America's Ultimate Strategy in a Clash with China

An effective military and deterrent strategy, Offshore Control offers the best solution—especially compared to "operational concepts" that are confusing at best. 

The rise of China, attended by a more muscular military posture and economic status, has altered the international system in ways that directly challenge America’s traditional role in the Asia-Pacific region. Prior to 2000, the United States enjoyed unrivaled status as the guarantor of stability in the region. Today, the picture is very different. America’s persistent budgetary woes, two inconclusive military conflicts, and a bitterly divided U.S. political system give off the impression that America is declining.

Yet China may have overplayed its hand and provided the United States with an opportunity to reinforce its position in the Pacific. In fact, China’s actions since 2007 have moved Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Korea closer to the United States. China has also stimulated the nations of ASEAN to question China’s assertion of a peaceful rise. The Obama administration’s principal response, the “Rebalance to Asia,” is intended both to reassure allies and partners in the region and communicate America’s enduring interests and role as a Pacific power. For obvious reasons, the administration has been careful not to identify China explicitly as a security threat. Both sides are well aware that historically, rising and dominant powers often clash. Yet history also suggests that confrontation with China is far from inevitable. The United States and its allies will not provoke, and would certainly go to extreme lengths to avoid, armed conflict with China. The U.S. National Security Strategy makes that an explicit goal. While no set of actions can guarantee continued peace between China and the United States, carefully considered national and military strategies can reduce the probability of a conflict and, should conflict occur, limit and constrain its fallout and consequences.

Tom Donilon, then the National Security Advisor, clarified and reinforced the administration’s determination to continue its rebalance to Asia in 2012:

To pursue this vision, the United States is implementing a comprehensive, multidimensional strategy: strengthening alliances; deepening partnerships with emerging powers; building a stable, productive, and constructive relationship with China; empowering regional institutions; and helping to build a regional economic architecture that can sustain shared prosperity.

The United States has clearly articulated the carrots it will use to encourage peaceful growth in the region. While there is an ongoing argument over how well the Obama administration has executed the diplomatic, economic and informational aspects of its rebalance, the intent is clear.

Unfortunately, to date, the United States has been much less forthcoming in describing how its military forces will contribute to this vision of prosperity and continued security. In particular, what does it use as a stick to deter China from using force to intimidate its neighbors? So far, the United States has not yet expressed a coherent military strategy that will deter China and reassure U.S. allies and friends in the region.

We believe a major conflict between a rising China and the United States, Japan or India is highly unlikely. Yet the First World War painfully demonstrated that even countries that are closely integrated economically can fight. It is important that the United States and its friends in Asia work hard to ensure that does not happen again. Further, the U.S.-USSR experience indicates that conflict is in fact a choice and can be deterred. A key part of avoiding that conflict was the deterrent value of NATO’s military forces and a clearly stated military strategy for resisting Soviet aggression.

ASB as a source of confusion           

For this reason, the concept of “Air-Sea Battle” should deeply concern serious observers. Rolled out in 2010 by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), AirSea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept postulated that in the “unthinkable” case of a war with China, U.S. forces should attack Chinese surveillance systems and its integrated air defense system, followed by a weighted campaign to bomb Chinese land-based ballistic and antiship missile systems to “seize and sustain the initiative in air, sea, space and cyber domains.” Proposed as an operational concept and not a strategy, CSBA also provided a blueprint for the development of a new generation of naval and air weapons systems.

AirSea Battle created immediate controversy. Critics fell into two major categories—those who saw it as needlessly provocative, and those who believed it was simply a justification for the Navy and Air Force to gain a greater portion of the Defense budget in a time of fierce competition for declining military funding.

We believe the CSBA concept is both provocative and ineffective. While “blinding” Chinese space-based and ground surveillance systems may make sense in the event the People’s Republic of China initiates hostilities, it is dangerous to assume such a campaign will be successful in a time of aerostats, cheap drones and cube satellites. Further, a weighted air and naval campaign that attacks China’s integrated air-defense and land-based missile systems is flawed from multiple perspectives. First, it is dangerously provocative. China’s Second Rocket Artillery Corps, which controls its conventional land-based missiles, also controls its land-based nuclear arsenal. A direct attack on the organization that controls China’s strategic nuclear forces in a scenario where U.S. territory and nuclear forces have not been attacked could escalate the conflict uncontrollably. In this regard, though touted as an “operational concept,” AirSea Battle, as expressed in the CSBA concept paper, intrudes forcefully and directly into the political domain.

ASB is also ineffective because it sends a limited number of extremely expensive U.S. assets directly against China’s strength—its dense and capable air-defense network. The CSBA paper counts on the ability of U.S. forces to successfully find and destroy Chinese mobile missile systems. This is a daunting task, particularly since the United States utterly failed to do so in Operation Desert Storm in 1991. According to the Gulf War Air Power Survey, the coalition air forces saw forty-two Iraqi Scud launches, but could only get into position to drop ordnance eight times. The authors offered in mitigation that commercial vehicles on highways provided significant background clutter that made the Scuds hard to target. However, the British Special Air Services reported that ground observers could see actual launches from thirty miles away. In short, the Iraqis were launching large rockets from relatively open desert terrain. In addition, allied forces had absolute air supremacy as well as hundreds of aircraft that could range freely over the entire country. Despite all these advantages, the Survey concluded, “There is no indisputable proof that Scud mobile launchers—as opposed to high-fidelity decoys, trucks or other objects with Scud-like signature—were destroyed by fixed-wing aircraft.” Despite a massive effort involving thousands of air sorties, ground and national intelligence assets, the allies failed to get a single confirmed kill against a system that took the Iraqis at least thirty minutes to erect, fuel and launch. It is extremely unlikely that air power will fare better against the much more numerous Chinese systems in the complex, heavily defended environment of coastal China. These mobile systems can be hidden in garages, buildings under construction, caves and tunnels. There are tens of thousands of places to hide. The launch vehicles can also be camouflaged as commercial vehicles for the periods when they move between hiding places. Finally, solid-fueled systems can launch in much less time than the old liquid-fueled Scuds. To even have a chance of success, the United States would have to maintain enough aircraft in the contested airspace of China to detect the missile moving into firing position and place a weapon on it in a matter of minutes.

In short, the CSBA AirSea Battle Concept has very little chance of success in any of the three areas it considers vital—blinding, eliminating command and control nodes or suppressing launch systems. Yet, it accepts the high risk of attacking mainland China and the probability such an attack will make conflict resolution even more difficult.

These deficiencies clearly call into question ASB’s value against China in a conflict. However, ASB’s real danger is that is lacks deterrent value. Because ASB apparently depends upon space and cyber systems, China may well feel it can degrade those systems enough to defeat ASB’s operational approach. China has clearly demonstrated the ability to use hard and soft attacks on space assets. It has also demonstrated the capability to at least infiltrate our cyber systems. Thus, it may believe that offensive action in space and cyber could cripple ASB capabilities. Further, China may well believe the United States cannot afford ASB or at the very least, will not field the capabilities for a decade or more. A military concept that is vulnerable to a relatively inexpensive defeat mechanism or has a window of vulnerability has little deterrent value.

Perhaps the most strategically significant weakness of Air-Sea Battle is that it may frighten our allies as much or more so than our potential adversary. It is the confusion between the CSBA concept and DoD’s actual Air-Sea Battle that causes the problem. Since much of the technology in DoD’s actual ASB program is top secret, U.S. officials are unable to discuss it with our allies. As a result, many allies assume it will follow the pattern described in CSBA’s paper and initiate immediate, extensive attacks on Chinese territory. They are obviously concerned that China will see such attacks as emanating from allied territory and respond in kind. U.S. allies are in effect being asked to provide bases without any knowledge of what actions the United States intends to take from those bases.

Since the publication of CSBA’s paper, the Pentagon has repeatedly stated that it does not represent U.S. policy. Both the Chief of Naval Operations and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force have stated ASB is not a strategy and is not directed at China. However, The Joint Staff has also published the Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC) that provides the doctrine for gaining access in an A2/AD environment—and it uses many of the ideas from the CSBA paper. At the same time, the Pentagon has created an Air-Sea Battle Office, not as an operational concept, but “a help desk for the A2/AD fight.” One can forgive our allies if they are somewhat unclear on exactly what ASB is.

The absence of any other publicly discussed military strategy for a potential conflict with China means many people, including senior foreign officials, believe Air-Sea Battle, as expressed in the CSBA paper, remains the U.S. strategy. In the absence of any stated U.S. military strategy, CSBA’s concept will continue to fill the vacuum.

A military strategy that supports the national strategy

The U.S. commitment to peace and avoiding conflict with China is genuine and unambiguous. Keeping that peace depends in part on an affordable military strategy that goes well beyond “operational concepts” to address China’s growing military and economic strength and its clear intent to extend its power and presence in Asia. Any U.S. military strategy for Asia must achieve six objectives: (1) deter China from military action to resolve disputes, while encouraging its continued economic growth; (2) ensure access for U.S. forces and allied commercial interests to the global commons; (3) assure Asian nations that the United States is both willing to and capable of remaining engaged in Asia; (4) discourage friends and allies from taking aggressive steps that further destabilize the region; (5) in the event that deterrence fails, achieve U.S. objectives with minimal risk of nuclear escalation; and (6) be visible and credible today, not years in the future.

In the absence of any published military strategy, we propose “Offshore Control: Defense of the First Island Chainas an effective and affordable approach for a conventional conflict with China. Offshore Control establishes concentric rings that deny China the use of the sea inside the first island chain, defend the sea and air space of the first island chain nations, and dominate the air and maritime space outside the island chain. Offshore Control does not strike into China but takes advantage of geography to block China’s key imports and exports and thus severely weaken its economy. No kinetic operations will penetrate Chinese airspace. Prohibiting penetration is intended to reduce the possibility of nuclear escalation and make conflict termination easier.

This approach would exploit China’s military weaknesses, which increase exponentially beyond the “first island chain” that runs through the Japanese Archipelago, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the northern Philippines, and Borneo to the Malay Peninsula. Allied naval and air forces attempting to operate near or on Chinese territory face daunting odds. In contrast, allied forces fighting as part of an integrated air-sea-land defense of the first island chain gain major tactical advantages over Chinese forces. Outside that arc, Chinese capabilities dwindle markedly.

Denial as an element of the campaign plays to allied strengths by employing primarily attack submarines, mines, cruise missiles and a limited number of air assets inside the first island chain. This area will be declared a maritime exclusion zone with the warning that ships in the zone will be seized or sunk. While the United States cannot stop all sea traffic in this zone, it can prevent the passage of large cargo ships and large tankers, severely disrupting China’s economy relatively quickly. As an integral part of denial, any Chinese military assets outside the Chinese twelve-mile limit will be subject to attack.

In most foreseeable scenarios China would act alone. If the United States manages its alliances well, it would not. The defensive component of Offshore Control will exploit this advantage to bring the full range of U.S. and allied assets to defend allied territory and encourage allies to contribute to that defense. It exploits geography to force China to fight at long range while allowing U.S. and allied forces to fight as part of an integrated air-sea-land defense over their own territories. In short, it will flip the advantages of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) from China to the allies. Numerous small islands from Japan to Taiwan to Luzon and on to the Straits of Malacca provide dispersed land-basing options for air and sea defense of the apparent gaps in the first island chain. Since Offshore Control will rely heavily on land-based air and sea defenses, to include mine and countermine capability, we can encourage potential partners to invest in these capabilities and exercise together regularly in peacetime. The United States will not request any nations to allow the use of their bases to attack China. The strategy will only ask nations to allow the presence of U.S. defensive systems to help defend that nation’s air, sea and land space. The U.S. commitment will include assisting with convoy operations to maintain the flow of essential imports and exports in the face of Chinese interdiction attempts. In exercises, the United States could demonstrate all the necessary capabilities to defend allies—and do so in conjunction with the host-nation forces.

The dominate phase of the campaign will be fought outside the range of most Chinese assets and will use a combination of air, naval, ground and rented commercial platforms to intercept and divert the supertankers and very large container ships essential to China’s economy. Interdicting Chinese energy imports will weaken but not cripple China’s economy. China can and has taken steps to reduce the impact of an energy blockade. Fortunately, exports are of even greater importance to the Chinese economy. Those exports rely on large container ships for competitive cost advantage. The roughly 1000 ships of this size are the easiest to track and divert. Naturally, China will respond by rerouting, but all shipping to China must pass through the First Island Chain. Even if China seizes a portion of the chain, the United States and its allies can use the more distant choke points of Malacca, Lombok, Sunda Straits and the routes south of Australia to cut trade from the west. To cut trade from the east, the United States needs only to control the Panama Canal and the Straits of Magellan—or, if polar ice melt continues, the northern route.

While such a concentric blockade campaign will require a layered effort from the straits to China’s coast, it will mostly be fought at a great distance from China—effectively out of range of most of China’s military power. The only ways for China to break the blockade are to build a global sea-control navy or develop alternative land routes. A sea-control navy will require investing hundreds of billions of dollars over decades. Alternate overland routes simply cannot move the 9.74 billion tons of goods or 155,017,531 twenty-foot equivalents (TEUs) China exported by sea in 2012. This is the equivalent of roughly 1000 trains per day each way over the two rail lines that link China to Europe.

Further contributing to Offshore Control’s credibility is the fact the United States can execute the campaign with the military forces and equipment it has today. Unlike CSBA’s AirSea Battle Concept, it does not rely on expensive, highly classified, developmental defense programs for success. Rather, the United States can exercise the necessary capabilities with its allies now. We don’t have to ask our allies and China to believe us when we tell them our top-secret systems will work. Instead, we can demonstrate that today’s capabilities are sufficient to execute the strategy and do so in exercises with allies.

This brings us to the end the strategy seeks. Offshore Control is predicated on the idea that the presence of nuclear weapons makes decisive victory over China too dangerous to contemplate. The United States does not understand the Communist Party decision process for the employment of nuclear weapons, but it does know the Party will use all necessary means to remain in power. Instead of attacking China where it is strongest, Offshore Control seeks to use a war of economic pressure to bring about a stalemate and cessation of conflict with a return to a modified version of the status quo. Faced with the threat of economic collapse, China’s leaders are far more likely to bargain. Theoretical strategists may question the lack of a path to decisive victory, but decisive victory falls outside the logic of conflict between nuclear-armed great powers. Instead, one seeks to avoid the clash and, failing that, to achieve acceptable outcomes that enable all sides to back away. In this sense, Offshore Control offers a more realistic and pragmatic roadmap to resolution and peace.


Perhaps the most important security issue for the United States and its friends in the Pacific is how to encourage China’s growth and continuing integration into the world economy, while still deterring it from using force to achieve its goals. In short, rather than great-power rivalry, we seek to achieve great-power coexistence.

President Obama has presented a national strategy that sets those goals and lays out the diplomatic, economic and political paths necessary to achieve them. However, the United States has yet to articulate a complementary military strategy. Offshore Control is a starting point for a discussion with our allies and friends in the region. It seeks to provide the military component of the U.S. national strategy in Asia. The strategy looks to two major goals in peacetime. The first is to encourage China’s economic growth via further integration into the global economy. Obviously, China’s continued growth is essential for international economic prosperity. China’s continued integration with the global economy also makes Offshore Control potentially more effective. The more reliant China is on exports, the more vulnerable it is to blockade. Further, by demonstrating that it is operationally a defensive approach, we can show the Chinese we do not have aggressive designs on their homeland.

The second major goal of Offshore Control is to deter China by presenting it with a strategy that Chinese strategists know cannot be defeated easily or quickly. This directly addresses one of the most worrying aspects of the current situation in Asia. Like the Germans before WWI, the Chinese may believe they can win a short war. In particular, they may believe their growing capabilities in space and cyber might neutralize U.S. power in the region. By showing that Offshore Control can be executed with today’s force, even with dramatically reduced access to space and cyber, the United States and its allies can dispel the notion of a short war.

Strengthening this approach is the fact that the historical record of the last two centuries shows wars between major powers were long—generally measured in years, not weeks or months. A long war means China will have to face the inevitable debilitation of a blockade. The only way China can defeat such a strategy is to create a global sea-control navy or develop land routes that are economically competitive with sea routes. Neither will be a guarantee of success. Much of Offshore Control’s deterrence comes from the fact that it directly addresses two of China’s enduring strategic fears—a prolonged conflict and its “Malacca dilemma.”

Adding Offshore Control as the military element of the rebalance to Asia provides a military strategy that supports the policy stated by President Obama. It can assure our allies that America has the will and capability to prevail in a military confrontation. It can deter China by making it clear there will be no easy win in such a confrontation. The goal of the U.S. national strategy is to convince China that great-power rivalry is a poor choice. The cost of rivalry is simply too high. In contrast, great-power cooperation can bring maximum benefit to China, America and the rest of the world.

T. X. Hammes is a Distinguished Research Fellow at the U.S. National Defense University.

R. D. Hooker, Jr. is the Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies at NDU. The views expressed here are solely the authors’ and do not reflect the views of the U.S. government, Department of Defense or the National Defense University.

Image: Flickr/Official U.S. Navy/CC by 2.0