Don't Sweat AirSea Battle

U.S. Navy Nimitz-Class Aircraft Carrier

Don't Sweat AirSea Battle

The new U.S. military concept doesn't make war with China more likely or more risky.


But leave aside for a moment the issue of feasibility. A war between the United States and China would get both sides’ backs up, to say the least; issues of national pride and credibility would be very much at issue. Such a war would presumably involve the question of who would be the dominant power in East Asia and perhaps beyond. The stakes would be high and emotions heated. In this context, would a strategy of distant blockade really compel the Chinese to settle on terms we could accept? It’s worth noting that a strategy of blockade has never worked without actual military victory—it didn’t work in World War II, in World War I, or against Napoleon. It was important to victory—but it wasn’t anywhere near sufficient. Moreover, such a blockade would be a two-edged sword; we would be cutting off Americans from the world’s mega-exporter, and we can assume that the Chinese would be trying to interrupt our trade flows to boot. In this context, which side is more likely to be prepared to endure the privations involved? The country that underwent the Cultural Revolution, Great Leap Forward, and a ferocious civil war in the last century, and that is in living memory of fearsome poverty? Or the country that (blessedly) has been the world’s byword for prosperity and freedom from fear and destitution since, well, forever? And place this question in its proper context; the fight would not be over Puerto Rico or Nantucket Island, but rather over primacy in China’s neighborhood, about disputes that are familiar to Chinese ears rather than utterly obscure and exotic, as they would probably be to the vast majority of Americans.

Finally, distant blockade might work for Americans, but what about the U.S. allies and partners for whom U.S. aid would be equivalently “distant”? Obviously U.S. policy cannot be driven solely or even primarily by solicitude for its allies, but, given that any U.S. contest with China would almost certainly be at least to some degree motivated by fears for the security or autonomy of U.S. allies or partners, their concerns would logically need to be considered with great care and concern. But in Hammes’ vision they would be left essentially prey to Chinese military power. He and others of like mind argue that U.S. allies should be given capabilities to defend against Chinese aggression or coercion—a kind of porcupine model—but this essentially ignores the problem. If Chinese military power could be dealt with by selling Japan and other U.S. allies and partners advanced weapons of their own, then the problem would be easy—but it’s not. The likely size and sophistication of China’s future military is such that it will very likely be able to overcome and ultimately overwhelm the defensive capabilities of our allies in the region—that’s a big part of the reason why our allies are so insistent that we stick around. In Hammes’ vision, then, these allies would be exposed to Chinese air, naval, and missile attack, and perhaps more, without the chance of destroying or suppressing those sources of attack and without hope of real U.S. military intervention on their behalf. It’s not at all clear why U.S. allies and partners would regard this as credible or sufficient—with serious implications for how they would decide to behave in terms of their dealings with China and their own military-strategic courses of action. Kowtowing or, at the other extreme, pursuing independent nuclear-weapons programs, might make more sense than a military posture of waiting for the Americans a la Britain 1940.


AirSea Nuclear Danger?

So Hammes and Co.’s replacement strategy doesn’t make much sense. But he and those who agree with him would still have a very powerful point if they were right that an AirSea Battle-style approach would be too likely to lead to nuclear escalation by China. But they’re not. An AirSea Battle-style approach in a war with China—if conducted with due concern for managing escalation—would not be likely to lead to nuclear war, and especially not to an exchange of nuclear weapons against population centers.

The basic reason why this is so is that, even in the event of a major war, both the United States and China would have the weightiest possible reasons not to escalate to a nuclear exchange.

For the United States, the rationale for limiting such a war is abundantly clear. Such a war would almost certainly be fought about issues in the Western Pacific remote from questions of national survival, and would be fought under the shadow of a Chinese nuclear-weapons capability that, while far smaller than that of the United States, would have to be reckoned by any president as presenting a very probable second-strike capability—a combination that would be sure to make the limitation of the war of the highest priority for Washington. The United States might seek to constrain the war through a number of avenues, such as by bounding its attacks on the Chinese mainland within a territory close to the war zone or by avoiding highly valued or emotional targets (like leadership facilities). U.S. nuclear use in such a conflict could only reasonably be contemplated in extreme circumstances in which the Chinese struck first or in which U.S. conventional power had failed to arrest Chinese assaults against U.S. forces or territory or against U.S. allies in the region—the latter being precisely the eventuality AirSea Battle tries to avoid. Even in such circumstances, any sensible nuclear use by the United States would have to be limited, discriminate and designed to promote deescalation.

Of course Hammes and Co.’s worry is more that China would be the one to escalate. But this is to drastically underestimate China’s own incentives to avoid escalation to the nuclear level. The brute fact, which Beijing is well aware of, is that the United States enjoys a massive advantage both in the size and in the flexibility of its nuclear forces. Chinese leaders are well aware that any Chinese nuclear attack—and certainly one against the population centers of the United States or one of its allies—would invite a U.S. nuclear response. And, while the United States would desperately want to avoid a nuclear conflict with China, China’s leadership would want to avoid it even more, as that is a war that China would most certainly not win. Indeed, undertaking a nuclear war with the United States would be tantamount to destroying the very objectives that China’s leadership would be keen to defend in any conflict with the United States—such as the leadership of the Communist Party, the further growth and strengthening of the Chinese nation, and the like. China would therefore have exceedingly powerful incentives to avoid starting a nuclear war with the United States.

But don’t take my word for it. Listen and look at the Chinese. For one thing, they repeatedly claim that they would never use nuclear weapons first. Now, people reasonably question the how sincere and enforceable that pledge is, but the simple fact is that China’s nuclear force does not provide a rational basis for major first use against the United States—it is small, extremely destructive, and stands no chance of preventing a devastating U.S. response. China might also look to a more purely military use of its nuclear weapons—but here too it would be entering the ring as a welterweight challenging the heavyweight. Barring major changes to the respective characters of Chinese and U.S. nuclear forces—something the United States should seek to prevent from happening—China could only really look to use its nuclear weapons first out of desperation or pique.

Moreover, the Chinese themselves act like they expect to wage a war with the United States that includes at least some attacks on the Chinese mainland without escalating to the nuclear level. Why else would they be spending huge quantities of money, time and effort on building up such a formidable air-defense system to defend against air and missile attacks against mainland China? As the Pentagon’s 2013 China military report puts it:

China has developed a national integrated air defense system (IADS) to defend key strategic cities and borders, territorial claims, and forces against threats from the air. Overall, China’s IADS represents a multilayered defense consisting of weapons systems, radars and C4ISR platforms working together to counter multiple types of air threats at various ranges and altitudes. One of China’s primary goals is to defend against precision strike munitions such as cruise and ballistic missiles, especially those launched from long distances.

These investments would be totally nonsensical if China were expecting to rely on its nuclear forces to respond to U.S. conventional attacks on the mainland. China’s leaders are many things, but foolish and irrational don’t seem to be among of them. Rather, China appears to be planning to look primarily to its growing conventional air-defense network—not nuclear strikes—to deal with the threat of air and missile attacks against the mainland.

Now, obviously if the United States launched a massive conventional (let alone conventional and nuclear) attack aimed at decapitating the Chinese regime or ejecting the Communist Party from power, then Hammes and Co.’s fears would be far more justified. But, given what we know, that is definitively not the AirSea Battle approach. Rather, it focuses on employing conventional forces against an adversary’s conventional forces in ways designed to maintain or achieve the upper hand in a conflict. Left to its own devices, of course, such an approach could inadvertently go about its business in ways that could well raise the chances of nuclear war—for instance by targeting military capabilities that are important not only for conventional purposes but also for the survivability of China’s nuclear forces.