The Role of an Air Sea Battle-Centric Posture in Strategic Reassurance: SWJ Interview with Elbridge Colby
Elbridge Colby is a defense analyst in Washington, D.C.. He previously served in a number of government positions, most recently with the Office of the Secretary of Defense working on nuclear-weapons policy and arms control.
SWJ: In a time when the PLA is intensively investing in anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities, how would you characterize the Chinese way of war? What are they preparing for?
EC: My understanding of what the Chinese are trying to accomplish is the ability to effectively counter a third party intervention. If you look at the strategic landscape in the Western Pacific, more or less starting from 1945, the US dominated the aerial and maritime spheres. Obviously, we had less success on the Eurasian landmass, but the whole system was predicated on the ability of the US fleet and airpower to dominate the Pacific.
The particular contingency for which this was most relevant was Taiwan. Now, the US continues to have a policy guided by the Taiwan Act which, at the very least, suggests that we might intervene militarily. This is something that the Chinese are not comfortable with. It [the claim to Taiwan] is a core element of their regime’s legitimacy. This issue became more salient after the Taiwan Strait crisis in 1995/1996. That was a wakeup call for the Chinese, and in its aftermath they decided to build up the ability to try to effectively push back the US military. The trajectory of Chinese military development has therefore been to build forces that would potentially enable them to prevent the US from operating effectively in the areas that we need to be able to dominate if we decide to defend Taiwan in the event of Chinese military attack or attempted coercion. In this context they have spent a lot of time and resources on more accurate ballistic and cruise missiles, aerial forces and naval forces, basically with the overarching idea of creating an A2/AD bubble in order to deny the US the ability to exercise its power in the Western Pacific. That challenge to our power projection ability has been compounded because of the centralization of the US military posture following the Cold War, becoming increasingly focused on Guam and a few other nodes in the Pacific region.
SWJ: What are the implications of China’s military build-up for the United States?
EC: As we go forward and the Chinese economy likely continues to grow, they will presumably continue to put significant resources into these military capabilities. If we think about the basic military problem, the US is trying to project its power across the greatest expense of water on the globe, very far from our shores, using naval and airpower, all while the Chinese are operating from their mainland. The Chinese basically are trying to frustrate our ability to enter, while we are trying to get there and accomplish our objectives. As the Chinese military become more sophisticated, it will become a great problem for us.
SWJ: Are the Chinese A2/AD capabilities a long-term threat to the credibility of the deterrence capital that the US is providing to the region?
EC: Absolutely. We can see this in the case of Japan, where we see a lot more interest, focus, and essentially need for a stronger military posture. Publicly the Japanese are talking about North Korea, but what they are really worried about is China. The Senkaku Islands are the tip of the iceberg. A few months ago the Chinese state-affiliated press started to talk about the Chinese claims on the Ryukyu Islands, of which Okinawa is a part. It is a classic example of the downside of accommodation or appeasement in that the potential adversary can get hungrier rather than sated due to accommodation. And Taiwan’s closer relationship with mainland China is, in part, a result of the shifting regional military balance. More broadly, in these kinds of strategic competitions, perceptions of capability and resolve are crucial. If everyone thinks we are growing weaker, then they are likely to behave accordingly.
SWJ: Could the rise of Chinese A2/AD trigger the regional proliferation of small A2/AD national bubbles?
EC: It is very likely that we will see the proliferation of A2/AD capabilities to US allies and partners. This is a natural and useful step on their and our parts. Inherently these capabilities are less destabilizing because they are essentially defensive. Overall, developing allied A2/AD should be part of our strategy, but it is important to emphasize that in and of itself it is not enough.
There are a few problems with relying only on A2/AD capabilities to balance Chinese military developments. One is scale. If the Chinese continue to develop their military capabilities they will eventually be able to overwhelm the A2/AD capabilities of our allies and, if unmatched by investments on our side, likely our own in the region as well. This is in part because if you only invest in defensive capabilities you are ceding the initiative to the other side, giving them discretion as to where and how to invest, move, and strike. An additional problem is that if we focus only on A2/AD capabilities it will send a message to our allies and partners that they are not really going to be actively defended, but at best they should expect to endure while waiting to outlast the Chinese. This is because if we only have A2/AD capabilities we will not be able to degrade or disable Chinese striking capabilities. In other words, if the US is focused only on A2/AD capabilities, then there is no way to rescue allies and partners from China’s military reach because we won’t have the capabilities to push back that reach. Instead, if we only have a basically defensive posture represented by concentration on A2/AD, the only way that we can fight a war in the Pacific is by wearing down the will and the resources of the opponent. And realistically, if we ever get in a conflict like this, which only is going to be between big states with their backs up, I am very skeptical that we are going to wear down the resolve of people who endured the Cultural Revolution in living memory over issues that are remote to us and more immediate to them.
Now, let me be clear that I am in favor of creating A2/AD capabilities to match China’s, especially for our allies. But what makes sense is to help our allies create very effective defensive capabilities and to become sort of “hedgehogs” or “porcupines” against Chinese military power. We will then be the power that operates at the higher level and provides the offensive kinds of capabilities which we are better suited for and that give us more leverage politically and strategically.
SWJ: Which one is better suited for providing strategic reassurance to US regional allies - offshore control or ASB?
EC: Without question it is Air Sea Battle. First of all, I am not really sure that a blockade alone, as recommended in the Offshore Control approach, would really work. Ultimately, a blockade on its own can’t really be expected to coerce the Chinese to back down. You have to be able to impose more serious, more direct and more immediate costs than the offshore control strategy does. Even if you were able to shut down the PRC’s shipping, China has an enormous border with Russia and with other Asian countries that would present enormous incentives to break the blockade. What gives us the sense that the Russians are going to cooperate with us in maintaining a blockade? Even if we look to the behavior of an ally like Turkey with Iran, countries want to make money. Moreover, particularly over issues in the Western Pacific, the Chinese are likely to have a greater reservoir of willingness to suffer than we are. Offshore control basically turns the Western Pacific into a free fire zone, tries to deny the Chinese the ability to operate there (though I’m skeptical it could do so for long without striking at the sources of China’s military power), and hopes to wear down China. But an ally like Japan has to say to itself: “So the US will wear down China’s will? But in the meantime we are going to be pounded.” Therefore I don’t see something like offshore control as particularly reassuring for them.
SWJ: Is there a US rebalancing away from a focus on counterinsurgency/stability operations to a more traditional deterrence-oriented regional posture?
EC: There are two questions here: whether such a shift is happening or will happen and, separately, whether it should happen. On the second question, I certainly think such a shift should happen. Our experience with counterinsurgency and stability operations very much suggests to me that they are not worth their costs. If you happen to find yourself in a quagmire, of course, a counterinsurgency approach is probably the least bad way of going about dealing with the situation. But overall, we should be extremely careful, cautious and skeptical about embarking on these kinds of endeavors and I definitely think that they should not be at the higher priority end in our defense planning.
Deciding about the relative importance between counterinsurgency operations as against high-end warfighting ultimately gets back to the issue of whether one thinks that major war is still possible with serious advanced powers. On the one hand, you do see some people out there arguing that war with China is impossible. I think this is unwise. War with China would be exceedingly undesirable and dangerous, but this doesn’t mean that it is impossible. Major war is, sadly, possible. The way that a war would most plausibly break out with the Chinese in the nearer term would be over a relatively minor issue in itself but one connected to credibility, alliances, and so forth. Past is not prologue, but if you look at the First World War, rationally speaking nobody wanted or expected such a devastating and long war but the dynamics of crisis, competition, and conflict took over and delivered a result none of the governments wanted or expected. We very much want to avoid that.
Most importantly, we need to be prepared for war in order to deter war. There is no safer way of avoiding war and protecting our interests than being as strong as we can be while taking steps to reduce tensions where possible and to reassure both potential adversaries and allies that we would not seek to leverage that strength for our own untoward gain.
SWJ: In a time of rebalancing the strategic attention and resources to Asia, what are the consequences for the US regional posture in Europe? What signal does this send to European allies, at least to the most exposed ones/the frontier allies?
EC: East Asia and Middle East will be the areas of primary US security focus in the coming years – which is not to say that Europe is not of primary importance to US. Europe is basically free and safe. There is just less of a threat there.
In terms of our presence in Europe, I would imagine that the US posture should move more towards this higher-end element that I have described. Given the limited threats to Europe and the existence of problems elsewhere, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have a large amount of fixed US military resources in Europe. There are threats to US and allied security in Europe, but they are more indirect and distant so I think that the US can meet its security commitments in Europe by focusing on more deployable, high-end military capabilities that are actually well suited for Air Sea Battle-style operations.
The European allies should focus on ground forces, building deterrents to unlikely but not impossible traditional threats and against lower-level contingencies that could arise, such as territorial disputes or shows of force. Again, this doesn’t mean that the US is not concerned about Europe, but the US role should be the high-end guarantor. The US should be present but at the higher-end of the escalatory chain, something like “the SWAT team”. If there is a burglary in the neighborhood, the Poles should be there, but they always know that they can call the SWAT team. But you don’t bring in the SWAT teams for everything.
SWJ: Can a regional power like Poland balance effectively between expeditionary capabilities and investments in its A2/AD portfolio?
EC: Probably not, but this actually doesn’t bother me because, going forward, I don’t really expect either Poland or NATO to be involved in an expeditionary operations. The huge effort in Afghanistan clearly made sense to take down the Taliban and Bin Laden, but it would have been a lot better if we had not succumbed to mission creep in the ensuing years, trying to build a model government and society there. If we had kept our focus more tightly on al-Qa’ida and the threat of transnational terrorism, Afghanistan would still be an ugly situation, but we would have spent a lot less money, political capital, resources and, most importantly, lives. I don’t think we should be looking to do this kind of thing again if we can avoid it.
I’d rather have NATO taking care of its immediate area, particularly Eastern and Central Europe, and be able to defend itself and not be a security consumer than worry too much about helping the Americans out of area. If we are so unwise to get involved in a stability operation in Syria or Iran – and I really hope we don’t’ – we will have big problems.
Europe should keep an eye on Russia and although it is no longer an enemy, it is a power with interests that are at the very least in tension and sometimes opposed to ours and Europe’s and it does represent a threat in certain respects. We should not give Moscow the impression that they can mess around in Eastern Europe. The best way to do that is to have credible ground forces there and the ability to call in the Americans for the higher end of the spectrum. If a country like Poland has very good ground forces and artillery, air defense and airpower for territorial defense and interdiction in the immediate area, that is great, and then the US is the one that can conduct deep strikes into an opponent territory and can degrade theater level command and control. The US can provide the higher end things like ISR capabilities all the way up to the nuclear forces. It is a natural division of labor.
SWJ: What are the implications of Secretary Hagel’s Strategic Choices and Management Review for US global posture? One scenario will prioritize investments in high-technology while cutting the size or readiness of the military. The other scenario would prioritize size and readiness over investment in new capabilities.
EC: Overall we need to maintain some readiness, but there is no immediate major threat to the US security posture, so readiness shouldn’t be the priority. If you look at the trade space between investment and readiness we should definitely go with investment because, if you look out 15-20 years, there are much more plausible significant threats. On the margin, therefore, I would definitely take from readiness and put towards investments and R&D, which is at least apparently what DOD is doing, at least to some extent. High tech is where our competitive advantage is, so we need to maintain it. And this isn’t just any advantage – the upper hand in major wars that we’ve seen in the last few decades clearly goes to the technologically superior power.
That said, in a stability operation, technology may have more limited utility. But if you look at a contest between major states, you definitely want to be the technological sophisticated capable power. So if we are ahead in technology and its exploitation we probably will be able to deter or win a major war but we may worse off if have to deal with messy stability operations. You have to decide where you prefer to be better at major war or at stability operations. To me, it’s a far better situation to be well prepared for major war than to be well prepared for stability operations. The worst case is a lot worse if you’re not prepared for major war.
In the Pacific context, we need to match China’s improvements in its military capabilities, especially its A2/AD capabilities, with correlative and ideally superior improvements of our own. In particular, this means keeping a lead over China in the arena of the high-end military capabilities that would ultimately decide who would prevail in a battle for supremacy in the Western Pacific.
SWJ: What would the abandonment of Taiwan mean for the other global security commitments of US?
EC: Abandoning Taiwan would be unwise for political, strategic, and military reasons. One of the reasons why it would be a bad idea to leave Taiwan high and dry is that it would send a very clear signal about the staying power of the United States, with negative potential repercussions for our relationships throughout the world.
That said, we need to treat the issue of Taiwan with the utmost delicacy. While we have long made clear that we would regard an attempt by the PRC to use violence or coercion against Taiwan as a serious threat to our interests and to those of our allies in the region, and thus as very possibly – if not likely – embroiling our military forces in any such conflict, if at all possible we do not want to get in a fight with China over Taiwan. Rather, ideally we want to encourage the parties to work peacefully towards resolution or at least mitigation and amelioration of their longstanding disputes. We therefore do not want to encourage Taiwan to act imprudently or cavalierly, and should be clear that our pledge is not a blank check but rather a promissory note. So our appropriate policy is a firm deterrent against any inclination Beijing has to be aggressive but a decided emphasis on caution and prudence for Taipei.
Now this balancing approach was a more simple and clear matter when the PLA could not hope to mount an invasion of Taiwan because the U.S. military seriously outclassed it in such a scenario. The military balance in the Strait is changing, however, and not in our favor, something we should be striving to redress – not just so that we can fight a war with China that we very much want to avoid though need to be prepared for, but so that we can have superior leverage in any contest over or pertaining to Taiwan.
SWJ: You emphasized that “there is no immediate term major threat to the US security posture” and that you are willing to accept some risks in the readiness part. But what if a collapse of the North Korean regime happens at a time when the US military readiness is in question and, as the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance suggested, the US forces should no longer be sized for conducting large scale, prolonged stability operations? Wouldn’t this leave the US unprepared to deal with challenges that might be quite similar with what happened after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime?
EC: In the event of a North Korean collapse, the main role would almost certainly need to be played – for many different reasons – by Republic of Korea forces. Among these: we would not want North Koreans to perceive such an operation as an American “occupation” nor would we want the Chinese to become unnerved, a la 1950, by the presence of large American ground forces north of the 38th Parallel. These points make it clear that a large American ground presence would by no means be a foregone conclusion as a good idea – even if we had such forces available we might well determine that deploying them would be counterproductive for these reasons. In any case, the force that exists today is not large enough to mount large stability operations effectively, so we would need to approach such a challenge from a different angle anyway, such as by internationalizing the problem.
SWJ: What role should strategic landpower play in the ASB framework? General Odierno recently warned that the “technological advancement can support us in attaining our goals in warfare. But war is about human interaction. It is people who make decisions and we must be able to compel people.(...) And the way you compel humans is by having soldiers and Marines and others on the ground.”
EC: Landpower is an important part of the ASB framework, especially in the Middle East and, should an A2/AD situation arise, Europe, and these justify an active participation by a capable U.S. Army and Marine Corps. But the United States and its allies do not face plausible serious medium-term threats that require large U.S. ground forces. The Pacific, for instance, is a theater dominated by maritime and aerial considerations. Ground forces should play a role – for instance in strengthening the ground forces of our allies (such as in Korea), in securing our bases, and in providing shorter-range strike and defensive capabilities, as Jim Thomas has recommended – but that role is complementary and supporting.
In terms of the broader point, General Odierno was absolutely right in writing that war is a test of human wills but he was incorrect in stating that compulsion must derive from having soldiers and Marines on the ground. When fighting over the kinds of limited stakes that to which we would want to confine any conflict in the Pacific, you do not need to have ground forces to achieve your aims. If we can sink an opponent’s fleet, negate his striking power, and impose costs on him through mainland strikes, we can reasonably expect to coerce him to come to sensible terms.
In truth, General Odierno’s line of thought represents a tendency to absolutize war, a tendency which must be resisted in planning for a conflict with China, since we would most definitely not want to engage in a total war with the PRC. Think about what he is saying: Should we rely on the ability to land forces in China itself in order to achieve our objectives in a war with the PRC? While I favor having serious options to strike at the mainland of China, I can conceive of no scenario in which the ability to land on mainland China would be worth the severe costs and risks of so doing. What possible gain could be worth making the Chinese think we are intent on occupying their country or forcing regime change? Clearly we must be able to have a concept and a way of prosecuting our wars that have both more evidently limited objectives and discernibly limited means. In the context of the Asia-Pacific, such a conception would ask U.S. ground forces to play an important but not primary role.
SWJ: When we are talking about the Air Sea battle concept, we tend to forget about the implications of a people’s war oriented military culture in Mao’s country. As David Kilcullen suggested in his latest book the “Chinese war planners would be considering a strategy of drawing an adversary into a protracted struggle, to soak invading forces up in the urbanized littoral. This may well be a major adjunct to any anti-access, area denial strategy that they might adopt.” Is the ASB suited to deal with such a scenario?
EC: No, and that is a good thing! If the Chinese war plan is something like Mao’s “people’s war” (which was the subject of my father’s prize-winning thesis when he was an undergraduate, lamentably unpublished) then we will have gained, since it basically can’t really be extended beyond China’s national borders. Since we don’t want to invade or intrude into China, this would be fine by us. My view towards Kilcullen’s fear is: Please, China, frighten us in this way. We will gladly be deterred from invading your country if you agree not to field deployable forces.