Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Fifth Element: Enhancing Conventional Deterrence in East Asia

PACIFIC OCEAN (Jan. 22, 2014) Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Handling) 1st Class Reynaldo Acuna directs an E-2C Hawkeye, assigned to the Sun Kings of Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW) 116, on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70). Carl Vinson is underway conducting Tailored Ship's Training Availability off the coast of Southern California. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Scott Fenaroli/Released)

The following contribution is written by Robert C. Rubel, Dean, Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the Naval War College.

In a 21 January post on this blog, guest contributor Bryan McGrath extolled an article in the Winter 2013 Strategic Studies Quarterly by Jonathan Solomon entitled “Demystifying Conventional Deterrence: Great Power Conflict and East Asian Peace.”  I too found the article worth extolling as it not only takes my favored challenge-response approach to analysis but produces conclusions generally consistent with the work we have done here at the Naval War College over the past decade.  In the article, Solomon identifies four factors - or elements - which he considers central to conventional deterrence: capabilities, quantities, positioning and readiness.  While I agree with this list of elements, I would like to offer one more to it that I believe is as important: operational concept.

The term operational concept will be interpreted in different ways if left undefined, so let me offer a temporary definition to be used only in the context of this post: it is the general approach to using military force to achieve strategic objectives.  To make this clearer, let me nest it within a kind of strategic dialectic that Solomon uses: counter-force and counter-value.  These are two different approaches to military strategy, the first being concerned with denial and disarming, and the second with coercion.  Solomon correctly points out the dangers and imponderables associated with counter-value strategies and in the end advocates a deterrence posture based on a denial or counter-force approach.  Within that general category of strategy there are a number of possible operational concepts.  T. X. Hammes, in his treatises on offshore control, and Solomon seem to advocate a robust operational concept of control.  Hammes envisions a more rigorous regime – control of waters inside the first island chain - than does Solomon, whose approach is at least implicitly more modest in advocating denial.  However both of these “operational concepts” set the bar pretty high for what we say we must achieve.  Given the number of land-based systems that compose the Chinese A2AD edifice, achieving control or denial seems to imply strikes on them or, in Hammes’ strategy, somehow dealing with them without strikes on the mainland.  Alternatively, a concept I have been thinking about is “disruption.”

Solomon’s worst case scenario is if conventional deterrence is based on bluff and the antagonist calls it.  In such a case all the nasty dynamics of uncontrolled escalation threaten to kick in unless we capitulate.  Following this logic, if, with an operational concept of control, we set the performance bar so high (as a presumed necessity to achieve the desired results) that it can be “designed around” (to quote Solomon) or becomes otherwise not credible, are we essentially bluffing?  This is my worry when we talk control and dominance, especially in waters closer to China.  Even denial has the implication of persistence amounting to control.  A quick examination of the map reveals that the distance from the Senkakus to the southern part of the South China Sea is the same as from Maine to Key West.  That’s a heck of a lot of difficult geography to try and control.  Solomon remarks that one mode of deterrence is to convince the potential attacker that a contemplated quick military checkmate will likely deteriorate into an extended war of attrition.  But that can work both ways, especially if we appear to be unable or unwilling to engage in such a contest on the basis of seeking or maintaining control of waters inside the first island chain.  In my view, it sets us up for a nasty dilemma.

A concept of disruption might be more operationally feasible and therefore more credible.  The basic idea is to engage in a form of sniping, posturing our forces to sneak in and disrupt any instance of Chinese military aggression with an eye to taking a quick fait accompli off the table and establishing the basis for an extended war of attrition of a type we could actually afford.  Disruption, as a military approach, would allow us to focus on what the Chinese do rather than try to patrol and defend a huge littoral area (the implication of Hammes’ proposal).  The Chinese may be getting strategically over-confident, but my guess, following Solomon’s discussion, is that their leadership might lack confidence in their ability to deal with a crisis, especially one in which their plans go off the rails.  The idea of a disruption concept is to play to that weakness at all levels from the unit up to the Central Committee, on the basis of an approach to fighting we can actually conduct in those waters and can sustain indefinitely – no bluff.  This gets us on the correct side of the cost curve; it’s more expensive for them to counter our disruptive threats than it is for us to pose new ones.  Additionally, also following Solomon’s good analysis, disruption is inherently defensive and less liable to be seen as a prelude to something intolerably offensive.

As Solomon suggests, a concept like this requires a lot of development.  As with the nascent flotilla concept I and others have espoused elsewhere, the concept of disruption must be subjected to detailed and iterative gaming and research to determine its feasibility.  However, if it proves to have merit, it then becomes the critical “Fifth Element” for a conventional deterrence posture in East Asia that has legs.

As a postscript to this post, let me offer that there is a heck of a lot more to the issue of conventional deterrence than either Solomon or I have covered here.  One concern I have is with the notion of “tailored deterrence” which was popular in the Bush Administration.  I believe that deterrence is a form of conflict management, and that is an approach that reflects a structurally weak position with respect to the underlying dispute.  See my article in the Fall 2012 Orbis magazine.

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