Don't Sweat AirSea Battle

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

The combination of growing Chinese military power and Beijing’s increasing assertiveness has refocused attention on East Asia and the possibility of conflict after a decade of emphasis on the Middle East and stability operations. Indeed, while China’s economic expansion appears to be hitting some turbulence, even a China that grows more slowly—as in 7 percent rather than 10 percent per annum—will still be able to continue to fund its impressive array of military modernization programs, programs that, if current trends continue, will allow it to effectively conduct serious military operations throughout Asia.

A China that can undertake such military operations will also be a China that will be able to mount a formidable—and in some cases dauntingly formidable—challenge to the military power of the United States and its allies in the region. This is no coincidence, as China’s military modernization programs are clearly designed, according to the U.S. government’s own assessment, to “counter third-party [read: U.S.] intervention” in disputes it cares about. If the Chinese can achieve the military upper hand over the United States in the Asia-Pacific, the U.S. network of alliances and partnerships—and the regional order it has underwritten—would no longer count for much beyond ceremony in military terms.

The Pentagon has taken note, and is vigorously pursuing a spate of initiatives in an attempt to preserve the U.S. margin of advantage over sophisticated adversaries such as China. The oft-discussed AirSea Battle initiative and the related Joint Operational Access Concept, while careful to avoid explicitly mentioning China, are obviously applicable to China (as well as other potential adversaries wielding sophisticated military systems) and senior Defense officials regularly talk about the threat posed by Chinese antiaccess/area denial systems (A2/AD). So you do the math.

The basic point of AirSea Battle, and presumably other methods of overcoming the challenges to American power-projection capabilities (bear in mind that AirSea Battle is only one possible way to do so), is to “preserve the [United States’] ability to defeat aggression and maintain escalation advantage despite the challenge posed by advanced weapons systems.” The initiative’s essential way of doing that—its "central idea"—is to “develop networked, integrated forces capable of attack-in-depth to disrupt, destroy and defeat adversary forces.” In layman’s terms, it envisions developing a highly sophisticated military posture capable of going deep into enemy territory to get at the kinds of advanced missiles, command-and-control systems, and the like that threaten U.S. power-projection capabilities. The idea is to allow our battle network of planes, ships, satellites, cyber assets, submarines, missiles and the like to prevail over an opponent’s battle network. This capability, it is believed, will give the United States greater leverage in disputes with countries like China—whether such disputes involve actual shooting or just the threat of it.

AirSea Battle’s Critics

Few not already generally opposed to the use of the military as an instrument of national policy question that the United States and its allies would benefit from having military forces that could defeat any aggression or attempt at political coercion by China. But that’s not where the bulk of the opposition to AirSea Battle and its related initiatives comes from. Rather, opposition springs from other quarters.

One of these is that the United States and China would never fight a war, because the damage would be too great. History and prudence would seem to indicate that it would be inordinately unwise to reckon upon this proposition; but, even if one is sympathetic to the notion, doesn’t it still counsel that we should have strong military forces to make sure everyone is clear what damage would ensue from fighting?

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

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?

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.

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.