Is Air-Sea Battle Useless?

Washington and its allies are ill-prepared to deal with Beijing's salami-slicing strategy. 

A lot has been written in The National Interest and elsewhere concerning China’s growing military capabilities.

In the U.S. defense community, this discussion has centered on the Air-Sea Battle operational concept (ASB). It is designed to allow the U.S. military to gain access to littoral waters in the face of China’s anti-access/area denial doctrine. This month’s skirmishes in the South China Sea offer further proof that ASB is growing increasingly irrelevant and possibly dangerous, though not in the ways imagined by its most ardent critics.

As I’ve discussed on these pages before, the problem with ASB (and its main competitors) is that they are only designed for high-level conflict, and thus can only be implemented if the U.S. and China move from a state of tense peace to a state of total war. In other words, unless China takes a brazenly provocative action such as invading Taiwan or parts of Japan, ASB is more or less useless. No U.S. president is going to order the U.S. military to take the extremely provocative actions that ASB would require because of, say, recent actions by China setting up an oil rig in waters that it disputes with Vietnam.

This is problematic. Thus far, China’s military strategy for the South and East China Seas has been one of using salami-slicing tactics to gradually change facts on the ground. In the face of these salami-slicing tactics, ASB is of complete irrelevance.

Moreover, China’s salami-slicing tactics appear to be working. It has already gained control over Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, and appears poised to do the same in the Second Thomas Shoal. Its claims to waters around the Paracel Islands are now strengthening further out from Hainan Island with Beijing’s recent oil-rig gambit in South China Sea, and its routine patrols of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are now an accepted fact on the ground.

As long as these salami-slicing tactics continue to yield results, it seems unimaginable that Beijing will resort to the brazen actions that would reasonably trigger an ASB response from Washington. Thus, for ASB to regain a sense of relevance, the United States and its allies must first find an answer to Beijing’s salami-slicing tactics. Put differently: until China finds it cannot achieve its goals through salami slicing, it will not resort to the higher spectrum conflict that ASB was designed to deter or defeat.

This is more than a doctrinal debate for the U.S. military and its allies—it goes to the heart of procurement and force structure. Currently, all signs (and senior leaders’ public comments) suggest that the U.S. military is sacrificing quantity for quality. It is accepting a smaller force—in terms of personnel and platforms—in order to retain a highly capable force—in terms of training, readiness and modernization.

This is perfectly understandable for a force built to implement ASB. This will require long-range and highly capable platforms that can operate in contested environments such as China’s littoral waters during wartime. It is also the exact opposite of the kind of force needed to counter China’s salami-slicing tactics.

To overcome the latter, one needs an abundance of platforms in order to maintain a larger presence throughout the massive waters of the South and East China Seas. These capabilities don’t need to be especially high-end since China relies heavily on Coast Guard and other civilian vessels in implementing its salami-slicing strategy. But they do need to be in the areas that China is contesting, preferably beforehand to deter Beijing from trying to contest them in the first place.

In other words, overcoming China’s A2/AD doctrine through ASB or its competitors requires fielding the exact opposite kind of military needed to challenge its salami-slicing strategy. U.S. defense doctrine is prioritizing the former, which is leaving it unable to deal with the latter. Yet, until China fails to achieve its goals through the latter, the U.S. capabilities for overcoming China’s A2/AD doctrine will be irrelevant. However, once the United States and its allies find a way to counter China’s salami-slicing tactics, Beijing may choose to take the more provocative kinds of actions that ASB and its competitors are meant to deter or defeat.  

Thus, the central challenge the United States and its allies face militarily in Asia is finding a way to defeat China’s salami-slicing tactics without sacrificing their ability to deter or defeat higher-end provocations. There seems to be two possible ways to meet what is admittedly a tall task.