The US is developing an air-sea battle concept to counter China's military buildup. But political problems and budgetary woes could kill the program before it ever gets started.
China's People's Liberation Army is building up anti-access and area-denial capabilities with the apparent goal of extending their power to the western half of the Pacific Ocean. Chinese military and political doctrine holds that China should rule the waves out to the second island chain of the western Pacific, which extends as far as Guam and New Guinea, essentially dividing the Pacific between the US and China and ending US hegemony on that ocean.
Among the anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) capabilities being fielded by China include anti-satellite weapons; spaced-based reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition; electromagnetic weapons; advanced fighter aircraft; unmanned aerial vehicles; advanced radar systems; and ballistic and cruise missiles.
The Chinese also have an emerging and muscular deep-water navy. "The PLA navy is increasing its numbers of submarines and other ships," said Admiral Gary Roughead, chief of US naval operations, at a recent speech hosted by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. "Navies tend to grow with economies and as trade becomes more important."
All of this has US military planners and thinkers worried. The A2AD buildup threatens the US forward presence and power projection in the region.
"Unless Beijing diverts from its current course of action, or Washington undertakes actions to offset or counterbalance the effects of the PLA’s military buildup," said a report recently released by the Washington-based Center for Budgetary and Strategic Assessments, "the cost incurred by the US military to operate in the [w]estern Pacific will likely rise sharply, perhaps to prohibitive levels, and much sooner than many expect[...].This situation creates a strategic choice for the United States, its allies and partners: acquiesce in a dramatic shift in the military balance or take steps to preserve it."
In response to the Chinese challenge, US strategic planners and thinkers are exploring a concept known as 'AirSea Battle,' the subject of the new CSBA report. "Admiral Roughead is conducting an AirSea Battle study inside the Pentagon," noted Senator Joseph Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, at a recent Washington gathering.
Spurring the need for AirSea Battle, CSBA president and report co-author Andrew Krepinevich told ISN Security Watch, is that "China will attempt to achieve a quick victory by inflicting such damage that the US would choose to discontinue the fight or driving a major US ally out of the war." A key objective of AirSea Battle, then, is to deny adversaries a quick victory.
AirSea Battle, as outlined in the CSBA report, is a complex set of concepts, involving the development of specific military capabilities, such as long-range strike systems, and operating concepts, such as greater integration between the US Navy and Air Force, that would offset the Chinese buildup. But the program has its political dimension as well: to reassure US allies, particularly the Japanese, and keep them from succumbing to Chinese pressure despite the apparent decline of US capabilities in the western Pacific.
The big squeeze
Looming in the background are the budgetary constraints now being placed on the Pentagon. In a speech earlier this month, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned military commanders not to expect to get everything they ask for. "The gusher has been turned off," he said, "and will stay off for a good period of time[...].[R]ealistically, it is highly unlikely that we will achieve the real [budget] growth rates necessary to sustain the current force structure."
Pursuing AirSea Battle would require a reordering of Pentagon priorities, especially in light of the budget squeeze. Gates has displayed a proclivity, as reflected in the Quadrennial Defense Review released earlier this year, towards developing a balanced, multifaceted defense posture. That position does not promote sharp decision making that allocates scarce resources to emerging threats.
In fact, according to the CSBA report, DoD continues to invest in capabilities that assume that the status quo will prevail in the western Pacific, emphasizing, for example, short-range over than long-range strike systems.
The US also faces the problem of bolstering the confidence of its allies. If US allies fold in the face of increasing Chinese power, China could win a war on the Pacific without firing a shot.
"US success will depend heavily on Japan’s active participation as an ally," said Krepinevich. "Most US allies in the region and lack strategic depth and must be supported and defended from the sea. US inability, real or perceived, to defend its allies and partners could lead to regional instability, including coercion or aggression."
But the US may already be losing the hearts and minds of the Japanese. As a recent article in the Washington Post noted, Japan's current government, "only the second opposition party to take power in nearly 50 years," advocates "a more Asia-centric view of Japan's place in the world." Although the immediate crisis on the Korean peninsula is having the effect of cementing US-Japanese relations-the Japanese government has accepted a plan it once rejected to relocate a US Marine base on Okinawa-it is not clear how long that attitude will last.
Admiral Roughead noted that the US Navy has a strong operational relationship with the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force. But if the Asia-centric attitudes in Japan prevail, the JMFDS could easily develop a closer relationship with the Chinese navy.
Roughead acknowledged reports that the Chinese are planning to deploy one or more aircraft carriers to the Pacific, a new capability for them, but dismissed any potential threat to US interests. "Carrier operations are very complex," he said. "It took us 70 years to get where we are.
"Besides," he added, "the bigger questions are what the intentions of the Chinese are and how the carriers will be used."
But US allies in the region might not see things that way. The projection of Chinese power on the Pacific may be enough for them to perceive their interests differently.
As Sun Tzu said in his classic, The Art of War, "To win one 100 victories in 100 battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill."
By. Peter Buxbaum