As readers of Foreign Policy understand quite well, a popular concept in planning circles at the Pentagon today, especially within the U.S. Air Force and Navy, is Air-Sea Battle, a doctrine that focuses on preserving and protecting U.S. and allied access to the maritime commons around Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and other areas such as the South China Sea. This approach to future war is in part a response to the march of technology. It is also in part a response, surely, to the rise of China — a country bent on establishing greater control and influence over waterways to its east and complicating American efforts to dominate the seas the way it has for more than a half century. Although Iran and one or two other states provide some of the impetus for Air-Sea Battle doctrine, China is overwhelmingly the country with the resources and aspirations that has provoked this new American military doctrine.
Much of the thinking behind Air-Sea Battle is understandable, even desirable. Just as we should not be too surprised that China is developing advanced submarines, precision-guided ballistic and cruise missiles, and other capabilities to prevent the United States from treating the Western Pacific like the American lake it largely was in recent decades, China should understand our response. American access to the Western Pacific remains crucial for undergirding key alliances there and requires improvements in missile defense, antisubmarine warfare, communications system resiliencies, and other capabilities that better integration between the U.S. Air Force and Navy can help provide. Moreover, Air-Sea Battle is not unduly provocative in most of its substance, in that it is not associated with purchases of new types of strike systems, major weapons platforms, nuclear weapons systems or the like. Associated with America’s “re-balancing” toward Asia, now, it is actually intended more to preserve access and protect capabilities for the Asia-Pacific region from budget cuts than to present new offensive options for Pentagon planners.
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“The U.S. nuclear umbrella is a principal reason why North Korea does not use its conventional forces to inflict a major strike on South Korea. That in turn reduces any South Korean temptation to get its own nuclear deterrent. But no first use would mean that the U.S. would not use nuclear weapons to counter a North Korean conventional attack, and so removes them as a reason — perhaps the principal reason — for the North to show restraint.”