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The U.S. military's China syndrome

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For the best part of a decade, the demands of industrial-scale counter-insurgency campaigns have determined the United States' spending priorities and been obsessed over by its strategic thinkers. Now, however, a new military fashion has taken over.

Earlier this month, at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore for Asian defence ministers, U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta fleshed out what America's "rebalance" toward Asia will mean in terms of military resources.

The secretary of defence announced that, by 2020, 60 per cent of the U.S.'s warships, including six aircraft-carrier groups, would be stationed in the Asia-Pacific theatre. In addition, he mentioned a range of other "investments" to ensure, despite China's fast-growing military might, the U.S. would still be able to "rapidly project military power if needed to meet our security commitments" in the region.

Among them will be new ships that can operate close to an enemy's shoreline, fast-attack submarines, missile-defence interceptors under development with Japan, beefed-up cyber-warfare and communications systems and a new long-range bomber that can strike deep into enemy territory.

Now that the United States is leaving Iraq and winding down the war in Afghanistan, as U.S. President Barack Obama optimistically puts it, the administration has space to worry about the potential of China and, to a lesser extent, Iran to erode America's ability to project force in regions of vital interest.

The result is both a diplomatic surge, designed to reassure the U.S.'s Asian allies it will do whatever is needed to shield them from Chinese bullying, and the development by the Pentagon of "AirSea Battle," a new strategy devised to defeat the so-called anti-access/area-denial capabilities being deployed by technologically sharp strategic rivals, above all China.

"Anti-access" is the ability to prevent an opposing force from entering an area of operations, while "area denial" is the ability to impose severe costs on the enemy's freedom of action once it has gotten in. The spread of precision-guided weapons now allows ambitious regional powers to bar nearby seas and skies to an adversary, even when that adversary is militarily stronger.

To that end, the Chinese are spending heavily on anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles, maritime bombers, missile-carrying and torpedo-carrying submarines and fast patrol boats, all intended to make operations within the "first island chain" too risky for U.S. carriers. They are also working on anti-satellite devices and cyber-weapons intended to "blind" the communications networks U.S. forces rely on.

Since the end of the Cold War, in short, U.S. troops have relied on operating from bases and carriers opponents could not threaten. That has now changed.

In spite of this, AirSea Battle and its most recent manifestation, the Joint Operating Access Concept, are controversial. Some critics see them as an attempt by the navy and the air force, after a decade of relative neglect, to grab the lion's share of a shrinking defence budget, already being trimmed by about $480 billion in the next 10 years.

Others note while the concept does not mention China by name, it is the only opponent with the range of capabilities the new thinking is designed to counter. Significantly, the Chinese defence minister did not attend the Shangri-La get-together.

And whereas the 1980s predecessor of AirSea Battle, AirLand Battle, was intended to meet the real threat of a thrust by Soviet forces into western Europe, China's threat to the U.S. and its regional allies is harder to define.

In a speech last month at the Joint Warfighting Conference, Gen. James Cartwright, vice-chairman of the joint chiefs of staff until last year, spoke out against AirSea Battle.

"To some it's becoming the Holy Grail," he said, "(but) it's neither a doctrine nor a scenario."

Worst of all, Cartwright said, "AirSea Battle is demonizing China. That's not in anybody's interest."

Nathan Freier of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies argues in a recent paper although conflict with China "might be the most lethal set of circumstances from a traditional military standpoint, it is also the least likely and the most speculative."

Iran, North Korea and Pakistan, with their actual or putative nuclear arsenals, and even Syria all represent more realistic challenges, Freier argues, challenges that might well require the insertion of the ground forces AirSea Battle ignores.

Other critics, such as Noel Williams, an adviser on strategy to the U.S. Marine Corps, point to the risk of escalation, because of the plan's dependence on deep strikes against Chinese targets on land, and to the absence of ideas about what happens without ground forces once a strike has been made.

Col. Gian Gentile, a professor at the United States Military Academy, complained in 2009 that counter-insurgency campaigns had become "a strategy of tactics." He meant the tactical tail was wagging the strategic dog.

AirSea Battle is an impressive tactical response to a specific military problem. Whether it addresses the strategic ambiguities inherent in the U.S.'s complex relationship with China is less clear.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 11, 2012 A10

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