A war in the western Pacific against a nuclear-armed, technological near-peer under the control of an authoritarian government has the potential to escalate to a kinetic attack against the territory of the United States.1 Yet, the current U.S. approach to deterring such a conflict with the People’s Republic of China is based on striking targets on the Chinese mainland—an approach that provides incentive for corresponding attacks.2 It is a risk the evolving concept of integrated deterrence does little to mitigate and, in fact, potentially increases.
Because the conflict triggers in the western Pacific are in the maritime domain, a less escalatory and more effective means of deterrence would be to reorient U.S. forces to confine combat to the “seas”—the maritime, space, and cyber global commons. With its current advantage in controlling these seas, the United States could create a firebreak that avoids the metaphoric choice of trading Honolulu for Taipei.3
To do so would require a significant adjustment in U.S. force structure, one the Department of Defense (DoD) likely would avoid, as it violates two fundamental premises of joint ideology: All service departments receive a roughly equal share of the DoD budget, and all services must play a role in any contingency. Given the geographic realities of the western Pacific, however, retaining this joint ideology under the rubric of “multi- domain warfare” or “integrated deterrence” is a recipe for failure.
Deterrence Without Escalation
In a war against China over the fate of Taiwan or other dispute, the United States and its allies would have two goals: (1) deny China’s political and military objectives, and (2) prevent the conflict from escalating into a nuclear exchange.
To that end, DoD cannot continue prioritizing the development of long-range land-attack capabilities such as the Prompt Global Strike system and Precision Strike Missile. These weapons’ intelligence and command-and-control systems will be the prime targets of electromagnetic warfare by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).4 In that contested electromagnetic environment, such long-range systems most likely will be confined to fixed targets, the majority of which are located on the Chinese mainland. Because the PLA routinely mixes dual-use missiles (nuclear and conventional) within its own order of battle, it is questionable whether it would assume a ballistic or cruise missile headed toward the mainland had a conventional warhead.5
Nor can DoD simply reformat its existing joint force under the concept of integrated deterrence. The “whole of government” approach promised by the concept— although laudable—is likely to solidify the existing division of defense resources, with services and agencies scrambling to perform missions outside their expertise to hold budget share.
Rather, DoD must orient more of its resources to naval, space, and cyberspace capabilities to keep PLA forces from using the maritime domain and other global commons. Effective interdiction of PLA forces within these global commons is a strategic alternative that could reduce U.S. dependency on deterrence based on the threat of conventional strikes against mainland targets. It also could avoid a strategic posture that could come to rely on tactical nuclear weapons—which some suggest is the initial basis for the integrated deterrence concept.6
Even if conventional precision weapons were used against only military targets, strikes on the territory of a nuclear-armed opponent are not particularly wise—especially if there are other options. And there are other options.
The United States could achieve—with the appropriate mix of joint capabilities—both the strategic goals of conventional deterrence and escalation control by confining the conflict to the sea (and space and cyberspace, as required). Because the issues with the potential to spark a conflict—Taiwan, territorial claims in the South China Sea, threats to international trade, and intimidation of neighboring Asian nations—are primarily maritime, the least escalatory deterrent and most effective conventional defense is necessarily naval in nature.
This option would require DoD to focus resources on two critical joint capabilities. First is the ability to interdict all Chinese forces transiting the maritime domain— including the approximately 100-nautical-mile Taiwan Strait—and the airspace above it. For the U.S. Navy, this would mean investing in a larger undersea warfare force, mines, and more numerous, longer range, but less sophisticated/less costly aircraft and missiles.
The second is to deny China access to the global commons, including the oceans, space, and cyberspace. This would require capabilities for offensive actions targeting PLA force projection beyond China’s shores, as well as both offensive and defensive actions to ensure the United States maintains its dominance in deep blue water, space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum.
In the same spirit as antiaccess/area denial (A2/AD), this option could be abbreviated AI/CD—assured inter- diction/commons dominance.
AI/CD will require new thinking on the part of the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), the Joint Staff, and the services. OSD would have to reconsider the services’ traditionally equal share of the overall defense budget. The Joint Staff would need to curtail the dominance of the land-centric concepts of operations that rule joint ideology. The Navy would need to accept that its focus on sea control within the first island chain must be discarded in favor of a sea-denial strategy—with a corresponding change in its current vision of the future fleet.
All of this will require a shift from a defense budget biased toward land-centric systems—left from the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan—toward adoption of “naval” concepts and an increase in “naval” resources, neither of which involves solely maritime forces.
What Is Wrong With Integrated Deterrence?
DoD leaders do not appear convinced of the need for this shift. Instead, they have introduced the concept of “integrated deterrence,” which promises to more tightly fuse existing joint capabilities “across domains . . . conventional, nuclear, cyber, space, informational” and “across the spectrum of conflict from high intensity warfare to the gray zone.”7
On the surface, integrated deterrence appears reasonable, even if vague in details. In debuting the concept in spring 2021, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin described it as “the right mix of technology, operational concepts and capabilities—all woven together and networked in a way that is credible, flexible and so formidable that it will give any adversary pause”—that is “multidomain, spans numerous geographic areas of responsibility, is united with allies and partners and is fortified by all instruments of national power.”8
Some might suggest this is but the standard definition of “grand strategy,” which scholars and analysts have argued the United States has lacked since the Cold War. However, Secretary Austin views the concept as a unique one that “means working together in ways that were not done before . .. and all of us giving it our all.”9
The integrated deterrence concept also emphasizes adding nonmilitary elements to the traditional military aspects of deterrence. Defense officials insist it “means that the Pentagon will not rely on U.S. military strength alone to prevent adversaries from attacking” and will require “deeper integration with allies, partners and other instruments of national power.”10 Clearly, these are worthy goals and could have significant foreign policy effects if they can be achieved.
However, critics have been swift to point out that such a whole of government approach has been a mantra of a succession of presidential administrations and “there is nothing new about this.”11 U.S. operations in Afghanistan repeatedly were addressed as constituting a whole of government approach to counterterrorism and building partner capacity.12
Yet, there is a greater problem. While seemingly resource-efficient, such a seamless combination of forces and domains either deliberately or inadvertently ties kinetic strikes against the Chinese mainland even more tightly to the military operations within the fluid mediums that could represent firebreaks to escalation.
In addition, there are subtle indications that tactical nuclear weapons might be a significant feature of integrated deterrence, the role they played during the Cold War.13
A more cynical interpretation of integrated deterrence is that the concept is based on recognition that the defense budget will remain static or even diminish during the current and possibly future presidential administrations. Thus, it is more an excuse to avoid both the hard work of advocating for greater resources to face the increasing capabilities of potential opponents, and the hard choice of reorienting the defense budget away from the equal division among the services as enshrined in joint ideology.14
AI/CD as an alternative is based on three premises. The first is that kinetic attack against the mainland territory of a nuclear-armed opponent is a dangerous strategy.
The second is that, in a conflict with China, it is possible to achieve deterrence by the threat of denial. Because the most probable cause of such a conflict is the forcible annexation of Taiwan, deterrence would depend on convincing China that it could not move sufficient forces across the Taiwan Strait to occupy the island.
Third is an understanding that armies and navies are fundamentally different instruments. Armies are designed to bend the enemy to one’s will by capturing and garrisoning its territory despite armed opposition. Navies—including the U.S. Navy, much of the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Space Force, and electromagnetic and cyber forces fight within and control the global commons that are used for commerce, communications, and power projection but that humans do not normally inhabit. Navies can support the mission of armies, but only after they complete their primary purpose—control of the fluid mediums of sea. air. space, and cyber so that, in the words of Alfred Thayer Mahan, the enemy can operate within them only as a “fugitive.”15
The fact that these two primary missions are so fundamentally different is why joint strategy is difficult to implement. But it is also why escalation can be controlled by decoupling these functions. It is helpful and convenient to control territory to control the global commons, but it is not essential if one has the appropriate force mix. AI/ CD is about ensuring the enemy operates only as a fugitive within the fluid mediums. In the case of Taiwan, that means ensuring the PLA cannot cross the seas (including the air. space, and electromagnetic spectrum above) without suffering losses that put its victory in doubt.
What Is Needed For AI/CD?
With suitable resources, military operations confined to the fluid mediums are viable alternatives to strategy based on threatening escalation. The first requirement, of course, is maintaining powerful naval forces. Unfortunately. if current defense resource policies continue, the U.S. Navy will not be powerful enough to prevent escalation and obtain this victory.16 Moreover, the Navy requires an extensive inventory of a wide range of weapons. including many thousands of naval mines as well as antiship missiles. Based on unclassified data, it does not have that inventory today.17
Operationally, naval leaders needs to recognize that the mission for the fleet in the far western Pacific is sea denial, not sea control. By every measure, the probability that the U.S. Navy can achieve sea control in the South or East China Seas is low.18 This is a fact Navy and DoD leaders have avoided stating publicly, but of which defense analysts working with unclassified data are aware.19
In the air, both Air Force and Navy aviation have sacrificed range for exquisite technology. To perform air interdiction in the western Pacific requires aircraft that can, by design, perform missions at distances greater than 1,000 nautical miles with weapons that can reach both air and sea targets within PLA air defense zones. It also requires aircraft and weapons in numbers beyond today’s inventory. In an interdiction battle, numbers tramp exquisite technology. Whether the aircraft should be crewed or uncrewed depends on the distance their command-and-control signals must travel in a contested electromagnetic spectrum—which, again, is one of the fluid mediums the United States must dominate to achieve the deterrence AI/CD can provide.
The straggle for space also would be an attrition battle The side that can best defend its satellites and other space assets and quickly replace losses will be the winner. This will be hard to do if the U. S. government does not rebuild a government space launch capability, instead of relying on commercial launch, which may or may not be available in a conflict.
In addition, the U.S. government must spend serious money to harden a U.S. digital infrastructure that is currently so open to attack that fighting a technological near-peer such as China would be difficult at best. This is a well-known weakness the U.S. government hopes commercial industry will rectify.20 That is not a strategy. At the very least, the administration needs to force— whether through regulation or eminent domain—U.S. utilities to take their control systems off the internet. This could be partially funded by the massive resources targeted at building back the national infrastructure.
At the same time, U.S. Cyber Command must have the capacity to deny potential opponents access to the commons of global internet. This would include the capability to shut down the infrastructure of these opponents, who already are experimenting with cutting themselves off from the global web in case of attack.21
Perhaps the only way to ensure sufficient advocacy for the necessary resources would be to create—in the same spirit as U.S. Space Force was created—an independent U.S. Cyber Force. An independent U.S. Cyber Force also could potentially create standards for enlistment and career progression that could facilitate recruitment from the civilian computer coder and hacker communities.
Where Will The Money Come From?
Obviously, this reorientation would require extensive resources. Some should come from outside the DoD budget. Hardening U.S. digital infrastructure—whether defense related or not—is surely part of infrastructure improvement. Shipbuilding and the aircraft industry also are part of the national infrastructure. Since federal infrastructure funding is essentially an industrial policy effort, perhaps the United States should institute an industrial policy to save the shipbuilding and aircraft industries.
But much of the rest must come from reprioritizing resources within DoD. A recent analysis suggests the Navy could be substantially recapitalized by a transfer of just 4 percent of the Army budget.22 Presumably other adjustments could provide the necessary resources for space and cyber forces. DoD must break out of the analytical straitjacket of joint ideology and start making these calculations.
The tremendous expense of developing exquisite command-and-control networks to conduct strikes on the Chinese mainland also should be examined.
Making A Choice
Theoretically, strategy should drive decisions on the allocation of defense resources, a premise that all war colleges teach. It has long been suggested, however, that DoD resource allocation creates U.S. strategy. This seems to be the reality concerning the western Pacific scenario. Joint ideology also has contributed to setting the current division of resources solidly in stone. This has limited U.S. strategic alternatives.
In choosing a strategy, the United States must ask whether deterring Chinese actions in the western Pacific requires strikes on the Chinese mainland that, in turn, will put the U.S. homeland at risk. Or can it create a defense posture that could confine any conflict in that region to the “seas”?
In the late Cold War, President Ronald Reagan suggested the United States should focus on a “defense that defends,” rather than one dependent on strikes against an enemy’s homeland and nuclear risk.23 Perhaps improving warfighting capabilities within and through the global commons of maritime, space, and cyberspace could achieve such a vision.
- Brian Sugden, “China’s Conventional Strikes against the U.S. Homeland,” Center for International Maritime Security, 25 June 2014.
- There has been some discussion of this dilemma, including suggestions that a U.S. President would balk at authorizing conventional strikes against the Chinese mainland. See, for example, John Speed Myers, “The Real Problem with Strikes on Mainland China,” War on the Rocks, 4 August 2015, and Lt Col Brian MacLean, USAF, “Reconsidering Attacks on Mainland China,” The Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs 4, no. 2 (Spring 2001).
- U.S. military advantage in (and reliance on) the global commons is discussed in Barry Posen, “Command of the Commons: The Military Foundation of U.S. Hegemony,” International Security 28, no. 1 (Summer 2003): 5-46.
- Marcus Clay, “To Rule the Invisible Battlefield: The Electromagnetic Spectrum and Chinese Military Power,” War on the Rocks, 22 January 2021.
- Benjamin Plackett, “Don’t Panic But China Mixes Its Nukes with Regular Missiles,” Wired, 21 September 2012; and Ma Xiu and Peter W. Singer, “What Do We Know About China’s Newest Missiles,” Defense One, 19 March 2021.
- Initial discussion of an “integrated” form of deterrence focused on linking conventional and nuclear warfighting capabilities. See, for example, Rachel S. Cohen, “USAF Rethinks Relationship between Conventional, Nuclear Weapons,” Air Force Magazine, 19 August 2020.
- Jim Garamone, “Concept of Integrated Deterrence Will Be Key to National Defense Strategy, DOD Official Says,” DoD News, 8 December 2021.
- Harlan Ullman and Arnaud de Borchgrave, ‘“Integrated Deterrence’ Must Be a Strategy, Not a Slogan,” UPI, 20 October 2021.
- Ullman and de Borchgrave, ‘“Integrated Deterrence.’”
- On “whole of government” as a description of integrated strategy, see Meredith Roaten, “‘Integrated Deterrence’ to Drive National Defense Strategy,” National Defense, 22 September 2021.
- Mike Gallagher, “The Pentagon’s ‘Deterrence’ Strategy Ignores Hard-Earned Lessons about the Balance of Power,” Washington Post, 29 September 2021.
- For example, see Kristen Berg Harpviken, “Power Prevails: The Failure of Whole-of-Government Approaches in Afghanistan,” PRIO Policy Brief 04 2011 (Oslo: Peace Research Institute, 2011).
- No DoD official has stated that tactical nuclear weapons will be an element of integrated deterrence. However, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl states in the Garamone article: “The secretary has spoken about the need to continue modernizing the nuclear triad to make sure we have a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent as the ultimate backstop.”
- See Thomas Spoehr, “Bad Idea: Relying on “Integrated Deterrence” Instead of Building Sufficient U.S. Military Power,” Defense 360, 3 December 2021.
- Referring to command of the sea, Mahan states: “It is the possession of that overbearing power on the sea which drives the enemy’s flag from it, or allows it to appear only as a fugitive.” Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 ^890, repr. New York: Dover Publications, 1987), 138.
- Official estimate is that the PLAN currently has “an overall battle force of approximately 355 ships and submarines.” Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2021: Annual Report to Congress (FY2020), vi, 48. This contrasts with a U.S. Navy with 297 “deployable” warships.
- Captain Hans Lynch, USN, and Scott Truver estimate the U.S. naval mine inventory is “less than 10,000,” whereas the mine inventory of potential opponents is “perhaps 400,000.” Lynch and Truver, “Toward a 21st Century U.S. Mining Force,” Defense One, 22 August 2018. In 2000, the U.S. Navy reportedly had 99 Long-Range Anti-Surface Missiles (LRASMs) and was programmed to acquire 210 missiles between 2000 and 2005. David P. Larter, “As China Expands Navy, U.S. Begins Stockpiling Ship-Killing Missiles,” Defense News, February 2020. In reality, the U.S. Navy would need at least 2,000 LRASMs (or equivalent) to prosecute a war in the Taiwan Strait.
- In May 2018, then-Commander, Pacific Command, Admiral Phillip Davidson stated, “In short, China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.” Hannah Beech, “China’s Sea Control Is a Done Deal, ‘Short of War With the U.S.,”’ New York Times, 20 September 2018.
- In the view of Lee His-min, former Chief of the General Staff, Republic of China Armed Forces, and now senior fellow, Project 2049 Institute, “We need to adopt the concept of denial. That’s very spatial, deny instead of control.” “The Evolving Military Balance in the Taiwan Strait,” Council on Foreign Relations meeting, 7 October 2021.
- The 2021 Executive Order on Improving Cybersecurity states: “Protecting our Nation from malicious cyber actors requires the Federal Government to partner with the private sector. The private sector must adapt to the continuously changing threat environment, ensure its products are built and operate securely, and partner with the Federal Government to foster a more secure cyberspace.”
- Ashley Collman, “Russia Disconnected Itself from the Rest of the Internet, a Test of Its New Defense System from Cyber Warfare, Report Says,” Business Insider, 23 July 2021.
- Blake Herzinger, “The Budget (and Fleet) That Might Have Been,” War on the Rocks, 10 June 2021.
- Although the phrase is associated with Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, its philosophical implications are that of a shift from deterrence by punishment to deterrence by denial and from nuclear weapons as the centerpiece of deterrence. President Ronald Reagan, “Remarks at the 1987 Reagan Executive Forum,” 13 March 1987.