Features | Security | East Asia

Pointless US Plan for China?

The US has given its AirSea Battle concept much fanfare. But is it really the best response to China’s military build-up?

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.  

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

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.

In Europe, the AirLand Battle concept fortunately never needed to prove itself. But its tenets shaped the US approach to ground warfare in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 as well as in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. AirLand Battle ‘proved very successful at both giving new confidence to the US Army and Air Force,’ Eric Wertheim, an independent US defence analyst, says. Today with AirSea Battle, the Pentagon is hoping to capture some of the AirLand Battle's reforming and reinvigorating potential as it tries to do more with less in its escalating rivalry with Beijing.

AirSea Battle originated in a classified memorandum signed by Gen. Norton Schwartz, Air Force chief of staff, and Navy Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead in September 2009, according to a February report by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment.

The concept is ‘designed to assess how US power-projection capabilities can be preserved in the face of the military challenges posed by China,’ CSBA reported. The think-tank highlighted Beijing's rapidly-expanding force of submarines, ballistic missiles and even satellite-killing rockets, intended to blind, disrupt and destroy US and allied air and naval forces in the Pacific, all in the context of a Chinese attack on Taiwan.

Gates officially unveiled the AirSea Battle concept in a speech in Maryland in May. He said the Pentagon must ‘rethink what and how we buy—to shift investments towards systems that provide the ability to see and strike deep,’ beyond the range of Chinese weapons. Gates added that might mean longer-range missiles, improved surveillance systems, more sea-based missile defences and a more lethal submarine force.

But Gates has made it clear that a shift in investment doesn’t mean an increase in the US military budget. ‘Defense budget expectations over time, not to mention any country's strategic strength, are intrinsically linked to the overall financial and fiscal health of the nation,’ Gates said. ‘And in that respect, we have to accept some hard realities.’ Any new hardware would have to fit within the existing budget.

Cooperation Required
‘One part of the way ahead is through more innovative strategies and joint approaches,’ Gates added. In military parlance ‘joint’ means combining two or more of the military branches, accustomed to operating alone, into a single, streamlined effort. In that sense, AirSea Battle entails money-saving institutional reform as much as it does new technologies and tactics. The concept ‘represents an effort by the Navy and Air Force to maximize the utility of their increasingly scarce resources,’ Bernard Cole, an instructor at the National War College, Cole says, adding that his views do not necessarily reflect those of the US government.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

‘This new AirSea Battle doctrine is, in many ways, the codification of close cooperation that the Navy and Air Force have been pursuing since the end of the Cold War,’ Wertheim says. ‘This cooperation can also be seen, for example, by the successful and continued inclusion of Air Force and Navy assets in each other’s military training—like the Navy's recent RIMPAC exercises.’

RIMPAC, its named derived from ‘Rim of the Pacific,’ brought together 37 warships, 170 aircraft and some 20,000 sailors, airmen and marines from 14 nations for several weeks of training off of Hawaii in July. During RIMPAC, US Air Force fighters, bombers, tankers and helicopters performed top cover, aerial refuelling, patrol and rescue duties for the assembled international fleet. An Air Force command centre in Hawaii helped coordinate the flow of information between ships, aircraft and satellites. ‘We are building relationships that will help promote security across the region,’ Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas Harwood boasted.

AirSea Battle would encourage the separate military branches to expand their cooperation beyond simply training together because, despite the long history of joint training, the Pentagon remains notorious for its redundancy in missions and systems. Under AirSea Battle, one military branch could wholly surrender a mission—say, airborne anti-ship strikes—to the other. For example, the Navy could focus on sinking ships while the Air Force takes over all air-to-air combat duties.  

Where missions must continue to overlap, the branches might buy and operate some of the same equipment, instead of developing unique hardware, as is currently the practice. Today the Navy and Air Force are both developing their own anti-ship missiles, proprietary ground-attack drones and different approaches to shooting down incoming ballistic missiles. The US arsenal is ripe for consolidation.

For the Navy and Air Force, working more closely on hardware could reduce overhead costs. Gates has promised to reinvest in technology any savings resulting from increased efficiency. That promise has already spurred some reforms. This summer, Schwartz and Roughead signed a directive requiring the Air Force and Navy to coordinate their separate fleets of Global Hawk spy drones, sharing personnel, training and some equipment.   

New Friends and Old
Cole says that AirSea Battle's bureaucratic and technological barriers ‘are the most surmountable.’

‘The US still leads the world by a large measure in the innovativeness and resourcefulness necessary to meet any technical military challenge,’ he says.

Indeed, according to Andrew Davies, an analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Group, the AirSea Battle concept's greatest obstacles could be diplomatic in nature.

To shore up its military power in the Pacific, Washington has injected new vigour into alliance-building efforts—and not just with Australia and the other traditional Pacific partners that provided most of the forces for RIMPAC. The Air Force and Navy have provided training and humanitarian assistance to weaker nations, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, that might in exchange offer up access to new air bases. A recent study by RAND concluded that air base access would be a major US vulnerability in any war over Taiwan.

Similarly, the Navy spent years forcefully negotiating an extended lease on a key air base in Okinawa, Japan's southernmost and most militarized prefecture. The base campaign, which concluded this summer, was unpopular in Japan and had the unintended effect of prompting the resignation of then-Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.

In a surprise move in August, the US Navy sent a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to train alongside Vietnamese forces, three decades after the end of the Vietnam War. For Washington, Vietnam, Japan, India and Australia are all useful bulwarks against a rising China—and key potential facilitators of the AirSea Battle concept.

But for these allies, AirSea Battle is a ‘mixed blessing,’ Davies says. ‘Allies of the US obviously value continued US engagement in the region, and the willingness of the US to stand by its allies,’ he says. ‘The problem is that it isn’t at all clear that the concept can be fleshed out to something credible.’

If AirSea Battle can’t leap the technological and bureaucratic hurdles and remains just a theory, it could ‘act to ratchet up the tension to no good effect,’ Davies warns. Canberra, for one, ‘would have to look very hard at the calculus of becoming involved in a conflict…It’s likely that the US would have our broad support, but less clear as to how that would translate to a commitment to the fight.’

Whither Taiwan
Despite this risk, the Pentagon shows no sign of backing down from AirSea Battle. Gates and his lieutenants continue to hype the idea while think-tanks publish studies, arms manufacturers propose new systems, planners deep inside the Pentagon bureaucracy slave over classified documents-in-progress and Navy and Air Force units look for ways to work closer together on the battlefield and in weapons labs. But even with all this effort, it remains to be seen whether AirSea Battle will amount to much.

Equally, it's an open question whether AirSea Battle even needs to amount to much. For all the heat the idea is generating in Washington, it's not clear that anyone has seriously considered the concept in light of Chinese strategy. Leaving aside aims that don’t represent any threat to US interests—for example, maritime security in pirate-infested waters, peacekeeping or disaster relief—Beijing's main military preoccupation appears to be preparing for a possible invasion of Taiwan…and preventing Washington from interfering.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

It's the latter that drives most Chinese weapons development. China's air and naval forces are ‘being modernized to deal with possible US intervention in a Taiwan scenario,’ Cole says. But it's not clear that the US military is even strictly necessary for the defence of Taiwan. The very nature of a cross-Strait attack amounts to Taiwan's best defence.

An amphibious landing is, for the attacker, among the most complex and dangerous of military operations, especially in today's globalized and media-rich world. The attacker must move forces across open water, while under fire, secure a beachhead then sustain an influx of supplies and reinforcements—all while ignoring international outcry. All the defender must do is hold ground, keep shooting and loudly object in the world's embassies, international bodies and in the media.

Taiwan's defensive advantage is even mentioned in the same Pentagon report that warns of a fast-developing Chinese military. ‘An attempt to invade Taiwan would strain China’s untested armed forces,’ the report points out. ‘China’s combat force attrition and the complexity of urban warfare and counterinsurgency (assuming a successful landing and breakout), make amphibious invasion of Taiwan a significant political and military risk.’

That's the case with or without US and allied intervention—and regardless of China's growing wealth or the ongoing stresses on the US economy. Any reforms resulting from AirSea Battle would likely not significantly alter the calculation. The concept could be rendered moot before it even becomes a reality.