Range of PLA ballistic missiles
In recent years, the concept of Anti-access/Area Denial (A2/AD) has lit a spark inside the hallowed halls of the most eminent naval power cabals. A2/AD methods culminate in a strategy designed to severely hinder the ability of an opponent to deploy military force to a combat theater, constrain the number of locales from which these forces could operate, and keep them far enough away from critical areas that they cannot deploy quickly or operate effectively. China dominates the roster of states whose capabilities fuel this debate, a debate which tends to revolve around assumptions of Chinese machinations towards Taiwan. Here I will explore how altering such assumptions can affect the effectiveness of American AirSea Battle designs.
Exploring the details of how AirSea Battle works in a Chinese invasion scenario does not fall within the scope of this piece. Suffice it to say Chinese A2/AD, and especially the dreaded anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), could compel U.S. aircraft carriers out of a fight for a critical length of time, or even result in their incapacitation. The bulk of AirSea battlers devote themselves to answering how we protect our carriers from precision guided munitions volleys and deploy them quickly to the critical battle area.
AirSea Battle’s assumptions of a surprise Chinese attack on U.S. assets and an invasion of Taiwan may be misguided. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has large incentives to avoid conquering Taiwan. Assuming the CCP’s desire to avoid an invasion, the probable purpose of China’s A2/AD strategy becomes limiting the strategic options of Taiwanese politicians. As such, the time-critical nature of many AirSea Battle designs creates down-stream effects which may be strategically counterproductive.
Taiwan remains the CCP’s biggest headache, but not for the reasons many assume. Reunification with the mainland represents the scenario most likely to loosen the CCP’s grip on political control. For a good case study, look at Hong Kong. Sixteen years after incorporation, mainland Chinese must apply for a visa to visit this major economic center in their own country. CCP worries focus on the social and political disruptions total integration could spark. Hong Kong has regulations and laws on the books which would be unthinkable in much of the country. Its political culture also developed largely independent of CCP influences, and many of the CCP’s most vocal critics reside in Hong Kong. The city may be a cash cow, but the Communist government still has not figured out how to integrate it into the broader Chinese polity or society.
Incorporating Taiwan represents a problem an order of magnitude larger. The social, economic, and political disruptions resulting from incorporating a province-sized polity of people with different social, political, and economic expectations and viewpoints would have repercussions the PRC government cannot confidently claim it could handle. Over twenty million people with radically different ideas about what good governance looks like represent a powerful political tool for anyone, CCP member or not, who would seek to change the political status quo in China.
Therefore, incorporation puts at risk the CCP’s primary strategic objectives: the survival and dominance of the CCP. Any plan to retake Taiwan would be considered only in the direst of straits. In general, survival-threatening political situations do not arise overnight. Given the above, AirSea Battle’s assumption of a surprise attack on Taiwan looks dubious, bordering on ridiculous. The seriousness of any political situation which would compel the CCP to consider invasion would be obvious for weeks or months, giving American forces ample time to prepare and position assets.
Following this alternate assumption, China’s A2/AD assets were intended neither as a shield behind which to launch an invasion, nor as coercive instruments. The CCP largely abandoned coercive military threats after the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1996. In this crisis, China “test-launched” several missiles off the Taiwanese coast, attempting to coerce supporters of the vocally pro-independence presidential candidate Lee Teng-hui. This method backfired completely. The public responded with anger instead of fear, and Lee polled 5% better than expected, securing a majority of votes. The Chinese have since chosen not to utilize coercive tactics.
Chinese A2/AD now looks primarily like a tool to maximize China’s political bargaining advantage. It signals to Taiwanese politicians that military power projection assets (such as equivalent to the Nimitz class carriers) will not play a significant role in political bargaining. It does not, however, signal Chinese coercive or aggressive designs. China prefers hashing out its political differences with Taiwan through diplomacy, and ASBMs mean Taiwan cannot count on utilizing American carriers as bargaining chips in its calculations.
This is deterrence by denial, but Taiwan is the target audience, not the U.S. China’s A2/AD seeks to deny Taiwanese decision makers the perceived option of threatening uncontrollable escalation in the form of an American intervention. The desired objective consists of making serious Taiwanese domestic debate on independence virtually untenable, with the end goal of avoiding military confrontation, which could result in Chinese defeat or entrap them into a policy of conquest.
An effective understanding of the enemy’s strategy should be the base of any U.S. military planning, and much of the AirSea Battle literature regarding China may have it wrong. This likely reflects military planners’ penchant for worst-case-scenario planning. However, if this scenario’s assumptions prove incorrect, then the operational plans may not achieve their desired effect. Rushing a carrier into a hornet’s nest during periods of heightened tensions may provide a moral hazard encouraging a Taiwan under duress to risk conflict, not discourage it.
Worst-case-scenario planning has its usefulness, but how assumptions based on worst cases interact with the realities of other more likely scenarios must not be ignored. If the U.S. enacts worst-case operational plans in non-worst-case scenarios, the resulting dissonance could create unfavorable outcomes. Some AirSea battlers’ emphasis on the vulnerability of time-critical limited assets can create a use-it-or-lose-it situation, thereby increasing perceived risk and incentivizing an American first strike in a situation which might not call for one. So, remember what they say about assumptions…