Sorry, AirSea Battle Is No Strategy

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.

Of particular importance, Offshore Control can be openly discussed and exercised with our allies. The United States will be able to demonstrate it can execute its strategy to both our allies and China.


Guiding defense investment in a time of declining budgets is a critical aspect of strategy. Colby suggests I support “excessively expensive counterinsurgency operations.” This is an odd charge. In fact, I have stated my opposition to direct, large COIN and note that the administration’s guidance has specifically directed DoD to NOT plan for such contingencies. That said, there are also significant savings to be had by not spending the enormous funds necessary to prepare for a continent-sized campaign against a sophisticated air-defense system. Rather than spending our money to penetrate Chinese air defenses, Offshore Control proposes reversing A2/AD and imposing the cost of penetrating the First Island Chain defenses on the Chinese. Given the current and projected defense budgets, it is essential a strategy be practical under those reduced budgets. OC can be achieved with today’s assets. If adopted, it will guide investment to undersea warfare, mines, alternative cyber connectivity and non-space-based surveillance systems. In short, OC seeks affordable solutions rather than very-high-technology systems. This, too, is a mark of a strategic approach rather than simply engineering an exquisite solution for its own sake.

AirSea Battle fails to deter, assure, or guide

Deterrence is based on the other side believing you can deny its goals as well as punish it for trying. While we have no unclassified statement of the AirSea Battle concept, it does seem to rely heavily on a “networked, integrated force” that can strike deep. This implies heavy use of digital networks as well as comprehensive surveillance of major portions of the Chinese mainland. China has clearly been working to defeat these capabilities. On January 11, 2007, China destroyed a satellite in Low Earth Orbit. From 2006 to the present, they have repeatedly used lasers to dazzle U.S. satellites in Low Earth Orbit. From TITAN RAIN to BYZANTINE ANCHOR, China has also demonstrated the ability to penetrate U.S. cyber systems—even classified systems. If China believes it can defeat ASB through action against U.S. space and cyber systems, then ASB loses much of its deterrent effect.

In fact, the very existence of a serious AirSea Battle capability is escalatory. In a recent article in Foreign Policy, David Gompert and Terrence Kelly note that ASB pushes China to a first strike.

Given that, to be most effective, AirSea Battle would need to take down Chinese targeting and strike capabilities before they could cause significant damage to U.S. forces and bases. It follows, and the Chinese fear, that such U.S. capabilities are best used early and first—if not preemptively, then in preparation for further U.S. offensive action. After all, such U.S. strikes have been used to initiate conflict twice in Iraq. This perception will, in turn, increase the incentive for the PLA to attack preemptively, before AirSea Battle has degraded its ability to neutralize the U.S. strike threat. It could give the Chinese cause to launch large-scale preemptive cyber- and anti-satellite attacks on our AirSea Battle assets. Indeed, they might feel a need, out of self-defense, to launch such attacks even if they had not planned to start a war. It is a dangerous situation when both sides put a premium on early action.

In contrast, Offshore Control moves into place deliberately—and since it can be executed without full space or cyber capabilities, the incentive for first strike is reduced. Equally important, we don’t have to attack their warning systems, and differentiate between their tactical networks and their strategic warning systems. Inadvertently blinding the assets used to direct their strategic-response systems could be the trigger to a first use. We do not have much historical evidence for evaluating conflict between nuclear-armed powers. In the US-USSR Cuban Missile Crisis, the USSR-Chinese Zhenbao Island Incident, and the India-Pakistan Kargil Crisis, the leaders on each side sought to slow and contain the crisis. Do we really want to select a military strategy that puts the President in the position of conceding great advantage if he fails to strike preemptively? Given that Truman and Johnson refused to strike China when hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops were in combat, are we sure a future President will authorize an extensive strike campaign into China? Even worse, do we want to select an approach that convinces Chinese leaders they must strike first to protect their homeland?

AirSea Battle also fails to assure allied and friendly leaders. While we can exercise all the elements of Offshore Control with our allies to openly demonstrate we can achieve what we state we will, ASB remains cloaked in secrecy. Senior Japanese civilian and defense officials have told me they are very concerned that the United States does not share its plans. The lack of knowledge of U.S. military strategy makes it very difficult for the Japanese government to develop its own strategy. U.S. officers note that many of the systems are in Special Access Programs and thus they not only can’t talk to allies about the project, they do not have access themselves. Essentially, ASB assurance is based on telling our allies to “trust us.” It’s not working.

Misconceptions about Offshore Control

Colby makes some statements that indicate he has some misconceptions about Offshore Control. He states OC will leave our allies “essentially prey to Chinese military power,” and “give up the close-in fight.” Apparently, he did not read the sections on defense of the First Island Chain and denying the Chinese use of the seas inside the First Island Chain. OC focuses investments on destroying Chinese assets that enter international sea or airspace, as well as on defending First Island Chain allies.

He further contends that Offshore Control lets the Chinese pick the “preferred battlefield.” In fact, under OC we select where we will fight as well as where we will blockade. Colby wants to play to the Chinese strengths on their home field, which is their preferred battlefield. Selecting the battlefield is one of the traditional advantages of the tactical defense. We can decide where inside the First Island Chain we fight as well as where and how we enforce the blockade. In contrast, any AirSea Battle penetrating campaign must go where the targets are—and China selects where to put its key assets as well as how to site defenses around them. ASB clearly lets China select the battlefield.

Colby states that Offshore Control emasculates AirSea Battle by not conducting deep attacks into Chinese territory. However, if the point of ASB is to defeat anti-access/area denial systems, then it appears the objective of ASB deep strikes is to allow U.S. forces to get close enough to China to conduct strikes into China. In short, it focuses on attacking tactical targets to enable more of the same tactical actions by the United States. Complicating the effort to determine the strategic impact of such a campaign, ASB proponents fail to explain how we will find the “precision-guided missiles, tactical command and control, reconnaissance sensors, and the like.” Given our track record against mobile missiles in the uncontested air space and relatively simply terrain of Iraq, how do ASB proponents suggest we search a continent-sized country with cities as complex as Shanghai? Do we think China will position its missiles and command and control in the open? Or will they either be hidden in tunnels, garages, mines, etc.? Even if they are outside, will the trucks be painted green, or will they bear the colors and shape of a Coca-Cola tractor trailer and move about a city? While “killing the archer” is a great bumper sticker, it really means playing whack-a-mole in highly contested airspace.

In contrast, Offshore Control is strategically and operationally offensive but tactically defensive. Tactical actions are guided by an operational campaign to attack Chinese strategic assets.

Colby also has some misconceptions about escalation. He seems to think U.S. concerns are limited to nuclear escalation. However, as outlined above, much of the concern is about the initial escalation that moves from crisis to open warfare. Colby states that AirSea Battle, if done properly, can effectively manage escalation. Colby assumes the U.S. can conduct a precision campaign without stimulating escalation. This assumes a level of precise intelligence that has been missing in our last few conflicts. Given the fact we mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, the Chinese may not be as confident we will limit our attacks to tactical targets.

I am also concerned about potential nuclear escalation. Four thousand years of recorded military history show people are poor at controlling escalation once a war starts. In fact, Clausewitz cautioned that once war starts, passion tends to dominate the primary trinity of passion, chance, and reason. Given that the United States does not understand China’s decision-making process for the employment of nuclear weapons, this seems an egregious risk. The risk is magnified by the low return even if the strikes succeed. If the strikes succeed, we gain the ability to continue to strike into China. Unless we believe Douhet will finally be right and bombing will defeat China, what is the theory of victory for an AirSea Battle-based campaign? Do we risk nuclear conflict in order to gain the “advantage” of conducting a conventional-bombing campaign against a continent-sized state?

As a clinching argument, Colby suggests that the larger U.S. nuclear arsenal means China cannot “win” an exchange. I am not sure the American people are willing to risk the destruction of a dozen or so major U.S. cities to find out.

Prepare for war

It is an old adage that the best way to prevent war is to prepare for it. Like many adages it assumes a certain level of common sense. You must be able to pay for the preparation. If you cannot afford the plan you have for war, you are not preparing by pretending you can afford it.

We are facing massive defense-budget cuts. Polls indicate the American people want even deeper cuts. Strategists have to balance ends, ways and means. If the means are restricted, then the ways must be altered. Thus it is vital the United States develop an affordable, executable strategy for the unlikely event of a conflict with China. It must deter China, assure allies, guide investment and, if needed, achieve a favorable conflict resolution. I proposed Offshore Control as a way to fill those requirements. I hope others will propose different strategies. Only by comparing strategies to each other can we evaluate them. As the Germans learned, an operational concept simply won’t do.

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.