War with China: Interview with the father of Offshore Controll TX Hammes- a strategy for an unlikely war

War with China: Interview with the father of Offshore Controll TX Hammes- a strategy for an unlikely war

Global Review has published a series of articles about Airsea Battle/JOAC and Offshore Controll which tried to give the distinguished readers an insight about the ongoing discussion in the USA and what the USA will do if a war or conflict with China occurs.We had the great opportunity and honour to get an interview with the (God) father of Offshore Controll, Mr. TX Hammes who explains us in detail what Offshore Controll is about, where are the weak points of ASB/JOAC and who also gives us an outlook how likely a sinoamerican conflict will be.

T.X. Hammes, Distinguished Research Fellow, CSR

Dr. Thomas X. Hammes joined INSS in June, 2009. His areas of expertise include Future Conflict, Military Strategy, and Insurgency.  Dr. Hammes graduated with a Bachelor of Science from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1975 and holds a Masters in Historical Research and Doctorate in Modern History from Oxford University.   He is a Distinguished Graduate of the Canadian National Defence College. His publications include The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century and Forgotten Warriors: the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade, the Corps Ethos, and the Korean War. He has also published 15 book chapters and over 120 articles.  His publications have been used widely in staff and defense college curricula in the US, UK, Canada and Australia.  Dr. Hammes has lectured extensively at leading academic and military institutions in the United States and abroad. Prior to his retirement from active duty, Dr. Hammes served for 30 years in the United States Marine Corps to include command of an intelligence battalion, an infantry battalion, and the Chemical Biological Incident Response Force.  He participated in military operations in Somalia and Iraq and trained insurgents in various locations.


Global Review: Have you developed OC alone, who was and is supporting it and was OC a reaction to ASB/JOAC or vice versa or did they develop independently? When was the birth date of both concepts?

TX Hammes: I cannot pinpoint the birthdate of either concept.  ASB first became well known when the Center for Strategy and Budgetary Assessment published “AirSea Battle:  A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept” in May 2010.  Because CSBA was closely associated with Andy Marshall and the Office of Net Assessment it got a lot of attention. It dominated the discussion of a strategy for China and was driving much of the discussion on budgets and weapons procurement.  The Chief of Staff of the Air Force and the Chief of Naval Operations (the senior officers for those services) enthusiastically endorsed the concept and did joint public appearances to talk it up.

At the time, I was working on insurgency with a focus on Afghanistan.  But in the spring of 2011, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Strategy asked my center if we could develop a proposed strategy for a conflict with China.  A major issue with ASB was affordability.  I drafted notes on a strategy using Eliot Cohen’s model – Assumptions, Ends, Ways, Means, Priority, Sequencing, and Theory of Victory.  DASD Strategy liked the idea. So I wrote a short paper and began briefing it inside the Pentagon during the summer and fall of 2011.  I turned it into the longer Strategic Forum “Offshore Control:  A strategy for an unlikely conflict.”  It took until the spring of 2012 to get it approved and published.


  1. Have there been comparable concepts in place in the 90s and the 2000s or were there just scenarios of a confrontation with China over Taiwan as China was not yet such a seapower as today or will be as in the future?

As far as I know the scenarios during that era focused on Taiwan simply because the US had overwhelming military superiority in the region.

  1. Could you give the German audience a description what OC is? And what are the differences to ASB/JOAC?

Any U.S. military strategy for Asia must achieve six objectives: (1) insure access for U.S. forces and allied commercial interests to the global commons; (2) assure Asian nations that the United States is both willing to and capable of remaining engaged in Asia; (3) deter China from military action to resolve disputes while encouraging its continued economic growth; (4) in the event that deterrence fails, achieve US objectives with minimal risk of nuclear escalation; (5) discourage friends and allies from taking aggressive steps that further destabilize the region; and (6) be visible and credible today, not years in the future.


“Offshore Control is an effective and affordable approach. Offshore Control establishes a set of concentric rings that denies China the use of the sea inside the first island chain, defends the sea and air space of the first island chain and US allies therein, and dominates the air and maritime space outside the island chain.  Offshore Control does not strike into China but takes advantage of geography to block China’s exports and thus severely weaken its economy. No operations will penetrate Chinese airspace.  Prohibiting penetration is intended to reduce the possibility of nuclear escalation and make conflict termination easier.

Denial as an element of the campaign plays to U.S. strengths by employing primarily attack submarines, drones, mines, and a limited number of air assets inside the first island chain.  This area will be declared a maritime exclusion zone with the warning that enemy ships in the zone will be sunk or boarded.  If these ships evade the blockade and trade with China, they will be subject to seizure and prize court when they pass through the 1st Island Chain on their return voyage. While the United States cannot stop all sea traffic in this zone, it can prevent the passage of large cargo ships and large tankers, severely disrupting China’s economy relatively quickly.

The defensive component of Offshore Control will bring the full range of U.S. assets to defend allied soil and encourage allies to contribute to that defense.  It takes advantage of geography to force China to fight at longer ranges while allowing U.S. and allied forces to fight as part of an integrated air-sea defense over their own territories. It maximizes US strengths in blue water sea control, theater air defense, undersea warfare, and aerospace while avoiding China’s inherent advantages on and near the mainland.  In short, it will flip the advantages of anti-access/area denial to the United States and its allies.  Numerous small islands from Japan to Taiwan and on to Luzon provide dispersed land basing options for air and sea defense of the apparent gaps in the first island chain. Since Offshore Control will rely heavily on land-based air defense and short-range sea defense to include mine and counter-mine capability, we can encourage potential partners to invest in these capabilities and exercise together regularly in peacetime.   In keeping with the concept that the strategy must be feasible in peacetime, the United States will not request any nations to allow the use of their bases to attack China.  The strategy will only ask nations to allow the presence of U.S. defensive systems to defend that nation’s air, sea, and land space. The U.S. commitment will include assisting with convoy operations to maintain the flow of essential imports and exports in the face of Chinese interdiction attempts.  In exercises, the United States could demonstrate all the necessary capabilities to defend allies – and do so in conjunction with the host nation forces.

The dominate phase of the campaign would be fought outside the range of most Chinese assets and would use a combination of air, naval, ground, and rented commercial platforms to intercept and divert the super tankers and large container ships essential to China’s economy.  For example, eighty percent of China’s imported oil transits the Straits of Malacca.  If Malacca, Lombok, Sunda and the routes north and south of Australia are controlled, these shipments can be cut off.  Interdicting China’s energy imports will weaken its economy, but exports matter even more.   These rely on large container ships for competitive cost advantage.  The roughly 1000 ships of this size are the easiest to track and divert. China could attempt to reroute this shipping, but the only possibilities must still pass through the 1st Island Chain.  U.S. assets can control all these routes.  Alternate overland routes simply cannot move the 9.74 billion tons of goods China exported by sea in 2012 — the equivalent of roughly 1000 trains per day.   While such a concentric blockade campaign will require a layered effort from the straits to China’s coast, it will mostly be fought at a great distance from China—effectively out of range of most of China’s military power.

Further contributing to Offshore Control’s credibility is the fact the United States can execute the campaign with the military forces and equipment it has today.  Unlike other approaches, it does not rely on highly classified, developmental defense programs for success.  Rather, the United States can exercise the necessary capabilities with its allies now, not a generation on.

This brings us to the ends the strategy seeks. Offshore Control assumes that attacking China’s nuclear weapons or the regime itself is too dangerous to contemplate.  We do not understand the Communist Party’s decision process for the employment of nuclear weapons, but we do know the party will risk all to remain in control.  Thus, rather than seeking a decisive victory against the Chinese, Offshore Control seeks to use economic pressure to bring about a stalemate and cessation of conflict with a return to a modified version of the status quo.  Theoretical strategists may question the lack of a path to decisive victory, but decisive victory falls outside the logic of conflict with a great nuclear power. There, one seeks to avoid the clash or, failing that, to achieve acceptable outcomes short of a nuclear exchange that enable all sides to back away.  In this sense, Offshore Control offers a more realistic and pragmatic roadmap to resolution and peace.


  1. Critics of OC say that it would be a long-term effort which would overstretch the financial and military resources of the USA, that the naval blockade could be undermined by train, roads and air lifts. Some even say that in military history a naval blockade never could bring down an enemy alone. And last, but not least: What happens, if China could make a breakthrough trough the naval blockade? Was there a plan B?


By shifting the fight from close proximity to China out to the first island chain, OC significantly reduced the demands on US armed forces.  Only a small percentage of China’s forces can operate at that range from the mainland, so we only have to fight that percentage.  The closer we fight to China the more of their force we have to fight.

To move as many containers per day over rail as are moved through China’s port would require 1000 trains of 150 cars.  That is 1000 trains per DAY.  And of course, to return the cars would require 1000 trains returning each day.  Compounding the problem is the fact the traffic has to move over the Russian or Kazakhstan railway systems – neither known for efficiency.  And because of RR gauge changes, each container would have to be taken off at China’s border, shifted to Russian gauge and then shifted again if they attempt to take it by train into Europe.  Currently a limited amount of rail traffic does go from China to Europe – the last cost estimates I saw showed it was $10000 per container by rail but only $5000 by sea.  And of course, those rail lines go through some of the hottest and coldest climates on the earth.  Many goods would be damaged by the temperature extremes.

The objective is NOT to bring down the enemy.  We do not want the CCP to go away.  If they do, who rules China?  The objective is convince the Chinese they cannot win a war with the US.  The strategy attacks two of China’s great strategic fears – the Malacca dilemma and the fear of a long war.

It attacks a great weakness – China is export driven and succeeds because of the cost advantage of its products.  However, that cost advantage goes away if it can’t freely use the sea, particularly the post-Panamax container ships.Plan B is to interdict that shipping at even greater ranges from China.  Trade to Europe must pass through the Suez or go around the Cape.  Trade with the Middle East must pass through the Straits of Hormuz or Bab al-Mandab.  Trade with the western hemisphere can be control near the coasts.


  1. Why is ASB/JOAC not a strategy, but a concept and what is OC? What is missing to be a strategy? Some say that ASB/JOAC wouldn´t have a defined goal in opposite to OC—is that true?


The authors state in their title that ASB is an operational concept.  It explains how the US can fight through A2/AD to strike into China. It never explains why we need to do so or how doing so gets China to quit fighting. The authors never claimed it was a strategy.  It is not a strategy because it never expresses a theory of victory (actually just a theory of conflict termination in a war with China or any thermo-nuclear power.)  It seems to assume that if we bomb China enough, it will quit.


As noted OC is a strategy, that attacks China’s strategic vulnerability.  Its reliance on cost advantage to sustain its trade.


  1. Where do you see the weak points of ASB/JOAC?


It is unaffordable.  It never explains how it will win.  And it assumes a US president will authorize strikes on China – to include strikes that could easily be interpreted by the Chinese as an effort to destroy China’s nuclear deterrence.  This is despite the fact multi-Presidents would not authorize strikes into China during the Korean or the Vietnam wars.


  1. China started its One Belt-One Road Initiative (New Silkroad/ String of Pearls-Maritime Silkroad). Its a two track approach by land and by sea. OBOR will create massive infrastructure building, new roads, railways, airports, ports. Has OC to adopt to this new transportation networks? What will the proportions between transportation by land, sea and air be after the OBOR initiative is finished? Will China be more a continental land power or more a sea power—what are the effects on OC planning? Have you to complement the naval blockade by a continental blockade?


As noted above, there is just too large a volume of material to move via rail or road. Some high value items can be shipped but not enough to replace the lost sea routes.  Keep in mind that although China has promised great investment.  It has not actually invested much.  Remember the much touted $4B China was going to invest in the Afghan copper mine.  That deal was made almost a decade ago and as near as I can find out only $10 to 20 M has been actually spent.Even if China invests heavily the return on investment is likely to be low.  When you examine the countries along One Belt (Pakistan, Central Asia), they are poor countries with little potential for growth. One Road is simply an expansion of already existing sea trade.  New ports will make it somewhat more efficient but remain vulnerable to blockade.


  1. Are there any indicators that show that the US government and the Pentagon prefer OC or ASB/JOAC? Or is the US still undecided? If a conflict with China started now, which concept would be operational?


I am not currently working with the Pentagon on its military strategy so I do not know.


  1. Do you need different weapon systems for OC or ASB/JOAC? Where is the Pentagon putting its emphasis on?


ASB as expressed by CSBA emphasized expensive penetrating systems that still have to be bought.  OC assumes we would fight with what we have today.  The Pentagon’s investment portfolio is mixed – B21s but also more subsurface forces and lethal naval surface forces.  I would NOT say the Pentagon buys according to a military strategy.  Rather it is driven by service beliefs and political realities.

10.  A last question: How likely is it that a Sino-American war will come in the future? And would such a conflict be a regional war or had the potential to become a transregional, even a world war, also involving Russia and NATO in Europe?

I think a Sino-American war is very low probability.  But never underestimate the ability of leaders to make really dumb decisions (WWI).  Like WWI, a Sino-American war will collapse the global trading economy as soon as the war starts.  The most worrying possibility is a misjudgment that leads to an incident at sea or in the air or that China mistakenly believes it can win a “short war” and thus make fairly painless gains.  This is one of the key deterrent aspect of OC.  It states up front that a US-China war will be a long, difficult war.If it should happen, I do not see it involving Europe.  I am not a NATO expert but I doubt that even if China attacks the US that Article 5 will bring in most NATO nations.  Some nations may choose to fight with us.


Airseabattle/JOAC–here the plans of the Center for Strategic Budgetary Assessment (CSBA)–in the view of TX Hammes a dangerous approach, no strategy, but the high probability that such a concept in operation could escalate to a nuclear war–therefore he designed Offshore Controll as strategy, that prevents an escalation, that let´s the USA win the war, but let´s China survive and not loose its face.

From the CSBA report on ASBC: the section entitled “Executing a Missile Suppression Campaign.”

From the CSBA report on the ASBC: the section entitled “Blind PLA ISR Systems.”

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