Sorry, AirSea Battle Is No Strategy

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

AirSea Battle fails to deter, assure, or guide

Deterrence is based on the other side believing you can deny its goals as well as punish it for trying. While we have no unclassified statement of the AirSea Battle concept, it does seem to rely heavily on a “networked, integrated force” that can strike deep. This implies heavy use of digital networks as well as comprehensive surveillance of major portions of the Chinese mainland. China has clearly been working to defeat these capabilities. On January 11, 2007, China destroyed a satellite in Low Earth Orbit. From 2006 to the present, they have repeatedly used lasers to dazzle U.S. satellites in Low Earth Orbit. From TITAN RAIN to BYZANTINE ANCHOR, China has also demonstrated the ability to penetrate U.S. cyber systems—even classified systems. If China believes it can defeat ASB through action against U.S. space and cyber systems, then ASB loses much of its deterrent effect.

In fact, the very existence of a serious AirSea Battle capability is escalatory. In a recent article in Foreign Policy, David Gompert and Terrence Kelly note that ASB pushes China to a first strike.

Given that, to be most effective, AirSea Battle would need to take down Chinese targeting and strike capabilities before they could cause significant damage to U.S. forces and bases. It follows, and the Chinese fear, that such U.S. capabilities are best used early and first—if not preemptively, then in preparation for further U.S. offensive action. After all, such U.S. strikes have been used to initiate conflict twice in Iraq. This perception will, in turn, increase the incentive for the PLA to attack preemptively, before AirSea Battle has degraded its ability to neutralize the U.S. strike threat. It could give the Chinese cause to launch large-scale preemptive cyber- and anti-satellite attacks on our AirSea Battle assets. Indeed, they might feel a need, out of self-defense, to launch such attacks even if they had not planned to start a war. It is a dangerous situation when both sides put a premium on early action.

In contrast, Offshore Control moves into place deliberately—and since it can be executed without full space or cyber capabilities, the incentive for first strike is reduced. Equally important, we don’t have to attack their warning systems, and differentiate between their tactical networks and their strategic warning systems. Inadvertently blinding the assets used to direct their strategic-response systems could be the trigger to a first use. We do not have much historical evidence for evaluating conflict between nuclear-armed powers. In the US-USSR Cuban Missile Crisis, the USSR-Chinese Zhenbao Island Incident, and the India-Pakistan Kargil Crisis, the leaders on each side sought to slow and contain the crisis. Do we really want to select a military strategy that puts the President in the position of conceding great advantage if he fails to strike preemptively? Given that Truman and Johnson refused to strike China when hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops were in combat, are we sure a future President will authorize an extensive strike campaign into China? Even worse, do we want to select an approach that convinces Chinese leaders they must strike first to protect their homeland?

AirSea Battle also fails to assure allied and friendly leaders. While we can exercise all the elements of Offshore Control with our allies to openly demonstrate we can achieve what we state we will, ASB remains cloaked in secrecy. Senior Japanese civilian and defense officials have told me they are very concerned that the United States does not share its plans. The lack of knowledge of U.S. military strategy makes it very difficult for the Japanese government to develop its own strategy. U.S. officers note that many of the systems are in Special Access Programs and thus they not only can’t talk to allies about the project, they do not have access themselves. Essentially, ASB assurance is based on telling our allies to “trust us.” It’s not working.

Misconceptions about Offshore Control

Colby makes some statements that indicate he has some misconceptions about Offshore Control. He states OC will leave our allies “essentially prey to Chinese military power,” and “give up the close-in fight.” Apparently, he did not read the sections on defense of the First Island Chain and denying the Chinese use of the seas inside the First Island Chain. OC focuses investments on destroying Chinese assets that enter international sea or airspace, as well as on defending First Island Chain allies.

He further contends that Offshore Control lets the Chinese pick the “preferred battlefield.” In fact, under OC we select where we will fight as well as where we will blockade. Colby wants to play to the Chinese strengths on their home field, which is their preferred battlefield. Selecting the battlefield is one of the traditional advantages of the tactical defense. We can decide where inside the First Island Chain we fight as well as where and how we enforce the blockade. In contrast, any AirSea Battle penetrating campaign must go where the targets are—and China selects where to put its key assets as well as how to site defenses around them. ASB clearly lets China select the battlefield.