Written by Gregory Moore.

This fall, as I taught my “Introduction to International Relations” course in which we discussed the start of World War One as case, and in the midst of many interesting revisitations of the centenary anniversary of the start of WWI in the international media, a very chilling realization came to me about the comparability of Europe in 1914 and the Asia Pacific in 2014. One of the factors that made the run-up to the ultimate outbreak of WWI so dangerous was the nature of the European offense-defense military balance in 1914. Mobilization of one’s forces would take days or weeks it was said, and so military leaders could waste no time in giving mobilization orders lest the enemy get the first jump, catching one’s own forces in a state of underpreparedness.  Therefore, the advantage was with offense and the army who struck first.

In reading Aaron Friedberg’s recent book, Beyond Air-Sea Battle: The Debate over US Military Strategy in Asia, and rereading the source material behind the primary American defense strategy to address the security implications of China’s rise, AirSea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary
Assessments (Air-Sea Battle has been operationalized by the US Defense Department), I am struck by the similarities between the 1914 offense-defense balance, and that of China and the United States presently in these discussions of Air-Sea Battle. The United States and China find themselves in a security environment wherein the advantage in an armed confrontation between them would go to the side that strikes first. From there, the risks of escalation expand by orders of magnitude.

Let me start by highlighting the many dimensions in which the strategic advantage goes to the offense and “he who strikes first,” presently in Sino-American strategic relations, according to Air-Sea Battle (ASB ). First is the issue of China’s need to neutralize American bases and legacy naval battle groups (aircraft carriers in particular), which would play a key role in any regional US operations. Because of the distance from the US mainland to the western Pacific and East and South China Seas, the US depends heavily on bases in Japan, the Philippines and Guam, along with the ability of aircraft carriers and other naval battle groups to project power in the region. Consequently China has developed an Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) plan that entails missile, air and sea forces capable of neutralizing US bases as far away as Guam, and searching out and destroying US naval battle groups in the region that might engage Chinese forces. Key to the success of this strategy in any large-scale Sino-American confrontation would be neutralizing or destroying US bases in the western Asia-Pacific region, and their ability to project power, and the best way to do this would be to strike first while they are unprepared and/or insufficiently hardened, the first part of China’s attempt to take the US out of any regional conflict. ASB operates under the assumption that “Kadena, Guam and satellite bases elsewhere in the Marianas would be rendered unusable by PLA missile strikes at least temporarily early in any  major conflict…” at least in a conflict in which the US did not strike first (AirSea Battle p. 55).

The second element would involve the likelihood that China would also need to “blind” US forces in the region by a first-strike attack against US space-based assets covering the region. High-tech US military weaponry and operations are heavily dependent on satellites for guidance and communications systems. Consequently, it would be “highly attractive” for China to strike first against US space-based assets in a conflict, which if done effectively, could take away US superiority in targeting and communications (AirSea Battle p. 34).

A third element involves cyber warfare. Because US forces are heavily dependent on computer information systems for ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance ), communications and remote targeting systems, it would be highly advantageous for China to launch a full-scale cyber attack on US information systems in a first strike “cyber Pearl Harbor,” again to neutralize and/or degrade the American ability to project power, to communicate, to target, and even to see what is going on on the battlefield/site of conflict.

Moving to the US side and ASB’s counters to these issues, there are a few other “advantage offense” realities. First, knowing that the Chinese would have to neutralize US bases in the region, and desiring to protect them and US naval assets in the region, the US would have an important interest in taking out China’s over-the-horizon radar and targeting abilities by a first strike (or early strike) on Chinese radar/targeting sites on the Mainland (AirSea Battle pp. 51-53). In fact, ASB says this would need to be the first move of US operations in an armed conflict with China.  “At the outset of hostitilies, the US would immediately implement its blinding campaign” (AirSea Battle p. 57).

Secondly, the US would need to target Chinese missile sites on China’s mainland, to keep them from attacking US (and possibly allied) bases and naval assets in the region.  The US would need a “missile suppression campaign” targeting Mainland China (AirSea Battle p. 65).

Third, if the conflict was prolonged US forces would escalate to a second phase of attacks (again on China’s mainland) against China’s ability to produce and field additional missile forces needed to replace those used in first wave attacks. “Selected PLA [People’s Liberation Army] missile production and storage facilities should be struck early in the conflict” (AirSea Battle p. 64).

There has been much discussion surrounding ASB and the dangers of unintended provocation of an escalation spiral, particularly on China’s side, for how would China’s planners be certain that incoming US missiles/attacks against China’s missile and over-the horizon radar sites are not attacks against major population centers and/or nuclear missile sites? Moreover, China might not know if the incoming missiles were conventional or nuclear in nature.  There is a danger that China might decide to launch conventional and/or nuclear attacks against American targets on its own mainland under a “use ‘em or lose ‘em” calculation.

My conclusion is that Chinese and American defense planners have both made accurate and rational calculations about what it would take to prevail under such conditions. That is precisely what is so alarming about all of this. It sounds too much like the summer of 1914, it provides too many incentives to strike first, to escalate from tension over islands like the Diaoyudao/Senkakus to full scale war against Chinese or American territory itself. I am not saying war between China and the US is as imminent as it was between European powers in 1914, but the offense-defense balance and the calculations of decision-makers on both sides create a strategic environment, should relations between the two deteriorate into armed conflict, that is eerily familiar, with a number of 21st century technological twists.

But then, perhaps this was actually the intent of Air-Sea Battle’s planners. Perhaps ASB was meant as a shot of espresso and a cold shower to boost the sobriety of planners in Beijing (as well as regional allies and neigh-sayers in Washington the DOD hopes to persuade to buy into the plan), and to deter any Chinese acts of aggression. An analysis of the brave new world described by ASB should remind us all how important it is for all sides to act with restraint and to avoid resort to arms to resolve differences. If this has indeed been ASB’s purpose (or one of its purposes), it has likely been successful.

Gregory J. Moore is Associate Professor of International Relations in the Political Science Department of the School of Public Affairs at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China. Image credit: CC by Official US Navy Page/Flickr.