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The Air-Sea Battle Concept: Naming Names

Part 4 of 4

As we noted in the previous Air-Sea Battle Concept (ASBC) post, while not a criticism of documents issued by the Department of Defense (DoD), reading those documents that discuss the anti-access and area-denial challenges, one can come away asking who these nations or threats are that generated the need for a concept like ASB.

Reading those documents that discuss the anti-access and area-denial challenges, one can come away asking who these nations or threats are that generated the need for a concept like ASB.

Independent analysts have been less reticent in naming specific regional adversaries. Notably, two studies by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment (CSBA) highlight the efforts of China and Iran as catalysts behind the Air-Sea Battle Concept. As the first of these studies – Why AirSea Battle, published in 2010 – lays out, both nations are investing in capabilities to “raise precipitously over time – and perhaps prohibitively – the cost to the United States of projecting power into two areas of vital interest: the Western Pacific and the Persian Gulf.” By adopting anti-access/area-denial capabilities, these potential adversaries seek to deny U.S forces the sanctuary of forward bases, hold aircraft carriers and their air wings at risk, and cripple U.S. battle networks. To be effective, ASBC must change that through a combination of capabilities and operational warfighting. If it doesn’t, adversaries will still be able to deny access to U.S. forces.

In its second study, AirSea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept, published later in 2010, CSBA analyzes possible options to counter the A2/AD threat posed by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). First and foremost, CSBA argues, the Air-Sea Battle Concept should help “set the conditions” to retain a favorable military balance in the Western Pacific. By creating credible capabilities to defeat A2/AD threats, the U.S. can enhance stability in the Western Pacific and lower the possibility of escalation by deterring inclinations to challenge the U.S. or coerce regional allies. The study sums it up by noting, “The most important question proponents of the AirSea Battle Concept must answer is whether the concept would help to restore and sustain a stable military balance in the Western Pacific.”

Air-Sea Battle Concept

The mine countermeasures ship USS Gladiator (MCM 11) conducts convoy escort operations with a large natural gas tanker during International Mine Countermeasures Exercise (IMCMEX) 2013, May 21, 2013. IMCMEX 13 included navies from more than 40 countries and exercised a wide spectrum of defensive operations designed to protect international commerce and trade. The Air-Sea Battle Concept doesn’t name names about future anti-access and area-denial challenges, but Iran and her missiles and mines are certainly on any short list. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Bryan Blair

These two CSBA studies provide the specifics on the threat not found in unclassified government publications. They both make compelling reading. But this begs the question, why did it take studies outside of government to identify the threats as what they were and to “name names?” What was going on inside government?

To be fair, the strategic underpinnings of what was to develop into ASB were evolving within DoD over the past two decades since then-Cmdr. James Stavridis wrote his National Defense University thesis, A New Air Sea Battle Concept: Integrated Strike Forces, in May 1992. But for nearly a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. military-strategic planners had little motivation to develop a broad fighting doctrine, and the services had even less incentive to collaborate. But by the early 1990s, analysis by the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment began to examine whether a “dramatic shift in the character of military competitions was underway.” Their prescient conclusion now resonates, as they highlighted the real possibility of the rise of potential challenge from a “peer competitor” (i.e. China), and a “second order challenge from a ‘non-peer’ competitor” (i.e. Iran).

On the heels of the deepest economic crisis since the 1930s, and with staggering federal budget deficits, the age-old “guns versus butter” debate has brought into sharper focus the consistent theme that the U.S. military does not possess – nor will it likely possess in the foreseeable future – the strategic assets needed to deter, and if needed prevail, with a high-end peer competitor like China without better coordination between and among the U.S. military services.

In the 1990s, Pentagon strategists examining the changing nature of warfare were given new impetus by the Congressionally-mandated National Defense Panel (NDP) 1997 report’s conclusions that the “United States must radically alter the way in which we project power.” However, this momentum slowed as the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, dramatically changed the focus of the U.S. military to the exigencies of the global war on terrorism (GWOT).

Air-Sea Battle Concept

Chinese helicopters fly during a demonstration at a People’s Liberation Army aviation base near Beijing, China as U.S. Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visits the base April 24, 2013. China is not mentioned in the Air-Sea Battle Concept, but their military modernization, with a focus on anti-access and area-denial capabilities, certainly is factoring into U.S. military thinking. DoD photo by D. Myles Cullen

But by the end of the first decade of the 21st century, several trends converged that demanded a new focus on an ASBC. One was the Obama administration’s shift in emphasis away from the GWOT and decision to draw down the U.S. commitment to Iraq and Afghanistan on a finite timeline. A second was the startlingly rapid rise of China over the last decade. As the then-Pacific Command Commander, Adm. Robert Willard, noted in Congressional testimony, “Elements of China’s military modernization appear designed to challenge our freedom of action in the region.”

However, perhaps an even more compelling reason for the U.S. military to look for a new way of doing business was the unanticipated economic recession faced by the United States. On the heels of the deepest economic crisis since the 1930s, and with staggering federal budget deficits, the age-old “guns versus butter” debate has brought into sharper focus the consistent theme that the U.S. military does not possess – nor will it likely possess in the foreseeable future – the strategic assets needed to deter, and if needed prevail, with a high-end peer competitor like China without better coordination between and among the U.S. military services. Faced with a rising threat of peer and near-peer competitors with alarming A2/AD capabilities – as well as long-term budget pressures and the concomitant dramatic cuts to the defense budget already under way (with more likely), the ASBC is more than an attempt to “do more with less.” Rather, it is a return to historical precedents when, like today, compelling strategic and operational realities created a perfect storm that compelled U.S. forces to work together in a truly integrated fashion to project power against a determined foe.

Clearly, there are important considerations, political and otherwise, to consider now that the U.S. military is firmly and officially committed to an Air-Sea Battle Concept. U.S. policy toward China has been centered on managing the “peaceful rise” of this emerging peer-competitor across a broad range of political, economic, security and legal issues. Moreover, the U.S. has been careful not to paint China as a threat or engage in activities that could be misconstrued as an arms race or direct military challenge. The development of the ASBC may change this – and the widely-publicized U.S. “Pivot to the Pacific” may well exacerbate it. By actively and publicly planning, training and equipping a joint force to confront even something as benignly described as a “pacing threat,” the U.S. is implicitly challenging China’s military influence in Asia, and that of other countries who benefit from the proliferation of Chinese military systems. It is one thing for the independent thinkers at CSBA to issue a set of reports and conceptual papers on the ASBC, it is another thing for the U.S. military to collaborate on a comprehensive doctrinal, training and acquisition approach to counter PLA systems, doctrine and operational plans.

Air-Sea Battle Concept

Lt. Cmdr. Patrick Salmon, assigned to the Wildcats of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 131, prepares to engage in dissimilar air combat training with a U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor, Nov. 2, 2012. The Air-Sea Battle Concept doesn’t have to name names in order for its central tenet of U.S. military forces working in an integrated fashion to ring true. U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Greg Linderman

That said, it is important to recognize that the ASBC is as much about developing credible combat power and the military doctrine to support it as it is about long term competition. Thus any concept must analyze the impact and strategic costs across the entire spectrum of the DOTMLPF in order to sustain and win the long-term competition with any peer or near-peer state. How this all plays out, and how it all fits together, how U.S. military forces are employed and coordinated, and ultimately how much they cost, will be the essential definition of the Air Sea Battle Concept of the 21st century.

Finally, the jury is still out on all of this. The signposts for how “real” the commitment to ASBC is must be reflected in the POM (Program Objective Memorandum) and the FYDP (Future Years Defense Program). But as CSBA suggested three years ago in Air Sea Battle: A Point of Departure Operational Concept, “The Defense Department’s Program of Record forces and current concepts of operations do not accord sufficient weight to the capabilities needed to successfully execute an AirSea Battle campaign.” How – and how fast – this situation changes will determine the ultimate future of the Air-Sea Battle Concept.

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Captain George Galdorisi is a career naval aviator. He began his writing career in 1978...