If you have never heard of the Air-Sea Battle (ASB) concept, you are in the good company of most Americans. Since 2009 the Pentagon has been fleshing out this operational concept, which prepares the United States, among other contingencies, for an all-out war with China. You may say, "Wait a moment; surely the military has a contingency plan for everything, even for an alien invasion" -- and you would be correct. Air-Sea Battle, however, is moving beyond the contingency phase to implementation, including force restructuring and significant budget allocations, changes that are difficult to reverse once they are set in motion.
The challenges that led the Pentagon to develop Air-Sea Battle are indeed formidable. Military leaders point out that potential adversaries of the U.S. have acquired increasingly sophisticated "anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities," which is Pentagon-speak for weapons and technologies that threaten the United States' freedom to enter, maneuver within, and defend the global commons "of the air, sea, cyberspace, and space." For instance, anti-ship missiles. In response, ASB calls for greater cooperation among the Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Army for the execution of "networked, integrated attacks-in-depth to disrupt, destroy, and defeat enemy anti-access area denial capabilities."
Officials emphasize that ASB is not directed at any one nation. However, no country has invested nearly as much in A2/AD as China and few international environments are more contested -- than the waters of the Asia-Pacific. Hence, while in the past the U.S. could send in a couple aircraft carriers as a credible display of force, as it did in 1996 when the Chinese conducted a series of missile tests and military exercises in the Strait of Taiwan, in the not-so-distant future Chinese anti-ship missiles could deny U.S. access to the region. Thus, it is not surprising that one senior Navy official overseeing modernization efforts stated that, "Air-Sea Battle is all about convincing the Chinese that we will win this competition."
Although much of the ASB remains classified, in May of this year the Navy released an unclassified summary that illuminates how the concept is beginning to shape the military's plans and acquisitions. In 2011, the Pentagon set up the Air-Sea Battle Office to coordinate investments, organize war games, and incorporate the ASB concept in training and education across all four Services. A Congressional Research Service report notes that "the Air-Sea Battle concept has prompted Navy officials to make significant shifts in the service's FY2014-FY2018 budget plan, including new investments in ASW, electronic attack and electronic warfare, cyber warfare, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), the P-8A maritime patrol aircraft, and the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) UAV [Unmanned Aerial Vehicle]."
Critics of Air-Sea Battle warn that it is inherently escalatory and could even precipitate a nuclear war. Not only will the U.S.'s development of ASB likely accelerate China's expansion of its nuclear, cyber, and space weapons programs, but according to Joshua Rovner of the U.S. Naval War College, the early and deep inland strikes on enemy territory envisioned by the concept could be mistakenly perceived by the Chinese as preemptive attempts to take out its nuclear weapons, thus cornering them into "a terrible use-it-or-lose-it dilemma." Hence, some call for "merely" imposing a blockade on China along the first island chain (which stretches from Japan to Taiwan and through the Philippines) in order to defeat an aggressive China without risking a nuclear war.
Although Air-Sea Battle is often criticized as being a plan without a strategy, it actually reflects a major strategic shift, namely, to defeat China rather than accommodate its rise as a regional power. By seeking to guarantee the United States' unfettered access to China's backyard -- by a preemptive mainland strike if necessary -- Air-Sea Battle goes way beyond the containment strategy employed against the USSR and its allies during the Cold War. It merely sought to keep the USSR from expanding any further. Not to use military might to cow and if need be defeat the other side.
The Pentagon is doing its job. It identified a new threat and is preparing to face it in the ways it knows how. In doing so, it is propelled by a strong preference within the military -- after more than a decade of being bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan -- to fight conventional battles rather than dirty 'shadow' wars against terrorists and insurgents. And, one cannot help but assume, is egged on by defense contractors that stand to gain by producing all the new hardware.
The rub, as demonstrated by a study just published by yours truly in the Yale Journal of International Affairs, is that it seems the White House has not approved ASB -- because it has not yet reviewed it or developed a coherent China policy. It is not at all clear that civilian officials have weighed the Pentagon's assessment of the threat posed by China against input from other sources, such as the State Department, Treasury, and the intelligence community. Such a thorough review is called for, before the U.S. slips into a major military buildup without first testing the thesis that China is much too preoccupied with major domestic challenges of its own to become a global power or to consider confronting the United States.
One thing is clear though: If you are a Chinese leader and read that the U.S. military is debating whether to hit the mainland of your country or "only" deprive China of the energy and raw materials it desperately needs by imposing a blockade, you are surely going to pursue a military buildup of your own. We hence face the danger that two major powers, each best served by focusing on problems at home, will again be caught up in preparations for war that may well end up in an all out military conflagration. Surely the ASB plan deserves public debate and a careful review on the highest level.
A panel discussion of the ASB will take place at The George Washington University on Wednesday, July 10, 2013 from 4 to 6 pm. For more information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at The George Washington University and the author of Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World.