style approach would be too likely to lead to nuclear escalation by China. But they’re not. An AirSea Battle-style approach in a war with China—if conducted with due concern for managing escalation—would not be likely to lead to nuclear war, and especially not to an exchange of nuclear weapons against population centers.

The basic reason why this is so is that, even in the event of a major war, both the United States and China would have the weightiest possible reasons not to escalate to a nuclear exchange.

For the United States, the rationale for limiting such a war is abundantly clear. Such a war would almost certainly be fought about issues in the Western Pacific remote from questions of national survival, and would be fought under the shadow of a Chinese nuclear-weapons capability that, while far smaller than that of the United States, would have to be reckoned by any president as presenting a very probable second-strike capability—a combination that would be sure to make the limitation of the war of the highest priority for Washington. The United States might seek to constrain the war through a number of avenues, such as by bounding its attacks on the Chinese mainland within a territory close to the war zone or by avoiding highly valued or emotional targets (like leadership facilities). U.S. nuclear use in such a conflict could only reasonably be contemplated in extreme circumstances in which the Chinese struck first or in which U.S. conventional power had failed to arrest Chinese assaults against U.S. forces or territory or against U.S. allies in the region—the latter being precisely the eventuality AirSea Battle tries to avoid. Even in such circumstances, any sensible nuclear use by the United States would have to be limited, discriminate and designed to promote deescalation.

Of course Hammes and Co.’s worry is more that China would be the one to escalate. But this is to drastically underestimate China’s own incentives to avoid escalation to the nuclear level. The brute fact, which Beijing is well aware of, is that the United States enjoys a massive advantage both in the size and in the flexibility of its nuclear forces. Chinese leaders are well aware that any Chinese nuclear attack—and certainly one against the population centers of the United States or one of its allies—would invite a U.S. nuclear response. And, while the United States would desperately want to avoid a nuclear conflict with China, China’s leadership would want to avoid it even more, as that is a war that China would most certainly not win. Indeed, undertaking a nuclear war with the United States would be tantamount to destroying the very objectives that China’s leadership would be keen to defend in any conflict with the United States—such as the leadership of the Communist Party, the further growth and strengthening of the Chinese nation, and the like. China would therefore have exceedingly powerful incentives to avoid starting a nuclear war with the United States.

But don’t take my word for it. Listen and look at the Chinese. For one thing, they repeatedly claim that they would never use nuclear weapons first. Now, people reasonably question the how sincere and enforceable that pledge is, but the simple fact is that China’s nuclear force does not provide a rational basis for major first use against the United States—it is small, extremely destructive, and stands no chance of preventing a devastating U.S. response. China might also look to a more purely military use of its nuclear weapons—but here too it would be entering the ring as a welterweight challenging the heavyweight. Barring major changes to the respective characters of Chinese and U.S. nuclear forces—something the United States should seek to prevent from happening—China could only really look to use its nuclear weapons first out of desperation or pique.

Moreover, the Chinese themselves act like they expect to wage a war with the United States that includes at least some attacks on the Chinese mainland without escalating to the nuclear level. Why else would they be spending huge quantities of money, time and effort on building up such a formidable air-defense system to defend against air and missile attacks against mainland China? As the Pentagon’s 2013 China military report puts it:

China has developed a national integrated air defense system (IADS) to defend key strategic cities and borders, territorial claims, and forces against threats from the air. Overall, China’s IADS represents a multilayered defense consisting of weapons systems, radars and C4ISR platforms working together to counter multiple types of air threats at various ranges and altitudes. One of China’s primary goals is to defend against precision strike munitions such as cruise and ballistic missiles, especially those launched from long distances.