Page 1 of 2 Suppose we offered battle ...
By Peter Lee
Suppose we gave a war ... and only a People's Republic of China maritime surveillance vessel showed up?
That is the first of many conundrums facing the US military as it considers the megaboondoggle known as ''Air-Sea Battle''.
With the Barack Obama administration aspiring to pivot out of the
Middle East (albeit with a stopover in Syria and, just maybe, Iran), and into Asia, it was felt that a new US military doctrine was required to drive planning, preparation, and budgets.
Air Sea Battle - its name consciously mimicking Air Land Battle, the doctrine that guided US vigilance against another big red boogeyman, the Soviet Union, in Europe in the 1970s - originated with a study by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment published in 2010. It is unapologetically constructed around the challenge - the ''unprovoked challenge'', as the authors characterized it - that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) might pose to the United States.
Actually, the threat is not to the United States. It is the threat to the ability of the US military to operate in the Western Pacific. And, for that matter, it isn't an actual threat:
With the spread of advanced military technologies and their exploitation by other militaries, especially China's PLA, the US military's ability to operate in an area of vital interest, the Western Pacific, is being increasingly challenged. While Beijing professes 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. 
Well, it could be a threat.
And if it were a threat, it could be called anti-access/area denial. And it could get its own cool acronym: A2/AD. Which is what they did.
Too bad the threat wasn't defined as ''regional reaction/domain denial''. Then we could call the threat R2D2 and people would associate the People's Republic of China with the Star Wars robot that looked so cute and harmless in the first movies but then became a flying, high-tech killing machine in the prequels.
It is perhaps unkind to mock Air Sea Battle and the effort, expense, and gravitas that went into its preparation. Unfortunately, it is eminently mockable. Its apparently disabling paradox is illustrated on pages 9 and 10 of the CSBA study:
It must be emphasized that an AirSea Battle concept is not about war with China. Nor is it about ''rolling back'' Chinese influence, or even about ''containing'' China. Rather, it should be seen as part of a larger ''offsetting strategy'' that acknowledges that China's tremendous economic achievement simultaneously enables it to acquire formidable military capabilities. ... One of the key elements of such an offsetting strategy is demonstrating a continuing US ability to reassure allies and partners in the region that they will not be the victims of coercion or a form of ''Finlandization'' on the part of China. To accomplish this, the United States must have a demonstrable ability to intervene effectively in the event of a military confrontation or even conventional conflict with China.
The key question: if we are not fighting a war with China; if indeed China is doing bad things like coercion and Finlandization but does not engage in military hostilities with the United States, how do we get from of Air Sea Just Sitting There to Air Sea Battle?
That is a problem the authors can't answer - unless China obliges by launching a first-strike attack on US military forces, in other words turns the threat of A2/AD into reality. This is openly identified as the first assumption underlying the Air Sea Battle concept:
This paper assumes that China would have the strategic and operational initiative at the outset of war and that, even with warning, US military forces would not be authorized to preempt imminent Chinese military action kinetically. Thus the United States must be able to recover from the initial blow by aggressor forces and sustain operations for the concept to be viable.
As to the scenarios in which the People's Republic of China might choose to attack the military forces of the United States - under which circumstances the authors assume full participation by treaty partners Japan and Australia on the US side - the study is, unfortunately, silent.
So the Air Sea Battle slides past the awkward issue of why or when China would launch a first strike against US forces, and fast forwards to an interesting discussion of how it would be done.
In the opening minutes of a conflict, seek to render US and allied forces ''deaf, dumb and blind'' by destroying or degrading US and allied Low Earth Orbit (LEO) ISR [information, surveillance and reconnaissance], Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS), third-generation Infrared System (3GIRS) sensors and communications satellites. This would be accomplished by employing directed-energy weapons, direct-ascent and co-orbital anti-satellite weapons, or terrestrial jamming, in concert with coordinated cyber and electronic warfare attacks;
>> Conduct ballistic missile salvo attacks, complemented by LACMs [land attack Cruise missiles] launched from various platform types, against US and Japanese air and naval bases. Attacks on Japanese targets could be supplemented by air strikes. Key targets would include forward air bases including those at Andersen, Kadena and Misawa; major logistics nodes such as Guam (airfields and port facilities); and key logistics assets such as fuel storage tanks. The PLA's objective would be to deny US forces the ability to generate substantial combat power from its air bases in the Western Pacific;
>> Conduct major strikes using land-based anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM) and anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) launched from various platforms and submarines against all major US Navy and allied warships at sea within 1,500 nm of the Chinese coast, with particular emphasis on the maritime areas around the PRC's littorals. The PLA's objective would be to raise the cost of the US and allied fleet operations within this ''keep-out'' zone to prohibitive levels (see Figure 4); and
>> Interdict US and allied sea lines of communication (SLOCs) throughout Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific. Nuclear submarines could patrol forward near Hawaii in the Pacific and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to interdict the flow of supplies and reinforcements moving to forward bases; attack Navy assets transiting to and from operating areas in the Western Pacific; and force the Navy to divert substantial resources to convoy escort and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) in non-forward areas.
With the United States securely in the category of innocent victim of unprovoked aggression, the planners and the US military are off to the races: space war, cyber war, ''blinding attacks'', ''thinning out'' the PLA's missile inventory, three months of warfare against Chinese surface and submarine war vessels, and so on.
And, by the way, bye-bye Beijing, per the study's assumptions:
Neither US nor Chinese Territory Will Be Accorded Sanctuary Status
Neither belligerent will be off-limits to strikes by the other. At a minimum, selected US conventional counterforce strikes - both kinetic and nonkinetic (eg, cyber) - inside China will be authorized from the conflict's onset. A limited number of very high-leverage targets, principally those related to China's air defenses, command and control, ISR, and counter-space/space control, as well as fixed-site and mobile ballistic missiles (including production sites), lie at the heart of the PLA's A2/AD operational approach. According these targets sanctuary status would severely undermine US attempts to maintain a stable military balance in the Western Pacific and, as such, decrease the effectiveness of deterrence.
The report makes another necessary assumption to keep the party going:
Mutual Nuclear Deterrence Holds
Tacit agreement not to use or threaten the use of nuclear weapons would appear to be in both parties' interests. There have been several wars where weapons of mass destruction were possessed by one side or the other, and yet were not employed, even by the defeated power. In World War II, Germany accepted a total defeat at the hands of the allies without employing its formidable arsenal of chemical weaponry. In the First Gulf War, Iraq suffered a severe defeat but did not resort to the use of its chemical weapons. If this assumption does not hold and nuclear warfare ensues, then the character of the conflict would change so dramatically as to render discussion of major conventional warfare irrelevant. Of course, an Air Sea Battle operational concept and its associated capabilities are intended to deter conventional acts of coercion or aggression, thereby reducing the prospects of a nuclear confrontation.
The People's Republic of China recently affirmed its ''no first use'' nuclear weapons doctrine. In other words, the PRC's relatively modest nuclear arsenal is designed to survive and thereby deter a first nuclear strike by somebody else.
There appears to be an across-the-board consensus that ASB's assumption that the exchange will not go nuclear is reasonable.
The current Chinese nuclear arsenal does not include any announced tactical component, making it unlikely that it would be used in its current form in an ASB exchange.
RAND's David Shlapak told Asia Times:
Attacking the homeland of any nuclear-armed country is always a fraught undertaking. That said, I'm not aware of any evidence that China is considering developing tactical nuclear weapons as a response to ASB, and I wouldn't expect their nuclear doctrine to change to counter what is after all a tactical concept.
If China did change so as to threaten a nuclear response to conventional attack, they'd face a pretty high credibility hurdle. The United States, after all, has enormous quantitative and qualitative advantages in the nuclear realm. The US and NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] had a very difficult time making believable escalatory threats in the context of a European war against the Warsaw Pact, even though its nuclear capability was at worst on par with the Soviets'; China would encounter the same dilemma.
However, I think this assumption may be too optimistic.
The premise of ASB is ''no sanctuaries'', which strongly implies that the area of Beijing - which is clustered with SAM missile sites in addition to its command-and-control significance - would not be declared off-limits to US and Japanese strikes.
ASB, despite its efforts to paint the encounter as symmetric (they attack our military targets with conventional weapons, we attack their military targets with conventional weapons, gentlemen come out of your corners at the bell, I want a nice, clean fight) and therefore controllable, really isn't.
The war is supposed to be fought all over Chinese territory. Of course, the PLA Navy is welcome to try to sail into the Atlantic Ocean and attack Washington DC in retaliation but this is simply not going to happen.
Beijing getting ''shock and awed'' by precision strikes is probably not part of the Chinese leadership's plan for regime survival, so we should not automatically assume that the PRC's only riposte to ASB will be to keep the fight on a mano-a-mano straight-up conventional basis.
Where stands Japan?
A further complicating factor is ASB's assumption that Japan will be pitching in on the US side (according to the ASB Gotterdammerung scenario, China would simultaneously attack US military bases in Japan, thereby bringing Japan into the war). Japan and the PRC are locked in vicious antagonism that is, up to now, still thankfully verbal. But the flip side to Japanese feistiness with China is its increasing independence from the United States, and the current government's desire to shed the restraints of the pacifist constitution and control its own security destiny.
Add to this the nascent, well maybe not so nascent, dream of some in Japan to celebrate its return to full great power status by fielding a nuclear arsenal (Japan's Epsilon rocket, which has virtually no civilian potential and walks talks and quacks like an ICBM, is in the midst of launch tests  and we have the possibility of an independent, aggressive, and nuclear Japan in the mix against China.
It is increasingly difficult to imagine that PLA planners are not talking about an alternate future in which tactical nuclear weapons are deployed and a new doctrine announced in order to mix it up with the Japanese as well as deter the massive conventional attack on the Chinese mainland as envisaged by ASB.
If Air Sea Battle were put into effect and the Chinese regime decides its security is best served by the threat of air-bursting a nuclear weapon over the USS George Washington instead of pouring more money and development effort into its conventional the carrier-killer missile ... well, hopefully CSBA has another study in its safe dealing with this contingency.
In passing, for those of you who have ever looked at a map of the South China Sea and said to yourselves, hmmm, it looks like the nation with the most vital interest in free navigation down there is actually China, so what exactly is the point of the United States' national interest in protecting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea from the Chinese threat, there's this:
[T]he US forces could exploit the Western Pacific's geography, which effectively channelizes Chinese merchant traffic. Since direct Chinese commerce with the United States and Japan would cease at the outbreak of conflict, there would be little if any trans-Pacific traffic left to intercept. Most interdiction efforts would focus on ships trying to transit the South China Sea. Traffic bound for China would be intercepted as it tried to enter the southern portions of the South China Sea, ie, beyond range of most PLA A2/AD systems, from the Malacca, Singapore, or major Indonesia straits.
And let's not overlook the economic and environmental benefits of legal piracy:
Rather than the mass sinkings of merchant ships by German U-boats and their US counterparts during World War II, US and allied forces might conduct maritime interception operations (MIO) against ships bound for China. Economically (and environmentally) it would be far more beneficial to seize (and perhaps confiscate) prize cargos than sink them. The option to use force against noncompliant ships would be retained.
In November 2011, the Pentagon set up an ''Air Sea Battle Office'', whose debut was greeted with a flurry of interest and a storm of criticism.
As to how this concept got off the drawing board and into the public discourse, it did respond to a genuine and immediate threat - the threat that termination of the Iraq and Afghan wars and the pivot out of the Middle East would bring some major adjustments to US defense spending. The real enemies confronting each other over the contested terrain of the Pacific: US Army vs US Air Force and Navy.
A 2012 article in the bureaucrat-friendly Government Executive magazine with the optimistic title ''The Next War'' rather awkwardly framed the matter as one of turning away from essential unpleasantness of Army-type war, with its improvised explosive devices - or IEDs - brutalized local populations, and devastating post-traumatic stress disorder issues, to the more sleek and satisfying alternative of men and women in crisp uniforms firing extremely expensive ordinance from fancy ships and airplanes:
In this war over the next war, the Air Force and Navy have stolen an intellectual march over the Army with their joint AirSea Battle concept. It is a vision of future conflict well-matched to America's exhaustion with ground wars, its preference for high-tech, long-range engagements and its growing anxiety over the rise of China. ...
AirSea Battle and the anti-access/area denial threat have come to dominate the debate, with the Army still struggling to respond. The ground force has no grand concept yet to carry its banner in the inter-service battle over missions, roles and funding. The Obama administration's strategic guidance, issued in January, explicitly swears off the kind of ''large-scale, prolonged stability operations'' that the Army and Marines spent the last decade learning, slowly and bloodily, how to do. 
As an American taxpayer, I was interested to learn that the centerpiece of the Air Force and Marine's order of battle - and the Pentagon's biggest procurement program, amounting to almost half a trillion dollars - might be the wrong kit for the job by the standards of Air Sea Battle:
As powerful as the idea has proved, AirSea Battle poses one big problem for its Air Force and Navy sponsors: The two services' largest program, the Joint Strike Fighter, doesn't actually fit the concept very well. The Air Force, Navy and Marines are committed to buying 2,457 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, also known as Lightning IIs, for an estimated $395.7 billion. ...
The F-35 has a combat mission radius - the maximum distance at which it can strike a target and return without refueling - of about 600 nautical miles (not quite 700 statute miles, or 1,100 kilometers). While the aircraft itself is a small, stealthy, agile target, the platforms from which it must refuels are not: Air Force tankers, aircraft carriers and air bases. As adversaries acquire ever longer-range and more accurate missiles, they can make it increasingly dangerous to refuel short-range fighters within 700 miles of their final target.
There are always alternatives, of course:
[G]iven AirSea Battle's emphasis on long-range strikes, especially over the vast distances of the Pacific, the military is arguably over-investing in relatively short-range fighters and shortchanging long-range bombers.
A budget item of $5 billion is reportedly the downpayment on a new long range bomber - enough to pay for designing the landing gear, one analyst joked.