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AirSea Battle and Escalation

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AirSea Battle and Escalation

Does the AirSea Battle concept risk dangerously escalating any confrontation between China and the US?

Back in 1992, current Supreme Allied Commander Europe Adm. James Stavridis wrote: ‘We need an air sea battle concept centred on an immediately deployable, highly capable, and fully integrated force – an Integrated Strike Force’.

Ever since then, the AirSea Battle concept has been evolving, with the first military exercises tied to the concept set to take place next February. While details of the operational plans remain unclear, we do know that it embraces a war fighting capability aimed at countering an enemy’s anti-access/area denial strategy by penetrating defences and taking out targets in its interior.

The idea is to destroy the source of the enemy’s firepower while degrading its command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissancecapabilities. The saturation of the enemy’s defences through coordinated strikes by both the Navy and the Air Force would allow aircraft and submarines to strike land-based missile systems and command and control centres.  

AirSea Battle is intended to inject significant uncertainty into the calculations of adversaries, ideally so that conflict doesn’t occur in the first place. This objective of deterring the enemy from initiating acts of aggression in the first place is laudable, but it’s also worth considering escalation control.  

While the AirSea Battle concept is still a work in progress and its future is unclear, some have noted the escalatory dynamics that lurk within the concept itself. Should deterrence collapse, it’s important to keep the conflict as limited as possible, so starting a conflict at the upper end of the escalation ladder would seem to be flawed strategic thinking.   

So what are the alternatives? US Capt. (Retd) Wayne Hughes of the Naval Postgraduate School wrote a report in 2009 titled ‘The New Navy Fighting Machine’ that hasn’t received the attention it deserves. In the article, Hughes and his eight man team describe what they see as a viable strategy for maintaining US influence in the Western Pacific, giving special attention to a number of crucial political considerations that have been largely neglected by many strategists. 

In the context of a crisis over Taiwan, for example, the authors suggest the United States should refrain from ‘a first strike on Chinese territory, no matter how operationally attractive, because the risk of escalation is too great and also in order to marshal world opinion on our side.’ Therefore, they argue, proponents of AirSea Battle should explain how strikes on the mainland would help avoid escalation should deterrence fail.

The key argument seems to be that US forces shouldn’t play China’s game, but should instead make China play theirs. This would mean that instead of using war to achieve access, US forces would be better served by embracing a war-at-sea strategy in which numerous US and allied submarines could threaten to sink Chinese warships and commercial traffic in their own waters. In addition, numerous small surface combatants could operate under the umbrella of the blue water US Navy and conduct a distant blockade that cuts off Chinese trade and energy imports.  The main strategic objective, therefore, would be to exploit US maritime superiority by threatening to deny China use of the oceans.

Another particularly interesting suggestion is that of turning US strategic vulnerabilities like forward bases into ‘war warning devices.’ It’s expected that in the initial stages of any conflict, China would attempt high-intensity attacks against US bases in the region. It would be vital for Chinese forces to take the initiative by attacking first in order to stop any rapid US intervention. For this reason, many analysts have described US forward bases as hostages to Chinese strategic considerations. Hughes, however, suggests that the United States should explicitly communicate the effect that such action would produce, and make clear that targeting US forward bases would be considered an effective escalation. By stressing that the risk of escalation would be in Chinese policymakers’ hands, the United States would be able to turn passive defence options into a political tool.

The value of Hughes’s argument lies in the credibility that such an operational concept conveys. The strategy denies China its main military objective of threatening US forces with high cost. Dispersion of power, focusing on more flexible small surface combatants and submarines designed to operate in coastal waters, means China wouldn’t be given the choice of hitting big targets such as an aircraft carrier. Keeping the cost low for US forces also reinforces the impression that the United States remains deeply involved in the Asia-Pacific.

‘The New Navy Fighting Machine’ has received its share of criticism. Still, Hughes’s ideas are worth taking note of. As the fierce debate over US budget cuts continues, affordable ideas capable of maintaining US influence in the Western Pacific should be a part of any political decisions.

Eleni Ekmektsioglou is a Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS. Her research examines strategic studies-related questions, focusing on the PLAN modernization and A2/AD (Anti-Access/Area-Denial) military capabilities.