Strategy for an Unthinkable Conflict

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Strategy for an Unthinkable Conflict

While a U.S.-China clash would be devastating, Offshore Control is the ‘least bad’ option.

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.