Sorry, AirSea Battle Is No Strategy

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

Colby states that Offshore Control emasculates AirSea Battle by not conducting deep attacks into Chinese territory. However, if the point of ASB is to defeat anti-access/area denial systems, then it appears the objective of ASB deep strikes is to allow U.S. forces to get close enough to China to conduct strikes into China. In short, it focuses on attacking tactical targets to enable more of the same tactical actions by the United States. Complicating the effort to determine the strategic impact of such a campaign, ASB proponents fail to explain how we will find the “precision-guided missiles, tactical command and control, reconnaissance sensors, and the like.” Given our track record against mobile missiles in the uncontested air space and relatively simply terrain of Iraq, how do ASB proponents suggest we search a continent-sized country with cities as complex as Shanghai? Do we think China will position its missiles and command and control in the open? Or will they either be hidden in tunnels, garages, mines, etc.? Even if they are outside, will the trucks be painted green, or will they bear the colors and shape of a Coca-Cola tractor trailer and move about a city? While “killing the archer” is a great bumper sticker, it really means playing whack-a-mole in highly contested airspace.

In contrast, Offshore Control is strategically and operationally offensive but tactically defensive. Tactical actions are guided by an operational campaign to attack Chinese strategic assets.

Colby also has some misconceptions about escalation. He seems to think U.S. concerns are limited to nuclear escalation. However, as outlined above, much of the concern is about the initial escalation that moves from crisis to open warfare. Colby states that AirSea Battle, if done properly, can effectively manage escalation. Colby assumes the U.S. can conduct a precision campaign without stimulating escalation. This assumes a level of precise intelligence that has been missing in our last few conflicts. Given the fact we mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, the Chinese may not be as confident we will limit our attacks to tactical targets.

I am also concerned about potential nuclear escalation. Four thousand years of recorded military history show people are poor at controlling escalation once a war starts. In fact, Clausewitz cautioned that once war starts, passion tends to dominate the primary trinity of passion, chance, and reason. Given that the United States does not understand China’s decision-making process for the employment of nuclear weapons, this seems an egregious risk. The risk is magnified by the low return even if the strikes succeed. If the strikes succeed, we gain the ability to continue to strike into China. Unless we believe Douhet will finally be right and bombing will defeat China, what is the theory of victory for an AirSea Battle-based campaign? Do we risk nuclear conflict in order to gain the “advantage” of conducting a conventional-bombing campaign against a continent-sized state?

As a clinching argument, Colby suggests that the larger U.S. nuclear arsenal means China cannot “win” an exchange. I am not sure the American people are willing to risk the destruction of a dozen or so major U.S. cities to find out.

Prepare for war

It is an old adage that the best way to prevent war is to prepare for it. Like many adages it assumes a certain level of common sense. You must be able to pay for the preparation. If you cannot afford the plan you have for war, you are not preparing by pretending you can afford it.

We are facing massive defense-budget cuts. Polls indicate the American people want even deeper cuts. Strategists have to balance ends, ways and means. If the means are restricted, then the ways must be altered. Thus it is vital the United States develop an affordable, executable strategy for the unlikely event of a conflict with China. It must deter China, assure allies, guide investment and, if needed, achieve a favorable conflict resolution. I proposed Offshore Control as a way to fill those requirements. I hope others will propose different strategies. Only by comparing strategies to each other can we evaluate them. As the Germans learned, an operational concept simply won’t do.

T.X. Hammes is a Distinguished Research Fellow at National Defense University. These views are his own and do not reflect the views of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.