Asia Defense

A New War in the Pacific Could be ‘Trench Warfare’ at Sea

Recent studies suggest A2/AD and AirSea Battle lead to costly stalemate, not victory.

A New War in the Pacific Could be ‘Trench Warfare’ at Sea
Credit: U.S. Missile Defense Agency

Two recent studies from academia and think tanks take deep looks into the potential ‘shape’ of a future conflict between the United States and China. The studies ignore the causes, likelihood, or utility of that theoretical Pacific war. They are instead interested in the course of conflict within the context of the advanced Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities that China is developing and deploying, and the mirrored capabilities the U.S. is developing to counter it under the banner of the “Third Offset” and the chimeric AirSea Battle concept. The Chinese military is preparing for information technology-heavy wars it assumes will be “sudden, cruel and short” and the U.S. military envisions leveraging “cross-domain synergies” to ensure “all domain access” in the face of the A2/AD threat. Contrary to some of those assumptions, these studies conclude that both militaries are likely to take significant losses in a future war, and the mature strategies and technologies each intends to decisively defeat the other would instead largely cancel each other out, resulting in a costly, inconclusive, stalemate.

The new RAND Corporation study, War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable was led by David Gompert, a former Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence in the Obama Administration. Focusing on the consequences of maturing and expanding Chinese and U.S. capabilities in the next decade (through 2025), the analysis finds that despite technologies intended to conduct fast, decisive war, the conflict would instead, “be hard to control; last months, if not years; have no winner; and inflict huge losses on both sides’ military forces.”

In the academic journal International Security, respected defense scholars Stephen Biddle of George Washington University and Ivan Oerlich of the Federation of American Scientists examine those same, fully mature Chinese and U.S. defense initiatives in the 2040 timeframe. They find that both sides’ envisioned offensives across the vast Western Pacific are eclipsed by mutual A2/AD umbrellas:

A2/AD is giving air and maritime defenders increasing advantages, but those advantages are strongest over controlled landmasses and weaken over distance. As both sides deploy A2/AD, these capabilities will increasingly replace today’s U.S. command of the global commons not with Chinese hegemony but with a more differentiated pattern of control, with a U.S. sphere of influence around allied landmasses, a Chinese sphere of influence over the Chinese mainland, and contested battlespace covering much of the South and East China Seas, wherein neither power enjoys wartime freedom of surface or air movement.

Taken together, the two studies foresee a Pacific war that looks like the western front of World War I, but at sea. China and the U.S. are secure in their respective ‘trenches,’ while the maritime corridor between China and the U.S.-and-allied-controlled first island chain (running south from Japan through the Philippines) becomes a ‘no man’s land’ where the two sides venture periodically for little progress at great cost. The problem for China is that even if their A2/AD architecture is able to deny the U.S. freedom of movement within the first island chain, it is unlikely to be able to exert sea and air control of its own against allied land-based missile and air defenses.

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Andrew Krepinevich, the former CEO of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank with deep associations with the Pentagon and its secretive Office of Net Assessments, wrote in Foreign Affairs last year about planning for that capability. By deploying networks of ground-based long-range anti-air and anti-ship missiles up and down the first island chain, the U.S. and allies could deter China by convincing it that achieving air and sea control would be too costly, if achievable at all. Though he doesn’t use the term, Krepinevich’s proposal would be the basis of an allied A2/AD umbrella of its own. Japan has already announced it intends to deploy its own version of such a network. In response to massive incursions around the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea by Chinese fishermen and maritime forces, Japan is developing a new long-range anti-ship missile to be deployed on nearby undisputed islands to provide coverage over the seas around the Senkakus.

Even if they do not provide the decisive edge envisioned, the technologies and concepts the U.S. is developing as part of “Third Offset” initiative may still be justified, if only to ensure the current prospects for a stalemate do not decline into risk of outright defeat. Though unsatisfying, a stalemate is a superior outcome for the U.S. and its allies than it is for China. As the “status quo” power, a stalemate preserves more U.S. objectives than the Chinese objectives to gain control or evict U.S. forces from the region. That outcome has its own Great War parallel in Britain’s tactical defeat and strategic victory in the naval Battle of Jutland (more on that next week).

These reports show the prospects of China effectively pushing past A2/AD capabilities arrayed against it by the U.S. and its allies are dim, meaning that even in a long and costly conflict, China would be unable to achieve its presumed objectives, and even a battered U.S. would retain most of its privileged position in the Western Pacific. Assuming both countries persist in their pursuit and deployment of advanced capabilities, in a great future Pacific war the U.S. is unlikely to be able to take advantage of its “command of the commons,” as MIT Professor Barry Posen described it, that it has enjoyed since the end of the Cold War. But a U.S. setback does not translate into a Chinese victory. China is unlikely to be able to exploit freedom of action themselves inside the first island chain, leading to a WWI-like stalemate. The result, much like that earlier war, would be a massive expenditure of blood and treasure, and leaving in its wake lingering questions about what it was all for.