The US Air Sea Battle Strategy: What War With China Would Look Like

As a former Army strategic planner, I was often in the company of some very intelligent people who collaborated on work with multiple scenarios and contingencies in order to help craft the nation’s security posture. Two questions we continually asked ourselves, regardless of the potential threat, consequence, or situation were: “What if?” and “So What?”  

These questions helped to guide our thinking, research, and subsequent delivery of possible courses of action based upon multiple considerations. The two “rules” we developed were: 1) the budget is based on the strategy; not the other way around, and 2) the bad guy always gets a vote.  

These two axioms helped us to work unconstrained in our analysis, but also reminded us that the conclusions we would eventually draw were never guaranteed because government “budgeteers” and the threat rarely react as expected.

Back in January, President Obama, Defense Secretary Panetta, and Gen. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, unveiled a new U.S. security strategy that consolidates missions and downsizes our armed forces in what will be the largest cuts to the defense budget since the end of the Cold War. Our new methods of warfare and plans to secure the homeland call for a greater shift of emphasis toward Asia, as we plan for smaller, less expensive engagement strategies. The last decade of “big wars” has not only added to our nation’s huge debt, but has also obviously shifted the application of monetary and intellectual resources to the current fight rather than preparations for a future one.

The new strategy relies on a greater investment in weapon systems that would mitigate China’s (or potentially any threat to the U.S.) use of long-range missiles and advanced radars to detect, deter, or destroy U.S. forces. Inside the rings of the Pentagon, this new strategy is being called “Air-Sea Battle.”

For the past 20 years this strategy has been developed by 91-year old Andrew Marshall, a D.C. insider who is well-known in just about every defense, think tank, and legislative circle in Washington. Marshall is a “futurist” and for the past four decades has managed the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, evaluating and assessing America’s potential threats in a complicated/ synthesized analysis of many variables in order to create likely “worst case” scenarios. Like any bureaucratic function, what matters is not necessarily what you know, but rather who you know. And Marshall can bring a lot of well-informed sources to the table.

So what if a war with China began? What would it look like? 

According to the Washington Post’s sources, “Stealthy American bombers and submarines would knock out China’s long-range surveillance radar and precision missile systems located deep inside the country. The initial ‘blinding campaign’ would be followed by a larger air and naval assault.”  

Of course, history has taught us that to win this war or any war we would eventually have to commit U.S ground forces. News of the existence of such a plan has angered Chinese military officials, and caused some Asia experts to worry that a U.S. conventional strike against China could lead to a nuclear war. The plan has even been criticized by some American military officials … for being too expensive.

Obviously, our military’s official position on Air-Sea Battle is that it is not a war plan directed specifically at China, but rather a contingency that could be employed anywhere in the world, if necessary. China naturally has reacted with skepticism and strong rhetoric. “'If the U.S. military develops Air-Sea Battle to deal with the [People’s Liberation Army], the PLA will be forced to develop anti-Air-Sea Battle," Col. Gaoyue Fan said last year in a debate sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a defense think tank. Privately, the Post quotes anonymous U.S. military officials as supporting our new Asia strategy: “We want to put enough uncertainty in the minds of Chinese military planners that they would not want to take us on,” said a senior Navy official overseeing the service’s modernization efforts. “Air-Sea Battle is all about convincing the Chinese that we will win this competition.”

The U.S. has a long and complicated history with China. We have gone from sworn, diametrically opposed enemies to business partners with shared economic, diplomatic and operational military goals.  But we should be concerned about China. A quick look at China’s last 20 years shows an increasing and steady growth in defense spending, which has reached as much as $180 billion a year, or about one-third of our defense budget. In Richard Bernstein and Ross H. Munro’s book, The Coming Conflict with China, the authors made a couple of controversial observations about the current trends in China:

- China’s economic development was unstoppable; it had the potential to become the largest economy in the world;

- Unlike the Soviet Union, which was a powerful military founded on a weak economy, China had a powerful economy creating a credible military force;

- A more powerful China would be more assertive on its national interests, many of which were still in dispute, i.e., Taiwan, the Spratly Islands, etc.;

- China’s deep-seated historic sense of itself, its basic material and human conditions, and its own assessment of its national interests combine to make a Chinese move toward Asian hegemony virtually inevitable;

- A hegemonic China would upset Asia’s balance of power that the United States established and has maintained since the end of World War II;

- The Taiwan issue could be a trigger to get China and the United States to an armed conflict.

The U.S. has been involved in the China-Taiwan dispute since its beginning in 1949 and made official commitments to the defense of Taiwan in a 1954 treaty, which was reaffirmed with the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. And as recently as 1996, we demonstrated our resolve and compliance with our commitment to Taiwan when President Clinton sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region to prevent a full-scale military conflict. Recently, a war of words has highlighted a growing unease over China’s assertiveness in disputed South China Sea waters, as our allies Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines have tried to use their territorial claims to support a push for undersea gas, oil, and fishing rights. The tensions have led to skirmishes. The Philippines this month denounced “intimidation” from China and warned of possible “physical hostilities” at a regional security meeting following a two-month standoff with Chinese vessels over a disputed reef in the South China Sea. The value we place on loyalty to our allies could plunge us into the dispute as well.

If this all appears to be just “sound and fury signifying nothing” or “saber rattling,” you’re in denial. An unpleasant history, natural mistrust, decisions created in an information vacuum, and a distinct separation in cultures have the potential to combine with an unfortunate “incident” or accident to spark war. No, the sky is not falling, but the bird cannot just bury his head in the sand either. We have to be prepared to defend our nation and its interests and we must resource the preparation appropriately. It is not an easy task, nor is it a popular one. However, to do any less would be unconscionable. A mentor once told me, “America will never accept any excuse as to why we weren’t ready. And they shouldn’t have to.” I believe that.