The flawed logic of Offshore Control.
AirSea Battle cannot.
It is reasonable to assess that China will continue its attempt to exert regional hegemony in the western Pacific through selective intimidation of its neighbors and reinforcement of its resource and territorial claims. It is also generally agreed that America, together with treaty allies and partners in the region, has the only realistic ability to deter or thwart China from achieving its ambitions. Further, it is in America’s and other countries’ national interests that China not behave as a regional hegemon but rather “peacefully rise” as a responsible nation working within international norms and respectful of the rights of other nations. Since China may be unwilling to behave in accordance with these norms, the U.S. and allies need operational approaches to address the requirements of possible conflict. Hammes and Hooker have assessed that an approach that directly threatens or attacks anything on China’s mainland is both unacceptably escalatory and unlikely to succeed. The CSBA AirSea Battle concept discusses and provocatively recommends mainland attacks. While neither CSBA’s nor the DOD’s concept are strategies or operational plans, Hammes and Hooker assail them as such. Meanwhile, their Offshore Control is rarely studied or discussed outside their own advocacy.
As described by Hammes and Hooker, “Offshore Control establishes concentric rings that deny China the use of the sea inside the first island chain, defend the sea and air space of the first island chain nations, and dominate the air and maritime space outside the island chain.” Offshore Control “takes advantage of geography to block China's key imports and exports” with the expressed objective of severely weakening China’s economy. Hammes and Hooker state that “no kinetic operations will penetrate Chinese airspace,” which they say will “reduce the possibility of nuclear escalation and make conflict termination easier.”
In Hammes and Hooker’s scenario, China starts the conflict and acts alone. Hammes and Hooker do not specify the source of conflict, but it is assumed China’s aggression will be limited, regional, and focused on disputed resources or territories. The U.S. will act in concert with allies and regional partners and take a mostly defensive posture. Offshore Control “exploits geography to force China to fight at long range while allowing U.S. and allied forces to fight as part of an integrated air-sea-land defense over their own territories.” The overall strategy of Offshore Control is a distant blockade, outside the first island chain, preventing the passage of large cargo ships and tankers to and from China, with the objective of rapidly disrupting China’s economy.
The first element of Offshore Control proposed by Hammes and Hooker is to establish “a maritime exclusion zone with the warning that ships in the zone will be seized or sunk” by U.S. submarines, all the way to China’s twelve-mile territorial limit. Sea mines will be used both offensively against China’s ports and sea-lanes and defensively in the disputed areas. Hammes and Hooker also state that cruise missiles will be launched, presumably by aircraft, ships, or submarines, but do not say what the cruise missiles will target. The cruise missile targets must be Chinese military ships since penetrating, kinetic attacks against land targets are prohibited. Finally, the limited air assets mentioned would presumably support submarine operations and provide ISR information for indications and warning as well as maritime targeting. The quantities of submarines and air assets needed to patrol such a massive maritime area—larger than the entire continental United States—amounts to every available U.S. attack and guided missile submarine, the entire fleet of U.S. maritime patrol aircraft, and large numbers of other assets.
Next, Offshore Control states that: “numerous small islands from Japan to Taiwan to Luzon and on to the Straits of Malacca provide dispersed land-basing options for air and sea defense of the apparent gaps in the first island chain.” No allies or partners, except for possibly Australia, will be asked to provide basing for offensive operations, but the U.S. will offer capabilities to defend these other countries and to help ensure the flow of trade if China attempts a counter blockade. Offshore Control “will only ask nations to allow the presence of U.S. defensive systems to help defend that nation's air, sea and land space.” Hammes and Hooker were not specific about which allies and partners would receive this U.S. largesse. It is also not specified precisely what type of defenses are called for, but a safe bet is active defenses against Chinese air and missile attack. Any land maneuver forces placed on these locations would perhaps make allies feel safer, but would be useless for offensive operations; regardless, everything the U.S. positions on this ring of islands must be defended and will require substantial logistics support and sustainment.
Outside the first island chain, Hammes and Hooker propose “a combination of air, naval, ground and rented commercial platforms to intercept and divert the supertankers and very large container ships essential to China's economy.” They advocate halting or diverting Chinese trade through waterways like the Strait of Malacca, the Lombok Strait, the Sunda Strait and the routes south of Australia to sever trade from the west. To limit trade from the east, the U.S. would control the Panama Canal and the Strait of Magellan. The numbers of naval vessels required to perform such a herculean blockade in so many places at once is not precisely specified, but it would pretty much take the entire “at sea” U.S. navy in addition to allied naval support.
Offshore control claims to offer a less aggressive, nonescalatory approach to conflict with China. Hammes and Hooker tout its lower cost and supposed acceptability to allies as examples of its superiority to AirSea Battle and other approaches. However, there are at least three fatal flaws with the Offshore Control Strategy. China’s surface-to-air missile force extends continuous air defenses over one hundred miles from the mainland and even further when ship-borne or located on various islands. China has a large and capable air force and will be able to threaten U.S. air and naval operations at even greater range—out to several hundred miles from their coast. China possesses long-range ballistic and cruise missiles that can reach well beyond the first island chain. China is also becoming capable of antisubmarine warfare using maritime patrol aircraft, a growing surface navy, quasicivilian “white shipping,” and other means. China’s navy, while not yet a match for the U.S. Navy, is strongest near their coast and can sortie dozens of surface and subsurface combatants at a time.
The nature and quantity of China’s current and future force would place our submarine force and “limited air assets” operating inside the first island chain at tremendous risk when used as Hammes and Hooker recommend. Since the maritime area inside the first island chain is so large and U.S. submarines will have to find targets mostly on their own, they will need to focus on the entries to ports, geographic choke points, and other well-traveled zones. China can defensively mine and focus their antisubmarine operations in the same areas. U.S. submarines possess many qualitative advantages and would be very effective in interdicting Chinese shipping on a modest scale, but the geography, the lack of air and surface support, and the ability of the Chinese to concentrate their antisubmarine efforts on finding U.S. attack submarines without fear of disruption by surface and air assets will make these operations much riskier.
The only way to mitigate this risk is to establish areas of localized air superiority and sea control. Submarines, though stealthy, cannot operate alone and unafraid when, as Hammes and Hooker recommend, they are being used to threaten or sink China’s military shipping. Submarines will require support in order to be most effective, and to lower risk. This support must be provided by surface combatants and land and sea based fighter aircraft. Fighters cannot be based at great distances from their area of operations, requiring nearby land and sea bases. These bases must also be defended and logistically sustained. Importantly, Hammes’ and Hooker’s ring of small defense-oriented bases will not suffice for this task, since the promise of Offshore Control is that these bases will only be used to defend partners and allies and not to conduct the needed counterair or surface warfare missions.
This flawed aspect of Offshore Control raises many other questions that Hammes and Hooker do not attempt to answer. How many submarines and ISR aircraft would it take to patrol the huge expanse of sea-space inside the first island chain? Would the sinking of Chinese military vessels be considered proportional and nonescalatory? What about ships flying other nations’ flags? This approach calls for the U.S. to sink large numbers of ships. What would be the next step when the Chinese, understandably, focused their efforts on finding and destroying U.S. submarines?
This part of Offshore Control is void of realistic operational content. It glosses over the actual force structure required to enforce such an ambitious maritime exclusion zone. It completely neglects the likelihood that the Chinese would not tolerate the maritime interdiction campaign and would purposefully escalate their operations. It is simple to contend that the U.S. would take the necessary measures to make the maritime interdiction campaign successful. But Hammes’ and Hooker’s approach has the U.S. abandoning “offensive” land and sea basing at or inside the first island chain—the ability to respond to Chinese escalation would then be terminally hamstrung because of the Offshore Control approach. Perhaps Hammes and Hooker would not advocate responding to such an escalation at all. This would result in an even longer, far more painful war—one with much higher U.S. losses.
The second fatal flaw of Offshore Control is that it will greatly disrupt the entire world’s economy. The idea that China’s economy can be rapidly disrupted without also causing global economic disruption ignores the reality of China’s economy today and projected into the near future. Every large cargo ship and oil tanker is going to or coming from another nation’s ports, carrying other nations’ trade items, and pumping the lifeblood of the global economy. Trade with China is as indispensable to the global economy as trade with America or Europe. It cannot simply be cut or halted without inducing global chaos. This does not mean that this aspect of Offshore Control could not work; only that it is highly unlikely to be tried and even harder to sustain over the long haul, particularly without consensus or support in the international community. Further, China is unlikely to let their own economy be disrupted without taking measures against the U.S. and allied economies in unpredictable ways. Since the initiating source of conflict would almost certainly be limited and regionally focused, using the Offshore Control approach allows China to achieve its regional objective and then requires the U.S. and allies to continue the conflict—through the interdiction of raw materials and energy to strangle China. Since U.S. forces would not attempt to directly counter China’s resource or territorial claims, it would appear to the whole world that the U.S. had either been unwilling or unable to challenge China over the actual dispute, but was more than willing to escalate on a global scale. It would be subsequent U.S. actions (i.e. the blockade) that damage the global economy, not Chinese aggression. Neither U.S. or allied/partner leaders could tolerate this approach. It therefore becomes irrelevant whether Offshore Control might have worked in the long run—it would likely not be attempted, and if tried, could not be maintained. If the U.S. could not tolerate China achieving its limited objective, Offshore Control gives the allies no other option than to economically escalate and, over time, force the Chinese to “undo” what they had achieved. The U.S. would lose credibility and political support by employing such an approach—China could rightly accuse America of damaging the global economy and impoverishing millions over a regional dispute.
One of Hammes and Hooker’s assumptions is that any conflict with China will be a long war. The Offshore Control approach certainly guarantees that. In a more direct denial approach, trade could actually continue, at least on a limited scale because the U.S.’s objective would be to challenge China’s military objective itself or threaten some aspect of China’s military force and thereby make crisis stability and a brokered settlement far more likely. If China cannot achieve its regional objective there is nothing for them to give up in the process of ceasing hostilities. This will provide legitimate “face saving” conditions, unlike Offshore Control which requires China to succumb to economic pressure. With a more limited approach, China and the U.S. could face each other over a regional dispute without making the conflict economic in nature and global in scope. But, Hammes and Hooker recommend an approach that would necessitate a long war and directly induce massive economic disruption, while asserting that any war with China would be long and disruptive.
The final and most damning flaw in Offshore Control is that Hammes and Hooker fail to recognize that the real threat of escalation lies with existential threats to the Chinese Communist Party. Western thinkers make an error in mirror-imaging U.S. and allied reluctance to use force and take casualties in a limited war. It is impossible to economically exhaust China without significant damage to their national infrastructure and a direct threat to the regime. Attempts to attack China’s economy will be correctly perceived by the Chinese as an existential threat to the Chinese Communist Party itself—this will certainly result in Chinese escalation. China’s escalation will necessitate either an appropriate U.S. response or further U.S. retreat from the first island chain—basically leaving the theater. Assuming more withdrawal is not acceptable, the U.S. will have to respond to any Chinese escalation in an appropriate, but also effective manner. In order to respond effectively, the U.S. will need the access and ability to conduct such operations—access that Offshore Control cedes at the onset. This also makes Hammes’ and Hooker’s approach very risky strategically, because if it fails, the U.S. will have given up options it will need to take a different approach. This is not a minor point—regaining access after it has been ceded or lost will be far more difficult than keeping it in the first place. This is also true of operational initiative. By ceding the initiative and not even fighting for access at the outset of the campaign, the Offshore Control strategy absolutely requires that the exhaustion campaign work as predicted, and also retain the political support it will need to see it through. There are very good reasons to question whether either, or both, will be true.
A major problem is that Offshore Control seeks to coerce the China’s leadership to end a future conflict in the same way that China ended its previous conflicts with India, the United Nations in Korea, the Soviet Union, and Vietnam. Hammes and Hooker believe it can produce conditions where China will declare that it “taught the enemy a lesson” and thus end the conflict. The differences between a future situation and the examples from China’s past are massive. First, the U.S. and nations in the region will not want China to keep the resource claims or the ability to engage in coercive behavior after conflict termination. After all, this is why the conflict began in the first place. Likewise, China will not be able to give up these claims or capabilities and simultaneously maintain the illusion that anyone “was taught a lesson.” For example, if China is still occupying disputed terrain or resources, they will have won the conflict; if the U.S. has forced them to give up their objective, they and the region will perceive that they have lost. If economic exhaustion forces modern, powerful China to concede to U.S. demands, everyone will know it. In none of China’s twentieth-century conflicts were China’s adversaries able or willing to threaten China’s livelihood. Further, China previously had nowhere near the resources and capabilities it has today. Now and in the future, China is an acknowledged global power, militarily, economically, and politically—a status China takes very seriously. The idea that China in 2015 or 2020 will behave like China in 1951 or 1979 is difficult to defend. China’s place in the world has changed in every conceivable way since those earlier conflicts. Offshore Control can only reach termination through massive economic damage to China and the subjugation of the Chinese Communist Party to the U.S. and allied will—while ignoring and discounting the probability of Chinese internal security problems and certain Chinese escalation. It is hard to imagine such an outcome.
Finally, a defensive interdiction campaign inherently lacks deterrent value. The U.S. and allies would need to blatantly tell China this is what the U.S. and allies will do, since China would not determine on its own that this would be the U.S. approach. Even if directly informed that this is the U.S. strategy, combined with obvious actions to develop capabilities to enact this approach, China is very unlikely to believe this is the real U.S. plan since it is so atypical of every campaign the U.S. has conducted since World War II. Therefore, this approach is unlikely to deter them. It would, however, make the U.S. look weak, not only to China but also to allies and partners; such U.S. weakness is inherently destabilizing and plays to China’s long-term strategy. No U.S. or allied national leader would ever tell the Chinese that if China chose to solve their disputes militarily, they will economically blockade China and destroy the Chinese economy. But, it is entirely reasonable for a leader to inform China that the U.S. and allies will strongly support international norms and the peaceful resolution of disputes. The Chinese would have many asymmetric responses to the Offshore Control approach. If Offshore Control became the U.S. official strategy for war against China, the Chinese could simply let the U.S. know that a blockade would make U.S. space and cyber capabilities, bases, and capital ships valid targets. The U.S. would have few options at that point, save further escalation or backing down.
In future conflict with China, however unthinkable that may be, the U.S. and China would likely face off over relatively minor, local disputes that will hardly merit escalatory actions like economic blockades. The best way to deter Chinese attempts at regional hegemony and bilateral coercion is to possess qualitatively superior and asymmetric capabilities, better trained and integrated forces, and strong multilateral bonds of common interest and relationships with allies and partners. These are the types of forces the Department of Defense is developing based on the Joint Operational Access Concept, Air-Sea Battle, and the Joint Concept for Entry Operations. If China’s leaders know the U.S. will strongly back the international order and directly challenge any use of China’s military force to solve regional disputes, crisis stability can be maintained without resorting to threats to strangle China’s economy and disrupt the entire world’s trade.