President Barack Obama said during the visit of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping in February that “we welcome China’s peaceful rise [and] we believe that a strong and prosperous China is one that can help bring stability and prosperity to the region and the world.” Few presidents have made statements so stunningly disingenuous as this. For as he was speaking, Obama was presiding over a shift in military doctrine whose central tenet is that China is, and will be, the main military threat to the United States for at least the next generation. 

Weeks earlier, in November 2011, the Pentagon conducted an unusual rollout of a new military unit called the Air Sea Battle Office. Three senior officers briefed reporters on what until then had been a secret program known as the Air Sea Battle Concept. The concept calls for the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps to integrate forces and other capabilities to defeat what the Pentagon has labeled “anti-access and area denial weapons”—high-technology arms that can prevent or deter the United States military from operating in certain areas. 

What made the briefing unusual was the vague and confusing language the officials used to describe the unit’s intentions. When pressed on the question of whom the initiative was targeting, one official responded, “The concept isn’t about a specific actor; it’s about countering anti-access, area-denial capabilities.” While the Department of Defense relies on its ability to dodge sensitive matters in public, this was by its own standards an impressive display of ambiguity. 

But it was also ambiguity with a purpose. In truth, the Air Sea Battle Concept is the culmination of a strategy fight that began nearly two decades ago inside the Pentagon and U.S. government at large over how to deal with a single actor: the People’s Republic of China. The unspoken truth about the November rollout was that the U.S. military had taken off the gloves as part of a major war-fighting initiative to counter new Chinese weapons that might succeed in enabling its weaker forces to defeat the United States in a regional war. The reluctance to publicly identify Chinese belligerence as the impetus for the concept is merely a ruse to mollify adherents of a “Benign China” school of foreign policy—the losing side of the long internal policy fight.

The ideological godfather of the benign-China school is Harvard professor and former Clinton administration defense policymaker Joseph S. Nye. In 1995, Nye put forth the notion that if the United States treated China as a threat, it would become a threat. Nye, who is also one of the progenitors of the soft-power school of policymaking now adopted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has called the notion of a threatening China a self-fulfilling prophecy only warmongers and defense contractors would or could celebrate. Approval of the new Air Sea Battle Concept represents a complete break with the tired dogma of the Nye view of China.

But as the adoption of Air Sea Battle now makes plain, there is nothing for any American to celebrate in the threat from Beijing. And if one side of this decades-long policy debate relied on prophecy, it was that of the benign school. Again and again, a clique of officials at the Defense Department and in intelligence circles refused to acknowledge the mounting evidence of China’s capabilities and intentions. Their efforts to stall the adoption of a reality-based China strategy allowed the Chinese to increase their destabilizing military forces, and ensured that Washington would one day have to play high-stakes catch-up.

The story of Air Sea Battle begins in the early 1990s, when U.S. intelligence agencies uncovered information indicating that the Chinese military regarded the United States as its main threat. The discovery was unwelcome news for many in the higher echelons of policymaking. They were enamored of China and wished to preserve and expand what they considered the great breakthrough in U.S.-China relations orchestrated by Henry Kissinger in the 1970s. Wedded to the notion that China’s Communist regime was unlike its Soviet variant, they sought to cultivate China as a partner and ally of the United States. 

Both cloak-and-dagger grunts and tenacious scholars have climbed the uphill road to the truth about China’s military buildup. The premier example of the former is Mark Stokes. In 1992, the Air Force major and assistant air attaché posted to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing risked his career by taking a private, self-styled surveillance trip to military bases in southern China. Stokes traveled by train from Beijing to Hunan, where he cleverly eluded Chinese surveillance through a series of taxi rides and wound his way to a major military base. At the time, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was in the early stages of a massive buildup whose most visible feature was the deployment of large numbers of missiles opposite Taiwan. Stokes discovered that the buildup, considered insignificant by his higher-ups, was taking place much more rapidly than had been known. Instead of just targeting Taiwan with a massive first strike, China’s missile forces were preparing for a possible strike on U.S. military forces in Japan and the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam.

Stokes’s discovery was relayed upward and set the stage for a shift in how Defense thought about China. His contribution to this shift is all the more impressive when considering that one of his bosses, Rear Admiral Eric McVadon, was the leading proponent of the benign-China school in the Pentagon and believed Beijing had an outdated military. 

Of the scholars who opposed the benign-China camp, none is more important than Andrew Marshall, head of the Office of Net Assessment, a little-known intelligence-assessment unit reporting directly to the office of the secretary of defense. Marshall, now 90 and the Pentagon’s quiet legend, would not only help develop the new military strategy to counter a threatening China, but also trail-blaze the tactics for overcoming the bureaucratic sclerosis that kept bad China strategy in place.

In 1993, Marshall enlisted the unlikely figure of Peter Schwartz, a futurist and business-scenario planner who founded a company called Global Business Network. Schwartz produced a series of papers on future-warfare scenarios. Instead of looking at Chinese military developments as predictable and incremental, he introduced the idea that China would use surprise scenarios and could therefore develop what are today called anti-access weaponry and forces. Schwartz also suggested that China would seek to form alliances with U.S. allies as part of a strategy to deny United States forces access to East Asia—a notion the benign school considered dangerously false.

Incorporating Schwartz’s surprise “anti-access” scenarios and Stokes’s intelligence findings, Marshall partnered with the Navy to hold war games. Two teams of up to 50 officers each played Chinese “Red” forces and U.S. “Blue” forces. Based on the new criteria, China defeated the United States by launching a surprise missile barrage against bases in Asia, aircraft carrier strike groups in the western Pacific, and submarine forces. The enemy forces’ weapons involved both cruise and ballistic-missile attacks. 

The Chinese victory was sound. It was also eye-opening; in all previous war games, U.S. forces had won. The outcome of the new games would be one of the key factors in Marshall’s developing the Air Sea Battle Concept.

Based on the intelligence breakthrough, the innovative surprise scenarios, and the losing war games, a decision was made in the Pentagon in 1995 to step up intelligence-targeting of the Chinese military. From then onward, the CIA, the electronic-intelligence gathering National Security Agency, and what was then called the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (later renamed the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency) were tasked with using their resources to spy on Chinese forces with an emphasis on the technology and tactics being developed to target the U.S. military. China’s plans for attacking Taiwan were no longer Washington’s main concern. 

New intelligence goals meant new methods. Marshall dispatched Michael Pillsbury, a Chinese-speaking consultant who was assistant undersecretary of defense for policy during the Reagan administration, to find out more about Chinese military thinking. In March 1995, Pillsbury obtained 100 Chinese books on future warfare from the PLA’s Academy of Military Sciences. He wrote about what his translations yielded in his influential book, China Debates the Future Security Environment, in 2000. Its alarming revelations contradicted the nonthreatening and self-defensive image of the Chinese military. The book revealed, in the words of former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, that Chinese “analysts examine a military future marked by ‘information deterrence,’ ‘crippling attacks on information systems,’ and similar notions.” China was looking for radical leaps in both weapons technology and asymmetric tactics to defeat the United States.

Still the bureaucratic culture of the Defense Department and the intelligence community had to be changed. In the late 1990s, Kurt Campbell, a deputy assistant secretary of defense in charge of China policy, emerged as a leading voice warning of the Chinese threat. Campbell clashed with Col. Karl Eikenberry, who as defense attaché was leading the charge for the benign-China policymakers and intelligence officials. Eikenberry’s camp opposed providing arms to Taiwan, regarding such transfers as the main impediment to improving relations with the PLA. In response, Campbell seized on provisions of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). The TRA gives the United States authority to sell defensive arms to Taiwan and to prevent the forcible reunification of the island with the mainland. The law, passed by Congress to counter President Jimmy Carter’s turn away from Taiwan, was very nearly a mutual defense treaty that all but promised U.S. military support in a crisis. Campbell, who is now serving as assistant secretary of state for East Asia in the Obama administration, also launched landmark annual talks between the U.S. and Taiwanese militaries. These were major steps forward in taking policy momentum away from the pro-China camp.

But without more evidence of Chinese intentions, no genuine pivot could occur. Critical evidence came with the defection of PLA Senior Colonel Xu Junping in 2000. Xu was granted political asylum in America and proved to be a big catch for U.S. intelligence. He had been in charge of all North American affairs for the PLA, and by 2001 his shocking intelligence reports made their way through the national-security bureaucracy and to the desk of the new defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. Xu confirmed many officials’ worst fears about China’s secret military buildup targeting the United States. 

On April 1, 2001, history intervened to offer a real-world object lesson on China’s military posture. A Chinese F-8 jet crashed into a U.S. EP-3 surveillance aircraft over international waters near China. The American plane made an emergency landing at a military base on China’s Hainan Island, where the Chinese were detaining the 24 crew members. Suddenly, Chinese intentions were catapulted to the top of the national-security agenda for the new Bush administration.

Beijing demanded an apology from the United States, and this would contribute to what would become known as the Rumsfeld “hedge strategy.” 

Prior to becoming defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld had spent years in the business community as a marginal member of the benign-China camp, but he hardened his views after the 2001 EP-3 incident. 

In November 2001, Rusmfeld dispatched officials to India for talks on China. In June 2002, he sent officials to Singapore to discuss China with defense ministers there. Almost all agreed that something needed to be done to counter China’s growing assertiveness in the region. The trips resulted in Rumsfeld’s ordering the hedge strategy to be drafted and implemented before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. 

As long as China treated the United States as its enemy and refused to disclose the pace and purpose of its military buildup, the Pentagon had no choice but to begin taking the first steps to prepare for the worst. According to the hedge strategy, the United States would ostensibly support China’s modernization while readying itself for the emergence of China as a hostile power that threatened the United States and its interests.

Opposition to Rumsfeld’s hedge produced a policy split within the administration. Those opposed to the strategy included then Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Adm. Dennis C. Blair, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command. The U.S. ambassador to Beijing at the time of the incident, retired Pacific Command head Adm. Joseph Prueher, led the effort with calls to reduce tensions and build trust with the Chinese military, despite the fact that no Chinese general would answer U.S. officials’ phone calls during the April 2001 crisis.

Rumsfeld opposed issuing the humiliating apology demanded by Beijing. There was, in fact, nothing to apologize for. The aircraft was monitoring China in international airspace and over international waters. But National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice overruled Rumsfeld and convinced President Bush to take the softer line. A letter of regret was issued and the United States was forced to cut up the grounded aircraft on Hainan Island, in the South China Sea, and ship it home in pieces aboard a Russian transport jet. 

The fight over the China threat then became manifest in policy disputes about the annual report to Congress on the Chinese military. One clash erupted in 2005, when pro-China intelligence officials sought to limit estimates of Chinese war-fighting capabilities. Despite the breakthrough by Stokes and the defectors, the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency were among the leading proponents of the short-range China military-development theory, claiming the PLA had “short legs” and could therefore only walk, not run, to battles. It became an article of faith for intelligence analysts that China would be unable to reach Guam or conduct even short-term military operations beyond a 200-mile limit. To find out who was correct, much better intelligence was needed, but the intelligence and policy communities still restricted aggressive intelligence collection.

Europeans, for their part, were making a difficult situation more difficult. They continued to sell aircraft, submarines, radar, and other weapons and technology to Beijing despite an embargo imposed in 1989 after the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square. Rumsfeld, in response, launched a program to brief American allies on defector intelligence from China, with the goal of bolstering the embargo. 

In the mid-2000s, the United States discovered that China was working on a program to develop anti-satellite weapons involving precision-guided missiles capable of hitting satellites in orbit and ground-based lasers that could blind or disrupt satellites in space. (Satellite warfare had been discussed in Chinese military writings as early as 1997, but evidence of actual programs did not surface until around 2006.) Still, many benign-China military analysts sought to play down China’s technical prowess. But they were embarrassed in January 2007, when China blasted a weather satellite into orbit with a ground-based anti-satellite missile.

The test represented a new level of threat to the U.S. military, which relies heavily on satellites for commanding forces over long distances, gathering intelligence, shriveling battle areas, and navigating its forces and precision-strike weaponry. With some two dozen anti-satellite missiles, defense officials realized, China could severely restrict the way the U.S. military operates around the world. The threat was compounded by the discovery of China’s secret programs to develop Yuan-class attack submarines and advanced cyber-warfare capabilities. 

By this time, Rumsfeld had begun pushing a new policy dubbed “beyond Taiwan.” This recognized that the Chinese buildup could not be explained as being directed toward a single Taiwan conflict across the 100-mile Taiwan Strait. In a June 2005 speech in Singapore, Rumsfeld raised the most significant strategy questions about the Chinese military buildup: “Since no nation threatens China, one must wonder: Why this growing investment? Why these continuing large and expanding arms purchases? Why these continuing robust deployments?” The still largely benign-China establishment was reluctant to answer. The late James Lilley, however, a former CIA China hand and an ambassador to China, responded to Rumsfeld’s questions with disbelief. “The answer is simple,” he said, after news of the speech reached the United States. “They see us as the enemy.” 

Rumsfeld’s successor, Robert Gates, signaled an important shift in tone when he began referring in public to the “threat” posed by China. New defectors and more aggressive American intelligence-gathering helped paint a portrait of how real that threat was. A sensitive Air Force program proved that China was working on counter-stealth capabilities to detect and attack radar-evading aircraft.

For the pro-China officials who were still convinced that Beijing was interested only in building its strength to use against Taiwan, the counter-stealth program in China was difficult to explain. China’s military was also found to be working on a strategic program to kill U.S. satellites. 

As new intelligence came in, new war games, incorporating a better understanding of China’s capabilities, were conducted. The scenarios were increasingly alarming. In 2006, one showed that in the opening hours of a military conflict a barrage of anti-satellite missiles and counter-stealth capabilities crippled U.S. military forces. Once again the cadre of U.S. officials who had sought to dismiss China’s military developments as nonthreatening were proved wrong.

In July 2007, Michael Pillsbury produced an influential paper for the Pentagon titled “Conflict Contingencies, Chinese Style.” It codified the notion that the Chinese military was not limited to forces for Taiwan. A second paper in January 2008 argued that in war games the U.S. had been utilizing an American system of war-planning instead of the system the Chinese actually used to plan combat. From then on, all war games would be played with new criteria for Chinese forces. Based on the new scenarios, by 2008, the Navy and Air Force were consistently losing to Chinese forces.

One fateful war game was held on October 28, 2008, at the U.S. Pacific Command headquarters in Honolulu; it became known as “Air Sea Battle 2028.” As a result of the presumably terrifying outcome of this single game, military leaders were told that it was time to design American forces and capabilities that would give the United States military the weapons and tactics to win a conflict with China. The results of the new design were stunning and formed the backbone of what is now the semi-secret Air Sea Battle Concept. In mid-2009, Gates signed the memo ordering the Air Force and Navy to develop a new concept that would better integrate Navy and Air Forces to meet the new challenge from China.

The details of the new concept are impressive, both in boldness and breath. The strategy calls for hitting China’s anti-access capabilities at their sources. Air Sea Battle aims to give the United States the ability to destroy submarine bases, many located in hardened underwater facilities along coasts. Additionally, China’s anti-satellite launch bases would have to be identified and destroyed before China could knock out orbiting satellites. Based on an internal report Pillsbury published titled “Chinese Military Fears and the Implications for Future U.S. Strategy,” a new list of Chinese strategic vulnerabilities will now play a key role in future development of military hardware and software for the Air Sea Battle Concept. 

For the Air Force, the heart of Air Sea Battle is the development of a new long-range bomber. In late 2009, Air Force Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), described the stealth bomber as a concept aircraft. “It’s about putting flexibility and the ability to introduce unambiguous statements into the hands of our national leaders,” he told reporters. Deptula said the bomber will be a multi-role aircraft whose most important feature “isn’t its ability to deliver bombs, but its ability to assimilate information rapidly and then translate that information into decisions to be able to react.” An additional element of Air Sea Battle is developing unmanned aircraft, specifically a Navy version of the Air Force Global Hawk long-range drone. Another is the X-47 unmanned combat vehicle, the first jet fighter without a pilot on board.

The Pentagon will press the defense industry for new ideas, as one defense official put it, “about how to go into China.” Public discussion of Air Sea Battle has been focused largely on operations outside China, such as anti-submarine warfare, mines and countermine warfare, and defending carriers 1,000 miles from Chinese territory. Internal military operations against China under Air Sea Battle will include special forces commando raids on missile forces and bases and, most controversial, covert action and aid to ethnic groups, such as the Uighurs in Xinjiang, anti-regime elements inside Tibet, and ethnic Inner Mongolians seeking to reunite with independent Mongolia.

Those who were long suspicious of China’s military intentions have won the day, at least for now. But the battle over Air Sea Battle is not over. 

The next fight will take place in the budget arena, where the Obama administration is planning to cut up to $1 trillion from defense spending over the next 10 years. There, the story of America’s education on China’s military should serve as a lesson for those who still seek to shrink U.S. fighting capabilities in the face of growing threats. Barack Obama, in looking to cut defense spending across the board, is repeating the mistakes of the benign-China school on a much larger scale. Motivated by faith in a benign global order, against all evidence, this would undercut America’s ability to lead the free world.

As the road to Air Sea Battle shows, wishful thinking is often overtaken by cruel reality. Moreover, when ideology overwhelms evidence, the beneficiary is always the enemy. While benign-China officials denied the facts, China was quietly allowed to field an array of new weapons systems designed for one purpose: to defeat the United States in a future conflict. The Obama administration deserves credit for shifting American strategy to respond to the genuine Chinese threat. According to one senior Obama administration official, “Air Sea Battle is to China what the Maritime Strategy [of the 1980s] was to the Soviet Union.” But Cold War strategy wasn’t implemented along with a simultaneous effort to defund it. If Air Sea Battle is under-resourced and gutted from within, it may prove as ineffective—and dangerous—as the wrongheaded strategy that preceded it.

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