Five strategic architectures can be applied to U.S.-China confrontation. The nature of how each achieves “victory” differs, and they have unique strengths and weaknesses.
Inside Out is Air-Sea Battle elevated to a strategy despite self-stated limitations. It is the DoD’s current vector via the rapid victory requirement dictated in planning scenarios. In this strategy, the United States applies technological asymmetries to enable small, tailored forces to survive intensely defended approaches and strike vital PRC targets. This demands operations at the furthest limits of our own power projection while holding the enemy at risk in his most defensible zone. The risk of failure in this technological arms race is difficult to calculate as both sides depend on secretive “silver bullets.” Once an Inside Out fight begins, each side is likely to locally blind the other via space and cyber attacks, radically limiting control of combat forces and increasing the risk of miscalculation, stagnation, and inadvertent escalation. This is an unsettling prospect against a nuclear-armed superpower whose redlines are difficult to determine.
Outside In relies on a more classic “peel the onion” approach to dismantle the PRC’s “anti-access/area-denial” (A2/AD) capabilities, without exclusive dependence on penetrating forces attempting a technological coup de grâce. This approach targets Chinese power projection capability. As PRC forces disperse beyond their shore based A2/AD zone they diffuse and lose synergistic protection. This flips the long distances of the Pacific battle-space from an offensive liability to strategic depth. In addition, while the U.S. military has been exercising its global reach throughout the 20th century, the Chinese have yet to demonstrate commensurate expeditionary air and sea operations.
Hedgehog strategy builds regional allies who complicate the PRC’s hegemonic calculus. Enhancing the “spines” on the back of nations like Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand can mitigate PRC aspirations in the South China Sea as it blunted Soviet expansion in Europe. Success looks like multi-lateral networks of lethally equipped partners who enable a favorable balance of power in phase 0. This checks China’s ability to intimidate Southern neighbors into its sphere of influence. Failure to invest in strong partnerships in Southeast Asia while reassuring existing alliances in Northeast Asia risks creating the perception of a “paper pivot” that boosts PRC regional clout.
Distant Interdiction exploits China’s massive dependence on foreign commodities. Called the “Malacca dilemma,” Pacific topography creates natural choke points beyond the reach of PRC power projection. U.S. Air, Naval and amphibious forces could selectively interdict vital commodities (especially oil) to break the PRC’s war making potential. This strategy can be executed with both lethal and non-lethal techniques, providing unique reversibility. Logistics interdiction is, by the Chinese own admission, one of their worst vulnerabilities.
Figure 1 Massive SLOC dependence for oil/LNG – most refineries on East Coast (credit http://noelmaurer.typepad.com/aab/2011/08/)
No-Man’s Sea exploits our own A2/AD capabilities to make Chinese home waters a mutual exclusion zone. The U.S. can pen-up both their military and merchant ships, forcing China to expend military capabilities on break-out operations to fetch vital supplies, while their merchant fleet sees the global market reconstitute without them. The loss of China will hurt the world market, but the loss of the world market could be catastrophic for the PRC.
Figure 2 Simultaneous application of A2/AD keeps the U.S. out, and the Chinese in (credit http://globalbalita.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Air-Sea-Battle-map.jpg)
Inside Out appeals to our preferred ways of war, and exploits the defense industrial base’s promotion of war as a contest between hardware rather than strategies. While Inside Out is only exclusive from Outside In, the former demands so much new-tech investment that it may totally strangle resources required to orchestrate the other four. Hedgehog allows the U.S. to engage the PRC in phase 0, where they have thus far demonstrated significant strategic gains. While Outside In, Distant Interdiction and No-Man’s Sea obviously work together in phases 1-3, they do not attempt to promise Inside Out’s rapid victory. Instead, they forego technological tempo compression – rife with potential for unpleasant strategic surprise – and accept that any war with a superpower will be measured in months, not days.
The combined application of these stratagems amounts to a grand-strategic maneuver campaign, from the Sea of Japan to the Straits of Malacca. Seeing time and distance as assets rather than liabilities can allow the U.S. to pull apart and separately engage PRC diplomatic, economic and military COGs. Air-Sea Battle enabling technologies and operational concepts can be useful in multiple strategies, but the United States should trade force design that emphasizes an Inside Out military gambit for a force that enables a more robust gamut of strategic options.
Jeremy Renken is a Major in the U.S. Air Force. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or U.S. Air Force.
To date, the discussion of Air-Sea Battle has provided a great deal of heat but very little light. Worse, it has driven the discussion to the tactical/operational level and confused the strategic discussion. With luck, CIMSEC’s weeklong focus on the subject will add a bit more light.
One of the fundamental problems of any discussion of Air-Sea Battle is determining what the term means in a particular discussion. Even more problematic, the discussion has too often focused on inter-service competition for resources and the procurement necessary to conduct an aggressive anti-A2/AD campaign against China. This has largely blocked the discussion of much more important questions. The first is can the United States maintain the maritime and air dominance that has been the keystone of its military position in Asia since 1945? (ASB seems to be based on the unexamined assumption that we can.) If such dominance is possible, can we afford it? If so, what military strategy would make use of those capabilities to achieve our political goals in the region? Finally, if the political situation, technical developments, or sheer cost make such dominance impossible, what should the U.S. strategy be for dealing both with China’s “creeping expansionism” and a highly unlikely, but potentially devastating, major war with China?
Let’s deal first with why the discussion has created more heat than light to date. As unusual as it is for me to say this—it’s not the Pentagon’s fault. The Pentagon has been very clear about ASB. Both the Chief of Naval Operations and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force have repeatedly stated that ASB is NOT a strategy. The ASB Office’s report from May 2013, Air-Sea Battle: Service Collaboration to Address Anti-Access & Area Denial Challenges. states “ASB is a limited objective concept that describes what is necessary for the joint force to sufficiently shape A2/AD environments to enable concurrent or follow-on power projection operations.” (p. 4) The Joint Staff has reinforced this by declaring that ASB is a supporting concept nested under the Joint Operational Access Concept. The same paper as above also thoughtfully outlined why the Anti-Access/Area Denial systems are a threat to the United States and how the Joint Force can respond. It notes:
While ASB is not a strategy, it is an important component of DoD’s strategic mission to project power and sustain operations in the global commons during peacetime or crisis. Implementation of the ASB Concept, coordinated through the ASB office, is designed to develop the force over the long-term, and will continue to inform institutional, conceptual, and programmatic changes for the Services for years to come. 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 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. (p. i) …
The ability to integrate capabilities, equipment, platforms, and units across multiple domains and to communicate, interact, and operate together presents a joint force commander with more numerous and powerful options, which in turn, offer greater probability of operational success. (p. 5)
Despite the Pentagon’s repeated efforts to clarify what it means by Air-Sea Battle, the broader discussion still focuses on the ideas expressed in the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment’s AirSea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept. CSBA’s report addresses the very real, and pressing problem of China’s growing ability to threaten U.S. power projection into Asia. Almost all observers agree this is a serious issue that needs addressing. The controversy has evolved not over the definition of the problem but CSBA’s proposed solution. The CSBA concept paper called for a two stage campaign. It is the first stage that is controversial. CSBA calls for the United States and its allies to defeat A2/AD by
Executing a blinding campaign against PLA battle networks;
Executing a suppression campaign against PLA long-range, ISR and strike systems;
Seizing and sustaining the initiative in the air, sea, space and cyber domains.
In short, CSBA calls for not only striking targets inside a thermo-nuclear armed state but actually targeting the command and control of its nuclear forces. In order to suppress China’s long-range cruise and ballistic missiles, the United States will have to strike the command and control systems of the Second Artillery Corps, which, as Thomas Christensen points out, is also responsible for China’s strategic nuclear force. Attacking a thermo-nuclear armed state’s nuclear deterrent in order to gain a limited tactical advantage seems to be enormously risky.
This illustrates a key point about operational concepts. In absence of a strategy, even successful operational concepts can lead to failure. Blitzkrieg was highly successful against France. When used against the Soviet Union, it was an unmitigated disaster. In both countries it worked at the tactical and operational levels. But in the second instance, there was a major mismatch in the ends, ways, and means calculation. German planners assumed the same concept that worked brilliantly in a relatively limited theater like France would work in the expanses of Russia. This assumption ignored history. While the French in the 19th Century stood and fought, and if defeated, surrendered, the Russians had a history of withdrawing deeper into their interior and fighting on.
Thus an operational concept cannot be judged as good or bad unless it is applied to a specific strategy. Perhaps more dangerous is the fact that an operational concept can drive procurement even in the absence of a strategy—even in the total absence of any evidence the concept will work. Prior to World War II, the Royal Air Force’s fundamental operational concept was that strategic bombing could rapidly defeat an enemy. This was based on the dogma that the bomber would always get through. The RAF maintained its faith despite the fact that numerous tests had indicated the bombers often could not find, much less hit, their targets. Tests also indicated that bombers could be intercepted by fighters and thus would face heavy losses if they attempted to fly unescorted missions deep into enemy airspace.
Despite the evidence to the contrary, the RAF continued to push the concept of strategic bombardment. It focused on procurement of heavy bombers to the detriment of fighter forces, radar, and air defense command and control. Only the intervention of civilian leaders forced the RAF to grudgingly shift resources to the air defense network. The civilian intervention proved critical in The Battle of Britain. There is no doubt that early in the war, the British Air Defense Command was much more important to Britain’s survival than Bomber Command. In fact, the concept of Strategic Bombardment never lived up to its promises. While heavy bombardment played a key role in defeating Germany, it did so at only enormous human and financial cost. Even then, it did so only after both the U.S. and Royal Air Forces significantly modified their pre-war strategic bombing concepts.
This highlights why the discussion needs to shift away from the Air-Sea Battle Concept to the higher order questions of strategy and subsequent resource allocation decisions. Guiding U.S. resource allocation may be the area where strategy has the most immediate impact. Obviously, political imperatives will continue to drive a major portion of the U.S. defense budget, but as we face significantly reduced funding over the next decade, clear strategic logic may be a key factor in helping us make hard budgetary choices. Letting an operational concept drive procurement without a strategy would result in a significant waste of resources, especially in a constrained budgetary environment.
If one assumes the strategy to deal with China must include capabilities as endorsed by the CSBA to severely degrade China’s ISR, C2, and long-range strike capabilities thorough kinetic strikes, then heavy investment in expensive, stealthy, strike systems as well as redundant and highly capable C2 and ISR systems is required. However, if one assumes that U.S. strategy can use the advantages of A2/AD to protect allies and that U.S. dominance in submarines and blue-water surface ships can cut China’s trade, then investment shifts to more submarines, smart mines, and open ocean surveillance. The latter approach not only drives investment in a very different direction but also seeks a much more affordable force structure.
We need to stop discussing the enabling concept of Air-Sea Battle and begin a deep discussion of potential military strategies for the unlikely event of a conflict with China. Besides providing guidance to our own force planners and procurement programs, a strategy is required to reassure our Asian allies and friends. In numerous conversations with Japanese, Singaporean, Australian, and Korean leaders and scholars, I have heard repeated concerns that the U.S. plans to use the CSBA concept as the basis for a conflict with China. The combination of direct attacks into China and the U.S. refusal to share the details of ASB with our allies causes trepidation both about our strategy and our reliability. They have heard the Pentagon’s statements that ASB is not a strategy and is not focused at China; but in the absence of any acknowledged strategy, they assume we continue to rely on a strategy based on ASB.
Thus any discussion of strategy must include our allies in the region—and preferably will result in a strategy we can express openly, demonstrate convincingly, and implement jointly with our allies. An integral part of this discussion must be how that strategy supports our allies in stopping the “the creeping expansionism” approach China is using today. China is pushing outward using a number of approaches: the occupation of Scarborough Shoals; the pressure on Second Thomas Shoal; the declaration of “Sansha City” on Woody Shoal; the newly declared East China Sea ADIZ; the newly published fishing regulations for the South China Sea; as well as harassment of our allies’ fishing, freedom of navigation, and energy exploration efforts. Obviously these actions will not be stopped by a purely military strategy. Just as clearly, an affordable, demonstrated, and feasible military strategy is essential to reducing the possibility that incidents like these could escalate into open conflict.
So what should that strategy be? In an effort to start the strategic discussion, I have written about a strategy for conflict with China here, here, and here. I propose a particular approach but we need to have a serious discussion about a variety of approaches. We can strive to maintain the air and sea dominance in Asia that we have enjoyed since 1945. An alternative approach is to focus on denying China use of the sea while defending our allies in the region from Chinese attacks. A bit more distant approach would see the U.S. focusing on encouraging allies to defend themselves while we focus on a distant blockade as a form of coercion. We need to evaluate a potential strategy based on its utility in deterring China, reassuring our allies and friends in the region and its feasibility and affordability. With luck, this CIMSEC discussion will broaden and deepen the strategic discussion.
Circling back to the designated topic—Air-Sea Battle, I’d like to make a final point. While I am adamantly opposed to spending heavily for capabilities to directly attack the Chinese mainland, I am not opposed to pursuing work on the technical and tactical aspects of insuring we can fight as a truly joint force. The ASB office in the Pentagon may or may not be the way to accomplish this goal. However, one adjustment the office should make is to the allocation of resources. While it is difficult to tell from the outside how we are investing our resources, the written material and briefings from the ASB office indicate it focuses too much on Anti-Access and not enough on Area Denial. The Army and Marine Corps should aggressively contest this allocation of resources. While defeating Anti-Access will be necessary in the unlikely event of a war with China and, to a much lesser degree, Iran, defeating Area Denial weapons will be an integral part of any U.S. military involvement on the ground. It is Area Denial weapons that have caused the majority of U.S. casualties for the last decade. Further, the wide dissemination of both the technology and the techniques of AD weapons means U.S. forces will face these weapons wherever they deploy. One might also note that Area Denial weapons—sea mines—are the only weapons which have actually defeated a U.S. amphibious landing—at Wonsan, Korea in 1950.
T.X. Hammes is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. He served 30 years in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Some of the criticism that the Air-Sea Battle Concept receives spawns from its developers not articulating what higher-level strategy it supports. Of course they cannot, because operational concepts are not operational plans! If Air-Sea Battle could be linked to a strategy, then either it is not actually a concept or the strategy it was being linked to was a terrible and inadequate strategy.
Creating a good strategy is hard. Strategy must be tailored to a specific situation and as the situation continues to evolve, so must the strategy. Effective strategy is based in the current geo-political situation, looks at what you want the end result to be, and determines how to utilize all elements of national power (political and diplomatic, informational and social, economic, and military) to accomplish this.
Though a strategy can be simple and elegant, like the Anaconda Plan of the American Civil War, figuring out the correct strategy can be complex and messy. Before figuring out how to fight a war you have to figure out why you are fighting it and how you want it to end. Clausewitz may have said it best that “No one starts a war – or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so – without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” No one should fight a war without knowing the strategic aims to be gained from it. Every complex aspect of strategy is compounded by the fact that the enemy always gets a vote in every strategic assumption made.
Air-Sea Battle, like all operational concepts, has no business trying to be “linked to a strategy.” It is simply one tool we have to confront a potential threat and nothing more. The danger does not come from what Air-Sea Battle is; the potential danger comes if we ever try to make it more than it is. If we find ourselves in a conflict with a peer or near-peer adversary employing anti-access / area denial (A2/AD) capabilities and the only tool in the toolkit that we have prepared fully to utilize is Air-Sea Battle, we are in trouble. Air-Sea Battle in its entirety or key aspects of it absolutely might be the right answer in a future war, but it also might unnecessarily escalate the conflict or we may find it too limited in scope. The challenge is that we will never know this answer until actually faced with conflict. There will never be one golden operational concept with all of the answers and is all encompassing for all needs. Our danger with Air-Sea Battle is not a lack of it being linked to a strategy. Our danger is with our whole strategy being “the war has started; time to throw Air-Sea Battle at it.”
General Eisenhower felt that “plans are nothing; planning is everything.” Similarly, a concept itself may not be that useful, but the new ideas created as a result of developing the concept can be very useful. We may never use the concept of Air-Sea Battle, but in developing and writing it we will learn much about potential A2/AD threats and possible ways to address them. That is the entire point of concepts. Operational concepts are not operational plans. They are high-level ideas on how you could operate. But the ideas within them can and should influence operational planning when it is applicable.
Some could argue that the most likely scenario would be that we never go to war with the People’s Republic of China or that if we did we would never project power inland like described in Air-Sea Battle. Though it is good to know which scenarios are the most likely, strategic thinkers and planners must never limit themselves to the most likely. The most famous colored war plan developed prior to WWII was Plan Orange because it was the one which was ultimately utilized. But what is lesser known is all of the other developed plans that were never tested in combat. For example, War Plan Red-Orange was a scenario where the United States fought against a United Kingdom-Japanese alliance. This scenario seems ridiculous in hindsight and not the most likely scenario when it was being developed, but strategists and planners do not have the luxury of just ignoring certain scenarios which seem unlikely. If it is not an impossible scenario, it should at least be thought about. We know war plan Red-Orange was never used, but its analysis revealed that the United States was not prepared to support simultaneous operations in two major theaters. And though the U.S. did not go to war with the United Kingdom, those lessons were applied to actual operations in World War II.
The fact that we are thinking about Air-Sea battle is good, and the fact that we are debating the merits of it is even better. Air-Sea battle cannot be a flawed plan because it is no plan. It cannot support a strategy because operational concepts do not support strategies. We are not in trouble because we are thinking about Air-Sea Battle, but we could find ourselves in trouble if it is all we think about.
LT Jason H. Chuma is a U.S. Navy submarine officer who has deployed to the U.S. 4th Fleet and U.S. 6th Fleet areas of responsibility. He is a graduate of the Citadel, holds a master’s degree from Old Dominion University, and has completed the Intermediate Command and Staff Course from the U.S. Naval War College. He can be followed on Twitter @Jason_Chuma.
The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.
The supremacy of the conventional projection of U.S. naval power has come under the threat of foreign naval expansion and comparatively low-cost Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) capabilities, namely those of China. As planners finally come to terms with these challenges, a loud and very confusing debate is raging between what many consider the two strategies to counter these threats: “Air-Sea Battle” (ASB) and “Offshore Control” (OSC).
If you are lucky, you have missed most of the ASB vs. OSC debate outside the comforting walls of CIMSEC, since it has a high noise-to-signal ratio: many arguments with mislabeled terms.
ASB-detractors decry what they see as an expensive, high-tech campaign to penetrate Chinese airspace and pepper their critical networks with precision strikes. It is often labeled a “strategy,” with its central tenant being an escalatory, wide-spread attack on the mainland using a force that would actually only play into the opponent’s numerical and cyber/space advantages.
Detractors of OSC oppose what they imagine is a “sit back and wait” strategy in which a blockade is utilized to choke the economy of a belligerent China. It is accused of ceding the PRC too much freedom to pursue military objectives and too much time to develop the conditions necessary to consolidate gains before negotiating a lift of the blockade.
The problem is that these views are off-point; the ways in which ASB and OSC have been defined are wrong; the concepts are actually compatible, not oppositional.
ASB is not a “strategy” like a “convoy” is not a strategy. One could compare ASB to a brewery; it takes the water of the Navy, the hops and roasted malt of the Air Force, adds yeast and ferments them together into a delicious stout in which 500lb bombs get dropped from an F-16 onto boats attacking a carrier in a major strait. The military has always talked about acting in a “joint” way, but ASB imagines the capabilities, advantages, and application of taking that a step further: beer, not a cup of barely mixed with water. In spirit, ASB remain very close to its origins in ADM Stravridis’ (USN, Ret.) Naval War College papers (.pdf download).
The official DoD ASB report does talk about “attacks-in-depth” (.pdf download) that detractors claim are escalatory, but ASB is just a toolbox and not nation specific. As with every toolbox, not all tools are used for every job. The Kennedy administration emphasized this idea with “flexible response.” Though the United States had nuclear weapons, we also had other qualitative and quantitative degrees of force for our strategies as appropriate to the scenario. To quote the Old Salt Emeritus, ADM Harvey (USN, Ret.), ASB is “not about dropping JDAMs into downtown Beijing.” You don’t have to drink the whole keg of ASB; you can pour yourself a pint and you can definitely drink it in far more places than the Pacific.
Unlike ASB, OSC is a strategy, one that sees economic strangulation as the means to victory in a war against China. However, wouldn’t any campaign against a major conventional opponent seek at least in part to strangle their economy? Col TX Hammes (USMC, Ret.) created OSC as a sober guard against attacking the Chinese mainland, which he sees as the possible escalatory route nuclear war. He does note in his writings that he would not cede what is called the “first island chain” to a belligerent China and would, where able, attack force projection assets outside the mainland. However, in order to accomplish such a wide campaign…one might want to use ASB. The loud debates miss that actually, ASB and OSC could walk hand-in-hand if properly applied.
The major point of contention is then, not between ASB and OSC, but an operational debate on one side and on the other a debate about the nature of escalation, the capabilities we would retain, and our starting conditions. Arguably, with our pivot to the Pacific and concerns with China, that strategic debate is far more important.
OSC beats ASB as an “answer” in so much as it is an actual strategy against a specific opponent, but Col. Hammes doesn’t get away scot free. Robert McNamara, reflecting on the Vietnam War, said that one of our major flaws was that we assumed our opponents thought the same way we did. Would the PRC see the destruction of military assets and projection power capabilities as more escalatory than shutting down the Chinese economy? Would a “systemic” attack like a blockade be met with an in-kind cyber-attack to bring down the US economy as possible, in ways that a naval exchange in the South China Sea would not? The potential for escalation is difficult to divine, and OSC may not identify the correct tripwires. To be fair however, as GEN Eisenhower said, “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
In applying any “big” strategies, we are challenged by the unknown spark and scale of our conflict: from Taiwan, to the South China Sea, to North Korea. While there are many scenarios where the United States might respond with full-fledged military operations, there are far more that will involve general or targeted low-level escalation (such as the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone).
While we debate a potential high-end conflict, a real conflict of passive-aggressive escalation is occurring now in the East China Sea where the PRC is burrowing under our tripwires to their objective. In “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower,” the U.S. Navy declared that “preventing wars are as important as winning them.” We want a war-winning strategy, but we don’t want China to gain a position of confidence in which they would force us to use such a plan. Moreover, we don’t want to miss a subtle fait-accompli while we’re waiting for a war that will never come. Suffice it to say, an operational plan that puts American forces shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies, a soft power plan that strengthens political and military alliances and interoperability, and unwavering U.S. regional commitment is at least a start in preventing regional bandwagoning with the PRC.
Matthew Hipple is a surface warfare officer and graduate of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. He is Director of the Online Content and hosts of the Sea Control podcast. His opinions may not reflect those of the United States Navy, Department of Defense, or US Government. Did he mention he was host of the Sea Control podcast? You should start listening to that.