Planning the unthinkable war: 'AirSea Battle' and its implications for Australia

15 Apr 2013

This paper argues that Australia does not have an interest in officially signing up to AirSea Battle at this point.

As part of America’s ‘rebalance’ towards the Asia–Pacific region, Australia’s most important ally is reconsidering its military posture to deal with China’s growing ‘anti‑access/area‑denial’ (A2/AD) capability, which is gradually eroding America’s maritime dominance in the Western Pacific. China’s missiles can now reach large parts of the region. In response, the Pentagon is working on an ‘AirSea Battle’ operational concept that aims to deter and, if necessary, to defeat the Chinese military. While officially the concept isn’t targeted against any specific country and is applicable elsewhere (for example, in the Strait of Hormuz), the US military’s increased focus on China has given the concept much prominence in the strategic community.

The potential implications of AirSea Battle for Australia are far from trivial. US policymakers consider Australia a key ally in the concept, not least because of our reliability to contribute forces to coalition operations. We have a major interest in supporting America’s rebalancing towards the Asia–Pacific region and a credible US war‑fighting strategy as a deterrent against a China that’s increasingly flexing its military muscles. However, we also need to think through the potential implications of AirSea Battle. After all, this is about a potential military escalation with a major nuclear power.

The Australian strategic debate about AirSea Battle, to the degree that there’s been one, has largely centred around two opposing camps: those who see it as a dangerous instrument to ‘contain’ China and potentially drag Australia into a nuclear escalation between the two great powers, and those who embrace the concept’s logic and even argue that Australia should develop long‑range strike capabilities to contribute to potential offensive operations against China. However, it’s possible to come to a more nuanced position—one that recognises the potential benefits of AirSea Battle while also identifying its shortcomings and the prospects and limitations of Australia’s contribution.

The study addresses some key questions related to AirSea Battle: Is it feasible? Does it make strategic sense? How do key allies and partners in Northeast and Southeast Asia view the concept, and what role could they play? What could and should be Australia’s specific contributions to AirSea Battle?

Chapter 1 describes China’s growing military capacity to pose an increasingly sophisticated A2/AD challenge for US forward‑deployed forces. While it’s important not to overstate the current power projection capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army (PL A), China has already changed the military balance in its ‘near seas’, particularly in the Taiwan Strait. The PL A doesn’t need to reach strategic parity with US forces. Instead, its asymmetric strategy aims to prevent or complicate US interventions in territorial disputes by making the potential costs for American forces prohibitively high. AirSea Battle aims at defeating such A2/AD strategies by withstanding an initial Chinese attack, followed by a ‘blinding campaign’ against PL A command and control networks, a ‘missile suppression campaign’ against China’s land‑based systems, and a ‘distant blockade’ against Chinese merchant ships in the Malacca Strait and elsewhere. Importantly, it’s based on the assumptions that the escalation can be kept below the nuclear threshold, and that Japan and Australia will be active allies throughout the campaign. Far from being just a fancy of Pentagon planners, AirSea Battle has gained institutional momentum and first steps towards its implementation are being taken.

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