Air Sea Battle War Plans Spark Tensions with China

The possibility of major conflict with China may be used by the American armed forces to fend off budget cuts.

Sailors on the flight deck of the USS George Washington aircraft carrier on deployment in the Pacific Ocean, August 7
Sailors on the flight deck of the USS George Washington aircraft carrier on deployment in the Pacific Ocean, August 7 (US Navy/Eric D. Moorer)

A small but influential office inside the Pentagon is funding war game studies that are designed to prepare the United States for a war against an aggressive and heavily armed China.

The concept, dubbed “Air Sea Battle,” does not give context or provide a scenario for why or how a potential war with China might come about. Instead, it focuses on detailing an American response to an initial Chinese strike.

A concept study by the Pentagon funded Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment starts with the increased look and shoot capabilities that modern technology affords to the Chinese military and which might enable it to strike American military assets in the Pacific region. The concept’s starting point, set twenty years in the future, is a Chinese military strike that sinks major US surface ships and simultaneously disables American air bases in the region.

The plan envisages the American response to consist of a conventional counterattack against mainland China. The United States would use stealth aircraft and submarine launched attacks to destroy Chinese long range precision missiles and radar. The initial “blinding campaign” would then be followed by a larger air and naval assault.

Critics, including Chinese officials, decry the depiction of China as a hegemonic aggressor. Even within the United States itself, skeptics point out that it is hard to imagine a realistic scenario that might trigger such a drastic Chinese move given the high level of interdependence of the two countries.

Within the Pentagon, the Army and Marine Corps are positioning themselves to oppose the plan as it would almost certainly shift scarce resources to the Air Force and Navy. The concept, however, does align with the administration’s broader effort to shift the US military’s focus toward Asia and language has already been added to the 2012 Defense Authorization Bill that asks the Pentagon to outline first steps toward its implementation.


Planning for a possible major war with China began in earnest twenty years ago after the Cold War ended but is only now beginning to take concrete shape.

A major military confrontation with China in twenty years would most likely leave only losers. Nobody can realistically assume they would be better off after such a conflict then they were before. Therefore, the study’s recent popularity within defense circles most likely does not stem from an honest expectation of conflict with China.

The scenario of possible major conflict with China can be used to fend off budget cuts in the military or to shift scarce resources within the Pentagon to the Air Force and Navy in an effort to preserve certain programs that are deemed vital.

At the same time, sponsoring these studies costs little but could put large doubt into Chinese military planners’ minds — keeping China’s future ambition and behavior in check by making it clear that the cost for aggression would be extremely high and that the United States stand ready and able to counter even the most extreme of scenarios successfully. The message is not that the United States are planning to win a war against China but that China could not win a war against the United States in the future either.

Conversely, it could cause China to worry about American reactions or overreactions. This worry could cause an escalation in China’s militarization of the South China Sea.

Even if it does not outwardly strain relations between the two countries, it could cause the Chinese to be more reserved toward the United States and more cautious regarding its Asian centric policies.

Wikistrat Bottom Lines


The United States can contain China’s ambitions and keep the region peaceful by convincing Chinese military planners that the price for military adventures outweighs the possible benefits.

Other nations in the Pacific may take heart from the fact that China can be threatened and may draw closer to the United States in attempts to shield themselves from regional bullying, especially in regards to South China Sea disputes.


American plans are viewed as a threat and start an escalating arms race leading to a self fulling prophesy as everybody starts preparing for a conflict that no one wants or benefits from.


The economic trajectories of China and the United States as well as their ability to increase or maintain their military capabilities — how will relative military strength change between China and the United States in the future?

Serhan Ayhan, Caitlin Barthold, Andrew Cockburn, Alexander Davis, Graham O’Brien, Ruben Gzirian and William Wagstaff contributed to this analysis.

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