Archive for the ‘Ambitions’ Category

Asia Pivot and Air-Sea Battle: Precipitating Military Competition with China?

by Carl Conetta, 03 March 2014

Will China come to pose a peer military threat to the United States?

The Obama administration’s 2012 Strategic Defense Review and the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) turn on this eventuality. Both the so-called “Asia pivot” and the evolving Air-Sea Battle (ASB) operational concept are meant to preclude it. But they may serve to precipitate it, instead.

The Pentagon’s tilt toward Asia finds strong support in the US Navy, while Air-Sea Battle enthuses the Navy and Air Force alike. ASB, and its link to US-China contention, provides a bulwark against defense budget retrenchment as well as a rallying cry for a defense industry that fears a return of Pentagon modernization spending to pre-Iraq War levels.

Whether or not China develops into a peer military rival, it does pose a critical challenge to America’s current defense strategy. Ever since publication of the first QDR in 1997, US strategy has premised itself on global military primacy. All four QDR’s to date have taken primacy to be the cornerstone of American security and, thus, a vital security interest in itself. But the usefulness of this formulation has depended on the unipolar nature of global relations since the collapse of the Soviet Union. That condition is now coming decisively to an end largely due to the rise of China and other big, rapidly developing nations. Both the Asia pivot and the ASB concept represent efforts to manage this emergent reality and forestall the end of the ‘American Century.’

Also central to the “QDR consensus” has been the notion that the United States should work to prevent the rise of unfriendly regional superpowers or, failing that, join with allies to balance against them. China has been the focus of such efforts in Asia. Its potential for becoming a regional hegemon is readily apparent. Today, China accounts for two-thirds of the total population and 55 percent of the economic strength of the 10 nations that border the Yellow, East, and South China Seas.

Successive US administrations have hoped that a combination of close-in military presence, engagement, and activism might convince China’s leaders to be more accommodating. At the same time, talk of China as an emergent military threat or likely competitor has been ubiquitous in America’s security policy debate (and in QDR’s after 2000.) It’s hard to find evidence that the net effect on the Chinese, if any, has been positive. Indeed, there has been unparalleled growth in Chinese defense spending and modernization efforts since 2001. Also, US-China military tensions may be contributing to rather than dissuading China’s strong and growing interest in exerting more control over its maritime perimeter.

Many analysts see America’s “Asia pivot,” announced in 2011, as largely a change in military priorities. Some additionally question the substance of this military shift. (The Air-Sea Battle concept is subject to similar doubts.)

It’s true that the pivot involves little increase in America’s military presence in Asia. But this is occurring in the context of a longer-term reduction in America’s military presence abroad and a rollback in the overall size of US armed forces to levels current in the late 1990s. Relatively speaking, Asia is being privileged.

The pivot is also continuing a trend toward a more flexible and distributed presence abroad, but with greater emphasis on the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. And it is giving greater emphasis to alliances and cooperation with nations along China’s trade routes south of the Tropic of Cancer. If America’s Asian interests previously centered on Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, they today more evenly mirror the contours of China.

In sum, the pivot is optimizing America’s military posture for Asia and for US-China competition, but doing so within the context of mild reductions in US military spending and force size. Also key to this optimization is the ASB concept.

Like the pivot itself, ASB has a long pedigree. It draws on Cold War concepts of deep attack — especially Air-Land Battle — and reflects more recent interest in net centric warfare and precision attack. ASB responds specifically to the prospect of US adversaries developing capacities to effectively contest or deny US forces safe entry to areas of conflict.


Relevant adversary capabilities include anti-ship cruise and theater ballistic missiles, weapons of mass destruction, quiet attack submarines and small fast-attack ships, precision munitions and smart mines, long-range drones and stealthy combat aircraft, and systems for space, cyber, and electronic attack. Networked with these would be relatively sophisticated command, control, surveillance, reconnaissance, and target acquisition systems.

Against this, ASB would orchestrate US forces to blind and disrupt enemy networks, destroy or disable enemy launchers, and shield US assets from enemy aircraft, missile, submarine, cyber, and space attack. Central to the concept is early (possibly pre-emptive) deep attacks on an enemy’s homeland. Success in breaking an enemy’s longer-range and maritime “kill chain” would presumably allow the main body of US forces to control and safely operate from areas closer to the enemy homeland, with potentially devastating effect.

The ASB initiative seeks to preserve the type of advantage the United States enjoyed in its two wars with Iraq, which depended on having or establishing secure operating bases nearby. Given significant investment, that goal might be within reach for fighting a nation like Iran. China, by contrast, poses a considerably greater challenge that is further complicated by Chinese nuclear capabilities.

ASB critics have pointed out that the effort so far seems more rhetorical than material. And, indeed, the ASB office is a small one with few modernization programs to call its own. But this misses its chief purpose, which is to promote a unifying vision that shapes, coordinates, and channels already existing service efforts. Today, the ASB concept serves as a rationale for Air Force and Navy modernization programs valued by one study at $525 billion over ten years. These programs include many space, cyber, and missile defense efforts as well as long-range strike and reconnaissance platforms and munitions of many types.

A more prescient critique sees the ASB concept as incompatible with any coherent strategy — essentially, an unusable tool — because it depends on early, large-scale attack on the strategic assets of a nuclear armed nation. Under what conditions would a president walk down this path? As one leading analyst puts it:

You don’t conduct widespread bombing campaigns against the homelands of nuclear powers!

Advocates respond that ASB is not specifically about China. And it is certainly true that the concept has application on smaller scales. Still, the influence that the idea is exerting on Pentagon planning and resource allocation only makes sense with a peer contender in mind.

ASB’s emphasis on early, deep attack with the goal of rendering an adversary vulnerable to the full brunt of American power will likely put a use-it-or-lose-it hair-trigger on US-China military confrontations, should they occur. It will certainly accelerate the current US-China and East Asia arms race spiral. However, as one top Navy official points out, “Air-Sea Battle is all about convincing the Chinese that we will win this competition.” Achieving a degree of arms race dominance that can actually convince others to quit the race has been a strategic conceit of the QDR consensus since 1997. It apparently doesn’t work.

This also seems out of touch with economic trends and with the fact that China presently devotes much less GDP to defense than does the United States. It has lots of room to grow. Moreover, China’s interest in its maritime perimeter will almost certainly grow to surpass America’s interest in patrolling seas so far distant from its homeland.

There are more practicable alternatives to ASB that emphasize blockading Chinese maritime trade at some distance from the mainland, in the case of war. Some see using America’s own anti-access and area-denial capabilities to impede any Chinese aggression. Both avoid the costs and provocations of deep attack and big battles near the Chinese shore. And both would allow for more graduated responses. Some alternatives suggest stationing more of America’s assets “over the horizon,” where they would be safer from Chinese preemption while retaining the capacity to rapidly surge forward.

But critics say these alternatives might weaken the credibility of America’s military commitment. Moreover, one purpose of credibly threatening to disable China’s maritime defense and control capabilities is to gain more leverage over China generally, not simply in military confrontation.

It may be that the most realistic and sustainable alternative would be to exit the QDR consensus altogether and adopt a more broadly cooperative approach to integrating China and reducing regional tensions. This would imply de-emphasizing new military initiatives while ramping up inclusive diplomatic ones. Success would hinge on the possibility that China’s recent regional assertiveness has more to do with US-China military contention than with intractable regional differences. America’s Asian military posture should reflect the fact that no one wins from conflict in this region. Minimally, this means adopting a posture with lower escalatory potential than Air-Sea Battle.

News and Commentary – sources

China-US Focus: “What Asian Pivot?” Benjamin Friedman, 13 November 2013.

The National Interest: “How to Win a War with China,” Sean Mirski, 01 November 2013.

The National Interest: “Sorry Air-Sea Battle Is No Strategy,” T.X. Hammes, 07 August 2013.

Foreign Policy: “Escalation Cause: How the Pentagon’s New Strategy Could Trigger War with China,” David C. Gompert and Terrence K. Kelly, 02 August 2013.

Breaking Defense: “Glimpse Inside Air-Sea Battle: Nukes, Cyber At Its Heart,” Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., 09 July 2013.

Huffington Post: “Why America’s Strategic Rebalance Is Really Just Retreat,” John Feffer, 28 January 2013.

Thomas P.M. Barnett blog: “Nice critique of the sheer – and reckless – overkill that is ASBC,” 10 August 2012. “AirSea Battle: The Military-industrial Complex’s Self-serving Fantasy,” Thomas P. M. Barnett, 08 August 2012.

Washington Post: “U.S. model for a future war fans tensions with China and inside Pentagon,” Greg Jaffe, 01 August 2012.

Key Reports and Journal Articles – sources

G2 Solutions: “Air-Sea Battle FY2014: Concepts, Key Programs and Forecast, Executive Summary,” November 2013. Summaries/Air Sea Battle FY 2014 Exec Sum.pdf

IISS Strategic Comments: “China’s defence spending – new questions,” 02 August 2013 (subscription).–39-s-defence-spending–new-questions-e625

Yale Journal of International Affairs: “Who Authorized Preparations for War with China?” Amitai Etzioni, 12 June 2013.

Air Sea Battle Office: “Air Sea Battle: Service Collaboration to Address Anti-Access & Area Denial Challenges,” May 2013.

Woodrow Wilson Center: “Dealing with Rising China,” J Stapelton Roy, November 2012.

Strategic Forum: “Offshore Control: A Proposed Strategy for An Unlikely Conflict,” T.X. Hammes, June 2012.

Congressional Research Service: “Pivot to the Pacific? The Obama Administration’s
Rebalancing’ Toward Asia,” Mark E. Manyin, et. al., 28 March 2012.

U.S. Department of Defense: “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” January 2012.

Foreign Policy: “America’s Pacific Century,” Hillary Clinton, 11 October 2011.

China Leadership Monitor: “China’s Assertive Behavior-Part Two: The Maritime Periphery,” Michael D. Swaine and M. Taylor Fravel, 21 September 2011.

Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment: “Airsea Battle” (slide presentation), Jan Van Tol, et. al., 18 May 2010.

Foreign Affairs: “The Geography of Chinese Power: How Far Can Beijing Reach on Land and at Sea?,” Robert D. Kaplan, May/June 2010.

Project on Defense Alternatives: “A Prisoner to Primacy,” Carl Conetta, 05 February 2008.

U.S. National War College: “A New Air Sea Battle Concept: Integrated Strike Forces,”
Commander James Stavridis (U.S. Navy), May 1992.

A First Strike Against Iran? It’s Time to Recall the Case of Iraq

Now that speculation and discussion of a possible attack from Israel on Iranian nuclear development facilities is rampant, it is time to bring back a review I did on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq:

First Strike Guidelines: The Case of Iraq
Project on Defense Alternatives Briefing Memo #25
by Charles Knight, 16 September 2002 (revised and updated 10 March 2003)


…despite the repeated use of the term “preemption” to describe their counterproliferation strategy (see the 2002 National Security Strategy), the Bush administration’s strategic approach to Iraq is one of preventive war. The U.S. Department of Defense defines preventive war as “war initiated in the belief that military conflict, while not imminent, is inevitable, and that to delay would involve greater risk” while it defines preemptive attack as “an attack initiated on the basis of incontrovertible evidence that an enemy attack is imminent.” Preventive war has long been understood to be highly destabilizing and it is nearly impossible to reconcile it with the notions of non-aggression imbedded in the United Nations Charter.

Going for Broke: The Budgetary Consequences of Current US Defense Strategy

Carl Conetta. PDA Briefing Memo #52, 25 October 2011.


The sharp rise in the Pentagon’s base budget since 1998 (46% in real terms) is substantially due to strategic choice, not security requirements, per se. It reflects a refusal to set priorities as well as a move away from the traditional goals of military deterrence, containment, and defense to more ambitious ends: threat prevention, command of the commons, and the transformation of the global security environment. The geographic scope of routine US military activity also has expanded.

companion piece: The Pentagon’s New Mission Set: A Sustainable Choice?, by Carl Conetta. An updated and expanded excerpt from the Report of the Task Force on a Unified Security Budget (USB) for the United States, August 2011.

Future Defense Budget Choices Require Clear Strategic Priorities

Daniel Goure. Early Warning Blog, Lexington Institute, 03 September 2010.


The United States cannot afford and the people will not pay for a military that can do battle with uncertainty.

As a consequence of the need to do battle with uncertainty, emphasis was placed on a military that can cover all bases and do all things. This would not be a wise strategy even if resources were unconstrained. Not all threats are equal. Nor are all interests equally important. Finally, it is possible to make reasoned and reasonable judgments regarding how the future security environment will unfold and define a set of demand signals that would require shifting strategic priorities.

In the past, when U.S. leaders refused to make choices they allowed the military to shrink symmetrically, by cutting every program or service a little. That approach is self-defeating. It makes no sense to keep a so-called full spectrum military but continually reduce it in size.

Editor’s Comment:

Relevant passages from the archives ($3 trillion later):

Carl Conetta and Charles Knight. “Dueling with Uncertainty”, February 1998.

There is no escape from uncertainty, but there is relief from uncertainty hysteria. It begins with recognizing that instability has boundaries — just as turbulence in physical systems has discernible onset points and parameters. The turbulence of a river, for instance, corresponds to flow and to the contours of the river’s bed and banks. It occurs in patches and not randomly. The weather also is a chaotic system that resists precise long-range forecasting, but allows useful prediction of broader trends and limits.

Despite uncertainty, statements of probability matter. They indicate the weight of evidence — or whether there is any evidence at all. The uncertainty hawks would flood our concern with a horde of dangers that pass their permissive test of “non-zero probability.” However, by lowering the threshold of alarm, they establish an impossible standard of defense sufficiency: absolute and certain military security. Given finite resources and competing ends, something less will have to do. Strategic wisdom begins with the setting of priorities — and priorities demand strict attention to what appears likely and what does not.

The world may be less certain and less stable today than during the Cold War, but it also involves less risk for America. Risk is equal parts probability and utility — chances and stakes. With the end of global superpower contention, America’s stakes in most of the world’s varied conflicts has diminished. So has the magnitude of the military threats to American interests. This permits a sharper distinction between interests and compelling interests, turbulence and relevant turbulence, uncertainties and critical uncertainties. And this distinction will pay dividends whenever the country turns to consider large-scale military endeavors, commitments, and investments.

Among the visions that guide present policy, one is absent conspicuously: a world in which economic issues have displaced military ones as the central focus of global competitions and concerns. Failing to engage this prospect, the recent defense policy reviews are oblivious to the opportunity cost of military spending. And it is this lapse that gives license to their speculative methods and overweening goals.

The United States continues to invest more of its national product in defense than does its allies, more than the world average, and much more than its chief economic competitors. By disregarding the requirements and consequences of increased global economic competition, present policy makes an unacknowledged bet about the future: The Soviet Union is gone and no comparable military challenge to the West exists, except as distant possibility. Nonetheless, the American prospect depends as much as ever, if not more, on the specifically military aspects of strength. Of this much, the uncertainty hawks seem certain.

The Runaway General

Michael Hastings. Rolling Stone, 22 June 2010.


When it comes to Afghanistan, history is not on McChrystal’s side. The only foreign invader to have any success here was Genghis Khan – and he wasn’t hampered by things like human rights, economic development and press scrutiny. The COIN doctrine, bizarrely, draws inspiration from some of the biggest Western military embarrassments in recent memory: France’s nasty war in Algeria (lost in 1962) and the American misadventure in Vietnam (lost in 1975). McChrystal, like other advocates of COIN, readily acknowledges that counterinsurgency campaigns are inherently messy, expensive and easy to lose.

Speech by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mullen at Kansas State University

as delivered by Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff , Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas Wednesday, 03 March 2010.


I’ve come to three conclusions – three principles – about the proper use of modern military forces:

1) … military power should not – maybe cannot – be the last resort of the state. Military forces are some of the most flexible and adaptable tools to policymakers. We can, merely by our presence, help alter certain behavior. Before a shot is even fired, we can bolster a diplomatic argument, support a friend or deter an enemy. We can assist rapidly in disaster-relief efforts, as we did in the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake. We can help gather intelligence, support reconnaissance and provide security.

And we can do so on little or no notice. That ease of use is critical for deterrence. An expeditionary force that provides immediate, tangible effects. It is also vital when innocent lives are at risk. So yes, the military may be the best and sometimes the first tool; it should never be the only tool.

2) Force should, to the maximum extent possible, be applied in a precise and principled way.

3) Policy and strategy should constantly struggle with one another. Some in the military no doubt would prefer political leadership that lays out a specific strategy and then gets out of the way, leaving the balance of the implementation to commanders in the field. But the experience of the last nine years tells us two things: A clear strategy for military operations is essential; and that strategy will have to change as those operations evolve. In other words, success in these types of wars is iterative; it is not decisive.

Editor’s Comment:

Mullen’s first principle is dangerous in the extreme. It is a sad reminder of the militarization of the American state. Mullen suffers from an inexplicable amnesia of the horrors of war in the 20th Century.

America will likely be paying a high price for decades to come in what comes around from the quick and easy resort to war in 2002-2003 by policy-makers enthralled with their military instrument. If war is not a last resort, then policy-makers are abject failures as leaders.

Assessing the QDR and 2011 defense budget

Gordon Adams. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 02 March 2010.


…there is a core assumption in the QDR and defense budget that near-term missions are going to last forever, particularly counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and stability operations. The case for this projection seems to be based on the idea that Iraq and Afghanistan are the model for future U.S. military operations. Here the QDR and defense budget miss the point completely. Iraq and Afghanistan were wars of choice, designed to overthrow a regime and rebuild those countries. Which other countries will we need to invade and rebuild in the future? Neither the QDR nor the budget provides any answers, calling into question the logic behind this premise.

An alternative to COIN: It’s time to adapt our security strategy to leverage America’s conventional strengths

Bernard I. Finel. Armed Froces Journal International, February 2010.


A fundamental challenge in devising a strategy for the use of American military power is that the world has literally never seen anything like it. The U.S. today has military capabilities at least equal to the rest of the world combined. There is virtually no spot on the globe that could not be targeted by American forces, and at most a small handful of countries that could thwart a determined U.S. effort at regime change — and some of those only by virtue of their possession of nuclear weapons.

American military capabilities are not a potential form of power, subject to use only following a lengthy mobilizing and requiring a long campaign to achieve significant goals. Instead, the U.S. can destroy fixed locations in a matter of hours or at most days, and implement regime change in a matter of weeks or a few months.

Because this capability is so novel — dating only to the end of the Cold War — American strategists lack a clear framework to guide the utilization of this force. They have sought to match capabilities to conceptions of the use of force from a different era, one in which the Cold War made regime change unpalatable due to the risk of escalation and that tended to make localized setbacks appear as loses in a perceived zero-sum competition with the Soviets.

The reason, in other words, that the U.S. didn’t simply remove Fidel Castro from power was that after 1962, the international consequences seemed too high and the goal too risky. The reason American leaders felt compelled to engage in a lengthy counterinsurgency in Vietnam was the concern that a communist victory would have been a setback in the broader struggle. But imagine a world in which there were few or no international consequences to removing Castro from power, and imagine a world in which the commitment to Vietnam was strictly commensurate to the threat that the Vietnamese communists could pose to the U.S. That is the change in context that has occurred over the past 20 years, and the U.S. has not yet adapted.

Editor’s Comment:

And so many in the U.S. choose to ignore how this dominant military power motivates other nations to seek nuclear weaponry or hold tightly to those they have acquired already!