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

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

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.

16 thoughts on “Strategic Architectures”

  1. No matter how you approach it, disassembling a major power is going to take time. The Chinese as a people are inured to suffering. They have massive cash reserves. Any approach is going to need to put the blame for the resulting hardships on the ruling party rather than on the US. The Chinese people will need to get mad at their government rather than the US or the conflict will last a very long time.

  2. No matter the strategy, if the U.S. puts China in a bind, China may decide to demand payment of its U.S. debt holdings or increase interest rates. The U.S. can refuse (i guess), but the destablizing effect may be enough to counter any U.S. aggression. Perhaps a better strategy is to convince China that changing its strategy (in favor of U.S. interests) is their idea and in their best interest (allows China to save face).

    1. @anonymous, the bonded debt issues is an interesting lever of control China can use in peace, but it actually sets conditions where they would be very unwise to go to war. Declaration of war with a bond holder means the bond writer (as in the US) an re-serialize that debt to other purposes. While China holds a 1/10th of our total Gov debt, that security backs up ~40% of the Yuan (that’s data from ~2 years ago, but I doubt it has dramatically changed). If China demands payment and the US defaults, our credit rating suffers, the value of the dollar goes down as less secure dollars flood the market, and the Chinese economy — secured in dollars — tanks right along with ours. We suffer at Wallmart, they suffer across the economy. I’m not sure how the Chinese could “demand … increase our interest rate” (not directly possible). The problem with the last idea is that, while ideally we would convince China to see their interests best met by being a good “number 2” superpower, they see it as their right to move to the #1 spot. Changing that aspiration will be hard, if not impossible. I’d rather create a broad array of DIME consequences to maintain balance and US power no matter what they think their rights are.

  3. You left out the projected Gwadar to Kargash route, as well as proposed pipelines through Afghanistan as postulated by Kent Calder in “The New Continentalism”. The Chinese may be building a blue water force, but they are also angling toward autarky in petroleum through land-based oil/natural gas supply routes. Getting to and breaking those routes deep in the Eurasian “heartland” will be as difficult as it was 100 years ago when first articulated by Brit geopolitical theorist Sir Halford Mackinder.

    1. Steven, exactly. Those pipeline routes have been tried so many times, and failed so many times, that they really present staggering challenges. Last I say, the anticipated cost of those pipelines put about a 1000% tax on the price of pipeline oil relative to seaborne oil. Also, just getting it into the empty western half of China does no good. Then you need to move the product another 1000km to get it to anywhere where it could be used — presumably on a transportation network that at this point does not exist.

      1. The Chinese have done some amazing construction work in the last 10 years in highways, railways and in oil pipelines. The Kazakhstan to China pipeline is 1300 miles in length. Russian state oil company Rosneft has a current agreement to provide China 200,000 barrels per day via overland means. While expensive, such interior routes would be difficult targets for U.S. direct action and ensure a steady supply of oil to allow China to ride out a conflict with the US.

  4. Totally agree that time is actually an asset. Attempting brief, high-intensity, penetrating campaigns seems technically challenging, and the extreme cost of the attempt strangles all other means of engagement. I’m not putting forth the idea that the US should seek to create pressures that might make the Chinese people undermine the control of the CPC. That’s really not in our policy interests. The Cold War is over, we’re no longer tilting at communist windmills.

  5. I think inside out is too risky and brittle. It requires far too costly, small (to be affordable, and thus inflexible) and technologically an advanced force to try to strike . . . what targets, exactly, to make China, the most populous nation on Earth and the people who went through the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, buckle in days? Not likely. What if the technology assumptions about stealth, counter-stealth, IADS, and EW in a large war environment, something we’ve never really seen in the real world, don’t pan out? There’s something to be said about the proxy wars of Korea and Vietnam in the cold war showing both sides how their technologies and doctrines worked, and generally led to blood soaked stalemate or maybe a slight tip of the hat to the US, perhaps contributing to preserving the peace in Europe in a way that no prior lesser conflicts could dissuade all Europeans at the start of WWI from thinking it would be anything but a short and glorious victory.

    Outside in is a bit more traditional. Combined with distant interdiction I think it’s a decent “bet” for a long war. But if it relies on hunting Chinese ballistic missiles as part of rolling back the A2/AD network, the experience of scud hunting in ’91 with complete air superiority over relatively simple terrain with few hiding spots should give us pause, Of course, a long war would be disastrous for both sides in general as well, incentivizing China to conduct the type of war it’s already best prepared for and has the most experience in: quick, “teach a lesson,” save-face type campaigns. A lightning attack to punish, say, Taiwan, or Japan over the Senkakus, or some nation in the South China Sea, plus a short aerial campaign in their near region where they have the advantage to prove superiority. No invasion or long campaign, they just declare victory after a week (their IADS is robust enough to prevent a quick victorious reply) and I believe the international backing necessary for a long war, backed by a distant blockade, evaporates. Then, what are the consequences when the region has witnessed the US as incapable of protecting them from such punishing attacks.

    I think we need to focus on attacking into weakness as our strategy. We need to be able to maintain air superiority over the first island chain from carriers and Guam in order to prevent China from credibly claiming a short victory. I think this means increased ABM protection of our CSG’s and bases, I wish we could re-open the F-22 line but know this isn’t likely, and practicing for air war at long ranges in our public joint exercises with allies to signal our capabilities. The air war would be a denial campaign. The “war-winning” campaign to show the Chinese leadership (leave their people alone, you’ll only piss them off not break their will, and they aren’t the enemy to boot) that they didn’t win would be long range strikes to dismantle their nascent Navy and military shipyards. These are big, fat, fixed targets that, unlike small mobile targets like vehicle-borne ballistic missiles, or inland targets that can be defended in depth, are the most exposed Achilles heel of the Chinese power structure. This implies a large investment in our submarine force to sink whatever portion of the Navy goes to sea and mine the harbors, and equipping the flawed JSF’s we’re going to get with long range weapons to at least saturate attack these targets. LRSA could also help, but long rang munitions could equip far more of our bomber force, plus cheap decoys that can complicate defense.

    1. @Roberts150, I like your way of thinking. “I think we need to focus on attacking into weakness as our strategy” reminds me of a simple rule I learned a long time ago. There are only two ways of fighting: asymmetrically and stupidly. You can do all the symmetric posturing you like, but when it comes to the fight, go for where it hurts most. I think long range ordnance to to harbor mining would be a very useful augment to our inventory.

  6. No war, including even short lived strikes on either side would be in best interests for all parties who may become involved. All it would really take would be the first shot being fired for it to escalate, and when it did, it would literally become a world wide war, and unfortunately one that most likely would end up with nuclear weapons being used.

  7. What confrontation?… smh… I want military officers determining/deciding strategy as much as I want my dentist doing my ophthalmology.

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