Offshore Control vs. AirSea Battle: Who Wins?

August 21, 2013 Topic: Security Region: United States

Offshore Control vs. AirSea Battle: Who Wins?

The final salvo between proponents of dueling U.S.- China war strategies concludes.


Editor’s Note: The following article is part of an ongoing debate regarding American military strategy in the event of a conflict with China. For you convenience, here are links to the previous articles in this important debate: Don’t Sweat AirSea Battle, Sorry, AirSea Battle is No Strategy, and The War over a War with China.

In his response, Elbridge Colby suggested that he and I agree AirSea Battle (ASB) needs a full debate. I disagree. It is not ASB that needs full debate but the potential military strategy with China. ASB is only an operational concept that might or might not be a part of a strategy. In fact, Colby admits ASB is not a strategy but only a logical deduction that since the United States has been dominant in Asia since World War II, it should remain so. Unfortunately, he never explains the ways and means ASB will use to achieve dominance.


He starts out well by stating the end he wishes to achieve is dominance. He seems to express the ways he plans when he states that ASB appears to be about rolling back any threat to “our allies, the waters, and skies around them…” However, he never addresses the issue of means. He simply asserts ASB will achieve dominance by imposing “costs that are both far more biting and real than Hammes’ offshore blockade …” He has not expressed a strategy but only a desire.

To be fair, proponents of ASB have never stated how it fits into a strategy. The closest they come is to state that we must be able to hold things the enemy values at risk. They never actually define what those things are, nor how we will find this target set in a nation as large and geographically complex as China. Yet Colby seems to accept that ASB can find and strike those targets that will force China to terminate the conflict.

Recent history makes this a dubious claim. In conditions of absolute air supremacy with thousands of aircraft and no enemy air defense, we did not convince Saddam to quit in the first or second Gulf War. In fact, during the first Gulf War, we could not even hit the Scuds that were firing at Israel. This is despite dedicating a significant portion of our air assets to finding Scuds that often fired in the night from a desert! Air power proponents point to the Kosovo War as an illustration of the power of strike warfare. Yet with thousands of aircraft and facing no air defense, it took NATO 78 days to convince Milosevic to quit.

Rather than addressing these failures, ASB proponents want our allies to believe that new technology will make Douhet’s elusive goal—airpower defeating an enemy—a reality. But of course, the United States can’t actually demonstrate those technologies because they are secret. They simply assert that the technology available in ASB will allow us to do so. It is assertions like this that trouble our allies. We tell them ASB can defend them—but it’s too secret to let them know how. In essence, we tell them to trust us.

I appreciate Colby’s willingness to engage in this discussion. I was hoping that he or another proponent of striking into China would express the concept as a military strategy complete with assumptions, ends-ways-means coherence, priorities, sequencing and a theory of victory. So far, no one has. Rather, Pentagon discussions about ASB simply provide a list of goals ASB wishes to achieve.

Unfortunately, he not only failed to state ASB as a strategy, he made several misstatements about Offshore Control (OC). Colby asserts that OC forgoes the attempt to hold dominance. If one reads the initial paper and subsequent articles, it is clear a critical element of OC is denying the Chinese use of the waters inside the first Island chain. We need not sustain dominance for its own sake, or in irrelevant locations. OC also states the United States will defend those allies in the first island chain who choose to join us. So OC and ASB aspire to the same goals with one major exception. OC does not seek to strike tactical targets inside China. Rather OC will apply pressure to the strategic target of China’s economy. Colby asserts this will have no real impact on China because it would only be the loss of “some portion of its international commerce.” China’s imports and exports add up to more than 50 percent of its GDP. A depression, not recession, is often defined as an economic downturn of 10 percent or more. Since the Communist Party’s legitimacy is based on economic growth, major reductions in China’s imports and exports will create major pressure for a solution. Worse, from China’s point of view, is that U.S. control of the seas outside the first island chain means the world economy will begin to rebuild. The longer China maintains the conflict, the harder it will be to recover lost trade relationships. It is hard to see how Chinese leaders will simply ignore this kind of economic damage.

Another major difference between OC and ASB is that OC states how current U.S. and allied forces can use their superiority in certain arenas to achieve each element of the strategy. Further, these capabilities can be exercised with allies so both China and our allies have concrete proof we can execute the strategy. Allies will not have to rely on U.S. promises about technology they are not allowed to see. We will make use of the advantages of A2/AD and our undersea warfare capabilities to destroy those Chinese forces that venture into international air and waters. Further, OC provides guidance for future affordable investments to maintain our edge in those arenas.

Interestingly, Japan is reorienting its defense to the Southwest Islands and adopting a strategy based on A2/AD to protect its territory. These are steps that will allow Japan to fulfill its role in OC. In contrast to these positive actions that support an OC strategy, senior Japanese officials have repeatedly expressed serious concerns about ASB for two reasons. First, America had not stated clearly what it involves. Second, it seems to require striking into China. Japanese leaders know that convincing the Japanese people to allow the United States to practice strikes into China using Japanese bases is not possible politically. At the same time, very senior leaders have expressed a great deal of interest in OC. In personal conversations, senior Japanese officials have stated OC is particularly appealing because it does not require strikes into China and it can be fully tested in open exercises. Further, these exercises are focused purely on the defense of Japanese territory.

Colby does address my concern with escalatory effect of ASB—but only from the U.S. side. He assures us ASB does not require going first. That addresses part of the problem. However, since ASB remains reliant on cyber and space capabilities, it provides a great benefit for China to move first. For the time being, both space and cyber are offense dominated and thus the first nation to attack gains an advantage in both domains. Their strategic warning systems may be at risk, and they may not want to risk being blinded. They may believe that they have no choice, to delay may be to forego the assets. “Use or lose” may be their assessment of the scenario. Given that open source comments on ASB indicate a heavy use of space and cyber, this provides an incentive for China to escalate to open conflict rather than continue to negotiate in a crisis from a weakened position. It is also a bit difficult to believe that U.S. commanders who have to execute attacks into China would not believe striking first will provide a significant advantage.

In short, the key discussion we must have is about a strategy that preserves our interests in the unlikely event of a conflict with China. It must reassure our friends, stabilize the region—particularly in times of crisis—and allow the United States to respond effectively if conflict starts. Such a discussion must include ends, ways and means, both in war and peace. It should be free of assertions that we can achieve a difficult task because we wish to, but delve into the force structure, training, equipment, and budgetary factors that are the basis for a strategy.

T.X. Hammes is a Distinguished Research Fellow at National Defense University. These views are his own and do not reflect the views of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.