China and its Discontents

Air-Sea Battle: A Dangerous, Unaffordable Threat

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Below is a cross-post of an essay I published in The Diplomat.

It is an obvious statement that war between the U.S. and China would be catastrophic, wasteful, and a colossal failure of both countries’ grand strategies. The consequences would be difficult to quantify — massive repercussions to the global economy, loss of life, and possible escalation to nuclear war. Neither the U.S. nor China could possibly “win” from such a war, at least using any rational definition of victory.

How then has this reality affected debates over Air-Sea Battle (ASB)? Proponents of ASB are careful to note that war with China is unlikely and unwanted, and that ASB exists to deter war with China. But these studied responses paper over some logical problems with the battle concept.

One major assumption proponents make is that ASB is the only deterrent that will prevent a revisionist China from attacking first. Under this calculus, perceived intentions are often ignored. As the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments’ Andrew Krepinevich writes in one of the first public reports on ASB: “While both countries profess benign intentions, it is an old military maxim that since intentions can change overnight—especially in authoritarian regimes—one must focus on the military capabilities of other states.”

But one doesn’t have to rely on Chinese intentions to assess how competing strategies would alter its strategic calculus. For China, a more limited U.S. strategy such as a Sea Denial campaign or T.X. Hammes’ Offshore Control would make war a failure before it began:

  1. A U.S. blockade and other war-induced economic crises at home would severely reduce the Chinese industrial capacity and mobilization, and force China to back down before it started to affect the popular legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. Interdicting shipping along the Malacca and Sunda Straits, and in the Indian Ocean, would cut off about 80 percent of China’s oil imports, or about 45 percent of total supply. Remaining overland pipelines could also be targeted. This would leave the PLA with limited domestic production, 90 days worth of oil in their Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and severe rationing among the Chinese population. The PLA would be able to survive with that level of supply, but Chinese industry would grind to a halt.
  2. In wartime China would be surrounded by U.S. allies (Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, and Taiwan) and states hostile to Chinese ambitions (Vietnam, India). If China attacked first, China would lose any propaganda/psychological campaign targeting international public opinion.
  3. A2/AD is a strategy aimed at degrading an opposing force as it reaches closer to the Chinese mainland—not projecting power. If it started a war it would not have the capabilities to finish it and break out of a crippling blockade.

These factors all suggest that a more limited military strategy towards China would be sufficient. More limited military strategies look especially desirable when one considers the high-risks of ASB. ASB, and particularly its long-range strikes deep within the Chinese mainland, are highly escalatory and offer no good way to end a limited war. In all likelihood, an emphasis on long-range strike platforms would result in a long-term arms race that would culminate in warfare with more expansive aims far out of proportion to those desired. The U.S. should not under any circumstances directly contest the CCP’s control of the Chinese state, the PLA, or its nuclear forces (i.e. the command and control structure) with long-range strike platforms. This would “back them into a corner” and spin the conflict off into an extremely dangerous, unpredictable direction.

These platforms­ — especially Prompt Global Strike, the Long-Range Strike Bomber and other classified programs — are wasteful in a time of steep defense cuts. In planning for the China scenario, the U.S. should be focusing on acquiring weapon systems that have low-visibility, low-escalation potential, high-survivability, and high-deterrence value, which would allow the U.S. military to conduct a blockade (lower-end surface combatants sitting outside of China’s reach) and deny the PLA Navy the ability to sail in their neighborhood (Virginia-class submarines).

The impulse to plan for and win a decisive, high-technology war against China represents a basic bias within the US military: as former PACOM commander ADM Timothy Keating remarked, in reference to China, “[PACOM] must retain the ability to dominate in any scenario, in all environments, without exception.” This is understandable because it is the job of the military to decisively win wars. But this also often leads to a confusion of ends and means, and a focus on military victory to the detriment of achieving political aims. This is why it is the job of Congress and the White House — the elected political leaders — to set political constraints on the use of military force. As Amitai Etzioni points out in a recent article in the Yale Journal of International Affairs, neither the White House nor Congress has done due diligence in reviewing ASB or opened up the necessary public debate regarding actual strategies toward China.

But the U.S. military has another, less recognized bias, and it’s the same one that has infected much of political science as an academic discipline over the past couple of decades. Just as many political scientists have embraced scientism, favoring quantitative approaches, statistics, and models over the study of ideas, people and cultures, many strategists have embraced a kind of fatalistic, geopolitical game theory. This approach treats military capabilities as the only relevant facts, as if you could plug every opposing weapons system into a computer and derive the perfect strategy. This is a form of hubris that B.H. Liddell Hart rightly criticized when noting how the psychological influences on warfare show that mathematical approaches to strategy are “a fallacy” and “shallow.”

To be fair, ASB is not mainly being driven by such a highly quantitative approach; rather, ASB has its roots in Net Assessment, which attempts to be a more holistic discipline. As Paul Bracken puts it, Net Assessment tries to “model simple and think complex,” thinking about the balance between two countries not only in terms of capabilities, but also doctrine, psychology, and the like. It is neither an art nor a science, but perhaps a mix of both.

But strategists could push the bounds of their imagination further. George Kennan, for example, strongly believed that the best foundation of strategy and diplomacy was not social science but history, art, and literature. This led him to be more humble about the limits of what strategy can accomplish. As John Lewis Gaddis quotes George Kennan: “Strategy [is] ‘outstandingly a question of form and of style.’ Because ‘few of us can see very far into the future,’ all would be safer ‘if we take principles of conduct which we know we can live with, and at least stick to those,’ rather than ‘try to chart our vast schemes.’”

This is exactly how we ought to be thinking about the prospect of a Sino-U.S. conflict. This is especially true because, as Avery Goldstein argues in recent articles in International Security and Foreign Affairs, the most pressing Sino-U.S. strategic problem is not the threat of war decades away, but the current danger of crisis instability creating a conflict spiral.

Having fought two wars in the last decade that diminished its national power, and now facing sharply contracting defense budgets for the foreseeable future, the US cannot blindly step into another major conflict. It needs to adopt a conservative strategy, that keeps its means within its limited ends, and thinks about “principles of conduct,” not “vast schemes,” by which a war with China can be avoided.