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

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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.