Offshore Control: A Proposed Strategy for an Unlikely Conflict

By Hammes, T. X. | Strategic Forum, June 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Offshore Control: A Proposed Strategy for an Unlikely Conflict


Hammes, T. X., Strategic Forum


As America ends its military commitment to Iraq and continues its drawdown in Afghanistan, a lively discussion has emerged on what future challenges the Nation faces. High on every list is the requirement to deal with a rising China. In his remarks to the Australian Parliament on November 17, 2011, President Barack Obama stated, "As we end today's wars, I have directed my national security team to make our presence and mission in the Asia Pacific a top priority." (1) As part of this rebalancing to Asia, the administration has stated that it seeks "to identify and expand areas of common interest, to work with China to build mutual trust, and to encourage China's active efforts in global problem-solving." (2) Clearly, the United States seeks prudent and coordinated political, economic, and military actions to further integrate China into the international system.

The Pentagon's new strategic guidance, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21St Century Defense, reinforces this approach and states that the United States and China "have a strong stake in peace and stability in East Asia and an interest in building a cooperative bilateral relationship." (3) At the same time, the document acknowledges both China's military buildup and the U.S. commitment to maintaining regional access.

As expected, this strategic guidance has accelerated the ongoing discussion of how America will allocate resources among the military Services. An integral part of this discussion is the idea that the United States has focused on the Army and Marine Corps for the last decade of conflict and that now it is time to shift spending to the Navy and Air Force. Proponents of this approach note the rising power of China and the fact that the Pacific theater is primarily a naval and air theater. Reinforcing this perspective is the Air-Sea Battle concept recently revealed at the Pentagon. According to Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Norton Schwartz and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Air-Sea Battle will help their Services organize, train, and equip to maintain operational access in sophisticated antiaccess/area-denial environments. (4) Other proponents note that this concept will be of particular importance in the western Pacific Ocean, where China is building its own antiaccess/areadenial capabilities in an effort to deny the U.S. entry in its near-seas. (5)

While intentionally vague, the Pentagon's statements about Air-Sea Battle lead analysts to conclude that the concept contemplates attacks that penetrate Chinese airspace to eliminate key elements of the Chinese antiaccess/area-denial networks. Unfortunately, rather than exploring potential strategies in the event of conflict with China, the discussion has focused on the operational aspects of Air-Sea Battle outside any strategic context. What strategy might work in a war with China, however unlikely, is not being publicly discussed. Many media reports have confused the issue by suggesting that Air-Sea Battle is the strategy. Fortunately, the Pentagon's own Joint Operational Access Concept states that "It is important to note that Air-Sea Battle is a limited operational concept that focuses on the development of integrated air and naval forces in the context of antiaccess/area-denial threats." (6)

In fact, Air-Sea Battle is the antithesis of strategy. It focuses on the tactical employment of weapons systems with no theory of victory or concept linking the Air-Sea approach to favorable conflict resolution. To be fair, the absence of a stated strategy made it impossible for the drafters of the Air-Sea Battle concept to express how they could support such a strategy. In the absence of such a strategy, it is impossible to determine if investment in Air-Sea Battle logically advances or retards America's strategic goals--or whether alternative approaches might be both more effective and more suitable.

While a major conflict is unlikely, and, of course, undesirable, the Nation requires a military strategy for a conflict with China for two reasons. …

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Offshore Control: A Proposed Strategy for an Unlikely Conflict
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