The combination of growing Chinese military power and Beijing’s increasing assertiveness has refocused attention on East Asia and the possibility of conflict after a decade of emphasis on the Middle East and stability operations. Indeed, while China’s economic expansion appears to be hitting some turbulence, even a China that grows more slowly—as in 7 percent rather than 10 percent per annum—will still be able to continue to fund its impressive array of military modernization programs, programs that, if current trends continue, will allow it to effectively conduct serious military operations throughout Asia.
A China that can undertake such military operations will also be a China that will be able to mount a formidable—and in some cases dauntingly formidable—challenge to the military power of the United States and its allies in the region. This is no coincidence, as China’s military modernization programs are clearly designed, according to the U.S. government’s own assessment, to “counter third-party [read: U.S.] intervention” in disputes it cares about. If the Chinese can achieve the military upper hand over the United States in the Asia-Pacific, the U.S. network of alliances and partnerships—and the regional order it has underwritten—would no longer count for much beyond ceremony in military terms.
The Pentagon has taken note, and is vigorously pursuing a spate of initiatives in an attempt to preserve the U.S. margin of advantage over sophisticated adversaries such as China. The oft-discussed AirSea Battle initiative and the related Joint Operational Access Concept, while careful to avoid explicitly mentioning China, are obviously applicable to China (as well as other potential adversaries wielding sophisticated military systems) and senior Defense officials regularly talk about the threat posed by Chinese antiaccess/area denial systems (A2/AD). So you do the math.
The basic point of AirSea Battle, and presumably other methods of overcoming the challenges to American power-projection capabilities (bear in mind that AirSea Battle is only one possible way to do so), is to “preserve the [United States’] ability to defeat aggression and maintain escalation advantage despite the challenge posed by advanced weapons systems.” The initiative’s essential way of doing that—its "central idea"—is to “develop networked, integrated forces capable of attack-in-depth to disrupt, destroy and defeat adversary forces.” In layman’s terms, it envisions developing a highly sophisticated military posture capable of going deep into enemy territory to get at the kinds of advanced missiles, command-and-control systems, and the like that threaten U.S. power-projection capabilities. The idea is to allow our battle network of planes, ships, satellites, cyber assets, submarines, missiles and the like to prevail over an opponent’s battle network. This capability, it is believed, will give the United States greater leverage in disputes with countries like China—whether such disputes involve actual shooting or just the threat of it.
AirSea Battle’s Critics
Few not already generally opposed to the use of the military as an instrument of national policy question that the United States and its allies would benefit from having military forces that could defeat any aggression or attempt at political coercion by China. But that’s not where the bulk of the opposition to AirSea Battle and its related initiatives comes from. Rather, opposition springs from other quarters.
One of these is that the United States and China would never fight a war, because the damage would be too great. History and prudence would seem to indicate that it would be inordinately unwise to reckon upon this proposition; but, even if one is sympathetic to the notion, doesn’t it still counsel that we should have strong military forces to make sure everyone is clear what damage would ensue from fighting?
Another source of opposition is fiscal in nature—that the United States can’t afford the expensive programs required to maintain the conventional upper hand. But this seems to be giving up far too soon. We already spend far more on defense than anyone else, including China, and we can clearly spend our money more intelligently, chiefly by focusing on maintaining high-end conventional superiority rather than on low-payoff investments in extremely expensive counterinsurgency operations of dubious utility. Moreover, if we wish to maintain the international order that we’ve established and benefited from for over half a century—and we should—we’ll need to spend something.
But there are those who think we must prepare for war to avoid it and who are willing to spend the money—but still think AirSea Battle and its kin are a bad idea. They worry that preparing for a war with China would exacerbate Sino-American arms competition and really worry that, in the event of war, the actions the United States would need to take to beat China would be so threatening or insulting to Beijing that they could very well lead to unrestrained and ultimately nuclear war. Amitai Etzioni, a respected scholar and leading critic of AirSea Battle, recently summarized this view: “Critics of Air-Sea Battle warn that it is inherently escalatory and could even precipitate a nuclear war.”
This set of opponents of AirSea Battle think we should go another way. Retired Marine colonel T.X. Hammes of the National Defense University, a highly regarded strategist and perhaps the leading member of this school, argues, “[T]he United States must accept that China’s nuclear arsenal imposes restrictions on the way American forces might attack Chinese assets. The United States must select ways that minimize the probability of escalation to nuclear conflict.” To Hammes, this means, for instance, “[n]o operations should penetrate Chinese airspace. Prohibiting penetration is intended to reduce the possibility of nuclear escalation and to make war termination easier.” Hammes proposes an alternative strategy of “Offshore Control” that relies on a “distant blockade” of China to bring it to heel. And Hammes is not alone—this point of view has an influential following, including in Congress.
The Pentagon hasn’t said publicly what an AirSea Battle-style campaign would look like. But what the Defense Department has released makes it absolutely clear that Hammes and co’s strategy would completely emasculate the approach. The AirSea Battle concept, for instance, states that the “central idea” of the concept is that the United would undertake “attacks-in-depth to disrupt, destroy and defeat adversary forces,” specifically against the most dangerous adversary assets—such as precision-guided missiles, tactical command and control, reconnaissance sensors, and the like. Now, you don’t need to be a China expert or a cunning strategist to see that basically all of those items would be in China in the event of war between our nations. Taking them off the table would mean allowing the Chinese to operate those forces with impunity in a conflict.
If Hammes’ strategy of Offshore Control were workable or if he were right that anything like penetration of Chinese airspace would pose too much of a risk of nuclear escalation, then he would have a very powerful point. Naturally, the United States should avoid doing things that stand even a very low but real chance of resulting in nuclear attacks against our country or our allies. But the problem with his and his confreres’ argument is twofold. First, their strategy is very unlikely to work, and so something like AirSea Battle that enables effective American power projection is needed; second, an AirSea Battle-style approach, properly conducted, would almost certainly not lead to nuclear Armageddon.
The Trouble with Offshore Control
The first problem is that Hammes’ replacement strategy just isn’t workable. In his summary, his strategy of “Offshore Control seeks to use a war of economic attrition to bring about a stalemate and cessation of conflict with a return to a modified version of the status quo.” The approach relies on a “distant blockade” enforced by U.S. forces operating outside the bands of Chinese military striking power to “intercept and divert the supertankers and post-Panamax container ships essential to China’s economy.” In other words, the United States would seek to win by interfering with China’s export/import-reliant economy.
There are multiple problems with this approach. First off, it’s of questionable operational feasibility and fiscal sustainability, at least in the longer term. If the Chinese know the United States has given up the close-in flight implied by AirSea Battle, then they can orient more of their military procurement and their research and development to contesting the distant fight presented by our attempt at blockade. Instead of spending more of their accumulating resources on land-based antiship missiles, then, the Chinese could spend more on air and sea escorts for their merchantmen, antisubmarine warfare, disruption of our command and control of our blockading forces, and so on. Moreover, it’s a basic principle that it’s usually more expensive to react to your opponent than to pick your own preferred battlefield. Given the budgetary strictures facing the Pentagon, is a strategy that requires that our forces enforce a blockade across the Pacific and Indian Oceans without also imposing pressure in the Western Pacific likely to be more or less expensive than AirSea Battle? Probably more.
Furthermore, a blockade of the type Hammes envisions would require extensive, substantial, and enduring cooperation from the widest possible array of other countries—including many not known as particularly friendly to U.S. interests, such as Russia. It is hard enough to keep a sanctions coalition against pariah countries like Cuba, North Korea, and Iran. What makes Hammes think that countries would have an interest in participating, let alone sustaining, a blockade against the world’s uber-emerging market?