Chinese military power is the new existential military threat to the United States — at least, that’s the view espoused by more than a few people in the U.S. military, the defense industries and Congress. Many of these see Air-Sea Battle (ASB), a new war-fighting concept combining the striking power of American naval and aerospace forces, as an important step in designing a U.S. military response to the strategic dilemma presented by a war with China. As with any new concept, it’s imperfect, but it is also potentially powerful in its impact on U.S. military thinking and budgets.
America’s weakening economy means U.S. military power simply cannot be everywhere. Those who fear China, pointing to the country’s military modernization programs, regional assertiveness and emergence as the world’s largest producer of manufactured goods, say the U.S. must concentrate military power in Asia, lest, in the words of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, “the character of the Chinese government, one that marries aspects of the free market with suppression of political and personal freedom” become “a widespread and disquieting norm.”
Very few observers of Chinese military power, in or out of uniform, anticipate a head-on collision with Beijing. Still, many fear that the U.S. and China could end up in a conflict through events similar to those that precipitated World War I. For the moment, the explosive social, political and economic conditions that developed in the hundred years after the Congress of Vienna in 1815 do not exist in China or the U.S. But if they were to appear, many who see China as a newly aggressive power in Asia believe that the Chinese government might respond to internal civil unrest by provoking a war with the U.S.
To those convinced of China’s dangerous and aggressive intentions, ASB offers a military solution that is attractive in two important ways. First, the majority of congressmen, four-stars and political appointees in the Defense Department are preoccupied with the threat of war with a capable opponent, an opponent like China with armies, air forces, air defenses, naval forces and nuclear weapons. Leaders in a country that for 50 years has been the world’s only true center of military, political and economic gravity, their predisposition is to police the globe with American military power even if most of the world doesn’t want policing and U.S. taxpayers cannot afford it. The strategic imperative to contain or counter Chinese military power is, to them, irresistible.
Second, when it comes to warfare, high-tech/remote/standoff solutions encourage the illusion of certainty, light casualties in action and operational success in the thoroughly unpredictable environment of extraordinary brutality and barbarism that is real war. ASB provides a new way for many in the armed forces and Congress to look for solutions that avoid this ugly reality.
Actually, it’s a new way to deal with an old problem. Horrified by the loss of 110,000 American lives on the World War I battlefields of France in less than six months, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inclined in a similar direction in the years before Pearl Harbor. FDR wanted to limit America’s contribution to World War II to the use of American air and naval power. It turned out to be a worthy but unattainable goal in a fight with the determined armed forces of Germany and Japan.
In an Oct. 26 briefing at the Center for Naval Analyses, Navy Undersecretary Robert O. Work made several points that were reminiscent of FDR’s understandable desire for a clean, decisive victory from a distance. In brief, Work said:
Air-Sea Battle sees the solution primarily in terms of joint operations; in this case, involving naval and aerospace forces.
Air-Sea Battle focuses on winning a two-sided guided munitions salvo competition in order to facilitate concurrent and follow-on operations. Work did not specify the nature of the follow-on operations.
Air-Sea Battle will lead to new Navy-Air Force tactics, techniques and procedures in the near term, and later, to new platforms, sensors and weapons.
In other words, Air-Sea Battle is a concept for the joint employment of precision-guided missiles and munitions against unspecified future target sets (presumably Chinese) on the assumption that the capability and capacity to destroy thousands of targets with great precision will be sufficient to drive future opponents like China toward acceptable termination. Ground forces were not included because it would take too long for them to deploy and make a meaningful contribution at the outset of the precision-strike campaign. The implication is that if ground maneuver forces are not deployed and in place when the missiles fly, they are probably of little use anyway.
Here, it’s important to remember that American war-fighting simulations rarely assume a protracted military campaign that might last months or years. The impact of such war games on the thinking and behavior of American national political and military leaders should not be underestimated.
The unspoken assumption implicit in Air-Sea Battle is that a precision-strike campaign against China would not drag on without result. This is not the first time the English-speaking peoples of North America, Britain and Australia have perceived the world beyond their borders in ways that flattered their self-image of unconstrained economic growth and sea-based global military power.
In 1914, when Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener, the newly appointed British war minister, told the British cabinet that its decision to go to war with Germany and Austria-Hungary would require the British Empire to field an army of millions, that the war would last for at least three years and that it would be decided on the European continent and not at sea, the cabinet ministers were astonished. For reasons that seem incomprehensible today, Britain’s political leaders, including Winston Churchill, first lord of the Admiralty, believed a war with Germany would be short and that the Royal Navy — not the combined national strength of the British, French, Russian and eventually U.S. armies — would decide its outcome in a great sea battle with the German surface fleet. The possibility that Germany would decline to fight on Britain’s terms — at sea — and that the war on land would consume Britain’s national wealth and manpower, seems not to have occurred to Britain’s leaders until Kitchener made his presentation.
Like the British Empire, the U.S. is also of necessity a global maritime and aerospace power. And like Great Britain, the U.S. is not a major land power. The last time a foreign army invaded the U.S. during the War of 1812, the invading army was British and its strategic aims, though somewhat muddled, were limited. The U.S. has never confronted a foreign invader with a land force capable of conquering and subjugating the American people. As a result, America’s national military strategy seldom anticipates the commitment of large ground forces along with massive public funds to continental wars remote from North America.
These points notwithstanding, in the absence of integrated U.S. expeditionary and allied ground forces, ASB risks becoming the 21st century equivalent of medieval siege warfare. Given China’s size and depth, its authoritarian culture and supporting institutions of internal security, American air and naval strike forces are likely to run out of precision-guided munitions long before they run out of targets to attack or achieve conditions favorable for acceptable termination. Without a realistic plan that integrates U.S. and allied ground forces from regional states like Vietnam, South Korea, Japan and even Russia, and powerful ground forces capable of holding China’s regime survivability and internal national cohesion at risk from multiple directions, the probability of achieving conflict termination on terms that favor U.S. and allied interests is low to nonexistent.
It’s true that the Chinese remember how Japanese forces assembled in Taiwan, then landed largely unopposed all along China’s southern coast throughout the 1930s and World War II. To protect these coastal areas from American intrusion, the Chinese are convinced they need viable air and naval forces. But instead of trying to match the U.S. ability to develop and operate advanced aircraft, the Chinese are investing in foreign technologies or entire aircraft, and then adapting them to their own needs.
These efforts also involve the integration of advanced surface-to-air missiles purchased or stolen from foreign sources. For the Chinese, building long-range conventionally armed ballistic missile systems with a supporting network of sensor systems designed to find and attack U.S. aircraft carriers and other U.S. surface combatants is cheaper, faster and more sensible than trying to match America’s fleet platform for platform.
China’s approach to cope with U.S. naval and aerospace power is eliciting a predictable response from the American military: build more strike systems and platforms. Yet, how the U.S. organizes its forces to conduct strategic operations is far more important than purchasing the latest gold-plated missile system. Without first identifying service mission-focused capability packages in advance or the military equivalent of Legos that can be assembled into larger integrated operational forces, the decisiveness that true unity of effort provides will not exist.
Simplified organizational structures that emphasize responsibility and accountability are the keys to success in warfare. Organizing U.S. maneuver (ground); strike; intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance; and sustainment capabilities into force packages that can be integrated and employed under a unified military command, not a collection of single-service headquarters with “joint plugs,” is vital to this process. There won’t be time for a pickup game in a conflict with China. By the time the U.S. gets its operational construct and command-and-control act together, China will have defeated attacking U.S. forces and achieved its own strategic aims.
The point is simple. In its current form, short of employing nuclear weapons (the least attractive option), ASB cannot pose an existential military threat to China. No doubt, some planners and policymakers may insist ASB need not pose such a threat, that it’s enough for ASB to seriously degrade China’s military capabilities for years, but, once again, history does not support this assumption.
Japanese assumptions about Japan’s ability to degrade American military power in the Pacific led to the foolish decision to bomb Pearl Harbor, then stop. Setting aside the wisdom of attacking a vastly superior economic powerhouse like the U.S., today’s military historians find it incomprehensible that Japanese forces did not immediately occupy the Hawaiian Islands and then carry the war directly to America’s Pacific Coast. The lesson is an old one: If you strike a king, you had better kill him.
Lastly, military planning for a potential conflict with China must also be viewed in the context of contemporary Chinese society, whose problems include ones not terribly different than those of past dynasties reaching back centuries. The mobilizing power of Chinese or “Han” nationalism to support aggressive external war is less than many Western analysts think, thanks to ethnic irredentism, regional secessionist tendencies and severely uneven economic development, particularly between the eastern coastal areas and China’s interior. Today, these historic problems are compounded by China’s dependence on an export-driven economy, widespread corruption in the public and private sectors, dangerous levels of pollution in its most densely populated areas, and a growing housing bubble that, like all bubbles, must eventually burst. A military confrontation with the U.S. is the last thing on the central government’s mind.
Beijing’s fear of internal instability is quite real, underlined by recent violent uprisings against Chinese rule and colonization among Turkic Uyghurs in Eastern Turkestan (Sinkiang), Tibetans, and Mongols in Inner Mongolia. These minority groups, along with 52 others, make up just 8 percent of the population, but inhabit more than 50 percent of China’s territory. There is also growing unrest in China’s industrial regions, thanks to official corruption, abusive labor practices and the uncompensated seizure of private land by the Chinese government for development. It’s easy to understand why China’s internal security budget surpasses its national defense spending.
There are Chinese nationalists who would like to restore Sino-centrism to Asia’s cultural and economic order, but there are far more Chinese in and out of government who know it’s simply not possible. The nations on China’s periphery — particularly South Korea, Japan and Vietnam — are no longer subject to geographic isolation and economic dependence on China as they were 300 years ago. And when Han chauvinism manifests itself overtly, as it does from time to time, it draws enormous resistance in Japan, South Korea and Vietnam — powerful states with strong economic and technological foundations, as well as more homogenous and cohesive societies than China’s.
Fortunately for the Chinese and American peoples — and in contrast to the astonishingly naïve European leaders of 1914 — there is an acute sensitivity in Beijing, Washington, Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei and Hanoi that crises involving Taiwan or the Korean Peninsula may spiral out of control. In other words, there really is an understanding that target sets are a component of, but not a substitute for, strategy; that strike without maneuver has limited value in real war. Unless we turn to the devastation of nuclear war, U.S. and allied ground forces will continue to play a critical role in warfare designed to achieve a decision on terms that favor the U.S. and its allies.
ASB is an important step in the direction of building a military solution for future conflicts, but it’s not the whole solution. It is unfair to suggest that ASB is nothing more than a rationale for new, expensive platforms and munitions. It’s much more, but thinking realistically about future war, however unpalatable, must involve planning for the integrated use of all components of the joint force — including ground maneuver forces.