A Military Strategy to Deter China

By T.X. Hammes

China’s announcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone last weekend made Seth Cropsey’s commentary “America Has No Military Strategy for China” extremely timely.  He is absolutely correct on two key statements.  First, an escalation between China and Japan would be disastrous and, even more importantly, the United States has no strategy for a conflict with China.  Secretary Cropsey notes that the AirSea Battle concept is the “sole U.S. preparation” but that it is not a strategy. 

While no set of actions can guarantee continued peace between China and the United States, carefully considered national and military strategies will reduce the probability of a conflict.  The United States National Strategy makes that an explicit goal.  In his November 2011 address to the Australian Parliament, President Barack Obama stated U.S. National Strategy would:

“continue our effort to build a cooperative relationship with China.  … all of our nations have a profound interest in the rise of a peaceful and prosperous China.”

This year, Tom Donilon, the National Security Advisor, clarified and reinforced the Administration’s determination to continue its rebalance to Asia. 

“To pursue this vision, the United States is implementing a comprehensive, multidimensional strategy: strengthening alliances; deepening partnerships with emerging powers; building a stable, productive, and constructive relationship with China; empowering regional institutions; and helping to build a regional economic architecture that can sustain shared prosperity.”

Thus, the United States has a clearly articulated national strategy to encourage peaceful growth in the region. Unfortunately, as Cropsey noted, the United States has failed to express a coherent military strategy to support its national strategy.

Deepening the confusion concerning U.S. military strategy is the tendency of many observers to assume that CSBA’s paper, AirSea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept, expressed the U.S. military strategy for a conflict with China.  The paper postulated that in the “unthinkable” case of a war with China, U.S. efforts would include a “executing a blinding campaign against PLA battle networks, executing a suppression campaign against PLA long-range, principally strike systems, seizing and sustaining the initiative in air, sea, space and cyber domains.” This paper stated it was not proposing a strategy but only a concept for overcoming China’s area denial/anti-access capabilities.

Perhaps the biggest weakness of the ASB concept is that it scares our allies without deterring China.  Since most ASB technology is top secret, U.S. officials are unable to discuss it with our allies.  As a result, many allies assume the United States will follow the plan described in CSBA’s paper and initiate immediate, extensive attacks on Chinese territory. Our allies are obviously concerned that China will see such attacks as emanating from allied territory and respond in kind.  In short, U.S. allies are being asked to offer bases without any knowledge of what actions the U.S. intends to take from those bases.  Not a great way to reassure allies. Unfortunately because this operational approach relies heavily on cyber and space capabilities, it creates the unintended consequence of raising the value of a first strike.  Thus it is escalatory.  In a crisis, both militaries will know that the one that strikes first will achieve significant tactical and operational advantages. 

ASB also fails to deter China.  Because it is apparently dependent upon space and cyber systems, China may well feel it can degrade those systems enough to defeat the operational approach.  Further, China may well believe the United States cannot afford ASB or at very least will not field the capabilities for a decade or more.  A military strategy that offers a relative inexpensive defeat mechanism or a window of vulnerability has little deterrent value. 

To eliminate the confusion and reassure other nations, the United States needs to go beyond simply declaring that ASB is not a strategy.  It must clearly state U.S. military strategy for a possible conflict with China. 

What Should a Military Strategy Do?

The first and most important function of a military strategy is to support the national strategy.  Therefore, any military strategy must encourage or, at very least, not discourage the continued growth and integration of China’s economy with that of the global economy.  A U.S. military strategy for Asia must achieve five objectives:

1. Deter China from military action to resolve disputes while encouraging its continued economic growth;

2. Assure Asian nations that the United States is both willing to and capable of remaining engaged in Asia;

3. Ensure access for U.S. forces and allied commercial interests to the global commons;

4. Achieve victory with minimal risk of nuclear escalation in the event of conflict; and

5. Be visibly credible today.

Ideally, a military strategy would also provide guidance for matching limited defense resources to appropriate force structures and equipment buys. Given the fact that China has a thermonuclear arsenal, a military strategy must emphasize deterrence and, if that fails, should escalate in a deliberate, transparent way.

Outline for a Strategy

Professor Eliot Cohen proposes that a strategy should include critical assumptions, ends-ways-means coherence, priorities, sequencing, and a theory of victory. Without listing, examining and challenging assumptions, it is not possible to understand a strategy. With assumptions identified, coherence in ends-ways-means becomes possible. These elements should not be treated separately.  If goals are selected that exceed available means, one does not have a strategy.  Priorities are required because a nation will not have the resources to do everything at once.  Sequencing flows from priorities.  Finally, a strategy must have a theory of victory – an answer to the question “how does this end?” It must express how the strategy achieves war termination on favorable terms. 

A Proposed Military Strategy

I propose a military strategy I am calling Offshore Control: Defense of the First Island Chain that takes advantage of geography to block China’s exports and thus severely weaken its economy.  

Assumptions

I have listed five key assumptions below.

1. China starts the conflict.  Assuming China initiates the conflict presents the most difficult military situation for the United States.

2. There is a high probability that a conflict with China will be a long war.  For the last 200 years, wars between major powers have generally run for years rather than months.  Further, the United States would find a protracted conflict most challenging.

3. Any major conflict between the United States and China will result in massive damage to the global economy.  The integrated global economy means that, like WWI, the opening of the conflict will cause major economic contraction.

4. The United States does not understand China’s nuclear decision process.  Therefore, it is critically important that the U.S. strategic approach minimize escalation.  If escalation is required, deliberate and transparent escalation is better than a sudden surprise that could be misinterpreted.  This approach certainly violates the generally accepted precept that escalation in war be violent and sudden to achieve maximum effect.  However, that maxim was developed before the advent of offsetting nuclear arsenals.

5. In space or cyber domains, a first strike provides major advantages.  Thus any operational approach that requires the robust use of space and cyber capabilities is inherently destabilizing in a crisis.

Ends, Ways, and Means Coherence

The combination of decreasing defense budgets and rapid increases in procurement costs for new weapons suggests a strategy for conflict with China should assume limited means, at least to start.  In addition to limited means, the United States must accept that China’s nuclear arsenal imposes restrictions on the way American forces may attack Chinese assets.  The United States must select ways that minimize the probability of escalation to nuclear conflict simply because no one can win in a major nuclear exchange. With limited means and restricted ways, the ends selected therefore also should be modest.   They must attain U.S. strategic goals but not risk a major nuclear exchange. 

This logic leads to the concept of Offshore Control.  Operationally, Offshore Control uses currently available but limited means and restricted ways to enforce a distant blockade on China.  It establishes a set of concentric rings that denies China the use of the sea inside the first island chain, defends the sea and air space of the first island chain, and dominates the air and maritime space outside the island chain.  No operations will penetrate Chinese airspace.  Prohibiting penetration is intended to reduce the possibility of nuclear escalation and make war termination easier. 

The denial element of the campaign plays to U.S. strengths by employing primarily attack submarines, mines, and a limited number of air assets inside the first island chain.  This area will be declared a maritime exclusion zone with the warning that ships in the zone will be sunk.  While the United States cannot initially stop all sea traffic in this zone, it can prevent the passage of large cargo ships and tankers.  In doing so, it cripples China’s export trade, which is central to China’s economy.

The defensive component will bring the full range of U.S. assets to defend allied soil and encourage allies to contribute to that defense.  It takes advantage of geography to force China to fight at longer ranges while allowing U.S. and allied forces to fight as part of an integrated air-sea defense over their own territories. In short, it flips A2/AD to favor allies rather than China.  Numerous small islands from Japan to Taiwan and on to Luzon provide dispersed land basing options for air and sea defense of the apparent gaps in the first island chain. Since Offshore Control will rely heavily on land-based air defense and short-range sea defense to include mine and counter-mine capability, we can encourage potential partners to invest in these capabilities and exercise together regularly in peacetime.  

In keeping with the concept that the strategy must be feasible in peacetime, the United States will not request any nation to allow the use of their bases to attack China.   The strategy will only ask a nation to allow the presence of U.S. defensive systems to defend that nation’s air, sea, and land space.   The U.S. commitment will include assisting with convoy operations to maintain the flow of essential imports and exports in the face of Chinese interdiction attempts.

The dominate phase of the campaign will be fought outside the range of most Chinese assets and will use a combination of air, naval, ground and rented commercial platforms to intercept and divert the super tankers and post-Panamax container ships essential to China’s economy.   Eighty percent of China’s imported oil transits the Straits of Malacca.  If Malacca, Lombok, Sunda and the routes north and south of Australia are controlled, these shipments can be cut off.  This reduction in energy supply will have a negative effect on China’s economy. 

However, the United States must recognize that the dramatic reduction in China’s trade will significantly reduce its energy demands.  Thus, energy interdiction is not a winning strategy.  Exports are of much greater importance to the Chinese economy.  Those exports rely on large container ships for competitive cost advantage.  These ships also are the easiest to track and divert. Naturally, China will respond by rerouting, but the only possibilities are the Panama Canal and the Straits of Magellan – or, if polar ice melt continues, the northern route.  U.S. assets can control all these routes. While such a concentric campaign will require a layered effort from the straits to China’s coast, it will mostly be fought at a great distance from China—effectively out of range of most of China’s military power. 

Ends

That leads us to modest ends.  Offshore Control is predicated on the idea that the presence of nuclear weapons makes seeking the collapse of the Chinese Communist Party or its surrender too dangerous to contemplate.  The United States does not understand the Communist Party decision process for the employment of nuclear weapons but it does know the Party is adamant it must remain in control of China.  Thus, rather than seeking a decisive victory against the Chinese Communist Party, Offshore Control seeks to use a war of economic attrition to bring about a stalemate and cessation of conflict with a return to a modified version of the status quo.

Theory of Victory

Offshore Control seeks termination of the conflict on U.S. terms through China’s economic exhaustion without damage to mainland China’s infrastructure or the rapid escalation of the conflict.  It seeks to allow the Chinese Communist Party to end the conflict in the same way China ended its conflicts with India, the United Nations in Korea, the Soviet Union, and Vietnam.  It allows China to declare it “taught the enemy a lesson” and thus end the conflict. Offshore Control does not seek decisive victory in the traditional military sense but secures U.S. objectives effectively.  It recognizes the fact that the concept of decisive victory against a nation with a major nuclear arsenal is fraught with risks if not entirely obsolete. 

Conclusion

President Obama has presented a U.S. national strategy that sets goals and the diplomatic, economic and political paths necessary to achieve them.  While one can argue about how effectively they are being executed, the diplomatic, economic, and political paths have been defined.  However, the United States has failed to articulate a coherent military strategy to support its national strategy.  It is time to correct that deficiency.  Offshore Control: Defense of the First Island Chain is a starting point for a discussion with our allies and friends in the region.  It seeks to provide the military component of the U.S. national strategy in Asia.

The major goal of Offshore Control is to deter China by presenting it with a military strategy that cannot be defeated. This directly addresses one of the most worrying aspects of the current situation in Asia.  Like the Germans before WWI, the Chinese may believe they can win a short war.  In particular, they may believe their growing capabilities in space and cyber might neutralize U.S. power in the region.  By showing that Offshore Control can be executed with today’s force even with dramatically reduced access to space and cyber, the United States and its allies can dispel the notion of a short war.  The only way China can defeat such a strategy is to invest hundreds of billions of dollars over a decade or more to create a global sea control navy.  And even that will not be a guarantee it wins such a conflict. 

Photo credits: Infinity Journal, Stratfor

T. X. Hammes served 30 years in the Marine Corps and is now a Distinguished Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at the National Defense University (NDU).

T.X. Hammes
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