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'Air/Sea Battle,' Escalation, and U.S. Strategy in the Pacific

For present purposes, however, the most salient point about the Maritime Strategy is that U.S. planners came to understand that Soviet strategy did not principally involve cutting America’s sea lines of communication to Western Europe, as had previously been believed in Washington. Instead, it aimed to create and protect northerly patrol “bastions” from which Moscow’s ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) could threaten the United States with impunity and thus (it was hoped in the Kremlin) help ensure that a general war came to conclusion on terms favorable to the USSR. Having had this insight into how Moscow really intended to conduct a war, the U.S. Navy decided that the best way to deter conflict -- and to fight it in the event that deterrence failed -- was to threaten what the Soviets most wished to preserve by attacking their strategy itself via denying the ability to rely upon those SSBN “bastions” in the northern seas. The Maritime Strategy was thus, to some extent, a giant exercise in preparing for strategic anti-submarine warfare.

For this very reason, however, the Maritime Strategy came in for criticism from some commentators who worried about its escalatory potential. By taking the fight to Moscow’s prized strategic assets, this reasoning went, the U.S. Navy might push a conflict into a full-scale nuclear exchange by encouraging the Soviets actually to use the missiles aboard their SSBNs before these boats were sunk. The same U.S. threat to prized Soviet assets that it was hoped would make the Maritime Strategy a powerful deterrent, in other words, could make actually executing it gravely provocative.

This conceptual tension within the Maritime Strategy between (de-escalatory) deterrent and (escalatory) warfighting impact was never really resolved.

While it may have contributed to making Soviet leaders more cautious in the 1980s, we never had to test it in war. Thankfully, therefore, we’ll never really know what its escalatory effect would have been.

The current controversy over Air/Sea Battle, however, clearly partakes of some of the deterrence/escalation paradox one can see in the Maritime Strategy debates of the early 1980s. Strikes against targets on the Chinese mainland do look like a step up the escalatory ladder from strikes against assets at sea, in the air, in space, or in foreign bases -- which is all that China would have to do in A2/AD operations. (Chinese planners, by the way, might be quite wrong in regarding attacks on U.S. space assets as not being something Americans would consider “strategic” warfare, but let’s leave that aside.) This is the basis of the critique of ASB that sees it as being too dangerously provocative -- a bit like the Maritime Strategy was once said to be.

A comparison with the Maritime Strategy debates, however, illustrates significant differences between the two cases -- differences that seem actually to suggest the wisdom (rather than the foolishness) of Air/Sea Battle. By comparison to the Maritime Strategy, ASB does not seem to involve threatening core strategic assets of the Chinese regime. The Maritime Strategy revolved in large part around threats to SSBN bastions that lay at the heart of Moscow’s grand strategy: this was unquestionably a strategic threat. U.S. moves against Chinese regional ISR capabilities, long-range strike systems, and associated C2, however -- even if these targets are located on the mainland -- do not imperil analogously important capabilities. Such attacks would indeed be a step up the escalation ladder from mere anti-ship dueling, but American successes against these Chinese assets would not remove a core constituent of Beijing’s power in the way that sinking Moscow’s SSBNs would have done in, say, 1985.