Australia and AirSea Battle
15 Apr 2013|

Photo courtesy of US NavyToday, ASPI released my report ‘Planning the unthinkable war: ‘AirSea Battle’ and its implications for Australia’ [view our interview with Ben Schreer on his paper here]. When China’s military modernisation hit its stride over the last decade, America’s Asian allies and partners began to wonder how the US plans to respond to the PLA’s growing ‘anti-access/ area-denial’ (A2/AD) capabilities. The Pentagon’s ‘AirSea Battle’ concept aims at providing a credible US warfighting doctrine as a major part of the military component of Washington’s ‘pivot’ to Asia.

Allies and partners are expected to play a major role in implementing the concept. Indeed, Australia is to play a central role according to a leading US think tank. The ‘China dimension’ thus makes it imperative for us to think through the implications of AirSea Battle (ASB). It’s too easy to dismiss the concept as yet another technological ‘fancy’ of Pentagon planners to finance expensive weapons platforms. Indeed, my study shows that it’s likely that the US will incrementally move towards implementation. Further, while the Australian debate has either fully embraced or dismissed AirSea Battle, a middle position which identifies both strengths and weaknesses is more fruitful.

The ASB initiative should be welcomed as an attempt by the US to strengthen its conventional deterrence, thus balancing China’s increasing hard power by signalling both the intention and the capability to operate in maritime zones increasingly contested by the PLA. Some analysts have argued that AirSea Battle is only a military-technological concept which enables a new degree of joint operations between US air and naval forces in an A2/AD environment. But while the concept has certainly a technological dimension to it, it’s the political message that matters most. Any Chinese leader would need to calculate the possibility and nature of a US reaction in response to a major military action designed to change the status quo in the Western Pacific.

This deterrence dynamic is particularly important in East Asia, where Taiwan and Japan in particular are deeply concerned about China’s increased military pressure. Not surprisingly, these two countries are the most welcoming when it comes to AirSea Battle, given that they are ‘front line’ states in the emerging US-Sino strategic competition.

The concept plays to the strength of the US military when it comes to high-intensity warfare. Indeed, the US Navy and Air Force are already working on effective counter-measures against much-hyped PLA capability developments such as its ‘carrier killer’ DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missile. ASB could thus make a critical contribution to regional stability by promoting deterrence in Sino-US strategic affairs.

However, the concept is optimised for deterring a high‐intensity conventional war between China and the US and its allies—extreme cases such as PLA attacks on Taiwan, Japan or forward deployed US forces. Because it’s a ‘big stick’, it will probably be far less effective against small scale Chinese aggression, like coercive military actions in maritime territorial disputes where the stakes are small enough to (probably) avoid high levels of escalation.  The US is still in search of a credible deterrence strategy for such cases, especially in the South China Sea. That’s why Southeast Asian allies and partners are much more ambivalent when it comes to ASB, and the US would be ill advised to take their participation for granted.

Moreover, it isn’t clear how AirSea Battle fits within a broader US grand strategic framework to deal with China’s military rise. Many analysts, including ASPI’s Peter Jennings, have called for the development of a grand strategic framework to guide American Asia‐Pacific defence strategy. Left unaddressed, ASB will continue to suffer from an image problem, and be seen as being designed to militarily ‘contain’ China. The US thus needs to do more to explain the concept’s rationale to its allies. And it needs to explain it to China as well—the emergence of a military strategy designed to counter China’s growing strength hasn’t gone unnoticed in Beijing. So to minimise the risk of major power war, ASB should also feature in the upcoming Sino-US high-level military talks.

This is important because ASB carries the risk of Sino-US nuclear escalation. A central element of the concept is the deep penetration of Chinese territory to destroy and disrupt PLA command and control nodes used for conventional operations. But that ignores the nuclear calculus—Beijing might perceive such attacks as American attempts to disarm China’s nuclear deterrent and could thus be tempted to nuclear pre‐emption.

We need to be an active participant in the future evolution of ASB. When Australian officials sit down to talk with their American counterparts,  they should also raise alternatives to ASB such as ‘offshore control’ which refrains from direct strikes against the Chinese mainland while still retaining the capability to deny China freedom of military action in its maritime approaches. ASB has its place in a suite of operational concepts, but relying on it as a ‘one size fits all’ strategy is unwise.

Benjamin Schreer is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of US Navy.