The apparent sea change in the Pacific balance of power seemed to come all at once earlier this month. And it has seen the US military scrambling to find a new tack to allow it to preserve its dominance.
For many, the most important news was perhaps also the most mundane. Economists revised downward the pace of the United States’ recovery from the recent recession, while highlighting an anticipated $1.4-trillion budget deficit for 2010—a depth of indebtedness that President Barack Obama declared ‘unsustainable.’ Meanwhile, on August 16, economists reported that China's Gross Domestic Product had outstripped Japan's in the second quarter of the current calendar year, making China for the first time the world's second-largest economy after the United States.
The same day, the US Department of Defence released its annual report on Chinese military power. The 83-page document highlighted a rising China's ‘comprehensive transformation of its military,’ including more surface warships and submarines, a rapidly expanding arsenal of ballistic missiles and an air force capable of deploying at least 500 jet fighters over the Taiwan Strait. ‘The balance of cross-Strait military forces continues to shift in the mainland’s favour,’ the report warned, as Chinese military spending increases at a rate of around 10 percent or more annually.
To address such a situation, the US military can’t depend on any additional resources, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates cautioned in a May speech. ‘American taxpayers and the Congress are rightfully worried about the deficit.’
China rises as the United States seems to stagnate. The Chinese military grows more powerful as the Americans struggle to maintain their current strength. Washington remains committed to defending Taiwan and dominating the entire Pacific, but finds its aspirations apparently at odds with reality. So, with no new money and a rival flush with cash, the best weapon the Americans can apparently propose to counter the Chinese is an idea.
The idea is ‘AirSea Battle.’ Its name is an homage to a NATO concept from the 1980s that helped forge NATO ground and air forces capable of defeating a much larger Soviet army. AirSea Battle ‘has the potential to do for America’s military deterrent power at the beginning of the 21st century what AirLand Battle did near the end of the 20th,’ Gates said. ‘Encouraging,’ he described it as.
Some analysts share Gates' optimism. But others point out that the idea—not to mention broader US ambitions in the Pacific region—faces serious challenges.
For one, the AirSea Battle doctrine risks foundering for a lack of cash and hardware, while US-allied governments that could help compensate for the United States’ waning resources might be turned off by AirSea Battle's risky aims and aggressive overtones.
And there's a third potential problem. For all the noise and light that AirSea Battle has generated in world capitals, it's possible that the concept is actually entirely redundant.
Cold War Origins
In the 1980s, NATO ground troops in Europe stared down a Warsaw Pact army of overwhelming size. To prepare to blunt a Soviet-led attack and overcome the Warsaw Pact's numerical superiority, NATO adopted a revolutionary new idea. The AirLand Battle concept, which originated in the US Army's training command, posited that forward-deployed NATO tanks and missile-armed infantry, supported by jet fighters carrying smart munitions, could beat a larger Warsaw Pact army through aggressive counter-attacks.