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

In this sense, ASB may actually represent a potentially shrewd American use of the escalatory ladder. Faced with A2/AD threats, U.S. counter-moves would escalate by attacking some assets on the Chinese mainland, but not core strategic ones. The “burden” of any further potential escalation would thereupon fall upon Beijing, for China presently lacks any capability to execute analogous precision conventional strikes upon the U.S. homeland. It would thus have either simply to accept the loss of its A2/AD capabilities or to take the enormous escalatory step of moving to the use of nuclear weaponry -- a step that would presumably result in catastrophe for China in the face of U.S. retaliation. Accordingly, it may be that contrary to the usual critique of ASB escalation logics, Air/Sea Battle actually presents China with bigger escalation challenges than it does the United States.

Unlike the Maritime Strategy, therefore -- which threatened, in effect, to close the gap between conventional and strategic nuclear confrontation by threatening Moscow’s strategic assets with destruction -- Air/Sea Battle would seem to permit U.S. forces to occupy the last “rung” of the escalation ladder before strategic warfare, to China’s detriment. If indeed Chinese generals believe, as they claim to, that the existence of strategic nuclear forces places an absolute cap on the scope of imaginable conflict between the two powers, ASB may be able to serve the interests both of prewar deterrence and of intrawar escalation management. This is a feat that the Maritime Strategy arguably never quite achieved.

There is, of course, no foolproof strategy in such things, and it is not a given that Chinese leaders will in fact see things in this fashion. This is an empirical question, on which one hopes that clever analysts and intelligence collectors have been (and remain) hard at work. Good competitive strategy is adversary-informed strategy: it should be based upon not abstract logic or assumptions merely about what would deter or defeat us, but rather upon what we have reason to think would work vis-à-vis the competitor at which it is directed. There is certainly room for debate about Beijing’s strategic objectives, about the strong and weak points of its approach, and about what would best deter or confound today’s increasingly assertive China.

On present information, however, it would indeed appear that Air/Sea Battle has a stronger case to make for itself than its escalation-focused critics would admit. At the end of the day, the challenges of managing escalation in an ASB scenario may actually favor Washington over Beijing, making Air/Sea Battle a useful component of a broad competitive strategy after all.