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Sea Control 41: The View From China

seacontrol2Dean Cheng joins us to discuss China. Like a flourless brownie, this podcast is dense and delicious. We hit China’s goals and perspectives: From the Chinese “status quo”, to the South China Sea, to India, to the use of crises as policy tools. If you want to see behind the headlines, this is your podcast.

DOWNLOAD: Sea Control 41 – The View from China

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Strategic Architectures

A primer on concepts and their relationships

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.

Sober Thinking Over a Glass of Air Sea Beer

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).

A young ENS Patrick Hipple goes mad listening to the ASB debate and calls in all the airstrikes on himself.
A young ENS Patrick Hipple goes mad listening to the ASB debate and calls in all airstrikes on himself.

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.