The hardware dimension of the U.S.-China strategic competition, however, is inextricable from the all-important human dimension. Weapons don’t fight wars, as strategic thinkers from U.S. Air Force colonel John Boyd to Chinese Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong remind us; people who operate weapons do. Both individuals and the big institutions they serve have deep-seated worldviews and ideas about how to cope with the strategic surroundings. A culture that comports with strategic and operational circumstances represents an asset. A culture that flouts reality is a huge liability.
So the struggle between AirSea Battle and anti-access is about more than developing gee-whiz technologies. A culture war is brewing between two great powers with very different conceptions of the relationship among land, air and sea power. And again, ideas matter. As naval historian Julian S. Corbett explains, armaments are “the expression in material of strategical and tactical ideas that prevail at any given time.” What hardware a nation’s armed forces acquire speaks volumes about how strategic leaders think about war—and how they may wage it.
China conceives of land-based forces as intrinsic to sea power and has done so at least since the inception of the People’s Republic. This composite conception of sea power comes as second nature for the PLA. Mao Zedong reportedly issued the PLA Navy’s founders three curt instructions: “fly, dive, fast!” Commanders, that is, premised maritime defense on short-range aircraft flying from airfields ashore, diesel submarines diving beneath the waves, and fast patrol boats armed with guns and missiles. These were the ancestors of today’s ultramodern anti-access force.
Maoist China viewed sea power as more than the fleet. It was an amalgam of seagoing and land-based platforms and weaponry. Accordingly, the navy remained close to home throughout Mao’s long tenure as CCP chairman. That’s markedly different from the U.S. Navy, which kept squadrons on foreign station from its earliest history. Forward deployment is in American seafarers’ DNA. Think Thomas Jefferson and the Barbary Wars. China, by contrast, has not forward deployed warships since the Ming Dynasty—and even then it did so only intermittently. The ongoing counterpiracy deployment off Somalia thus marks a break with centuries of historical practice.
The PLA Navy has remained true to its Maoist history even while constructing a blue-water fleet. Coastal defense remains the service’s core function, although it has vastly expanded its defensive zone.
If the PLA Navy needs to reinvent its institutional culture to operate far from Chinese coasts, the U.S. military faces an even stiffer cultural challenge in orienting itself to new realities. The post–Cold War U.S. military came to see naval power as a supporting arm of land power. The U.S. Navy projected power onto distant shores, supporting the army, Marines and air force as these sister services prosecuted air and ground campaigns in theaters such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
Facing no competitor of the Soviet Navy’s stature, the U.S. Navy leadership issued guidance stating that the navy could assume it commanded the sea. There was no one to contest its mastery. Thus, in the words of the 1992 directive "...From the Sea," the service could “afford to de-emphasize efforts in some naval warfare areas.” In practice, that meant capabilities like antisubmarine warfare and mine countermeasures—capabilities critical to surviving and prospering in anti-access settings—languished for two decades.
Only now are they being rejuvenated. As the anti-access challenge has come into focus, the navy has started scrambling to upgrade its weaponry and relearn half-forgotten skills. In all likelihood, the air force is in worse straits. Despite Billy Mitchell’s early experiments with using air power to defend American coasts—remember his famous 1920 sinking of a battleship from the air—the modern U.S. Air Force does not consider fighting at sea one of its central purposes. The services have some way to go before they can put forth the cohesive effort AirSea Battle demands.
Punching the Pillow
In short, the Asian continental power takes a holistic view of sea power, while the power that rules the waves thinks of sea power as subsidiary to land power. This cultural inversion would favor PLA defenders in a U.S.-China war. After all, fighting offshore is familiar terrain for them, whereas U.S. leaders long assumed they no longer had to fight for sea control. The services must dispel that ingrained assumption. The advantage goes to China unless the U.S. Navy and Air Force undertake a cultural transformation ahead of time, learning to work together in the maritime domain.
Reinventing military institutions in peacetime invariably poses a high-order leadership challenge. It often takes some trauma—like defeat—to clear minds. What to do, short of that doomsday scenario?