In November of 2011, President Obama announced his intent “to make our presence and mission in the Asia Pacific a top priority.”[i] As the United States executes this “pivot to Asia,” it must develop a military strategy for the potential, if highly improbable, conflict with China.[ii] To date, it has not. Based on emerging Chinese military capabilities, its existing nuclear arsenal, declining U.S. defense budgets and the inherent advantage of the offense in the cyber domain, Offshore Control provides a strategy for conflict termination on terms acceptable to the United States and its allies.
While military strategy is sometimes seen only as guidance for success in a conflict, its role as a deterrent and alliance builder prior to the conflict is also critical. Deterrence is particularly important against an enemy with thermonuclear capability. Thus, any U.S. strategy for fighting China must achieve three things. It must assure U.S. allies that they can count on the United States. It must deter Chinese aggression by convincing China that it cannot defeat the U.S. strategy. And if it comes to war, it must win while minimizing the probability of escalation to nuclear exchange. Two other factors complicate the formulation of a strategy. First, looming budget cuts require that it significantly reduce the cost of maintaining U.S. influence and presence in the region. Second, there is no “good” strategy for a conflict between the United States and China. Any conflict will result in massive damage to the global economy. With no favorable outcome possible, the strategist is forced to look for the least bad results.
Outline for a Strategy
There are a number of useful models to guide strategists. I use Eliot Cohen’s. He noted a strategy should include critical assumptions, coherent ends-ways-means, priorities, sequencing and a theory of victory. Each element is essential but the planner must always start with assumptions.[iii] Without listing, examining and challenging those assumptions, it is not possible to either develop or evaluate a strategy. The next step — insuring coherence in ends-ways-means — disciplines the strategist to truly examine whether the available means can be applied in ways that achieve the strategic ends. If ends, ways and means are not aligned, it is not a strategy. Priorities are also required since one has never got sufficient means to achieve all goals at the same time and, of course, sequencing flows from priorities. Last on Cohen’s list, a strategy must have a theory of victory – a “how does this end?” It must express how the strategy achieves a war termination on favorable terms. Finally, the strategy must be both credible and feasible in its geo-political context.
Offshore Control interdicts China’s seaborne trade while partnering with willing nations to protect those nations’ territorial integrity. Rather than seeking a decisive victory against the Chinese, Offshore Control seeks to use a war of economic attrition with very limited damage to Mainland China’s infrastructure to bring a stalemate and cessation of conflict. War termination will be through economic exhaustion rather than kinetic destruction.
As stated above, a strategy should start by listing key assumptions so that the reader is aware of how the writer framed the problem. I have listed three key assumptions below.
China starts the conflict. While it is possible to envision scenarios where the United States would initiate a major conflict, China starting the conflict presents the most difficult military case for the United States because it cedes the initiative.
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. Since powers with major nuclear arsenals have never fought a major war, it is impossible to say whether the nuclear factor will shorten the war, as was the case in the minor conflict between the USSR and China, or lengthen the war because neither side can seek a decisive resolution with conventional forces. However, both the historical record and the greater difficulty of fighting a long war make it prudent to assume a long war.
The United States does not understand China’s nuclear release decision process.
Ends, ways and means coherence
The combination of decreasing defense budgets and rapid increases in procurement costs of new weapons suggests the United States cannot count on major increases in platforms or systems. This indicates a strategy for conflict with China should start with limited means. Obviously, it should play to current and projected U.S. strengths. 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 it does not understand China’s nuclear release process and no one can win in a major nuclear exchange. With limited means and restricted ways the ends selected should be modest.
This logic leads to the concept of Offshore Control. Operationally, it uses currently available means and restricted ways to deny China the use of the sea inside the first island chain, defend the sea and air space of the first island chain, and dominate the air and maritime space outside the island chain. There will be no operations conducted to penetrate Chinese airspace. Forbidding penetration is intended to both reduce the possibility of nuclear escalation and to make war termination easier. Instead, this strategy uses economic strangulation to exhaust China to the point it seeks war termination.
Figure 1 – Island Chains
The “deny” element of the campaign will establish a maritime exclusion zone inside the first island chain. The United States will use its dominant submarine force, mines and a limited number of air assets to enforce the zone by sinking entering ships.
The “defend” element will bring the full range of U.S. military assets to protect those allies that choose to actively assist the United States. By moving the surface Navy and air fight away from the Chinese mainland, it will 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.
The “dominate” campaign will be fought outside the range of most Chinese assets by interdicting shipping in the choke points along the Indonesian island chain and the west coast of the Americas. The campaign will use a combination of air, naval, ground, and rented commercial platforms to intercept and divert the super tankers and post-Panama max container ships essential to China’s economy. The global total of about 900[iv,v,vi] is a manageable number for U.S. forces to control.
Figure 2 – Strategic Chokepoints
This 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 that it must remain in control of China. Thus, the U.S. war termination goal is the cessation of hostilities and return to pre-war boundaries.
Priorities and sequencing
The first priority in execution will be reinforcing the defenses of those nations who choose to ally themselves with the United States. Next, U.S. forces will establish the distant blockade. Then, U.S. forces will establish the maritime exclusion zone inside the first island chain. Finally, the United States will dominate the area outside the first island chain to tighten the blockade against China and insure the continued flow of trade to our allies.
Sequencing will follow priorities. However it should be noted that due to the different forces required for each of the required steps, further study may find that multiple steps can be initiated simultaneously. Of particular importance is the peacetime preparation necessary for the strategy to succeed. Thus diplomatic and military preparation will begin immediately. Because the strategy is transparent, the United States can explain it to allies and openly exercise all elements of the plan.
Theory of Victory
Offshore Control seeks to allow the Chinese Communist Party to end the conflict in the same way China ended its conflicts with India, the UN (in Korea), the Soviet Union and the Vietnamese. It allows China to declare it “taught the enemy a lesson” and thus end the conflict. By forbidding strikes that destroy Chinese facilities on the mainland, it both reduces the probability of escalation and makes it easier for the Chinese to claim they taught “the enemy” a lesson, declare victory, and terminate the conflict. Offshore Control does not seek decisive victory. This recognizes that the concept of decisive victory against a nation with a major nuclear arsenal is obsolete.
Advantages of Offshore Control
A strategy cannot be evaluated in isolation, but must be compared against the outcome of another competing strategy. Unfortunately, to date the Department of Defense has merely published the operational concept of Air-Sea Battle, but not a strategy. While many media reports have suggested that Air-Sea Battle is that strategy, it is in fact the anti-thesis of strategy. It is totally focused on the tactical employment of weapons systems with no explanation of how it leads to favorable conflict resolution. The Pentagon’s new Joint Operational Access Concept states “Air-Sea Battle is a limited operational concept.”[vii] In considering the possible advantages of Offshore Control, this author can only compare it to a strategy that employs Air-Sea Battle as its operational “way” of achieving the ends. Obviously, comparing an operational concept to a strategy is unsatisfactory, but until the Pentagon publishes a strategy, it is the only option available to this author. The primary advantages of an offshore control strategy are:
Increased deterrence and assurance due to feasibility and transparency
The idea that an air-sea strike campaign can defeat a continental size power in a short war is dubious at best and certainly ahistorical. In addition to lacking feasibility, Air-Sea Battle lacks transparency. It can neither be publically discussed, nor openly exercised, because many of the technologies are highly classified. This creates a dilemma, since both deterrence and assurance are rooted in a confidence that the stated strategy can be executed. It will be difficult for other nations to have confidence in an approach they are not allowed to understand. In contrast, Offshore Control will be essentially unclassified. Through joint and combined exercises both enemies and potential allies will be able to see that the United States has sufficient trained forces to execute its strategy in time of war.
Reduced reliance on allies
Offshore Control does not require bases in allied nations except Australia. Even these bases will only be needed to support the blockade the routes north and south of Australia and the Straits of Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok. Partner states will only be asked to allow U.S. forces to protect that nation’s sea and air space from Chinese attack. Combined exercises will focus on defense of allied territories. Since the defense will rely heavily on land-based air defense and short-range sea defense to include mine-and-counter-mine-capability, the U.S. can encourage potential partners to invest in these capabilities and exercise with them regularly in peacetime. Maritime pre-positioning of defensive assets in theater can add to both a rapid reinforcement capability and a reason to conduct exercises with friendly nations.
Greater opportunity to cooperate with allies
In keeping with the concept that the strategy must be feasible in peacetime, the United States will not request any nations to allow the use of their bases to attack China. The strategy will only ask nations to allow the presence of U.S. defensive systems to defend that nation’s air, sea and land space. It will encourage peacetime training exercises to develop interoperability, but will not require commitments to join the U.S. side in the event of a conflict. Given potential allies trade relations with China and their clear understanding that Chinese missiles can range their nations, it is highly unlikely any allies will participate in training exercises designed to strike the Chinese mainland.
No discussion of direct attack on China
The publication of Air-Sea Battle’s concept of direct attack on the Chinese mainland has not been helpful to diplomatic relations with China. Its inherent requirement for secrecy heightens the uncertainty over U.S. plans for the region. In contrast, Offshore Control will allow both diplomatic and military personnel to explain U.S. strategy and its operational approach to the nations and corporations which count on freedom of the seas. While the prospect of a long blockade is clearly a tough sell, the fact remains that any aggressive attack into China will most likely lead to a long war which will include such a blockade. Offshore Control reduces the uncertainty by emphasizing that the infrastructure damage of the campaign will be minimized, thus making restoration of trade easier.
Lower probability of nuclear escalation
Air-Sea Battle is inherently escalatory. It seeks to convince China that the United States can overcome China’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) concept, and thus place China at risk. Unfortunately, this operational approach will depend very heavily on U.S. space and cyber capabilities. Given the current dominance of the offence in both cyber and space, this creates the unintended consequence of raising the value of a first strike. The only ways to reduce the vulnerability of the strategy to a first strike in cyber and space is either to create redundant systems that can immediately restore lost systems, or not rely on those systems. Redundant systems are very expensive and not currently funded. Further, since much of the U.S. command network depends on commercial cyber and space assets, it may not even be possible to restore them.
Air-Sea Battle requires early and repetitive attacks on the Chinese mainland as well as in cyber and space. The Chinese could well mistake attacks on conventional A2/AD systems for attempts to blind China and destroy its ability to command and control its nuclear forces. This is a very dangerous form of escalation. Of particular concern, space and particularly cyber escalation take place in seconds and thus will drive decision makers to rapid decisions based on preliminary reporting.
Offshore Control does not rely on extensive use of space or cyber systems. With limited investments in alternate systems such as HF radio and a training program, Offshore Control can be executed even if China conducts a highly successful first strike in space or cyber. By devaluing the first strike, such an approach can increase the deterrence value through reducing the incentive to start a war.
While the distant blockade required by Offshore Control is escalatory, its execution and impact take over a period of weeks and in no way threatens Chinese strategic early warning or command and control systems. The combination of transparency and limited infrastructure damage reduces the probability of escalation.
Lower peacetime costs increase deterrent effects
To be credible, a strategy must be economically sustainable within the projected decrease of U.S. defense budgets. Due to lack of transparency, it is impossible to say for certain, but seemingly Air-Sea Battle concepts require new major procurement programs. In contrast, Offshore Control can be executed based on current capabilities and does not require future investments in large numbers of expensive penetrating platforms.
Reverses the cost imposition effect
The cost of systems required to penetrate integrated air defenses is significantly higher than the cost of those defenses. In addition, sea control is much more costly than sea denial. By shifting the onus of penetrating integrated air defenses and achieving sea control to the Chinese, Offshore Control neutralizes much of China’s investment in A2/AD and reverses the current cost imposition. If China fails to invest, it concedes the strategic advantage to the United States.
Higher probability of allowing China to declare victory and end the conflict
A consistent aspect of modern warfare has been the impact of passion once war has started. Clausewitz understood that the primary trinity of passion, chance and reason frames any conflict, with passion often becoming the driving force once the war starts. It is essential for today’s strategists not to lose track of that point. If the United States conducts numerous strikes into Mainland China, it will be much more difficult for Chinese leadership to tell their people they taught the U.S. a lesson.
Plays to U.S. strengths
Offshore Control is built on U.S. superiority in submarines and, with proper investment, sea mines to achieve sea denial inside the first island chain. It then adds highly effective U.S. air, ground, and sea-based air/missile defense systems to the battle for air superiority over those nations that choose to fight with the United States. Finally, it allows U.S. ground forces to contribute to the fight by intercepting and controlling major commercial ships. The U.S. Navy has insufficient ships to board 900 commercial ships. However, it can put Marine or Army boarding parties aboard each to insure it does not trade with China.
Reverses the tactical geographic advantage
Rather than engaging Chinese weapons over their home territory, Offshore Control forces the Chinese to send their limited number of long-range assets into U.S. and allied integrated air, sea and land defenses. The only exception are the U.S. submarines which can use their tactical advantages to operate inside the first island chain. If Chinese anti-submarine warfare improves significantly, these assets can move back to the entrances to the South and East China Seas.
Allows for the rebuilding of the global trade system during the conflict
Sustainability is essential in a long war. The U.S. strategic geographic advantage and the maritime nature of global trade means the rest of the world’s economy can rebuild around the U.S. blockade perimeter. In contrast, China has little prospect of rebuilding via a new Silk Road. Further if China attempts to blockade allied or neutral nations, the United States has a major geographic advantage in conducting convoy operations to sustain those nations.
Figure 3 – Global Maritime Trade Routes
Previous conflicts between nuclear powers
Usually strategists have a depth of previous conflicts that can illuminate how antagonists may respond in a conflict. Fortunately, there have only been two conflicts between nuclear armed states, i.e. the 1969 Sino-Soviet Border Conflict and the 1999 Pakistan-India Kargil Conflict. In each case, the leadership on both sides responded to the original crisis cautiously. Military moves were announced and essentially transparent.
In addition to these two active conflicts, we have decades of history showing how the United States, USSR, China, Pakistan and India have dealt with crises between/amongst themselves. The Cuban Missile Crisis highlights the pattern of cautious and relatively transparent actions taken when nuclear-armed powers found themselves in a growing crisis. Leaders on both sides avoided sudden escalatory moves or offensive actions that could be misinterpreted as a major attack. In all cases, there was clearly no great benefit to a first strike. Unfortunately, Air-Sea Battle’s dependence on cyber and space will provide a major payoff for the nation that strikes first in these domains. In contrast, Offshore Control’s resilience dramatically reduces the value of a first strike and allows decision makers to be deliberate and transparent.
Critical continuing research
Two critical areas need much deeper research to understand their impact on a conflict between the U.S. and China. First, the fiscal situation that will result from such a conflict must be examined and second, the longer term economic impact must be understood. Both areas lie well outside the expertise of this author.
One of the central criteria of any strategy for a potential conflict with China is the reality of China’s nuclear arsenal. It cannot be wished away. Thus, the strategist must examine the degree to which the strategy fuels escalation in a pre-war crisis or in a war. Further, the strategy must be affordable in peacetime and executable in wartime, even if China strikes first. It should shape the operational/tactical fight to provide geographic and temporal advantages to U.S. forces. And finally, it must provide a possible theory of victory.
By reducing reliance on space and cyber and maintaining transparency in peace, crisis and war, Offshore Control reduces escalatory pressure and better aligns U.S. strategic requirements with available resources. Further, Offshore Control reduces peacetime demands on allies while offering reassurance by demonstrating its feasibility. It also makes use of the strategic geography to reverse cost impositions and place U.S. and allied forces in favorable tactical positions. Finally, it provides a way for the conflict to end without forcing either side to seek a decisive victory.
[i] Remarks by President Obama to the Australian Parliament, Parliament House, Canberra, Australia, 17 Nov 2011, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/11/17/remarks-president-obama-australian-parliament.
[ii] This author finds it difficult to envision a scenario that would result in a major war with China, but history is full of nations blundering into unwise wars. Therefore, it is essential for the United States to prepare for even this unlikely event.
[iii] For a discussion on why assumption are critical, see “Assumptions: A Fatal Oversight,” Infinity, Volume 1, Issue 1.
[iv] Michelle Wiese Bockman, “Oil Tanker Glut Means Number Valued as Scrap Jumps Fivefold to 101 in Year,” http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-11-25/oil-tanker-glut-means-number-valued-as-scrap-jumps-fivefold-to-101-in-year.html, accessed Feb 162012.
[v] “Tanker Information,” Pacific Energy Partners, L.P., http://www.pacificenergypier400.com/pdfs/TANKERS/TankerBusEmissions.pdf, accessed Feb 162012.
[vi] “Global merchant shipping fleet continues to grow,” http://www.shippingplatform.com/News_Details.aspx?id=1269&head=Global%20merchant%20shipping%20fleet%20continues%20to%20grow, accessed Feb 162012.
[vii] U.S. Department of Defense, Joint Operational Access Concept, Version 1.0, 17 January 2012, p. 4