The US military today faces an emerging major operational challenge, particularly in the Western Pacific Theater of Operations (WPTO). The Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) ongoing efforts to field robust anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities are threatening to make US power projection increasingly risky and, in some cases and contexts, prohibitively costly. If this occurs, the United States will find itself effectively locked out of a region that has been declared a vital security interest by every administration in the last sixty years. It will also leave longstanding US allies and partners vulnerable to aggression or, more likely, subtle forms of coercion. Consequently, the United States confronts a strategic choice: either accept this ongoing negative shift in the military balance, or explore options for offsetting it. This paper does just that. It offers a point-of-departure concept designed to maintain a stable military balance in the WPTO, one that offsets the PLA’s rapidly improving A2/AD capabilities. We have titled this concept “AirSea Battle,” in recognition that this theater of operations is dominated by naval and air forces, and the domains of space and cyberspace.
The Unprovoked Challenge
For well over half a century, the United States has been a global power with global interests. These interests include (but are not limited to) extending and defending democratic rule, maintaining access to key trading partners and resources, and reassuring those allies and partners who cooperate with the United States in defending common interests. The United States’ ability to project and sustain military power on a large scale has been, and remains, essential to this endeavor.
During much of the Cold War the Soviet Union posed a serious military challenge to US power-projection capabilities. Fortunately, the two superpowers managed to avoid a major war. Nonetheless, the US military’s unsurpassed ability to project and sustain large forces overseas was demonstrated in limited wars in Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf, as well as in numerous other, smaller contingencies. In the decade or so following the Soviet Union’s collapse the US military’s power-projection capabilities in defense of the nation’s interests were effectively unchallenged.
This state of affairs is almost certainly ending, with significant consequences for US security. With the spread of advanced military technologies and their exploitation by other militaries, especially China’s PLA, the US military’s ability to operate in an area of vital interest, the Western Pacific, is being increasingly challenged. While Beijing professes benign intentions, it is an old military maxim that since intentions can change overnight — especially in authoritarian regimes — one must focus on the military capabilities of other states.
Currently there is little indication that China intends to alter its efforts to create “no-go zones” out to the second island chain, which extends as far as Guam and New Guinea. Unless Beijing diverts from its current course of action, or Washington undertakes actions to offset or counterbalance the effects of the PLA’s military buildup, the cost incurred by the US military to operate in the Western Pacific will likely rise sharply, perhaps to prohibitive levels, and much sooner than many expect.