Crisis Management Needs a Makeover

November 18, 2013

For special access to experts and other members of the national security community, check out the new War on the Rocks membership.

On November 5th, I observed a war game at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The session simulated a crisis involving China, Japan, and the United States in the East China Sea. The purpose of the simulation was to display how the Principals Committee of the White House National Security Council might respond to such a situation and ultimately formulate recommendations for the president in response to a crisis that seems all too possible in the real world.

An eminent group of experienced statesmen delivered an impressive performance during the simulation, confidently playing their roles on the Principals Committee. The players included two former deputy secretaries of state, a former deputy secretary of defense, a former acting director of central intelligence, and a former commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, among others. They revealed the broad range of considerations and subtle nuances required to manage such a crisis without sparking a geopolitical disaster.

However, the simulation rested on some long-standing assumptions that are becoming increasingly brittle. Crisis simulations set in East Asia that continue to rely on these flawed assumptions will mislead those who need to prepare for such likely contingencies. This is not a criticism of the authors of the CSIS East China Sea war game. These authors had a specific and limited presentation for their audience, namely how the Principals Committee functions during a crisis. The session was a not a naval tactics war game. The two hours allotted for the simulation and audience questions was too limited to explore many alternative paths. The main goal of the exercise was to get the audience to think about crisis management. In this sense, it succeeded: one thought is that Washington’s approach to crisis management needs a makeover if it is to achieve its goal of reducing danger during future crises.

CSIS’s crisis simulation unfolded in two phases. In the first phase, a Chinese fishing boat loaded with nationalist Chinese “activists” collided with a Japanese coast guard cutter near one of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. The boat lost power and drifted onto the island’s coast where it ran aground. Some of the activists then went ashore to escape the crippled boat. In response, China and Japan sent coast guard vessels, warships, and aircraft toward the island.

The Principals Committee met with the goal of arranging a way to de-escalate and resolve the crisis. The committee’s discussion centered on several conflicting principles: (1) reassuring the Japanese government of America’s security commitment to Japan, while (2) avoiding incentivizing Japanese escalation; (3) deterring Chinese escalation, while (4) finding a face-saving “off ramp” for China that would return the activists to China and return the Senkakus to the status quo ante. As they pondered these conflicting goals, the committee members wondered about the intentions of China’s leaders and whether they were actually in control of all their subordinate organizations. The committee members discussed employing a neutral non-governmental organization to recover the activists on the island. The Principals also deferred a recommendation to raise the alert level of U.S. military forces in the area, reasoning that such an alert would embolden Japanese escalation and make it more politically difficult for Chinese leaders to accept a face-saving exit from the crisis.

Phase two of the crisis began with a surprise announcement of sharp Chinese escalation. A Chinese army colonel went on live television and announced that Chinese forces were proceeding to the island to recover the Chinese citizens ashore. The colonel also declared a 12-mile air and maritime exclusion zone around the island and warned all vessels and aircraft to vacate that space. Separately, U.S. military intelligence detected an unarmed Chinese surveillance drone over the island. It also detected an increase in the alert level of several Chinese land-based, long-range, anti-ship missiles units. The Principals responded by recommending that the U.S. send two aircraft carrier strike groups to the East China Sea. The simulation then abruptly ended with the presumption that this decision would lead to the de-escalation of the crisis.

The script for the simulation, supported by the behavior of the Principals, seems fashioned to restate the lessons learned from the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Those now well-ingrained axioms include precepts such as (1) don’t assume your adversary has central control over all elements of his organization; (2) the adversary’s behavior may be a function of bureaucratic routines rather than the conscious decisions of the leadership; (3) it is important to show strength; (4) but, it is also important to leave the adversary with a face-saving way out; and (5) in the end, U.S. military escalation, typically with aircraft carrier strike groups, is the ultimate crisis management trump card.

We should question though whether axiom five, the presumption of U.S. escalation dominance, will continue to be the trump card it has been in the past. Take away that assumption and the crisis management playbook which U.S. decision-makers have comfortably relied on for so long will suddenly come with many missing pages.

For example, U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups have long been considered an escalatory trump card because adversaries could do almost nothing about them. From the Korean War to the present war in Afghanistan, U.S. policymakers and commanders have become accustomed to unfettered employment of aircraft carriers for weeks or months of air strikes ashore. In a future crisis in East Asia, such as the CSIS simulation in the East China Sea, planners may have to scratch that assumption from the list. By next decade, China will have the air, naval, and missile power to threaten sustained power projection from U.S. aircraft carriers near China’s coast. The last move of the CSIS scenario, moving in the aircraft carriers, won’t be the last move in a future East Asia crisis.

Indeed, long-familiar moves in the old U.S. crisis management playbook may in the future accelerate rather than de-escalate some crises. For example, moving U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups closer to the crisis, previously a strong signal of U.S. resolve, could paradoxically induce an attack on the carriers and other U.S. forward bases by Chinese missile forces. In a crisis, Chinese military commanders will have an incentive to strike the aircraft carriers before the carriers’ aircraft come in range of Chinese targets. Having made that decision, Chinese commanders may reason that they should attack U.S. forward air bases in the region too.

This exposes an increasingly perilous flaw in the current structure of U.S. military power in the region. The very high weighting of short-range tactical air power in the U.S. portfolio, based at vulnerable forward bases and on aircraft carriers, creates a potentially dangerous “use it, or lose it” urgency during future crises. If more of U.S. striking power had a longer range and was based at more secure sites farther from crisis flashpoints, U.S. decision-makers and commanders would find themselves under much less pressure during crises. Similarly, adversaries would not find an advantage in striking first, nor would they be compelled to assume that U.S. policy-makers were under that same pressure.

Alas, the number of U.S. long-range bombers ready for combat has fallen to just 96 aircraft—90 of which are non-stealthy B-52s and B-1s—which are increasingly vulnerable to Chinese air defenses. The U.S. Pacific Fleet’s submarines are armed with hundreds of long-range, land-attack cruise missiles. But China has thousands of land-based, land-attack ballistic and cruise missiles, weapons that the U.S. is banned from possessing under the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. By next decade, Chinese commanders may be confident that they possess escalation dominance in a crisis. When both sides believe they possess escalation dominance, and have their forces positioned in vulnerable forward sites, combat would seem virtually inevitable.

In the near future, U.S. policy-makers and military force planners will find themselves caught in a paradox. During past crises, decision-makers have turned to highly visible displays of U.S. power, such as aircraft carriers, to send strong signals of resolve to U.S. adversaries and allies. But in the future, the most visible forces will also be the most vulnerable to attack. U.S. crisis managers will still need powerful forces to display resolve and to maintain escalation dominance. But such forces will need to be ghost-like in order to survive. Stealth bombers and quiet submarines can play these parts. But if adversaries and allies cannot be sure they are actually there, will they still be credible signals during a crisis?

The CSIS East Asia crisis simulation was an enlightening demonstration of how experienced U.S. statesmen would go about managing a potentially dangerous crisis. The session also created an opportunity to think about assumptions that underpin the long-standing Washington playbook for crisis management. In particular, we can see that China’s rapid development of new military technology could make the standard moves in that U.S. playbook dangerous rather than de-escalatory. Crisis management needs a makeover, starting with less vulnerable forward military forces and new ways of signaling resolve. Whether Washington can fashion a reformed crisis management playbook remains to be seen.


Robert Haddick is an independent contractor at U.S. Special Operations Command. He writes here in a personal capacity. In 2014, Naval Institute Press will publish Haddick’s book on the rise of China’s military power and U.S. strategy in East Asia.

We have retired our comments section, but if you want to talk to other members of the natsec community about War on the Rocks articles, the War Hall is the place for you. Check out our membership at!

2 thoughts on “Crisis Management Needs a Makeover

  1. Wonderful analysis with some far reaching implications, in Asia and the Middle East I suspect.

    What one learns from a deep reading of cases like the 1960s is the need to understand both sides of the crisis, and the need to “help” the other side extricate itself from a bad position. I suspect more scenarios in which the opposing side thinks it has stealth (Cyber or Synthetic Bio) will need to be explored.

    I continue to enjoy anything Mr. Haddick pens. V/r Frank

  2. Good article, although I thought that the CSIS crisis sim was for non-attribution only? Guess you didn’t quote anyone.

    I still thought at the very end that the possibility of an East China Sea conflict to be quite low: China’s goal is to delegitimize Japan’s territorial claims bit by bit, not incite a war, which is why both sides have persisted in using white hulls, not gray hulls.

    I got the impression that the mock NSC’s decision to send in the CSG was as much about the symbolism/signaling as it was about the actual presence of the carrier (since it wouldn’t arrive for a number of days anyway). It seems unlikely in this particular case that the Chinese would want to use an ASBM against a USN carrier when we would make it explicit publicly and in private messages that all we want is to remove the 12-mile exclusion zone (I assume we would word it in a way to allow the Chinese to save face).

    Your last point really gets to the point: subs and long-range strike assets have great capabilities but aren’t good for “showing the flag” as our mock NSC explicitly intended in sending a carrier.

    Also relevant: a majority of the audience at the end said that China benefited the most from the crisis (I assume by upsetting the legal status quo), and that the US did not exercise enough pressure on China.