How to Have a Big Disastrous War with China

The flawed logic of Offshore Control.

In their June 10 National Interest article, T. X. Hammes and R. D. Hooker again propose “Offshore Control” as a viable strategy for a conflict with China. Using CSBA’s AirSea Battle concept as a contrast to their ideas, Hammes and Hooker claim that Offshore Control can provide the “military component of the U.S. national strategy in Asia,” while AirSea Battle cannot. The DOD’s Air-Sea Battle operational concept is not the same as CSBA’s AirSea Battle concept (note the lack of a hyphen). The DOD concept was finalized in 2011 and is being implemented at present. Both “ASB” concepts have received their fair share of criticism from Hammes and Hooker, among others; meanwhile, the Offshore Control strategy, originally introduced by Hammes in 2012, has received scant scrutiny. This paper exposes the flawed logic of Offshore Control and demonstrates why it would likely fail if tried, and that using it as a part of the U.S. strategy would risk a large, destructive war with China.

It is reasonable to assess that China will continue its attempt to exert regional hegemony in the western Pacific through selective intimidation of its neighbors and reinforcement of its resource and territorial claims. It is also generally agreed that America, together with treaty allies and partners in the region, has the only realistic ability to deter or thwart China from achieving its ambitions. Further, it is in America’s and other countries’ national interests that China not behave as a regional hegemon but rather “peacefully rise” as a responsible nation working within international norms and respectful of the rights of other nations. Since China may be unwilling to behave in accordance with these norms, the U.S. and allies need operational approaches to address the requirements of possible conflict. Hammes and Hooker have assessed that an approach that directly threatens or attacks anything on China’s mainland is both unacceptably escalatory and unlikely to succeed. The CSBA AirSea Battle concept discusses and provocatively recommends mainland attacks. While neither CSBA’s nor the DOD’s concept are strategies or operational plans, Hammes and Hooker assail them as such. Meanwhile, their Offshore Control is rarely studied or discussed outside their own advocacy.

As described by Hammes and Hooker, “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 “takes advantage of geography to block China's key imports and exports” with the expressed objective of severely weakening China’s economy. Hammes and Hooker state that “no kinetic operations will penetrate Chinese airspace,” which they say will “reduce the possibility of nuclear escalation and make conflict termination easier.”

In Hammes and Hooker’s scenario, China starts the conflict and acts alone. Hammes and Hooker do not specify the source of conflict, but it is assumed China’s aggression will be limited, regional, and focused on disputed resources or territories. The U.S. will act in concert with allies and regional partners and take a mostly defensive posture. Offshore Control “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.” The overall strategy of Offshore Control is a distant blockade, outside the first island chain, preventing the passage of large cargo ships and tankers to and from China, with the objective of rapidly disrupting China’s economy.

The first element of Offshore Control proposed by Hammes and Hooker is to establish “a maritime exclusion zone with the warning that ships in the zone will be seized or sunk” by U.S. submarines, all the way to China’s twelve-mile territorial limit. Sea mines will be used both offensively against China’s ports and sea-lanes and defensively in the disputed areas. Hammes and Hooker also state that cruise missiles will be launched, presumably by aircraft, ships, or submarines, but do not say what the cruise missiles will target. The cruise missile targets must be Chinese military ships since penetrating, kinetic attacks against land targets are prohibited. Finally, the limited air assets mentioned would presumably support submarine operations and provide ISR information for indications and warning as well as maritime targeting. The quantities of submarines and air assets needed to patrol such a massive maritime area—larger than the entire continental United States—amounts to every available U.S. attack and guided missile submarine, the entire fleet of U.S. maritime patrol aircraft, and large numbers of other assets.