Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 4, Issue 4  /  

Will a President Approve Air-Sea Battle? Learning from the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis

Will a President Approve Air-Sea Battle? Learning from the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis Will a President Approve Air-Sea Battle? Learning from the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis
To cite this article: Meyers, John Speed, “Will a President Approve Air-Sea Battle? Learning from the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis,” Infinity Journal, Volume 4, Issue 4, summer 2015, pages 40-48.

© Vadimmmus | – Aircraft Carrier Photo

Air-Sea Battle and the Question of Authorization

The remarkable growth of Chinese military power has prompted the U.S. military to consider war plans that involve striking—possibly preemptively—military targets on mainland China.[i] Sometimes labeled “Air-Sea Battle,” this operational emphasis on strikes into Chinese territory calls for the U.S. military to purchase military systems capable of conventional strikes on targets inside China.[ii] Advocates of Air-Sea Battle believe the increased strength of the People’s Liberation Army, especially the Second Artillery Corps and its missile forces, means that any U.S. military efforts, especially early in a conflict, would flounder without mainland strikes.[iii]

Air-Sea Battle, devised to solve U.S. military-operational problems, has generated a range of detractors focused on alleged strategic defects. T.X. Hammes, a researcher at the National Defense University, has led the attack on Air-Sea Battle; he argues that Air-Sea Battle will be prohibitively expensive, could inadvertently trigger nuclear war, and would be less effective than a military strategy he calls “offshore control,” which includes integrating a long-distance blockade with plans for a defense of the first island chain.[iv] Princeton scholar Thomas Christensen has also criticized these deep-strike war plans. He argues that the blurring of Chinese conventional and nuclear assets could translate into nuclear conflagration if the United States launched conventional attacks on the mainland.[v] David Gompert and Terrence Kelly, RAND researchers, emphasize their view that Air-Sea Battle increases the incentives for a first strike by both China and the United States and therefore “increases the odds that a crisis will turn violent.”[vi]

But perhaps the most damaging criticism is that U.S. leaders, especially the President, will refuse to authorize deep-strike war plans against a nuclear-armed adversary such as China, sapping these plans of their operational potential. For instance, T.X. Hammes writes, “Given that Truman and Johnson refused to strike China when hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops were in combat, are we sure a future President will authorize an extensive strike campaign into China?”[vii] Thomas Christensen has similarly argued, “it is doubtful that an American president will be eager to become the first” to authorize “strike warfare attacks against missile sites on the mainland.”[viii] These strategists are therefore arguing that regardless of the operational merits of Air-Sea Battle, the willingness of top leaders to employ Air-Sea Battle remains in doubt. A president and his or her advisers would be unwilling to authorize such escalatory strikes against a nuclear adversary. The U.S. military establishment, the argument proceeds, should therefore avoid relying on such plans, when they would be rejected by leaders in a crisis.

But why do these strategists believe so strongly that mainland strikes will be rejected in a crisis? The published pieces debating Air-Sea Battle make little reference to any actual episodes in which top leaders have considered escalatory, deep-strike war plans. This debate about the likelihood of authorization has, in other words, mostly proceeded without regard for the historical record. Skeptics rely on the argument that because no U.S. leader has authorized conventional strikes against a nuclear power that future presidents will be similarly reluctant.[ix] Both T.X. Hammes and James Fallows separately invoke the Korea analogy in a cursory fashion, devoting no more than a passing thought to it.[x] Conventional strikes on China would be, Fallows writes, “a step so wildly reckless that the United States didn’t consider it even when fighting Chinese troops during the Korean War.”[xi] Air-Sea Battle proponents, to my knowledge, have not marshaled historical evidence to make the case that a President would approve mainland strikes on China. This paper examines the historical record, particularly the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis, providing the first empirical investigation of the willingness of leaders to employ escalatory strikes on an opponent’s mainland. This crisis between China, Taiwan, and the United States involved the Chinese shelling of the offshore islands, especially Quemoy, and the contemplation by American officials of tactical nuclear strikes against the Chinese mainland to stop a Chinese invasion of these islands.

Three arguments about mainland-strike war plans against nuclear adversaries emerge from a close analysis of the 1958 Taiwan Strait crisis. First, top U.S. leaders, political and military, including the President, were willing to consider escalatory, deep-strike war plans. High-level officials, in the words of one modern scholar, “actively considered” the use of such strikes in the 1958 Taiwan Strait crisis.[xii] Importantly, though, the ultimate decision-maker, President Eisenhower, never authorized the deep-strike plans. Second, these war plans received such active consideration because top military officers and some political leaders had adopted a strategic preference for the decisive use of nuclear weapons and perceived war plans involving only conventional defense as inadequate. Third, officials ultimately rejected these plans because the Chinese communists never mounted a direct invasion of Quemoy, there were acceptable military alternatives to strikes with tactical nuclear weapons, and American decision-makers greatly feared Soviet nuclear reprisal.

Of course, a single case study cannot definitively settle the debate over Air-Sea Battle’s likelihood of authorization—the characteristics of the 1958 Taiwan Strait crisis do indeed differ from the likely contours of a modern confrontation between China and the United States. But a well-chosen case study can anchor the debate in empirical analysis, a task not yet attempted. The 1958 Taiwan Strait crisis is such a case for three reasons. First, the broad outlines of that crisis and a hypothetical modern China-U.S. crisis resemble each other: two states that fear nuclear reprisal engage in a risky confrontation involving a third-party and one state considers escalatory military strikes on the homeland of the other. To be sure, China did not then possess nuclear weapons, but it was allied with the Soviet Union, a nuclear power capable of retaliation on China’s behalf. Second, China’s lack of nuclear weapons in 1958 is actually a methodologically useful difference. If U.S. leaders were reluctant to escalate against an ally of a nuclear state, then observers can expect even greater caution in a modern crisis with a China that possesses nuclear weapons. Third, studying a past U.S.-China crisis allows stronger inferences to be made about future U.S.-China crises than if the analysis focused on events in which nuclear opponents actually conducted conventional warfare against each other, such as the Indo-Pakisani Kargil conflict or the Sino-Soviet border war.

There does exist one glaring difference between the conventional strikes on the Chinese mainland envisioned in Air-Sea Battle and the plans debated by the Eisenhower administration: Eisenhower considered employing tactical nuclear weapons, not conventional strikes. There obviously exists a higher threshold for employment of tactical nuclear weapons. However, the Fifties were the age of the “New Look,” a military strategy that emphasized nuclear weapons and treated (conceptually, at least) low-yield, “tactical” nuclear weapons as indistinguishable from conventional weapons.[xiii] Such “New Look” thinking potentially attenuates the difference between Air-Sea Battle’s mainland strikes and the tactical nuclear strikes considered by Eisenhower. A later section returns to this consideration.

The implications for the modern debate over Air-Sea Battle are many. Most importantly, the U.S. military establishment should be cautious about relying heavily on Air-Sea Battle in a crisis with China. Evidence from the 1958 Taiwan Strait crisis suggests that top leaders, though they might consider plans like Air-Sea Battle, will worry about nuclear reprisal. Second, that some American officials believe U.S. military operations against the Chinese military will fail should the President not authorize deep strikes likely ensures the survival of war plans relying on deep strikes and related force structure. Finally, the 1958 Taiwan Strait crisis resembles the type of limited, coercive diplomatic crisis in which the United States and China will likely engage. That mainland strikes were never authorized in 1958 because the worst-case scenario, an invasion of Quemoy, never materialized should give contemporary military planners pause. Military plans designed only for the worst-case scenario, say, an invasion of Taiwan, might not be usable in the event of lesser conflict. Even a direct invasion of Taiwan, if nuclear fears loom large, might not lead the President to approve mainland strikes. This case study of a limited crisis, though, cannot settle the debate over the viability of Air-Sea Battle in all scenarios. Strategic studies researchers therefore should turn their attention to other historical episodes and continue to examine the authorization question.

The 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis

After a summer of military preparations and mounting tension, Chairman Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of China initiated heavy shelling of Quemoy in late August 1958. Intermittent shelling gave way to a prolonged standoff in which the Taiwanese and U.S. militaries struggled to resupply over 100,000 Taiwanese troops forward-stationed on Quemoy, an island just offshore the Chinese mainland. Throughout the crisis top U.S. leaders considered various military measures, including plans for tactical nuclear strikes against Chinese airfields near Xiamen and even extending to Shanghai.[xiv] All of this occurred against the backdrop of a military alliance between China and the Soviet Union, a nuclear power. The crisis eventually defused in October 1958 as Chinese artillery fire against Quemoy subsided.

An examination of this crisis and American contingency planning reveals three findings relevant to modern U.S. military strategy in East Asia. The first finding concerns the extent to which top leaders considered deep strikes against China, a military ally of the nuclear-armed Soviet Union; the second and third deal, respectively, with the reasons why the deep-strike war plan survived and why it was ultimately rejected.

The Eisenhower Administration Considers Mainland Strikes

President Eisenhower and his advisers approved military measures to enable tactical nuclear strikes on the Chinese mainland and considered plans to employ tactical nuclear weapons in a strike against China, an ally of the Soviet Union. That President Eisenhower did consider such plans conflicts with a strong version of the authorization argument made by Air-Sea Battle skeptics that an American administration would be loath to even consider deep-strike war plans in the face of nuclear reprisal.

The military measures taken during the crisis to prepare for tactical nuclear use are well documented. The Joint Chiefs of Staff received directions from the president authorizing the military to prepare for nuclear use in any conflict larger than “a brush fire war.”[xv] Furthermore, the Pacific Air Force received specific orders to concentrate on their ability to deliver atomic weapons.[xvi] Strategic Air Command B-47s at Guam were placed on alert and given the mission of targeting coastal airfields under conditions of darkness or inclement weather.[xvii] This evidence of military preparation admittedly does not prove actual intent of use since such moves could merely be the choreography of nuclear bluffing, but no evidence of these necessary steps would have contradicted the argument that the administration actively considered tactical nuclear strikes.

In addition to military preparations, the Eisenhower administration gave tactical nuclear strikes against mainland Chinese targets serious consideration in private meetings and internal documents. The strongest evidence comes in the form of an early September paper, jointly “studied, edited, and agreed on” by Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, that affirms that the United States would resort to nuclear use if conventional options could not suffice.[xviii] Though the paper acknowledged that atomic weapons would arouse “a strong popular revulsion against the United States,” the paper viewed the failure to stand up to China as more damaging than the consequences of atomic weapons.[xix] Below the president, Secretary of State Dulles, Army Chief of Staff Maxwell Taylor, and Chief of Naval Operations Arleigh Burke privately came to a similar conclusion. They agreed that a “limited use of nuclear weapons” was preferable to a failure “to exert a maximum defense.”[xx] Navy staff members also endorsed nuclear weapons, stating that they would “have to be used if the United States went into military action.”[xxi]

The historical record does, however, show some opposition to tactical nuclear plans, especially from within the State Department. Gerard Smith, director of the Policy Planning Staff at the Department of State, repeatedly opposed war plans involving nuclear strikes on China.[xxii] The Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs Graham Parsons similarly applied the bureaucratic brakes to nuclear plans, though his opposition was specifically to a plan to make direct nuclear threats to China.[xxiii] A report from the Far East Bureau to the Secretary of State warned that a resort to nuclear weapons would have “disastrous” consequences.[xxiv] These statements indicate that some bureaucratic actors did seek to block the escalatory, deep-strike war plans during the crisis.

However, the top echelons of the U.S. government, including the president, did not summarily reject escalatory, mainland strikes with tactical nuclear weapons but instead actively considered their employment. The concern of Air-Sea Battle skeptics that an administration will not even consider deep-strike war plans in the face of possible nuclear reprisal seems unfounded, though the historical record does show some bureaucratic resistance.

Why Did The Eisenhower Administration Consider Mainland Strikes?

Behind the active consideration of tactical nuclear strikes against China lay a widespread belief among American officials in the insufficiency of a purely conventional defense, and a nuclear mindset among top military officers.[xxv] Without these enabling factors, deep-strike plans involving tactical nuclear weapons would likely have remained in offices far from the president.

Across the American government, officials believed that an American intervention on behalf of Taiwan with only non-nuclear means would fail. Quemoy, if attacked, was deemed too close to the mainland, where the PLA could amass men and materiel, while the United States and Taiwan would have to operate at great distances and in the face of tough Chinese defenses. Tactical nuclear weapons, as a result of this belief, became the only viable military option to halt a Chinese invasion of Quemoy. Assistant Secretary of Defense Donald Quarles believed that only atomic strikes against mainland air bases could prevent Chinese control of the Strait.[xxvi] The U.S. Taiwan Defense Command believed that merely silencing the PLA guns across from Quemoy would require atomic weapons.[xxvii] The Joint Chiefs of Staff also thought conventional forces insufficient and so endorsed nuclear war plans.[xxviii] Officials outside the military concurred. Secretary of State Dulles, meeting with the Joint Chiefs, agreed that nuclear weapons would ultimately be necessary to defend Quemoy.[xxix] Even the mid-level State Department officials who opposed nuclear plans agreed that these appeared to be the only viable military option if a Chinese invasion of Quemoy was to be stopped; the same State Department memorandum mentioned earlier considered the use of one or two low-yield nuclear weapons against airfields in Fujian province.[xxx] Importantly, President Eisenhower agreed with this position when he approved a memo that stated that U.S. intervention would “probably not be effective if it were limited to the use of conventional weapons.”[xxxi] Morton Halperin’s research on the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis, done for the military and with access to scores of top-secret documents, argues that the “consensus” was that “the United States simply did not have the conventional capability to hold Quemoy against a determined Chinese communist attack.”[xxxii] That tactical nuclear plans survived the bureaucratic gauntlet should therefore be unsurprising; only tactical nuclear weapons would level the battlefield sufficiently to allow U.S. forces a chance at victory.

The second reason, arguably underlying the first, that tactical nuclear plans received extensive consideration can be found in the nuclear mindset of American military officials. A strategic belief that nuclear war had become the way of modern war pervaded the thinking of American general officers. Believing that low-yield nuclear weapons were nearly conventional, American military officials felt it unthinkable to forego nuclear weapons in a conflict. For instance, Air Force General Laurence Kuter, the commander of Pacific Air Force, in an after-action meeting with other Air Force generals, stressed that the communists could only be defeated with nuclear weapons and that it was a “a priority requirement…to educate our various government policymakers that the very great spread in available nukes has made these weapons conventional.”[xxxiii] General Kuter, in a letter to General Ernest LeMay, further critiqued the administration’s reticence to employ nuclear weapons and noted the existence of “well known and irrefutable arguments that demand that all our war plans be based on the use of atomic weapons.”[xxxiv] Furthermore, one well-positioned observer, Secretary of State Dulles, reflecting on the relationship between nuclear weapons and the 1950s U.S. military, wrote, “our entire military establishment assumes more and more that the use of nuclear weapons will become normal in the event of hostilities.”[xxxv] Dulles himself evinced a predisposition toward nuclear weapons, complaining that “there was no use having a lot of stuff and never being able to use it” after the administration’s late August decision to continue to hold nuclear weapons in reserve.[xxxvi]

Plans for deep strikes against China, an ally of the nuclear-armed Soviet Union, reached the President’s desk because of the ubiquitous belief among high-level U.S. officials that purely conventional plans were militarily insufficient to stop a Chinese invasion of Quemoy and because of the nuclear mindset of American military officials. But if conventional plans were deficient and the strategic zeitgeist was nuclear, why were tactical nuclear strikes against China not authorized?

Why Was the Thinkable Still Not Doable?

Tactical nuclear strikes never received authorization because the Chinese never attempted an invasion of Quemoy, naval resupply efforts provided a less escalatory military alternative to deep strikes, and, critically, because the fear of Soviet nuclear reprisal weighed on U.S. decision-makers.

Most importantly, American leaders set a high threshold for tactical nuclear plans: an invasion of Quemoy by the Chinese. President Eisenhower, in one memo, linked the potential use of nuclear weapons only to invasion attempts of the offshore island.[xxxvii] In another meeting, President Eisenhower considered nuclear weapons only in the context of a Chinese “invasion” of the offshore islands.[xxxviii] China never crossed this line. American decision-makers therefore avoided the decision over nuclear employment.

Additionally, military measures less escalatory than mainland strikes presented themselves to American policymakers. Certainly by the end of September American military officials believed that the blockade of Quemoy had been broken and that resupply operations could continue indefinitely.[xxxix] Even earlier in the month, American officials had believed the resupply problem was not “insurmountable.”[xl] On September 15th the Commander in Chief, Pacific Forces, and commander of the Taiwan Defense Command had expressed their belief that resupply presented a difficult but solvable problem.[xli] In fact, as early as September 7th, the day of the first successful U.S.-escorted resupply mission, American officials had harbored “some hope that the crisis was at an end.”[xlii] The success of resupply operations therefore rendered deep-strike war plans unnecessary.

Finally, the fear of Soviet nuclear reprisal on behalf of their Chinese communist allies undoubtedly weighed on U.S. decision-makers. There is ample evidence of Soviet warnings to the Eisenhower administration. Soviet media and direct letters to the U.S. president all warned that the Soviets would “not stand idly by.”[xliii] Eisenhower heard this message. In one meeting he wondered if Soviet retaliation might extend past Quemoy to Taiwan or even beyond.[xliv] Director of the CIA Allen Dulles also worried that Soviet nuclear reprisal posed “a grave risk.”[xlv] Allen Dulles’s pessimism reflected a recent CIA estimate that contained this exact worry.[xlvi] Secretary of State John Foster Dulles also worried that tactical nuclear strikes would create a “possibility” that the war could extend into a “general war.”[xlvii]

The lack of a Chinese attack on Quemoy, the success of resupply operations, and fear of Soviet nuclear reprisal combined so that tactical nuclear war plans were never put into action. Additionally, these same factors likely contributed to a similar reluctance to employ even conventional weapons against mainland targets in the crisis. During the crisis the U.S. Navy operated under strict rules of engagement barring strikes on mainland targets and U.S. Admirals took greats pains to persuade the Nationalist military to likewise refrain from conventional mainland strikes.[xlviii]

From Historical Analysis to Policy Implications

The 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis, though it has largely receded from memory, offers a number of instructive points to modern military strategists crafting war plans and force postures in response to a rapidly modernizing Chinese military. Before discussing these lessons, the next section compares the 1958 Taiwan Strait crisis and a potential future U.S.-China confrontation and argues that the crises are sufficiently similar to enable useful comparison.

The 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis and the tactical nuclear war plans considered by the Eisenhower administration bear more than a passing resemblance to a future U.S.-China crisis and Air-Sea Battle. These crises and the American war plans, beyond involving China and the United States, share two essential characteristics: the threat of nuclear reprisal and the consideration of strikes on the Chinese mainland. That China did not itself possess nuclear weapons in 1958 does not negate the utility of this case study; in fact, that U.S. leaders showed such caution about striking the mainland of a state that was merely allied to a nuclear state suggests that a nuclear-armed China will induce even greater caution.

Admittedly, there is a fundamental difference that strategists should keep in mind: in the 1958 Taiwan Strait crisis, Eisenhower and his advisors considered tactical (low-yield) nuclear strikes; Air-Sea Battle, on the other hand, proposes mainland strikes with precision conventional weapons.[xlix] Eisenhower, therefore, might have shelved these escalatory war plans merely because of the inherently escalatory nature of employing nuclear weapons, albeit “tactical” ones, not because the targets were located on the Chinese mainland. The implication, then, is that Air-Sea Battle will not meet the same political resistance as 1950s mainland strike war plans since it does not involve strikes with nuclear weapons. This counter-argument overlooks, however, the blurring of tactical nuclear weapons and conventional military power in 1950s military doctrine.[l] For instance, one classified national security document, approved by Eisenhower himself in 1953, specifies that in the event of hostilities with Russia or China, “the United States will consider nuclear weapons to be as available for use as other munitions.”[li] He elsewhere stated, “the tactical use of atomic weapons against military targets would be no more likely to trigger off a big war than the use of twenty-ton block busters.”[lii] Tactical nuclear strikes then and conventional strikes now might therefore be similarly escalatory to top decision-makers. Nevertheless, the question remains whether Eisenhower, in a crisis, would have continued to believe in the absence of a distinction between tactical nuclear weapons and conventional munitions. This key difference requires that researchers examine other similar crises, a priority explained shortly.

Several policy implications for U.S. security officials concerned about war plans and force planning flow from the historical arguments made earlier. First, U.S. leaders might be reluctant to authorize escalatory, deep-strike war plans against a nuclear adversary. Admittedly, Eisenhower and his top advisers, both military and civilian, did actively consider strikes on the Chinese mainland, a finding that should modestly comfort Air-Sea Battle supporters. Mainland strike war plans against an enemy capable of nuclear reprisal are not entirely unthinkable. Air-Sea Battle skeptics will find much more comfort, though, in Eisenhower’s ultimate decision against the employment of mainland strikes. American officials involved in the 1958 Crisis, including the President himself, worried that the Soviet Union would escalate to nuclear war if the United States was to strike mainland China. The Director of the CIA also acutely worried about the prospect of nuclear retaliation. American officials in a future crisis with China could experience a similar fear, making U.S. officials reticent to actually authorize strikes on the mainland. A similar historical case study of several crises between Pakistan and India also found that the presence of nuclear weapons dampened conventional escalation once fighting began.[liii] The U.S. military should therefore also attend to operational plans other than Air-Sea Battle (or any plan that heavily relies on mainland strikes) since authorization might not be forthcoming, either tactically on account of a temporary delay or initial political reluctance, or strategically due to an outright refusal by senior leaders to authorize mainland strikes.[liv]

A first step ought to be reducing the vulnerability of forward-deployed Air Force and Navy forces. Specific military improvements that will reduce the military’s reliance on mainland strikes include options such as designing air bases less susceptible to missile damage, ensuring that the Air Force can rapidly repair runways, increasing the range of the carrier air wing, and developing a larger submarine fleet.[lv] A military cottage industry on this exact subject—alternatives to Air-Sea Battle—has generated many other ideas.[lvi] These alternative plans often call for avoiding investments in so-called long-range strike platforms such as stealthy bombers. While reducing investment in long-range strike forces might be sensible, military leadership could also take a middle ground and ensure that platforms designed to strike deep into an opponent’s territory can also contribute to a peripheral fight. For instance, stealthy bombers and cruise missile submarines, while useful for putting targets on the Chinese mainland at risk, can also strike the Chinese navy and other off-shore targets, provided the military outfits these platforms with anti-ship munitions and possesses sufficient means of tracking Chinese naval assets.

Second, Air-Sea Battle will likely continue to find support among government officials if strategists continue to believe that non-Air-Sea Battle options will fail against the Chinese military in a brute-force conflict and to the extent that a deep-strike orthodoxy influences military strategists. Tactical nuclear plans proposed during the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis survived the bureaucratic gauntlet largely because purely conventional operations were considered militarily insufficient to be war-winning and because of the widespread nuclear mindset among military officers. That some strategists, within and outside the government, similarly find strategies other than Air-Sea Battle deficient in wartime and believe in a deep-strike way of war likely means that Air-Sea Battle will remain a war plan with supporters. Skeptics ought to defend the military adequacy of other strategies.[lvii] For instance, Michael O’Hanlon and Richard Bush assert that even should the U.S. military abstain from mainland strikes the United States would “very likely prevail unambiguously in a conventional conflict.”[lviii] This assertion must become orthodoxy if skeptics want Air-Sea Battle, or at least its more extreme versions, shelved.

Third, some might argue that because the Chinese never attempted to invade Quemoy, this case study is not an ideal test of the odds that Air-Sea Battle would receive authorization. Air-Sea Battle would surely be authorized, these critics would contend, if China mounted a full-scale amphibious invasion of Taiwan, exactly what China did not attempt in the 1958 Taiwan Strait crisis. A military historian might point to the authorization of unrestricted submarine warfare after Pearl Harbor as an episode when previously unthinkable, escalatory tactics became necessary.[lix]

This contention, however, overlooks that much of the tension between China and the United States is more likely to resemble the 1958 Taiwan Strait crisis than the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Those crises that never devolve into brute-force conflicts will require the U.S. President to possess options that are less escalatory than some proposed versions of Air-Sea Battle. War plans involving strikes only on offshore targets or a long-distance blockade are examples of less escalatory plans; the military should also consider variants of Air-Sea Battle that restrict strikes to a certain portion of the mainland, certain targets, and to the later stages of a campaign.

Nonetheless, the critics have a point: the 1958 Taiwan Strait crisis can only illuminate so much of the debate. McGeorge Bundy has opined, “We do not know—he may not have known either—exactly what Eisenhower might have done if a Chinese invasion of Quemoy or Matsu had seemed about to succeed in either crisis.”[lx] It is therefore the duty of the national security community to better understand the usability of deep-strike war plans against nuclear adversaries. Researchers ought to begin exploring other cases including the Korean War, the 1954 Taiwan Strait Crisis, the Sino-Soviet border war, the Vietnam War, the Yom Kippur War, and the Kargil Crisis. In addition to studying these crises and wars, scholars could turn their attention to peacetime war planning and instances in which political leaders consider plans that call for mainland strikes against nuclear adversaries; political leaders’ reactions could be telling.

Likelihood of Authorization: One (Important) Part of the Air-Sea Battle Debate

The Air-Sea Battle debate, merely one part of a larger strategic debate over the proper U.S. response to Chinese military modernization, admittedly hinges on more than the likelihood of authorization. Sophisticated observers will argue that the value of Air-Sea Battle is primarily realized before a crisis when the mere potential to unleash mainland strikes deters bellicose Chinese behavior.[lxi] Analysts of this persuasion argue that Chinese leaders might believe U.S. leaders will authorize mainland strikes, rendering Air-Sea Battle a potent deterrent. Another astute scholar maintains that Air-Sea Battle will be a cost-imposing strategy that will shape Chinese military investment to U.S. advantage.[lxii] Both arguments are logically sound and deserve further consideration. Some strategists will also chafe at any war plan that accords the Chinese mainland “sanctuary” status.[lxiii] They will sensibly argue, for instance, that Chinese land-based missiles, if left unmolested, could prove a grave danger to the American military. War-games, combat models, and defense analysis can help resolve this question.[lxiv] Finally, those who see the role of the military as providing “options” to the President will worry that not preparing a war plan involving mainland strikes needlessly forecloses a strategic option. Not offering the President the possibility to strike mainland targets, according to this logic, amounts to military malpractice and could even paint the President into a strategic corner. Of course, thinkers of this worldview also hold that a U.S. military prepared to wage Air-Sea Battle can by default also put into action all manner of less demanding war plans, a proposition in need of further consideration.[lxv]

But the question of whether a U.S. president would consider and then authorize conventional strikes on the homeland of a nuclear power such as China ought to be crucial to this debate. The evidence from the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis suggests that Air-Sea Battle might prove too escalatory for a President to authorize in all but the most dire crisis. Admittedly, top decision-makers did actively consider tactical nuclear strikes against the ally of a nuclear power; however, the nuclear capability of China’s Soviet ally weighed heavily on decision-makers and contributed to Eisenhower’s decision not to authorize mainland strikes. Top leaders, both civilian and military, must therefore ensure that operational solutions to Chinese military modernization, such as Air-Sea Battle, are also strategic solutions—plans that can reliably be put into action in moments of crisis.

Toward this end, frank conversation between military planners and top civilians could help prevent a situation where top brass propose a war plan that the President rejects, leaving the U.S. military in the unenviable position of fighting with severe geographic restrictions and without a backup plan.[lxvi] This conversation will help military leaders assess whether the military’s preferences are different from those of its political masters’. If this conversation convinces some that a China war plan involving mainland strikes might not be authorized in a future conflict, then far-sighted generals and admirals should compensate for potentially restrictive rules of engagement by fashioning alternative war plans, procuring appropriate weapon systems, and ensuring that the U.S. Navy and Air Force can engage in successful combat short of mainland strikes. Should these top officers conclude that successful war plans demand mainland strikes, however, political leaders ought to know. Perhaps a far-sighted president might even see reason for boosting the overall military budget so that the U.S. military could fight without resorting to mainland strikes. In that case, Air-Sea Battle advocates might welcome the high-level political oversight hitherto endorsed mainly by skeptics.


[i] Jan van Tol, Mark Gunzinger, Andrew Krepinevich, and Jim Thomas, “Air-Sea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept.” (Washington, D.C., Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2010); “Joint Operational Access Concept.” Department of Defense, January 17, 2012.
[ii] While some commentators describe Air-Sea Battle as a joint effort to overcome so-called “anti-access, area-denial” challenges, I use the term to refer specifically to war plans and accompanying weapons systems that allow the U.S. military to use conventional weapons against military targets located on the Chinese mainland. My definition resembles the operational concept first outlined by CSBA in 2010; many in the national security community will rightly argue that Air-Sea Battle (or what used to be known as Air-Sea Battle) currently refers to other offices, ideas, and initiatives.
[iii] Interview with former Defense Department official, July 15, 2012.
[iv] T.X. Hammes, “Offshore Control: A Proposed Strategy for an Unlikely Conflict,” Infinity Journal, Vol. 2., No. 2 (June 2012). For other critiques of Air-Sea Battle, see Amitai Etzioni, “Who Authorized Preparations for War with China.” Yale Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Summer 2013), pp.37-51. See also Raoul Heinrichs, “America’s Dangerous Battle Plan.” The Diplomat. August 17, 2011.
[v] Thomas J. Christensen, “The Meaning of the Nuclear Evolution: China’s Strategic Modernization and US-China Security Relations.” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 35, No. 4 (August 2012), pp.447–87. For additional arguments about the escalation dangers of Air-Sea Battle, see Joshua Rovner, “AirSea Battle and Escalation Risks.” Study of Innovation and Technology in China, University of California Institute of Global Conflict and Cooperation. January 2012,; and Kier Lieber and Daryl Press. “Coercive Nuclear Campaigns in the 21st Century: Understanding Adversary Incentives and Options for Nuclear Escalation.” Project on Advanced Systems and Concepts for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction, Naval Postgraduate School, January 2013,
[vi] David Gompert and Terrence Kelly. “Escalation Cause: How the Pentagon’s New Strategy Could Trigger War with China.” Foreign Policy, August 3, 2013.
[vii] T.X. Hammes. “Sorry, Air-Sea Battle Is No Strategy.” The National Interest, August 7, 2013.
[viii] Thomas J. Christensen. “Posing Problems Without Catching Up: China’s Rise and Challenges for U.S. Security Policy.” International Security, Vol. 25, No. 4 (Spring 2001), p.35.
[ix] Ibid.
[x] Hammes. “Sorry, Air-Sea Battle Is No Strategy,” The National Interest For the same Korean War analogy but made by James Fallows, who interviewed T.X. Hammes for the cited article and possibly learned of this analogy from Hammes, see James Fallows. “The Tragedy of the American Military.” The Atlantic, January/February 2015.
[xi] Fallows, “The Tragedy of the American Military,” The Atlantic.
[xii] Nina Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp.5-6.
[xiii] John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy during the Cold War (New York; Oxford University Press, 2005), pp.125-161.
[xiv] Thomas J. Christensen, Useful Adversaries: Grand Strategy, Domestic Mobilization, and Sino-American Conflict, 1947-1958 (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1996), p.195.
[xv] Morton Halperin, “The 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis: A Documented History.” RAND, December 1966.
[xvi] Ibid. pp.126-127.
[xvii] Ibid. pp.126-127.
[xviii] Ibid. p.64.
[xix] McGeorge Bundy, Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years (New York: Random House, 1988) , p. 279; Appu Kuttan Soman, Double-edged Sword (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2000), p.181.
[xx] Soman, Double-edged Sword, p.181.
[xxi] Ibid. p.179.
[xxii] Halperin. “The 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis: A Documented History,” p.110.
[xxiii] Soman, Double-edged Sword, p.174; Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo, p.184.
[xxiv] Shu Guang Zhang, Deterrence and Strategic Culture: Chinese-American Confrontations, 1949-1958 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992), p.246.
[xxv] Halperin, “The 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis: A Documented History,” p.253.
[xxvi] For an analysis that similarly employs a “military culture” argument, see Jeffrey W. Legro, “Military Culture and Inadvertent Escalation in World War II,” International Security, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Spring, 1994), pp.108-142.
[xxvii] Zhang, Deterrence and Strategic Culture: Chinese-American Confrontations, 1949-1958, p.247.
[xxviii] Soman, Double-edged Sword, p.183.
[xxix] Ibid. p.174.
[xxx] Halperin, “The 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis: A Documented History,” p.xi.
[xxxi] Ibid. p.185.
[xxxii] Soman, Double-edged Sword, p.274.
[xxxiii] Ibid. p. 14.
[xxxiv] Halperin, “The 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis: A Documented History,” p.538.
[xxxv] Ibid. p.538.
[xxxvi] Soman, Double-edged Sword, p.181.
[xxxvii] Ibid. p.178.
[xxxviii] Ibid. p.181.
[xxxix] Ibid. p.176.
[xl] Halperin, “The 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis: A Documented History.” pp.438 & 366.
[xli] Ibid. p.423.
[xlii] Ibid. p.423.
[xliii] Ibid. p.406.
[xliv] Ibid. p.x.
[xlv] Ibid. p.278.
[xlvi] Zhang, Deterrence and Strategic Culture: Chinese-American Confrontations, 1949-1958, p.248.
[xlvii] Ibid. p.248.
[xlviii] Ibid. p.248.
[xlix] Bruce A. Elleman, High Seas Buffer: The Taiwan Patrol Force, 1950-1979 (Newport, Rhode Island: Naval War College Newport Papers No. 38, 2012), pp.103-105.
[l] Jan van Tol, Mark Gunzinger, Andrew Krepinevich, and Jim Thomas, “Air-Sea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept,” (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2010), p.xiii.
[li] For evidence that some officials in the Eisenhower years conceptualized nuclear weapons, or at least “tactical” nuclear weapons, as conventional, see Bundy, Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years. p.278. See also Alain C. Enthoven, and K. Wayne Smith. How Much is Enough? Shaping the Defense Program 1961-1969 (Santa Monica, California: RAND Corporation, 2005), pp.119-121.
[lii] Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy during the Cold War, pp.147.
[liii] Ibid. p.165.
[liv] James F. Pasley, Nuclear Deterrence in the Twentieth Century: The Impact of Atomic Weapons on Conflict Between Interstate Dyads (Lewiston, New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2010).
[lv] One specific source of delay might be the interaction between the President and Congress. A President might be unwilling to authorize mainland strikes, or might delay such strikes, if Congress refuses to authorize war or otherwise temporizes.
[lvi] For discussion of the merits of these vulnerability-reducing options, see David D. Gompert, “Sea Power and American Interests in the Western Pacific,” RAND, 2013. Evan Braden Montgomery, “Contested Primacy in the Western Pacific: China’s Rise and the Future of U.S. Power Projection,” International Security Vol. 38, No. 4 (Spring 2014); T.X. Hammes. “Offshore Control: A Proposed Strategy for an Unlikely Conflict.”
[lvii] Gompert, “Sea Power and American Interests in the Western Pacific,” 2013; Terrence Kelly et al., “The U.S. Army in Asia, 2030-2040,” RAND, 2014; Hughes, Wayne and Jeffrey Kline. “Between Peace and the Air-Sea Battle: A War-at-Sea Strategy,” Naval War College Review, Vol. 65 No. 4 (Autumn 2012).
[lviii] For an analogous instance in which analysts sought to persuade military leaders of the feasibility of less escalatory war plans, in this instance, conventional defense of NATO, see Enthoven and Smith. How Much is Enough? Shaping the Defense Program 1961-1969, Chapter 4. For a general discussion of the trade-off between military effectiveness and the likelihood of nuclear escalation, see Lieber and Press. “Coercive Nuclear Campaigns in the 21st Century: Understanding Adversary Incentives and Options for Nuclear Escalation.”
[lix] Richard C. Bush and Michael E. O’Hanlon. A War Like No Other: The Truth About China’s Challenge to America (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley And Sons, 2007), p.182. Another pair of analysts also believe that the U.S. military can successfully rely on options other than Air-Sea Battle in a war with China; see Hughes and Kline. “Between Peace and the Air-Sea Battle: A War-at-Sea Strategy.” Naval War College Review. Autumn 2012.
[lx] For an in-depth look at how previously unthinkable war plans became reality, see Joel Ira Holwitt, Execute Against Japan: The U.S. Decision to Conduct Unrestricted Submarine Warfare (College Station, Texas; Texas A&M University Press, 2009).
[lxi] Bundy, Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years, p.283.
[lxii] Yuen Foong Khong, “Primacy or World Order? The United States and China’s Rise—A Review Essay,” International Security, Vol. 38 No. 3 (Winter 2013/2014), p.157.
[lxiii] For an argument about the shaping power of Air-Sea Battle on Chinese military investments, see Aaron Friedberg,. Beyond Air-Sea Battle: The Debate Over U.S. Military Strategy in East Asia (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies; Adelphi Series, 2014).
[lxiv] James R. Holmes, “Airsea Battle vs. Offshore Control: Can the US Blockade China?” The Diplomat, August 19, 2013.
[lxv] For an essay that calls for a military operations research agenda focused on such a question, see Hughes and Kline, “Between Peace and the Air-Sea Battle: A War-at-Sea Strategy.” For an analytical work on the military utility of striking targets on mainland China in a potential U.S.-China conflict, see Eric Stephen Gons, “Access Challenges and Implications for Airpower in the Western Pacific.” Pardee RAND Graduate School Dissertation. 2011.
[lxvi] Some analysts seem to believe implicitly that solely preparing for deep strikes against the mainland does not automatically produce the military investments needed for other, potentially preferable China-related war plans. For instance, see Gompert, “Sea Power and American Interests in the Western Pacific,” pp.139-149.
[lxvii] For an analysis that stresses the need for top political leaders to pay attention to Air-Sea Battle, see Amitai Etzioni, “Air Sea Battle: A Case Study in Structural Inattention and Subterranean Forces,” Armed Forces and Society, 2014