James Holmes

Airsea Battle VS Offshore Control: Can the US Blockade China?

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James Holmes

Airsea Battle VS Offshore Control: Can the US Blockade China?

To slay or strangle the dragon, that is the question. Do Mahan or Corbett have the answer?

Retired Marine Corps colonel T. X. Hammes and Center for Naval Analyses researcher Elbridge Colby have been trading salvoes over the merits of AirSea Battle for the past couple of weeks. (Coolest names ever for a pair of debaters.) Writing over at The National Interest, Colby mounts a defense of the ASB doctrine. He maintains in effect that the U.S. armed forces must develop some way to kick in the door should China slam it shut in the Western Pacific. In his rejoinder, Hammes denies that AirSea Battle is a strategy while propounding his alternative concept of "offshore control.” It's a good, and necessary, debate. Have a look at all three installments.

In a nutshell, offshore control means sealing off the first island chain to keep PLA Navy shipping from reaching the broad Pacific; waging submarine and aerial warfare to deny China access to its own offshore waters and skies; and imposing a distant blockade to bring economic pressure on Beijing. Over time, China might relinquish its goals to stop the pain. Offshore control abjures strikes at sites on the mainland — the most objectionable part of AirSea Battle — as needlessly escalatory in a campaign for limited aims.

On the whole, methinks Colonel Hammes has the better of this exchange of fire. My stalwart coauthor Toshi Yoshihara and I have floated similar ideas over the past three years or so, albeit in scattershot fashion and without the catchy bumper sticker (see here) (and here). The point of such strategies is to put asymmetric warfare to work for the United States and its allies, harnessing such advantages as undersea combat to exhaust the adversary without sending a limited conflict spiraling toward the nuclear threshold.

By Clausewitzian cost/benefit logic, Beijing should abandon the effort should it cost too much, drag on without end, or appear unwinnable. Let's not kid ourselves, though. Neither offshore control nor some kindred concept would bring about a quick, neat, or sure victory. If China attaches inordinate — or what looks inordinate to outsiders — value to political objects such as Taiwan or its maritime territorial claims, the Clausewitzian formula suggests Beijing may expend massive resources, indefinitely, to fulfill its goals. Or, as a great man once said, "No war is over until the enemy says it's over. We may think it over, we may declare it over, but in fact, the enemy gets a vote.”

Even a limited maritime conflict, then, would involve a trial of wills in which the adversary would cast his vote against America, and might stand by that vote. How would such a struggle play out? One running debate among maritime strategists is whether navies win wars and, in particular, whether naval blockades can be strategically decisive. Mahan thinks so. The Mahanian algorithm instructs the good guys to vanquish the enemy's battle fleet. Battle represents a prelude to blockading his shores and doing the other things mastery of the sea empowers victorious navies to do. Corbett is a heretic by contrast, urging naval commanders to work with the army to shape events on land. For him, joint action at the land/sea interface constitutes the essence of maritime strategy.

Quoth Corbett, the only way a navy can win all by itself is through "a process of exhaustion." It can sever the enemy's economic and military lifelines and seize control of his "national life." He sounds skeptical, though, and that's because he sees a drawback. Prolonged economic warfare cuts both ways. It exhausts not just the enemy but friendly powers, not to mention one's own constituents who depend on foreign commerce for their livelihoods. Keeping the populace and the allies on the same sheet of music while their economic self-interest suffers poses a challenge, to say the least.

This is a prospect no strategist relishes. War Plan Orange, the interwar U.S. Navy's plan for fighting Japan, predicted a long grind. And that was against a small island state that could be cordoned off far more easily than can continental China. Nor does the United States enjoy the lopsided economic and industrial advantages over China that it commanded over Imperial Japan. In a way, then, offshore control renews the old grudge match between Mahan and Corbett and bets on Mahan. If Corbett (Colby) has it right, a distant blockade could prove indecisive, politically unsustainable, or both. What then?

Another dimension of this debate bears mentioning. Chinese sea power fuses seagoing and shore-based assets into a single implement. PLA commanders would presumably use all assets at their disposal, sea and land, once Chinese vessels started descending to Davy Jones' locker. What if anti-ship cruise or ballistic missiles or combat aircraft flying from airfields ashore started landing heavy blows against allied fleets, whether underway or berthed in ports like Yokosuka or Sasebo? Would Washington or Tokyo really exempt land-based PLA weaponry from counterstrikes should Beijing unleash it?

If so, they would be granting the adversary one heckuva sanctuary. In short, two can escalate. Whether allied political leaders could resist popular pressure to retaliate against the source of attacks on their ships, their sons, and their daughters is a question worth pondering.

Proponents of peripheral strategies can critique AirSea Battle all they want. It needs to be vetted. But at the same time, they need to tidy up their own alternatives. Clausewitz warns against Monday-morning quarterbacking, daring would-be RG3s to come up with better strategies of their own. An alternative then has to undergo the same exacting scrutiny as the strategy its backers want to replace. Something better may emerge from the give-and-take process.

Thesis, antithesis, synthesis; that Hegel guy was on to something.