Rebuttal of Andrew Erickson’s “let’s play solely on defense” proposals
AirSea Battle, the DOD’s battle concept for countering China’s rapid military rise and aggressive actions in East Asia, has been under fire from the opponents of a strong national defense and from China’s lackeys in the US since its inception. They claim, inter alia, that AirSea Battle, which postulates striking the Chinese mainland in the event of Chinese aggression against the US or its allies, is too provocative and escalatory and would cause an unnecessary “escalation” in the event of a conflict.
Among the proponents of such a ludicrous claim are retired colonel T. X. Hammes and Naval War College professor Andrew Erickson. The former proposes playing on the defense in East Asia while interdicting China’s sealanes of commerce at strategic chokepoints – the straits in South and East Asia, between the various islands there (85% of China’s oil goes through the Strait of Malacca alone). Erickson, for his part, considers even that to be too “escalatory” and advocates playing solely on defense.
To support their concepts, these people claim that when playing on defense, America can attrite China’s offensive weapons by fielding more defensive systems and forcing China to spend money on overcoming them. But this is a recipe for failure. Firstly, as I’ll discuss below, few wars in history have been won solely on the defensive, and secondly, China can always outproduce and outbuild the US, and build multiple offensive weapons for every single defensive system the US or its allies deploy. Let’s discuss this in more detail.
Even assuming that the DOD and the US defense industry somehow get much more efficient in the next few years, that proposition is utterly unrealistic, and will always be.
Why? Because in China, one dollar can buy far, far more than in the West – so for every air defense system or anti-ship missile launcher the US or Japan buys, China can buy several. Ditto fighters. Ditto missile defense systems. Ditto every other class of weapon systems.
Say the US spends $1 bn on air defense systems for its bases in East Asia and China spends $2 bn on stealth a/c and bombs (or missiles) designed to take them out. Say the US can buy 10 batteries for that $1 bn. For $2 bn, China could buy at least 20 (and probably more) J-20 stealth strike a/c with a full complement of weapons.
China has, and will always have, a big advantange in numbers over the US (except nuclear weapons). That is inevitable. In terms of numbers, China can always out-build and out-produce the US. However many defensive systems the US and its Pacific allies deploy, China can always saturate them with huge amounts of offensive weapons (ballistic and cruise missiles, bombs, ASAT weapons, submarines, anti-ship missiles, etc. etc. usw.).
The US can NEVER compete with China in that regard – which means the US can NEVER afford to play with China solely on defense. China already has more than enough ballistic and cruise missiles to destroy every US and allied base in the First and Second Island Chain (in SK, Japan, the Phils, Guam, northern Australia, etc.) several times over, using DF-11, DF-15, DF-16, DF-21, DF-25, DF-3, CJ-10, DH-10, and HN-3 ballistic and cruise missiles launched from the ground and (in the CJ-10’s and HN-3’s case) from H-6K bombers. In fact, China has far more of these missiles than it knows what to do with!
And missile INTERCEPTORS, as the CSBA points out, and as this very website has noted some time ago, cost FAR more than the offensive missiles they’re supposed to shoot down. For example, an SM-3 or THAAD missile costs $10 mn per copy; a single GBI costs $70 mn per copy. A single PATRIOT costs over $3 mn per missile. China can build offensive missiles for a fraction of that amount.
The future USS Gerald R. Ford will cost $13 bn by the time it’s completed, the Kennedy, $10-11 bn. For that amount of money, China can build 1,227 DF-21D ASBMs for each carrier. Which means China can build over TWELVE HUNDRED carrier-killer missiles for each a/c the US builds going forward. US missile defenses would have to intercept EVERY SINGLE ONE of these missiles to protect the carrier, while only one DF-21D would need to hit its target to sink it.
“Going into China” is the ONLY way to defeat that country should any war arise in East Asia. Not going into China would mean giving China sanctuary on its ENTIRE territory, leaving it free to continually stage attack after attack from that territory and continue to produce offensive weapons en masse – in quantities far outproducing the US.
One could say it’s an “escalation” – but if China tries to grab the disputed islands by force, or attacks America’s Pacific allies directly, that will already be a HUGE escalation of the present situation, and at that point, no attempt to “restrain” such war will bring peace or reduce casualties and suffering on either side. If China does commit aggression, the US will be fully justified to strike China itself. Chinese leaders should know that.
Historically – and I speak here as a history grad with the highest honors (I hold BA and MA degrees in the field) – few, if any wars, have been won by fighting solely on the defensive. That’s because playing solely on defense allows the enemy to control the tempo of the war and to decide where and when you will fight. It gives him the initiative and thus, the ultimate victory. Winning purely defensive wars is possible only if the enemy commits some monumentally stupid mistake, thus defeating himself. Tell me, Messrs. Clark and Freedberg, exactly how many wars have been won solely by playing on defense?
This fact was brilliantly demonstrated by China’s most-reputed military genius, Sun Tzu (whose teachings are clearly lost on “Professor” Erickson and on this website’s editors). Sun Tzu was tasked by Helu, the King of Wu, to defend his state against an expected invasion by a much larger neighbor – Chu. Master Sun could’ve simply locked himself up with his troops in Wu cities and fortresses, but being Sun Tzu, he did the opposite. He did the unexpected. He invaded Chu.
(Of course Sun Tzu did not initially confront the large Chu army head-on; he started by attacking softer targets like small bases, border crossings, and unfortified cities and villages, in a guerilla-like style. Only much later on did he battle the large (but by then, depleted) Chu army directly.)
Likewise, during the Civil War, the Confederacy twice attempted to invade the North to achieve a political goal of forcing the Union to sue for peace (and convincing European powers to recognize the South) by defeating the Union on its home court. (Lee would’ve done that if he had taken Harrisburg and Camp Curtin as he originally planned instead of being distracted by Union cavalry detachments in Gettysburg and abandoning the original plan.)
By contrast, during the Korean War, the US played solely on defense, with the disastrous result that the war dragged on and on for years because China could always field far more troops and weapons in Korea than the US and its allies could – and the Truman administration was too cowardice to strike China. The result? By November 1952 the American people were so weary of the war they elected a President who promised to end it.
And you know how he ended the war? By threatening to escalate with nuclear weapons against China if the Communists continued the war. This, coupled with Stalin’s death and his successors’ struggle for power, ended the war.
Again, it must be underlined: very few wars have been won by playing solely on defense. Winning requires going on the offense.
Master Sun himself wrote in his treatise, the Art of War, that you can secure yourself against defeat by remaining on defense, but to WIN you’ll have to go on offense; and that “those skilled in warfare bring the enemy to the battlefield; they are not brought there by him”, meaning they choose the time and place of battle instead of letting the enemy choose them.
Last but not least, fielding all the long-range strike weapon systems called for by AirSea Battle and making it clear to China that its mainland would not be spared from US strikes if Beijing commits an act of aggression against anyone is actually very likely to PREVENT war in the first place by DETERRING China.
Beijing will refrain from aggression ONLY if it understands that any attack on America or its Asian allies would result in a swift, devastating retaliation against the PRC. In fact, only a credible threat of an immediate and devastating retaliation can deter ANY potential aggressor – including, but not solely, China.
On the other hand, declaring – or making it clear through procurement choices – that the US will, in even of a war, play only on defense and leave mainland China untouched will only EMBOLDEN China. For it would signal clearly to China that it could attack other countries, wreak death and destruction upon them, based on the most ridiculous territorial claims – and the worst it could expect would be an America desperately trying to defend these countries’ territories. No threat of any US retaliation upon China – Beijing would be free to churn out thousands of missiles, aircraft, and other offensive weapons, and launch attacks from any base on its territory.
This would be seen in Beijing as what it really is – a sign of weakness and cowardice.
US policymakers should utterly reject any such proposals and proceed full speed ahead with implementation of AirSea Battle in word and deed. ALL weapon systems and force posture changes called for by that battle concept must be fully procured/implemented in the required quantities. No ifs, no buts, no ands.