Belmont Club

Tales of the Western Pacific

The Pentagon has released a few details of the mysterious “air sea battle” concept which is widely understood to be directed primarily at  China. The Chinese threat is described as consisting of “anti-access, area denial weapons”, a euphemism for preparations to sink US carrier battle groups at sea. Yet despite the portentous  description of the “air sea” concept there were few details available:

“Air Sea Battle is to China what the maritime strategy was to the Soviet Union,” the official said.

During the Cold War, U.S. naval forces around the world used a strategy of global presence and shows of force to deter Moscow’s advances.

“It is a very forward-deployed, assertive strategy that says we will not sit back and be punished,” the senior official said. “We will initiate.”

The Wall Street Journal says that despite the veil of mystery over what it really amounts to fears are already being expressed about it being overly aggressive towards Beijing.

At its foundation AirSea Battle is a roadmap to combining Air Force and Navy assets to overwhelm attempts to limit the U.S. military’s global reach. In the Pacific theater this would serve as the counter-punch to China’s “anti-access” capabilities, which include a nascent anti-ship ballistic missile that could hold the U.S. Navy at bay during a regional conflict.

But AirSea Battle could be excessively provocative. Many analysts fear that the plan is the next step in a cycle of military escalation that could taint broader diplomatic relations between the two countries. The Pentagon has delayed implementing and discussing AirSea Battle several times, partly because of concerns over the Chinese reaction.

The Chinese are guaranteed not to like it. That suggests that the official version of the doctrine will be crafted not to provoke China. But whether there will be an unofficial and politically incorrect version of the plan and what it will consist of is not publicly known. AOL Defense describes a briefing at which one of its correspondents managed to learn nearly nothing:

We learned it is a not a strategy, not a concept of operations, not an assault on the services’ authorities and is not directed at any particular country.

So a gaggle of the nation’s top defense journalists got together after the discussion and tried to figure out what the hell it all really meant. I’d like to say we achieved great clarity. We didn’t. We were all left groping for a clear and coherent explanation we could offer readers for Air-Sea Battle.

After discussions with several defense civilians and uniformed types, I think the best way to describe this effort is to say that the defense leadership is worried that after a decade of counterinsurgency operations the U.S. military has lost its focus on conventional warfare, especially the strike and counterstrike that drives much of a military operation.

Clue number 1: the “air sea battle” concept involves classic conventional warfighting.  AOL sensed that the Army was worried and bustled around looking for a way into the “air sea battle” concept before all the funding went to the Air Force and Navy, leaving the Army to fight terrorists in distant muddy places.

But as the Wall Street Journal says, the Chinese have guessed they are the object of the strategy — whatever it is — and are not standing still.

No matter what shape AirSea Battle finally takes, China may already have a counter to the counter-response. Mark Stokes of the Project 2049 Institute says that China has already anticipated some of AirSea Battle’s components in its long-term plans for modernization. “The PLA has invested considerably in counter-stealth systems and tunneling to protect critical infrastructure.”

That implies, if anything that the Chinese believe the US is going to hold their capabilities at risk. The USAF and USN are acquiring the hardware to take out their area-denial and precision strike capabilities first. That would explain why the Air Force and the Navy are looking to get:

  • a new long-range bomber.
  • joint submarine and stealth aircraft assets.
  • jointly operated, long-range unmanned strike aircraft with up to 1,000-mile ranges.

In that light it is interesting to note that President Obama is slated to announce an agreement with Australia that will give American troops and ships “permanent and constant” access to Australian facilities. This would appear to be a complementary strategy to the “air sea battle” strategy, not part of it. It would allow US submarines to choke off any sea traffic originating from the Indian ocean bound for the Chinese ports. This would give the USN and USAF the option to perform a distant blockade on China in addition to the close in interdiction based on Japan and Korea.

The move could help the U.S. military, now concentrated in Japan and South Korea in Northeast Asia, to spread its influence west and south across the region, including the strategically and economically important South China Sea, which China considers as its sovereign territory.

It will be recalled that one prong of the US submarine campaign against Japan, whose land mass is roughly opposite the Chinese ports, was based in Fremantle, Australia. More than 120 US subs used Fremantle at one time or another during World War 2. The map below shows COMSUBWESPAC’s area of operations. It includes the South China Sea. Although 70 years have passed since World War 2, geography has changed but little. Thus the new agreement with Australia clearly raises the possibility that China might be strangled from Australia just as Japan once was.

Somewhere in the South Pacific

But the Diplomat explains why control of the littoral sea is so important: China intends to deploy its sea-based nuclear deterrent and by implication, much of its attack submarine force there:

Possessing a credible sea-based nuclear deterrent is a priority for China’s military strategy. China’s single Type 092, or Xia-class, nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, equipped with short-range JL-1 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), has never conducted a deterrent patrol from the Bohai Sea since its introduction in the 1980s. However, China is on the verge of acquiring credible second-strike capabilities with the anticipated introduction of JL-2 SLBMs (with an estimated range of 8,000 kilometres) coupled with DF-31 and DF-31A road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). In addition, China plans to introduce up to five Type 094, or Jin-class, SSBNs outfitted with the JL-2 missiles, while constructing an underwater submarine base on Hainan Island in the South China Sea. It’s clear, then, that China is making every effort to keep the South China Sea off limits, just as the Soviet Union did in the Sea of Okhotsk during the Cold War. …

This strategy dates back almost two decades, to a time when China began encircling the South China Sea to fill the power vacuum created by the withdrawal of US forces from the Philippines in 1991. China reasserted ‘historical’ claims over all the islets, including the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos, and 80 percent of the 3.5 million km2 body of water along the nine-dotted U-shaped line, despite having no international legal ground to do so. Those islets can be used as air and sea bases for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance activities, and as base points for claiming the deeper part of the South China Sea for PLAN ballistic missile submarines and other vessels. China also interprets the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in an arbitrary manner and doesn’t accept military activities by foreign vessels and overflight in its waters.

Therefore China is likely to have forward and aggressive ideas of its own.

Geography has condemned Vietnam and the Philippines to sooner or later become part of Chinese strategic calculations. Relative distances ensure that the more things change, the more they remain the same. If the “air sea battle” returns to the Pacific it will involve all the old familiar names.

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