One heartening thing about the U.S. military’s AirSea Battle Doctrine is that it affords prospective adversaries healthy respect—signaling that commanders grok that the United States’ post-Cold War holiday from history is over. Taking opponents’ capability and resolve seriously is the first step toward overcoming them in the arena of power politics and warfare. As Carl von Clausewitz points out, wise commanders are bound to fear being overthrown if they haven’t managed to overthrow the enemy. What Edward Luttwak terms the non-linear, “paradoxical logic” of strategy often brings about “ironic reversals” of fortune.
The victor and vanquished can exchange places by Clausewitz’s and Luttwak’s pitiless logic. They can switch back again. And on and on. Maddening, isn’t it?
Yet debates over “access denial” and forced-entry countermeasures often imply that the defender can scour offshore waters and skies clear of enemy forces, imposing absolute command of the commons. This is much the same idea Alfred Thayer Mahan voiced when he defined command of the sea as “overbearing power” that expels the enemy’s flag from vital expanses or at most allows it to appear as a fugitive. But paradoxical logic is a logic that cuts both ways. A U.S.-China struggle for mastery over the maritime commons will display the mercurial character of which theorists write. That translates into strategic opportunity not just for China but for the United States. American commanders and their political masters must grasp that opportunity.
However appealing absolute sea control may appear in the abstract, reality seldom conforms to ideal forms of this kind. Mahan’s contemporary Sir Julian Corbett takes a more supple and more useful view of command, and one that better illuminates the opportunities and hazards found in maritime Asia. Corbett notes that far from the seas’ falling under the absolute control of one navy or another, an uncommanded sea represents the normal state of affairs. No force boasts the surveillance capacity, long-range weaponry, or sheer numbers of assets to sweep the commons clean of its foes and assure that it stays swept clean. The oceans are too big, the biggest armed force too small to police vast sea areas.
As a corollary, the fact that one navy loses command doesn’t mean another automatically inherits it. Rather, rival forces struggle for supremacy, the action ebbing and flowing, until—perhaps—one wins permanent mastery. Nor does Corbett’s apostasy—his flouting of accepted Mahanian wisdom—stop there. In effect Mahan describes a sequence by which one power wrests maritime command from another. The aspirant builds a superior fleet in peacetime, concentrates that fleet in wartime, defeats its adversary decisively, and then exploits command by imposing blockades and otherwise throttling enemy shipping. What could be simpler?
Corbett agrees with Mahan’s sequential approach for the most part, estimating that it’s the right course of action nine times out of ten. It only makes sense to think a navy must crush its opponents before exploiting command of the sea. It must clear away obstacles to command. But, he says, war “is not conducted by logic, and the order of proceeding which logic prescribes cannot always be adhered to in practice.” Sometimes fleet commanders might find themselves compelled to exercise command before winning it. They might, say, carve out a small zone of temporary superiority along hostile shores in order to land marines, assault a small enemy naval detachment, or bombard coastal sites. Deviating from the linear approach—from the Mahanian script—is sometimes necessary to prevail.
All of which is a roundabout way of returning to our hypothetical U.S.-China conflagration. Many China-watchers, myself included, have made much of the PLA’s emerging anti-access capabilities, citing such hardware as anti-ship ballistic missiles and missile-armed fast patrol craft. And indeed these are impressive systems, assuming they perform up to their hype. But that’s not to say China could seal off the Western Pacific entirely. If it could, U.S. forces would have to undertake sequential operations, puncturing the PLA’s outer defenses first before steaming across the Pacific to conduct combat operations in theater—whether to succor allies or for some other purpose.
Something messier lies in store. PLA anti-access defenses cannot hoist an impenetrable shield over the Western Pacific and China seas. U.S. forces are already in theater, furthermore, as are allied forces and those of informal partners. American commanders should put these facts to use, patterning operations on Corbettian illogic. They should look for ways to create pockets of naval and air supremacy even while overall command of the seas and skies eludes the allies. By refusing to proceed strictly by logic, the United States can protract a conflict, discover ways to impose high costs on China at low cost to itself, and otherwise sow mayhem in the Western Pacific. It can prevent a Chinese walkover while proving that China cannot win on the cheap. A more accommodating Beijing might result.
As Corbett might advise, time will be the critical variable in any maritime war. U.S. forces can gain time by adopting his defensive methods. In so doing they will boost their chances of making the transition to the strategic counteroffensive, and thus of either winning outright or extracting a compromise peace. Helpful though Mahan’s writings are, Corbett should be the U.S. military’s north star during the opening phases of a U.S.-China war. Let’s hear it for illogic!