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

Since the first reports of its development, the new U.S. military concept of “Air/Sea Battle” (ASB) has been the focus both of hope and of criticism. An operational concept that seeks to improve joint operations by the Navy and Air Force against foreign “anti-access and area-denial” (a.k.a. “A2/AD”) capabilities, ASB is widely viewed as a conceptual blueprint for the contingency of a conflict against China in the Western Pacific.

To be sure, the Pentagon has said little in public about what ASB actually envisions, and it reportedly exists at multiple levels of classification within the U.S. government. As a result, most commentators who write about it in the press are only speculating about its contents.

Its general contours, however, are generally believed to involve “fighting back” into the region by using sophisticated long-range attacks against the command-and-control (C2) networks, strike platforms, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets associated with Beijing’s A2/AD capabilities. For this reason, ASB has generated controversy.

The most pronounced criticism has been the argument that acting according to ASB’s assumed recommendations would represent a dangerous escalation in a conflict, because the targets that would need to be destroyed in order to cripple Beijing’s A2/AD capabilities include a great many that are on the Chinese mainland. ASB, in other words, is decried in some circles for being likely to take things one step closer to a general (and implicitly nuclear) war by involving us in strikes upon China itself in response to Chinese attacks merely upon forward-deployed U.S. forces.

To evaluate this criticism, however, it’s helpful to look back at an earlier articulation of U.S. naval strategy that was also decried as being dangerously escalatory: the “Maritime Strategy” adopted in the early 1980s in order to help deter (and if necessary, fight) war with the Soviet Union.

The story of its development is a fascinating tale of groundbreaking open-source analytical insights, deep intelligence penetrations that corroborated radical new conclusions about Soviet war planning, and bureaucratic serendipity within the U.S. government that permitted a wholesale revision of the U.S. Navy’s planning for World War Three.

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.

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.