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.

That said, it appears from what the Pentagon has released that the Department of Defense is fully aware of this responsibility. As they state: “The ASB Concept seeks to provide decision makers with a wide range of options to counter aggression from hostile actors. At the low end of the conflict spectrum, the Concept enables decision makers to engage with partners to assure access, maintain freedom of action, conduct a show of force, or conduct limited strikes. At the high end of the conflict spectrum, the Concept preserves the ability to defeat aggression and maintain escalation advantage despite the challenges posed by advanced weapons systems.” Obviously the proof is in the doctrinal, planning and procurement pudding, but that is a good statement of what is needed conceptually.

Hammes is equally right to point to the profound dangers of a strategy that relies on preemption.

He alleges that ASB is such a strategy. It likewise therefore bears underlining that ASB and its cognate approaches must not require that the United States be the first to use force. Moreover, ASB planners should make every reasonable effort to avoid building plans that require, even once a war has started, that the United States escalate dramatically to achieve its goals. While military necessity imposes constraints on how much this can be achieved, the ideal for the doctrine should be to enable the United States to be one to determine the war’s intensity, tempo, and other factors relating to escalation. As with the preemption problem, however, there is no evidence that this is a serious problem. Indeed, much of the point of ASB seems to be precisely to avoid this problem by seeking to maintain the U.S. discretion and flexibility. The Concept statement, for instance, refers to maintaining U.S. “freedom of action” well over a dozen times, and describes ASB as being, “at its core…about reducing risk and maintaining U.S. freedom of action.” So Hammes’ fears, while certainly legitimate, appear exaggerated.

Finally, Hammes argues that I misconceive or underestimate the dangers of nonnuclear escalation. I do not think I underestimate the dangers of nonnuclear escalation; I simply think we should seek to maintain or attain it. We want to have the conventional escalation advantage (leave aside the nuclear issues for the moment). The logic is that this advantage will make the Chinese less likely to fight us or escalate themselves and, if they do, would enable us to prevail.

So while we should rightly seek to avoid conventional escalation if possible, we should nonetheless strive to retain or achieve conventional superiority and thus the ability to exploit it—both to deter war and intrawar escalation and to give us the ability to win (albeit in limited terms) in the event the Chinese do resort to it. While Hammes seems to object to this line of thinking, it hardly constitutes radical heresy. Instead, it seems to be something like the conventional wisdom (which is, after all, usually right), and at the very least represents established thinking in the U.S. Department of Defense.

But, while I say this, I readily concede that I have little to no real idea how an actual war with China that involved implementing an ASB-style campaign would proceed. And, to be honest, I am deeply unnerved and indeed frightened by the prospect, which is one of the reasons I think engaging with the Chinese earnestly and genuinely on these questions is so important. (See here for more on this point.) I think war with China would be an epic disaster and evidence of a massive strategic and probably moral failure on the parts of the leaderships of both nations. We should do everything we responsibly can to avert it.

But the problem is that if we only paid attention to that justified and moral fear, we would open ourselves to exploitation by those doubtful of our resolve or more willing to risk escalation than we—which would in turn be to compromise our interests, themselves presumably also (we hope) justified and moral. This is the conundrum of politics and strategy in the nuclear age, described expertly in a recent article in the Journal of Strategic Studies by Francis Gavin that I urge readers to review.

I said at the beginning that Colonel Hammes and I do agree on a few things here. One of them is the importance and utility of debate on the subject. Another is the need to prepare for war to avoid it. We differ on how we think this is best done. We don’t differ on the need to do it, though, and most of all we don’t differ in our hopes that neither of our preferred strategies is ever put to the ultimate test.

Elbridge Colby is a principal analyst at CNA, where he focuses on strategic and deterrence issues. He previously served in a number of government positions, most recently with the Office of the Secretary of Defense working on nuclear-weapons policy and arms control.