The Pentagon's plan for an air-sea battle with China

The US and China both have plans in the event of conflict between them. But the Pentagon's 'AirSea Battle' strategy seems like an ill-conceived deterrent.

When China held a number of provocative military exercises in the Taiwan Straits back in 1995-1996 to intimidate then Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui against backing a pro- independence stance in the run-up to the island’s presidential elections, then US president Bill Clinton ordered the USS Independence aircraft carrier and three supporting battleships to the troubled region. With the People’s Liberation Army no match for even one American aircraft carrier group, Beijing was forced into a humiliating backdown, and the Third Taiwan Straits Crisis ended with little further incident.

One US aircraft carrier group has more firepower at its disposal than a middle-sized country. America has eleven of these, with five in the Pacific Ocean alone. But the Chinese backdown is only the beginning of the contemporary story of military competition rather than the end.

Beijing watched in awed disbelief as the United States  destroyed Saddam Hussein’s forces during the First Gulf War in Iraq/Kuwait in 1990-1991 with their advanced and heavily networked arsenal. The third Taiwan Straits Crisis only reaffirmed to Beijing that it needed to undertake its own revolution in military affairs, as its millions of soldiers equipped with Cold War era armaments would stand no chance against America’s world-beating technologies.

Over the next two decades, Beijing cobbled together what is now widely referred to as its asymmetrical anti-access/area-denial or A2/AD strategy. Using land, sea, air, cyber and space military assets and technologies, the plan is to use submarines, advanced mines, and anti-ship weapons to inflict damage on American aircraft carrier groups to prevent them from entering any future combat zone or geographical areas.

Cyber and space technologies would also attempt to disrupt or disable the heavily networked American forces by taking out the ‘eyes’ and ‘ears’ that gives the U.S. military its superior tactical advantage. The ultimately strategy is not to necessarily win an all-out war, but to inflict prohibitive losses on American aircraft carrier groups. 

This is where it gets interesting and also more than a little worrisome. America’s response to the possible threat to its overwhelming tactical superiority is the ‘operational concept’ of 'AirSea Battle', which is designed to "preserve America’s ability to defeat aggression and maintain escalation advantage despite the challenge posed by advanced weapons systems (wielded by China)", according to the Pentagon. It involves developing the capacity to go deep into Chinese territory and to destroy the advanced missiles, command-and-control systems and other reconnaissance and intelligence gathering platforms needed by China to execute its A2/D2 strategy. It is called AirSea Battle because it involves the use of American planes, ships, satellites, cyber capabilities, submarines and missiles to preserve its advantage and "prevail over an opponent’s battle network".

AirSea Battle has its critics – including from the defence establishment within America – because the approach seems dangerously escalatory. That is, if the AirSea Battle concept is implemented, it could leave Beijing no option but to retaliate through escalation of any military action. Some credible analysts even believe that the unintended but foreseeable consequence of AirSea Battle is an unrestrained war that could even precipitate nuclear exchanges between the two countries.

The purpose of this article is to put some of the strongest arguments from both proponents and critics of AirSea Battle, and let you decide for yourself where you stand on the debate. This article is not about whether America should maintain its forward presence in our region, or whether it should step back from (or even abandon) its five decades old role of military hegemon in providing stability and public goods to the region.

Beginning from the factual premise that America is seeking to maintain its military superiority in East and Southeast Asia, the article is about whether the AirSea Battle concept could be effective in achieving that objective, or runs the unacceptable risk of provoking China into an escalatory response that would be an unmitigated disaster.

Let’s look at the major criticism of AirSea Battle.

The concept is designed to deter China from engaging in any major, high-intensity military action from the so-called first island chain that goes from the Kuril Islands in the Russian far east, to Japan, to Taiwan, northern Philippines, Borneo and Malaysia. Remember that AirSea Battle is precisely designed to counter China’s A2/AD capabilities. For the AirSea Battle to be successful, some argue America would have to launch extensive pre-emptive strikes against targets located in Chinese continental territory – a highly provocative act. If America does not launch pre-emptively, then the AirSea Battle logic is lost, since China has been developing A2/AD capabilities for over two decades.

If so, there is an argument that the problem is two-fold. First, Beijing would have no choice but to escalate any conflict since pre-emptive attacks against its territory will not be tolerated, even if it is seriously sabre-rattling in the region at the time. A major reason behind current American attempts to improve the military-to-military relationship with China is to have ways and means to de-escalate any potential conflict. AirSea Battle might well achieve the exact opposite.

Second, if AirSea Battle becomes the primary US operational concept in a regional war with China, then the PLA has little option but to launch pre-emptive and escalatory strikes against US military assets in the region if things look like they are getting ugly. After all, if the PLA loses its A2/AD capability, then the PLA’s only prospect of success (i.e., inflicting prohibitive losses on U.S. regional military assets) is lost and the superior American forces hold all the aces.

How would proponents of AirSea Battle respond?

The first response would be that if China’s A2/AD capabilities are not contested and ultimately rebuffed, then the First Island Chain becomes what Elbridge Colby (a leading advocate of AirSea Battle) calls a "strategic free fire zone" or "no man’s land". This would ultimately be to Beijing’s advantage, since keeping US forces away from a theatre conflict in the first island chain is precisely what China is trying to achieve. No American intervention in the East China Sea in the event of a high-intensity conflict means the beginning of the end of the U.S. security guarantee for Taiwan, Japan and possibly South Korea. Tokyo, Taipei and Seoul would subsequently rearm, possibly with nuclear weapons, and we would really have a situation with unintended consequences.

On the issue of deterrence of China, the argument for the AirSea Battle concept is that if successful, the approach would significantly decrease the capacity of the PLA to engage in any significant military exchange with American forces, thereby increasing the chances that military action against US forces would not be seriously contemplated. Even if the PLA were foolhardy enough to try, it would realise quickly that the costs far outweigh the benefits of escalating any conflict.

Moreover, as long as US forces are sufficiently protected such that the PLA were not able to launch pre-emptive attacks against American military assets that would disable AirSea Battle as an option, China is unlikely to try. Note that AirSea Battle would allow multiple levels of escalation such that the PLA would have several opportunities to step back. In this sense, proponents of AirSea Battle would argue that those warning about inevitable escalation to nuclear war fail to understand the flexibility that AirSea Battle offers. It is not a ‘total war or nothing' operational doctrine; it is about maintaining American freedom of action at every step of the escalatory process.

Besides, AirSea Battle proponents would argue that without such an American capacity to call upon in the event of likely or actual Chinese aggression, the PLA would have less inhibition when it comes to initiating and/or escalating a high intensity conflict within the first island chain.

My view: it comes down to whether AirSea Battle works, and this comes down to actual capability and execution. If the PLA is convinced that American forces can win every escalatory step, then they are unlikely to escalate. America can help its cause by choosing its targets at each step of the process carefully. For example, one should not immediately target the PLA’s primary command and control platforms, or the senior civilian leadership, as that would escalate the conflict several levels beyond what is required.

But if China’s A2/AD capabilities remain largely intact after the initial exchanges, and having suffered attacks against targets physically located deep in Chinese continental territory, Beijing will have little political choice but to push the PLA to escalate the war, and deploy its full range of A2/AD and other capabilities in imposing prohibitive costs on American forces. If China can take down an actual aircraft carrier, or else significant degrade an American carrier group, Washington might reconsider whether the defence of Taipei or Tokyo is still warranted.

For now, America’s naval forces in East and Southeast Asia are likely able to repel the PLA without suffering unacceptable losses. AirSea Battle is preparing for a future when this might no longer be the case.

Both sides, especially China, have much to lose in the event of war. But this logic has not been successful in preventing countless major wars in the past; unintended escalation and misperception is often behind the bloodiest tragedies. Let’s hope the AirSea Battle concept will never actually be tested in a hot war – not least because Australian alliance commitments could mean that we might have to be a reluctant participant.  

Dr John Lee is the Michael Hintze Fellow and adjunct associate professor at the Centre for International Security Studies, Sydney University. He is also a non-resident senior scholar at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC and a director of the Kokoda Foundation in Canberra.
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