Features | Security | East Asia

Air-Sea Battle: A Dangerous Way to Deal with China

Air-Sea Battle seems a particularly risky response to China’s growing capabilities, and of questionable necessity.

By Amitai Etzioni for

On the face of it, the Pentagon’s Air-Sea Battle plan makes eminently good sense; it is a clear response to a clear challenge. China has been developing a whole slew of weapons (especially anti-ship missiles) over the past two decades that are of great concern to the U.S. military. These weapons, known in Pentagon-speak as anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities, could undermine the international right to free passage in China’s surrounding waters or, in the case of a conflict over Taiwan or contested islands in the South and East China Seas, prevent the U.S. from making good on defense commitments to its friends in the region.

In response, the Pentagon developed Air-Sea Battle (ASB), the employment of which entails, according to position papers developed to promote it, a blistering assault on China’s mainland. A report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) gives a detailed account of how an ASB-style war with China would unfold. In the opening “blinding campaign,” the U.S. attacks China’s reconnaissance and command-and-control networks to degrade the PLA’s ability to target U.S. and allied forces. Next, the military takes the fight to the Chinese mainland, striking long-range anti-ship missile launchers. Given that this is where the anti-ship missiles are located, it is only logical that the U.S. would target land- based platforms. And to go after them, one of course needs to take out China's air defense systems, command control centers, and other anti-access weapons. In short, ASB requires a total war with China.

As word of this plan spread, it generated a great deal of buzz in defense circles—and considerable push back. Some in the Army saw ASB as an attempt by the Air Force and Navy to grab future missions and a larger share of a shrinking defense budget. They were somewhat mollified when planners later carved out more room in the plan for land forces. Others fear that it would lead to an arms race between the U.S. and China just when both powers must focus on nation building at home. Still others claim that the same goal could be achieved by a much less aggressive strategy, such as imposing a blockade on China. Above all, critics hold that ASB is highly escalatory and may lead to nuclear war. Defense analyst Raoul Heinrichs warns that the deep mainland strikes “could easily be misconstrued in Beijing as an attempt at preemptively destroying China’s retaliatory nuclear options. Under intense pressure, it would be hard to limit a dramatic escalation of such a conflict, including, in the worst case, up to and beyond the nuclear threshold.”

Faced with these objections, the Pentagon, to use the term employed by Colonel T.X. Hammes, a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer, “walked back” the plan. Air-Sea Battle’s chief architects argued repeatedly that it is merely a “concept” and that it was not designed “for a specific region or adversary.” Pentagon officials repeat that it is not a “strategy for a specific region or adversary,” and they describe ASB as a tiny office, only seventeen personnel, charged with improving cross-domain coordination and operability. However, the “operational concept” has driven major acquisition decisions and priorities. According to the nonpartisan and highly regarded Congressional Research Service (CRS), “the Air-Sea Battle concept has prompted Navy officials to make significant shifts in the service's FY2014-FY2018 budget plan” towards exactly the sorts of electronic, cyber, and anti-submarine weapons systems that the war plan for China calls for.” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert stated that the Air-Sea Battle Office has “more than 200 initiatives” in progress and that the 2011 and 2012 Presidential Budgets included related investments in “anti-submarine warfare, electronic warfare, air and missile defense, and information sharing” and that the 2013 budget “sustains these investments and really provides more resilient C4ISR investments” in line with the dictates of ASB.

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As to the Pentagon’s assertion that the plan is not aimed at a particular adversary—there are only two countries with advanced A2/AD capabilities: China and Iran. China is by far the strongest challenger to unfettered U.S. domination of the seven seas, while Iran comes in a remote second place, and according to the CBSA, “cannot hope to match China when it comes to developing an advanced A2/AD network.” When reporters inevitably ask about ASB’s connection to China, its planners respond that “the inclination to narrow down on a particular scenario is unhelpful.” Note: Not false or misleading but – unhelpful to the military’s desired message. Off the record, officials have allowed that “Air-Sea Battle is all about convincing the Chinese that we will win this competition.”

The main flaw Air-Sea Battle is not merely that it is a particularly aggressive military response to the anti-access/area-denial challenge. The problem is that ASB is developing in a foreign policy vacuum. If the U.S. were to conduct a thorough review of China’s military capabilities and its regional and global ambitions—and found that the Chinese were planning to forcefully expand their territory or unseat the U.S. as the global power, perhaps Air-Sea Battle might be deemed appropriate.

There are few signs, however, that China is on this path. China’s leaders have embraced a foreign policy of “peaceful development” and are moving the country toward greater participation in the prevailing world order rather than trying to undermine it. It participates in the United Nations where it often votes “absent” rather exercise its veto power; it plays by the World Trade Organization rules and increased its contribution to the IMF; and it has used legitimate channels to resolve most recent trade and territorial disputes. Moreover, the U.S. and China have surprisingly many complimentary interests that could serve as the basis for cooperative relations, including counterterrorism, economic stability, preventing the spread of pandemics, and environmental protection.

Even if such a review concluded that a military clash with China was a possibility, then the U.S. would still very likely have the time and space to pursue alternatives before embracing a strategy as risky as ASB. One possible way forward is a policy of “Mutually Assured Restraint” modeled after the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Under MAR, the U.S. and China would agree to place verifiable limits on weapon systems (especially anti-ship, space and cyber capabilities) and refrain from seeking to pull China neighbors into their sphere of influence, treating them instead as neutral buffer states.

In contrast, Air-Sea Battle not only makes war with China more likely; it shifts attention and resources from where they are needed most—suppressing the ongoing threat of terrorism in the Middle East and Africa and contributing to nation building at home. For now, it would be best to turn ASB into what the Pentagon says it is: the work of a tiny office, with a few officers, laboring to improve coordination and communication among the services.

Amitai Etzioni is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. He served as a senior adviser to the Carter White House and taught at Columbia University, Harvard University, and the University of California at Berkeley. His latest book is Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World.