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Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Momsen, DDG 92 (James R. Evans/U.S. Navy)

America Has No Military Strategy for China

Seth Cropsey

Given the intense media focus on the woes of Obamacare’s rollout, it’s not surprising that no one paid much attention when Japan scrambled its fighters three days in a row beginning on October 24th in response to Chinese military aircraft’s incursions into Japan’s airspace as the so far bloodless maneuvering over claims to Japan’s Senkaku islands sharpens.

A miscalculation that drew fire has the potential to enmesh us in a dispute that serves no one’s interest. An escalation of such a dispute would be disastrous. Yet the U.S. has no strategy for a conflict with China. The sole U.S. preparation for such an outcome is a set of ideas known as the AirSea Battle, (ASB).

The ASB is a concept that has taken root in the U.S. Defense Department as the Obama administration talks about rebalancing forces from the Middle East to Asia, and as the American high command gradually accepts the possibility that China may be a strategic competitor to the U.S. The idea of ASB—a new approach to coordinating military services’ roles in combat, and not a strategy—comes in two parts: to preserve large American forces’ ability to bring power to bear by destroying an enemy’s command and control infrastructure; and to defeat the defenses that allow the launch of low-cost, proliferating, and increasingly accurate missiles. ASB means to accomplish this by new, almost revolutionary, cross-Service combinations of command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, that are reflected in equally coordinated operations.

On October 10th the House Armed Services Committee’s Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, chaired by Representative J. Randy Forbes (R-VA) held a public hearing on the Air-Sea Battle concept at which senior admirals and generals from all the military services testified.

The discussion between the knowledgeable elected representative and high-level officers was congenial, informed, and—in unanswered questions—alarming. Representative Forbes asked the officers to explain the strategy on which the AirSea Battle concept is based. They couldn’t. Forbes noted the challenges to East Asia’s stability and America’s historic position as a defender of this stability raised by China’s growing military power. He observed that these challenges deserve a strategy worthy of the name, and warned against one that is determined by today’s weapons or the reduced force that will exist in the future.

Forbes’ point is solid. Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz famously remarked that because “the enemy (at war games played at the Naval War College) was always Japan, and the courses were so thorough…nothing that happened in the Pacific was strange or unexpected” in the war that followed. Nimitz was on target: surprise is part of warfare, and Japan certainly surprised us at the war’s beginning.

However, our surprise was strategic readiness. The island-hopping campaign, amphibious warfare, the role of aircraft carriers—all had been anticipated and rehearsed as elements of the strategy to defeat Japan. Even unrestricted submarine warfare, illegal on the day the war started, had been contemplated and quickly became part of an effective interdiction, rollback, and suppression strategy. The strategy and the organizational tools and the force structure and levels necessary to make it work had been envisioned and were under construction when the war began—largely thanks to Congressman Forbes’s predecessor Carl Vinson, the “Father of the Two-Ocean Navy.”

China is not an enemy of the U.S. However, its ambition for regional hegemony, increasing armed strength, active effort to deny U.S. forces’ access to the Western Pacific, and increasingly troublesome disputes with its neighbors—in several cases, our allies—over territorial claims in the South China Sea all point to substantial difficulties ahead in relations between Washington and Beijing. China’s challenges to the rule of law, the global commons, liberal capitalism, and human rights are worth defending, and we need a strategy to do so. Miscalculation, the escalation of what began as a minor incident, and rising Chinese nationalism press the question of potential conflict. Preventing conflict is key: strategy, operational posture, readiness, resilience, and sustainability are its essential elements. We should be prepared, and we are not.

Warfare, like life itself, changes constantly. Success requires adaptation. Where adaptation falters consequences follow. In our own Civil War, the industrialized manufacture of repeating weapons, breech-loading naval guns, steam-propulsion, and armor-plating transformed the technology of warfare globally, but not its strategies, operations, or tactics. But not soon enough. Indeed, until virtually the end of World War I, commanders “came on in the same old way,” as Wellington commented on Napoleon’s conduct of Waterloo. The machine gunfire of World War I pushed men into defensive trenches from which they emerged to be cut down by the millions. The tank, which protected its operators from enemy fire while simultaneously attacking an enemy, did not appear on the battlefield until late 1916, and not in numbers nor accompanied by tactics to end the carnage.

Today, the expanding accessibility of relatively low-cost and increasingly accurate missiles questions a long-standing assumption of American strategy, that we could bring to bear land and naval power at a great distance from the U.S. in forward and en route sanctuaries, thus exploiting the strategic depth of two great oceans. If a million dollar missile can incapacitate or sink an aircraft carrier or a large amphibious ship that costs many billions—or destroy a U.S./allied base within missile range—we must either respond or accept the possibility that large parts of our military will become vulnerable or irrelevant, and in the loss of their regional punch grow weak in their usefulness to the nation’s position as a global power.

This is where the AirSea Battle comes in. With is anti-access and area denial strategy, China is challenging our strengths on her maritime approaches. ASB’s notion of integrating forces especially naval and air capabilities to destroy or otherwise reduce an enemy’s ability to keep us out of the area we require for applying power has great merit. But the ASB office devotes itself more to large changes in technical jointness than to crafting a strategy based on what integrated U.S. and allied forces can achieve.

An analogy is useful here. While coordination between an operating surgeon, anesthesiologist, nurses, and post-operative care are essential to surgery, perfecting such coordination offers no guidance about how to perform a difficult surgical procedure, much less what strategy a patient should use to preserve or improve health.

The ideas offered by the ASB, while necessary, are neither based upon, nor do they serve as the basis of, strategy for any region of the world where countries, most notably China, are actively building the command and control, intelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance, and offensive capability to deny the U.S. and its allies access to the seas far off its coast. The ASB office public document does not include the word “China.” So, although the U.S. Defense Department acknowledges the challenge of China’s anti-access efforts, we have no strategy to defeat it nor does there appear to be a plan to construct one.

The U.S. military faces a growing problem in securing the access that would be needed to project power as China’s expanding reach threatens our bases or treaty allies in the Western Pacific. The House Armed Services Committee’s expressions of concern were bipartisan and serious. The ASB is one of several approaches to managing risk, but by its authors’ own admission, it is a concept, not a plan.

We have no strategy on which to base the design of weapons or tactics to meet this challenge. We should. A sensible one would be based upon forward defense in a long war; command of the air and seas; close integration of ground forces to dominate the littorals, islands, archipelagos, and straits; and building and deploying the forces required to assure a potential adversary that taking on the U.S. is a fool’s errand.

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