The War over War with China

The War over War with China

A strategy of offshore control doesn't cut it. AirSea Battle is stronger.

In his article, “ Sorry, AirSea Battle is no Strategy ,” T.X. Hammes offers a detailed counterargument to my initial article defending the Pentagon’s AirSea Battle (ASB) and related endeavors, “ Don’t Sweat AirSea Battle .” While Colonel Hammes and I differ on many points, we are in full agreement that the issues surrounding ASB deserve a full-throated debate. The American people should know and, to the extent possible, influence the shaping of perhaps the most important U.S. military-doctrinal development of recent decades, one with the most serious potential implications.

In his article, Hammes offers a spirited defense of his Offshore Control strategy. I tried to address many of his arguments for it in my initial article and so will not rehash the points here. I urge interested readers to review my arguments there and make their own judgments. I will focus here on issues Hammes raised in his rebuttal that appear to me to be new or especially requiring attention.

Hammes’ primary point in his rebuttal piece (captured in its title) is that neither ASB itself nor my article provides a strategy that ASB “is designed to support.” He argues that such a strategy “must deter China, reassure our allies, guide U.S. investment, and, if conflict comes, resolve it on terms favorable to the United States.” I agree with his requirements for an effective strategy vis a vis China; I just think his strategy fails his first, second, and fourth criteria, while I think an ASB-style approach fits into one that meets them.

I will pass over the extensive literature about just what a strategy is and how it should be formulated to say simply that, while ASB itself certainly does not constitute a strategy (and no Pentagon official I know of has ever claimed it does), it is a logical deduction from the well-established U.S. defense policy towards East Asia and the Western Pacific, a policy that in its central aspects dates back to 1945: namely, that the United States will protect its interests and its territories as well as those of its allies in the region by being the militarily dominant power in the Western Pacific, especially in its waters and its skies (and in space and now cyberspace). The logic of this posture is rooted in something like the “hegemonic stability” theory described by Robert Gilpin and others—that we are more likely to get peace, stability and economic growth if one basically benevolent power dominates a region and ensures these goods are established and preserved. In practical terms, through our strategy we have sought to protect our interests by turning our own admonition to ourselves not to get involved in a land war in Asia around into a warning to potential adversaries not to get involved in an air or sea war with the Americans in the Pacific. And we have pretty much succeeded. Indeed, the rise of the Asian Tigers—and ultimately of Asia as a whole—owes much to this U.S defense posture. (For those interested, I make a fuller argument for a reinvigoration of this approach in this op-ed , which I linked to in the original piece.)

My argument for why it is vital that something like ASB be a serious option for dealing with China should it become aggressive or coercive proceeds from this strategic approach. If the United States is to maintain this posture of military dominance in maritime Asia and the geopolitical policies associated with it, then it must also maintain at the very least the ability to prevail militarily in those same regions. If we are not able to do this, then we would be, essentially by definition, no longer providing that security that is so central to the stability of the system. More specifically, the United States must be able, ultimately, to rebuff or roll back in a reasonable time frame any plausible Chinese attempt to conduct serious military operations in—let alone to control—our territory and the territory of our allies, the waters and skies around them, and major regional sea and air lanes. ASB and its cognate approaches appear to be about trying to do just this.


On the other hand, Hammes’ strategy, even viewed in the most favorable light, simply doesn’t square with this traditional U.S. strategic posture in the region. Rather, it proposes forgoing the attempt to hold on to dominance in favor of effectively turning the Western Pacific into a strategic free fire zone or no man’s land in the hopes of coercing Beijing into coming to terms. Again, even looked at most favorably, this would involve a decisive change in the nature of the U.S. defense posture in the region. This in turn would almost certainly lead to dramatic changes in our relations with and the behavior of our partners and allies because these relationships have developed over sixty-five years based on the expectation of U.S. military dominance in the Western Pacific. Allies, such as Japan, that could only hope to be rescued rather than expect to be defended would be exceedingly likely to change course accordingly—quite possibly leading to effects (first, second, third order, and so on) that we would really prefer to avoid.