Sorry, AirSea Battle Is No Strategy
War with China won't be won by deep strikes. Distant, defensive deterrence and blockades suit us better.
In his article “Don’t Sweat AirSea Battle,” Elbridge Colby argues that AirSea Battle Concept (ASB) provides a more effective approach for dealing with Chinese aggression than the Offshore Control (OC) strategy I’ve proposed. I certainly welcome the debate, since one of the reasons I developed OC was to stimulate discussion about strategy. Unfortunately, while Colby points out what he sees as deficiencies with OC, he never articulates the strategy ASB is designed to support. To date, ASB has only been expressed as an operational concept. This creates the difficult, if not impossible, problem of comparing a strategy to an operational concept. To be fair, the Department of Defense has stated that ASB is not a strategy and is not directed at China. Rather, it is an operational concept that supports the Joint Operational Access Concept. (It is also an office tasked with coordinating the procurement, technologies, tactics and techniques that will allow U.S. forces to defeat antiaccess/area-denial systems.)
Unfortunately, in absence of a strategy, even successful operational concepts can be a disaster. Blitzkrieg was highly successful against France. When used against the Soviet Union, it was an unmitigated disaster. Thus an operational concept cannot be judged as good or bad unless it is applied to a specific strategy. There are areas in the world where AirSea Battle might well support a strategy. China is not one of them. Moreover, the scarce resources invested to make ASB operational would be better spent on other capabilities than will be needed.
In a somewhat different way, a strategy cannot be evaluated in isolation as either good or bad. It needs to be evaluated to see if it is better or worse than another strategy that deals with the same problem. This is why I have encouraged the development of alternative strategies—to permit a discussion of the merits of Offshore Control in comparison to another strategy. I look forward to reading a strategy based on AirSea Battle but, to date, no ASB proponent has suggested one.
What Offshore Control is
Offshore Control is a military strategy for the unlikely event of a conflict with China. It uses Professor Eliot Cohen’s outline for a military strategy—assumptions, ends-ways-means coherence, priorities, sequencing, and a theory of victory. OC seeks competitive advantage by moving the conflict to geography that favors the United States using tactical actions that pit U.S. strengths against Chinese weaknesses. It also seeks to match the operational approach to take advantage of China’s cultural approach to war.
While a conflict with China is highly unlikely, the Pentagon still must prepare for it—and in a time of reduced budgets. To be successful a strategy must first be affordable. Then it must achieve four goals. It must deter China, reassure our allies, guide U.S. defense investment and, if conflict comes, resolve the it on terms favorable to the United States. Note I said “resolve the conflict” and not “win.” Colby seems to suggest a major weakness of Offshore Control is that the strategy does not seek to win. Unfortunately, he never clarifies what he means by win. Does he mean the United States achieves the elusive total victory and occupies China? Does he mean the overthrow of the Communist Party? By failing to define what he means by winning or even what he sees as success, Colby prevents a discussion of how to balance ends, ways, and means. This is a fundamental task of a strategy and is particularly important during a time of restricted means.
For those readers who have not read the Offshore Control, it seeks to deny China use of the seas inside the First Island Chain, defend the First Island Chain, and dominate the seas outside the First Island Chain. OC does not seek the surrender of China or the overthrow of the Chinese Communist Party. Rather it seeks to force China to acknowledge it cannot win the conflict and allows it to declare victory and stop fighting. It seeks a return to pre-war status quo with a China that understands it cannot achieve its goals through military action. As Colby notes, it assumes a long war. Most nation-state wars of the last two centuries have been long. Thus it is prudent to plan for a long war rather than hope for a short one. OC also assumes trade will be interdicted in any major conflict with China. It is difficult to envision the U.S. population accepting continued trade with China even as it attacks U.S. bases and warships.
Deterrence is clearly the most important element. It has two components—denial and punishment. Offshore Control uses both. Defense of the First Island Chain based on using antiaccess/area denial (A2/AD) concepts denies China its war goals. It makes use of the strategic geography to force China to use its few long-range assets to penetrate combined air-and-sea defensive networks at extreme range. While we may not be able to prevent an initial attack—and perhaps even landings on islands inside the First Island Chain, a properly executed, integrated defense will be able to prevent reinforcement and resupply of such an effort. It will also provide the most effective defense of First Island Chain allies.
Punishment is two-fold. First, denial of the sea inside the First Island Chain maximizes U.S. superiority in undersea warfare and integrated air defense. U.S. and allied submarines will pursue and sink Chinese naval assets that venture outside Chinese waters. To get out of port, the Chinese fleet will have to run the gauntlet of mines and submarines. In short, Offshore Control makes use of U.S. superiority in undersea warfare and integrated air defenses to destroy any Chinese assets that venture away from her shores. Playing to our strengths rather than the defenders’ is the mark of a smart competitive strategy. Investing in offensive strategies that impose more costs on us than on the opponent is neither smart nor likely to be productive.
Second, Offshore Control punishes China’s economy. It does not seek to shut off all Chinese trade but only to raise the cost of such trade high enough that business will go elsewhere for the exports it currently gets from China. Colby, and others, have suggested that Russia can break the blockade by offering overland transit. In fact, the Trans-Siberian Railroad and the Baikal Amur Mainline cross Russia from the Far East. The combined capacity of both routes will not begin to match the throughput capacity of China’s ports. In addition, due to gauge differences between Chinese-Russian and Russian-European rail lines, all containers will have to be shifted to new trains twice. Currently, it costs roughly $5000 more per container, or twice as much, to rail a container from western China to eastern Europe as it does to move it to China’s east coast and ship it by sea. As demand for rail transport increases sharply, so will costs. Rail does save time, but temperature-sensitive materials may not be shipped during the winter due to the extreme cold along the route.
Offshore Control does not suggest blockade will cause China’s economy to cease functioning only that it will make it noncompetitive globally. Domination of the sea and air space outside the First Island Chain allows the United States to selectively intercept those ships that trade with China. By violating the blockade, they became subject to seizure and sale in prize court. The seizure and sale of some of these ships will immediately result in massively higher shipping charges by those shippers and insurers willing to risk the blockade.
Given that the Chinese Communist Party stakes its legitimacy on providing a better future for its people, Offshore Control strikes at the legitimacy of the Party. The Party can choose to continue the fight in hopes of defeating the distant blockade, escalate to attempts to invade the First Island Chain or even to nuclear exchange. Or it can do what it has done in the four conflicts it has fought since 1949. It can declare China has taught the “aggressor” a lesson and cease hostilities. The CCP has done this regardless of whether the war was going well (India), badly (Korea, Vietnam), or was essentially a draw (the Zhenbao Island Incident with the Soviets).
Assurance of allies and friends in the region is the second requirement of a strategy. China is the largest trading partner for most of the nations of Asia. As a result, they turn to China for economic growth but still rely on the United States for security. The American failure to express a strategy has led to confusion and uncertainty, even among our allies in the region. They are uncertain both of our position and what the we expect from them.
Offshore Control asks only that allies and friendly nations assist in the defense of their own territory. It assures them U.S. forces will NOT strike into China and not make them a target. This makes it much easier for allies and friends to participate in combined exercises. It will also help focus allies on purchasing their own A2/AD systems. A2/AD works both ways. Defense of the First Island Chain takes advantage of this fact. It forces China to use its limited long range assets to penetrate combined, integrated defenses to reach First Island Chain targets. In doing so, it shifts the cost to China and the geographic advantage to the United States and its allies.