war on the rocks

Hammes: Strategy and AirSea Battle

July 23, 2013

Having studied the initial writings on AirSea Battle (ASB) in 2010, the Office of the Secretary of Defense-Policy (OSD-P) did not think the United States could afford the technology ASB called for nor could they see a strategic application for ASB.  While it provided a concept for defeating anti-access/area denial systems, it did not provide a coherent strategy.  It did not match ends, ways, and means and provided no theory of victory.  At the request of the strategy section of OSD-P, I wrote a strategy for potential conflict with China – Offshore Control:  A Proposed Strategy for an Unlikely Conflict.*

Last week on War on the Rocks, Bryan McGrath’s “Five Myths about Air-Sea Battle” cleared up some serious misconceptions about the concept.  As he noted and I have said repeatedly at public events, the ASB office performs an important function in coordinating service efforts. However, we part ways when it comes to strategy.

Obviously, the United States should have a strategy to guide its force structure and procurement decisions.  This is where Offshore Control comes in. To provide some guidance, Offshore Control focuses on deterring China, assuring allies, slow escalation in times of crisis, and guide procurement.

Deterrence may well be the most important requirement and offshore control provides a high deterrent value via a blockade.  In recent war games, the Chinese side proved unable to figure out a way to break a distant blockade – even though such a failure would likely result in the Chinese Communist Party losing control of the country.  In the games, China was left with has two choices – massively escalate or declare victory and stop fighting.  In its four major conflicts since 1949, China has chosen to declare victory (regardless of battlefield outcomes) and cease the conflict.  The only way China can militarily defeat a blockade is to build a sea control navy.  Sea denial navies seek only to keep the other side from using the sea for commerce or logistics.  In contrast, sea control navies seek to insure commerce can continue.  As a result, sea control navies are much more expensive.  Building such a navy would require a multi-decade, multi-trillion dollar effort – one that China may very well be embarking on, but one that will still take decades. Still, despite the strengths of offshore control, one cannot evaluate the strength of a strategy in isolation but only against that of another strategy.  That is one of the reasons I published the report– to stimulate a discussion about strategy rather than about the tactics, techniques, and procedures that dominate ASB.

If one considers the deterrent value of ASB, one has to understand its reliance on space and cyberspace.  When one examines our vulnerabilities in these domains – as China has – there is major cause for concern.  China knows it can severely degrade US space and cyber assets – and thus ASB — quickly. China has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to penetrate U.S. government and commercial computer systems.  It has also demonstrated the ability to intercept a satellite in space and can also use lasers to dazzle a satellite as it passes over Chinese territory. Their aptitude in these domains may lead their political leaders to believe they can win a short war.  Unfortunately, political leaders seem more likely to start a war when they believe the war will be short – think the U.S. Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, and the U.S. entries into Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Had the leaders of the time known they would fight a very long, bloody war, would it have changed their decision to go to war? We can’t know for sure but I do think it makes more sense to present a potential enemy with the very clear message: we see any future war as long.  China is painfully aware that geography heavily favors the United States and its allies in a long war.  They should understand they cannot hope to fight a short, victorious war by defeating the U.S. in space and cyberspace.  One of the primary advantages of blockade is that it can be conducted without relying too heavily on space or cyberspace, if we train and prepare to operate that way.

Byran is correct that U.S. officials deny that ASB is a strategy.  He also notes, as have the Chief of Naval Operations and Chief of Staff of the Air Force, that ASB is neither a strategy nor an operational concept (Although some of its techniques are nested under the Joint Operational Access Concept).  But because of the extensive discussion of ASB, the secrecy of its elements, and the absence of any other  stated U.S. military strategy, very senior Japanese, Korean, Singaporean and Australian officials remain convinced that ASB is the US strategy – as do many well informed U.S. citizens.  This is worrisome for obvious reasons. To assure our allies, OSD needs to develop and discuss a strategy with them and with concerned members of the public. Obviously, I do not advocate that we put our war plans on a memory stick and send it to Beijing (Snowden might have already taken care of that), but it is possible to present a version of a strategy that could be discussed openly.

Further, we must address the risk of escalation.  Slowing a crisis down is vitally important when nations have nuclear weapons.  Cyberspace and space are currently offense dominated, so attacking first gives an advantage. As a result, if both sides rely on space and cyberspace, there is significant escalatory pressure in a crisis. In contrast, a blockade moves into place fairly slowly (day and weeks, not seconds and minutes). This gives diplomats and national leaders time to contain the crisis. In the two conflicts between nuclear armed states (USSR-China River War and India-Pakistan Kargil crisis) as well as the Cuban Missile Crisis, both sides moved slowly and worked hard not to escalate immediately. The quarantine for Cuba went in place slowly and this gave President Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev time to cut the Cuba-Turkey missile withdrawal deal.  A blockade is escalatory but it escalates slowly and has off ramps.

As Bryan noted, I have repeatedly challenged people to write a strategy for the use of the ASB penetrating capabilities in a conflict with China. Before the United States invests new money in developing systems that penetrate Chinese airspace, we need to understand how those systems fit within a potential strategy. We could argue we need to spend $25B more on the Army if we are going to invade China. But everyone knows such an invasion makes no strategic sense. Similarly, we need to have a discussion as to whether it makes strategic sense to invest heavily in systems to penetrate Chinese airspace and territorial waters.

We need to ask if the President is likely to allow strikes into China. President Truman in Korea and President Johnson in Vietnam did not think it was a good idea.  ASB is stated to be a tactical option that attacks tactical targets. But striking into China for tactical reasons will be hard to justify to the President. In contrast, Offshore Control focuses on a strategic target — the Chinese economy and hence the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, escalates slowly, and leaves room for a diplomatic option.  The fact we can execute it with today’s systems supported by some minor investments is a bonus.  The fact China can only defeat it with massive investments over decades is a bigger bonus.

This does not mean the United States will not work on other methods to defeat counter access weapons – and just as important area denial weapons such as mines.  And one can see a need for penetrating strikes in Iran and Korea.  However, the capabilities and capacities to conduct those strikes cost significantly less than striking into China.

The ASB office should continue its work to coordinate material and TTPs among the services. But procurement of expensive new systems to penetrate Chinese airspace must only be undertaken if they are tied to a strategic concept, not a tactical requirement.   Most important, the United States needs to have a strategic discussion that compares potential strategies.  To do so, we need to articulate potential strategies other than Offshore Control.


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.

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