If there were a first rule of Air-Sea Battle (ASB), it should be: “Do not talk about Air-Sea Battle.” The cloud of confusion and criticism surrounding the concept is undermining this Department of Defense 21st-century warfare initiative. When the world’s only superpower announces something called “Air-Sea Battle,” the rest of the world listens, and the DOD must get it right. Failure to correct current misunderstandings about the idea could lead to unintended and unwanted consequences counter to U.S. strategic interests. It is time for Air-Sea Battle 2.0, and step one is changing the name.
So what exactly is ASB? Its literature defines an operational concept as “an articulation, in broad terms, of the application of military art and science and the operational level of war within specific parameters defined by mission type, operating environment, and force type(s).”1 This definition is not much help for those trying to actually understand the ASB concept. It is also defined as “a set of initiatives to drive cultural change and ensure full integration of current and future capabilities to assure operational freedom worldwide.” While both definitions are true, they are so vague as to have no real meaning to many outside observers.
The ASB concept houses several unique lines of effort, all with a common goal of improved combat capability, both defensive and offensive, but its multiple elements cannot be explained in a simple punch line. Due to its unique structure and complexity, the ASB concept has been misunderstood by defense experts, defense reporters, the general public and by U.S. and foreign military officers.2 Further, the concept is criticized for provoking China, ignoring the land component of warfare, and inappropriately following AirLand Battle from the Cold War, and it is erroneously referred to as a strategy.3 Additionally, the House Armed Services Committee has voiced significant concerns, and press reports continue their escalatory headlines. Spokesmen for the ASB concept repeatedly attempt to address these misunderstandings, and the ASB Office released an unclassified comprehensive summary in May 2013, but the DOD’s efforts to date have yet to overcome the initial confusion.4
To better understand the source of today’s confusion about the ASB concept, pay attention to the hyphen: “AirSea” or “Air-Sea.” That hyphen helps distinguish two increasingly disparate concepts, one from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis (CSBA) and one from the Pentagon. Understanding the history of each helps explain the source of today’s misunderstanding.
Brief History of an Idea
A concept called AirLand Battle (no hyphen) defined joint efforts in the 1980s. The Army and Air Force worked together to improve their capability against the Soviet Union in the specific geography of the Fulda Gap. Back then, the Soviet Union was a clearly defined opponent, and the U.S. policy of containment was well known. The potential for an actual battle was real, and AirLand Battle was an appropriate name.
Though AirLand Battle was thankfully never tested in its founding scenario, the resultant capabilities of joint Army and Air Force operations became critical elements in the planning and conduct of Operation Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991. Due to its transferable and effective characteristics demonstrated by the rapid defeat of Saddam Hussein, the AirLand Battle concept is widely considered a success.5
Then in the early and mid-1990s, the Office of Net Assessment in the Pentagon began conducting wargames to analyze emerging anti-access and area-denial capabilities, today referred to as “A2/AD.” Those same analysts were aware of the 1992 National War College paper by then–U.S. Navy Commander James Stavridis, which is credited as the first known documentation of the term “air sea battle.”6 With the good reputation of AirLand Battle and clear analogy from Army–Air Force to Navy–Air Force cooperation, using “air” and “sea” and “battle” made perfect sense.
More than a decade later, analysts from the CSBA who had participated in the Pentagon’s wargaming and analysis published their AirSea Battle (no hyphen) reports in February and May 2010.7 The CSBA’s reports focus on China and to a lesser degree Iran, and because these reports predated any clear announcements from the Pentagon, the ASB concept was initially associated with potential attacks on mainland China.
When the Pentagon officially released its Air-Sea Battle (hyphen) in November 2011 and in its later May 2013 report, China is not mentioned at all.8 How could this be? Though there is certainly some overlap between the two concepts in the area of potential threats and desired capabililties, the Pentagon’s fruition of the ASB concept is not entirely synonymous with the CSBA’s reports. Though China possesses many capable weapons, the ASB concept analyzes the breadth of foreign capabilities, even low-end military tactics such as swarming small boats.9
China and the ‘Rebalance’
While the Asia-Pacific “rebalance” and the ASB concept captured headlines in close proximity and could lead the casual reader to think ASB was a preplanned element of that rebalance, each initiative has an entirely independent history. As mentioned earlier, the seeds of the ASB concept were planted in early 1990s, but the rebalance resulted from the assessment of President Barack Obama’s national-security team in late 2008 and 2009 that the United States was “underweighted in terms of its presence and resources and efforts” in the Asia-Pacific.10
However, now that it has entered the public eye in the context of the rebalance, the ASB concept is a critical Asia-Pacific discussion point. With China’s economy projected by some to overtake that of the United States before 2030, China cannot be ignored in ASB concept discussions. Additionally, several key partners and allies such as Japan, Australia, South Korea, Singapore, and Malaysia are keenly interested in the full U.S. intent behind the ASB concept.11 Both civilian and military leaders are using the concept to reassure U.S. partners and allies of continued U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific region.
An obvious step in the process of developing a future military is to assess the current relative strengths of peers and potential adversaries. The Chinese have significant capability, so of course they are considered in some ASB concept discussions, but using a highly capable military as a baseline for assessment is a far cry from the most common misconception: that the United States is planning to invade the Chinese mainland.
For example, China developed the DF-21 medium-range ballistic missile, and the D variant is considered the country’s first antiship ballistic missile. This weapon is evaluated by the Pentagon based on its capability, not on who currently owns it. China recently became one of the top five military-arms exporters, and decades ago Chinese ballistic missiles were exported to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Recent trends show China limiting its transfer of missile technology, but as standard strategic planning, the DOD considers worst-case scenarios, even if they are low-probability events.12 As a specific example, some ASB concept capabilities may be used if the United States needs to employ the military for the crises in Syria or Ukraine.
The Obama administration does not support a containment policy for China, and the DOD is conscious of the security dilemma inherent in preparing for contingencies without causing an arms race, so it purposely does not focus solely on China. In fact, in a show of amity, the DOD invited China to participate in “Rim of the Pacific,” a large multinational naval exercise to be hosted at Pearl Harbor in May 2014.13
The Concept in Practice
Other authors provide recent examples of how frontline forces creatively worked together to achieve specific missions, yet those examples were ad hoc and developed after the units were on location.14 The ASB concept seeks to fully institutionalize demonstrated joint capabilities so operational commanders have better options in the planning phase of future operations.
The broad scope of the concept to address worldwide A2/AD capabilities means ASB’s fruition has many forms. Elements of the developmental process may include organizational adjustments, new training programs for personnel, new doctrine, and new or modified matériel, but the exact outcomes are not certain.15 The seemingly disparate activities all support improved defensive and offensive capability to maintain worldwide freedom of action.
A recent example of developing new capability for future use is the cruiser USS Lake Erie (CG-70) in February 2013.16 Unlike most engagements today, where a shooter detects the target on its own visual, radar, or acoustic sensors, the Lake Erie used targeting information received via satellite to successfully launch an SM-3 missile and intercept the medium-range ballistic-missile test target. The target was never “seen” directly by the Lake Erie, but through newly demonstrated communication paths, the ship gained additional capability.
To further illustrate the aims of the ASB concept, consider two potential future scenarios. First, Navy helicopters jam enemy airborne communication, and Air Force personnel coordinate a cyber offensive to shut down enemy Internet access in support of special-operations forces preparing to conduct a ground raid. A similar action occurred in Georgia before fighting began against Russia in 2008.17 Second, an unmanned aerial system drops an active sonar buoy to alert a submarine to launch a Tomahawk missile. The missile can then be given coordinates to its final target via satellite from a nearby Air Force pilot or from a control room anywhere in the world.
Those examples demonstrate the essence of the type of integrated operations the ASB concept is seeking. There are many other classified lines of effort, but the reader should discern the significant difference between this type of effort and the ones described in the CSBA’s reports. From the Pentagon’s perspective, cross-service capability will become so common that “joint” will become a redundant adjective, but any application of this capability would only be applied through the existing planning and presidential approval process.
When ASB concept observers confound the Pentagon’s focus on cross-service capability with the CSBA report’s images of strikes on mainland China, they are understandably concerned about the potential additional risk of escalation to a nuclear exchange. At a minimum, some analysts feel the ASB concept “increases the odds that a crisis will turn violent.”18 It should be easily agreed that the “invasion” of any nuclear-capable nation carries a risk of escalation. However, if one argues that developing capability alone increases this risk, then the inverse logic—that less capability lowers risk—would also be true, yet that is a nonsensical proposition. This security-capability paradox leads analysts to perpetually evaluate the concept of deterrence.
The ASB concept is designed to increase U.S. military conventional capability, and initial ASB documents assumed nuclear deterrence remained effective. Many observers felt this was a poor assumption, and the ASB staff is now considering how the concept’s additional capability may affect nuclear deterrence.19 When employed correctly with other elements of national power, improved conventional capability can be an effective deterrent and actually lower the chance of conflict.
The role of conventional capability is argued both ways. Some claim muscular and flexible conventional capability lowers the threshold to initiate a conflict that could lead to the use of nuclear weapons: “With ‘just the right weapon,’ political leaders and military commanders can become overconfident that a ‘perfect’ military solution exists.” Others claim diverse conventional capabilities allow leaders to respond commensurate with the threat and lower the chance of escalation: “Without conventional options, nuclear weapons are closer to the top of the list.”
There is no clear answer to the complex issue of deterrence, but the perceived threats of the ASB concept have bolstered the national discussion of how the United States will use it forms of national power to address China’s growth, and nuclear issues are part of that discussion.20 The ASB concept will provide more options, and leadership’s successful diplomatic employment and military use of this capability will determine its influence on nuclear deterrence. Well before the birth of ASB, national leaders with control of nuclear arsenals bore the burden of responsible action in conflict. The ASB concept does not alter that burden.
Timelines, Budgets, Procurement
As should now be apparent, the ASB concept cannot be quantitatively defined, and its exact “end” cannot be known. The concept will develop over time based on decisions of the service chiefs and the Secretary of Defense, and ASB’s exact future is not predictable. The initial planning horizon goes out to 2020, but the concept is not a neatly packaged “warfare kit” to be acquired and then considered complete.
Budget issues are influencing the ASB office’s current activities and could shift the overall timeline of concept development. If funding were not limited due to the decreasing DOD top-line budget, the ASB office could conduct more frequent experimentation, wargaming, and training that may achieve objectives sooner. Alternatively, shrinking budgets may spur greater inter-service cooperation when teamwork leads to clear cost savings. Fiscal dynamics preclude any reasonable prediction of the overall lifetime of the ASB concept.
Additionally, the ASB office has no procurement authority. ASB first focuses on improved employment of existing capability and equipment that may require only minor modifications. However, as the ASB office continues to conduct both controlled wargames and live experimentation, over time the services may recognize a need for new systems. Just as the services determine procurement needs today based on current and future threats in the context of strategic guidance, prolonged cooperation between the services may reveal areas of potential improvement that can be achieved through joint procurement.
At this early stage of the effort, one of the ASB office’s goals is to align efforts between the services so each can complement, rather than duplicate, capability. Although conceptual possibilities for improved joint operations are potentially endless, there is a balance of new and effective capability that can be achieved at an affordable cost. The ASB staff is working to find those achievable improvements.
Time for Air-Sea Battle 2.0
The selection of the term “Air-Sea Battle” has not worked for the Pentagon for two reasons. First, using the word “battle” leads people to ask, “Where is the battle?” The timing of the CSBA’s reports answered that question first with their answer of China. However, as indicated by the Pentagon being on Version 9 of the concept after only four years, the development of the concept is a living, breathing process. Those nine versions are internal to the Pentagon. From the public and international perspective, there has only ever been a single concept. The DOD recently emphasized the potential benefits to defensive capabilities derived from ASB concept efforts, and the term “battle” is becoming more misleading as it leads some to conclude the United States is seeking a fight.21
Second, the Asia-Pacific rebalance is arguably the most significant foreign-policy decision of the Obama administration, and the term “Air-Sea Battle” became a fly in the ointment of Asia-Pacific relations.22 One aspect to a successful rebalance is the creation and maintenance of partnerships in the region, but due to myriad cultures and unique regional sensitivities, the name “Air-Sea Battle” is far too antagonistic. “Air-Sea Capability,” “Air-Sea Connectivity,” or even dissolving ASB into the existing Joint Operational Access Concept are in the arena of potential alternatives.
While renaming the concept will acknowledge the shortcomings of the existing name and eventually part from the China-focused CSBA reports, alone it does not address the root issue of injecting unwanted tension into U.S. relations with Asia-Pacific nations. The Pentagon must continue to engage the media and should consider directly engaging allies and partners to demonstrate tangible and unclassified progress. Some may claim a name change will be perceived as a sign of weakness, yet the broader objective of regional partnerships makes it more important to remove “battle” from the Asia-Pacific dialogue. Just as the United States found it necessary to rename Operation Infinite Justice to Operation Enduring Freedom when the initial name complicated efforts to achieve a strategic goal, now is the time to move past Air-Sea Battle for nearly identical reasons: It offends the target population.
The DOD’s military capabilities are already preeminent, and the ASB concept should be viewed as innovation that will maintain this preeminence. But the message must be correctly and consistently delivered to all audiences. In a historically rigid organization like the DOD, the ASB concept is a creative cross-service effort to become more capable and, therefore, effective. In the face of a rapidly changing world with uncertain threats we should we expect no less, but words still matter, and the DOD must get it right.
2. Benjamin Schreer, “STRATEGY, Planning the unthinkable war, ‘AirSea Battle’ and its implications for Australia,” (Australian Strategic Policy Institute, April 2013), 5. Peter Symonds, “Australian think tank outlines US plans for war against China,” 16 April 2013, www.wsws.org/en/articles/2013/04/16/aspi-a16.html. ADM Yang Yi, PLAN (Ret.), “Rebalancing and U.S. China Relations” (Washington DC: Georgetown University, 27 February 2013), http://css.georgetown.edu/story/1242699934597.html.
3. T. X. Hammes, “AirSea Battle Isn’t about China,” The National Interest, 19 October 2012, http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/airsea-battle-isnt-about-china-7627. Douglas Macgregor and Young J. Kim, “Air-Sea Battle: Something’s missing,” Armed Forces Journal, 1 April 2012, www.armedforcesjournal.com/2012/04/9772607/. Huba Wass de Czege, “The inappropriate metaphor,” Armed Forces Journal, 1 September 2012, 28, www.armedforcesjournal.com/2012/09/11226235. Walter C. Ladwig III, “The Best Defense Is Dialogue,” The New York Times, 27 September 2012.
4. Zachary Keck, “Air Sea Battle Under Fire From Congressional Committee,” TheDiplomat.com, 13 June 2013, http://thediplomat.com/flashpoints-blog/2013/06/13/air-sea-battle-under-fire-from-congressional-committee/. David Wroe, “China battle plan raises nuclear fear,” Chính’s news blog, 14 April 2013, http://chinhdangvu.blogspot.com/2013/04/china-battle-plan-raises-nuclear-fear.html. CAPT Philip Dupree, USN, and COL Jordan Thomas, USAF, “Air-Sea Battle: Clearing the Fog,” Armed Forces Journal, 1 June 2012, www.armedforcesjournal.com/2012/06/9955296. Air-Sea Battle Office, “Air-Sea Battle, Service Collaboration to Address Anti-Access & Area Denial Challenges,” May 2013, http://navylive.dodlive.mil/2013/06/03/overview-of-the-air-sea-battle-concept/.
5. John T. Correll, “The Strategy of Desert Storm,” Air Force Magazine, vol. 89, no. 1 (January 2006), 26–33. MAJ Robert J. Pauin, USA, “DESERT STORM: Doctrinal AirLand Battle Success or ‘The American Way of War?’” School of Advanced Military Studies, Second Term AY 98–99, http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA370380.
6. CDR James Stavridis, USN, “A New Air Sea Battle Concept: Integrated Strike Forces,” National War College, May 1992, www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA436862.
7. Andrew Krepinevich, “Why AirSea Battle?” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, February 2010, www.csbaonline.org/publications/2010/02/why-airsea-battle/. Jan van Tol, “AirSea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, May 2010, www.csbaonline.org/publications/2010/05/airsea-battle-concept/.
8. Air-Sea Battle Office, “The Air-Sea Battle Concept Summary, “ Navy.mil, November 2011, www.navy.mil/search/print.asp?story_id=63730&VIRIN=&imagetype=0&page=1.
9. Sam LaGrone, “Pentagon’s ‘Air-Sea Battle’ Plan Explained. Finally,” Danger Room, 6 August 2012, www.wired.com/dangerroom/2012/08/air-sea-battle-2/.
10. Thomas Donilon, “President Obama’s Asia Policy and Upcoming Trip to the Region” (Washington DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 15 November 2012), http://csis.org/files/attachments/121511_Donilon_Statesmens_Forum_TS.pdf.
11. National Intelligence Council, “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds,” December 2012, 106. Multiple think-thank discussions at CNAS with members of said countries and Ambassadorial panel at the Naval Academy Foreign Affairs conference.
12. Michael J. Cole, “The DF-21D or ‘Carrier Killer’: An Instrument of Deception?” TheDiplomat.com, 22 April 2013, http://thediplomat.com/flashpoints-blog/2013/04/22/the-df-21d-or-carrier-killer-an-instrument-of-deception/. Jamil Anderlini and Victor Mallet, “China joins top five arms exporters,” Financial Times, 18 March 2013, www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/c7215936-8f64-11e2-a39b-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2VmA6mUXN. Nuclear Threat Initiative, China country overview, May 2013, www.nti.org/country-profiles/china/.
13. President Barack Obama, “Remarks by President Barack Obama at Town Hall Meeting with Future Chinese Leaders,” Museum of Science and Technology, Shanghai, China, 16 November 2009, www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-barack-obama-town-hall-meeting-with-future-chinese-leaders. Phil Stewart, “China to attend major U.S.-hosted naval exercises, but role limited,” Reuters, 22 March 2013, www.reuters.com/article/2013/03/22/us-usa-china-drill-idUSBRE92L18A20130322.
14. Jose Carreno, Thomas Culora, CAPT George Galdorisi, USN (Ret.) and Thomas Hone, “What’s New About the AirSea Battle Concept?” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 136, no. 8 (August 2010), 52–59.
15. “Background Briefing on Air-Sea Battle by Defense Officials from the Pentagon,” 9 November 2011, www.defense.gov/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=4923.
16. “MDA, USS Lake Erie Sailor Test Aegis BMD System,” navaltoday.com, 13 February 2013, http://navaltoday.com/2013/02/13/mda-uss-lake-erie-sailors-test-aegis-bmd-system/.
17. John Markoff, “Before the Gunfire, Cyberattacks,” The New York Times, 12 August 2008.
18. David Gompert and Terrence Kelly, “Escalation Cause,” Foreign Policy, 2 August 2013, www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/08/02/escalation_cause_air_sea_battle_china.
19. Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., “Glimpse Inside Air-Sea Battle: Nukes, Cyber At Its Heart,” breakingdefense.com, 9 July 2013, http://breakingdefense.com/2013/07/09/glimpse-inside-air-sea-battle-nukes-cyber-at-its-heart/.
20. Amitai Etzioni, “Who Authorized Preparations for War with China?” Yale Journal of International Affairs, Summer 2013, 37–51.
21. ADM Jonathan Greenert, USN, and GEN Mark Welsh, USAF, “Breaking the Kill Chain,” Foreign Policy, 16 May 2013, www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/05/16/breaking_the_kill_chain_air_sea_battle.
22. Michael Raska, “Decoding the Air-Sea Battle Concept: Operational Consequences and Allied Concerns- Analysis,” eurasiareview.com, 28 August 2012, www.eurasiareview.com/28082012-decoding-the-air-sea-battle-concept-operational-consequences-and-allied-concerns-analysis/.