As the threat to forward-deployed US forces grows, particularly in East Asia, the Pentagon has been pursuing a strategy known as Air-Sea Battle. As Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Greenert and Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Welsh have outlined here in Foreign Policy, the goal is to neutralise the ability of enemies to keep US forces at bay with so-called Anti-Access and Area-Denial (A2/AD) defences.
But while the proponents of Air-Sea Battle are careful to say that the strategy isn’t focused on one specific adversary, we shouldn’t kid ourselves: The Chinese see it as aimed at them. According to Air-Sea Battle, US forces would launch physical attacks and cyberattacks against the enemy’s “kill-chain” of sensors and weaponry in order to disrupt its command-and-control systems, wreck its launch platforms (including aircraft, ships, and missile sites), and finally defeat the weapons they actually fire. The sooner the kill-chain is broken, the less damage US forces will suffer - and the more damage they will be able to inflict on the enemy. Therein lies both the military attractiveness and the strategic risk of Air-Sea Battle.
Civilian and military leaders alike need to understand that Air-Sea Battle suggests the United States would strike China before China strikes US forces. That could precipitate a spiralling, costly, and destabilising arms race and make a crisis more likely to lead to hostilities. Here we suggest two: Shift toward a more survivable force posture in East Asia and improve the means to prevent China - or any state - from projecting force in an act of international aggression.
Akin to the Air-Land Battle plan of the 1980s — meant to thwart Soviet aggression against Nato — Air-Sea Battle responds to the declining viability of forward defence, combined with an aversion to nuclear escalation. Disrupting or destroying China’s kill-chain is alluring. China has the resources to threaten US forces in the Pacific. Failure to develop countermeasures would leave the United States with a declining ability to operate militarily, deter Chinese use of force, reassure and defend allies, and exert influence in a vital region. Yet this simple idea could have dire consequences: Air-Sea Battle’s targets would have to be struck before they could do significant damage to US forces. With the exception of ships at sea and satellites in orbit, the targets that comprise China’s kill-chain - air and naval bases, missile launchers, land-based sensors, command-and-control centres - are in China itself.
Attacking Chinese territory would have serious geopolitical consequences. China isn’t the menacing, isolated Soviet Union. It’s a huge and integral part of the world economy, as well as a potential US partner in managing world affairs. While the US must maintain a strong military presence to balance the growth of Chinese power and prevent instability in East Asia, where the potential for conflict is greatest, at the same time it is trying to engage China in security cooperation from Korea to the Gulf. Moreover, 2013 is not 1980: Information technologies — for targeting, networking, and cyberwar — are advancing rapidly, and China is more capable of competing technologically than the Soviet Union ever was.
Given all these concerns, what does Air-Sea Battle contribute to US security? It could indeed present China’s military with serious problems. At the same time, Air-Sea Battle does not solve the underlying problem of US forces’ growing vulnerability in the Western Pacific. That is the result of military-technological trends, geographic realities, and the limitations and costs of defending overseas deployments. Air-Sea Battle could provide a stopgap countermeasure until the US can address its vulnerability. But it also has the potential to deepen Chinese fears of US intentions, cause the Chinese to re-double their A2/AD effort — which they see as essential for national defence — and even make conflict more likely. Because China is so critical, and because war with China could be so dangerous, we must think through the circumstances in which potentially escalatory attacks would be warranted. We must not lose sight of the fact that the Chinese regard US forces in the Western Pacific - especially air- and sea-based strike forces - as threatening.
Air-Sea Battle increases the odds that a crisis will turn violent. Already, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) leans towards early strikes on US forces if hostilities have begun or appear imminent. Indeed, they might feel a need, out of self-defence, to launch large-scale preemptive cyber- and anti-satellite attacks on our Air-Sea Battle assets even if they had not planned to start a war. It is a dangerous situation when both sides put a premium on early action.
Most distressing, from a strategic perspective, is that Air-Sea Battle addresses how a war with China could begin, but it begs the questions of what course such a war could take, where it would lead, and how it could be ended on terms favourable to the United States. So what steps should the United States take to counter China’s growing A2/AD arsenal? A more sustainable and less destabilising way to solve the vulnerability problem is to overwhelm and confuse China’s targeting, which is the key to its A2/AD. The US should resume its efforts and regain a commanding lead in the exploitation of information technology. This type of force will take years to field, but that is all the more reason to start now. Partnerships with allies to develop their A2/AD capabilities would be critical in this plan. The US could rely on regional partners to deploy their own A2/AD capabilities at the onset of trouble, while withholding its A2/AD measures until aggression was underway or certain. The shift in emphasis to regional A2/AD would improve deterrence without raising the risks of escalation.
Future American presidents will need a range of possible responses to the growth of Chinese power, ways to manage regional friction, and methods of channelling Sino-US relations in positive directions.
The United States should counter Chinese A2/AD. But the goal must be to strengthen, not weaken, stability. Moreover, investment in new capabilities should follow strategy, not imply it — all the more so when resources are tight and Sino-US relations unsettled. The US cannot afford to make decisions today without thinking several moves ahead.
David Gompert is a senior fellow at Rand and professor at the US Naval Academy. His most recent government position was as President Obama’s principal deputy director of national intelligence. Terrence Kelly is a senior operations researcher at Rand and the director of the Rand Arroyo Center’s Strategy and Resources programme.