Three Paths to Nuclear Escalation with China

Three Paths to Nuclear Escalation with China

How the Pentagon's latest project could lead to a dangerous confrontation.

The U.S. military has enjoyed extraordinary freedom of maneuver since the end of the Cold War. The fall of the Soviet Union meant that no one else was left to seriously challenge the United States when it decided to act abroad. Today, however, strategists worry that U.S. rivals are developing weapons that will make it difficult or impossible to gain access to contested areas. Dealing with the so-called “anti-access” problem has become a central task for civilian and military planners—and something close to an obsession for the navy.

One popular solution is AirSea Battle (ASB). In its most general sense, ASB is about increasing integration between the navy and the air force. Service leaders argue that without serious advance planning, coordination is likely to break down in the midst of a conflict. This must include not just operational discussions about war fighting but also integrated training, data sharing and weapons procurement. As the air force and navy service chiefs put it in a recent article, the idea is to “take ‘jointness’ to a new level.” Jointness is a favorite buzzword in Washington, and enthusiastic defense officials recently opened the AirSea Battle Office in the Pentagon.

Strangely, much of the discussion about AirSea Battle has been about what it is not. Officials have stressed that ASB is not a single operational concept about how to fight wars; they simply say that they want to maximize interservice integration so that regional combatant commanders have maximum confidence in their ability to carry out their operational decisions. Officials  also have stressed that ASB is not about China or any other country. At a press conference describing the purposes of the AirSea Battle Office, they went to great lengths to fend off such suggestions from incredulous reporters.

Not everyone buys these arguments. In theory, the proliferation of anti-access weapons means that any country could create problems for forward-deployed U.S. forces. In reality, there is a very short list of countries that have both the interest and wherewithal to make life nasty for the United States. China is first on the list. No one is investing more in anti-access capabilities than China, which in the last decade has acquired an impressive array of submarines, antiship ballistic missiles, antiship cruise missiles and antisatellite weapons. And no one has a clearer interest in denying U.S. forces entry in the event of a crisis. China has particularly strong reasons for wanting to keep the U.S. Navy from undertaking a show of force in or around the Taiwan Strait, as it did during previous crises. U.S. planners are not naive about China's motives, and they seek new ways of undermining China's new capabilities. “Let's just say it,” two Naval War College professors recently wrote , “AirSea Battle in East Asia is about China.”

Nor is it the case that AirSea Battle is just about jointness. Last year the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) published a long monograph on the concept, which remains the most comprehensive treatment to date. According to CSBA, AirSea Battle envisions a sequence of operations designed to overcome enemy obstacles and guarantee U.S. access. The first step is a “blinding attack” on key facilities, including long-range weapons that threaten U.S. bases and carrier groups, along with the radar systems needed to cue them. This initial volley would deliberately strike the enemy’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems and make it impossible to organize an attack in the aftermath. The second step includes efforts to bottle up the enemy’s naval fleet behind a distant blockade, which would allow the United States plenty of time to bring superior forces to the theater.

While officials have not been specific about AirSea Battle, there are reasons to believe that the CSBA version is close to the mark. The United States, after all, has danced the same two-step in all of its recent conventional wars. And despite arguments that ASB is not a single operational approach, the service chiefs and officers from the AirSea Battle Office write that it relies on a construct called “disrupt-destroy-defeat” that closely follows the CSBA script. By disrupt they mean attacking the enemy's ISR and command-and-control facilities. By destroy they mean killing things like “ships, submarines, aircraft, and missile launchers.” Defeating the enemy will be much easier after these two steps are complete.

AirSea Battle is seductive. Some officials believe that it may act as a competitive strategy that will lure rival states into self-defeating arms races with the richer and more technologically advanced United States. They also hope that AirSea Battle acts as a deterrent. If adversaries like China become convinced that they cannot overcome U.S. military superiority, they are unlikely to pick a fight in the first place. Most important, however, is the alluring idea that AirSea Battle can undue years of efforts by the Chinese to keep the United States out. China has invested greatly in solving one big operational problem. AirSea Battle is an appealing way to “unsolve” its operational breakthrough.

But there are also serious risks to this approach, including the danger of nuclear escalation if AirSea Battle is ever implemented in a shooting war with China.

There are three pathways to nuclear escalation. Psychological pressures can lead to serious misperceptions about enemy intentions, causing states to overreact to limited military actions. Political pressures  also can make escalation possible, especially if the target government fears that it will lose power if it loses the war. In these cases the government might take extraordinary risks in order to “ gamble for resurrection .” Finally, inadvertent escalation can occur when conventional attacks put the enemy's nuclear capabilities at risk. In these cases the enemy might worry that the attack is only the first phase of a larger war.

AirSea Battle opens all three pathways to escalation. By deliberately launching a blinding attack, it would increase the chance of serious misperceptions and complicate any effort to reassure China of limited U.S. intentions. It  also would exacerbate the political problem for the Chinese Communist Party, which long ago gave up its ideological mandate and now relies on a combination of nationalism and economic growth in order to stay in power. Given signs of weakness in the Chinese economy , we  soon may face a situation in which the CCP relies on nationalism alone. Under these circumstances it is likely to be very risk acceptant, and, if faced with a humiliating defeat in the early stages of a conflict with the United States, it will have strong political incentives to escalate.

Finally, AirSea Battle runs the risk of inadvertent escalation, especially if the United States strikes the Chinese mainland. The fact that strategists are so concerned about land-based Chinese ballistic missiles suggests that these might well be targeted. U.S. planners may believe they can distinguish conventional from nuclear sites, but Chinese leaders might reasonably fear that the United States is attempting a preemptive strike against its nuclear weapons and associated command-and-control systems. In this scenario, Beijing might face a terrible use-it-or-lose-it dilemma.


The original CSBA monograph, which seems to be close to the “official” version of AirSea Battle, ignored the danger of nuclear escalation. Instead, it simply assumed that any war between the United States and China will remain at the conventional level because “agreement not to use or threaten the use of nuclear weapons would appear to be in both parties’ interests.” But strikes on the Chinese mainland might provoke an overreaction even if Chinese leaders would do better to show restraint. We should expect nothing less: states do not take kindly to attacks on their own soil. Other analysts recognize this danger and have offered operational concepts that attempt to mitigate the risk of escalation by stressing patience and less provocative plans. Given the stakes involved, defense officials should take these alternatives seriously.