Sorry, AirSea Battle Is No Strategy
Punishment is two-fold. First, denial of the sea inside the First Island Chain maximizes U.S. superiority in undersea warfare and integrated air defense. U.S. and allied submarines will pursue and sink Chinese naval assets that venture outside Chinese waters. To get out of port, the Chinese fleet will have to run the gauntlet of mines and submarines. In short, Offshore Control makes use of U.S. superiority in undersea warfare and integrated air defenses to destroy any Chinese assets that venture away from her shores. Playing to our strengths rather than the defenders’ is the mark of a smart competitive strategy. Investing in offensive strategies that impose more costs on us than on the opponent is neither smart nor likely to be productive.
Second, Offshore Control punishes China’s economy. It does not seek to shut off all Chinese trade but only to raise the cost of such trade high enough that business will go elsewhere for the exports it currently gets from China. Colby, and others, have suggested that Russia can break the blockade by offering overland transit. In fact, the Trans-Siberian Railroad and the Baikal Amur Mainline cross Russia from the Far East. The combined capacity of both routes will not begin to match the throughput capacity of China’s ports. In addition, due to gauge differences between Chinese-Russian and Russian-European rail lines, all containers will have to be shifted to new trains twice. Currently, it costs roughly $5000 more per container, or twice as much, to rail a container from western China to eastern Europe as it does to move it to China’s east coast and ship it by sea. As demand for rail transport increases sharply, so will costs. Rail does save time, but temperature-sensitive materials may not be shipped during the winter due to the extreme cold along the route.
Offshore Control does not suggest blockade will cause China’s economy to cease functioning only that it will make it noncompetitive globally. Domination of the sea and air space outside the First Island Chain allows the United States to selectively intercept those ships that trade with China. By violating the blockade, they became subject to seizure and sale in prize court. The seizure and sale of some of these ships will immediately result in massively higher shipping charges by those shippers and insurers willing to risk the blockade.
Given that the Chinese Communist Party stakes its legitimacy on providing a better future for its people, Offshore Control strikes at the legitimacy of the Party. The Party can choose to continue the fight in hopes of defeating the distant blockade, escalate to attempts to invade the First Island Chain or even to nuclear exchange. Or it can do what it has done in the four conflicts it has fought since 1949. It can declare China has taught the “aggressor” a lesson and cease hostilities. The CCP has done this regardless of whether the war was going well (India), badly (Korea, Vietnam), or was essentially a draw (the Zhenbao Island Incident with the Soviets).
Assurance of allies and friends in the region is the second requirement of a strategy. China is the largest trading partner for most of the nations of Asia. As a result, they turn to China for economic growth but still rely on the United States for security. The American failure to express a strategy has led to confusion and uncertainty, even among our allies in the region. They are uncertain both of our position and what the we expect from them.
Offshore Control asks only that allies and friendly nations assist in the defense of their own territory. It assures them U.S. forces will NOT strike into China and not make them a target. This makes it much easier for allies and friends to participate in combined exercises. It will also help focus allies on purchasing their own A2/AD systems. A2/AD works both ways. Defense of the First Island Chain takes advantage of this fact. It forces China to use its limited long range assets to penetrate combined, integrated defenses to reach First Island Chain targets. In doing so, it shifts the cost to China and the geographic advantage to the United States and its allies.
Of particular importance, Offshore Control can be openly discussed and exercised with our allies. The United States will be able to demonstrate it can execute its strategy to both our allies and China.
Guiding defense investment in a time of declining budgets is a critical aspect of strategy. Colby suggests I support “excessively expensive counterinsurgency operations.” This is an odd charge. In fact, I have stated my opposition to direct, large COIN and note that the administration’s guidance has specifically directed DoD to NOT plan for such contingencies. That said, there are also significant savings to be had by not spending the enormous funds necessary to prepare for a continent-sized campaign against a sophisticated air-defense system. Rather than spending our money to penetrate Chinese air defenses, Offshore Control proposes reversing A2/AD and imposing the cost of penetrating the First Island Chain defenses on the Chinese. Given the current and projected defense budgets, it is essential a strategy be practical under those reduced budgets. OC can be achieved with today’s assets. If adopted, it will guide investment to undersea warfare, mines, alternative cyber connectivity and non-space-based surveillance systems. In short, OC seeks affordable solutions rather than very-high-technology systems. This, too, is a mark of a strategic approach rather than simply engineering an exquisite solution for its own sake.