The rise of China, attended by a more muscular military posture and economic status, has altered the international system in ways that directly challenge America’s traditional role in the Asia-Pacific region. Prior to 2000, the United States enjoyed unrivaled status as the guarantor of stability in the region. Today, the picture is very different. America’s persistent budgetary woes, two inconclusive military conflicts, and a bitterly divided U.S. political system give off the impression that America is declining.
Yet China may have overplayed its hand and provided the United States with an opportunity to reinforce its position in the Pacific. In fact, China’s actions since 2007 have moved Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Korea closer to the United States. China has also stimulated the nations of ASEAN to question China’s assertion of a peaceful rise. The Obama administration’s principal response, the “Rebalance to Asia,” is intended both to reassure allies and partners in the region and communicate America’s enduring interests and role as a Pacific power. For obvious reasons, the administration has been careful not to identify China explicitly as a security threat. Both sides are well aware that historically, rising and dominant powers often clash. Yet history also suggests that confrontation with China is far from inevitable. The United States and its allies will not provoke, and would certainly go to extreme lengths to avoid, armed conflict with China. The U.S. National Security Strategy makes that an explicit goal. While no set of actions can guarantee continued peace between China and the United States, carefully considered national and military strategies can reduce the probability of a conflict and, should conflict occur, limit and constrain its fallout and consequences.
Tom Donilon, then the National Security Advisor, clarified and reinforced the administration’s determination to continue its rebalance to Asia in 2012:
To pursue this vision, the United States is implementing a comprehensive, multidimensional strategy: strengthening alliances; deepening partnerships with emerging powers; building a stable, productive, and constructive relationship with China; empowering regional institutions; and helping to build a regional economic architecture that can sustain shared prosperity.
The United States has clearly articulated the carrots it will use to encourage peaceful growth in the region. While there is an ongoing argument over how well the Obama administration has executed the diplomatic, economic and informational aspects of its rebalance, the intent is clear.
Unfortunately, to date, the United States has been much less forthcoming in describing how its military forces will contribute to this vision of prosperity and continued security. In particular, what does it use as a stick to deter China from using force to intimidate its neighbors? So far, the United States has not yet expressed a coherent military strategy that will deter China and reassure U.S. allies and friends in the region.
We believe a major conflict between a rising China and the United States, Japan or India is highly unlikely. Yet the First World War painfully demonstrated that even countries that are closely integrated economically can fight. It is important that the United States and its friends in Asia work hard to ensure that does not happen again. Further, the U.S.-USSR experience indicates that conflict is in fact a choice and can be deterred. A key part of avoiding that conflict was the deterrent value of NATO’s military forces and a clearly stated military strategy for resisting Soviet aggression.
ASB as a source of confusion
For this reason, the concept of “Air-Sea Battle” should deeply concern serious observers. Rolled out in 2010 by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), AirSea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept postulated that in the “unthinkable” case of a war with China, U.S. forces should attack Chinese surveillance systems and its integrated air defense system, followed by a weighted campaign to bomb Chinese land-based ballistic and antiship missile systems to “seize and sustain the initiative in air, sea, space and cyber domains.” Proposed as an operational concept and not a strategy, CSBA also provided a blueprint for the development of a new generation of naval and air weapons systems.
AirSea Battle created immediate controversy. Critics fell into two major categories—those who saw it as needlessly provocative, and those who believed it was simply a justification for the Navy and Air Force to gain a greater portion of the Defense budget in a time of fierce competition for declining military funding.
We believe the CSBA concept is both provocative and ineffective. While “blinding” Chinese space-based and ground surveillance systems may make sense in the event the People’s Republic of China initiates hostilities, it is dangerous to assume such a campaign will be successful in a time of aerostats, cheap drones and cube satellites. Further, a weighted air and naval campaign that attacks China’s integrated air-defense and land-based missile systems is flawed from multiple perspectives. First, it is dangerously provocative. China’s Second Rocket Artillery Corps, which controls its conventional land-based missiles, also controls its land-based nuclear arsenal. A direct attack on the organization that controls China’s strategic nuclear forces in a scenario where U.S. territory and nuclear forces have not been attacked could escalate the conflict uncontrollably. In this regard, though touted as an “operational concept,” AirSea Battle, as expressed in the CSBA concept paper, intrudes forcefully and directly into the political domain.
ASB is also ineffective because it sends a limited number of extremely expensive U.S. assets directly against China’s strength—its dense and capable air-defense network. The CSBA paper counts on the ability of U.S. forces to successfully find and destroy Chinese mobile missile systems. This is a daunting task, particularly since the United States utterly failed to do so in Operation Desert Storm in 1991. According to the Gulf War Air Power Survey, the coalition air forces saw forty-two Iraqi Scud launches, but could only get into position to drop ordnance eight times. The authors offered in mitigation that commercial vehicles on highways provided significant background clutter that made the Scuds hard to target. However, the British Special Air Services reported that ground observers could see actual launches from thirty miles away. In short, the Iraqis were launching large rockets from relatively open desert terrain. In addition, allied forces had absolute air supremacy as well as hundreds of aircraft that could range freely over the entire country. Despite all these advantages, the Survey concluded, “There is no indisputable proof that Scud mobile launchers—as opposed to high-fidelity decoys, trucks or other objects with Scud-like signature—were destroyed by fixed-wing aircraft.” Despite a massive effort involving thousands of air sorties, ground and national intelligence assets, the allies failed to get a single confirmed kill against a system that took the Iraqis at least thirty minutes to erect, fuel and launch. It is extremely unlikely that air power will fare better against the much more numerous Chinese systems in the complex, heavily defended environment of coastal China. These mobile systems can be hidden in garages, buildings under construction, caves and tunnels. There are tens of thousands of places to hide. The launch vehicles can also be camouflaged as commercial vehicles for the periods when they move between hiding places. Finally, solid-fueled systems can launch in much less time than the old liquid-fueled Scuds. To even have a chance of success, the United States would have to maintain enough aircraft in the contested airspace of China to detect the missile moving into firing position and place a weapon on it in a matter of minutes.
In short, the CSBA AirSea Battle Concept has very little chance of success in any of the three areas it considers vital—blinding, eliminating command and control nodes or suppressing launch systems. Yet, it accepts the high risk of attacking mainland China and the probability such an attack will make conflict resolution even more difficult.
These deficiencies clearly call into question ASB’s value against China in a conflict. However, ASB’s real danger is that is lacks deterrent value. Because ASB apparently depends upon space and cyber systems, China may well feel it can degrade those systems enough to defeat ASB’s operational approach. China has clearly demonstrated the ability to use hard and soft attacks on space assets. It has also demonstrated the capability to at least infiltrate our cyber systems. Thus, it may believe that offensive action in space and cyber could cripple ASB capabilities. Further, China may well believe the United States cannot afford ASB or at the very least, will not field the capabilities for a decade or more. A military concept that is vulnerable to a relatively inexpensive defeat mechanism or has a window of vulnerability has little deterrent value.
Perhaps the most strategically significant weakness of Air-Sea Battle is that it may frighten our allies as much or more so than our potential adversary. It is the confusion between the CSBA concept and DoD’s actual Air-Sea Battle that causes the problem. Since much of the technology in DoD’s actual ASB program is top secret, U.S. officials are unable to discuss it with our allies. As a result, many allies assume it will follow the pattern described in CSBA’s paper and initiate immediate, extensive attacks on Chinese territory. They are obviously concerned that China will see such attacks as emanating from allied territory and respond in kind. U.S. allies are in effect being asked to provide bases without any knowledge of what actions the United States intends to take from those bases.