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The Air-Sea Battle Concept: New Strategy for a New Era

Part 1 of 4

The Secretary of Defense recently released the long-awaited document, Air-Sea Battle: Service Collaboration to Address Anti-Access & Area Denial Challenges. Issued by the OSD Air-Sea Battle Office, which was created and staffed up with substantial fanfare last year, this document is the first unclassified, official document detailing how the United States will deal with extant and emerginganti-access & area denial (A2/AD) challenges.

The Air-Sea Battle Concept, modeled after the Army-Air Force Air Land Battle Doctrine of a previous generation, has been heralded by some as the answer to compelling strategic and operational challenges facing the U.S. military today.

There has been some criticism in the defense media that OSD has taken this long to issue Air-Sea Battle. However, given the classified nature of most military plans and operations, creating an unclassified paper that fairly summarizes the intent of classified documents is not a trivial undertaking. The cover of Air-Sea Battle conveys this clearly: “This document is an unclassified summary of the classified Air-Sea Battle Concept, version 9.0, dated May 12 and the Air-Sea Battle Master Implementation Plan (FY13), dated Sept. 12.”

The cover of this short (13-page) paper reveals more. While the most prominent image on the cover is a futuristic looking logo of OSD’s Air-Sea Battle Office, above this logo, the seals of the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force are prominently displayed – in that order. This is important and instructive as there has been intense discussion and dialogue in the defense – and open – media that Air-Sea Battle was “all about the Navy and the Air Force,” or worse, merely “a strategy by the Navy and Air Force to garner a bigger slice of the defense budget.”

Air-Sea Battle: Service Collaboration to Address Anti-Access & Area Denial Challenges

The cover of Air-Sea Battle: Service Collaboration to Address Anti-Access & Area Denial Challenges underscores how challenging it is to create a unclassified paper that summarizes a classified one.

It is therefore important to put aside this rhetoric for a moment and consider what Air-Sea Battle: Service Collaboration to Address Anti-Access & Area Denial Challenges actually says. As one defense commentator put it: “Like the Holy Trinity or the designated hitter rule, the concept known as AirSea Battle has been much discussed but little understood.” Said another way, there has been vastly more heat than light regarding the Air-Sea Battle Concept, even though the notion was first proposed over two decades ago by then-Cmndr. James Stavridis (most recently the United States European Commander and Supreme Allied Commander Europe and now the prospective dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy). In his May 1992 National Defense University thesis, A New Air Sea Battle Concept: Integrated Strike Forces, he wrote, “We need an air sea battle concept centered on an immediately deployable, highly capable, and fully integrated force – an Integrated Strike Force.”

As much as one document can, Air-Sea Battle: Service Collaboration to Address Anti-Access & Area Denial Challenges does, indeed, light a candle in the darkness and help explain the details of this important concept. Importantly, this manuscript also shows where Air-Sea Battle fits in the panoply of high-level United States strategic documents. A diagram of page 7 of the paper shows how this Air-Sea Battle Concept “flows” down from higher-level documents.

Not surprisingly, this diagram depicts the 2012 Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense (otherwise known as the Defense Strategic Guidance) at the top. Flowing down from this are the Capstone Concept for Joint Operations and Joint Vision 2020. Next, is the Joint Operational Access Concept – the JOAC – and flowing down from the JOAC are Air-Sea Battle and the  Joint Concept for Entry Operations. Perhaps the most important linkage here is between the JOAC and ASB. As Air-Sea Battle: Service Collaboration to Address Anti-Access & Area Denial Challenges clearly states: “At the next level, ASB supports JOAC by identifying more specific means and requirements by which the joint force may defeat those adversary threats in order to maintain freedom of action in the global commons.”

Air-Sea Battle Concept

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert speaks to Navy and Air Force officers, faculty and staff during an all-hands call at the Air War College on Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., Feb. 22, 2013. During the visit, Greenert discussed the current and future status of the Navy, new surface platforms being integrated into the fleet and the importance of Air War College in shaping future military minds with greater perspective of the Air-Sea Battle strategy. The Air-Sea Battle Concept is the latest attempt by the Department of Defense to meet future threats. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Peter D. Lawlor

With that as preamble, we can delve into Air-Sea Battle and begin to understand why the Department of Defense felt the need to issue yet another document given the sea of high-level strategic documents. The foreword of Air-Sea Battle is perhaps the most instructive paragraph and explains the why behind it:

From its inception, the U.S. military has continuously adapted itself to meet evolving threats. At its core, the Air-Sea Battle (ASB) concept is about reducing risk and maintaining U.S. freedom of action and reflects the services’ most recent efforts to improve U.S. capabilities. Similar to previous efforts, the concept seeks to better integrate the services in new and creative ways. It is a natural and deliberate evolution of U.S. power projection and a key support component of U.S. national security strategy for the 21st century.

Given the subtitle of Air-Sea Battle: Service Collaboration to Address Anti-Access & Area Denial Challenges, let alone the intense discourse about the terms anti-access & area denial (A2/AD), this publication defines these terms for the first time in a widely-distributed official OSD document. It notes:

  • ANTI-ACCESS (A2) [is] Action intended to slow deployment of friendly forces into a theater or cause forces to operate from distances farther from the locus of conflict than they would otherwise prefer. A2 affects movement to a theater.
  • AREA-DENIAL (AD) [is] Action intended to impede friendly operations within areas where an adversary cannot or will not prevent access. AD affects maneuver within a theater.

The Air-Sea Battle Concept, modeled after the Army-Air Force Air Land Battle Doctrine of a previous generation, has been heralded by some as the answer to compelling strategic and operational challenges facing the U.S. military today. Air-land battle was developed in the 1970s and 1980s to counter a Soviet backed combined arms attack in Europe. A key component of air-land battle was the degradation of rear echelon forces before they could engage allied forces. This mission was largely assigned to the Air Force and led to unprecedented coordination between the Army and Air Force.

Air-Sea Battle Concept

A U.S. Air Force F-16C Fighting Falcon leads a formation of F-15 Eagles and F-22 Raptors as they fly in formation over the aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73) sailing through the Sea of Japan, July 27, 2010. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Charles Oki

The ASB concept is similarly designed to attack-in-depth, but instead of focusing on the land domain from the air, the concept describes integrated operations across all five domains (air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace) to create advantage. The ASB concept further differentiates itself from its predecessor in that the ASB concept also strives to protect our rear echelon across the same domains. This defensive aspect of ASB helps the Joint Force reduce risk in the face of increasingly longer range and more precise weapons that could affect U.S. space-based platforms, land forces, airbases, capital ships, and network infrastructure. The ASB concept is a limited but critical component in a spectrum of initiatives aimed at shaping the security environment. Similar to other concepts, ASB makes important contributions in both peace and war. The improved combat capabilities advocated by the concept may help shape the decision calculus of potential aggressors.

But to more fully grasp the Air-Sea Battle Concept we need to understand why it took so long to evolve after then-Cmdr. Jim Stavridis first teed up the concept over 21 years ago and why – and how – at the end of the last decade, the Air-Sea Battle Concept finally gained traction and took off on the rapid trajectory to the point where it is so important in the middle of 2013.

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