Preparing for War with China

For an operational concept that has never been published, the U.S. military’s AirSea Battle doctrine has elicited some fiery commentary. Or maybe it stokes controversy precisely because the armed forces haven’t made it official. Its details are subject to speculation. The chief source of information about it remains an unclassified, unofficial study published in 2010 by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

The debate over AirSea Battle swirls mostly around technology and whether the doctrine is aimed at China. To answer the latter question first: Yes, it is about China. It has to be.

This is no prophecy of doom. From a political standpoint, war with China is neither inevitable nor all that likely. But military people plan against the most formidable capabilities they may encounter. And from an operational standpoint, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) presents the sternest “anti-access” challenge of any prospective antagonist. Either strategists, planners and warfighters prepare for the hardest case, or the United States must write off important regions or options.

The PLA thus represents the benchmark for U.S. military success in maritime Asia, by most accounts today’s crucible of great-power competition. Other potential opponents, notably the Iranian military, fall into what the Pentagon terms “lesser-included” challenges. If U.S. forces can pierce the toughest anti-access defenses out there—if they can crack the hardest nut—the softer defenses erected by weaker opponents will prove manageable.

That focus on anti-access is why AirSea Battle is about China—because it’s the gold standard, not because anyone expects, let alone wants, war in the Western Pacific.

The Technology

Anti-access is a catchy new name for the old concept of layered defense. Like all naval officers, I was reared on it. Think about air defense. When an aircraft-carrier task force goes in harm’s way, commanders dispatch “combat air patrols” around the fleet, concentrating along the “threat axis,” or direction from which air attack appears most likely. Interceptors from the carrier air wing constitute the first, outermost line of defense.

Then come surface-to-air missiles from the fleet’s picket ships. If attackers get past the fighter- and missile-engagement zones, “point” defenses such as short-range radar-guided missiles or gatling guns essay a last-ditch effort. Each defensive system engages assailants as they come within reach. Multiple engagements translate into multiple chances for a kill, improving the fleet’s chances of withstanding the assault. A corollary: defenses become denser and denser as an adversary closes in.

The same logic applies to coastal defense but on a grand scale. A nation intent on warding off adversaries fields a variety of weapons and platforms to strike at sea and aloft. These systems have varying ranges and design parameters. Tactical aircraft can fly hundreds of miles offshore and fire missiles that extend their lethal reach still farther. Missile-armed patrol boats have small fuel tanks and limited at-sea endurance, so they stick relatively close to home. The same goes for diesel-electric submarines.

If anti-access is about mounting layered defenses, AirSea Battle is about developing technologies and tactics for penetrating them. Thus, in some sense China and America are replaying the interwar years. War planning commenced in earnest following World War I. Imperial Japan planned to shut the U.S. Pacific Fleet out of the waters, skies and landmasses within a defense perimeter enclosing the Western Pacific, the China seas, Southeast Asia and parts of the Bay of Bengal. Not to be outdone, U.S. Navy officers devised and tested out war plans for breaching Japanese anti-access measures.

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April 20, 2014