:: February 2014 Letter ::


Dear Fellow Global Tension Observers,

Like many people who went to college in the Reagan years, my geopolitical worldview was shaped by movies like Top Gun. Dick Bitzinger, Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, recently reminded me of a line from this iconic flick: “Your ego’s writing checks your body can’t cash.” Having invited me to Singapore this month to speak at the Asia Pacific Security Conference (APSEC), Dick made the point that this line sums up the US strategic position in Asia right now.

The US is espousing an Asian military doctrine that needs big resources, without providing those resources. The FY 2015 budget further shrinks those resources. From a Pacific perspective, the US looks guilty of talking big with little to back it up.

Talk doesn’t get much bigger than AirSea Battle. The toothy part of the US’s Asia Pivot, AirSea Battle aims to leverage emerging weapons and sensor technology to defeat a potential adversary in multiple and unpredictable locations. If the US is confronted by Anti-Access Area Denial (A2AD) threats in a given confrontation, AirSea Battle doctrine says the US may respond with massive escalation in many different ways.

According to Geoff Dyer in the February 20 Financial Times, “Using AirSea Battle’s ideas against China is an all-or-nothing battle plan. If commanders quickly order bombing raids across China, there is little scope to create space for diplomacy. Short of complete capitulation, it is difficult to see how such a war would end.” Imagine, for example, if the EP-3 incident over Hainan Island in 2000 had seen a few shots fired. Implementing AirSea Battle would have guaranteed war. Also, most borders in Asia are in the air and at sea, a very different situation from the fixed land borders of central Europe. Establishing clear “do not pass” lines is more difficult in Asia.

Consider too that China and the West have differing views of warfare. The West tends to view war and peace as two discrete states, and when war happens, it involves overwhelming force, usually resulting in victory for one side (see Russell Weigley’s The American Way of War). By contrast China tends to view war and peace as a blurry spectrum, basically that Clausewitz idea that war was an extension of diplomacy by other means (Peter Fleming, in his classic The Siege At Peking, puts this cultural distinction in an interesting context). When your potential adversary thinks in terms of posturing and signals, responding with a strategy of massive and asymmetric force is unwise.

There are certain circumstances, such as a China-Japan war, where AirSea Battle might make for a reasonable plan, with the right backup. Talking about AirSea Battle sends a tough message. But then there’s the FY 2015 defense budget, unveiled recently with a predictable thud and sending the exact opposite message.

Let’s look at the details. First, for AirSea Battle, a robust carrier aviation force is essential. The budget plan kills the F/A-18 production line, the only active line for an in-service US carrier jet. F-35C procurement has been cut to just two planes. In total, the Navy now plans to buy just 36 carrier fighters (all F-35Cs) between FY 2015 and 2019, which is 32 planes fewer than planned. If DoD needs to make this budget compliant with the 2011 Budget Control Act (it isn’t) then the Navy will likely lose one of its 11 carriers, and F-35C production will be zeroed for two years. Air Force F-35A procurement is being slowed under the budget request too.

Strategic mobility is important for AirSea Battle too. But the budget may result in the retirement of the KC-10, the largest USAF tanker. The C-17 line is also scheduled for death in 2015. And most of all, AirSea implies more long-range maritime patrol and combat platforms like Boeing’s P-8. The budget cuts FY 2015 P-8 procurement from 16 to just eight planes (the other eight may be requested in DoD’s supplemental Opportunity, Growth & Security Initiative fund, but the odds are against this happening). Long-range high-altitude ISR is particularly useful in the Pacific region, but the FY 2015 budget retires the U-2, eliminating the only mature long-range ISR platform from the US arsenal.

Perhaps worst of all, the FY 2015 budget carries on the decade-long tradition of ignoring allied nation equipment needs. Cutting the USAF F-16 CAPES program jeopardizes the timing of Taiwan’s only fighter force upgrade effort in decades.

On the positive side, the US military has many talented folks like General Hawk Carlisle, Commander of the Pacific Air Force, whose speech at APSEC mostly revolved around using US military power for disaster relief and as a force for regional stabilization, basically Operations Other Than War. But AirSea Battle casts a big psychological shadow in Asia. Dyer’s FT column points out that “Pentagon planners hope the Chinese military will be cowed by the mere thought of an American military strategy based on AirSea Battle. But equally, the Chinese might come to see it as one great big bluff.” The FY 2015 budget request will convince any Chinese politician or military officer that AirSea was, in fact, a great big bluff.

I’m not advocating for or against higher defense spending. But, given its poorly-funded acquisition plans, the US might be wise to re-think its profligate Asia Pivot check-writing policy.

Teal Group’s annual World Fighter Overview has been issued this month, with numbers that indicate very little growth until next decade. Other Teal Aircraft updates include the F-16, B-1, 777, 787, A350XWB. Have a great month.

Yours, ‘Til My Next Long-Haul Flight With Too Many Dumb Movies On The IFE,
Richard Aboulafia

© Richard Aboulafia 1997-2006, All rights reserved.
  ~  Last updated on January 08, 2006