Don't Sweat AirSea Battle

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

These investments would be totally nonsensical if China were expecting to rely on its nuclear forces to respond to U.S. conventional attacks on the mainland. China’s leaders are many things, but foolish and irrational don’t seem to be among of them. Rather, China appears to be planning to look primarily to its growing conventional air-defense network—not nuclear strikes—to deal with the threat of air and missile attacks against the mainland.

Now, obviously if the United States launched a massive conventional (let alone conventional and nuclear) attack aimed at decapitating the Chinese regime or ejecting the Communist Party from power, then Hammes and Co.’s fears would be far more justified. But, given what we know, that is definitively not the AirSea Battle approach. Rather, it focuses on employing conventional forces against an adversary’s conventional forces in ways designed to maintain or achieve the upper hand in a conflict. Left to its own devices, of course, such an approach could inadvertently go about its business in ways that could well raise the chances of nuclear war—for instance by targeting military capabilities that are important not only for conventional purposes but also for the survivability of China’s nuclear forces.

But this is not a reason for dumping the project, but rather a reason why it is essential that serious thinking about China and its way of war and about the dynamics of nuclear strategy and escalation go into shaping the evolving AirSea Battle concept and its related approaches. Great care must be taken to minimize the chances of inadvertently elevating such a conflict to the nuclear level. Logical steps include observing geographic boundaries for such a fight, cordoning off certain kinds of targets, and clearly and credibly communicating efforts at limitation to an adversary. But these are not things that can be done well at the last minute or improvised in the moment. Rather, such efforts at limitation must be integrated into plans well before the onset of conflict, and, more broadly, U.S. and allied militaries must be made accustomed to preparing for war with China with the full knowledge that such limitations would be an integral part of it.

Needless to say, even with such cautionary steps the chances of escalation, including to the nuclear level, would remain entirely and frighteningly real. At best, embarking upon a Sino-American war would be immensely risky and almost certainly destructive for both sides; at worst, issues of national honor could become central and things could get truly out of control, leading to a worst-case outcome of nuclear war. Both sides should therefore make every reasonable effort to mitigate tensions and avoid war if at all possible. War should only be contemplated as a genuine option if the most serious interests are threatened and cannot be adequately protected in other ways.

But a too great focus on avoiding war at the expense of preparing for it would be to make conflagration more likely, and would surely imperil U.S. and allied interests in the region and beyond by inviting China (and other potential opponents) to capitalize on American reluctance to risk conflict. Countries pursue advantage and interest even in a world shadowed by nuclear weapons, and so there is no escape from the politics and strategy of seeking to strike the right but always-changing balance between effective deterrence, which rests on the credible threat to go to war, with the sacred desire for peace. That means that the old saw remains true, that the best way to avoid war is to prepare for it. AirSea Battle and its cognate approaches reflect this enduring truth, and should be commended, encouraged, and funded—even as they are zealously watched to ensure that they do not lead us to Armageddon.

Elbridge Colby is a principal analyst at CNA, where he focuses on strategic and deterrence issues. He previously served in a number of government positions, most recently with the Office of the Secretary of Defense working on nuclear-weapons policy and arms control.