Air-Sea Battle and its Discontents

By Commander John T. Kuehn, U.S. Navy (Retired)

What is Air-Sea Battle? ASB responds to a method of disputing sea control known as anti-access/area denial, or A2/AD for the acronym-dependent. By this method, littoral states seek to dispute international domains that are not subject to national sovereignty, namely the sea, cyber, space, and international airspace. This is not a problem associated with any particular nation. Anti-access involves attempts to influence and restrict, bound, and ultimately dominate these “commons,” not with direct control but through development of access-denial systems. Those include mines, viruses, anti-satellite technology, air defenses, antiship cruise missiles, or the threat of them. So the issue at stake involves more than just what are regarded as traditional maritime domains; the protection of the “commons” aspect of the maritime environment is a concern for all the military services. 4

Maritime Domains Are Sea and Air Concerns

Nonetheless, until the United States goes to a unitary military service, these domains are principally the concerns of the maritime and air services—particularly since the United States does not control any of the key geographic choke points at this time with land power, and has not done so since the return of the Panama Canal. The AD part of the acronym is a bit more daunting, since this piece of the pie tends to address U.S. ability to leverage all the instruments of national power and command, control, communications, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) in the approaches to areas of potential access denial. For example, a weaponized approach that illustrates an AD capability might be the antiship ballistic missile or perhaps a wide-area electromagnetic-pulse EMP capability (to “blind” U.S. sensors).

To quote a recent article by the Navy and Air Force service chiefs, Admiral Jonathan Greenert and General Mark Welsh: “The Air-Sea Battle concept . . . is designed to assure access, defeat anti-access capabilities, and provide more options to national leaders and military commanders.” They stress that “Air-Sea Battle is one of the operational concepts nested within [emphases mine] the overarching Joint Operational Access Concept.” They go on to stress that ASB “is not a military strategy.” 5 ASB is not an operational concept for one specific geographic region (e.g., China). In fact, its genesis is probably more attributable to lessons learned from the Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf where the United States fought a quasi-naval war in the 1980s with Iran, a conflict known as the “tanker war.” 6

Admiral Greenert and General Welsh call the current U.S. response with ASB to these access-denial capabilities “breaking the kill chain,” a disruptive operational approach. 7 For those who wonder what this might look like, they need only access Cold War history to see examples of what one might call “first-generation” ASB. Interestingly, as the Army and Air Force applied AirLand Battle (ALB) doctrine to the Soviet problem in Western Europe, the Navy, in its 1986 Maritime Strategy, applied a prototype version of ASB to support ALB. This approach involved a mix of carrier and surface action groups, operating in the “commons” approaching the Soviet maritime flanks but aimed at defeating Soviet area denial threats such as targeting satellites, nuclear subs with antiship cruise missiles (ASCMs), and long-range Soviet naval aviation strike aircraft such as Backfire bombers with ASCMs.

‘Old Wine in a New Skin?’

The mix of operational approaches included sophisticated electronic-warfare tasks such as electronic deception, counter-targeting, counter-command and control measures (jamming), and U.S. capabilities to create kill chains of its own with warships such as Aegis cruisers and Los Angles –class submarines, to say nothing of our own space-support systems for targeting, indications, and warning. 8 In some sense ASB is simply old wine in a new skin, but with a broader application to the complex global-security problem of ensuring access in the global commons for the United States and its allies and friends.

As mentioned previously, ASB is not a military strategy. Strategy links national-level ways and means, to include all the instruments of national power—diplomatic, economic, informational, and cultural as well as military—to achieve U.S. national policy objectives (ends). 9 ASB does not even meet the criteria for a military strategy, criteria that require a combination of ways and means linked to a specific policy end. The Asia pivot (rebalance) of U.S. strategy to emphasize East and South Asia a bit more is a strategy, since it does meet the criteria listed here. It is all about giving different priorities to ways and means for the ends of ensuring stability and peace in that dynamic and critical region of the globe with the bulk of humanity (Asia). It is not so much a “plus-up” in resources as a situation of fewer cuts in Pacific Command and other government agencies’ budgets for programs like the combatant command Theater Security Cooperation (TSC) plan. ASB is one of many concepts that can be useful in a range of options to ensure stability and prevent the sorts of miscalculations that often lead to conflict.

So why all the fuss? If this operational approach to assured access was resourced during the Cold War and in the 1980s conflict with Iran, what is the big deal about it being re-energized today with updated technology? Part of the problem is that the idea of steady-state defense policy built around expensive and intensive operations overseas has become institutionalized and in a sense, un-balanced . The domination of the land-power services in these environments is the accepted norm and has been extrapolated to extend to all the environments of potential conflict. But this larger share of focus and resources, to say nothing of the intellectual effort applied toward COIN and nation-building, does not really fit the strategic realities of the second decade of this century. This does not mean that land power is irrelevant and plays no role, but the old habits and ways of doing business from the last decade—even if they are not really that old—die hard.

‘Containment Lite’

Returning to the article “Back to Reality,” there is an argument offered for the use of land power to support an approach the author labels “containment lite”—again, focused exclusively on China. Instead of fleshing out this idea, the author sets “aside those debates” and proceeds to move immediately to the operational advantages of land power in a discussion divorced from specific political context. 10 Military theorist Carl von Clausewitz chided his colleagues for just this error in “Two Letters on Strategy:”

War is nothing but the continuation of political efforts by other means. In my view all of strategy rests on this idea, and I believe that whoever refuses to recognize that this must be so does not yet fully understand what really matters. . . . Every major war plan grows out of so many individual circumstances, which determine its features, that it is impossible to devise a hypothetical case [emphasis mine] with such specificity that it could be taken as real. 11

The “Back to Reality” author then proposes that conflicts localized on peninsulas and islands bounded by water will give land power an advantage due to “its heavily defensive character.” Localization also, he argues, will limit wars. This is an error other powers (principally Japan) made in the past with respect to this region. The defensive power of controlling sea and air commons, or contesting them, as offered by ASB, is casually ignored. In fact, these circumstances bode ill because they will mean one of two things—that some belligerent power has managed to “steal a march” and project power under the very noses of the United States and its allies in these domains or, worse, that conflict is internal to some state and thus of an insurgent nature. The former scenario requires a suspension of belief since amphibious power projection on the sort of large scale requiring a brigade or larger land force has not been conducted since the Falklands War of 1982.

In other words, the United States would somehow permit a large seaborne invasion of one of its allies and then respond. In the latter case, the heavy defensive power is in favor of the insurgent and would require an intervention with land forces that the American people would be unlikely to support. The solution offered seems to be one of basing brigade-sized elements on other nations’ sovereign soil—completely in opposition to current trends even with close allies like Japan who are sending U.S. Marines to Guam from Okinawa. 12

From Mahan to Mitchell

A bigger error is being made here than might be apparent. The author of “Back to Reality” confuses the necessity of land power versus its sufficiency—an error that has been ascribed over the years to many an advocate, from Alfred Thayer Mahan to Billy Mitchell in regard to sea power and air power, respectively. Sufficiency excludes other forms of power, of joint and combined operations, of whole of government, coalitions, and interagency solutions. It asserts for itself a “We can do it alone, without you, anywhere we please, at any time” attitude. This posture is not only is unrealistic, but it is unhelpful for a healthy debate about the way ahead. No one, least of all the service chiefs of the Navy and the Air Force, is dismissing land power from the tool kit of different forms of national power.

These criticisms are really about America’s future as a power that intervenes with major land-combat forces on a regular basis overseas. Since the end of World War II, the U.S. Army has consistently argued for a continental-type force capable of going head-to-head with other continental powers. This was not the Army that the founders envisioned when they set up the requirement for military forces in the U.S. Constitution by ensuring Congress made no permanent allocation of budgets beyond two years for the armies it raised. 13

Some critics of the Army, especially retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich, have pointed out that having a large Army to support major interventions overseas is inimical to the core ethos of the United States; perhaps it was warranted for the Cold War, but such a requirement no longer exists. Bacevich also argues that a large standing military (to include the other services) has created a “new American militarism” that is a real threat not only to other nations but to the political fabric of the United States. Perhaps these fears are overstated, but the virulence of the proponents for a large standing army (or “land power”) would suggest otherwise. Other critics of the land-power persuasion suggest that the existing big-army approach is simply not sustainable because it is not suited to solve the problems of the future—never mind how divorced it is from the reality of the current budget situation.

Reform the Army

Retired Army Colonel Douglas Macgregor offers sustainable and innovative ways to reform the Army and cut end strength while flipping the paradigm of much tail and little tooth on its head with his proposals for defense reform. Similarly, military analyst and retired Marine Corps Reserve Lieutenant Colonel Frank Hoffman offers innovative ideas about how to go about structuring the land forces of the nation for the future. ASB, and the Asia strategy for that matter, are certainly areas for healthy debate and criticism, but not if they are substitutes for steering the debate away from meaningful reform in the Army and throughout the Department of Defense. 14

The problem here is that operational concepts and strategies are being conflated in a fight over service roles and missions. Perhaps the real issue is an identity crisis by the Army about its role in an arena of declining DOD budgets and force end strength with the move away from large overseas interventions on land. Its leaders would do better to look to their own identity rather than that of others. History offers plenty of evidence for periods where the Army went through a similar process, especially the massive downsizings that occurred after both world wars. 15 Land-power advocates should look instead at new ideas, such as those of Douglas Macgregor and Frank Hoffman, about what land power can bring to the table in a globalized world that is inimical to traditional, heavy-handed overseas interventions beyond one’s sovereign territory, especially when things like oceans must be crossed. ASB is more modest than they imagine, and it certainly is no strategy. If it is inadequate, then this will emerge in the process that all operational concepts go through before they become doctrine, and ASB will almost certainly generate a counter-counter response.

As our old friend Clausewitz writes, “In war [or in peace for that matter] the result is never final.” 16 Being against something offers no vision for the future. Saying land power trumps all is not a vision, it is an anti-vision. The Army and the nation deserve better as these lean times for military budgets continue and deepen within the context of a complex international security environment.

1. MAJ Robert M. Chamberlain, “Back to Reality: Why Land Power Trumps in the National Rebalance Toward Asia,” Armed Forces Journal , .

2. Greg Fontenot and Kevin Benson, “Way of War or the Latest ‘Fad’? A critique of AirSea Battle,” Infinity Journal , vol. 2, issue 4, (Fall 2012), Way_of_War_or_the_ Latest_Fad _A_critique_of_ AirSea_Battle; Move Forward (Pen Name), “AirSeaLand Battle: Access Assured, Area Un-Denied,” Small Wars Journal , 20 October 2011, airsealand-battle-access-assured-area-un-denied.

3. See John Gordon IV and John Matsumura, “The Army’s Role in Overcoming Anti-Access and Area Denial Challenges” (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2013) ; see also Zachary Keck, “Air Sea Battle under Fire from Congressional Committee,” .

4. See ADM Jonathan Greenert and GEN Mark Walsh, “Breaking the Kill Chain: How to keep America in the game when our enemies are trying to shut us out,” at Foreign Policy , 16 May 2013, see also Gabriel M. Scheinmann and Raphael S. Cohen, “The Myth of ‘Securing the Commons,’” The Washington Quarterly , Winter 2012, 115–28.

5. Greenert and Welsh, “Breaking the Kill Chain.”

6. See David Crist, The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran (New York: Penguin Press, 2012), chapters 13–19.

7. Greenert and Welsh, “Breaking the Kill Chain.”.

8. Discussions of the Cold War approaches can be found in George W. Baer, One Hundred Years of Sea Power (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), chapter 17; and, more recently, Lisle A Rose, Power at Sea: A Violent Peace, 1946-2006 (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2007), Chapter 7. See also John B. Hattendorf, The Evolution of the U.S. Navy’s Maritime Strategy, 1977–1986 (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 2004).

9. See Arthur F. Lykke, Jr. “Toward and Understanding of Military Strategy,” Military Strategy: Theory and Application (Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1989).

10. Chamberlain, “Back to Reality.”

11. Carl von Clausewitz, “Two Letters on Strategy,” translated by Peter Paret and Daniel Moran (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute Press, 1984), 21.

12. Chamberlain; for the latest sagas on the Marine Corps, Okinawa, and Guam, see “Admiral Gives New Date for Marine Move to Guam” The New York Times , NEWS/303070304/Admiral-gives-new-date-Marine-move-Guam.

13. U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8, .

14. See Douglas Macgregor, “Don’t Waste a Drawdown,” Armed Forces Journal , www.armedforcesjournal . com/2012/02/8817152; and Frank G. Hoffman, “Hybrid Threats: Reconceptualizing the Evolving Character of Modern Conflict,” Strategic Forum , no. 240, April 2009, National Defense University, 1–8.

15. See especially Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett, eds., Military Innovation in the Interwar Period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

16. Carl Von Clausewitz, On War , edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), 80.

Commander Kuehn is the William A. Stofft Chair of Historical Research the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.


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