May 1, 2012  

Air-Sea Battle: Clearing the Fog

The goal is to ensure all forces can get to the fight

Recent articles about Air-Sea Battle reflect misperceptions about this new operational concept. These may have been fostered by the fact that portions of the concept document are classified. In any event, we — the service leads in the multiservice ASB office — would like to correct them.

Let us say at the outset what Air-Sea Battle is not. It is not a strategy, it is not designed to threaten other nations and it is not just the manifestation of traditional joint operations.

Perhaps the most troubling misperception is that ASB is only about air and naval forces, that it ignores the land component. To the contrary: It is an operating concept that seeks to assure, in the face of rising technological challenges, that all components of U.S. and allied forces can be brought to bear as deemed necessary.

In 2009, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates directed the departments of the Navy and the Air Force to develop a concept to counter emerging anti-access/area-denial challenges, known as A2/AD. Last year, the departments responded to Gates’ directive with the Air-Sea Battle concept. In October, Gates’ successor, Leon Panetta, formally endorsed the effort.

It should be noted that ASB is one of several supporting concepts nested under the Joint Operational Access Concept approved by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Both concepts will be complemented by the Joint Concept for Entry Operations, now in early development, which will be more primarily concerned with land forces.


We can define anti-access capabilities as ones that slow deployment of friendly forces into a theater, prevent them from operating from certain locations within that theater or cause them to operate over longer distances than they would like. Area-denial efforts are those that reduce friendly forces’ freedom of action in the more narrow confines of the area under the enemy’s direct control.

Such problems are not new. During World War II, for example, Imperial Japan possessed robust A2/AD capabilities in the form of air forces, surface fleets, submarine forces, naval minelayers and air defenses. All had to be overcome by U.S. and Allied air and naval forces to make effective power projection possible.

More recent adversaries have been largely unable to mount anti-access capabilities. During our operations over the last 20 years in the Middle East and Central Asia, our air superiority and sea control were not challenged in any meaningful way outside of adversaries’ national airspace and littoral waters.

In the future, we are less likely to be so fortunate. Several decades of U.S. dominance have not blinded potential enemies to the value of A2/AD concepts. The ability to strike at incoming forces far beyond a nation’s borders promises a powerful asymmetric challenge to the U.S. military, which since the Cold War has developed the means and the methods “to rapidly deliver combat power whenever and wherever U.S. strategy required,” as Gen. Norton Schwartz and Adm. Jon Greenert wrote in a recent article. “Potential adversaries were clearly mindful of this transformation,” the chief of staff of the Air Force and the chief of naval operations wrote in “Air-Sea Battle: Promoting Stability in an Era of Uncertainty” (The American Interest, Feb. 20). “They observed the inability of Soviet-era doctrine and weapons to blunt American power and reconsidered their approach to resisting U.S. military intervention. Competitors with the will and means gradually shifted from planning to fight American forces when they arrived and instead focused on denying U.S. access to the theater.”

The emergence of A2/AD as a major concern is due to the proliferation of technology that places precise, long-range fires in the hands of potential foes. Such weapons include ballistic and cruise missiles, integrated air defense systems, anti-ship missiles, submarines, guided rockets, missiles and artillery, 4th- and 5th-generation combat aircraft — even space and cyberwarfare capabilities.

If left unchecked, these could allow adversaries to challenge joint and coalition forces in the global commons: those areas of air, sea, space and cyberspace shared by all nations and used for commerce, transportation, communication and trade. Since credible U.S. power projection is a fundamental pillar of regional stability, even the perception of a slipping ability to gain access to the global commons without resorting to the threat of invasion or other escalation is a sign of strategic weakness that can lead to regional instability.

A ‘Pre-Integrated’ Joint Force

For decades, the primary asymmetrical advantage underwriting U.S. and allied power projection has been superior technology and the commensurate development of tactics, techniques and procedures, or TTPs. When adversaries can counter U.S. advantages with their own asymmetric capabilities, our best response lies in better integration and more flexible capabilities.

Accordingly, the central idea of ASB is an unprecedented level of joint integration leading to air and naval forces that can launch networked, integrated attacks-in-depth to disrupt, destroy and defeat an adversary’s A2/AD capabilities.

At its core, ASB seeks a “pre-integrated” joint force that possesses habitual relationships, interoperable and complementary cross-domain capabilities, and realistic, shared training, while retaining the flexibility to develop new TTPs on the fly. Such forces will provide the strategic deterrence, assurance and stabilizing effects of a “force in being” and will also be operationally useful at the outset of hostilities, without delays for buildups and extensive mission rehearsal. Moreover, they will ensure that a joint force commander has a full range of options when facing an adversary with an A2/AD capability.

Another way to put this is that ASB seeks to preserve U.S. and allied air-sea-space superiority. It is this level of domain control that unlocks a land force’s deterrent and war-fighting potential. If air and naval forces cannot establish control of the air, space, cyberspace and maritime environments, or if they cannot sustain deployed forces, no operational concept is tenable. If ground forces cannot get to the fight or be sustained in an advanced A2/AD environment, they will fail to serve the vital interests of America, our allies and the international system.

We may have developed a blind spot to this perennial truth, mainly because U.S. and allied forces have enjoyed uncontested freedom of action in the air, sea and space domains for more than a generation. Some who write about conflict in contested areas seem to assume future adversaries will not effectively oppose deployment and sustainment of ground, air or naval forces. That has been largely true over the past two decades, but will not be guaranteed in the future. Against advanced adversaries, freedom of action cannot be taken for granted.


Perhaps the best way to understand the value of the ASB concept is to imagine a future where its integrated air and naval capabilities and capacity do not exist.

In such a future, attempts to use the familiar expeditionary model of massing combat power — the so-called “iron mountain” — at a handful of main operating bases to conduct extensive mission rehearsal and subsequently seize the initiative at a time and place of the Joint Force commander’s choosing, may not be feasible. Advanced adversaries could deny secure U.S. land basing at very long ranges, preventing air and naval forces from gaining local air superiority. Sea basing could also be challenged and attempts at ad hoc integration may be insufficient. Enemy capabilities could prevent surface action groups from operating at effective ranges and sea control may therefore be untenable. Space and cyberspace access would not be assured, and global communications and the exchange of information could be held hostage by any motivated aggressor.

Without freedom of action in the air, sea and space provided by integrated air and naval forces, aggressive nations with proliferated A2/AD capabilities could restrict or close off international airspace and vital sea lanes at will. Joint forces attempting to undo such aggression would face robust area denial threats and be required to operate in a heavily contested environment.

Lacking the networked, integrated force required to prevail in such conditions, U.S. and allied forces may not be able to prevent the undermining of the interconnected international systems of finance, trade, security and law enabled by access to the global commons. The loss of a secure global commons could weaken alliances, partnerships and the rule of law, and could force other nations to accommodate regional hegemons and make the world permanently less free. In this future, it would not matter how capable any ground assault forces are because, without freedom of action in the global commons, the joint force could not credibly deploy and sustain them.


Air-Sea Battle seeks a better future — one that employs teamwork between air and naval forces to maintain U.S. superiority in the air, space and cyberspace, and at sea, at an acceptable cost, allowing the joint force to shape future A2/AD environments, deter other nations from threatening the global commons, and use all service and joint competencies to defeat a capable A2/AD adversary when necessary.

Though it is meant to facilitate all courses of action, the concept itself is not provocative. Instead, it is designed to produce forces that are more likely to have a stabilizing effect, making a major war less likely. ASB air and naval forces will allow the U.S. and its allies to avoid relying on more escalatory capabilities that existentially threaten another nation or its leadership (e.g., nuclear escalation or threat of invasion), or involve alternatives that are inherently defensive and less likely to deter adventurism and regional coercion (e.g., ceding the commons and relying on blockades and offensive mining).

In some cases, the commander might use such air and naval forces to deter potential adversaries; assure allies, friends and partners; and keep the global commons open and accessible to all. In other situations, he or she may need to use the freedom of action provided through ASB for strike operations, forcible entry or other methods of power projection.

Development of forces with this level of integration and capability will require years of effort and significant institutional change. This change has begun in the departments of the Navy and Air Force; the CNO and CSAF have written: “The Air-Sea Battle operational concept will guide our efforts to train and prepare air and naval forces for combat. We already train together and share joint doctrine. Under Air-Sea Battle, we will take ‘jointness’ to a new level, working together to establish more integrated exercises against more realistic threats.”

In an ever-changing world that demands continued U.S. leadership, concepts like Air-Sea Battle are essential to sustaining America’s military freedom of action and ability to project power. AFJ