Strategy for an Unthinkable Conflict
Image Credit: U.S. Pacific Fleet

Strategy for an Unthinkable Conflict


The Obama administration’s “rebalancing to Asia” has generated a great deal of discussion about how it impacts the defense acquisition budget but little about the military strategy necessary to support the shift. Although conflict in the Asia-Pacific is unlikely and extremely undesirable, the United States still needs a strategy.  The primary strategic goal is to deter such a conflict.  An effective military strategy can reduce the probability of conflict by achieving four objectives:  (1) assuring Asian nations that the United States is both willing and capable of remaining engaged in Asia; (2) deterring China from using military action to resolve disputes; (3) achieving victory with minimal risk of nuclear escalation in the event of conflict; and (4) credibility in peacetime.  A strategy should consist of critical assumptions, ends-ways-means coherence, and a theory of victory. 


Assumptions are suppositions about current or future conditions that are inherently unknowable but are necessary for planning.   Essentially, they are a planner’s best guess.  One military strategy that could be utilized, offshore control, includes the following five key assumptions.

- China starts the conflict.

- It will be a long war. 

- It will result in massive damage to the global economy. 

- The United States does not understand China’s nuclear decision-making process.

- In space or cyber domains, a first strike provides major advantages. Thus any operational approach that requires the robust use of space and cyber capabilities is inherently destabilizing in a crisis. 

Ends, ways and means coherence

The combination of decreasing defense spending and rapid increases in the cost of new weapons suggests that a strategy for conflict with China should assume limited means, at least initially.   In addition to limited means, the United States must accept that China’s nuclear arsenal imposes restrictions on the ways in which American forces may attack Chinese assets.  The United States must select ways that minimize the probability of nuclear escalation simply because no one can win a major nuclear exchange. With limited means and restricted rules of engagement, the ends should therefore also be modest.   They must attain U.S. strategic goals but not risk a major nuclear exchange. 

This logic leads to the concept of Offshore Control.  Operationally, Offshore Control uses current forces and restricted ways to cripple China’s maritime trade and thus its economy.  It establishes a set of concentric rings that denies China the use of the sea inside the first island chain, defends the sea and air space of the first island chain, and dominates the air and maritime space outside the first island chain.  To reduce the possibility of nuclear escalation and make war termination easier, no operations will penetrate Chinese airspace. 

Denial as an element of the campaign plays to U.S. strengths by employing primarily attack submarines, mines, and a limited number of air assets inside the first island chain.  This area will be declared a maritime exclusion zone with the warning that ships in the zone will be sunk.  While the United States cannot initially stop all sea traffic in this zone, it can prevent the passage of large cargo ships and tankers.  In doing so, it will cripple China’s export trade. 

The defensive component will bring the full range of U.S. assets to defend allies.  It takes advantage of geography to force China to fight at longer ranges while allowing U.S. and allied forces to fight as part of an integrated air-sea defense over their own territories.  Essentially, Offshore Control makes use of anti-access/area denial capabilities to keep Chinese forces away from allied territory.  U.S. assistance will include convoy operations to maintain the flow of essential imports and exports in the face of Chinese interdiction attempts.

The dominate phase of the campaign will be fought outside the range of most Chinese assets and will use a combination of air, naval, ground, and rented commercial platforms to intercept and divert the post-Panamax container ships that are essential to China’s economy.   China relies on these large container ships for competitive cost advantage.  These ships are the easiest to track and divert.  While such a concentric campaign will require a layered effort from the straits to China’s coast, it will largely be fought at a great distance from China—effectively out of range of most of China’s military power. 

That leads us to modest ends.  Rather than seeking a decisive victory against the Chinese, Offshore Control seeks to use a war of economic attrition to bring about a stalemate and cessation of conflict with a return to a modified version of the status quo.

Theory of Victory

Offshore Control seeks termination of the conflict on U.S. terms through China’s economic exhaustion.  It seeks to allow the Chinese Communist Party to end the conflict in the same way it ended its conflicts with India, the United Nations in Korea, the Soviet Union, and Vietnam.  It allows Chinese leaders to declare they “taught the enemy a lesson” and thus end the conflict.  By forgoing strikes that destroy Chinese facilities or economic infrastructure on the mainland, Offshore Control reduces the probability of escalation and makes it easier for Chinese leaders to terminate the war while saving face at home.  Offshore Control does not seek decisive victory in the traditional military sense but secures U.S. objectives effectively.  It recognizes the fact that the concept of decisive victory against a nation with a major nuclear arsenal is fraught with risks if not entirely unattainable. 

Does it deter?

A key factor in deciding which approach to pursue is the impact each has on deterrence.   Genuine deterrence is based on the opponent’s belief that he cannot attain his strategic goals in a conflict, at least at an acceptable cost.  In short, the deterrent strategy must be able to defeat the potential enemy in a conflict.   A strategy based on investments in Air-Sea Battle capabilities seems to believe that attacking unspecified Chinese assets can force China to quit fighting through punishment.   In contrast, Offshore Control is based on the idea that an indirect attack on China’s economy is the most effective available approach.  

However, the most important aspect of deterrence is how the enemy sees the potential conflict.  A strategy that deters through attack requires that Chinese leaders believe they cannot overcome American technological superiority.  Given China’s rapid strides in space and cyber and the stated U.S. reliance on these domains to successfully execute an Air-Sea Battle campaign, this is a dubious belief.  A Chinese technological breakthrough, real or perceived, can quickly render deterrence obsolete. 

In contrast, Offshore Control directly attacks China’s inability to protect the shipping lanes that are vital to its economy — what Hu Jintao has called the “Malacca Dilemma.”  To defeat Offshore Control, China will have to build a sea control navy capable of protecting its global trade network.  The Chinese understand developing such a navy will take decades and be extremely expensive.  In short, the question is “Will China find it easier to overcome U.S. technology or geographic distance?” 

Does Offshore Control reduce the pressure for rapid escalation?

A second major consideration in a conflict with a nuclear power is whether a strategy encourages or discourages rapid escalation.  U.S. space and cyber systems remain a vulnerable and high payoff target.  And both domains are currently dominated by offensive weapons.  The nation that strikes first will gain a major advantage. Thus, any operational approach that depends heavily on these capabilities creates the unintended consequence of raising the value of a first strike. 

Offshore Control proposes a different approach.  It does not require extensive use of space or cyber systems.  Offshore Control can be executed even if China conducts a highly successful first strike in space and/or cyber domains.  Further, this capability can be demonstrated in peacetime exercises.  This is particularly important in a crisis because it devalues a first strike.  While a distant blockade is an escalation, its execution and impact will take a few weeks to be felt. This gives diplomats time to seek a solution free from the demand for sudden escalation in space or cyber. 


It is essential to understand that there is no “good” strategy for a conflict between the United States and China.  Any major conflict will cause massive damage to the global economy and risk nuclear escalation.  Thus the United States must seek a “least bad” strategy.  Offshore Control presents China with the generational challenge of establishing sea control at great ranges from its shoreline.   By moving the conflict away from Chinese territory, it reverses the cost imposition.  Developing penetration and sea control capabilities will cost China more than maintaining America’s defensive and sea denial capabilities.  Finally, it minimizes the potential for escalation by providing time for China’s leaders to decide if escalation is a good strategic solution. 

Dr. T. X. Hammes is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research at National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies INSS. He is the author of Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century and, most recently, Offshore Control: A Proposed Strategy for an Unlikely Conflict. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

August 18, 2013 at 21:54

in the event of the coming conflict, china will use nuclear option because simply there will be no defeat acceptable to her people even this means self destruction. Mao has such a vision in such a conflict.He carved out the underground mountains in the southwest to prepare the hideout for 100 million lucky souls to ride out the nuclear fallout and reconquer the no man land. Rule out nuclear option is naive and do not understand chinese fatal vision as well.

June 21, 2013 at 13:35

Russia , Iran Fought against India  ROFL….@Dan who made this statement??

June 21, 2013 at 13:28

In which language the minister said this??..Chinese…we don't know or here such comment make by any of our Defence Minister but U listen that…So I thik He made his particular statement in Chinese..:)

June 21, 2013 at 13:05

Rofl man …do u live still in 1962…wake up man , India's missile defence sytem is good enough to prove 'Chinese proven missiles' a junk.. don't need to bother about India….You should bother about china not only from USA but also from India Japan ,S. Korea…

Lauren Garza
June 21, 2013 at 06:52

A Chinese first strike in cyberspace would be seen by Americans as a sneak attack similar to Pearl harbor. An attack that united America and it's allies as no other act the American government could ever have hoped for. Americans may be of two minds as to many thins in relation of a conflict with China, but they want their MTV.

February 16, 2013 at 17:36

How good is Chinese ASW capability? WestPac will be full of US SSNs and the Chinese navy will be sitting on the ocean floor.

In the Know...
January 29, 2013 at 21:06

Bottom line of any Offshore Control or miliatry conflict between USA and CHINA = global catastrophe, both financial and social. Despite my near-complete lack of miliatry knowledge or data, USA definitely trumps China hands down in terms of military technology and may be even fire power. However, having lived in South Asia and the US and a few other locations, I am confident that the social / financial price to be paid for a conflict would be unbearable for the US and others, when compared to CHINA. 
As it is, most western opinions here reflect the fact that China's government does not really give two hoots about the well-being of its people. The Chinese government will defend itself against an internal "enemy" a lot more harshly than it would deal with an external enemy. The rest of the "civilized" / democratic world cannot even think in those terms. Therefore, in my opinion, collape of Chinese Trade and Economy would be felt as radically in China as it would be in the rest of the western worlds. More so in the West, because people there would be unable to understand the cost of the war that is not being fought in their own neighborhood. Wars fought in distant lands and for strategic causes [as opposed to "defending against hegemonic designs of the enemy" upon their land and sea] are a lot more difficult to sell. 
Social disturbance, resulting from an populations inability to tighten its collective belt, will be the undoing of the nations involved in a war with China, more than any military drawbacks. 
Simply forget about outright nuclear conflict. The amount of damage that both CHINA and the USA would cause to each other and those around them would simply eradicate the concept of the "world" as it exists today. The price would be impossible to pay for anyone. 

Sheikh M Naseem
January 27, 2013 at 19:40

Chinese, India and that include "PAKISTAN" , Iran, Arabs, Egypt or noth Africa, and Europe have a very old history, and values to anticipate. Only one country which is still an infant, when it comes to values and anticipation, i.e United States of America a melting pot of very adventurous and zealous people very admairable and a roll modle at one time now suffering from paranoia. The only nation used A-bomb, only nation destroyed so many other nation in the name of its onw security. Rest is guessing game. One last word for Madam Godavari, your are an Indian and we belong to Pakistan and we are as trust worthy and capable as any Indian or a people of Indian sub continent. By the way I am just a sailor belonging to the world which full of very good, simple people. :)

January 23, 2013 at 17:00

the author makes the mistaken assumption that the world would agree to restrict the freedom of navigation, with china being the dominate trading partner for 2/3 of the countries, many of whom are friendly with China, doing so would either result in WWIII, or destory US credibility internationally. let's be honest, the world couldn't give a shit if China owns the island it claim, but they will give a shit if half of their trade is suddenly held hostage by the US.
American can't be that stupid to not see the consequences of such action? after all it was German attack on merchant ship sailing to Britian that cause some of the hostility between German and US that would led US to enter the other side of the war.
I do however support OC since any movement AWAY from the chinese coast is a rational move. the idea of contesting the first island chain is just madness. US need to be fair, the island China want is nothing compare to US control of Guam and the bulk of the pacific. ceding the China Seas to a strong China is only logical and Chinese control of it does not threaten any country so long as they are peaceful with China. 
US need to encourage peace, not militarism.

January 22, 2013 at 04:16

China, Russia etc vs NATO mmm if you can't work it out then go join the Chinese.

nobody in
January 5, 2013 at 07:39

You don’t feed them anything. The us currency is worthless.

geoff cox
November 28, 2012 at 21:25

Only a brief skim of this article exposes at least two glaring holes in any argument that even suggests that such awar is even fightable, let alone winnable. The complete stoppage of chinese exports would immediately cripple the whole world economy and freeze all movement of goods including oil and any fuels. This would deprive the US navy of the means to operate and would have widespread other consequences impacting the US ability to carry on even existing. Food would immediately become practically unobtainable in many locations and civil unrest would paralyse military activity and require armies to be deployed at home in an attempt to control the situation – furthermore as for a first strike 'giving avantage' to the US, this is a fallacy. Even if the US were to do this, and it beggars belief that it would, as it would be a death stroke to them, the Chinese would retain such force of arms that it could easily destroy all of civilisation let alone the US. Russia would not stay out of any conflict for more than a few hours and US allies would join in willy nilly. It's for this reason that US policy must be directed toward a peaceful solution to any dispute and I'm sure that US stategists know this very well. Armaments these days are only useful in small regional conflicts and as a bargaining chip in negotiations, they cannot be used in all out war. They serve more to prop up economies, support trade negotiations, advance technology, and to show 'strength' in world gatherings, much more than to make war with.

October 30, 2012 at 20:09

I agree with your message Dick, I believe, Chan doesnt know what is going on in the real World…..He doesnt know that China has started all the impase in East and South china Sea… 

October 30, 2012 at 19:49

@ Chan,…Again you research, how your China's economy has culminated 3-years ago. It is because of US, EUROPE and ASEAN Countries Specifically, Japan and Australia. Your Country is an assembly Plant only of these Countries, You know why? The Labor Cost of your Country is Cheap!!! Computers, Calculators, Equipments are designed from other Countries, You dont have your own Technology..I give you example, Forklift…the Body is manufactured by China but the Engine is Isuzu, Nissan or Toyota, Again, Generators…The body assembled by China but the Engine is Cummins or Caterpillar. Now, Computers designed by US and Europe, Cellphone, Samsung?—Korea. Now, you have Pirated Products but good only one hour use…..You must be thankful to those cuntries that help you, but it seems to me that you are ingrato… 

October 30, 2012 at 19:30

@ Chan, Please research why US is pivoting asea-pacific. dont talk to much. Let me remind you that China has started all these Tensions both in East China Sea and South China Sea. How many Vietnamese Cuivilian murdered by your Soldiers. So that you can help ease Tension in the Seas that I have mentioned, Tell your PLA to back-off from Grabbing Islets in East & South China Sea. Let them Understand what is International Law on Sea or UNCLOS or Code of Conduct. Let me Reiterate….Let CHINA Back-off from those Islets. Secondly…US is meddling for PEACE not War against China…However, If China insist to block the Freedom of Navigation….Godforbid…

October 30, 2012 at 19:13

Vic, i think your idiot….China wants to Grab territories that does not belongs to them. China refused to adhere the International Law on Sea. US is meddling for Peaceful Purposses, want to deter conflict and not to bully small neighboring countries that have no capability Militarily. Communist China have history of waging war against his neighbors coz of Grabbing, namely..India, Russia, Mongolia….

Mike China
October 18, 2012 at 09:49

So the US want s to prevent China from commmmitting aggression against its neighbours at acceptable cost. Nothing could be further from the truth.The US is looking for a pretext to initiate war with China 2012 when it has all the aces. A 2012 war with China  with low costs to the US is too good an opportunity to miss.
It aint as easy as that that. The PLA have  factored in all the scenarios and and are well prepared unlike the 50s to the early 21st century when a lightning strike by the US would have disarmed China by at least 50% . Not any more.

Enric G. Torrents
September 3, 2012 at 13:31

No, they are not.

August 2, 2012 at 14:01

Yes, time is on China's side.

August 1, 2012 at 21:04

@vic:  You do sound really arrogant, don't you.  Time will tell, buddy.

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