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.

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?