07/02/2013 04:08 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2013

Air-Sea Battle and the Challenge of Access

In recent years, U.S. defense experts have focused on the growing "Anti-Access/Area Denial" (A2/AD) challenge from the Peoples Republic of China (PRC). China has developed and deployed military capabilities that undermine the U.S. capacity to project power into China's littoral areas. These include advanced ballistic and cruise missiles, quiet modern submarines, extensive air defenses, and potentially decisive offensive cyber-warfare applications. In a potential worst-case scenario, a highly-coordinated first-strike by China could essentially disarm Taiwan, and also knock U.S. forward bases in the Western Pacific off-line. Because U.S. naval vessels would also be at risk within a contested zone extending off China's coastline, the United States response would be severely limited.

To address this challenge, thinking within some quarters of the Pentagon has seemingly centered on a new operational concept called Air-Sea Battle (ASB). Analogous to the Air-Land Battle concept that envisioned close coordination between U.S. airpower and ground forces to defeat numerically superior Soviet armored forces in Western Europe during the 1980s, ASB would integrate elements of U.S. air and naval power to maintain and expand the capacity of the United States to project power around Taiwan and in China's littoral regions.

The Pentagon is quick to assert ASB is an operational concept; not a specific strategy or battle plan focused on any specific nation. However, it is expected to shape and inform the way the Pentagon invests in research and development, procures and deploys new weapons systems, and reconfigures force structures and manpower requirements over the longer-term. As a component of larger U.S. approaches to executing critical missions that address threats to U.S. security interests, ASB would maintain access in contested zones in important regions. It is asserted that this capacity would deter China from future provocation, reassure Taiwan and America's allies in the region, and enhance stability in the event of a political crisis.

As it is presented, Air-Sea Battle is not without potential problems. First, in reality it may be difficult to develop cost-effective technological solutions to overcome China's geographic "home field" advantage vis-à-vis Taiwan. Certain ideas, like ringing China's periphery with new conventional ballistic missiles would seem highly provocative, potentially destabilizing in the event of crisis (both sides may have incentives to strike first), and both excessively costly and diplomatically controversial. The United States is currently prohibited from developing or deploying these types of missiles under the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia, which is similarly constrained. Other programs like a next-generation penetrating bomber to replace the B-2 would also be costly, but may provide the United States with more flexible capabilities and contribute to a wider-range of missions.

Second (and closely related) is that almost any alternative operational approach that seeks to improve U.S. deterrent capabilities is predicated on destroying targets on the Chinese mainland. This, in and of itself, is highly problematic and fraught with danger. Once targets on Chinese soil are hit, the potential for escalation would increase significantly. Under conflict conditions, it may be difficult for Beijing to know what the United States may be targeting and why. If Chinese leaders thought that its own nuclear forces might be at risk or that the United States was committed to regime change, there could be strong incentives to escalate, even to nuclear weapons.

Third, at a fundamental level, China values Taiwan more highly than the United States does. Even if the Pentagon was completely unconstrained in terms of resources and could acquire and deploy all of the components of an Air-Sea Battle approach, neither the expectation of significant punishment nor the potential failure to achieve its maximum political objectives would realistically deter China from launching a punitive campaign against Taiwan in the event that Taipei unilaterally declares independence. The nature of deterrence in the event of a cross-Straits crisis is thus quite different from the challenge confronting the United States and NATO forces in Europe during the Cold War.

Air-Sea Battle may be an important starting point in the development of a clearer, more comprehensive understanding of what the United States may require to deter China from attempting to impose its preferred resolution to the status of Taiwan. However, it seems to be a "maximal" approach which is likely to be costly, risky in terms of escalation, and perceived as highly threatening and provocative by Beijing. The United States must develop alternatives to enhance its abilities to deter China while also reassuring Taiwan and U.S. regional allies, and avoiding the dangers of provocation and escalation in the event of a crisis.