Looming budget cuts require the United States to consider a military strategy for the Asia-Pacific that could significantly reduce the cost of maintaining U.S. influence and presence in the region. Currently, the United States is executing a strategic rebalancing to Asia without a corresponding military strategy to guide imminent military procurement and force-structure decisions. The challenge is to achieve peacetime savings while leaving the United States well postured to influence the region in peacetime and defend its interests in war.
A proposed alternative strategy is offshore control, or OC for the purposes of this article. Unlike the British concept of offshore balancing, the OC strategy does not assume we could maintain an ally on the mainland that could challenge China’s ground power. Rather, it partners with Asia-Pacific nations to ensure the U.S. ability to interdict China’s energy and raw-material imports and industrial exports while protecting those nations.
Offshore control would deny China the use of the sea inside the first island chain, at the same time defend those islands, and dominate the air and sea outside that theater. It envisions a stand-off military campaign focusing on a war of economic strangulation rather than on penetrating Chinese airspace to physically destroy its infrastructure. It seeks to force China to fight in ways that maximize U.S. strengths while minimizing China’s. In essence, OC provides a strategic context for an operational approach that goes beyond Air-Sea Battle to use the U.S. geographical advantage to maximize the effectiveness of a campaign using our air, sea, and land assets.
This approach seeks to match required capabilities to reduced U.S. defense resources while simultaneously neutralizing much of China’s investment in anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD), forcing it to spend significantly more to defeat offshore control.
Obviously, the OC strategy is in its infancy and requires a rigorous examination for feasibility at the political, strategic, operational, and tactical levels. This article offers only a quick and basic overview of the issues.
The key question here is: Does this approach effectively deter China from starting a war while simultaneously assuring our allies that America can execute its stated strategy? The idea that a strike campaign based on Air-Sea Battle capabilities can defeat a continental-size power in a short war is dubious at best, and certainly ahistorical. Yet deterrence and assurance are rooted in a confidence that the stated strategy can be executed. Further complicating U.S. efforts to assure its allies, a penetrate-and-strike strategy limits public discussion, but seems to require allied states to permit strike missions into China to be made from their soil. A critical uncertainty is our allies’ political will to do so, given China’s ability to strike their territory. All Asia-Pacific nations know that. Thus any strategic concept based on defeating China through a non-nuclear strike campaign is questionable at best.
In contrast, OC could be transparent to both our partners and China while demonstrating its feasibility in peacetime exercises. Partner states would be asked only to allow U.S. forces to protect that nation’s sea and air space from Chinese attack. No forces—either those of the United States or its allies—would penetrate Chinese air space or territorial waters.
At the same time, offshore control is economically sustainable in the current and projected peacetime U.S. political environment. It can be based on current capabilities while guiding future investments away from large numbers of expensive penetrating platforms. Instead of another aircraft carrier, for instance, we may choose to purchase seven more Virginia-class submarines for roughly the same outlay.
Risks and Sustainability
Strategically, two key questions arise. First, what are the wartime risks associated this concept? In particular, is it likely to lead to nuclear escalation? Second, is the strategy sustainable in peace and war? In particular, what are the peacetime investments necessary to instill a high level of certainty in China, the United States, and partner nations that the strategy could be executed in wartime?
While the isolation of China would devastate the world economy, any major Sino-U.S. conflict would do so as well. However, geography and the maritime nature of global trade means the rest of the world economy could rebuild around the perimeter, while China has little prospect of rebuilding via a new Silk Road. Although clearly not as positive as peacetime trade, that strategy sets conditions that favor the United States in an extended conflict. Further, by not destroying Chinese infrastructure, it facilitates restoration of global trade after the conflict. While we may not like it, the economic reality is that increased global prosperity relies heavily on increased Chinese prosperity.
Because the concept is transparent, plans can be made and nations and corporations informed of the U.S. plans and procedures for boarding and escorting shipping as well as making arrangements for cargos bound for China to be resold and delivered to areas outside the exclusion zone. This would reduce the strategic uncertainty early in the conflict. Further, if the United States chose to escalate into a penetration campaign it could do so.
Deny, Defend, and Dominate
Operationally, offshore control establishes a set of concentric rings: 1) Deny China the use of the sea inside the first island chain; 2) Defend the sea and air space there; 3) Dominate the air and maritime space outside the island chain. There would be no campaign to penetrate Chinese airspace. Eliminating penetration reduces the possibility of nuclear escalation, greatly reduces the cost of forces necessary to execute the strategy and makes war termination easier. (If China suffers little direct internal damage, the Communist Party leadership would be able to terminate the war yet save face with a “We taught them a lesson” declaration—as they have in previous conflicts.)
The deny portion of the campaign would play to U.S. strengths by employing primarily attack submarines, mines, and a limited number of air assets inside the first island chain.
The defend portion would use A2/AD concepts to protect U.S. allies. The United States could bring the full range of its assets to defend allied soil—and should encourage allies to contribute to that defense. It flips the geographic advantage by forcing China to fight at longer ranges while allowing U.S. and allied forces to fight as an integrated air-sea defense over the allies’ own territories. Since that would rely heavily on land-based air defense and short-range sea defense to include counter-mine capability, we can encourage potential partners to invest in those capabilities and exercise together regularly in peacetime. OC also reverses the financial imposition because it would cost China more to defeat this strategy than it would cost the United States and its allies to execute it.
The dominate campaign would be fought outside the range of most Chinese assets and would use a combination of air, naval, ground, and rented commercial platforms to intercept and divert the major ships necessary to China’s economy. The objective is not to cut China’s energy flow. China imports just 6 percent of its energy needs.1 But 28 percent of China’s economy is based on exports.2 If Malacca, Lombok, Sunda, and the routes north and south of Australia are controlled, those exports could be cut off. Naturally, China would respond by rerouting, but the only possibilities are the Panama Canal or the Strait of Magellan—both of which can be controlled by U.S. assets. Outbound Chinese exports rely very heavily on large container ships for competitive shipping-cost advantage, and those would be easiest to track and divert. While such a campaign would require a layered effort from the straits to China’s coast, it would mostly be fought at a great distance from China—effectively out of range of the People’s Liberation Army forces.
A Campaign of Isolation
Tactically, any concept that relies on penetrating Chinese airspace plays to China’s strengths. Penetration operations send very limited numbers of extremely capable and expensive U.S. platforms into an ever-thickening Chinese defense. Flying or steaming those assets into the range of the large number of older Chinese systems in many ways increases China’s capabilities. Those systems have no useful role in a Chinese offensive campaign but would be useful as part of an integrated defense. And of course, China could always take the option the British used in 1940 and protect key assets by moving them deeper into China. It is a huge country and has developed very large numbers of mobile missile systems as well as an extensive network of military and commercial airfields and tunnels. In short, a penetration campaign concedes the advantage of the defensive to the Chinese—bringing all their older systems into play while forcing the United States to seek targets hardened or hidden in a continental land mass.
In contrast, offshore control is an isolation campaign that would force China to send its limited number of long-range, highly capable platforms into an integrated allied air, sea, and land defense. It would bring into play U.S. and allied land-based air-defense missiles, shorter-range air assets, and electronic-warfare systems. In addition, should the Chinese attack U.S. space and cyber systems, it would be much less challenging and expensive to reestablish networks based on air-breathing platforms over the first island chain than to reestablish connectivity over China. In short, the only way China could overcome OC would be to build a global sea-control navy—a multi-decade, multi-trillion-dollar undertaking.
OC’s Key Strengths
The primary advantages of an offshore control strategy are:
• Increased deterrence and assurance due to the feasibility and transparency of the concept.
• Lower probability of nuclear escalation because the United States does not conduct strikes on mainland China.
• Higher probability of allowing China to declare victory and end the conflict much as it did in Korea, its invasion of Vietnam, and in border conflicts with Russia and India.
• Lower peacetime cost to maintain U.S. capabilities to fight such a campaign, which increases its deterrent effect.
• China would be forced to fight at the extreme range of its weapon systems.
• It plays to U.S. strengths—naval power (submarines and sea control in particular) while avoiding China’s massed defenses.
• Reduced cost to the United States to maintain the capabilities necessary to execute this approach.
• U.S. ground forces could contribute major capabilities by intercepting and controlling major ships.
On the final point it is worth noting that by mid-decade, roughly 870 new super post-Panamax ships will make up more than a third of global merchant-fleet capacity when delivery is complete.3 The combined capacity of those ships will be nearly half the global merchant fleet’s cargo-carrying capacity. Clearly, the U.S. Navy has insufficient ships to board or escort that number of commercial vessels. However, those numbers could be controlled by U.S amphibious ships embarking Marine and Army boarding parties. Those units could ride the merchant to its final destination and return outside the exclusion zone. Commercial shipping and helicopters could be contracted to support distant efforts, thus reducing the stress on the amphibious fleet.
The concept of offshore control, in summary, is predicated on the idea that the presence of nuclear weapons makes any strategy aimed at the collapse of the Chinese Communist Party (or its surrender) too dangerous to contemplate. It offers, however, a practical and politically more palatable alternative should we ever be faced with such a conflict: Waging a war of economic attrition that concludes with minimal casualties on all sides and with limited damage to mainland China’s infrastructure.
This article is based on “Offshore Control: A Proposed Strategy for an Unlikely Conflict,” published by the Institute for Strategic Studies at National Defense University on 28 June 2012. It is available at http://www.ndu.edu/inss/news.cfm?action=view&id=162.
1. Pocket World in Figures 2012 Edition, (London: Profile Books Ltd., 2011) 132.
3. “Global merchant shipping fleet continues to grow,” Shippingplatform.com, 3 August 2011, www.shippingplatform.com/News_Details.aspx?id=1269&head=Global%20merchant%20shipping%20fleet%20continues%20to%20grow.
Geography or Time Don’t Bind Sound (Naval) Ideas
By Captain R. Robinson Harris, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Someone once said that history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
Rewind the tape to January 1968, the Cold War, in the frigid North Atlantic. NATO established the Standing Naval Force Atlantic, an immediate-reaction maritime force. STANAVFORLANT was the first permanent peacetime multinational naval squadron. It steamed more than 50,000 miles a year, participated in scheduled NATO and national exercises, and made goodwill visits. It could rapidly respond to a crisis, establishing NATO presence and resolve. Six to ten ships (destroyers, frigates, and tankers) were normally attached to the force for up to six months. Its command rotated among the nations contributing ships to the force.
Fast-forward to the 1990s—the Cold War now a memory—in the moderate climes of the Mediterranean. In July 1993 STANAVFORLANT was integrated into a combined task force in the Adriatic Sea with ships of the Standing Naval Force Mediterranean to enforce an arms embargo against the former Yugoslavia. STANAVFORMED was a multinational maritime force that trained and operated as a team permanently available to NATO to perform a wide range of tasks, including real-world missions.
Fast-forward again to 2000, the new millennium, and to the cold northern Pacific. The coast guards (or equivalents) of Canada, China, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the United States established the North Pacific Coast Guard Forum to promote information-sharing and foster international cooperative efforts related to safeguarding maritime commerce, stemming illegal drug trafficking, protecting fisheries, and deterring human smuggling. Biannually, member organizations from each of the forum nations meet to focus on issues affecting the northern Pacific, participate in training and exercises, and conduct joint operations at sea. The forum is built on a simple formula: all members voluntarily work equally toward solving shared problems and achieving mutual interests.
Fast-forward yet again to Post-9/11 and the first decade of the 21st century off the Horn of Africa. Rampant piracy in the Gulf of Aden resulted in a show of unity by countries that rarely cooperate, militarily or otherwise. Three international naval task forces were formed to engage in counter-piracy operation: Combined Task Force 150 (derived from Operation Enduring Freedom); CTF 151 (established in 2009 specifically for counterpiracy operations); and the European Union task force, Operation Atalanta. To date, more than 20 countries have contributed to the operation; several non-multinational task forces—from countries such as China—also have participated. Subsequent to its initial deployment in 2008, China has maintained a three-ship flotilla in the Gulf of Aden on a rotating basis.
The takeaway: Robust precedent exists for international navies and coast guards to cooperate in furtherance of mutual interests in the maritime domain.
Now, fast-forward to January 2012, as President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced a new strategic guidance dubbed the “Asia Pivot.” The preceding November, foreshadowing that pivot, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared, “The world’s strategic and economic center of gravity [in the 21st century] will be the Asia-Pacific.” The United States and China, she added, “need to better understand each other [because] a thriving U.S. is good for China, and a thriving China is good for the U.S.” Earlier, at the third round of the China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue in May, China’s Vice Premier Wang Qishan had opined that the United States and China have more shared interests than differences.
Fast forward again to today (nearly) when in September of this year Secretary Panetta met with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, widely considered as the top prospect to be China’s next president when the government transitions in 2013. Panetta declared, “We are two great Pacific nations with common concerns. We want to begin what you have called a new, new-model relationship, and we can begin with better military-to-military relations” (emphasis added).
So, here is where the rhyme with history comes into play. Why not begin that “new, new-model” relationship with a Standing Naval Forces Pacific-Indian Ocean, comprising the United States, China, South Korea, Japan, Russia, India, Australia, Singapore, and other nations of the region? Together they could improve interoperability, increase transparency, improve ability to react to humanitarian assistance/disaster relief incidents, counter maritime-security threats (including piracy), thwart human trafficking/drug trade, and so on. Command of the force would rotate annually per the historical examples offered here.
Now fast forward to 2013. China has a new leader. There is a new Congress in Washington, and perhaps some new faces in key roles in President Obama’s second administration. It would be a propitious time to initiate a dialogue to establish the Standing Naval Force Pacific-IO, a large step toward a new and improved security environment in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
Key Assumptions of the OC Strategy
• Any major conflict would be started by Chinese actions.
• The integrated nature of the global economy means a U.S.-China war would result in extensive economic damage, no matter how it was fought.
• The United States would declare a maritime exclusion zone inside the first island chain.
• The duration of such a war cannot be known, but historical examples of great-power conflict indicate we should be prepared for extended hostilities.
• U.S. war goals would not include removal or surrender of China’s Communist Party.
• The objective would be to stop Chinese aggression against U.S. interests.
• We do not clearly understand China’s nuclear-release decision process or red lines.