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Keeping a Large War Small: Offshore Control vs. Air-Sea Battle – and the Case for Area Denial
Robert M. Klein
The current Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, Michael Vickers, once said, “Getting into a war with China is easy…but the dilemma is, how do you end a war with China?”[i] There are two leading concepts for how the U.S. should approach a future conflict with China: Air-Sea Battle and Offshore Control. Both concepts have far reaching implications, which could move the conflict beyond the realm of rational calculation, including the looming potential for escalation or prolonged conflict. China’s military strength is such that it cannot be defeated in a single, short blow. It possesses the military capacity to continue fighting even if it loses the initial round of combat. In addition, with World War II and the Cultural Revolution not too distant in the national memory, the Chinese ruling elite and the society as a whole may have the fortitude to withstand hardship for an indefinite period. Given this context, what would be the defeat mechanism or theory of victory? What circumstances would create the conditions that would allow U.S. policy makers to bring the war to a successful conclusion? Both Offshore Control and Air-Sea Battle are concepts divorced from strategy (defined as the marriage of ends, ways, and means) and geography. Because of the uncertainty and risks involved in any U.S.-China confrontation, policy makers on both sides will want to limit the conflict to the greatest extent possible in terms of political goals, military objectives, the military ways and means employed, and the geographical scope of the conflict zone. Neither Offshore Control nor Air-Sea Battle propose how to do this.
The U.S. military needs another concept that supports the policy goal of a limited war with China. Area Denial is that concept. Although no concept can with absolute certainty eliminate the risks of escalation, Area Denial promises a way to mitigate them. Area Denial is often thought of as a concept used by our adversaries to prevent our freedom of action in a geographical zone under the enemy’s direct control. “[Area Denial] operations thus include actions by an adversary in the air, on land, and on and under the sea to contest and prevent U.S. joint operations within their defended battlespace.”[ii] Area Denial takes advantages of the proliferation of new technologies to develop a robust system of effective, but relatively cheap anti-access weapons (like electronic and cyber, cruise and ballistic missiles, advanced air defenses, and mining) to confront relatively expensive U.S. power projection platforms (such as aircraft carriers, submarines, and bombers), thus raising the costs of U.S. intervention or deterring such thoughts altogether.[iii] The 2012 national defense guidance, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, places particular emphasis on the U.S. military’s continued ability to project power despite Anti-access/Area Denial challenges (A2/AD).[iv] What is often overlooked in defense circles, and the offensive-minded uniformed military in particular, is that Area Denial can work both ways.[v]
Air-Sea Battle and Offshore Control are Problematic
After careful observation over the past several decades of U.S. conflicts against rogue states, Chinese military theorists have learned that the best way to cope with the U.S. military is to strike U.S. forces before they can strike China. To this end, the Chinese are developing a vast array of capabilities – long-range sensors to identify and track U.S. forces, anti-satellite and cyber warfare capabilities to attack U.S. networks, and a robust collection of ballistic and land-based cruise missiles – to keep U.S. power projection capabilities at bay. In response, the U.S. military has developed the Air-Sea Battle concept to cope with operational problems presented by Chinese A2/AD capabilities. According to the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Greenert, and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Welsh, the purpose of Air-Sea Battle is to neutralize the enemy’s asymmetric means to counter our power projection capability. The concept calls for U.S. forces to disrupt or defeat the Chinese military’s kill chain – defined as the PRC’s networked system of sensors, command and control systems, launch platforms and weapons (including those located on mainland China). “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,” report RAND analysts David Gompert and Terrence Kelly.[vi] The situation is eerily analogous to the infamous Schlieffen Plan in which the onerous risk of failing to attack before the opponent has the potential to drive the political calculations on both sides. Again, China has robust strategic depth that may belie a simple, quick solution. Should the initial round of fighting not produce the desired result, what escalatory measures will both sides employ in order to prevail? What happens if one side or the other refuses to give up? Would the U.S. then simply attempt to bomb our way to victory using a methodical approach to increase pressure gradually on the regime, or would an unlimited air-sea campaign of “shock and awe” suffice?[vii] These questions are left unanswered by Air-Sea Battle advocates.
According to retired Marine Colonel T.X. Hammes, “The idea that a strike campaign based on Air-Sea Battle capabilities can defeat a continental-size power in a short war is dubious at best, and certainly ahistorical.”[viii] Therefore, Hammes proposes an alternative strategy, Offshore Control. Offshore Control is (in fact) the old strategy of economic exhaustion through naval blockade. The strategy is aimed squarely at pressuring the Chinese Communist party by attacking what Hammes and others assume to be the regime’s center of gravity and source of their legitimacy, specifically China’s economic prosperity.[ix] Although less risky in terms of military provocation, Offshore Control could prove too costly for the United States in economic terms (i.e., Mutually Assured Economic Destruction[x]), and it remains unclear whether regime-threatening actions would be beneficial over the long run.
In other words, is the China we know now better than the China we might get after the collapse of the current regime? How long would such a strategy take to achieve the desired outcome? A review of the history of seapower indicates naval blockades are lengthy propositions that are rarely decisive alone, but are often accompanied by adjunct military operations designed to attrit the adversary’s combat power and material reserves over time.[xi] Additionally, a naval blockade of China could potentially require a large number of naval assets and the blockade itself would be susceptible to enemy adaptation.[xii] For instance, Japan’s blockade of China from 1937-1945 had a devastating impact on China’s foreign trade, but did not knock China out of the war. By adapting to the scarcities imposed by the blockade and switching to alternative trade routes (particularly through Russia), the Chinese were able to avoid defeat.[xiii] Finally, once the U.S. and its partners re-establish freedom of navigation in the commons, should defeat of China include reducing her military capability so that China no longer poses a threat to U.S. primacy? Neither set of advocates addresses this final question.
No doubt, how we choose to fight the war will to a large degree influence the endgame and how the war is, or is not, brought to a successful conclusion. Political endgame is defined as how and why a political system at war decides to give up, or in some cases disintegrates. Because of the threat of nuclear escalation in a U.S.-China scenario and the potentiality of regime collapse in China, the first preference for political endgame in a U.S.-China scenario is that of rational calculation. Nevertheless, rational calculation as a political endgame is often difficult to achieve. Presuming Chinese leaders will be rational actors (and for reasons discussed below), Area Denial as a strategic concept holds the best prospects for successful war termination given the scenarios most likely to involve conflict between the U.S. and PRC in the coming decades.
The Case for Area Denial
The three scenarios most likely to bring the U.S. and China into conflict are: (1) a Chinese-Japanese altercation over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands which brings the U.S. into the conflict due to the bi-lateral defense agreement with Japan; (2) a Chinese seizure of the Spratly Islands that threatens freedom of navigation in the South China Sea; and, (3) a Chinese coercion or invasion of Taiwan. North Korea represents a unique case that will be discussed later. Fortuitously, each of these cases represents a strategic problem that can be bounded geographically. In a manner similar to the British in the 1982 Falkland Islands dispute, the U.S. should seek to limit the conflict by announcing it will enforce a total exclusion zone (TEZ) around the disputed island areas. The British also established a General Warning Area for any ship further than the twelve mile territorial limit from Argentina’s coast – something U.S. planners should also consider.[xiv] The U.S. would make it clear to the Chinese that it would not extend operations to mainland China, unless in response to further Chinese provocations outside the designated zone. The U.S. declaration would focus on limiting the freedom of action of Chinese warships and not necessarily Chinese merchant shipping. The U.S. and China already fought one war, in Korea (1950-1953), which both sides tacitly agreed to keep limited geographically and in other ways. To reach a similar understanding in any future conflict, policy makers would need to clearly articulate U.S. redlines to the Chinese, such as expansion of the conflict outside the TEZ or Chinese attacks on U.S. bases in the region.
Military theorist Carl von Clausewitz recognized that the aim of defeating the enemy “can, in practice, be replaced by two other grounds for making peace: the first is the improbability of victory; the second is its unacceptable costs.”[xv] Using unassailable logic, Clausewitz also reasoned “the defense is the stronger form of waging war… [I]f attack were the stronger form, there would be no case for using the defense.” In Clausewitz’s mind, the purpose of the defense was preservation of combat power. The defender also had the advantage of position. [xvi] Area Denial entails that the U.S. blunt or deter the strategic effectiveness of Chinese attacks. Simply demonstrating the capability to impose costs and make the victory seem improbable could shift China’s cost/benefit analysis enough to deter attack. If not, the escalating costs of continued military action and improbability of achieving the political aim may open the political space for negotiation.[xvii]
Conceivably, then, both the U.S. and China could follow some variation of an Area Denial strategy. Several military analysts have argued that the Chinese might seek to achieve strategic surprise and present the U.S. with a fait accompli.[xviii] Seizing the initiative through preemption and surprise is one way a militarily inferior country can achieve victory over a militarily superior adversary. This principle especially holds true when its strategic aims are limited. The militarily inferior country hopes to achieve a situation whereby the costs to its adversary of effecting a reversal will exceed any perceived benefits; therefore, the adversary will instead choose to live with the results of the initial offensive. The Japanese in World War II provide a clear example on how this reliance on surprise can backfire in a big way.
In the case of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands or Spratly Islands, the Chinese may be able to achieve strategic surprise and occupy either group. However, the distances are such to mitigate the teeth of China’s A2/AD capabilities located on the mainland and, therefore, leave forward positioned Chinese assets vulnerable to a counter-attack. Additionally, China’s lack of blue water experience and other forms of power projection would put it at a severe disadvantage. For its part, the U.S. would need the capability to retake and occupy disputed territory and then to deny or blunt any Chinese counter-counteroffensive.
In the case of Taiwan, China is not likely to achieve strategic surprise if mounting full-scale invasion, but could possibly attain surprise through preemptive strikes on and/or a naval blockade of Taiwan. Nevertheless, aerial coercion can work against the Chinese in the court of world opinion, and a naval blockade of Taiwan would be difficult for the Chinese to impose and sustain over a long period of time, for reasons already discussed. Again, the U.S. could prevent invasion and impose costs on Chinese air and naval assets that would make Chinese victory – defined as the occupation of Taiwan – seem improbable. China can hardly achieve its aim of absorbing Taiwan if it does not invade and occupy the place.
Overall, the U.S. goal should be to reestablish the status quo by defeating Chinese aggression at the point of attack, but not to punish China by defanging its overall military capability in an offensive war. Given a nuclear armed opponent, a stalemated outcome is preferable to a gamble that raises the stakes to achieve decision. Generally speaking, the factor of time will work to the advantage of the United States. Since the conflict will occur in the Western Pacific closer to Chinese shores, the economic consequences, while harmful to both sides, will certainly have a greater impact on China. Additionally, by focusing on limited means and objectives initially, the U.S. will hold in reserve several potential escalation options, among them precision strikes against Chinese A2/AD capabilities on the mainland (as envisioned by Air-Sea Battle), and economic warfare or blockade.
A North Korea implosion would likely be chaotic, with perhaps millions of refugees flocking to North Korea’s borders in search of food and security. The immediate concern for South Korea and the U.S., however, would be security of North Korea’s WMD stockpiles and the means to deliver them. In this scenario, substantial numbers of U.S. ground forces would be required to perform wide area security of WMD facilities in support of special operations forces and chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear units. The Chinese would undoubtedly view South Korean and U.S. forces north of the Demilitarized Zone with suspicion and perhaps move a force of its own into North Korea to quell the chaos and reassert control. In this scenario, the United States would be confronted with a dilemma of supporting its South Korean ally on the issue of reunification, or acquiescing to China’s preference for the continued division of the peninsula. Should the competition for the future of North Korea turn into conflict, the only real option short of horizontal and vertical escalation would be for the U.S. to implement a cost-imposing strategy similar to that of the Korean War of the early 1950s (with all its attendant drawbacks).
The Balance of Resolve – Allies and Economics
Presuming rational calculation as the political endgame in a U.S.-PRC conflict scenario, the balance of resolve between the two adversaries will become a critical factor in conflict termination. The side that places the highest value on the object will have a major advantage in a cost-imposing contest. Viewed through a Thucydidean lens, a combination of honor, fear, and real interest determine the value of the object for both the U.S. and China. For China, at stake are not only sovereignty claims over territory and access to resources, particularly oil and gas, but China’s prestige and its historical legacy as the Middle Kingdom and the region’s dominant power. The maritime passageways of the Western Pacific are China’s lifeline, resembling in many ways America’s position in the Caribbean basin in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which defined the Caribbean as the “American Lake” to the virtual exclusion of other powers.[xix]
For the United States, motivations are more extrinsic. The U.S. draws much of its strength internationally from its alliance structure and its ability to build coalitions of the willing. One of the primary goals of U.S. policy in East Asia since the early 1950s has been to preserve the alliance structure. The Chinese know this, and their current policy of prodding on the fringes of the first island chain is purposefully designed to test and ultimately fracture the U.S. alliance system on the basis of divergent interests. Nevertheless, although the U.S. is not likely to fight for the pile of rocks that form the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands or Spratly group, it would fight to honor its commitments to allies and partners. To do otherwise would be to jeopardize the alliance structure and put the future of U.S. influence in the region at risk. Freedom of the seas provides a lesser, but still important, motivation for the U.S. to enter armed conflict as demonstrated by our historical legacy.[xx]
Area Denial as a strategic concept compares favorably to the alternatives if preservation of the alliance structure forms the basis for U.S. resolve. Foremost, it is a defensive concept that seeks to preserve the status quo. In so doing, Area Denial wins the international battle of perceptions about legitimacy, particularly when compared to provocative and expansive actions like the maritime blockade proposed by advocates of Offshore Control, or more aggressive offensive-minded concepts such as Air-Sea Battle. A maritime blockade is bound to hurt the economies of our allies and partners, and the U.S. would risk international legitimacy should it decide to extend military operations to the Chinese mainland as implied in Air-Sea Battle.
In particular, Offshore Control would require a high degree of regional and international cooperation which would be difficult for the United States to gain and maintain given how much the economies of American partners are integrated with the Chinese economy. Asian countries which in recent years have come increasingly to depend on China economically would be forced to choose between security and economic interests.[xxi] China’s likely response would be to organize a political coalition against the blockade and use the resultant political pressure to get the United States to back down. The legitimacy of the U.S. effort would be further challenged by the intricacies of establishing an effective blockade that would be able to differentiate between neutral and enemy shipping. Given the international character of shipping involved in trade with China, and the problem of re-flagging in transit, enforcement of a maritime blockade of China would be no easy task. For varying reasons, many neutral states would be unlikely to accede to a U.S. blockade of China and attempt to evade it. To counter these measures, the U.S. might establish an outer ring blockade to establish differentiation and non-lethal neutralization at the key maritime passageways and chokepoints of Southeast and East Asia. Such measures, however, would be far from foolproof and would have significant effects on regional commerce and shipping costs. In general, the spill-over from blockade enforcement, including the lethal neutralization of shipping in the inner ring blockade, could have significant political repercussions for the United States. Undoubtedly a maritime blockade of China would likely become a protracted contest of economic exhaustion and political attrition between contending coalitions.[xxii] Compared to the potentially debilitating consequences of a maritime blockade, Area Denial, which seeks to limit the duration and geographical scope of the conflict, appears to be a wise alternative.
The desirability of Area Denial as a concept for our allies and partners also reinforces its practicality as a form of conventional deterrence. As a defensive concept, it allows the U.S. to dominate the strategic narrative by playing to international perceptions of legitimacy based on the right to self-defense and freedom of the global commons. The ability of the United States to assemble a coalition hinges on perceptions of China’s aggressive behavior and China is more likely to be deterred if it perceives the preponderance of international opinion and support siding with the United States. Militarily, the combination of U.S. and coalition Area Denial capabilities should provide its own deterrent effect, just as NATO forces did in Western Europe during the Cold War. The same technologies that enable China’s A2/AD capability are proliferating to China’s neighbors making Area Denial extremely attractive from a practical standpoint. Indeed some in the region (Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Singapore) already possess high-end capability and are allied to the U.S.
When considering support to our potential coalition partners, the offensive-minded U.S. military may need to shift its orientation to a more defensive mindset. Something akin to the Active-Defense doctrine of the late 1970s and early 1980s might be more appropriate if the war aim is to inflict unacceptable costs in order to contain the aggressor. Providing partners with enabling capabilities that round out their defensive formations may prove critical. For fiscally challenged allies and partners, defensive land capabilities, such as robust air defense assets, could prove attractive when compared to more expensive alternatives like advanced fighter aircraft. The U.S. goal should be to knit partners together in a networked system of advanced C4ISR, targeting, precision guided munitions, airborne early warning capabilities, integrated air defenses, maritime domain awareness, undersea surveillance, and stand-off capabilities such as cruise and ballistic missiles. This networked “system of systems” approach has come to define the contemporary “revolution in military affairs.” Policy analysts James Thomas and Braden Montgomery have dubbed these “mini A2/AD” complexes.[xxiii] In such a way, states could increase the costs for an opportunistic aggressor to the point where conflict becomes prohibitively expensive. The current willingness of key partners to modernize their militaries makes it a favorable time for the U.S. to implement such a strategy.[xxiv]
Given the scenarios outlined above in which the U.S. could be drawn into conflict with the PRC, the first option for policy makers and military planners should be Area Denial. By making this choice, they can keep the conflict limited and within the bounds of rational calculation, while reserving the more provocative concepts of Air-Sea Battle and Offshore Control as escalatory options.
In terms of coalition building for the United States, Area Denial holds the most promise whereas Air-Sea Battle and Offshore Control are more problematic. In contrast to Air-Sea Battle and Offshore Control, the concept of Area Denial offers a way to limit any future conflict between the U.S. and China by applying restraint to both the means and the ends (while not confusing means with ends). The war aim of reestablishing the status quo is realistically achievable, keeps the stakes relatively low, and avoids uncontrollable escalation or the fallacy of thinking that the more completely the enemy is stripped of power at the end of hostilities, the more securely peace will be established. Paradoxically, both the U.S. and China could follow a variation of the same strategy of imposing costs to make victory by the other side seem improbable. Nevertheless, in such a scenario the U.S. is likely to prevail since it is stronger militarily and on the defensive (along with its coalition partners). The outcome would be one of less than total victory, but one that both the U.S. and China could accept. To the uniformed military both the method and the ends of Area Denial may seem an anathema, but in a conflict against a near-peer competitor armed with nuclear weapons, restraint becomes a virtue.
The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense or any other branch or agency of the U.S. Government.
[i] Quoted in Robert Kaplan, “How We Would Fight China,” The Atlantic, 2005.
[ii] Andrew Krepinevich, Barry Watts, and Robert Work, Meeting the Anti-Access and Area Denial Challenge, (Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Washington, D.C. 2003), ii.
[iii] One such example is Syria. See Carroll, Chris, “Dempsey Lays Out Military Options for US in Syria,” Stars and Stripes, July 23, 2013.
[iv] Leon Panetta, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, U.S. Department of Defense, January 2012, 4. A2/AD is listed as a primary mission of the U.S. armed forces.
[v] Douglas Pfeiffer, “China, the German Analogy, and the AirSea Operational Concept,” Orbis, Winter 2011.
[vi] David C. Gompert and Terrence Kelly, “Escalation Clause: How the Pentagon’s New Strategy Could Trigger War with China,” The RAND Blog, August 5, 2013. See also David Gompert and Terrence Kelly, “U.S., China and an Unthinkable War,” Los Angeles Times, Op-ed, August 26, 2013. See also James Dobbins, David Gompert, David Shlapak, and Andrew Scobell, Conflict with China: Prospects, Consequences, and Strategies for Deterrence. (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2011).
[vii] Coercion via strategic air power is by itself seldom decisive. See Pape, Robert, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War, (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 1996), 316-318.
[viii] T.X. Hammes, “Offshore Control is the Answer,” Proceedings Magazine, Vol. 138/12/1318, December 2012.
[ix] Dan Blumenthal, “A Sino-American Proxy War?,” Foreign Policy, September 18, 2013.
[x] James Dobbins, “War with China,” Survival, vol. 54, no. 4, August-September, 2012, 19-20.
[xi] Bruce Elleman and S.C.M. Paine, Naval Blockades and Seapower, (Routledge, New York, NY, 2006), 4. See also Paul Kacskemeti, Strategic Surrender: The Politics of Victory and Defeat. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1958), 7. On the later point, Kecskemeti proposed that World Wars I and II were essentially gigantic siege operations, “directed against the entire war-making strength of the enemy nation…in which decision was sought and attained by gradual attrition of the enemy’s entire manpower and materiel reserves, and by choking off his supplies.”
[xii] Adaptation includes rerouting, smuggling, reflagging, obtain resources from alternate sources, rationing, etc. See Bruce Elleman, “A Comparative Historical Approach to Blockade Strategies,” and Gabriel Collins and William Murray, “No Oil for the Lamps of China?,” in China’s Energy Strategy: The Impact on Beijing’s Maritime Policies, Collins, Erickson, Goldstein, and Murray eds. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2008).
[xiii] See Ken-ichi Arakawa, “The Japanese Naval Blockade of China in the Second Sino-Japanese War, 1937-41,” in Elleman and Paine, 105-116.
[xiv] Elleman, “A Comparative Historical Approach to Blockade Strategies,” 379.
[xv] Clausewitz, 91.
[xvi] Clausewitz, 358-359.
[xvii] Bradford Lee , “Strategic Interaction: Theory and History for Practitioners,” in Thomas Mahnken, ed., Competitive Strategies for the 21st Century. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012), 32.
[xviii] Roger Cliff, China’s Military Modernization and the Cross-Strait Balance, Testimony presented before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission on September 15, 2005 (RAND, Santa Monica, CA, 2005). See also, Roger Cliff, et al., “Entering the Dragon’s Layer: Chinese Antiaccess Strategies and Their Implications for the United States,” (RAND, Santa Monica, CA, 2007).
[xix] Robert Kaplan, “The South China Sea Is the Future of Conflict,” Foreign Policy (Sep/Oct 2011): 5.
[xx] Examples include the Quasi-War with France, expeditions against the Barbary pirates, the War of 1812, and America’s entries into both World Wars.
[xxi] Evan A. Feigenbaum and Robert A. Manning, “Tale of Two Asias: In the battle for Asia’s soul, which side will win – security or economics?” Foreign Policy, October 31, 2012, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/10/30/a_tale_of_two_asias.
[xxii] See Sean Mirski, “Stranglehold: The Context, Conduct and Consequences of an American Naval Blockade of China,” Journal of Strategic Studies, vol. 36, no 1 (June 2013), pp. 385-421.
[xxiii] James Thomas and Evan Montgomery, “Developing a Strategy For a Long-Term Sino-American Competition” in Thomas Mahnken, ed., Competitive Strategies for the 21st Century. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012), 266-267.
[xxiv] Dan Blumenthal, “The Power Projection Balance in Asia,” 180-181, in Thomas Mahnken, ed., Competitive Strategies for the 21st Century. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012)