Asymmetric Warfare, American Style

By Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes

Recent years have witnessed a sometimes-rancorous debate over what part, if any, ground forces should play in the AirSea Battle doctrine under development by the U.S. Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps. Land-warfare partisans regard AirSea Battle as a blatant Navy and Air Force grab for a larger share of dwindling defense budgets. There is doubtless some truth to that. Yet much of the wrangling has been about what AirSea Battle is, beyond a budgetary gambit. Is it a strategy, a war plan, an operational concept, or something else? Writing in Armed Forces Journal last fall, Marine Headquarters analyst J. Noel Williams courted controversy by dubbing the doctrine “an operational concept looking for a strategy.” 2 Exactly! AirSea Battle isn’t a strategy. But it should be the first phase of one.

That requires the candor to name a prospective opponent. History has been unkind to operational concepts—“capabilities-based planning,” “effects-based operations,” and the like—that drift around, unmoored from specific adversaries, theaters, or strategic circumstances. As Navy Captain Harry Yarnell remarked acidly in 1919, making war plans without identifying an enemy is like “trying to design a machine tool without knowing whether it is going to manufacture hair pins or locomotives.” 3 If AirSea Battle is about piercing anti-access or area-denial measures to reclaim command of the maritime commons, what comes next? What’s the point? In East Asia, AirSea Battle is about China. Acknowledging that constitutes the first act of making wise strategy.

Cumulative, Not Sequential, Strategy

According to Rear Admiral J. C. Wylie, whose articles once graced these pages, there are two broad ways to think about strategy: “sequential” and “cumulative.” The sequential, or linear approach comes naturally to strategists. Operations unfold in stepwise fashion. One action follows logically from the previous one. Sequential operations often can be plotted on a map or nautical chart, making them easy to follow. Wylie observed that

Maritime strategy normally consists of two major phases. The first, and it must be first, is the establishment of control of the sea. After an adequate control of the sea is gained comes the second phase, the exploitation of that control by projection of power into one or more selected critical areas of decision on the land. 4

Sir Julian Corbett largely agreed with the sequential view, but affixed an asterisk to it. Echoing Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, who urged navies to pursue the decisive fleet engagement at the outset of war, Corbett affirmed that “nine times out of ten the maxim of seeking out the enemy’s fleet” for an opening battle is “sound and applicable.” 5 But at the same time he maintained that war

is not conducted by logic, and the order of proceeding which logic prescribes cannot always be adhered to in practice. We have seen how, owing to the special conditions of naval warfare, extraneous necessities intrude themselves which make it inevitable that operations for exercising command should accompany as well as follow operations for securing command. 6

Corbett rebuked Royal Navy commanders for their “tendency to exalt the offensive into a fetish,” and for discounting defensive strategies. He joked that predicating strategy on simple maxims like “seeking out” rival fleets for decisive combat was like trying to “plan a campaign by singing Rule Britannia .” 7

Such quips did not endear Corbett to the old-guard naval establishment, but Wylie endorsed his more supple view. A cumulative campaign unleashes tactical actions unconnected to one another, either in time or on a map. Such actions are seldom sequenced to generate decisive effects at a particular point in space or time, yet they wear down an adversary through their aggregate effect. The U.S. Pacific Fleet’s undersea campaign against Japan in World War II inspired Wylie’s thinking, as did strategic bombing, and the “Mao strategy” of insurgent warfare. 8

Rarely if ever are cumulative campaigns decisive in Wylie’s view. By enfeebling an enemy’s resolve or war-making capacity, however, they can decide close-run sequential campaigns. 9 Unless Beijing attaches such value to its political goals in maritime Asia that it is willing to undertake operations of enormous magnitude and duration, deployment of U.S. contingents along China’s nautical ramparts could dissuade China’s leadership from fighting for Taiwan, for its maritime-territorial claims in the East China Sea or the South China Sea, or for some other unforeseen purpose. In the best case from Washington’s standpoint, Beijing might desist from ever attempting to upend the U.S.-led order in the region.

A merger of Wylie’s cumulative-operations vision and Corbett’s view of “war limited by contingent” should inform U.S. strategy-making for the western Pacific. Corbett held that

. . . limited war is only permanently possible to island Powers or between Powers which are separated by sea, and then only when the Power desiring limited war is able to command the sea to such a degree as to be able not only to isolate the distant object, but also to render impossible the invasion of his home territory. 10

To wage limited war in remote theaters, in other words, a seafaring state needs a preeminent navy, limited numbers of ground forces, and the capacity to shield its homeland from an asymmetric counterattack. Commanders seal off the theater through naval power, put troops ashore, and pursue limited war aims—primarily on land. Once Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson’s fleet won mastery of the seas at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the British Army and Royal Navy enjoyed the luxury of conducting limited war in Portugal and Spain without endangering the British Isles.

In the nuclear age, guarding the homeland from an unlimited counterstroke is about more than merely preventing invasion. Forestalling nuclear escalation means keeping the scope and duration of combat operations low enough—and thus unprovocative enough—that Beijing would not countenance using doomsday weapons to get its way. It is important, then, for Washington to limit its efforts through the type and amount of force deployed, staying below the nuclear threshold. American strategists’ goal should be to design operations that insert “disposal” forces—to use Corbett’s term—to support allies while making life difficult for China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). 11

Or, again in Corbett’s words, the object of a peripheral operation should be “to wrest or secure from the enemy a definite piece of territory that to a greater or less extent can be isolated by naval action.” The choice of sites should “bear some direct relation to the intimacy with which naval and military action can be combined to give the contingent a weight and mobility that are beyond its intrinsic power.” 12 Even token forces can generate effects disproportionate to their manpower and armaments.

Operations in a Cross-Strait War

To apply to a Taiwan Strait conflict, Corbett’s concept of war-by-contingent must meet three conditions.

1. Modest U.S. and allied efforts must threaten key Chinese operational objectives in a peripheral theater that can be isolated and secured by naval and air power.

2. Opening such a new front must elicit a response from Beijing that proves highly costly to PLA forces, both because significant forces are required to attain the political leadership’s objectives and because allied forces hold positions from which they can inflict heavy damage.

3. Despite the importance it places on its operational goals, China must attach marginal strategic value to conquering and holding the territory where allied forces are emplaced.

Operations meeting those standards confront Beijing with an impossible choice. It can concede the loss of certain wartime options, or it can attempt high-cost, high-risk operations to neutralize contested real estate that holds little intrinsic importance for China. Indecision is probable. If China escalates despite the hazards, the United States and its allies reap operational dividends at slight cost to themselves.

Consider one scenario—among many—that would gladden Wellington’s heart. The Ryukyu Islands, a chain stretching from Japan’s Kyushu Island to Taiwan, stand out as a prime candidate for waging war by contingent. The islands straddle critical sea lines of communication connecting the Yellow and East China seas to the open waters of the Pacific. PLA naval forces must pass through the narrow seas separating the Ryukyus in order to menace Taiwan’s vulnerable east coast and threaten U.S. forces converging on the combat theater. Chinese commanders may even be tempted to preemptively seize the westernmost portions of the island chain to help stage their coercive campaign against Taiwan. 13 A contest over tiny, seemingly insignificant, Japanese-held islands could thus leap to the foreground of a cross-strait conflagration.

Conversely, the archipelago’s strategic location offers the United States and Japan a chance to turn the tables on China. By deploying anti-access and area-denial units of their own on the islands, American and Japanese defenders would slam shut an important outlet for Chinese surface, submarine, and air forces into the Pacific high seas. Effective blocking operations would tempt PLA commanders to nullify these allied disposal forces. Such exertions, however, would tie down significant portions of China’s war-fighting capacity while depleting manpower and matériel. Because the islands hold little innate value to Beijing, and the fighting would remain limited in scope, the Chinese leadership might decide escalation wasn’t worth the effort.

Japanese defense planners, it seems, already have embraced that peripheral logic. Tokyo’s 2010 National Defense Program Guidelines , which set forth longer-term security and defense policies, pledge to field rapid-response forces to “prevent and reject invasion” of offshore Japanese islands. 14 The report directs the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) to permanently station units on undefended southwestern islands. Japan’s media reported in November 2011 that the Defense Ministry intends to post a coastal surveillance unit on Yonaguni Island—at the southern tip of the Ryukyus, just 65 miles east of Taiwan—by 2015. That same month the GSDF deployed several units armed with Type 88 antiship cruise missiles (ASCMs) to Amami-oshima, near the northern end of the Ryukyus. Observers interpreted the drill as a warning to China. Those modest peacetime maneuvers could set the stage for a substantial militarization of Japan’s strategic southern flank.

The GSDF’s truck-launched Type 88 ASCM would make an ideal weapon for a Corbettian disposal force determined to prosecute a war-by-contingent. With a range of 110 miles, Type 88s can strike warships at sea from sites well inland. 15 Well-placed ASCM batteries could cover all Ryukyu narrow seas while converting much of the East China Sea into a no-go zone for Chinese surface forces. Able to “shoot and scoot,” the mobile platforms can disperse and move by night or under cover to escape counterstrikes. Tunnels, hardened shelters, disguised storage sites, and decoys would undermine the PLA’s capacity to identify, target, and destroy missile units. A modified ASCM variant boasting greater reach and precision is reportedly in the works—promising to render transiting straits or nearby waters even more perilous for Chinese mariners.

Any attempt to eliminate the Japanese ASCM threat would require the PLA to open a geographic front about 600 miles wide. A suppression campaign involving air power and ballistic- and cruise-missile strikes would accelerate the rate at which the PLA exhausted finite stocks of munitions, airframes, and airmen. The result likely would prove disappointing, à la coalition forces’ fruitless “SCUD hunt” during the first Gulf War. Amphibious assault, the surest way to dislodge the island defenders, would also represent the riskiest way, with U.S. and Japanese submarines playing havoc with landing forces.

Abundant, survivable, inexpensive weaponry such as the Type 88, then, could coax China into exhausting expensive and scarce offensive weapons for meager territorial gain and uncertain prospects of a breakthrough into Pacific waters. Relatively modest investments in disposal forces could spread Chinese forces thin—helping the allies reclaim command of the commons as envisioned by AirSea Battle. War-by-contingent is a force multiplier.

Japan is not the only ally that could drain Chinese resources while goading the PLA into overreaching. Think about South Korea, which overshadows sea lines on which China’s North Sea Fleet depends. Additionally, defense analysts seldom pay the Philippines much attention in the context of AirSea Battle. But mobile ASCM and air-defense units deployed along the northern coast of Luzon Island could make the Luzon Strait nearly impassable for PLA surface and air forces. If the United States and its allies could open multiple fronts simultaneously along the Ryukyus, on Luzon, and perhaps on the Korean Peninsula, China’s anti-access/area-denial forces would find themselves confined within the first island chain—and would find north-south movement dicey even there.

AirSeaLand Battle?

The examples presented here scarcely exhaust the possibilities. They do suggest that the United States and its Asian allies can do much more to erect a maritime great wall that complicates or blocks Chinese military options. Whether the U.S. Army or U.S. Marine Corps should support AirSea Battle by outfitting ASCM units patterned on the GSDF’s is a judgment beyond the scope of this thought experiment. Nevertheless, recent U.S. doctrine mandates “more tightly integrated cross-domain combat,” and thus demands more seamless mutual support between the services. It exhorts land forces to help “protect air freedom of action and support naval forces along littorals.” 16 For ground services long reliant on the power of the U.S. Navy and Air Force, acting as an enabler in the saltwater domain offers a welcome role reversal.

In short, land forces with maritime-strike capability would deliver major strategic benefits. Possessing the option to surge ground units onto allied territory at short notice would reassure U.S. allies in peacetime while substantially bolstering our capacity to act effectively in times of crisis. American reinforcements would steady nerves while stiffening the resolve of local island defenders. Placing boots on the ground, furthermore, would render it impossible for Beijing to isolate and fight the United States alone. China would risk drawing in third parties—potentially very powerful ones such as Japan—if it chose to attack U.S. ground forces on their soil. Such deliberately contrived dilemmas could stymie Chinese strategy, slowing the momentum toward full-blown conflict.

Unlike the seemingly destabilizing deep strikes that AirSea Battle envisions executing against targets in mainland China, allied disposal forces would limit their lethal range to PLA units operating in the commons. Such geospatial restraint would reduce the likelihood of escalation toward the nuclear threshold. And finally, land-sea forces would give the United States the diplomatic flexibility to negotiate access agreements with non-allied countries in peacetime. Under duress, states such as Singapore or even Vietnam might well grant U.S. ground forces access to their territory. Ambiguity surrounding Asian states’ likely actions could give pause to Chinese decision-makers mulling an attack on Taiwan. Taken together, those factors augment AirSea Battle’s deterrent power vis-à-vis Beijing.

In short, the United States and its allies are well-positioned and -equipped to draw lines on the map beyond which Chinese anti-access/area-denial forces can expect to encounter stiff, deadly resistance. Access and area denial works both ways. Chinese commanders will find the PLA’s operational space squeezed in the littorals in wartime, its use of sea and air corridors strongly opposed. The allies’ capacity to foreclose Chinese military options—and give China a debilitating ulcer—offers perhaps the surest way of deterring Chinese aggression before it happens. Let’s not avert our eyes from unsavory possibilities. Devising unorthodox methods and stratagems to win a great-power war represents the best way to buttress the U.S.-led status quo—a status quo that serves the region well.

1. David Gates, The Spanish Ulcer: A History of the Peninsular War , 2nd ed. (New York: Da Capo, 2001).

2. J. Noel Williams, “Air-Sea Battle: An Operational Concept Looking for a Strategy,” Armed Forces Journal , September 2011.

3. William Reynolds Braisted, The United States Navy in the Pacific, 1909-1922 , (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971), p. 457.

4. J. C. Wylie, Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control , (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989), pp. 22–27, 125.

5. Julian S. Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy , (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1988), pp. 323–324.

6. Corbett, Some Principles , p. 234.

7. John B. Hattendorf, introduction, Corbett, Some Principles , p. xxix.

8. Wylie, Military Strategy , pp. 32–55.

9. Wylie, Military Strategy , pp. 32–55.

10. Corbett, Some Principles , p. 57.

11. Corbett, Some Principles , pp. 60–63.

12. Ibid.

13. Yoji Koda, “Japanese Perspective on China’s Rise as a Naval Power,” Harvard Asia Quarterly , 24 December 2010.

14. Security Council and Cabinet, Government of Japan, National Defense Program Guidelines for FY2011 and Beyond , 17 December 2010.

15. “Type 88 SSM, Type 90 (SSM-1B),”, 7 November 2011,

16. U.S. Department of Defense, Joint Combat Concept, Capstone Concept for Joint Operations , 8 November 2010, p. 27.

Dr. Yoshihara is a professor at the Naval War College, where he holds the John A. van Beuren Chair of Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously taught at the Air War College. With Dr. Holmes he coauthored Red Star over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy .

Dr. Holmes is a professor at the Naval War College and a former U.S. Navy surface warfare officer. He is a regular contributor to Proceedings , and coauthor (with Dr. Yoshihara) of Red Star over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy .


James R. Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. He holds a hold PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.

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