Looking to China: A sailor stands watch aboard the US cruiser Shiloh as it sails in the South China Sea. (MCSN Abby Rader/ / US Navy)
TAIPEI — There are doubts in Washington that a US president would ever approve the bombing of China. This notion demonstrates that the Pentagon’s Air-Sea Battle operational concept is seriously flawed, said T.X. Hammes, a senior researcher in strategy and future conflict at the department’s National Defense University.
Hammes told Defense News that no president has ever authorized the bombing of China, including during the Korean and Vietnam wars. Yet one of Air-Sea Battle’s basic tenets is aerial bombing of command-and-control hubs, mobile missile launchers, air bases, and port facilities.
Hammes has written about an alternative strategy, Offshore Control, in several articles and papers since 2012. In his latest article, co-authored with Richard Hooker, National Defense University’s director for research and strategic support in the Institute for National Strategic Studies, they argue that Offshore Control offers a less provocative military option.
“When you bomb China it becomes a passion over politics issue, making it harder to get China to negotiate a peaceful settlement. Bombing makes it so much harder to return to the status quo before the conflict,” Hammes told Defense News. “You are not going to have a decisive win with China without going nuclear, so you need to engage them and walk them back from the edge.”
In their most recent article in the National Interest, they state the Air-Sea Battle concept, as it was conceptualized by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), is both “needlessly provocative” and “ineffective.”
“A weighted air and naval campaign that attacks China’s integrated air-defense and land-based missile systems is flawed from multiple perspectives,” the article said.
First, it is provocative in that China’s Second Artillery Corps controls its land-based ballistic missiles and nuclear arsenal. Attacking these facilities, while China has not or cannot attack comparable US facilities, could escalate the conflict uncontrollably.
Second, Air-Sea Battle is ineffective against China’s dense and capable air defense network. It also casts doubts on whether the US military could locate and destroy China’s mobile missile-launch systems. China has an abundance of man-made caves and hidden facilities. China is also not comparable to Iraq’s flat desert landscape, where the US Air Force had difficulties locating Iraq’s Scud missile launchers.
Third, Air-Sea Battle lacks deterrent value. China will, no doubt, attempt to cripple US space and cyber systems. China has developed and practiced anti-satellite exercises that include lasers and missiles. China’s cyber capabilities are already well established, if not obvious, as well as inexpensive compared to many of the systems Air-Sea Battle would field during a war with China.
Offshore Control, Hammes said, offers an alternative to Air-Sea Battle that is based on affordability with no kinetic operations against mainland China. The dominant phase of fighting would be outside the range of China’s assets. Offshore Control would establish concentric rings that deny China the use of the sea inside the first island chain, defend the sea and air space of the first island chain nations, and dominate the air and maritime space outside the chain.
Offshore Control would take advantage of geography to enforce a naval blockade of China’s key imports and exports. All Chinese military assets outside China’s 12-mile limit would be subject to attack. “This area will be declared a maritime exclusion zone with the warning that ships in the zone will be seized or sunk.” The article further states that the US cannot hope to stop all maritime traffic, but can prevent the passage of large cargo ships and tankers, “severely disrupting China’s economy relatively quickly.”
Those in the Pentagon who are opposed to Offshore Control, Hammes said, include those who argue that it does not provide a role for F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters. Nor does it allow for cruise missile strikes on mainland Chinese soil.
CSBA agrees with some, but not all, of Hammes’ arguments. Mark Gunzinger, a CSBA senior fellow and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for force transformation and resources, said CSBA never claimed that Air-Sea Battle was a military strategy, but part of a larger operational concept that could help offset the anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) challenge.
Gunzinger told Defense News that Offshore Control rules out counterattacks on mainland China, as well as surface efforts to defend territory inside China’s A2/AD perimeter, which is defined by the reach of their long-range weapon systems.
“Interestingly, unlike [Air-Sea Battle’s] emphasis on leveraging joint and cross-domain operations, Offshore Control seems to scorn the capabilities of one particular service — the US Air Force,” he said.
If the Pentagon accepts Offshore Control’s recommendation not to invest in systems that can penetrate and persist in contested environments, such as stealth fighters, it may not be capable of conducting effective operations deep into Iran or other states adopting A2/AD strategies, he said.
Gunzinger supports distant blockading, which was added to CSBA’s 2010 Air-Sea Battle concept, but such blockades are only likely to work in combination with other operations conducted inside an enemy’s A2/AD perimeter. Offshore Control signals that the US should write off disputed islets captured by China and avoid counterforce operations to punish China. However, relying on distant blockading to force China to return captured islets is “unlikely to work by itself.”
A protracted blockade of China hurts the global economy and will not be supported by the international community, especially with China on the United Nations Security Council, he said.
Gunzinger said Air-Sea Battle provides future US presidents and commanders multiple options to respond to acts of aggression, rather than limiting them to only one. Air-Sea Battle provides for the development of a future joint force that will be capable of multiple lines of operation to deny and punish, which would include distant blockading.
Bruce Lemkin, a former deputy Air Force undersecretary for international affairs, agrees. The Offshore Control concept has merits and should be complementary to Air-Sea Battle. However, contrary to the concept put forth by Hammes and Hooker, the overall strategic concept and the capabilities that support it must include the capability to effectively attack the landmass of any opponent, even if that is not the first option exercised, he said.
Lemkin is also concerned about international perceptions about US resolve during a crisis. He fears that China might be influenced to be more assertive if the US fails to meet challenges in other parts of the world. “China … is watching what the US does in the Middle East, in North Africa, in Eastern Europe [Russia-Ukraine] and what we are doing/will do [will] directly determine our effectiveness in deterring conflict anywhere in the world in the near term.” ■