My working assumption about international affairs is that people in mortal peril are careful and clever. On the other hand, people with plenty of money, power, and impunity are often arrogant and sloppy.
This outlook colors my perspective on various US dustups with adversarial nations, most recently Syria.
That’s why I’m unwilling to rule out the possibility of a false flag chemical weapons attack. Assad might be stupid enough to order an attack with the UN inspectors in Damascus; but as more details emerge concerning Saudi Arabia’s determination to bring down the Syrian regime pronto, the circumstantial case for Prince Bandar organizing the atrocity is strengthened.
I must say I have not been particularly impressed with the public dossier, which leans on the “panicky” exchanges and the interception of a conversation between the last Hezbollah higher-up clueless enough in this post-Snowden era to use an unsecured landline to dish dirt on Assad with his Iranian compadre.
When I look at Syria, I think about the PRC, with the caveat that if and when the United States tries to take down China, China will also have plenty of money, power, and impunity and the US will have to be more careful and clever than it has been.
The issue of red lines and casus belli was very much on my mind when I wrote my recent piece for Asia Times Online on Air Sea Battle, the think tank recipe for massive conventional war with the PRC.
What interested me was the fact that China has counterprogrammed asymmetrically against the United States in Asia in order to deny the US the justification and opportunity to enter the lists on behalf of Japan and The Philippines as a military power. The PRC advances the maritime conflicts as strictly civilian affairs, using maritime survey vessels and so on, keeping the disputes as much as possible on a bilateral, law-based basis.
The PRC has been careful and clever, in other words.
However, over recent decades the United States has not stood idly by as the PRC, Russia, and other antagonists/competitors of the United States have tried to shield themselves from the full-spectrum exercise of American power.
Through a combination of doctrine and dirty tricks, the United States has done its best to be able to go to war when it wants to.
In my Air Sea Battle post, I highlight an exchange between two U.S. Senators in 1968:
Senator CASE: Mr Chairman, I think one of the suggestions, I do not know that it has quite been put into these words, is that the Defense Department, for purposes which it considered most patriotic and necessary, decided that the time had come to stop shillyshallying with the commies and resist, and this was the time, and it had to be contrived so that the President could come along, and that the Congress would follow. That is one of the things.
Senator HICKENLOOPER: I think historically whenever a country wants to go to war it finds a pretext. We have had 5,000 pretexts historically to go to war.
Or, in other words:
Senator Case and Senator Hickenlooper’s thoughts were recorded in an executive session of the Foreign Relations Committee convened to discuss a staff report concerning the Gulf of Tonkin incident. The transcript was declassified in 2010 through the efforts of John Kerry.
The takeaway from the staff report was that the Johnson administration was very, very keen to escalate US involvement in the Vietnam War. Therefore, it brushed aside worrisome details of the August 4, 1964 incident in order to rush through a retaliatory attack (the first bombing attack against North Vietnam by the US, signaling that the entire country was in play and the US would no longer limit its involvement to propping up the strongman du jour in Saigon against the assault of the Viet Cong) and pass the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.
The immediate context for Senator Hickenlooper’s ruminations is that the staff report made a very strong case that no attack had actually occurred on August 4, 1964 (the Maddox and the Turner Joy were chasing their own tails, not North Vietnamese PT boats); nevertheless questions about the true character of the incident were hurriedly brushed aside in order to launch the retaliatory attack and push through the resolution.
By contrast, the committee was wrestling with the current issue of the sigint vessel USS Pueblo’s capture by North Korea and also remembering the attack on another US signals intelligence vessel, the Liberty by Israel in 1967 (quick note: Wikipedia needs to take a look at its article on the Liberty incident, which was apparently written by the public relations office of the IDF; interested readers may refer to the NSA’s declassified report on the incident, in which an NSA deputy director is quoted as dismissing the Israeli investigation as “a nice whitewash” .)
Since the United States was not interested in going to war with North Korea or Israel, those genuine attacks on US sigint vessels were not casi belli; but a spurious attack attributed to North Vietnam provoked a retaliatory attack, a congressional resolution, and a great big war.
Hence Senator Hickenlooper’s musing.
The U.S. has worked to sweep aside barriers to armed intervention with remarkably vague and non-legalistic invocations of red lines, universal values, human rights, global norms, the delicate sensibilities of the international community, etc. Of course the Bush administration attempted to broaden the legal basis for military action with the doctrine of pre-emption of potential threats (basically anything and everything) instead of imminent threats (the maniac cutting through your door with a chain saw).
Remarkably, the Obama administration, through Susan Rice, has signaled its determination to expand this doctrine beyond threats to the United States or its allies with the doctrine R2P—responsibility to protect the citizens of an adversary. R2P would give a green light for the United States to intervene when some local slice of humanity, not just US citizens, was exposed to threat from an unsavory government.
In fact, that’s pretty much what we did in Libya, albeit through a UN resolution and with a lot of cajoling by France.
The queasy character of the US intervention doctrine is on full display in Syria, where the Obama administration has reserved for itself the role of judge, jury, and executioner (and for that matter, legislator, by unilaterally promulgating the chemical weapons red line) in the matter of Bashar al Assad’s alleged transgressions in the matter of weapons of mass destruction. Since the US anticipates that the UN Security Council will be unwilling to authorize action against Syria, President Obama reserved the right to act independently. Even as he submitted the question of a resolution to the US congress, his spokespeople reserved the right for the president to order an attack even if the resolution didn’t pass.
A fine kettle of fish.
This got me to thinking that a lot of American wars start with a lie. Not because the United States is especially mendacious or wicked, but because when it comes time to start a war, its designated enemies have probably done a pretty good job of establishing plausible factual and legal rebuttals to the popularly accepted legal justifications for war.
Like Saddam. He dealt with the demand to get rid of his WMDs by getting rid of his WMDs. But President Bush figured out a way to deal with Saddam!
Like Gaddafi. He declared a ceasefire to comply with UN Resolution 1973. Didn’t help him!
The PRC government has deployed all of the stratagems that America’s adversaries have deployed in order to keep from getting bombs dropped on them: non-military management of disputes that might impinge on the US, legalistic adherence to international law, a reliance on the restraining factor of a useful veto in the UN Security Council, and advocacy of the principle of sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs.
If China is throwing its weight around in a manner that the United States deems unacceptable, how does the United States bring into play its most important great power asset—the ability to threaten and carry out military attacks on a recalcitrant state?
It occurs to me that a prime directive of US military planners and diplomats must be the issue of how and when to start a war with the PRC if we want and need one.
I think about that in the conclusion of the Asia Times Online article, where I dig through the history of the Gulf of Tonkin incident made available by government declassification over the last decade or so, and how the Johnson administration was able to conjure up a war out of a clusterf*ck in the Tonkin Gulf.
I also think about it when the western press credulously amplifies spurious claims that “China is flying fighter jets through Japanese airspace” and “China is preparing to erect structures on the Scarborough Shoal.”
Starting a war with China, if the US wants one, is really not going to be terribly hard.
Which brings me back, by a long and circuitous route, back to my even longer and more circuitous article about Air Sea Battle at Asia Times Online.
Air Sea Battle (or ASB) makes the case for a massive upgrade of US military capabilities in the West Pacific in order to successfully handle one rather improbable scenario—a simultaneous attack against all US military and security interests in the region within reach of the People’s Republic of China.
This is not a likely scenario for a variety of reasons.
But not impossible, I suppose, if China’s Brezhnev fights his way to the top of the political pile in the CCP with a divine mandate to resurrect the COMECON bloc and convinces the PLA that the key to China’s future is obliterating its economic relationships with the United States, Japan, and Western Europe and cutting itself off from Middle Eastern energy so the PRC can monopolize the economic opportunities of The Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam and lap up all that sweet, sweet crude that apparently lurks under the South China and East China Seas.
Could happen, I guess. I’m not holding my breath.
The closest thing to a real-world justification for ASB is that it will prevent or at least delay the Finlandization of China’s smaller neighbors–even though the PRC seems to have enough economic and enforcement levers and legal and diplomatic cover to create a lot of problems for the Philippines and Vietnam (and to a lesser extent, Japan) without running afoul of the US military.
But, as I point out in the article, the United States needs to be at war with the PRC if it wishes to bring full US power to bear. And the chances that the PRC will initiate a full-spectrum attack against the US military and give the United States a justification to destroy all of the PRC’s military assets and much of its economy in a prolonged campaign are pretty small.
So I think if and when war comes, it will come courtesy of one of Senator Hickenlooper’s 5000 pretexts, in response to a US policy decision, perhaps a decision by that the US policy makers decide that China is getting stronger and more assertive and less cooperative, US military dominance is a wasting asset, and it better be wielded to cut China down to size before the PRC becomes a genuine peer competitor.
War with China is, to me, a remote contingency. But ASB makes it more likely, by holding out the promise that the war is winnable and increasing the temptation to figure out the best way to start one.
The ATOl piece is below the jump. It can be reposted if Asia Times Online is acknowedged and a link provided.
Suppose we offered battle …
By Peter Lee
Suppose we gave a war … and only a People’s Republic of China maritime surveillance vessel showed up?
That is the first of many conundrums facing the US military as it considers the megaboondoggle known as ”Air-Sea Battle”.
With the Barack Obama administration aspiring to pivot out of the Middle East (albeit with a stopover in Syria and, just maybe, Iran), and into Asia, it was felt that a new US military doctrine was required to drive planning, preparation, and budgets.
Air Sea Battle – its name consciously mimicking Air Land Battle, the doctrine that guided US vigilance against another big red boogeyman, the Soviet Union, in Europe in the 1970s – originated with a study by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment published in 2010. It is unapologetically constructed around the challenge – the ”unprovoked challenge”, as the authors characterized it – that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) might pose to the United States.
Actually, the threat is not to the United States. It is the threat to the ability of the US military to operate in the Western Pacific. And, for that matter, it isn’t an actual threat:
With the spread of advanced military technologies and their exploitation by other militaries, especially China’s PLA, the US military’s ability to operate in an area of vital interest, the Western Pacific, is being increasingly challenged. While Beijing professes benign intentions, it is an old military maxim that since intentions can change overnight – especially in authoritarian regimes – one must focus on the military capabilities of other states.
Well, it could be a threat.
And if it were a threat, it could be called anti-access/area denial. And it could get its own cool acronym: A2/AD. Which is what they did.
Too bad the threat wasn’t defined as ”regional reaction/domain denial”. Then we could call the threat R2D2 and people would associate the People’s Republic of China with the Star Wars robot that looked so cute and harmless in the first movies but then became a flying, high-tech killing machine in the prequels.
It is perhaps unkind to mock Air Sea Battle and the effort, expense, and gravitas that went into its preparation. Unfortunately, it is eminently mockable. Its apparently disabling paradox is illustrated on pages 9 and 10 of the CSBA study:
It must be emphasized that an AirSea Battle concept is not about war with China. Nor is it about ”rolling back” Chinese influence, or even about ”containing” China. Rather, it should be seen as part of a larger ”offsetting strategy” that acknowledges that China’s tremendous economic achievement simultaneously enables it to acquire formidable military capabilities. … One of the key elements of such an offsetting strategy is demonstrating a continuing US ability to reassure allies and partners in the region that they will not be the victims of coercion or a form of ”Finlandization” on the part of China. To accomplish this, the United States must have a demonstrable ability to intervene effectively in the event of a military confrontation or even conventional conflict with China.
The key question: if we are not fighting a war with China; if indeed China is doing bad things like coercion and Finlandization but does not engage in military hostilities with the United States, how do we get from of Air Sea Just Sitting There to Air Sea Battle?
That is a problem the authors can’t answer – unless China obliges by launching a first-strike attack on US military forces, in other words turns the threat of A2/AD into reality. This is openly identified as the first assumption underlying the Air Sea Battle concept:
This paper assumes that China would have the strategic and operational initiative at the outset of war and that, even with warning, US military forces would not be authorized to preempt imminent Chinese military action kinetically. Thus the United States must be able to recover from the initial blow by aggressor forces and sustain operations for the concept to be viable.
As to the scenarios in which the People’s Republic of China might choose to attack the military forces of the United States – under which circumstances the authors assume full participation by treaty partners Japan and Australia on the US side – the study is, unfortunately, silent.
So the Air Sea Battle slides past the awkward issue of why or when China would launch a first strike against US forces, and fast forwards to an interesting discussion of how it would be done.
In the opening minutes of a conflict, seek to render US and allied forces ”deaf, dumb and blind” by destroying or degrading US and allied Low Earth Orbit (LEO) ISR [information, surveillance and reconnaissance], Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS), third-generation Infrared System (3GIRS) sensors and communications satellites. This would be accomplished by employing directed-energy weapons, direct-ascent and co-orbital anti-satellite weapons, or terrestrial jamming, in concert with coordinated cyber and electronic warfare attacks;
>> Conduct ballistic missile salvo attacks, complemented by LACMs [land attack Cruise missiles] launched from various platform types, against US and Japanese air and naval bases. Attacks on Japanese targets could be supplemented by air strikes. Key targets would include forward air bases including those at Andersen, Kadena and Misawa; major logistics nodes such as Guam (airfields and port facilities); and key logistics assets such as fuel storage tanks. The PLA’s objective would be to deny US forces the ability to generate substantial combat power from its air bases in the Western Pacific;
>> Conduct major strikes using land-based anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM) and anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) launched from various platforms and submarines against all major US Navy and allied warships at sea within 1,500 nm of the Chinese coast, with particular emphasis on the maritime areas around the PRC’s littorals. The PLA’s objective would be to raise the cost of the US and allied fleet operations within this ”keep-out” zone to prohibitive levels (see Figure 4); and
>> Interdict US and allied sea lines of communication (SLOCs) throughout Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific. Nuclear submarines could patrol forward near Hawaii in the Pacific and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to interdict the flow of supplies and reinforcements moving to forward bases; attack Navy assets transiting to and from operating areas in the Western Pacific; and force the Navy to divert substantial resources to convoy escort and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) in non-forward areas.
With the United States securely in the category of innocent victim of unprovoked aggression, the planners and the US military are off to the races: space war, cyber war, ”blinding attacks”, ”thinning out” the PLA’s missile inventory, three months of warfare against Chinese surface and submarine war vessels, and so on.
And, by the way, bye-bye Beijing, per the study’s assumptions:
Neither US nor Chinese Territory Will Be Accorded Sanctuary Status
Neither belligerent will be off-limits to strikes by the other. At a minimum, selected US conventional counterforce strikes – both kinetic and nonkinetic (eg, cyber) – inside China will be authorized from the conflict’s onset. A limited number of very high-leverage targets, principally those related to China’s air defenses, command and control, ISR, and counter-space/space control, as well as fixed-site and mobile ballistic missiles (including production sites), lie at the heart of the PLA’s A2/AD operational approach. According these targets sanctuary status would severely undermine US attempts to maintain a stable military balance in the Western Pacific and, as such, decrease the effectiveness of deterrence.
The report makes another necessary assumption to keep the party going:
Mutual Nuclear Deterrence Holds
Tacit agreement not to use or threaten the use of nuclear weapons would appear to be in both parties’ interests. There have been several wars where weapons of mass destruction were possessed by one side or the other, and yet were not employed, even by the defeated power. In World War II, Germany accepted a total defeat at the hands of the allies without employing its formidable arsenal of chemical weaponry. In the First Gulf War, Iraq suffered a severe defeat but did not resort to the use of its chemical weapons. If this assumption does not hold and nuclear warfare ensues, then the character of the conflict would change so dramatically as to render discussion of major conventional warfare irrelevant. Of course, an Air Sea Battle operational concept and its associated capabilities are intended to deter conventional acts of coercion or aggression, thereby reducing the prospects of a nuclear confrontation.
The People’s Republic of China recently affirmed its ”no first use” nuclear weapons doctrine. In other words, the PRC’s relatively modest nuclear arsenal is designed to survive and thereby deter a first nuclear strike by somebody else.
There appears to be an across-the-board consensus that ASB’s assumption that the exchange will not go nuclear is reasonable.
The current Chinese nuclear arsenal does not include any announced tactical component, making it unlikely that it would be used in its current form in an ASB exchange.
RAND’s David Shlapak told Asia Times:
Attacking the homeland of any nuclear-armed country is always a fraught undertaking. That said, I’m not aware of any evidence that China is considering developing tactical nuclear weapons as a response to ASB, and I wouldn’t expect their nuclear doctrine to change to counter what is after all a tactical concept.
If China did change so as to threaten a nuclear response to conventional attack, they’d face a pretty high credibility hurdle. The United States, after all, has enormous quantitative and qualitative advantages in the nuclear realm. The US and NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] had a very difficult time making believable escalatory threats in the context of a European war against the Warsaw Pact, even though its nuclear capability was at worst on par with the Soviets’; China would encounter the same dilemma.
However, I think this assumption may be too optimistic.
The premise of ASB is ”no sanctuaries”, which strongly implies that the area of Beijing – which is clustered with SAM missile sites in addition to its command-and-control significance – would not be declared off-limits to US and Japanese strikes.
ASB, despite its efforts to paint the encounter as symmetric (they attack our military targets with conventional weapons, we attack their military targets with conventional weapons, gentlemen come out of your corners at the bell, I want a nice, clean fight) and therefore controllable, really isn’t.
The war is supposed to be fought all over Chinese territory. Of course, the PLA Navy is welcome to try to sail into the Atlantic Ocean and attack Washington DC in retaliation but this is simply not going to happen.
Beijing getting ”shock and awed” by precision strikes is probably not part of the Chinese leadership’s plan for regime survival, so we should not automatically assume that the PRC’s only riposte to ASB will be to keep the fight on a mano-a-mano straight-up conventional basis.
Where stands Japan?
A further complicating factor is ASB’s assumption that Japan will be pitching in on the US side (according to the ASB Gotterdammerung scenario, China would simultaneously attack US military bases in Japan, thereby bringing Japan into the war). Japan and the PRC are locked in vicious antagonism that is, up to now, still thankfully verbal. But the flip side to Japanese feistiness with China is its increasing independence from the United States, and the current government’s desire to shed the restraints of the pacifist constitution and control its own security destiny.
Add to this the nascent, well maybe not so nascent, dream of some in Japan to celebrate its return to full great power status by fielding a nuclear arsenal (Japan’s Epsilon rocket, which has virtually no civilian potential and walks talks and quacks like an ICBM, is in the midst of launch tests) and we have the possibility of an independent, aggressive, and nuclear Japan in the mix against China.
It is increasingly difficult to imagine that PLA planners are not talking about an alternate future in which tactical nuclear weapons are deployed and a new doctrine announced in order to mix it up with the Japanese as well as deter the massive conventional attack on the Chinese mainland as envisaged by ASB.
If Air Sea Battle were put into effect and the Chinese regime decides its security is best served by the threat of air-bursting a nuclear weapon over the USS George Washington instead of pouring more money and development effort into its conventional the carrier-killer missile … well, hopefully CSBA has another study in its safe dealing with this contingency.
In passing, for those of you who have ever looked at a map of the South China Sea and said to yourselves, hmmm, it looks like the nation with the most vital interest in free navigation down there is actually China, so what exactly is the point of the United States’ national interest in protecting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea from the Chinese threat, there’s this:
[T]he US forces could exploit the Western Pacific’s geography, which effectively channelizes Chinese merchant traffic. Since direct Chinese commerce with the United States and Japan would cease at the outbreak of conflict, there would be little if any trans-Pacific traffic left to intercept. Most interdiction efforts would focus on ships trying to transit the South China Sea. Traffic bound for China would be intercepted as it tried to enter the southern portions of the South China Sea, ie, beyond range of most PLA A2/AD systems, from the Malacca, Singapore, or major Indonesia straits.
And let’s not overlook the economic and environmental benefits of legal piracy:
Rather than the mass sinkings of merchant ships by German U-boats and their US counterparts during World War II, US and allied forces might conduct maritime interception operations (MIO) against ships bound for China. Economically (and environmentally) it would be far more beneficial to seize (and perhaps confiscate) prize cargos than sink them. The option to use force against noncompliant ships would be retained.
In November 2011, the Pentagon set up an ”Air Sea Battle Office”, whose debut was greeted with a flurry of interest and a storm of criticism.
As to how this concept got off the drawing board and into the public discourse, it did respond to a genuine and immediate threat – the threat that termination of the Iraq and Afghan wars and the pivot out of the Middle East would bring some major adjustments to US defense spending. The real enemies confronting each other over the contested terrain of the Pacific: US Army vs US Air Force and Navy.
A 2012 article in the bureaucrat-friendly Government Executive magazine with the optimistic title ”The Next War” rather awkwardly framed the matter as one of turning away from essential unpleasantness of Army-type war, with its IEDs, brutalized local populations, and devastating post-traumatic stress disorder issues, to the more sleek and satisfying alternative of men and women in crisp uniforms firing extremely expensive ordinance from fancy ships and airplanes:
In this war over the next war, the Air Force and Navy have stolen an intellectual march over the Army with their joint AirSea Battle concept. It is a vision of future conflict well-matched to America’s exhaustion with ground wars, its preference for high-tech, long-range engagements and its growing anxiety over the rise of China. …
AirSea Battle and the anti-access/area denial threat have come to dominate the debate, with the Army still struggling to respond. The ground force has no grand concept yet to carry its banner in the inter-service battle over missions, roles and funding. The Obama administration’s strategic guidance, issued in January, explicitly swears off the kind of ”large-scale, prolonged stability operations” that the Army and Marines spent the last decade learning, slowly and bloodily, how to do.
As an American taxpayer, I was interested to learn that the centerpiece of the Air Force and Marine’s order of battle – and the Pentagon’s biggest procurement program, amounting to almost half a trillion dollars – might be the wrong kit for the job by the standards of Air Sea Battle:
As powerful as the idea has proved, AirSea Battle poses one big problem for its Air Force and Navy sponsors: The two services’ largest program, the Joint Strike Fighter, doesn’t actually fit the concept very well. The Air Force, Navy and Marines are committed to buying 2,457 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, also known as Lightning IIs, for an estimated $395.7 billion. …
The F-35 has a combat mission radius – the maximum distance at which it can strike a target and return without refueling – of about 600 nautical miles (not quite 700 statute miles, or 1,100 kilometers). While the aircraft itself is a small, stealthy, agile target, the platforms from which it must refuels are not: Air Force tankers, aircraft carriers and air bases. As adversaries acquire ever longer-range and more accurate missiles, they can make it increasingly dangerous to refuel short-range fighters within 700 miles of their final target.
There are always alternatives, of course:
[G]iven AirSea Battle’s emphasis on long-range strikes, especially over the vast distances of the Pacific, the military is arguably over-investing in relatively short-range fighters and shortchanging long-range bombers.
A budget item of $5 billion is reportedly the downpayment on a new long range bomber – enough to pay for designing the landing gear, one analyst joked.
The Navy has its own equipment issues, though at $37 billion they are of a lower order of magnitude than those confronting the Air Force:
[I]n the seas, the Navy faces a similar square-peg, round-hole problem with the vessel it plans to buy more of than any other – the Littoral Combat Ship. ”These are not large surface combatants that are going to sail into the South China Sea and challenge the Chinese military; that’s not what they’re made for,” Adm Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, said at a Government Executive event in April. ”You won’t send it into an anti-access area” by itself.
Greenert’s candor triggered a cascade of other Navy leaders insisting that LCS was, indeed, a warship. The service has committed to buying 55 Littoral Combat Ships at an estimated cost of $37 billion, and the program already was under fire for cost overruns, schedule slips and construction defects on the first two vessels.
LCS will play a vital role in the future fleet, but a supporting one. Smaller, cheaper and significantly less damage-resistant than the standard Arleigh Burke-class destroyer …
The first LCS, the USS Freedom is forward-deployed at Changi in Singapore (to be followed by three more ships by 2017), one of the first fruits of the US ”pivot to Asia” and, potentially, a building block for ASB. The LCS also has a certain camel’s nose in the tent significance, because it turns out it needs destroyer escort in order to complete its mission in less than friendly environments:
[T]here are no plans to kit out LCS for the long-range strikes at the core of AirSea Battle, a role reserved for the more robust destroyers and the giant aircraft carriers. Indeed, the most survivable strike platform in the face of long-range anti-ship missiles is not a surface ship at all, but a submarine, which the Navy buys at a steady rate of two a year, more than any class of vessel except the LCS itself. But submarines can’t shoot down incoming missiles. So if Littoral Combat Ships go in to hunt subs and clear mines close to the coast of a well-armed enemy, they will need destroyers to escort them.
So, in addition to its other problematic elements, we can add to the dubious virtues of Air Sea Battle that it will require a U-turn on existing armaments and several decades and hundreds of billions of dollars for the military to bring its capabilities in line with the demands of the doctrine.
By 2013, Air Sea Battle seemed to be in retreat.
The Air Sea Battle Office issued a concept summary in May 2013 that did not mention the C word – China – and downplayed ASB as ”not a strategy” and ”a limited but critical component in a spectrum of initiatives”:
ASB is a limited objective concept that describes what is necessary for the joint force to sufficiently shape A2/AD environments to enable concurrent or follow-on power projection operations. The ASB Concept seeks to ensure freedom of action in the global commons and is intended to assure allies and deter potential adversaries.
Recently, Defense News reported rather disbelievingly on assertions that ASB was ”not about China” despite the existence of dozens of pages in the 2010 CSBA report describing details of protracted war with the PRC – complete with maps showing Chinese missile facilities, including factories, that would be recipients of the US military’s special attention.
Admiral Roughead (now retired), one of the progenitors of ASB, deployed his iPhone to rebut charges that it targeted – well, sought to ”contain” – China:
”There is a sense [among the Chinese] that it is aimed at China. My answer is, it’s not,” he said. ”Their perception is that it is aimed exclusively at them, that it’s there to contain them.
”My point is: We’re not containing China. If we were containing China, why do I have an iPhone” assembled in China ”on my desk?”
To divine the concept’s true intent, Roughead pointed to its origin.
”I set up a director of warfare integration,” he said. ”Then [General Norton Schwartz] came in” with the Air Force piece, and Air-Sea Battle was born.
Equally embarrassing was the allegation, difficult to prove or rebut but at the same time rather plausible, that the announced US interest in ASB had actually accelerated China’s A2AD efforts:
Some critics have charged that the Air-Sea Battle concept is driving China to increase its A2AD capabilities, often pointing to recently fielded weapons that could threaten US aircraft carriers. [Jan] Van Tol [one of the authors of the CSBA report] scoffs at the notion that such developments are driven by Air-Sea Battle.
”China has been trying to field those capabilities well before ASB,” he observed. ”Interest in ASB did not trigger Chinese interest in fielding these systems.”
One of those critics, Georgetown University’s Amitai Etzioni, begged to differ:
The Pentagon, when explaining Air-Sea Battle, increasingly speaks about interservice cooperation and coordination rather than offensive capabilities. Etzioni has noticed the trend.
”It’s true that they’re now walking it back, because it’s really very escalating,” he said. ”The Chinese keep pointing to it as a reason to escalate.”
Currently, ASB appears to be out of vogue, judging by the key Pentagon metrics – budget, staffing, an exciting mission, and institutional heat – as reported by Defense News:
Within the Air-Sea Battle office itself, the discussion – at least to outsiders – today centers on the interservice cooperation and integration the concept is attempting to foster. …
Only 17 officers are assigned to the Air-Sea Battle office, which has no specific budget. The officers are counted as part of the Plans, Policy and Operations offices from their respective services.
The database of military assets is not a completed work, [Navy Captain Philip] Dupree said, nor will it be finished soon.
”You’re right, we are creating a database. But the database is not like we worked it all out,” he said. ”This is a process that is going to take years. It is a lot of capabilities that we are tying together.”
The real work of the office, Dupree said, ”is to facilitate the conversation … ”
However, there are serious issues pertaining to the military positions of the People’s Republic of China that ASB attempted to address, sometimes haltingly and sometimes indirectly, by evoking new norms under the guise of establishing a new doctrine – or concept.
The first is to reaffirm absolute US military dominance (and not just military parity or maintenance of a credible deterrent) as an existential necessity, even as the technological and financial costs threaten to become prohibitive.
The US Navy and Air Force are accustomed to sailing and flying wherever they want without fear of suffering a devastating attack. In a decade or two, China might have the capability to A2/AD the United States, maybe just in the near-shore areas, maybe out to the first and second island chains.
It’s understandable that the United States wants to be No 1 militarily everywhere. Nobody likes to be Number 2, even though the 150+ other nations that make up the rest of the world have dealt with being Number 2 with varying degrees of success for the last 70 years.
For the United States to maintain its hegemon status in the Western Pacific as China ”rises” will require a truly massive investment. Since the PRC is not an overtly hostile power, it’s difficult for a democratic government which already has some serious budgetary problems to find the money and political will to fund that contingency.
ASB tries to justify that investment – and preclude an alternate future in which pursuit of a balance-of-power parity between the United States and China in the West Pacific keeps war off the table – by imagining a future in which the PRC would initiate an attack. If ASB is in place, the can US fight back and wins. Without ASB, our forces get chased out of the West Pacific Theater of Operations or WPTO per the jargon.
The second issue involves the accepted scope of military operations protecting Taiwan. The inconvenient truth about defending Taiwan is that the PRC’s aggressive deployment of surface-to-surface missiles means that a PRC attack can only be thwarted by strikes against Chinese missile bases deep on the mainland – a dangerous, escalating tactic.
In 2011, Raoul Heinrichs wrote in The Diplomat about the Taiwan element of ASB:
The officer, a senior leader in US Pacific Command, looked down, fumbled with his papers and shifted uncomfortably in his seat. It was 2009, and he was answering a question about whether, in a Taiwan Straits crisis similar to that which occurred in the mid-1990s, the United States could confidently respond by again deploying aircraft carrier groups around Taiwan. ‘No,’ he conceded after a long pause, ‘and it’s the thing that really keeps me up at night.’ It was a telling response.
… new doubts are emerging about the credibility of certain US strategic assurances, particularly in relation to Taiwan, which other US allies use as a barometer of Washington’s regional commitment.
ASB implicitly puts conventional warfare against the PRC mainland (with a crossed-fingers hope that the exchange doesn’t go nuclear) on the Taiwan agenda and, for that matter, on the Senkaku agenda, and asserts a new norm meant to blunt the advantage that the PRC enjoyed if hostilities were restricted to the vicinity of Taiwan and the Taiwan Strait: no sanctuaries, meaning that the arena of controlled aggression and mutually managed escalation, at least as defined by the United States, includes the entire Chinese mainland.
Taiwan independence offers the most plausible occasion for direct conflict between the United States and the PRC, since the Chinese leadership maintains its absolute claims to sovereignty over the island and has trumpeted its resolve to deny independence by any and all means. However, for obvious reasons the United States does not wish to go on record that it will barrage the entire Chinese mainland on behalf of Taiwan in order to regain military parity on behalf of Taiwan independence advocates.
The third norm relates to defining the People’s Republic of China as a first-strike military threat against US forces. Up until now, the PRC, like other nations that found themselves the object of US hostility, has been extremely canny about asymmetric counter-programming against US military superiority.
To date and for the foreseeable future, in its maritime arguments with its neighbors, the People’s Republic of China has eschewed direct military confrontation for deployment of civilian elements such as maritime surveillance vessels, coast guard vessels, and whatnot. A major purpose of this strategy is to deny the US military the opportunity to place its currently sole-hegemon thumb on the scale.
However, as America’s adversaries have learned to their terminal chagrin, carefully modulated defiance and careful appeals to international law and the authority of the United Nations butter no parsnips once the United States has decided it wants to drop the hammer on a nettlesome adversary.
… and enter Vietnam
For an illustration of how a US naval force engaged in routine patrol exercising its rights to freedom of navigation near an adversary’s waters was disrupted by an unprovoked surprise anti-access/aerial denial attack, which the US countered with a rapid, coordinated deployment of a broad spectrum of military assets (in ASB speak)
… or parlayed a confrontational stance into the dreaded Land War in Asia (in history speak)…
… we can look beyond this September of Syria and consider the Gulf of Tonkin incident of 1964.
In 1964, the Lyndon Johnson administration was acutely aware of the shaky status of the South Vietnamese regime under its current bossman, General Nguyen Khanh, and was eager to secure a congressional resolution that would enable the provision of more direct US aid.
There was considerable interest in achieving a casus belli – a direct outrage against US military forces that would justify escalation of US military action. The goal was obtained with the August 4, 1964, Gulf of Tonkin incident, in which two destroyers with an NSA Sigint mission – which involved trespassing into North Vietnamese territorial waters in order to provoke and record radar and radio responses – were supposedly attacked in international waters by a swarm of torpedo boats.
As a trickle of declassified documents has made clear, there was no attack on the night of August 4. There was, instead, a considerable amount of confusion and, perhaps, its inglorious doppelganger, panic, aboard the two destroyers, the Maddox and the Turner Joy as they sailed in circles evading non-existent torpedoes and then interpreted the sonar signal of their own propellers bouncing off their own wakes as more torpedoes. Over an hour and a half, hundreds of rounds were fired and fighter planes were summoned to bombard the empty ocean.
The heightened nervous tension aboard the two vessels was a product of the fact that, two days earlier, there had been a real attack, in which North Vietnamese torpedo boats chased down the Maddox in broad daylight and exchanged fire before fighters from a nearby US aircraft carrier plastered the boats.
And the reason that the North Vietnamese were so aggressive was because they had conflated the two destroyers with an apparently unrelated slice of US provocation: attacks on North Vietnamese targets by South Vietnamese special forces in Norwegian vessels (known as ”Nastys”) arranged by the United States, whose missions were subject to White House approval and under the direction of the US Military Advisory Command Vietnam to escalate pressure on North Vietnam with unprecedented direct attacks on North Vietnamese territory in order to get the Vietcong to ease off their campaign against General Khanh.
In fact, the August 2 attack had been triggered by a Nasty attack against Hon Me, a strategic Vietnamese island that was also a North Vietnamese PT boat base near the patrol area of the Maddox. On August 4, the US Navy was even more on edge because that night the Nastys had, for the first time, shelled the North Vietnamese mainland.
The NSA (whose voluminous sigint concerning the incident underwent considerable suppression and distortion in the weeks after the incident) then made its own modest but signal (pun intended) contribution to the emerging cock-up by misinterpreting intercepted North Vietnamese radio traffic as evidence of PT boats massing for an attack. The Maddox and the Turner Joy received a message warning of the danger of an attack. They demanded US jet fighters from the Ticonderoga and Constellation overhead at all times, and not just 15 minutes away.
The two vessels bravely continued with their near-shore missions because of the importance of upholding the principle of freedom of navigation (the official reason):
1. Termination of DESOTO patrol [the cage-rattling Sigint mission] after two days of patrol ops (operations) subsequent to Maddox incident as planned in Ref A (this was basic instruction for patrol), does not in my view adequately demonstrate United States resolve to assert our legitimate rights in these international waters. …
The above patrol will: (a) clearly demonstrate our determination to continue these operations.
Or, according to the jaundiced view of a secret report prepared by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1968:
It says clearly that CINCPACFLT was disappointed with the results of the mission thus far – that is, the United States had not yet ”demonstrated” its resolve to assert its legitimate rights in international waters. This seems to mean that we had not as yet had the opportunity to demonstrate this forcibly.
… Although the administration described the patrol of the Maddox and Turner Joy as routine but prepared for attack, there is considerable evidence that the objective of the patrol was to provoke the North Vietnamese and then to bloody them if they responded to the provocation.
Later on August 4, US personnel at the scene quickly backed away from apocalyptic narrative they had been feeding their superiors during the supposed encounter. However, it was too late to stop the roll toward launching a retaliatory raid – for whatever reason; it was followed by an address to the nation and passage of the Tonkin Gulf resolution, which LBJ approvingly characterized as ”like Granny’s nightgown; it covered everything”.
The question has been asked why the White House ignored the dubious nature of the August 4 action, and the reasonably prompt caveats issued by officers on the scene, and did not wait for daylight and a survey of the surrounding ocean to see if the US fusillade had actually hit anything before ordering the retaliatory raids against North Vietnamese boats and ports which – since the North Vietnamese PT boats had not been engaged in any actions on August 4 and were unaware that a ”red line” had supposedly been crossed – caught them completely napping.
In 2009, Gareth Porter made a compelling case that secretary of defense Robert McNamara knew the case was weak, but decided to issue the executive order for the attack and get the Vietnam War ball rolling instead of sharing his doubts with LBJ.
In the secret 1968 staff investigation (only declassified through the efforts of John Kerry in 2010), the Senate Foreign Relations Committee determined that secretary McNamara had misled the committee by stating that the North Vietnamese had fired first on August 2 (the Maddox had fired first as the boats approached at high speed and clearly unfriendly intent), by characterizing the August 4 attack as unprovoked and in international waters (given the provocation of the Nasty attacks and the fact that the Maddox‘s mission involved sailing inside North Vietnamese territorial waters and the fact, unearthed with some difficulty by the staff, that the US Navy knew about the Nasty missions.
On the even more sensitive question of what personnel of the US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, were doing aboard the destroyers the night of the incident – and the coastal raids – the committee apparently chose not to go there).
This exercise in near-shore assertiveness gives an idea of how quickly an incident can turn into a war, especially when the desire to start a war is barely disguised.
The commander of the Navy task force in charge of the Maddox and Turner Joy sent out the message (page 71 of the report) that reads like the distant but direct ancestor 21st century Air Sea Battle fear-mongering:
It is apparent that DRV [Democratic Republic of Vietnam] has thrown down the gauntlet now considers itself at war with the United States. It is felt that they will attack US forces on sight with no regard for cost. US ships in Gulf of Tonkin can no longer assume that they will be considered neutrals exercising the right of free transit. They will be treated as belligerents from first detection and must consider themselves as such. DRV PTS [patrol craft] have advantage, especially at night, of being able to hide in junk concentrations all across the Gulf of Tonkin. This would allow attack from short range with little or no early warning.
Tonkin 1964 looks a lot like ASB 2030: hostility and hair-trigger reactions in an adversary’s near-shore waters under the flag of ”freedom of navigation”.
Of course, ASB can deter war, if the destabilizing escalation it engenders is managed by men and women of infinite wisdom and with the best of motives; but extrapolating from the 1964 precedent, in other hands, it can simply make provoking a war easier.
Considering that ASB needs the plausibility of the PRC launching an initial attack to justify itself, that should be enough to make people nervous.
In 1968, digesting the staff report in executive session, the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee ruminated on the implications of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and the war resolution it enabled:
Senator CASE: Mr Chairman, I think one of the suggestions, I do not know that it has quite been put into these words, is that the Defense Department, for purposes which it considered most patriotic and necessary, decided that the time had come to stop shillyshallying with the commies and resist, and this was the time, and it had to be contrived so that the President could come along, and that the Congress would follow. That is one of the things.
Senator HICKENLOOPER: I think historically whenever a country wants to go to war it finds a pretext. We have had 5,000 pretexts historically to go to war. [page 97]
5,000 pretexts for war. Make ASB the five thousand and first.
1. See csbaBonline, Air Sea Battle Concept, May 2010.
2. See Shisaku, What is in fact ICBM, August 2013.
3. See Govexec, Next War, August 2012.
4. See Govexec, Next War, August 2012.
5. See Defense.gov, ASB Concept Implementation Summary, May 2013.
6. See Defense News, Defining Air Sea Battle, July 27, 2013.
7. See Diplomat, America’s Dangerous Battle Plan, August 17, 2011.
8. See NSA.gov.
9. See GPO.gov.
10. See Therealnews.com.
Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.
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