Is Air-Sea Battle Irrelevant?

ASB might be the right concept to fight high-intensity conflicts. But what about everything else?

One of this summer’s most popular strategic studies topics was the opening round of what is sure to be a continued debate over the Air Force and Navy’s Air-Sea Battle (ASB) concept.

Critics have asserted that Air-Sea Battle is dangerously escalatory, as its first phase emphasizes blinding, rapid strikes to disable adversary C4ISR, which would, in China’s case, presumably include deep strikes on the mainland. They also argue that ASB lacks a credible theory of victory.

Proponents, on the other hand, argue that ASB provides a better prospect of victory over anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategies than other proposed alternatives, such as so-called “Offshore Control” (a distant blockade). An obvious difficulty in evaluating these claims is that ASB is not a specific military strategy—it is a broad, operational concept whose details are not yet transparent enough to allow for careful scrutiny.

But as recent debates push military and civilian strategists to consider the merits and pitfalls of ASB, one key set of considerations has been obviously absent: What are the political ends with which this military concept will be coupled? And does it suit them? These questions must be front and center as we consider whether ASB is the United States’ best hope for achieving its regional defense and deterrence goals.

The primary reason the United States would need to face down A2/AD challenges would be if it became involved in a Pacific conflict on behalf of an ally. For the last several decades, the most-likely conflict, and the one for which the bulk of China’s military capabilities has been developed, is a China-Taiwan war. In a contingency like this one, the ASB concept may make some sense. China’s significant short-range missile capabilities (stationed just across the Strait from the island over which it claims sovereignty) would mean that this conflict would be high-intensity from day one. These capabilities could be used to try to impede the United States from coming to Taiwan’s aid by cutting the runways of vital air bases and preventing carrier battle groups from moving into the Straits. If China managed to prevent or delay U.S. entry for a week or so, this could make a significant difference in Taiwan’s fate.

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In a scenario like this one, the United States may therefore have ample incentive to strike C4ISR and other targets on the Chinese mainland in order to kick the door open to aid its ally. Is the China-Taiwan contingency a vote for ASB? Perhaps. But we would be remiss to forget the adage that the (potential) adversary is also enfranchised. Of late, the interests over which China has projected power are farther out to sea, and are much more limited in their scope.

In its most recent Defense White Paper, Beijing noted that “cross-Straits relations are sustaining a momentum of peaceful development,” although Taiwan’s independence was still considered a serious threat. Prominent on the PRC’s 2013 defense agenda were both the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute (with Japan), and China’s claims in the South China Sea (which pit it against several other claimants, including one U.S. treaty ally, the Philippines). Beijing has met word with deed, and significantly increased its maritime patrols of both the East and South China Seas in the past year. It has also fortified new naval outposts in the latter.

Unlike Taiwan, neither of these conflicts rise to a level of “core interest” for China, and it seems unlikely that Beijing would purposefully escalate a conflict with a U.S. treaty ally over disputed islets that are fundamentally limited interests. Its aerial and maritime presence in both areas, and domestic-political incentives to press its claims, however, could lead to an unwanted clash. This could occur accidentally or inadvertently—say, if Chinese vehicles collide with those of other local actors, or one party unknowingly crosses a red line of another (see this excellent RAND study for more on these escalation mechanisms).

If conflict did erupt between China and a U.S. treaty ally, the United States would have to decide whether to intervene, and in what capacity. Although it has mutual defense treaties with both Japan and the Philippines, the U.S. commitment to allies’ maritime claims is uncertain and far from uniform.  The United States technically does not take a position on any territorial disputes, but has recognized Japan’s administration of the Senkakus, and has publicly stated that it views its mutual defense treaty with Japan as applying to the islands.

In contrast, the United States has reaffirmed its defense commitments to the Philippines home islands, while refusing to weigh in on its claims in the South China Sea. It seems more likely that the United States would become involved militarily in the former dispute than the latter, but strictly speaking, both maritime standoffs are of minor strategic importance to Washington. China could theoretically bring its significant short-range missile capability to bear on a conflict with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkakus, and could try to prevent U.S. access to either the East or South China Sea. Would these inherently limited skirmishes warrant deep, penetrating strikes on the Chinese mainland? An ASB response to an island incursion could be highly escalatory, and incommensurate with the interests of any of the belligerents.

As more information about ASB becomes available, strategists will be in a better position to assess whether this concept is the right way to approach deterrence and defense for a conflict like Taiwan. Already clear, however, is that a one-size-fits-all approach to securing American interests in the Pacific is not credible in the eyes of allies, as well as potential adversaries. Washington will need not just one strategy, but several, and as many theories of victory to bear them out. More important still is that the U.S. must emphasize that this is not the early Cold War, and that U.S. and Chinese interests are not diametrically opposed.

A combination of well-calibrated deterrence, allied assurance, and reassurance of China will be necessary to prevent Pacific flashpoints from becoming serious conflagrations. If Air-Sea Battle can play a role in this conflict-prevention trifecta, so be it.

Mira Rapp-Hooper is a Flashpoints columnist. She is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a PhD candidate at Columbia University. You can follow her on Twitter @MiraRappHooper.