September 1, 2011  

Air-Sea Battle

An operational concept looking for a strategy

The Air-Sea Battle concept (ASB) has garnered significant attention since its public offering by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in May 2010. Independent of the CSBA effort, the Defense Department is creating its own version of an Air-Sea Battle operational concept. While these separate efforts have their differences, both focus on how the U.S. should employ air and sea forces to counter anti-access and area-denial challenges from state adversaries, especially China.

Of the myriad concepts floating about, ASB is worth paying attention to because it has gained enough bureaucratic heft to prompt the Pentagon to consider establishment of a joint program office. Congress has already begun asking service representatives how resourcing decisions have been shaped by ASB. So, there will be real consequences from ASB conceptual efforts.

ASB will influence where the Pentagon spends its money, and in these challenging budget times, this will affect all elements of the Defense Department, given the zero-sum nature of the current budgeting process. Perhaps surprisingly, in a town like Washington and in a building like the Pentagon where money talks, this may not even be the most significant implication of the ASB concept. If fully realized, ASB will shape our strategic relationship with China in ways inadequately appreciated by its advocates. ASB will be so expensive to implement that it will require the Defense Department to optimize for long-range precision strike, much the way it optimized itself for Mutually Assured Destruction in the early 1950s — a brittle force structure ill-suited for the messy interplay of international competition and conflict short of thermonuclear war.

Army Col. Gian Gentile, writing in Infinity Journal, expresses similar concerns about the impact of optimizing the Defense Department for counterinsurgency operations — in other words, optimizing for the opposite end of the spectrum recommended by ASB. The logic of the criticism is the same, nonetheless, since optimizing forces for an uncertain future is a prescription for getting it badly wrong. Gentile argues that counterinsurgency has become a “strategy of tactics.” He explains that when nations “allow the actual doing of war — its tactics — to bury strategy or blinker strategic thinking,” it leads to disaster, such as in Nazi Germany, where the German Army’s tactical excellence in Blitzkrieg could not rescue the regime from its fundamentally flawed strategy.

It is possible that, like Blitzkrieg, the U.S. could prevail in the tactics and operational art of ASB and still suffer strategic defeat.

So what’s the rub specifically? ASB initially was conceived as a way to increase interoperability between the Air Force and Navy through increased training and improved technical interoperability. Given the overlaps in their strike capabilities, especially in aircraft, it makes perfect sense for the two most technical services to work closely to ensure interoperability. But like its progenitor, AirLand Battle, ASB has progressed to an operational concept to address a specific military problem. While AirLand Battle was conceived to counter the Soviet Union, Air-Sea Battle is billed as the answer to growing anti-access/area-denial capabilities generically, but as everyone knows, specifically China.

AirLand Battle and ASB are different in that AirLand required the integration and interoperability of two distinct domains, ground and air. Because of the overlap between Air Force and Navy in strike assets, and because ASB is focused on strike (kinetic, electronic, cyber), the integration required for ASB is far more limited than that required for AirLand Battle. Additionally, ASB assumes a confrontation between two great powers can be resolved with only half the nation’s military assets. It is the first conception, since early advocates of nuclear warfare, that envisions no or extremely limited use of ground forces. This has no precedent in the history of conventional warfare and should in itself give one pause.

AirLand Battle posited an asymmetric approach in relation to the Soviet Union. AirLand would attack all echelons of the Soviet force with aviation and long-range fires because NATO was badly outnumbered on the ground. In contrast, ASB is symmetrical, pitting U.S. precision strike against Chinese precision strike. Since ASB is by definition an away game, how can we build sufficient expeditionary naval and air forces to counter Chinese forces that possess a home-court advantage? Is it prudent to expect the weapon magazines of an entire industrial nation to be smaller than those of our Navy and Air Force deployed more than 3,000 miles from home? What happens when the vertical launch systems of our ships and the bomb bays of our aircraft are empty?

From a strike perspective, we must consider China’s ground-based strike and intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance systems a seamless extension of its navy. We cannot simply compare its navy to our Navy; we must compare all relevant combat power applicable to an anti-access/area-denial fight. Just on the face of it, we should recognize the need for an asymmetric approach to counter China’s growing capability. We simply can’t afford to outgun China symmetrically.

ASB’s symmetrical approach is also highly escalatory given China’s shore-based “fleet in being. “ We cannot close our naval and tactical air forces into theater without striking the Chinese mainland. Surely, given the nuclear weapons China possesses and its growing irregular warfare and economic assets, we should question very seriously any operational concept that requires extensive strikes on the Chinese mainland.

There are alternatives, after all. China is surrounded by littoral nations interested in balancing China’s new assertiveness. We should look for ways to establish co-binding relationships with these nations to assure sovereign access to the region beyond the more easily challenged access to the commons. The threshold for China to strike these sovereign nations is certainly higher than the threshold to attack our warships in the commons. We should make use of this advantage by encouraging the use of “dual use” infrastructure that would improve their port facilities for commerce but would also facilitate the use of these ports for basing or periodic use by our sealift and combatant naval forces. For example, a large, medium-speed, roll-on/roll-off ship from a maritime prepositioning squadron would show commitment while offering tangible benefits for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions in the host country or the region.


A military confrontation with China would be the biggest national security challenge since World War II, yet ASB advocates suggest it can be handled by just two of the four services. To the outside observer, this is astonishing; to the insider skeptic, it is absurd. Many ASB advocates I have talked with or have heard speak on the subject follow the logic that we will never conduct a land war in China, therefore long-range precision strike is the only practical alternative. What is missed in this line of thinking is that there are other, more fundamental choices that also don’t require a land war in China. It would appear there is an unstated assumption by many that conflict with China must include a race across the Pacific to defend Taiwan; many war games over the past decades have solidified this point of view. Unfortunately, this assumption is outdated. Chinese capabilities now, but especially 10 years from now, simply preclude a rush to Taiwan and would require a very deliberate campaign similar to that described in the aforementioned CSBA report to gain access. Without ground forces and with limited magazine capacities, what happens once we get there? What now, lieutenant?

A few questions can help elucidate some of the most glaring ASB fallacies. If we are concerned by the costs and escalatory aspects of a land war, why are substantial precision strikes on the mainland less costly and less escalatory than using ground forces in peripheral areas, key choke points or the Indian Ocean to control vital Chinese sea lines of communication? Why must we be so conventional and symmetrical?

Another alternative to deter or shape a confrontation would be to use ground forces to backstop regional allies. This would be far less escalatory than placing vulnerable surface combatants into a kill zone, where the threshold for a Chinese strike would be significantly lower for attacking a surface combatant in the commons than a ground force in the sovereign territory of a neighbor.

Even more fundamentally, we should certainly think hard before entering a shooting war with China. We would likely ask the same question Caspar Weinberger and Colin Powell recommended we ask: Is a vital national security interest threatened? An additional question might be warranted as well: Is the challenge serious enough to warrant the application of the full range of conventional and special operations forces? If the answer is no, then it is unlikely the issue is of vital national interest and we should find alternative means of resolution.

ASB is essentially “shock and awe” expanded from an opening act to a complete campaign approach. We should work to improve Navy and Air Force interoperability through increased training and experimentation, but as with many bureaucratic initiatives, ASB has escaped its banks and threatens to unduly influence the composition of the joint force and distort critical relations with an essential trading partner by solidifying a symmetrical arms race we are structurally committed to losing. We need to put ASB back in its tactical riverbed and develop a more comprehensive and winnable strategy for dealing with peer and near-peer competitors. AFJ

J. NOEL WILLIAMS is a retired Marine Corps officer and a graduate of the USMC School of Advanced Warfighting. He currently provides strategy, policy and budgetary analysis support to Headquarters, Marine Corps. The views expressed here are the author’s own.