Preparing for War with China

The as-yet-unfinished AirSea Battle doctrine is about preparing for worst-case scenarios. Doing so will require a cultural transformation.

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.

Weirdly, planners on both sides of the Pacific largely agreed on how the coming conflict would unfold. Japan would lash out at the U.S.-held Philippines. U.S. leaders would order the Pacific Fleet to relieve the islands, confronting the Imperial Japanese Navy with a numerical mismatch. Anti-access, Japanese style, meant forward-deploying warplanes to islands along the defense perimeter and submarines to adjacent waters. Aerial and undersea attacks would whittle the U.S. fleet down as it lumbered westward—evening the odds before a decisive battle somewhere in Asian waters.

Submarines and land-based tactical aircraft remain among the panoply of anti-access weaponry. Complementing them are missile-armed patrol boats acting as offshore pickets; shore-fired antiship cruise missiles; and antiship ballistic missiles with ranges conservatively estimated at over nine hundred statute miles. Beijing would expect the PLA Navy surface fleet to handle whatever remnants of the U.S. Pacific Fleet limped into East Asian waters following repeated aerial and subsurface onslaughts.

The Human Element

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.