Debating a Strategy for World War III

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 program brought 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 “
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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: