In an article in Foreign Policy in October 2012, “100% Right 0% of the Time,” Micah Zenko quoted Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta as he described Pentagon priorities in an era of reduced defense spending and a leaner military, with Panetta noting, “We’ve got to focus on where the main threats are. That means we continue a major focus on the Pacific region and we continue a major focus on the Middle East, because that’s where the potential problems are for the future.” As much as any short phrase can, this sums up the United States’ strategic focus for the next decade – and likely decades hence.
But while much has been written about the nation’s strategic focus that parallels the secretary’s statement above, less has been written about how America’s armed forces will operationalize this strategic focus. One of the most widely discussed concepts, in these pages and elsewhere, is one that has seemingly emerged out of nowhere, the Air-Sea Battle Concept (ASBC) (see, for example, Otto Kreisher’s “Resourcing the Air-Sea Battle Concept” in the 2011 Year in Defense for a detailed articled on ASBC). But there is far more heat than light on this important concept. Further, where missile defense and especially Navy missile defense embodied in Aegis BMD fit into this emerging concept remains opaque to many.
Just What Is the Air-Sea Battle Concept?
The national – and by way of focus, Navy/Air Force – 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. This new strategy is designed to enable the United States to deal with compelling worldwide challenges, including substantial challenges posed by near-peer competitors. The nascent, underlying thesis behind this concept was developed two decades ago and articulated by then-Cmdr. James Stavridis in a prescient thesis, A New Air Sea Battle Concept: Integrated Strike Forces, written at the National Defense University. Stavridis noted: “We need an air sea battle concept centered on an immediately deployable, highly capable, and fully integrated force – an Integrated Strike Force.”
As this quote, by the current U.S. European combatant commander suggests, neither the term “Air-Sea Battle Concept” nor the concept itself are brand new. Rather, this integration of sea and air forces has roots that extend back over half a century. An early example of an ASBC occurred during the Battle of the Atlantic campaign to defeat German U-boats. While the Air-Sea Battle Concept has many antecedents in U.S. military history (For an excellent primer on today’s Air-Sea Battle Concept and its antecedents, see Jose Carreno et al., “What’s New About the Air-Sea Battle Concept?” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, August 2010), the recent, A2/AD threat, and especially the compelling ballistic missile threat, most prominently by China and Iran, has revived this concept and given it new emphasis.
While official Department of Defense (DoD) documents on this ASBC concept are still being developed, two Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) studies address this concept in great detail. (See Andrew Krepinevich, Why AirSea Battle? and Jan Van Tol, et al, AirSea Battle: A Point of Departure Operational Concept for two 2010 studies that remain the sine qua non of detailed descriptions of this concept.) A key assumption underpinning the ASBC is that without better coordination between and among the U.S. military services, especially the Navy and the Air Force, U.S. military forces will not fare well in a conflict with a peer or near-peer competitor in the Western Pacific or the Arabian Gulf.
New Emphasis on ASBC
After months of teasers and speculation in defense journals and conferences, the release of the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) provided greater clarity on the rationale behind the ASBC. As part of its guidance to rebalance the force, the QDR directed the development of the Air-Sea Battle Concept in order to:
Defeat adversaries across the range of military operations, including adversaries equipped with sophisticated anti-access and area denial capabilities. The concept will address how air and naval forces will integrate capabilities across all operational domains – air, sea, land, space, and cyberspace – to counter growing challenges to U.S. freedom of action.
While the QDR discussed the threat to the United States in general terms, independent analysts have been less reticent in naming specific regional adversaries. The two CSBA studies mentioned above highlight the growing military capabilities of China and Iran as catalysts behind the Air-Sea Battle Concept. As the first of these studies 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. In other words, strike at the weak point of U.S. power projection capability. 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, 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 AirSea Battle Concept should help “set the conditions” to retain a favorable military balance in the Western Pacific. As this study notes, 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. Air Sea Battle: A Point of Departure Operational Concept 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.”
The precise nature of the ASBC will not be known until Pentagon planners complete their work, and that work is well-underway as DoD has formally stood up an Air-Sea Battle Office and Air Force and Navy planners are working to operationalize this concept. But based on the broad outlines of the CSBA’s Point-of-Departure Operational Concept study, it is likely that in the initial stages of hostilities, the U.S. would need to withstand an initial attack and limit damage to U.S. and allied forces while executing a blinding campaign against the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) battle networks. Failing deterrence, the ASBC assumes that a conflict with China would involve a protracted campaign where U.S.-led forces would then sustain and exploit the initiative in various domains, conduct distant blockade operations against ships bound for China, maintain operational logistics, and ramp up industrial production of needed hardware, especially precision-guided munitions. However, it is important to note that in a shorter – perhaps more likely – conflict, blockade, logistics, and procurement will have minimal impact on the outcome.
Few strategic concepts have gained as much currency, as rapidly, as the ASBC. A March 2012 piece in The Diplomat by Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Readiness Subcommittee, and co-chairman of the Congressional China Caucus, highlighted the importance of the Air-Sea Battle Concept this way:
In the late summer of 2011, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta signed the Air-Sea Battle (ASB) Operational Concept into effect, and shortly thereafter stood up the Air-Sea Battle Office at the Pentagon to help implement its core tenets. This effort, according to General Norton A. Schwartz, Chief of Staff of the Air Force and Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, will help the services better organize, train and equip themselves to provide U.S. Combatant Commanders with the capabilities necessary to maintain operational access in sophisticated anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) environments.
While some appear to want to “talk around” the United States and China becoming embroiled in some sort of military stand-off (for a recent “on-point” piece on this issue, see, T.X. Hammes’ October 2012 article, “AirSea Battle Isn’t About China,” in The National Interest), as Naval War College professor James Holmes pointed out in an August 2012 article in The Diplomat:
It’s not because a U.S.-China war is fated, but because of expediency. Military planners are negligent if they don’t plan against the toughest challenge elected leaders may order them to face. For instance, the U.S. Navy planned for war with Britain’s Royal Navy well into the interwar years. No one wanted or expected an Anglo-American conflict, but the Royal Navy remained the gold standard for naval power. It only made sense for the U.S. Navy to measure itself against the most exacting standard available while hedging against the unexpected.And the evidence suggests that this ASBC will, indeed, continue to gain traction throughout the U.S. military. Speaking at the U.S. Air Force Academy graduation and commissioning ceremony, then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen noted, “The ASBC is a prime example of how we need to keep breaking down stovepipes between services, between federal agencies, and even between nations.”
More recently, the Air Force and the Navy have begun to speak publicly about the A2/AD challenge and how they intend to implement the ASBC. This has occurred within the context inter-service initiatives to operationalize the nation’s strategic shift, such as Navy/Air Force implementation of the Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC) and the companion Air-Sea Battle Concept. These have been highlighted in professional journals, perhaps most notably in an article co-authored by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz and Navy Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert in The American Interest in February 2012.
The U.S. Navy Focus on ASBC
Greenert gave the Air-Sea Battle Concept a prominent place in his December 2011 U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings article, “Navy 2025: Forward Warfighters,” where he noted, “Over the next decade naval and air forces will implement the new AirSea Battle Concept and put in place the tactics, procedures, and systems of this innovative approach to the A2/AD challenge.”
More recently, in a mid-2012 article in Joint Forces Quarterly, Greenert emphasized the JOAC and the A2/AD challenge when he noted:
The new defense strategic guidance emphasizes the need to assure access to the global commons and retain the ability to project power despite threats to access. The new Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC) highlights the importance of forward operations to access for the joint force, stating, “Geography, particularly distance, arguably determines the access challenge more than any other factor, as military power has tended to degrade over distance.” By operating forward we mitigate the tyranny of distance and improve our ability to assure access. Partnerships also figure prominently in assuring joint access per the JOAC.
The fiscal and programmatic realities are “catching up” with this concept in a way that facilitates the DoD’s – and especially the Air Force and Navy’s – ability to operationalize it. But as the AirSea Battle: A Point of Departure Operational Concept notes, more needs to be done. As this study points out, “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.” However much is being done to instantiate this concept, especially in the area of ballistic missile defense.
Aegis BMD as a Component Supporting the ASBC
ASBC is as much about developing credible combat power and the military doctrine to support it as it is about long-term competition. Ultimately, ASBC must be more than simply a sharing of assets or cooperation for its own sake. It must integrate unique sets of capabilities from both services to create real synergistic effects that neither service can accomplish individually. And given the multiple components of the threat from China and Iran discussed previously, it is clear that Aegis BMD is an important component of this capability.
The compelling threat of ballistic missiles from potential adversaries – especially China and Iran – mandated that the 2010 QDR address how the United States would deal with these deadly threats. The answer was the ASBC, designed to provide the United States with the capability to begin to address the threat posed by these potential adversaries across a wide range of military capabilities, one of them, their ability to target U.S. Navy ships with anti-ship ballistic missiles.
And as evidence of how briskly the Navy is moving out with ballistic missile defense mounts, it is clear that Aegis BMD will be an increasingly important component of the ASBC. For example, since 2004, six or more Aegis BMD ships have been at sea at any given time. Of the 20 ships in 2011, 16 were assigned to the Pacific Fleet to face the immediate challenge of North Korean ballistic missiles. The other four were in the Atlantic. Plans ultimately call for Aegis BMD capability in all 22 Aegis cruisers and 65 or more Aegis destroyers. In 2005, the destroyer Curtis Wilbur conducted the world’s first BMD patrol in the Sea of Japan; 10 months later she found herself monitoring a major North Korean ballistic missile test, including long-range missiles.
And to understand a bit more about how Aegis BMD will continue to support U.S. strategic interests and especially the ASBC, it is important to look “under the hood” at the Aegis system and Aegis BMD to more-fully understand what this system brings to the warfighting table.