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.

But of course my argument (made more extensively in my original article) is that in any case Hammes’ strategy almost certainly wouldn’t work—that the cordoning off of all of China’s territory from attack would be to provide Beijing with tremendous advantage, both in strict military terms and in the confidence Beijing would then enjoy in its ability to safely manipulate escalation. In brief, it’s very hard to see how we would prevail in a struggle with the PRC over supremacy in the Western Pacific if we abandoned the attempt to degrade the overwhelming bulk of Chinese military resources (which are, after all, located on the mainland) while relying on the greater stamina and fortitude of the far removed and (blessedly) comfortable American people over the increasingly nationalistic and revanchist Chinese, for whom the worst forms of suffering are a close memory.

The use of the word “prevail” brings up another of Hammes’ arguments—that ASB and my article failed to describe satisfactory criteria for war termination. If this was unclear from my initial article, then let me be translucently clear: plans for war termination and escalation control absolutely must be central facets of any sensible U.S. strategy in a war against China (and in any war, frankly). Moreover, U.S. objectives in any plausible war with China should be defensive and distinctly limited in nature. Of course, we cannot know in advance what satisfactory war-termination criteria should be in specific terms, but the United States should be absolutely clear that regime change and territorial conquest should be off the table as U.S. war aims. This should facilitate the ending of a war by making abundantly clear that our objectives are constrained.

Indeed, to my eye ASB makes such satisfactory war termination more rather than less likely. To end a limited war, the other side must see some benefits from settling and/or see that it would suffer costs from persisting. ASB would do this more effectively than Hammes’ approach.


Properly conceived and conducted, an ASB-style approach would not only degrade Chinese capability, it would also impose costs that are both far more biting and real than Hammes’ offshore blockade but also far from the kinds of damages likely to spur a Chinese nuclear response. Effectively prosecuted, ASB or something like it would, then, leave China in a position in which it was decreasingly capable of fighting the United States and its allies and suffering increasing losses but still able to make a deal that would leave it with its core interests intact and respected—the paradigmatic “dignified way out.” In Hammes’ conception, on the other hand, China would have little reason to settle because it would be operating from near impunity, needing only to resign itself to the loss of some portion of its international commerce that history indicates countries readily part with in the throes of war and that China probably could replace through exchanges along its extremely long and varied land borders.

One thing Hammes is right to point out, though, is that ASB must not be constructed in such a way that it is the only military course of action available to the United States in the event of war with China. While there appears to be no evidence that this is currently a serious problem, it bears emphasizing that an ASB-style approach should only be one military option or type of option among several. It would be foolhardy and irresponsible in the extreme to prepare for only one type of war against China, a type of war that might be ill suited to the actual strategic conditions and stakes at issue. Rather, the Pentagon must be prepared to offer the President at least some other real options for waging a war against China, including options that don’t involve mainland strikes. It should be up to our political authorities rather than military institutional inertia to determine the basic outlines of how the United States would go about fighting China. Needless to say, resource constraints limit how much flexibility can be offered against such a formidable opponent, but at least some level of flexibility is an entirely reasonable standard.