AirSea Battle Must Not Work Alone

By Milan Vego

The Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) noted in 2010 that China is developing and fielding large numbers of advanced medium-range ballistic and cruise missiles, advanced fighter aircraft, new attack submarines equipped with advanced weapons, increasingly capable long-range air defense systems, electronic warfare, computer network attack capabilities, and counter-space capabilities. Potentially, a major threat to the survivability of U.S. carriers in the western Pacific is the new 1,900-mile Dong Feng-21D antiship ballistic missile that reportedly attained initial operational capability in late 2010. The QDR 2010 also stated that Iran has in service large numbers of small fast-attack craft and plans to use swarming tactics aimed at overwhelming the layered defenses deployed by navies operating in the Persian Gulf. The growing anti-access capabilities of potential enemies, the QDR said, can be successfully countered by continuing modernization efforts plus adopting several developing technologies. 2

What Is an Operational Concept?

In military terms, a concept pertains to the broad methods used by a specific platform, combat arm, or service to accomplish a given military objective. In the U.S. military, the term “operating concept” is used to refer to the application of military power within a certain framework, regardless of the objective to be accomplished. It does not pertain to a specific level of war, and is generic or universal in nature. 3

In a maritime context, an “operational concept” is designed to employ naval forces and the forces of other services in a major naval or joint operation or campaign. An operational concept is not identical to a concept of operations, as the U.S. Navy often erroneously believes. A CONOPS is developed for a specific course of action during the commander’s process of assessing the situation and making a decision. Hence, it pertains to a specific location and the specific enemy force.

A sound maritime operational concept needs to satisfy several requirements:

• It should be broad in scope and look several years into the future.

• No potential enemy should be named.

• It should not name a certain ocean or sea area.

Hence, the new AirSea Battle concept should avoid specifying any potential enemy or operating area. Otherwise, it violates its very purpose. Previous examples of highly successful operational concepts satisfying these criteria are the U.S. Marine Corps’ Tentative Manual for Landing Operations , issued in 1934; its improved version, Fleet Tactical Publication (FTP)-167: Landing Operations Doctrine , United States Navy, issued in 1938; and Germany’s so-called Blitzkrieg, or air-land battle concept tested during the 1938 Spanish Civil War and 1939 invasion of Poland. The U.S. Marine Corps’ Operational Maneuver from the Sea , currently under development, also appears to represent a sound operational concept.

The new AirSea Battle concept should be focused exclusively on sea control. In addition, the U.S. Navy needs to develop separate but related operational concepts for sea denial, weakening of the enemy’s military-economic potential at sea, and defense and protection of that of the United States and friendly nations.

A sound operational concept should describe, in broad terms, the main methods for obtaining and maintaining and exercising sea control (destruction or neutralization of enemy forces; seizure of naval and air-basing areas; destruction of coastal facilities and installations; support of friendly forces in their offensive operations, etc.). A concept for sea denial should describe the main methods in contesting sea control (fleet-in-being; naval/commercial counter-blockade; support of friendly ground forces in their defensive operations, and so on).

It is critical that information warfare be integrated into the struggle for sea control and/or denial, to which the effort to obtain or deny information superiority is very similar. Both are highly dynamic and constantly changing, not absolute but relative and transitory. Control of cyberspace depends far more on the human factor than on advanced technologies, as implied in buzzwords such as “information dominance” and “decision superiority.”

To be effective, a maritime operational concept should consist of several functional concepts that collectively ensure the ultimate objective is accomplished quickly, with the fewest losses. Traditionally the principal functional concepts are command and control, maneuver, fires, sequencing and synchronization of the employment of combat arms, logistical sustainment, force protection, and regeneration of combat potential. For example, “ship-to-objective-maneuver” is a functional and tactical concept in the Marines’ Operational Maneuver from the Sea . Each of these, in turn, offers several enabling concepts that depend on the specific organizational option and techniques for the employment of naval platforms, weapons, and equipment. Examples of enabling concepts are command and control, operational fires, naval surface gunfire support, and close air support.

Finally, and perhaps most salient for this discussion, a maritime operational concept must provide for the employment of multiservice and in some cases multinational forces. Although new military technologies provide unprecedented capabilities, no single weapon or force reaches its full potential unless employed with the complementary capabilities of combat arms and branches of other services—hence the critical need to employ multiservice forces. The use of dissimilar forces can be extremely lethal, especially if the enemy is unprepared for defense against them. Because they provide a wider range of operational and tactical options, multiservice forces pose multiple and complex problems for the enemy.

A variety of service capabilities allows an innovative naval operational commander to combine joint capabilities, in asymmetrical as well as symmetrical ways, synchronized to produce a cumulative effect greater than the sum of its parts. 4 In the AirSea Battle concept, the U.S. Air Force can be extremely effective in the Navy’s efforts to obtain and maintain and exercise sea control or deny it to the enemy.

This holds especially true in a narrow sea such as the Persian Gulf, where devastating strikes can be carried out against enemy ships at sea and in their basing areas. The Air Force also can be very effective in attacking the enemy and defending U.S. sealift and maritime trade, by conducting strikes and offensive mining. In some situations, the Marine Corps and Army can greatly contribute to obtaining sea control through occupying a strait or some important island or part of the coast or enemy naval or air base.

Current U.S. Navy Doctrine Problems

A sound operational concept cannot be properly developed without a written and articulated doctrine for the operational level of war at sea. This should be based on input from the theory of operational warfare at sea and include a combination of concepts. In March 2010, the U.S. Navy finally issued, after almost ten years of work, the new and updated editions of its Naval Doctrine Publication 1: Naval Warfare (NDP-1 2010). In contrast to its 1994 predecessor, the new document makes a serious attempt to focus the U.S. Navy and the other two maritime services on preparing to fight at the operational level of war at sea. Nevertheless, NDP-1 2010 contains some serious shortcomings and omissions.

Among other things, it confuses the issue by asserting that sea control is one of the U.S. Navy’s core capabilities and not a strategic or operational objective in time of war. 5 Similarly, the latest unified vision for the future Naval Operations Concept 2010 (NOC 10) does not describe sea control as the objective to be accomplished, but directly links it to power projection. 6 NDP-1 2010 implies that the U.S. Navy, by forwardly deploying a credible force, is enough to obtain sea control. But any navy in peacetime, regardless of size or combat strength, has almost unlimited access to any sea or ocean area. Forward presence of the U.S. Navy in the western Pacific or the Persian Gulf is a method of exercising naval influence —not sea control. It only creates favorable preconditions to obtain sea control in a given area upon the outbreak of hostilities.

NDP-1 2010 recognizes that there is no such thing as “global maritime superiority” (as the U.S. Navy believed, at least rhetorically, in the past) but that the Navy can achieve “local” or “regional” maritime superiority. It also realizes that sea control is limited in duration and that it requires control of surface, subsurface, and airspace. The doctrine properly highlights the need for having capabilities to ensure control of all aspects of maritime domain, including cyberspace. 7

Further, NDP-1 2010 implies that the U.S. Navy will in all situations seek to achieve sea control. It does not include “sea denial” as a possible strategic or operational objective. However, the Navy might conceivably be forced to the defensive and thereby initially dispute or contest sea control in one theater while trying to obtain it in another. For example, in the case of a simultaneous crisis on the Korean Peninsula and in the Persian Gulf, it is quite possible that the Navy would not be able to seek sea control in both theaters at the same time.

The doctrine also explains what constitutes the operational level of war, but only briefly refers to major operations or campaigns. It even states that “sea control operations” involve “locating, identifying, and dealing with a variety of contacts.” 8 This clearly pertains to tactics of naval platforms and sensors. Naval Operations Concept 2010 explains “sea control operations” as “the employment of naval forces, supported by land, and air forces as appropriate, in order to achieve military objectives in vital sea areas.” 9 However, this definition is too broad, because it does not specify the type of tactical actions or the ultimate (operational) objective to be accomplished.

NDP-1 2010 does not describe various types of major naval and joint operations. These include fleet versus the enemy’s fleet at sea and/or its bases, fleet versus the enemy’s shore (amphibious landings, attacks on enemy coastal facilities and installations, support of friendly ground forces in their offensive or defensive operations), attack on enemy military shipping/maritime trade, and defense/protection of friendly military shipping/maritime trade.

By contrast, NOC 10 differentiates three categories of sea-control operations: opposed transit, anti-access, and area denial. 10 However clearly defined this may be, the categorization of operations is plainly wrong. The employment of naval forces is not based on what the enemy will do or not do: a major naval operation is planned and executed to seize the initiative and quickly defeat the enemy within a given timeframe.

Obviously, one cannot write a sound doctrine for the operational level of war (or for that matter develop a sound operational concept) without full understanding and knowledge of major naval/joint operations—the principal method of employment of one’s combat forces to accomplish operational and in some cases partial strategic objectives at sea. A major naval operation consists of a series of related tactical actions (naval battles, engagements, strikes, attacks, etc.), sequenced and synchronized in terms of place and time and aimed to accomplish an operational (and sometimes even major part of the strategic) objective. It is planned and executed by a single commander and in accordance with a common operational idea (scheme). Major naval operations are normally an integral part of a maritime or land campaign, but they can sometimes be conducted outside their framework.

Improving Concepts of Operation

The AirSea Battle concept appears to focus overly on integrating advanced technologies. While technology will certainly remain critical to winning, the human factor should never be neglected, or, worse, ignored. No military concept can be truly successful without properly integrating sound thinking and training with advanced technology.

AirSea Battle needs to emphasize the employment of multi-service forces in major naval/joint operations. It should develop as a response to anti-access and area-denial capabilities of potential enemies in the littorals. Otherwise, it will fail in its basic purpose. Furthermore, it should be only one of several operational concepts for the U.S. Navy.

Hence, NDP-1 2010 needs to be revised and enlarged to incorporate several operational concepts for littoral warfare. The key to this is to finally adopt major naval and joint operations as the principal methods of combat forces’ employment aimed to accomplish operational objectives in war at sea.

A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower needs to be rewritten and updated to accurately reflect harsh new strategic realities, instead of concentrating on operations short of war. And the Navy needs, finally, to embrace true jointness in the conduct of littoral warfare. AirSea Battle and other concepts for littoral warfare cannot be ultimately successful without balancing the current and projected U.S. Navy battle force.

1. Andrew Krepinevich, Why AirSea Battle? (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, 2010), pp. 1-2.

2. Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review Report , February 2010 (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, February 2010), pp. 31-33.

3. John F. Schmitt, A Practical Guide for Developing and Writing Military Concepts (McLean, VA: Hicks and Associates, DART Working Paper 02-43, Defense Adaptive Red Team, December 2002), pp. 3, 7–8.

4. Michael C. Vitale, “Jointness by Design, Not Accident,” Joint Force Quarterly (autumn 1995), p. 27.

5. Naval Warfare Doctrine Command, Naval Doctrine Publication 1: Naval Warfare (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, March 2010), pp. 25, 27-28.

6. Office of Chief of Naval Operations, Naval Operations Concept 2010: Implementing the Maritime Strategy (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, 2010), p. 51.

7. Naval Warfare Doctrine Command, Naval Doctrine Publication 1: Naval Warfare , p. 28.

8. Ibid., pp. 16-17, 28.

9. Office of Chief of Naval Operations, Naval Operations Concept 2010 , p. 52.

10. Ibid., pp. 53-54.

Dr. Vego is a professor of operations at the Naval War College. Before coming to the United States in 1976, he served as commanding officer of torpedo boats and gunboats in the former Yugoslav Navy and as 2nd officer (Deck) in the former West German merchant marine. He is the author of Naval Strategy and Operations in Narrow Seas (London: Frank Cass Publishers, 1999 and 2nd ed., 2003), and many articles on littoral warfare.

Dr. Vego is Professor of Operations, Joint Military Operations Department, at the Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island.

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