China and its Discontents

Archive for the ‘A2/AD’ tag

Towards a More Intelligent Debate over Air-Sea Battle

leave a comment

This is a repost from an article I published at the CIMSEC NextWar blog.

One of the curious aspects of the debate over Air-Sea Battle has been that the arguments taking place often dwell not on substance, but on definitional disagreements. For example, one side will critique ASB out of concerns of strategy or the nature of our relationship with China; the other side will rightly complain that these concerns belong in a separate, well-deserved debate because ASB is an operational concept, not a strategy. CIMSEC has commissioned an entire week on ASB in the hope that we can move past this inescapable logical loop. On that note, I recently came across two pieces (both published journal articles) that I think are stand-ins for where we do and do notwant this debate to move forward.

One is a recent article published in the journal Military Review, entitled “A Role for Land Warfare Forces in Overcoming A2/AD,” written by a COL Alcazar and COL Lafleur, formerly Air Force co-lead and Army strategist for the Air-Sea Battle Office, respectively. Sounds promising! Unfortunately, what followed was a jargon-laced, logically questionable, and utterly indefensible article. In a sentence, they argued that ASB is not sufficient to meet the A2/AD challenge of the future, and that we should land a Brigade Combat Team on the soil of our future putative enemies to conduct reconnaissance, raids, and seizures of key A2/AD capabilities. What an incredible argument! Without any reference to actual scenarios, concrete adversaries, or political costs, this is not just a useless argument, it is a dangerous one, because someone somewhere out there might actually take it seriously. Beyond substantively bad ideas, this article is also marred by poor writing. For example:

Land warfare forces are not an invasion or long-term occupation force, or utilized as the vanguard of a nation-building effort; even “kicking in the door” comes later. Early land warfare force employment against A2/AD is about tailored BCTs and slices of BCTs that enter the neighborhood to shape its places for the joint force subsequently to kick in the doors to the key houses, which themselves constitute key opponent targets. (p. 80)

If you can understand that, I’m not sure I can congratulate you. The entire article reads like this. A final problem is that the article bizarrely confuses strategy, operations, and tactics. One choice quotation: “Nations employing A2/AD have four goals; however, it is inaccurate to conflate these ‘goals’ with ends. Rather, these goals are considered a framework to explain the strategic and operationalso what of A2/AD.” (ital. original) (p. 82-83) How are the authors distinguishing “goals” from “ends?” How can you even talk about strategy without referring to specific countries? What does the term “so what” mean? In sum this article indicates to me that even within the ASBO itself people are still confused over definitions, and basic logic. Pardon the overwrought nautical metaphor, but it does not instill in me much confidence that the ship is being steered in the right direction.

Striking a completely different tone, Jonathan Solomon’s recent article published in Strategic Studies Quarterly, “Demystifying Conventional Deterrence: Great-Power Conflict and East Asian Peace,” was a tour de force. Even though I do not necessarily agree with his conclusions, Solomon expertly defends the necessity of Air-Sea Battle and long-range conventional strike systems through a clear and logical (if dense) elucidation of conventional deterrence theory. He also makes criticisms of blockades that proponents of competitors to ASB, like Offshore Control, must contend with: that over-land blockade running or rationing could thwart a blockade; that a blockade might harm third-party allied countries; and that an adversary could put the US in a situation where it had to choose between further escalation or compromising the integrity of the blockade.

But I still have issues even with an article as well written as this. First, the author is largely talking about an “end of the world” scenario in which China initiates a premeditated first strike a la Pearl Harbor. Solomon spends comparatively little time addressing lower-order conventional deterrence/crisis escalation scenarios, except to say that high-end conventional deterrence is still useful between levels of escalation and that US and allied constabulary functions are still necessary. While some argue that China has an incentive in certain situations to conduct a preemptive strike, it seems likely that such a strike would come in the context of an ongoing political crisis rather than as a bolt out of the blue attack. In this case, lower-end deterrence (defusing the crisis) would be more important than higher-end deterrence.

Second, Solomon intelligently lays out example after example of how both conventional and nuclear deterrence could fail due to strategic misperceptions, psychological issues, China becoming more volatile, the US fiscal situation weakening etc. But then he pins the solution on confidence-building measures and multi-track diplomacy. But what happens when multi-track diplomacy does NOT work and China continually rejects confidence-building measures? I am actually one of the biggest proponents of Sino-US mil-mil cooperation, but I am NOT confident that, as Solomon puts it, the US and China “educate” each other about “their respective escalatory threshold perceptions.” (p. 133)

This is why it is important to craft a more conservative deterrence policy that does not depend on having perfect knowledge of the adversaries’ intentions, doctrine, strategic culture, or leadership psychology. As is well documented by history, intelligence has often been catastrophically wrong, and signaling has been imperfectly interpreted or outright failed—such as the fine-tuned signaling intended by US strategic bombing during the Vietnam War, or when the US thought it was fighting an anti-communist war in Vietnam while the Vietnamese thought they were fighting a nationalist and anti-colonialist war. We absolutely must try to increase transparency and mutual understanding, but we also have to be aware that we could fail, with catastrophic results. It seems as if Solomon is well aware of these issues, but at times he contradicts himself; there is even one section where he suggests “overt, predeclared ‘automaticity’ in [the] deterrent posture,” which clashes with his warnings against misperceptions, etc. (p. 136)

Finally, the author rightly points out that a Chinese first-strike would inflame the Clausewitzian passions of the US and allied publics and would provide a psychological boost to our side. Why then wouldn’t US retaliatory strikes against mainland targets (even if they are only against counterforce targets) not inflame the passions of the Chinese public, making de-escalation on the Chinese side that much more difficult? We have ample evidence of the nationalist sentiments of the Chinese public, and the below-the-surface antipathy towards the US that could erupt (e.g. the Belgrade embassy bombing). CCP leaders could fear popular revolt if they capitulated, even if they understood themselves to be in a long-term losing situation. The CCP’s interest in maintaining their leadership position may not be the same as China’s national interest. That is a scary thing to consider.

These two articles seem to strike out into two different future intellectual trajectories for the military and our national security apparatus. In one, alternative strategies are debated with an eye towards academic theory, well-informed history, and sound logic. In the other, a gob of reheated mush is coated in incomprehensible jargon and delivered to us as “fresh thinking.” Which direction do we want to go? We can have intelligent or unintelligent debates about ASB. The choice will directly influence our national security, and whether we stumble into yet more undesired wars or keep an uneasy peace. It is my hope that this week at CIMSEC will steer us in the right direction.

Written by Will

February 10th, 2014 at 11:54 am

Air-Sea Battle: A Dangerous, Unaffordable Threat

leave a comment

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.

Review of “A Contest for Supremacy” by Aaron Friedberg

leave a comment

Want to read the ultimate hawkish view of the US-China relationship? Read Aaron Friedberg’s recent book, “A Contest for Supremacy.” Throughout the book Friedberg emphasizes that the US-China relationship is inevitably heading down a dark road, that China is forsworn to become a hegemon and direct competitor, and that US policy is currently overweighted on the side of diplomatic engagement rather than military balancing. For a man who wants more balancing, his book is seriously unbalanced. What follows is not so much a review, but a list of grievances, in no particular order. Here’s what’s wrong with the book:

  1. Underrates internal threats to China’s rise. Friedberg mentions them briefly (demographic problems, impending environmental catastrophe, failing economic models), but doesn’t let them get in the way of predicting a Chinese juggernaut. Friedberg also sketches some possible Chinese futures, concluding that a truculent, hyper-nationalist China is more likely than either the status quo or democratic regime change. Granted, I agree with him that a hyper-nationalist China is more likely than a peaceful democratic China, but a more likely scenario than either is a future where China’s internal problems derail any of the global ambitions he ascribes to it.
  2. Mistakenly casts Chinese foreign policy thinking as more or less monolithic. Yes, no Chinese political leader currently or will likely in the future call for the demonopolization of the CCP’s power. But beyond that, there is serious political disagreement within the CCP. Economic and political reform are not settled within the party. Neither is foreign policy. The very lack of any coherent grand strategy (which Friedberg mentions) should tell him this.
  3. Underrates human leadership as making a difference in the US-China relationship. Is foreign policy merely the product of impersonal, historical forces, or can individuals play a role in shaping history? Friedberg seems to believe almost entirely in the former. I think this does not accurately reflect reality. Automatons don’t make foreign policy, human beings do.
  4. Unnecessarily combative and essentially labels everyone else defeatist appeasers. Seriously, he labels everyone who disagrees with him with these sorts of names. It’s unnecessary, especially because it’s not true. Probably no one he attacks would argue that the US shouldn’t maintain its qualitative military edge; the debate is in how to do this. He derides the idea that Sino-US cooperation can be borne on the back of issues like climate change, trade, etc. Why not? These are legitimately problematic issues, and we need China’s help to solve them, or else we are screwed. He doesn’t even mention climate change in his last chapter.
  5. Makes assertions about hypotheticals that are ungrounded from reality. Friedberg does this all over the book. The basic model is: what if China becomes a global superpower, projecting force all over the world to secure its interests, while the US de-arms, weakens, and appeases China according to our worst neoconservative fears? These are not credible hypotheticals, and they lead to baseless fear-mongering.
  6. And finally and most importantly, he underrates the effectiveness of current US policy. Throughout this entire book, Friedberg ascribes no less than the future collapse of all US interests related to China and the Asia Pacific to the Democrats and the current administration’s policies. But Democrats are not the feckless appeasers Friedberg is crudely making them out to be. Of course, just shortly after this book’s publication, the Obama administration announced the pivot/rebalance to Asia. But many of the policy proposals Friedberg advances, including the development of Prompt Global Strike and the Next-Generation Stealth Bomber, have been in the pipeline for a long time. And to be quite honest, the rebalance is not so much a quantitative shift as it is a qualitative shift; the difference is a matter of emphasis, not really a matter of resources. With or without the rebalance, US policy towards China continues a long tradition that has not been upset since the Tiananmen Massacre. It’s worked surprisingly well, and is a sound strategy going into the future.

Friedberg miscalculates both American and Chinese strategy. Engagement and balancing are not goals in of themselves; they are means to an end. That end is a peaceful, strong and rising China that is integrated into the international system. He pays lip service to this, but advocates absolutely zero proposals to make China as it is today more integrated. Everything he proposes is designed to deter the Chinese from overturning America as the global superpower. But this is also a miscalculation of Chinese strategy. China doesn’t want conflict with the US. It’s not building a military that can project force globally. It is developing relatively limited capabilities that would defeat adversaries in a Taiwan conflict and deter an American attack against the mainland. Is this going to change in the future? Very unlikely. China’s integration into the world economy, and its dependence on the US Navy to secure trade and energy shipments, make the calculus fall far in favor of peace and development. Conflict on any mass scale would cause chaos and misery for the Chinese people (think about how current CCP leaders shudder when they hear the words, “Cultural Revolution”). The CCP could very well lose power because of it. And for any foreseeable timeline into the future, the PLA would lose any conflict with the US military. Hands down.

AirSea Battle Concept Lacks Strategy and Political Purpose

leave a comment

Writing in The National Interest website, James Holmes gives a characteristically excellent explication of the still officially-undefined AirSea Battle Concept, the theory behind A2/AD, and U.S. and Chinese naval deficiencies. From a military perspective, Holmes is completely on point. I gripe, however, with some of the implications of his article if taken from a political perspective:

1) The title is “Preparing for a War with China” (subtle)

2) The off-handed throw-away line “From a political standpoint, war with China is neither inevitable nor all that likely.”

3) Holmes’ assumption that the PLAN wants or needs to operate in the far seas at the same level of the USN.

I gripe because at some point tactics have to be constrained by some sense of strategy and political purpose. I don’t see that happening with the developing AirSea Battle Concept. DoD should absolutely prepare for the worst-case scenario–to do otherwise would be folly. But don’t political considerations deserve more than a one-sentence dismissal?

According to the Defense Strategic Guidance released in January, U.S. interests lie in maintaining a “rules-based international order that ensures underlying stability and encourages the peaceful rise of new powers, economic dynamism, and constructive defense cooperation,” and protecting access to the global commons.

The official rhetoric coming from China is hardly that different. According to China’s most recent National Defense whitepaper published in 2010, China seeks to promote “economic development and regional stability” in the Asia-Pacific. Furthermore, the paper identifies China’s main national security interests as “preserving China’s territorial integrity and maritime rights and interests…” and “safeguarding national sovereignty.” Far-flung military excursions or humanitarian interventions are explicitly left off the table.

Should we put any stock in what the Chinese government says? We have to on some level. We can’t complain in the Defense Strategic Guidance that “the growth of China’’s military power must be accompanied by greater clarity of its strategic intentions in order to avoid causing friction in the region,” and then ignore when China attempts to clarify its strategic intentions.

Ultimately, China fighting a war with the U.S. is not in Chinese interests and would be completely counterproductive, undermining their economy and growth. China currently relies on the U.S. Navy to preserve its access to oil and commercial shipping in the Indian Ocean, and its economy would crumble without international trade. Economic warfare between China and the U.S. would leave both hobbled; the resulting “mutually assured destruction” of this era would be nearly as bad as the M.A.D. of the nuclear era.

It is also hard to believe that the Chinese have an interest in operating in the far seas anywhere near the capability of the USN. They have very little to gain from it. First, it currently has zero capability to engage in wars outside of its periphery. Second, such an aspiration contradicts the prime aspect of their foreign policy: non-intervention in other states’ internal affairs. The wars it has fought in the 20th century and will continue to fight in the future are about stability, integrity, and sovereignty (as the 2010 National Defense whitepaper acknowledges), fought close to China’s borders (historically, Korea, India, Vietnam, and in the future, countries around its maritime claims). The A2/AD strategy is to win a war in the South China Sea, not in the far seas. As even James Holmes notes, Chinese A2/AD capability is premised on China’s ability to whittle away at USN forces before they get close to China, using naval assets close to shore and numerous land-based jets, missiles, and other assets. The PLAN has conducted some operations away from the near seas recently (evacuation of Chinese citizens from Libya and participation in an international taskforce hunting Somali pirates), but it is not credible to assert that China has the desire or capabilities to move more aggressively into the far seas.

As Cheng Li and Kenneth Lieberthal note in their Brookings report “Addressing U.S.-China Strategic Distrust,” “[AirSea Battle/JOAC and China’s ‘securing the near seas’ concept] are increasingly being couched in terms that can easily justify escalating military expenditures as both militaries attempt to achieve basically unattainable levels of certainty.” They conclude that both sides will have to ask the uncomfortable question of “what array of military deployments and normal operations will permit China to defend its core security interests and at the same time allow America to continue to meet fully its obligations to its allies and friends in the region?” The primary solution to this deadlock, the two authors say, is “mutual restraint on new capabilities,”–involving new dialogues and direct governmental and military exchanges designed to prevent an arms race.

On the U.S. side, the rhetoric surrounding the AirSea Battle concept seems untempered by these very basic political and strategic considerations raised by Cheng Li and Kenneth Lieberthal. Echoing Thoreau, our rapidly developing military capabilities seem only to be “improved means to an unimproved end.” It is certainly not practical for the U.S. to restrain itself unilaterally–but DoD and State should be actively clarifying its intentions and working with the Chinese to restrain the potential for conflict, just as we demand that the PLA and MFA do the same.

The Chinese have also at times acted belligerently: the current situation in the South China Sea and the Diaoyu Islands—China pushing for complete territorial control against a number of states friendly to the U.S.—does not advance the stability China prioritizes. China’s strategic necessity to secure domestic sources of oil and natural gas to hedge against their current dependence on the Middle East is butting up against their other priority to maintain stability. This confused strategy must also be clarified.

The U.S. should, however, continue the rest of our “Pivot to Asia” agenda, including engagement in multilateral institutions and diplomatic, security, and economic partnerships, and other parts of the Defense Strategic Guidance, such as, “develop[ing] innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches to achieve our security objectives, relying on exercises, rotational presence, and advisory capabilities.” These kinds of initiatives are less-threatening and appropriate measures in an era of fiscal restraint.

The PLA is developing PLAN, 2nd Artillery Corps, and space-based capabilities that should and do worry the U.S. government. In addition, the DoD should develop the requisite capabilities to secure our interests. But before this rising competition gets out of hand and evolves into something neither side wants, political leadership on both sides of the Pacific need to work out each country’s future position in relation to one another.

In another time and against a different competitor, George Kennan once said: “[the US-Soviet arms race] has no foundation in real interests–no foundation, in fact, but in fear, and in an essentially irrational fear at that. It is carried not by any reason to believe that the other side would, but only by a hypnotic fascination with the fact that it could. It is simply an institutionalized force of habit. If someone could suddenly make the two sides realize that it has no purpose and if they were then to desist, the world would presumably go on, in all important respects, just as it is going on today.” (ital original) What a country says ultimately determines how they act, and vice versa, how a country acts inevitably shapes the political discourse and constrains political choice. Preparing for a future war with China without clarifying our fundamentally peaceful aims makes war more inevitable. The U.S. needs to break that “inevitable cycle.”