Sorry, AirSea Battle Is No Strategy

War with China won't be won by deep strikes. Distant, defensive deterrence and blockades suit us better.

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In his article “Don’t Sweat AirSea Battle,” Elbridge Colby argues that AirSea Battle Concept (ASB) provides a more effective approach for dealing with Chinese aggression than the Offshore Control (OC) strategy I’ve proposed. I certainly welcome the debate, since one of the reasons I developed OC was to stimulate discussion about strategy. Unfortunately, while Colby points out what he sees as deficiencies with OC, he never articulates the strategy ASB is designed to support. To date, ASB has only been expressed as an operational concept. This creates the difficult, if not impossible, problem of comparing a strategy to an operational concept. To be fair, the Department of Defense has stated that ASB is not a strategy and is not directed at China. Rather, it is an operational concept that supports the Joint Operational Access Concept. (It is also an office tasked with coordinating the procurement, technologies, tactics and techniques that will allow U.S. forces to defeat antiaccess/area-denial systems.)

Unfortunately, in absence of a strategy, even successful operational concepts can be a disaster. Blitzkrieg was highly successful against France. When used against the Soviet Union, it was an unmitigated disaster. Thus an operational concept cannot be judged as good or bad unless it is applied to a specific strategy. There are areas in the world where AirSea Battle might well support a strategy. China is not one of them. Moreover, the scarce resources invested to make ASB operational would be better spent on other capabilities than will be needed.

In a somewhat different way, a strategy cannot be evaluated in isolation as either good or bad. It needs to be evaluated to see if it is better or worse than another strategy that deals with the same problem. This is why I have encouraged the development of alternative strategies—to permit a discussion of the merits of Offshore Control in comparison to another strategy. I look forward to reading a strategy based on AirSea Battle but, to date, no ASB proponent has suggested one.

What Offshore Control is

Offshore Control is a military strategy for the unlikely event of a conflict with China. It uses Professor Eliot Cohen’s outline for a military strategy—assumptions, ends-ways-means coherence, priorities, sequencing, and a theory of victory. OC seeks competitive advantage by moving the conflict to geography that favors the United States using tactical actions that pit U.S. strengths against Chinese weaknesses. It also seeks to match the operational approach to take advantage of China’s cultural approach to war.

While a conflict with China is highly unlikely, the Pentagon still must prepare for it—and in a time of reduced budgets. To be successful a strategy must first be affordable. Then it must achieve four goals. It must deter China, reassure our allies, guide U.S. defense investment and, if conflict comes, resolve the it on terms favorable to the United States. Note I said “resolve the conflict” and not “win.” Colby seems to suggest a major weakness of Offshore Control is that the strategy does not seek to win. Unfortunately, he never clarifies what he means by win. Does he mean the United States achieves the elusive total victory and occupies China? Does he mean the overthrow of the Communist Party? By failing to define what he means by winning or even what he sees as success, Colby prevents a discussion of how to balance ends, ways, and means. This is a fundamental task of a strategy and is particularly important during a time of restricted means.

For those readers who have not read the Offshore Control, it seeks to deny China use of the seas inside the First Island Chain, defend the First Island Chain, and dominate the seas outside the First Island Chain. OC does not seek the surrender of China or the overthrow of the Chinese Communist Party. Rather it seeks to force China to acknowledge it cannot win the conflict and allows it to declare victory and stop fighting. It seeks a return to pre-war status quo with a China that understands it cannot achieve its goals through military action. As Colby notes, it assumes a long war. Most nation-state wars of the last two centuries have been long. Thus it is prudent to plan for a long war rather than hope for a short one. OC also assumes trade will be interdicted in any major conflict with China. It is difficult to envision the U.S. population accepting continued trade with China even as it attacks U.S. bases and warships.

Deter

Deterrence is clearly the most important element. It has two components—denial and punishment. Offshore Control uses both. Defense of the First Island Chain based on using antiaccess/area denial (A2/AD) concepts denies China its war goals. It makes use of the strategic geography to force China to use its few long-range assets to penetrate combined air-and-sea defensive networks at extreme range. While we may not be able to prevent an initial attack—and perhaps even landings on islands inside the First Island Chain, a properly executed, integrated defense will be able to prevent reinforcement and resupply of such an effort. It will also provide the most effective defense of First Island Chain allies.

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