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Planning the Unthinkable War with China: An Aussie View of AirSea Battle

Apr. 24, 2013 - 03:14PM   |  
By WENDELL MINNICK   |   Comments
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TAIPEI — As the US pushes forward on the AirSea Battle doctrine and the so-called Asia Pivot, many in the Asia-Pacific are asking for clarification on a subject that could involve them in an unnecessary war with China.

Many frontline allies and partners are asking : Do we want to take a bullet from China for America, especially over policies that are still ambiguous?

Benjamin Schreer, a senior analyst for Defence Strategy at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, looks around Asia and finds a lack of consensus on who among America’s allies and friends are willing to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of a US policy formulated in far-off Washington.

Schreer’s paper, released this month, “Planning the Unthinkable War: ‘AirSea Battle’ and Its Implications for Australia,” does more than just look at Australia’s strategic position and whether it should support the new doctrine. It examines why America’s traditional allies in the region are less supportive than they might have been before the rise of China.

Schreer’s report voices cautious support for the Asia Pivot and the AirSea Battle concept, but also asks, from the perspective of a traditional ally, critical questions that have yet to be addressed by the US government.

These are questions that demand debate in Australia’s democratic society, with a healthy respect for rule of law and transparency.

“AirSea Battle presents allies and partners with the classical dilemma of being caught between ‘entrapment and abandonment.’”

Despite China’s growing ability to hold US forces at risk, the Pentagon is pushing forward on a military strategy for fighting and winning a potential war against China.

China does not need to reach strategic parity with US forces, he said.

Instead, its asymmetric strategy aims to prevent or complicate US intervention in territorial disputes by making the potential costs for American forces prohibitively high.

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AirSea Battle debates in Australia center on two opposing arguments: “those who see it as a dangerous instrument to ‘contain’ China and potentially drag Australia into a nuclear escalation between two great powers, and those who embrace the concept’s logic and even argue that Australia should develop long-range strike capabilities to contribute to potential offensive operations against China.”

AirSea Battle aims at defeating anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategies by withstanding an initial Chinese attack, followed by a blinding campaign against Chinese command and control networks, a missile suppression campaign against China’s land-based systems, and a distant blockade against Chinese merchant ships.

Deep strikes inside China appear limited in achieving political and military objectives due to China’s immense size, he said. Attacking China would be equivalent to 21st century medieval siege warfare. American air and naval strike forces would run out of precision-guided munitions long before they ran out of targets. China’s size and depth, its authoritarian culture, and supporting institutions of internal security make the impact of mainland strikes less likely to succeed.

Importantly, it’s based on the assumption the escalation can be kept below the nuclear threshold, and that Japan and Australia will be active allies throughout the campaign, he said.

Schreer looks around Asia and sees discrepancies in support among US allies and partners. What to do about South Korea, which has little interest in fighting anyone but North Korea? There is Taiwan with complex political and economic relationships with China. Japan lacks the capabilities and perhaps the constitutional mandate needed to engage China in a war.

The AirSea Battle is flawed in that it can only be activated during a major conflict. It is “optimized for high-intensity conventional war between China and the US and its allies” and “applies only in extreme cases,” such as a Chinese attack on Taiwan, Chinese missile strike on Japan or US bases in the region, or the sinking of a US aircraft carrier.

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“However, Chinese coercive military actions in territorial disputes with its neighbors (short of high levels of escalation) are much more likely.”

Therefore, AirSea Battle is “not a ‘catch-all’ solution” to America’s conventional deterrence dilemma in the Western Pacific, he said.

It is not in Australia’s interest to fully embrace the logic behind AirSea Battle or develop specific military capabilities to underpin the concept’s implementation. “Openly signing up for the concept would send a strong political message to China that the ADF [Australian Defence Force] is now actively planning and equipping for a potential war with the PLA [People’s Liberation Army].”

“There is no need to do so,” he said. Australia’s decision to allow US Marines to base in Darwin has already displayed Australia’s political commitment to the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security (ANZUS) alliance.

The development of long-range strike capabilities against China by Australia would be an “unnecessary provocation … let alone a very costly one.”

A serious Australian amphibious strike capability is a rather unrealistic one. A “distant blockade” of Chinese maritime shipping in Southeast Asian chokepoints, such as Malacca, Lombok and Sunda straits, is “much easier proposed than done,” Schreer said. In any event, China would consider such actions acts of war.

Australia does have an interest in making an active contribution to the US AirSea Battle plan, he said. Providing the US with greater strategic depth is one way, though rotational deployment of a US Marine Air-Ground Task Force at Darwin is “largely symbolic and not directly tied to America’s AirSea Battle planning.”

An area of possible assistance during a war would be upgrades of HMAS Sterling to host US carrier strike groups or the use of the Cocos Island airfields for US strike aircraft, in case the strategic environment deteriorates. Australia can also offer, as an option, niche capabilities, such as tanker aircraft, airborne early warning and control, and airborne electronic warfare assets.

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He questions whether frontline states, such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, would be willing to get involved in war between China and the US if their direct interests were not threatened. Would South Korea get involved in a Philippine scenario or a Taiwan Strait conflict involving the US?

On the one hand, they want to avoid becoming entrapped in Sino-US strategic rivalry. “Signing up for AirSea Battle at a time when there still seems ample opportunity to incorporate China into a peaceful Asian security order could be detrimental to their interests … AirSea Battle could thus have a disruptive effect in US alliance relationships.”

On the other hand, their suspicion of China’s strategic trajectory has only increased over the years as they experience a decline in military power relative to China. They want to avoid being abandoned by the US if China becomes a problem, he said.

Japan’s substantial air and naval forces could augment US forces in selected mission areas, including submarine, anti-submarine warfare, and ballistic missile defense.

However, Schreer asks whether Japan can live up to US hopes.

Constitutional restrictions hamper many opportunities to augment US forces in an attack on China.

For South Korea, AirSea Battle is far more problematic. Seoul’s core strategic concern has been North Korean military aggression, and it remains more “ambivalent about the Chinese threat.” Seoul also needs Beijing’s assistance to keep North Korea’s antics under control. South Korea has publicly stated that the new maritime base on the southern resort island of Jeju, between Japan and China, will not host US forces, despite the fact that the base could be the host of 20 South Korean warships.

There are also concerns about getting too involved in Northeast Asian AirSea Battle architecture that would include South Korea’s old enemy, Japan.

Questions should also be raised on whether South Korea would allow US forces to operate strike missions into China during a war, particularly a war involving Chinese aggression against Japan or Taiwan.

Schreer makes several recommendations to the Australian government that are in many ways revelations of how ambiguous and mysterious the US AirSea Battle doctrine has become.

The Australian government should seek a “detailed, classified briefing from its US ally about the specifics of AirSea Battle,” which Schreer said would “demystify the concept.”

The government should also ask the US to release a declassified version of the AirSea Battle strategy to end speculation among allies and partners.

He said Australia should not publicly endorse AirSea Battle, because the US “itself is still in the process of determining the specifics of implementing the concept.”

Australia should also consider implications for the possible integration of the ADF into a Southeast Asian AirSea Battle framework operating alongside US forces.

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