AirSea Battle vs. Offshore Control: Which has a better Theory of Victory?


There is an ongoing debate about the role of the AirSea Battle (ASB) concept in a military strategy; that is, should ASB be a central component of U.S. military strategy?  On one side are those in favor of this proposition (who I will call the AirSea Battlers) and on the other are those who are not; some have even advocated a different position that called Offshore Balance or Offshore Control (so I will call them the Offshore Controllers).  Here are my thoughts on this debate.

Both AirSea Battlers and Offshore Controllers admit that ASB is not a strategy but rather a concept, which is the stated position of both the Chief of Naval Operations and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force.  However, some AirSea Battlers advocate that ASB should be a central component in any war against likely future adversaries – and some will go as far as saying that ASB is the only operational concept to have a quick and affordable war ending on our terms.  Furthermore, they say, ASB is the continuation of the historical power projection that has served us so well both during and after the Cold War.

Perhaps, the Offshore Controllers concede, ASB is a useful part of some unannounced strategy. But if it is, then that strategy must have, as many leading theorists believe any strategy should have, a “Theory of Victory.”  Professor Eliot Cohen has said “the theory of victory is just a fancy way of saying, why do we think this will work?” or “we will succeed for the following reasons.”  He also says it is the hardest part of developing strategy.

So, if ASB is a part of some strategy, then one of the means of that strategy is the use of power projection.  Power projection takes two forms: attack from the air (using the ways of manned aircraft or unmanned missiles) and invading with troops (by land from neighboring countries or by amphibious assault from the sea).  Since no one in the lively ASB debate has written or said that we need to think about invading any of our perceived adversaries, I think we can assume that the ASB supporters are talking about power projection through air power.  From that one can deduce that this unknown strategy that includes the concept of ASB has a theory of victory stipulating that we can blow up enough of the adversary’s stuff though aerial attacks that they will ask for terms.

On the other hand, the Offshore Controllers say that their theory of victory involves attacking the economy and therefore the legitimacy of the perceived adversary’s government, which stems from economic growth and providing economic opportunity to its people.  By disrupting their trade in the sea lanes, the growth of their economy slows.   Slowing the growth of the economy makes the people question their government and put the government’s monopoly on power at risk.  In order to maintain their power, they will talk terms.

So, how does this work?  What gives a strategy containing Offshore Control a more realistic theory of victory than a strategy that contains AirSea Battle (other than the fact we have many cases where economic warfare worked and very few where air power worked)?  A bit of analysis is in order.  While ASB is not aimed at any of America’s perceived adversaries in particular, I will use China as example for my analysis.

First I will start with The Knowns:

1.  The Chinese Communist Party wishes to stay in power.

2.  The Chinese Communist Party maintains legitimacy through economic growth.

3.  The Chinese economy must have a minimum of 6% growth to absorb new entrants into the labor force (some sources give a higher figure).

4.  The Chinese economic model is export driven and production for export accounts for a large percentage of their economy.

5.  China has about 150 million internal migrant workers that work in provinces different from that of their birth (i.e., they are entitled to work in a different province, but without a job, may not stay); some sources say this number may currently be as high as 200 million and another source says there may be an additional 240 million by 2025.

6.  A significant percentage of this 150 million move from factory to factory following seasonal production patterns.

Now, with any strategy, we have some assumptions:

1.  Disrupting Chinese sea trade by embargo, quarantine, blockade, attacks on merchant ships, or any other means will quickly slow China’s rate of economic growth; it may even cause the economy to decline.

2.  Slowing growth to below 6% will drive unemployment up, and a declining economy will only quicken the pace.

3.  Many of those who will lose their jobs will be from those 150 million internal migrants.

When developing a theory of victory, it helps to have a scenario story that describes a possible path to victory.  Such a story is not an attempt to predict the future but rather some plausible explanation of what could happen.  This allows a strategist to see where the knowns and assumptions fit to into the strategy and to evaluate whether everything makes sense.    My scenario story is:

War starts and the United States and its allies begin offshore controlling.  Chinese seaborne imports and exports are reduced drastically.  Factory production drops and millions of workers are laid off; soon the numbers soar to tens of millions and perhaps a hundred million.  Many of these unemployed are mobile and are used to moving from job to job, so they begin to move.  When jobs are not found, they start protesting (hungry people are sometimes like that).  Now the Chinese Communist Party is faced with tens of millions of unemployed protesters. It will try to blame some enemy that can’t be seen (ASB, on the other hand, will provide a visible enemy that may rally the people to the party).  Not believing the party, discontent grows and protests increase.  The Chinese Communist Party orders the People’s Liberation Army to break the blockade, but the People’s Liberation Army-Navy replies that China doesn’t have the right type of Navy for that and are unable to comply with the orders.  Discontent grows and protests become more worrisome to party leaders.  The Chinese Communist Party declares that it has taught the foreign dog a lesson and seeks a conference at Geneva.

Now, let’s look at the competing strategy’s scenario story to see if it makes sense.  The strategy that contains ASB as a means would have a scenario story like this:

War starts, and the U.S. and allies begin AirSea Battling. This includes direct attacks on targets in a continental-sized power.  Factory production may or may not drop (it certainly will should we decide to target civilian manned factories); Chinese seaborne imports and exports may or may not be affected.  These direct attacks on the homeland change the legitimacy equation of the Chinese Communist Party to that of the defender of the Middle Kingdom against the foreigners, rather than the source of wealth and economic growth.  Any war would most likely have negative effects on the economy, but ASB gives the party the excuse to ignore the economy and rally the people to defending their homes.  So, what next?  Does the U.S. keep escalating the attacks?  Do we attack factories?  Hydroelectric dams?  What if we run out of munitions before we run out of targets?

Here is where the story of a strategy containing ASB breaks down.  In this story, the Chinese Communist Party has shifted its source of legitimacy from providing economic growth to protecting the country against an outsider.  How do we project enough power onto a continental-sized country to get them to ask for terms?  One of my acquaintances aptly summed up the conundrum of the AirSea Battlers:  “we have been doing this power projection strategy for over 60 years and now that someone has developed what may be an effective countermeasure, instead of thinking of a new strategy, we have doubled down on projection?”

All in all, this is a very lively debate with both sides very passionate about their views.  I started my study of this leaning towards Offshore Control but with an open mind.  Due to the lack of a plausible theory of victory with a strategy that contains the concept of AirSea Battle, and many, many questions about how ASB could fit into a strategy, I now am more firmly in the Offshore Control camp.


Captain Mark F. Morris, USN, is a military faculty member in the Department of Security Studies at the National War College.  He was previously Chief, US Naval Mission to Colombia.  He is a graduate of the National War College and hold an MS in Economics from Texas A&M University.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery