AirSea Battle: The Military-Industrial Complex’s Self-Serving Fantasy

  • Share
  • Read Later

China's Great Wall: an ancient AirSea Battle plan

Nice Washington Post piece (by Greg Jaffe, of course) on the great COIN counterattack that is the Pentagon’s AirSea Battle.

As scenario work goes, what the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis has done in its war-games has to rank right up there with the most egregiously implausible efforts ever made to justify arms build-ups.

These games, done for Andrew Marshall’s Office of Net Assessment at the Defense Department, enthusiastically embrace what I have long dubbed the exceedingly narrow “war within the context of war” mindset – purposefully zeroing out all outside existing reality that readily contradicts the core operational concepts behind AirSea Battle.

[For my most complete criticism of ASBC, see “Big-War Thinking in a Small-War Era: The Rise of the AirSea Battle Concept” for the journal China Security.]

A Post quote from respected China expert Jonathan Pollack, who, in another life, was a colleague of mine at the Naval War College:

Some critics doubt that China, which owns $1.6 trillion in U.S. debt and depends heavily on the American economy, would strike U.S. forces out of the blue.

“It is absolutely fraudulent,” said Jonathan D. Pollack, a senior fellow at Brookings. “What is the imaginable context or scenario for this attack?”

Other defense analysts warn that an assault on the Chinese mainland carries potentially catastrophic risks and could quickly escalate to nuclear armageddon.

The war games elided these concerns. Instead they focused on how U.S. forces would weather the initial Chinese missile salvo and attack.

That last bit is what I mean when I say the “big war” crowd inside the Pentagon is actively seeking to lower the threshold of great-power war:  when confronted with the dangers of escalation, these complications are simply eliminated from the model in a truly Strangelovian twist of logic.



Here’s how I wrote that bit up in the China Security piece:

Most incredulously, a guiding assumption of the CSBA’s war scenario analysis is that, despite the high likelihood that a Sino-US conventional conflict “would devolve into a prolonged war” (presumably with tens of thousands of casualties on China’s side at least), mutual nuclear deterrence would be preserved throughout the conflict even as China suffers humiliating defeat across the board. The historical proof offered for this stunning judgment?  Neither Nazi Germany nor Saddam Hussein’s Iraq used chemical weapons as a last-ditch tool to stave off defeat.  And if China took that desperate step?  The CSBA then admits that, “the character of the conflict would change so drastically as to render discussion of major conventional warfare irrelevant.” As strategic “oops!” disclaimers go, that one has the benefit of understatement.

As a mental exercise, just imagine the reverse situation:  China is defending Cuba from U.S. military threats, but the U.S. makes it look like it’s going to attack, and then . . . WHAMMO!  the Chinese military drops bombs in the American west, east, south, north and heartland.  Imagine how the United States would handle that.  Do you think we just might pop off a nuke in China’s general direction?  Or do you think we’d just “take it” and respond solely via conventional means?

But, please, by all minds, stop me when I start sounding crazy . . ..

And yet this stuff is seriously passed around in Washington, and it forms the core operational logic underpinning President Obama’s “strategic pivot” to China.

Scared yet?  You should be.  Because these are some incredibly dangerous ideas being passed off as “necessary.”  To be brutally honest, it makes me ashamed of my profession – it’s that bad.  Worse, these plans and preparations are proceeding with zero public debate.

You’d think such thinking was impossible in this connected day and age, but it’s a testament to 91-year-old Marshall’s staying power within the Pentagon, along with the military-industrial complex’s enduring attraction to his high-dollar, big-ticket approach to future war.  Mr. Marshall still wants his “revolution in military affairs” – no matter what it costs or what arms races and major conflicts it may encourage.

This is a vision of war that’s long been in search (since the 1980s) of a suitable enemy.  Naturally, no matter how China “rises,” it fits the bill.  So the more we push the envelope, the more the Chinese push back.  And when the right Vietnamese fisherman is arrested, well . . . hell, man!  We’ll be ready for World War III.

Overkill?  Undoubtedly.

But more to the point:  tell me how this imagined war will end to our advantage?

But these are meaningless questions to those who refuse to imagine, as I like to say, “war within the context of everything else.”  Because, in the end, the outside world doesnt’ matter.  What matters is who controls the bucks inside the Pentagon.

Naturally, the Army and Marines are less than thrilled with the vision (again, from the Post piece):

Inside the Pentagon, the Army and Marine Corps have mounted offensives against the concept, which could lead to less spending on ground combat.

An internal assessment, prepared for the Marine Corps commandant and obtained by The Washington Post, warns that “an Air-Sea Battle-focused Navy and Air Force would be preposterously expensive to build in peace time” and would result in “incalculable human and economic destruction” if ever used in a major war with China.

The concept, however, aligns with Obama’s broader effort to shift the U.S. military’s focus toward Asia and provides a framework for preserving some of the Pentagon’s most sophisticated weapons programs, many of which have strong backing in Congress.

That last line says it all.  AirSea Battle is an exercise in spending fantastic amounts of U.S. taxpayer dollars in certain congressional districts. This is the only reason it flourishes, and the primary reason why a cynical Obama embraces it: it proves his “tough on defense” credentials as he draws down in Afghanistan.

We have no serious leadership in Washington.  Strategic thinking has been completely eliminated in the quest for program-preserving rationales.  It is a sad time to be in this business.

This is what I meant when I said that 9/11 saved us from ourselves.  The Bush neocons were all wound up about China prior to 9/11, and now that that strategic narrative has been consummated – in our minds, at least – by Osama Bin Laden’s assassination, the China hawks are once again ascendant.

Why?  There is simply more of the right kind of defense dollars in this vision (meaning uber-expensive high tech stuff – not those pesky troops).

This vision fits the country’s mood:  what’s wrong with America is China – not what’s actually wrong with America. Since fixing America would be hard, it’s better to blame China and feel better about our failings by gearing up for high-tech war with the Chinese.

The worst part?  This is a self-licking ice cream cone.

As China’s development matures and the government is forced to limit defense spending in deference to the mounting costs associated with environmental damage, aging of the population, rising demand for better healthcare, safer food and products, etc., the People’s Liberation Army desperately needs an external enemy image to justify protecting its share of the pie (which is already smaller than the amount spent on internal security).

Thus, the PLA needs the Pentagon’s big-war crowd…as much as the latter needs the PLA.

This is a marriage made in heaven – and pursued with an indifferent cynicism that is stunning in its magnitude.

Fred Zimmerman
Fred Zimmerman

It's not "most incredulously", it's "most incredibly."  


I would trust Marshall WAAAY before I trusted this drama queen's article. Marshall is a hard working professional. This guy is literally dramatizing his hard work to MAKE MONEY.  This article is just Disinformation. Read China's military strategy specifically to defeat the US (CSIS website) without using nukes and then tell me we shouldn't have our own strategy.


The dynamic he describes is what drove the Cold War and we won that. The same will happen again and it will be an unifying force in the U.S. We need a common enemy to realize what we have in common. (I'm not being sarcastic) Bring it on!


Enough with these false equivlancies! Cuba and Taiwan are NOT analogous. Cuba is a diplomatically recognized nation that is closed, authoritarian and actually threatened the U.S. in 1962., while the chinese have bullied the U.S. into not recognizing Taiwan despite its world beating economy and open and cosmopolitan stance with the world. The chinese are seeking to punish taiwan for its success and democratic govnt, while the U.S. is punishing cuba for its authoritarian govn't and international activities. Ask yourself where you'd rather live, cuba or taiwan?

Kevin Brent
Kevin Brent

While I agree China is a red herring (pun intended) it's only a red herring because they are the biggest successful deception since the "First US Army Group"  (aka FUSAG) fooled Hitler into believing that D-Day would be at Pas de Calais vice Normandy. China's ghetto Navy is an absolute joke and a bad one at that. If they were any threat, they would be holding live fire exercises just outside the territorial limit adjacent to Tokyo Bay or Pearl Harbor. Not down in the Spratly's picking on the PI who have nothing to stand up to them with. All that said, the moment we stop maintaining an edge in naval and air warfare technology, someone will rise up, or an ally may decide they don't need an alliance with us anymore and rise up on their own with subdued ambitions. Do not discount Russia in the future, and I wouldn't be so fast to discount Europe either. Europe has the technical know how to match our abilities. They simply have not explored it beyond basic defense because they know know if and when they decide they want to try to rule the world again American power is there to stop them. If we let that advantage slip away, Europe would be up to their old colonial tricks in the blink of an eye. They would just call it something else instead of colonialism or empire. Oh, and China does indeed have a target for aggression and invasion. That target is Russia and it will be for "Lebensraum". And, they are dumping the real money into large offensive armored formations that would make a Panzer commander blush like a school girl. They will get Taiwan too, but when they do, it will be via an "Anschluss" without a single shot fired in anger.

S P Dudley
S P Dudley

It's true that it's all marketing and the Navy and Air Force, both long neglected in a war against an enemy with no navy or air force of its own, are looking for ways to gain back the budget priorities they had in the 80s and 90s.  The difficulty is that in today's political environment everything's a "crisis" and only the squeaky wheels get greased.

If the Navy goes and says we need 12 carrier groups because of the just basic need to keep freedom of seas open globally, that's taken for granted now and invariably some think-tank comes up with a crap-brained scheme to use cheap ships to do carrier jobs. But if you package it with bright red lights, face it off against the nation with the most aggressive shipbuilding program in the world (no, that's not us), and come up with these high-publicity scenarios, then you get attention, debate, and at least some priority in funding the basic stuff that you actually needed. This is especially important now that congress and the president have enacted the suicide pact of sequestration.

The sad part is that the Navy and Air Force has to stoop to these games in order to convince an uneducated government and population and an entirely too-cynical media (such as Time).  Everyone always grumbles how the navy is so overfunded until you actually need all of their force, and you always need it when you least expect it.


Well, if the great war era is truly over and we're now enjoying the end of history and the last men, then war games that elide that political reality with worries about self fulfilling prophesies that could somehow cause a great war is really beside the point and rather lame.  I gather the pentagon is  professionally obligated to do such gaming just as the current  democracy era celebrating women as the measure of all things would rather spend the dollars on free condoms rather than a military hypothetical.  


Well that was a fun read. Look Tom, Air Sea Battle is a gimmick to recapitalize the Navy and Air Force and everyone knows it but what's wrong with that? They have been ripped off for the past decade and now they want their (dare I say it) fair share. The Army can take a back seat for the next decade and they will be just fine. Another note, I don't recall the Air Sea Battle doctrine ever being defined by the Generals as directed solely at China. That region will likely become much more economically important than Europe and it serves our interest to have a strong presence in the region. As for the weapons we develop to counter China, I'm pretty sure that if they can beat the Chinese defenses then we might be able to use them elsewhere in the world too (just a thought).  Anyway, good luck with your vision of a future America where being technologically superior in the world is nice but not very important. We are all winners right?


I whole-heartedly agree that defense spending needs to be

decreased. We simply can't sustain the current levels. However, I do think the

arguments against China as an aggressor need to be a little more realistic.


To say that China would not want a conflict with the U.S.

because they hold so much of our debt is very simplistic. Given certain circumstances,

China might consider $1.6 trillion the cost of doing business if it gets them

what they want. That sounds insane to us, but if they owed us that much money,

would we stand by while they invade Japan or South Korea?


In the end, China's priorities are likely to be vastly

different than ours. Or the exact same. It just depends on who is in charge and

what they would expect to gain by an escalation of hostilities.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,122 other followers