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Is Air-Sea Battle the Right Response to China’s Military Modernization? Is it too Provocative?

By Paul Spitsen

The Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1995-1996 and US success in the Gulf War catalyzed China’s military modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) by emphasizing the need for a mechanized and technologically networked fighting force. [1] Beijing focused on systems that could provide anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities in order to yield an advantage in any crisis over Taiwan as well as complimentary systems that could deter or make a U.S. intervention risky and more costly. [2] The acquisition of these “asymmetric and destabilizing technologies” could challenge U.S. security interests in the Western Pacific Theater of Operations (WPTO) by denying the US military access to the East Asia/ Western Pacific region and hindering the U.S.’s ability to intervene in any regional crisis, leaving its allies vulnerable.[3] Increasingly these “technologies” have become more capable and sophisticated, leading the US to believe that the PLA is preparing to assert its influence in a potentially destabilizing manner. [4]

The Air-Sea Battle (ASB) Concept is an effective response, integrating a joint-force strategic partnership between the U.S. Air Force and Navy that seeks to counterbalance the effects of the PLA’s modernized A2/AD threat that could limit the United States’ ability to project power, maintain stability, and provide a credible commitment to fulfill its security obligations to its security partners. This approach is “built on tighter integration of naval and aerospace capabilities, stealth, long-range precision strikes designed to combat asymmetric Chinese military capabilities” [5] and the direct participation of U.S. allies such as Japan, Australia, and South Korea through their investment in military forces, surveillance capabilities, and increased access for U.S. troops to maintain a “forward presence” in the region. [6]

Although China’s new operational doctrine emphasizes the need for preemptive strikes to seize the operational initiative, thereby decreasing the overall asymmetry between the combatants; more worrisome to U.S. strategic planners are the PLA’s A2/AD technologies being used to disrupt the U.S’s. C4ISR battle network. [7] Despite the PLA’s augmentation of their asymmetric capabilities, the Air-Sea Battle Concept allows the U.S. to: 1) Retain or have the ability to quickly replace and redeploy platforms and systems in order to preserve superior ISR capabilities and maximize information flow 2) Have a long-range strike capability provided by multiple air and sea platforms thus allowing redundancy and flexibility in order to cripple the PLA’s ISR and targeting capabilities and eliminate the PLA’s long-range strike platforms 3) Deploy kinetic ballistic missile defense systems while procuring and integrating new directed-energy weapon systems in order to provide a cheaper and more effective layered missile defense on both forward located military installations and that could also eventually be integrated into naval assets. 4) Increase undersea warfare capabilities in the form of more attack submarines with larger payloads of submarine launched cruise missile (SLCM) payloads and advanced ISR systems 5) Engage in both offensive and defensive cyber operations in order to infiltrate and disrupt enemy networks while protecting U.S. battle and information networks.            

Opponents of Air-Sea Battle say it is too provocative and locks the United States into a costly and potentially prolonged engagement that opens the door for unnecessary and possible nuclear escalation. Many, like Douglas Peifer, worry that conventional strikes against the Chinese mainland could initiate a conventional war that could quickly escalate into a devastating nuclear conflict. Instead they propose a “distant blockade” of the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific that would slowly and systematically strangle the Chinese economy that is heavily dependent on crude oil imports, importation of specialized industrial products, and the ability to export manufactured goods. [8] An analogy to the British blockade of a rising Germany during the First World War leads Peifer to believe China’s economy could not sustain itself under blockade, and that the PLA would be unable to actively engage the U.S. because of extreme distance and lack of effective capabilities. [9]

I contend that Air-Sea Battle is not too provocative. ASB does not stipulate any concrete war plans for use in any situation against any nation; instead, it is only an open-ended concept that has an objective of countering A2/AD capabilities that threaten the U.S.’s ability to provide accesses and stability in volatile regions. [10]  Due to the fact that ASB is not a concrete battle plan it would allow the U.S. to operate in any environment that has been limited by an adversary’s A2/AD capabilities and still carry out a multitude of various military options to accomplish a variety of corresponding political goals. The United States and the People’s Republic of China have interdependent economies any form of interruption would have ruinous consequences for both parties involved. [11] Critics asserting that the Air-Sea Battle Concept is too provocative fail to acknowledge that even if a distant blockade were to be implemented, the devastating effects to the Chinese economy would facilitate domestic instability and threaten the survival of China’s political regime. [12] If the ruling regime and the communist party felt itself entering an existential struggle it would most likely engage in a rapid series of escalatory military actions that could potentially result in nuclear strikes against U.S. facilities or interests.

The Air-Sea Battle Concept is a crucial tool for offsetting the advanced A2/AD capabilities obtained by the PLA’s military modernization. An Air-Sea Battle concept that focused on safeguarding U.S. ISR and cyber systems, while diminishing the effectiveness of the opponents’, advocates a greater role for offensive precision long-range strike platforms and systems while utilizing an advanced multilayered ballistic missile defense in order to protect valuable strike platforms and their forward bases. Thus, the Air-Sea Battle Concept allows the United States the flexibility to respond to variety of situations, preserve security commitments, and its ability to maintain its credible commitments and project the power necessary to maintain the free flow of commerce, peace, and stability in the Western Pacific region as well as other areas that may be threatened by the presence of A2/AD capabilities.


Paul Spitsen is a second year Master's of Pacific and International Affairs student at University of California San Diego’s school of International Relations and Pacific Studies concentrating on International Politics and Security with a specific emphasis on China. Paul graduated with honors, receiving a B.A. in International Studies and a minor in Political Science from the University of California San Diego. Paul also completed internships at United States Southern Command and in the office of U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (CA), as well being a political science research assistant. His current research interests include Chinese military modernization, the U.S. military’s response to emerging asymmetric threats, intrastate violence, terrorism and insurgency, nuclear security and non-proliferation, and U.S. security strategy.


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[1] Scott W. Harold, “Special Guest Editor’s Introduction: The Modernization of the People’s Liberation Army and its Repercussions,” China Perspectives, 2011, No. 4, pp. 2-5.

[2] See Jan van Tol, AirSea Battle: A Point of Departure for an Operational Concept (Washington, DC: The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2010), pp. ix-x.

[3] Scott W. Harold, “Editorial: How Is China’s Military Modernization Affecting Foreign and Cross-Strait Perceptions of a China Threat?” pp. 8-9.

[4] See Ronald O’Rouke, China Naval Modernization: Implications for Naval Capabilities-Background and Issues for Congress, (Congressional Research Service, July 31, 2012), p.3. Technologies are anti-satellite weapons (ASAT), cyber and electronic warfare, over-the-horizon radar and advanced intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM), both anti-ship (ASCM) and land attack cruise missiles (LACM), integrated air defense systems, advanced fighter aircraft (conventional and unmanned), submarines, aircraft carriers, destroyers, frigates, patrol craft, amphibious ships, Mine Countermeasures ships, hospital ships, supporting command, control, communications, and computer (C4ISR) systems in addition to the augmentation of maintenance, logistical, training, and doctrinal capabilities.

[5] Scott W. Harold, p. 3.

[6] See Bonnie Glaser and David Szerlip, “US Allies Respond,” China Perspectives, 2011, No. 4, pp17-29.

[7] See Roger Cliff et al., Entering the Dragon’s Lair: Chinese Anti-Access Strategies and their Implications for the United States Santa Monica (CA) The RAND Corporation, 2007, pp. 17- 34. Asymmetry would be accentuated by a concentrated surprise first strike against crucial U.S. assets, C4ISR, Airborne Warning and Controls System (AWACS), forward military installation, especially runways, would be successful in achieving the objective of crippling ISR guided precision strikes, air and sea-power capabilities while also leaving U.S. forces blind, deaf, and bloodied. U.S. C4ISR would be disrupted by complimentary cyber, electronic warfare, and ASAT attacks, followed by multiple salvoes of precision guided munitions (ballistic and cruise missiles) that targeted critical sites such as forward bases, carrier battle groups, and logistical supply nodes.

[8] See Susan L. Shirk. China: Fragile Superpower (Westport, CT: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 24-29. Foreign trade makes up 75 percent of China’s Gross Domestic Product.

See Douglas C. Peifer, “China, the German Analogy, and the New Air-Sea Operational Concept,” Orbis, vol. 55, no. 1 (Winter 2011), pp. 114-131. The majority of the PRC’s imports and exports are transported by sea, and China is the world’s second largest importer of crude oil and consumes on average 7.85 million barrels per day, 85 percent of this imported oil must transit from Africa and the Middle East through the Indian Ocean and Malacca and Lombuk straights making their oil supplies susceptible to mining and interdiction by U.S. or allied maritime forces.

[9] Peifer, “China, the German Analogy, and the New Air-Sea Operational Concept,” Orbis, vol. 55, no. 1 (Winter 2011), pp. 114-131. Without forward bases or carriers, U.S. aircraft would be unable to fly the distance required to attack targets in China, also without air support naval surface vessels would have to retreat in the face of ASCMs and PLA submarines, thereby allowing the PLA to gain relative superiority over both the air and naval battlefields thus preventing the U.S. from projecting its power and being able to achieve any military or political goals.

[10]  See Jan van Tol, AirSea Battle: A Point of Departure for an Operational Concept (Washington, DC: The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2010)

[11] Shirk. China: Fragile Superpower (Westport, CT: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 24-29. The United States is China’s largest overseas market and is the second largest source of Foreign Direct Investment on a cumulative level. China is the largest foreign holder of U.S. Treasury bonds and thus holds the largest percentage of the U.S.’s debt and is an integral component of allowing the U.S. government to spend at current levels.   

[12] Shirk. China: Fragile Superpower (Westport, CT: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 24-29. “China’s economic development is crucial for sustaining growth and the Communist Party’s political survival.” pp.27.


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