Beyond ‘Air-Sea Battle’: A military concept that challenges policymakers

August 23, 2012

Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. James Steinberg, a deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, is dean of the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.

The new concept of American overseas military operations known as “Air-Sea Battle” has come under scrutiny and criticism. Popular with the Air Force and Navy, it has been construed as an aggressive policy, and some in the Pentagon see it as a way for those two services to grab budget share away from the Army. Across Asia, especially in China, many view it as a way for the United States to challenge a rising People’s Republic.

In fact, as a military concept, Air-Sea Battle reflects some needed rethinking in response to global changes in weaponry and military strategy in the Middle East and especially East Asia. The challenge for policymakers is not to discard it and replace it with something more seemingly benign but to place it within a broader security strategy for the Asia-Pacific region that preserves stability and protects U.S. interests without becoming unduly confrontational.

China’s military budget is almost $200 billion a year, according to the Defense Department, which makes it the world’s No. 2 military power. With those considerable funds, China is building and purchasing advanced submarines, more and increasingly accurate ballistic and cruise missiles, homing munitions on antiship ballistic missiles, satellites, antisatellite weapons and modern stealthy combat aircraft. American analysts often label these innovations as part of an “anti-access/area denial” strategy that could be employed against U.S. forces in the region. The Chinese would try to push U.S. forces back from areas near China or seek greater ability to dominate waters near Taiwan as well as the South China and East China seas.

In response, the Air-Sea Battle concept seeks to use new technologies to counter these perceived Chinese initiatives as well as similar — if more modest — efforts by Iran to challenge U.S. capabilities in the Persian Gulf. Air-Sea Battle rightly emphasizes improved command-and-control, precision strike, advanced missile defenses, robotics, submarine operations, and the use of air and space domains. So far, it has not involved big new weapons platforms.

The challenge for policymakers is that each country tends to see the other’s efforts to defend its interests as threatening or even provocative — what political scientists call the “security dilemma.” Chinese strategists are acutely aware of their country’s history of being attacked by sea, so they want to reduce their vulnerability to foreign forces. Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force and Navy argue that the Air-Sea concept is not directed at China but, rather, is about preserving U.S. military access and — perhaps most important — sustaining the credibility of U.S. security commitments to allies.

Because of their size and capabilities, China and the United States represent a central element in each other’s major strategic planning. Denials of this lack credibility and feed distrust — which is all the more reason policymakers must put this military doctrine into perspective and not let it become a prescription for unfettered rivalry.

While U.S. defense spending and capabilities still appear astronomical to China — and U.S. alliance partners themselves formidable — officials in Beijing should keep in mind that perhaps half of U.S. defense capability is intended for other parts of the world — and that the turbulence in the broader Middle East suggests it will continue to be. The United States is no declining superpower, but the country is nonetheless war-weary and financially strapped. U.S. leaders are cutting military spending even as they speak of “rebalancing” toward Asia. Moreover, the international order that U.S. military force has upheld for decades is serving both countries’ core economic interests.

For the United States, China’s rise is impressive and in some ways foreboding. But China is still a developing country: It ranks roughly in the middle of all nations in per capita gross domestic product, at less than $10,000 a year, according to the World Bank. In coming years it will also face enormous demographic, environmental, economic and governance challenges. Although its military budget is growing fast, such spending is just 2 percent of China’s GDP, or less than half of the U.S. level (more than 4 percent). The stock of modern U.S. military equipment is worth $3 trillion; despite its spending, China is at perhaps 10 percent that figure. Nor does China’s military have experience in modern combat operations.

None of this attempts to justify every Chinese or American modernization. But the main challenge for those worried about the risks of rivalry and war is to place military innovation efforts in a broader political strategy that recognizes the benefits of Chinese-U.S. cooperation as well as the mutual risks if competition turns into rivalry or conflict.

As we continue necessary military modernizations, enhanced dialogue with China’s military and foreign policy actors will become all the more important, as will sober crisis management when problems arise. Our current approach seems well-balanced, but the task will require active management on both sides for decades to come. Air-Sea Battle is not the problem, but neither can it be the entirety of the solution.

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