Debating a Strategy for World War III

U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier
August 24, 2013 Topic: Military Strategy Region: China Blog Brand: The Buzz

Debating a Strategy for World War III

A U.S.-China war would be a tragedy. Issues of U.S. strategy are an important—but spine chilling—debate.


Over the last several weeks TNI has hosted a spirited debate regarding American military strategy when it comes to a possible conflict with the People’s Republic of China. As a strategic-studies watcher and Asia security hand myself, I wish to applaud the professionalism and candor both sides displayed. There is nothing like a spirited debate allowing ideas to be vetted, challenged and ultimately made stronger. Considering the theoretical topic—what would likely be a Third World War—it is a debate worthy of our most serious attention.

Such a contest at its core pits two very different visions against one another in an attempt to define one of the most daunting security challenges America faces today—the growing military might of China.


While each side—AirSea Battle and Offshore Control—both have their own merits and drawbacks; I would like to offer some concluding points as we wrap up (at least for now) what has been a worthy contribution to this important discussion that has much larger repercussions when we begin to consider what type of military the United States will need in the future.

AirSea Battle: It’s Still an Operational Concept

This is a point I myself and several others have made. But it seems clear ASB could be rolled into a larger war plan and quite worthy of being compared to other strategies in a broader debate. Since DoD war plans are classified, comparing ASB and OC is a difficult challenge for sure. However, we do know that ASB would attempt to create a higher level of joint combat operations to hinder the ability of Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) practitioners to deny access to the commons and negate U.S. military capabilities. China and to a lesser extent Iran are clearly in ASB’s crosshairs.

In the near-future, defense analysts will have a number of ways to gage possible ASB-based strategies when it comes to China and A2/AD practitioners specifically. Clearly U.S. planners are beginning to think about how to fight from distance while also retaining the utility of multibillion-dollar aircraft carriers. The X-47B programbrought back from a very short retirement—clearly demonstrates that U.S. military planners are thinking about how naval aircraft can fight from range considering present aircraft strike capabilities would place carriers close to multiple PLA missile platforms (cruise and ballistic) including the highly touted “carrier-killer,” the DF-21D.

How Would Offshore Control Do Against Other A2/AD Challenges?

There is certainly a lot to like when it comes to Offshore Control. Such a strategy clearly aims to exploit China’s dependency on the seas for trade and natural resources in an attempt to compel Beijing to end conflict and mitigate any possibility of escalation. Adding to its appeal, such a strategy seems possible with current U.S. force levels and technology.

There are some inherent challenges. It’s important to consider whether Offshore Control could work against other possible A2/AD challengers. Various nations have already begun to embrace the weaponry of A2/AD—ballistic and cruise missiles, sea mines and quiet, conventional-powered submarines, as well as possible attacks across cyber and space domains. American forces could someday soon find themselves in harm's way from multi-dimensional strikes that not only seek to deny U.S. forces access to a combat zone, but also take the fight to America's military in an asymmetrical fashion. Would OC work against an Iranian A2/AD strategy with tight sanctions already in place? What about other nations who in the future could also embrace such technology through purchases from nations like China, Russia or possibly others? While I can see a strong argument being made that OC could be modified to take into consideration such situations, it remains to be seen whether it will.

What About Sequestration?

Clearly any China strategy would suffer if sequestration were to stay in place. Various texts concerning ASB suggest new weapons systems, such as new, stealthy long-range bombers and other expensive items would be needed if strikes against targets in Mainland China are considered part of the strategy. Where would the money come from?

Indeed, sequestration could impact ASB as well as an OC strategy. Considering Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s recent declarations concerning possible future consequences of sequestration it makes sense that any future strategy geared towards China could be weakened considerably. While Secretary Hagel did layout one scenario which trades “away size for high-end capability” and “would protect investments to counter anti-access and area-denial threats, such as the long-range strike family of systems, submarine cruise missile upgrades, and the Joint Strike Fighter” one could clearly see possible challenges implementing either ASB or OC in such an uncertain budgetary environment. Dollars will need to be spent to implement either of these strategies or something entirely different—the money just might not be there.

The Problem of Escalation Control

In any conflict, especially when considering nuclear armed states, the idea of escalation takes on an importance all its own. No matter what strategy one employs, how does one stop such a conflict from reaching dangerous levels of escalation? James Holmes may have said it best:

Chinese sea power fuses seagoing and shore-based assets into a single implement. PLA commanders would presumably use all assets at their disposal, sea and land, once Chinese vessels started descending to Davy Jones' locker. What if anti-ship cruise or ballistic missiles or combat aircraft flying from airfields ashore started landing heavy blows against allied fleets, whether underway or berthed in ports like Yokosuka or Sasebo? Would Washington or Tokyo really exempt land-based PLA weaponry from counterstrikes should Beijing unleash it?

If so, they would be granting the adversary one heckuva sanctuary. In short, two can escalate. Whether allied political leaders could resist popular pressure to retaliate against the source of attacks on their ships, their sons, and their daughters is a question worth pondering.

The above clearly demonstrates the frightening nature of a U.S.-China conflict. What if American counterattacks on the mainland were misinterpreted as a possible strike on China’s small but capable nuclear arsenal? Here is where we get to scenarios almost too frightening to imagine.

Looking Towards the Future

Recent reports clearly show U.S. military planners beginning to lay plans concerning its position in the Pacific. A recent article in Foreign Policy explains:

The U.S. military is encircling China with a chain of air bases and military ports. The latest link: a small airstrip on the tiny Pacific island of Saipan. The U.S. Air Force is planning to lease 33 acres of land on the island for the next 50 years to build a "divert airfield" on an old World War II airbase there. But the residents don't want it. And the Chinese are in no mood to be surrounded by Americans.

The Pentagon's big, new strategy for the 21st century is something called Air-Sea Battle, a concept that's nominally about combining air and naval forces to punch through the increasingly-formidable defenses of nations like China or Iran. It may sound like an amorphous strategy—and truth be told, a lot of Air-Sea Battle is still in the conceptual phase. But a very concrete part of this concept is being put into place in the Pacific. An important but oft-overlooked part of Air-Sea Battle calls for the military to operate from small, bare bones bases in the Pacific that its forces can disperse to in case their main bases are targeted by Chinese ballistic missiles.

The pieces goes on to note:

In addition to the site on Saipan, the Air Force plans to send aircraft on regular deployments to bases ranging from Australia to India as part of its bulked up force in the Pacific. These plans include regular deployments to Royal Australian Air Force bases at Darwin and Tindal, Changi East air base in Singapore, Korat air base in Thailand, Trivandrum in India, and possibly bases at Cubi Point and Puerto Princesa in the Philippines and airfields in Indonesia and Malaysia, a top U.S. Air Force generalrevealed last month.

Clearly the United States is implementing the often criticized military aspect of its “pivot” to Asia. While America has always been an integral part of Asia-Pacific and broader Indo-Pacific security architecture, it is now quite clear words are now truly being matched by deeds.

Who Wins?

A great-power conflict between the United States and China today, despite tensions over a multitude of issues, seems quite unlikely—but is quite frightening nonetheless. Considering the technology and weapons both sides would be able to employ the potential for the creation of one of the greatest tragedies in human history is a possibility—thanks to nuclear weapons. This is why dialogue on both sides, however blunt and at times taxing, is necessary so that current tensions never turn into future conflict.

In my view, there is no clear winner between ASB and OC. If pressed, I would favor ASB, however, I think there is much more soul searching to be had. Any strategy that deals with possible conflict with China needs some portability to other A2/AD challenges—with budget dollars getting tighter there may not be any other choice. While it seems aspects of ASB are being implemented, OC could also be utilized in current and future battle plans. Who knows, maybe both ideas could be merged together to create a dynamic, highly flexible strategy that would be even more adaptive based on the wide geographic, strategic and military domains a possible U.S.-China or future A2/AD based-conflict could occur in. Now that would be an interesting idea. Any takers?