Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. James Steinberg, a deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, is dean of the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.
The new concept of American overseas military operations known as “Air-Sea Battle” has come under scrutiny and criticism. Popular with the Air Force and Navy, it has been construed as an aggressive policy, and some in the Pentagon see it as a way for those two services to grab budget share away from the Army. Across Asia, especially in China, many view it as a way for the United States to challenge a rising People’s Republic.
In fact, as a military concept, Air-Sea Battle reflects some needed rethinking in response to global changes in weaponry and military strategy in the Middle East and especially East Asia. The challenge for policymakers is not to discard it and replace it with something more seemingly benign but to place it within a broader security strategy for the Asia-Pacific region that preserves stability and protects U.S. interests without becoming unduly confrontational.
China’s military budget is almost $200 billion a year, according to the Defense Department, which makes it the world’s No. 2 military power. With those considerable funds, China is building and purchasing advanced submarines, more and increasingly accurate ballistic and cruise missiles, homing munitions on antiship ballistic missiles, satellites, antisatellite weapons and modern stealthy combat aircraft. American analysts often label these innovations as part of an “anti-access/area denial” strategy that could be employed against U.S. forces in the region. The Chinese would try to push U.S. forces back from areas near China or seek greater ability to dominate waters near Taiwan as well as the South China and East China seas.
In response, the Air-Sea Battle concept seeks to use new technologies to counter these perceived Chinese initiatives as well as similar — if more modest — efforts by Iran to challenge U.S. capabilities in the Persian Gulf. Air-Sea Battle rightly emphasizes improved command-and-control, precision strike, advanced missile defenses, robotics, submarine operations, and the use of air and space domains. So far, it has not involved big new weapons platforms.
The challenge for policymakers is that each country tends to see the other’s efforts to defend its interests as threatening or even provocative — what political scientists call the “security dilemma.” Chinese strategists are acutely aware of their country’s history of being attacked by sea, so they want to reduce their vulnerability to foreign forces. Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force and Navy argue that the Air-Sea concept is not directed at China but, rather, is about preserving U.S. military access and — perhaps most important — sustaining the credibility of U.S. security commitments to allies.
Because of their size and capabilities, China and the United States represent a central element in each other’s major strategic planning. Denials of this lack credibility and feed distrust — which is all the more reason policymakers must put this military doctrine into perspective and not let it become a prescription for unfettered rivalry.