China and its Discontents

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Air-Sea Battle Isn’t Misunderstood

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This is a re-post from my article at The Diplomat.

Harry Kazianis recently sought to refute an article I wrote for The Diplomat criticizing Air-Sea Battle (ASB). In his response to my article, Kazianis argued 1) ASB is misunderstood; 2) ASB is not about China; 3) ASB has other ways to defeat A2/AD than relying on long-range strikes against ballistic missile launchers, radar sites, and command and control (C2) networks; and 4) A blockade against China, which I had proposed as an alternative to ASB, doesn’t work for countries other than China. Some of these critiques are eminently fair; others are less so.

First: is ASB misunderstood? Is ASB really not about China? These arguments are predicated on the notion that both the Department of Defense and prominent defense think tanks have done a poor job of explaining the operational concept. As General Hoss Cartwright put it: “To some, [ASB is] becoming the Holy Grail…[But] it’s neither a doctrine nor a scenario and it’s trying to be all things to all people.” According to this argument, ASB is about perfecting basic “blocking and tackling” in a joint operational space, the aspects that most assumed the U.S. military could execute successfully but in reality has allowed its capabilities to wane in.

One such example of this, as highlighted by Sam LaGrone, was when a P-3 Orion ASW aircraft and an A-10 Thunderbolt II were jointly controlled by a U.S. destroyer to mop up Libya’s small coastal forces during Operation Odyssey Dawn. Neither aircraft normally works with the other: one hunts submarines; the other takes out tanks and conducts close air support missions. But they were the assets that were on hand, and they effectively eliminated the threat. In the future, the ASB office could advise the services in how to improve these kinds of ad-hoc operations.

Let me state unambiguously: I support such operations. Many of these examples (like making sure U.S. cyber networks are secure and can maintain ISR or logistics in a contested space) are defensive in nature and are just good common sense. Joint C2 has a wide variety of applications and is one of the great force multipliers of the U.S. military. Hunting submarines and clearing mines are a vital capability that shouldn’t be allowed to wither away. These are all operations that could be particularly useful in a military conflict with China or Iran, but they are not specifically aimed at China or Iran.

But then we get back to long-range strikes. Mr. Kazianis contends that long-range strikes on the Chinese mainland are but one option among many that the U.S. could use in an “escalation dominance” ASB framework, and that “it seems silly to dismiss ASB outright as escalatory based on one possible use of the concept.” This is an insufficient rebuttal. Eliminating adversaries’ central weapon systems through the use of penetrating strike assets—such as cruise missiles fired from a Virginia-class submarine with an enhanced payload module, smart bombs dropped from a Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B), or Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS)— is a central component of ASB.

In fact, this is acknowledged by the Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC) and the Air-Sea Battle Office’s May 2013 report, both of which refer to such strikes as “attack-in-depth.” As the JOAC puts it:

“The potentially escalatory effects of strikes into an adversary’s homeland must be carefully weighed against U.S. political objectives and acceptable risk. Such escalation is particularly likely when the conflict is distant from the US homeland, and there has been no corresponding attack on U.S. territory. In these cases, the probability and risk of reprisal attacks against the continental United States must be considered.”

My argument is that the political risk vis-à-vis China will, under any reasonable scenario, always be too high; no president, unless faced with an existential threat, will authorize these kinds of strikes against the Chinese mainland.

Furthermore, as Matthew Hipple argued in a recent War on the Rocks article, a U.S.-China war would most likely start in situations “not where strategic interests bring [the] parties into conflict, but where tactical and operational level controls are accidentally engaged and rational escalatory responses are executed.” I agree that unintentional escalation is far more likely than a premeditated, first strike that leads to total war. In this situation, the U.S. would want to deescalate the war and slow down the tempo of operations, not significantly escalate the situation. A blockade would meet such objectives.

ASB does the opposite: it assumes that the U.S. will be subjected to a surprise attack, and that U.S. forces must provide an “immediate and effective response” through “high-tempo operations” to disrupt enemy A2/AD capabilities. ASB supporters, however, claim that the U.S. could control the level of escalation. But, as Hipple points out, “interest and intention are often overwhelmed by circumstance and procedure.” It is not really the development of strike capabilities itself that makes ASB dangerous; it is the way in which such capabilities would be used in a potential war. JOAC warns of the risks of a strike on an adversaries’ homeland, but does not even consider that the national command authority may be unable to rationally assess the risks of escalation. The question becomes: will war between the U.S. and China begin like World War I or World War II? A random event that leads to uncontrollable escalation, or a premeditated first strike? I would strongly argue the former.

It is entirely possible that penetrating strike assets might have utility in other scenarios such as North Korea or Iran, both of which have advanced air defense networks. Similarly, I don’t doubt that a blockade might prove useless against relatively isolated countries like North Korea or Iran. But if the U.S. is developing long-range strike capabilities for these adversaries and not China, this needs to be stated explicitly.

Libyan Islamist Incidentally Freshly Recreates Deliberative Democracy

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“We used to think that removing oppression and imposing justice are the same thing, but justice requires dialogue,” Mr. Qaid added. In prison, he said, he and many of his fellow Islamist inmates decided that just as they rejected Colonel Qaddafi’s suppression of dissent, they should never try to impose their own views on others. “We want to derive our way of life from the teachings of our religion, without forcing anyone else to do it,” he said. “These are the principles that never change.”

The whole article in the New York Times also has some very useful suggestions for American policy makers on not treating all combat-age Muslim teenagers as enemy combatants.

Written by Will

October 6th, 2012 at 6:26 pm

Posted in Justice

Tagged with , , ,

AirSea Battle Concept Lacks Strategy and Political Purpose

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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.”