Strategizing Forward in the Western Pacific and Elsewhere

May 25, 2016

In a previous Landpower Essay (“The Hard Truth About ‘Easy Fighting’ Theories,” April 2013) I argued that “easy fighting” theories cannot be relied upon to deliver high-stakes results. I was referring to those promoted by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) in its 18 May 2010 study titled “AirSea Battle: A Pointof-Departure Operational Concept.” Throughout this paper I will refer to that version of AirSea Battle because it is the one longest in the public domain; it is the package of ideas most familiar to government policy elites, lawmakers, academics and the media; and it is also the one most fully developed as a method of war should “gaining access” lead to war with the power threatening to deny it. It was this concept about which Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spoke in May 2011 when he said it “has the potential to do for America’s military deterrent power at the beginning of the 21st century what AirLand Battle did near the end of the 20th.”

In the previous essay I said that a defense establishment based on AirSea Battle theories risks wars on unwinnable terms because it is one thing to trigger change on the ground by setting internal forces free; it is another to control such forces once freed. The best way to avoid the need for “hard fighting” by Soldiers and Marines is to retain the capacity to do it well while playing chess rather than checkers in the rapidly evolving 21st century. American leaders should be strategizing about how to make military aggression unprofitable in the Western Pacific, and even unthinkable, as their predecessors have done since 1945 in Europe.

I agree with the authors of AirSea Battle to the extent that the old military strategy for peace in the Western Pacific may have expired in some important respects, but the ends, ways and means suggested by them combine dangerously. In fact, if AirSea Battle is taken seriously by responsible American officials, it could lead, in the long run, to a brittle peace that could tip into long and very expensive global warfare without winners—and the most undesirable version of a future China.

The derivative concepts shared between the Department of Defense AirSea Battle Office and the air and naval services are classified but share the CSBA AirSea Battle label. Any reasonable person would assume that a movie based on the same book would share key ideas. That leaves the derivative Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC) that addresses the function of gaining access at the outset of military interventions but does not explain how to follow through to conclusions. All derivatives of the CSBA concept rely on the systemic Attack-in-Depth method of defeating defenses introduced to joint warfare with the 1980s AirLand Battle reforms in case the Cold War turned hot. Such in-depth attack methods were actually applied with success in the first Gulf War against Iraq, as well as in the first stages of the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. While “Networked and Systemic Attack-in-Depth” approaches of the recent past are the most efficient way to initiate war with an adversary when undefended access to its borders is denied, they are not an effective way to ensure access to threatened allies before war begins. Therefore, I believe that such concepts are destabilizing.

While great dangers could arise in the future, today the challenge for American strategists is managing the rise of new powers in an economically inter-linked world in such a way as to avoid the emergence of the greatest dangers and to promote the emergence of new global security partnerships where they are lacking—and doing so without wrecking the very complex and interactive global economy. Economic, diplomatic and military rationales must be very subtly intertwined with global politics.

With a little deep thought and patience we can keep an advantageous peace in the Western Pacific and promote stable, secure and prosperous conditions world-wide with far less fighting of any kind, but we must have a clearer understanding of warfare in the modern era and be capable of performing realistically and decisively when war does become the last resort in a desperate situation.