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Escalation Cause: How the Pentagon’s new strategy could trigger war with China

Aug 08 , 2013

As the threat to forward-deployed U.S. forces grows, particularly in East Asia, the Pentagon has been pursuing a strategy known as Air-Sea Battle. As Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Greenert and Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Welsh have outlined here in FP, the goal is to neutralize the ability of enemies to keep U.S. forces at bay with so-called anti-access and area-denial defenses. 

But while the proponents of Air-Sea Battle are careful to say that the strategy isn’t focused on one specific adversary, we shouldn’t kid ourselves: The Chinese see it as aimed at them. Then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said as much in the 2012 defense strategic guidance: “States such as China and Iran will continue to pursue asymmetric means to counter our power projection capabilities…. Accordingly, the U.S. military will invest as required to ensure its ability to operate effectively in anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) environments.” 

To do that, according to Air-Sea Battle, U.S. forces would launch physical attacks and cyberattacks against the enemy’s “kill-chain” of sensors and weaponry in order to disrupt its command-and-control systems, wreck its launch platforms (including aircraft, ships, and missile sites), and finally defeat the weapons they actually fire. The sooner the kill-chain is broken, the less damage U.S. forces will suffer — and the more damage they will be able to inflict on the enemy. Therein lies both the military attractiveness and the strategic risk of Air-Sea Battle. 

Air-Sea Battle proponents are right to highlight the growing vulnerability of forward-deployed U.S. forces and right to enhance inter-service collaboration. But civilian and military leaders alike need to understand that Air-Sea Battle suggests the United States would strike China before China strikes U.S. forces. That could precipitate a spiraling, costly, and destabilizing arms race and make a crisis more likely to lead to hostilities. The United States needs options to facilitate crisis management, deter aggression, and protect U.S. forces that do not require early attacks on Chinese territory. 

Here we suggest two: Shift toward a more survivable force posture in East Asia and improve the means to prevent China — or any state — from projecting force in an act of international aggression. 

Akin to the Air-Land Battle plan of the 1980s — meant to thwart Soviet aggression against NATO — Air-Sea Battle responds to the declining viability of forward defense, combined with an aversion to nuclear escalation. As then, Air-Sea Battle is a joint effort by two services to align their capabilities and war plans to defeat a serious threat from a powerful adversary. (Then it was the Army and Air Force, now the Navy and Air Force.) And like Air-Land Battle, there is more to Air-Sea Battle than inter-service collaboration: namely a focus on deep, early strikes against enemy forces, infrastructure, command and control, and territory — then Soviet, now Chinese. 

Disrupting or destroying China’s kill-chain is alluring. China has the resources to threaten U.S. forces in the Pacific. Failure to develop countermeasures would leave the United States with a declining ability to operate militarily, deter Chinese use of force, reassure and defend allies, and exert influence in a vital region. Yet this simple idea could have dire consequences: Air-Sea Battle’s targets would have to be struck before they could do significant damage to U.S. forces. With the exception of ships at sea and satellites in orbit, the targets that comprise China’s kill-chain — air and naval bases, missile launchers, land-based sensors, command-and-control centers — are in China itself. 

Attacking Chinese territory would have serious geopolitical consequences. China isn’t the menacing, isolated Soviet Union. It’s a huge and integral part of the world economy, as well as a potential U.S. partner in managing world affairs. While the United States must maintain a strong military presence to balance the growth of Chinese power and prevent instability in East Asia, where the potential for conflict is greatest, at the same time it is trying to engage China in security cooperation from Korea to the Persian Gulf. Moreover, 2013 is not 1980: Information technologies — for targeting, networking, and cyberwar — are advancing rapidly, and China is more capable of competing technologically than the Soviet Union ever was. 

Given all these concerns, what does Air-Sea Battle contribute to U.S. security? It could indeed present China’s military with serious problems. The kill-chain on which its A2/AD strategy depends is complex, fragile, and vulnerable to physical attacks and cyberattacks. By disabling this chain, Air-Sea Battle could buy space, time, and security for the use of existing U.S. strike forces. Or, as the Chinese see it, Air-Sea Battle could render China extremely vulnerable to U.S attack. 

At the same time, Air-Sea Battle does not solve the underlying problem of U.S. forces’ growing vulnerability in the Western Pacific. That is the result of military-technological trends, geographic realities, and the limitations and costs of defending overseas deployments. Each factor favors A2/AD. Air-Sea Battle could provide a stopgap countermeasure until the United States can address its vulnerability. But it also has the potential to deepen Chinese fears of U.S. intentions, cause the Chinese to re-double their A2/AD effort — which they see as essential for national defense — and even make conflict more likely. Importantly, the advent of Air-Sea Battle should not divert the United States from developing other capabilities that could serve the same ends without destabilizing Sino-U.S. relations.   

Because China is so critical, and because war with China could be so dangerous, we must think through the circumstances in which potentially escalatory attacks would be warranted. We must not lose sight of the fact that the Chinese regard U.S. forces in the Western Pacific — especially air- and sea-based strike forces — as threatening. While some such forces are needed to deter Chinese use of force in the region, plans for their use should take into account the fact that the Chinese see things differently, and for the most part defensively. 

Air-Sea Battle increases the odds that a crisis will turn violent. Already, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) leans toward early strikes on U.S. forces if hostilities have begun or appear imminent (this inclination is a first premise of the Air-Sea Battle concept). Given that, to be most effective, Air-Sea Battle would need to take down Chinese targeting and strike capabilities before they could cause significant damage to U.S. forces and bases. It follows, and the Chinese fear, that such U.S. capabilities are best used early and first — if not preemptively, then in preparation for further U.S. offensive action. After all, such U.S. strikes have been used to initiate conflict twice in Iraq. This perception will, in turn, increase the incentive for the PLA to attack preemptively, before Air-Sea Battle has degraded its ability to neutralize the U.S. strike threat. It could give the Chinese cause to launch large-scale preemptive cyber- and anti-satellite attacks on our Air-Sea Battle assets. Indeed, they might feel a need, out of self-defense, to launch such attacks even if they had not planned to start a war. It is a dangerous situation when both sides put a premium on early action. 

In addition, there is no reason to think that the Chinese will be resigned to the disadvantages created for them by Air-Sea Battle. Indeed, Chinese commentators are already calling for China to intensify its efforts to respond in space and cyberspace — since Air-Sea Battle depends critically on the computer networks and satellites that connect U.S. sensors, platforms, weapons, and command-and-control systems. It is not clear that U.S. military networks can be hardened enough to withstand the sort of major cyberattacks the Chinese will be able to conduct in the coming years. True, such attacks could occur in the event of a Sino-U.S. conflict, Air-Sea Battle or not. But whether they occur preemptively or with ample warning could affect the ability of U.S. forces to withstand them. Just as Air-Sea Battle calls for the United States to initiate cyberattacks against China in the event of a conflict, it will reinforce Chinese motivations to develop the means and plans to initiate cyberwar against the United States. This could disadvantage the United States: Although Chinese reliance on computer networks for military operations and other functions is growing, the United States is and will remain for some time more network-reliant, and thus more exposed in the event of cyberwar. We simply do not understand well enough how cyberwar with China would unfold and whether it could be contained. Strategies that encourage mutual restraint rather than early offensive action in this unfamiliar strategic domain may ultimately be advantageous to the United States. 

Most distressing, from a strategic perspective, is that Air-Sea Battle addresses how a war with China could begin, but it begs the questions of what course such a war could take, where it would lead, and how it could be ended on terms favorable to the United States. It is one thing to attack Iraq or Libya (or even Iran). It’s quite another to attack the world’s second most powerful state. 

So what steps should the United States take to counter China’s growing A2/AD arsenal? Air-Sea Battle capabilities are worth pursuing, but they cannot be the entirety of our military posture. The United States needs options that facilitate crisis management, deter aggression, and sustain U.S. force survivability without requiring early attacks on Chinese territory. (Those should be a last resort, not the first.) To that end, we propose shifting toward a more survivable force posture in East Asia. We also suggest developing America’s own A2/AD capabilities, thus its ability to prevent China — or any other hostile state — from projecting force. 

A more sustainable and less destabilizing way to solve the vulnerability problem is to overwhelm and confuse China’s targeting, which is the key to its A2/AD. Because forces that could do this would pose a significant threat without placing a premium on deep, early strikes, and because striking them in a comprehensive way would be very difficult and risky, they would add to stability rather than detract from it. Taking full advantage of information technology, the United States should shift toward such forces — more distributed, networked, numerous, diverse, elusive, small, long-range, and hard-to-find — while also exploiting two promising counter-offensive technologies: drones and cyberweapons. A more survivable U.S. posture along these lines would discourage Chinese preemptive attack, obviate the need for deep, early U.S. attacks, and allow time for a crisis to be defused. Having taken a long hiatus from transforming U.S. forces following September 11, 2001, the United States should resume its efforts and regain a commanding lead in the exploitation of information technology. This type of force will take years to field, but that is all the more reason to start now. 

To complement a shift toward less targetable, more survivable forces, the United States should develop a strategy to defeat force projection by regional powers, of which China is the strongest but obviously not the only candidate. A2/AD works in both directions. If the United States (and its partners and allies) can use defensive measures to prevent international aggression, and if it is finding it increasingly difficult and costly to overcome the A2/AD of lesser powers, then it should turn the tables on those powers. To clarify, if preventing international aggression was the main reason for the United States to use force — lesser ones being regime change, counterinsurgency, and humanitarian intervention — then U.S. defense strategy should concentrate on it. Capabilities to counter force projection by regional aggressors would give the United States options to deter them, to provide time and space to defuse crises short of war, and to prevail militarily without necessarily firing the first shot or immediately escalating to attacks on an adversary’s homeland. Partnerships with allies to develop their A2/AD capabilities would be critical in this plan. 

To bring such a strategy to fruition, all U.S. military services, along with combatant commanders, would have to develop operational concepts not confined by current doctrine and force structure. Honing U.S. capabilities for regional A2/AD would exploit targeting technologies in which the U.S. military has and can retain superiority. The capabilities that come immediately to mind include anti-air, cyberwar, anti-naval forces, and C4ISR — most of which exist in U.S. inventories and are undergoing continuous improvement. Furthermore, working to improve the defense forces of allies and partners would be a central element of such an approach. Other regional A2/AD capabilities worth considering (and more controversially) include new capabilities, such as land-based anti-ship missiles. 

If the United States relied more on A2/AD capabilities of its own and its partners to prevent aggression, escalation would no longer be an urgent imperative; it could be undertaken only when no other good options remained. The United States could rely on regional partners to deploy their own A2/AD capabilities at the onset of trouble, while withholding its A2/AD measures until aggression was underway or certain. This would reduce both tensions before crises develop and the need to attack first. It would also permit time to defuse crises on favorable terms. Where China is concerned, a U.S. posture that is more clearly geared toward defeating international aggression, while also more survivable (and almost certainly less expensive), is less likely to stoke fear, distrust, and temptations to preempt than one that depends on attacking China at the outset of a conflict. The shift in emphasis to regional A2/AD would improve deterrence without raising the risks of escalation. 

America’s leaders should be careful not to let the demands of tactical-technical solutions to specific military problems constrain, much less dictate, their strategic choices. Future presidents will need a range of possible responses to the growth of Chinese power, ways to manage regional friction, and methods of channeling Sino-U.S. relations in positive directions. The most prudent long-term approach for U.S. strategists would be to adapt Air-Sea Battle capabilities in support of a new defense posture: one geared toward preventing regional aggression and relying on widely dispersed, mobile, and networked forces from all the armed services. 

With the advent of Air-Sea Battle, there is a danger that the United States and China are both moving toward military postures and embracing operating concepts — if not war-fighting plans — that create spiraling incentives to act first. This has been evident for some years in Chinese military writings, and now it could be inferred from American military writings. The United States should counter Chinese A2/AD. But the goal must be to strengthen, not weaken, stability. Moreover, investment in new capabilities should follow strategy, not imply it — all the more so when resources are tight and Sino-U.S. relations unsettled. As we make choices that will set terms of competition with China over the next century, all major investments, such as Air-Sea Battle, survivable strike forces, and A2/AD capabilities, should be weighed carefully based on what they contribute to our long-term need for security and stability. We cannot afford to make decisions today without thinking several moves ahead. 

David Gompert is a senior fellow at RAND and professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. His most recent government position was as President Obama’s principal deputy director of national intelligence. 

Terrence Kelly is a senior operations researcher at RAND and the director of the RAND Arroyo Center’s Strategy and Resources program. 

© 2013. Foreign Policy.

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