Air-Sea Battle: Mind Over Muscle

7 Aug

Air_Sea_Battle_cover.jpg “Air-Sea Battle” sounds like a video game – and it actually was. Sam LaGrone purports to know what the U.S. Defense Department thinks ASB is – and it’s not about China. Really.

From a dozen conversations over the last nine months with defense officials, other reporters and gangs of think tankers here’s the best analogy I can come up with: ASB is a help desk for 21st Century warfare.

The ASB office is staffed with people who understand the capabilities of the Pentagon’s arsenal in intimate and exhaustive detail. Armed with that information, the ASB staff can concoct a solution for field commanders to coordinate against threats, be it against threats in the South China Sea, Strait of Hormuz or any other scenario on the planet.

Here’s an example: During 2011′s Operation Odyssey Dawn – the attack on Libya – ships in the port of Misrata were being fired on by regime loyalist small boat swarms and by a coastal patrol craft. Air controllers on the nearby destroyer U.S.S. Barry scrambled the nearest aircrafts with any capability to deal with the threat. Those were a P-3C Orion sub hunter and a tank killing A-10 Thunderbolt II. It’s difficult to pick any two aircraft in the U.S. arsenal less likely to work in tandem. The P-3C is an aircraft that mostly acts as a reconnaissance platform on the open ocean geared toward detecting and killing submarines. It can be fitted with ground attack Maverick missiles, which are almost never used. The A-10 was built as a Soviet tank killer and until Misrata had never been used for fighting on water.

Controlled from the Barry, the pair quickly fought off the threat, likely without the benefit of the tactical data links common in most fighters.

The ASB office wasn’t involved in the Libya op. But the highly unorthodox Misrata air attack reflects what ASB will eventually do: fix the problem in front of you with the tools you have on hand or can get quickly.

But, just disregard the eleven times the author uses “China” or “Chinese” in the article – and all the other times the name of the country whose name cannot be uttered unless praised in any other article on ASB.

Admiral Jonathan Greenert took a thwack at ASB at a Brookings event on June 20, 2012, and Greenert, the Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations, knows how to avoid saying “China”.

Strategically, Air-Sea Battle can help us deter adversaries, reassure our partners and allies by demonstrating the ability to honor our security commitments and to be able to act worldwide for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. It’s a spectrum of values.

It’s not about a particular country, as General Schwartz indicated. Anti-access area denial is proliferating. The Arctic is opening is an example. Climate changes take place around the world and we have to get where we need to get in order to act, to provide the effects that we’re asked to do.

Operationally, Air-Sea Battle provides us the ways and means to assure access. Some argue that look, we’re not going to fight those kinds of wars anymore in the future, but it’s not always a big war scenario. It might merely be a contingency. And it’s not always about conflict.

There are some natural or nature born or originated anti-access area denial that are a growing concern; earthquakes, the far north, fires on the West Coast, if you remember that. We had to get in there and it wasn’t easy to find those sources. And a nuclear disaster that about a year plus ago we had to figure out how to get to the source of this problem. And we were being denied that.

Institutionally, the integration between the Air Force and the Navy staffs is a great opportunity. We need to gain efficiencies, build appropriate redundancy where it makes sense, and the means by which it will preclude an advisory from finding the one way to develop a solution to preclude or to enable them to provide that anti-access and area denial.

Now the how. The Air-Sea Battle leverages the enduring U.S. advantages that we know well, especially in our two services; the initiatives and skill of our sailors and our airmen, the value that we have under the sea, the ability under the sea, the stealth, the global reach, the cyber capability, and the advantage we have in our networks and networking capabilities.

The central idea here, ladies and gentlemen, is a tightly coordinated operation across warfare domains. Air supporting land in the Cold War, General Schwartz mentioned it and Pete mentioned it in the opening, that was there and some of that is in our current plans. It’s maritime supporting the land, which took place in World War II, it took place in the Korea conflict, in the West Coast operations, and in amphibious operations.

Electronic warfare supporting air in suppressing air defenses took place in Libya, jamming. These examples, though, either were put together in the past sort of ad hoc or they were included as part of a particular operational plan; not really part of the concept of operations. And it’s really taken what we have and adjusting is what we did in the past.

What we’d like to do is make this cross-domain operation more an assumption for the future. We’ll build the concept of operations so that as we organize, as we train, as we equip and do operations in the future we’ll think about electronic warfare defeating radars to protect surface and air operations.

We’ll talk about submarines defeating air defenses, maybe kinetically and maybe non-kinetically, cyber attack against command and control needs to enable air and surface operations or stealth global strike on an anti-air warfare destroyer to enable air ops. There’s a whole panoply of it. The idea is to broaden the aperture in these and make that the standard approach as we think about the concepts of the future.

To do this we’re going to need real time coordination across these domains. We do this now, as threats improve, tighter coordination will be needed in the future. One example is we’ve got to be faster thinking about anything from an anti ship cruise missile, the faster coordination of electronic warfare kill, a non-kinetic kill.

Today our maritime component commander and our air component commander, sometimes they come together at the headquarters, at the task force headquarters. We need to think about that and see if there isn’t a faster way to do that.


Air-sea battle uses integrated forces for what we like to think as three main lines of effort. It’s integrated operations across domains to complete, as I said, our kill chain, but it’s also Air-Sea Battle lines of effort to break the adversary’s kill or effects chain. We want to disrupt the C4ISR piece of it; decision superiority.

It may be good enough alone if they can’t communicate or if something is causing an effect, if some signal is causing a nuclear disaster — our reactor to operate, how do we go in there and shut that down if the place is empty. How do we get into that information superiority area? Defeat of weapons launch, get to the archer, or defeat the weapon kinetically to defeat the arrow. And so looking at those three lines of effort, kind of summarizes how we approach that.

Now what we’re doing to implement Air-Sea Battle. We’ve got more than 200 initiatives that our respective teams getting together with the Marine Corps and with the Army put out there. A third of them are non-material, from policy to the concept of operations in componency that I mentioned earlier, data link, protocols, information sharing, and the majority of these are in progress.


We’ve weighed in on the investments. Where can we — why should I be buying this if the Air Force is buying it? Well, maybe we should buy it together. Maybe we should let them operate, or the Army, or the Marine Corps. Where does this make sense?

We’re pursuing the relevant scenarios that may be — that we may be using sooner than we think. Homeland defense, humanitarian assistance, disaster response, support of civil affairs in the homeland, natural disasters, just some I mentioned earlier. And we’re investing in Pres Bud 11, we’ve invested, Pres Bud 12 we’ve invested, particularly anti- submarine warfare, electronic warfare, air and missile defense, and information sharing.

Our Pres Bud 13, the one on the Hill today, sustains these investments and really provides more resilient C4ISR investments. We have accepted less capacity in some cases, in order to enhance capability to get better capability out there.

Going forward, we will jointly evaluate naval and air investments together through the office, looking at the long range bomber, the data links, like I said, looking for the common or the compatible data links; looking at SSN capability and capacity, looking at tankers, anti surface weapons, surface to surface delivered or air to surface delivered. What’s the best way? Cyber, electronic warfare, including electronic attack.

There’s also a bizarre alliance of “progressives” and ASB proponents taking on the Army and Marine Corps over sequestration, which would slash $100 billion automatically from the Federal budget in January. In other words, if the Navy and Air Force win, soldiers and Marines lose, and we’ll take our chances in the usual budget battles over what districts get what goodies. The Progressive Realist rightly argues, that progressives need to take an interest in ASB, as a strategic doctrine, not just as a budget battle.

Air Sea Battle and the China focus (embraced by Obama with his pivot to Asia), is an important factor in driving defense programs and budgets. Once the strategy is in place, all decisions on programs will need to be justified in terms of the strategy-which is why the Marines and Army are fighting it so hard.

Right now, it all seems abstract. I mean, who cares? We’re going to see either a flatline or a decrease in defense spending as a matter of general austerity. And most progressives I know are more interested in gaming out ways to see sequestration go through. And yet, sequestration is a temporary blip, with no strategic consequences. Debates like Air Sea are going to shape what we actually buy and how we actually conduct ourselves for years to come. Indeed, if the Asia pivot and Air Sea become dominant, that will create the intellectual foundation for arguing a need to increase spending. Why? Because as a matter of rigorous analysis, that strategy cannot be implemented without more resources. If we ignore the strategy debate now, then we’ll be fighting future battles over defense budget toplines at a fundamental disadvantage because while strategy is not the be all and end it, it does matter.

As Stephen M. Walt, I like the notion of Navy-Air Force coordination, but military strategy should not trump diplomacy, and the U.S. has both the experience and the alliances necessary to contain China.

But Air-Sea Battle still faces enormous challenges in overcoming the “home court” advantage a continental power enjoys deploying its missile forces from hidden, dispersed, and hardened sites. In addition, the United States faces a steep “marginal cost” problem with an opponent like China; additional defenses for U.S. ships are more expensive than additional Chinese missiles. And China can acquire hundreds or even thousands of missiles for the cost of one major U.S. warship.

Given these structural weaknesses, Air-Sea Battle’s success will rely not on endlessly parrying the enemy’s missiles, but striking deeply at the adversary’s command posts, communications networks, reconnaissance systems, and basing hubs in order to prevent missiles from being launched in the first place. Such strikes would mean attacks on space systems, computer networks, and infrastructure, with implications for the broader civilian economy and society. Some critics of Air-Sea Battle reason that raising the stakes in this manner would make terminating a conflict much more difficult and would escalate the conflict into domains — such as space and cyber — that are particular vulnerabilities for the United States.

The United States won’t be able to win an arms race against China and currently has no plans to do so. Nor can the Pentagon count on superior military technology; China already has impressive scientific and engineering capabilities, which are only getting better. Instead, U.S. policymakers need to discover enduring strategic advantages that don’t require keeping a qualitative or quantitative lead in weapons. Geography may be one such benefit. In a conflict, the so-called First Island Chain that runs from Japan to Taiwan and then to the Philippines could become a barrier to the Chinese navy and provide outposts for U.S. and allied sensors and missiles. China would likely view such preparations as a provocation, but from the allied perspective, they will complicate Chinese military planning.

Second, the United States and its allies are far more experienced at planning and conducting complicated military operations that require coordination across countries and military services. With a long-established network of alliances and partnerships in the region, U.S. commanders and their counterparts have accumulated decades of experience operating together. One aspect of Air-Sea Battle is to further extend this advantage.

The most powerful U.S. advantage is the alliance network itself. Washington’s long list of treaty allies and partners provides options for U.S. and allied policymakers and planners. The alliance network could also help convert the threat of escalation to a U.S. advantage. The more U.S. military forces are able to disperse across the region, at temporary or rotational basing arrangements, the more difficult it will be for China to gain an advantage with military power. In order to achieve such an advantage, China will have to attack a wider number of countries, bringing them into a war on the U.S. side. This prospect should deter conflict from beginning.

The more successful U.S. diplomacy is at building up a large network in the region, the stronger the deterrent effect and the less risk assumed by each member. With its outreach to ASEAN countries and others over the past decade, the United States seems to be on this path. New rotational basing deals with Australia, Singapore, and the Philippines are more evidence of this approach. But more diplomatic success will be required as the challenge from China increases.

China itself might help incite ASB proponents with its current diplomatic temper tantrums. It’s a very delicate game: economics vs. military. Beijing is very important for the world economy, but there are issues, like off-sourcing, that need addressing. China wants to flex its muscles, but its neighbors admire it more when China spreads the wealth and not the rhetoric. It comes down to whether the U.S, and its allies, or China, lets its fears consume a vision of trade and compromise that have lasted decades. It’s a matter of distributional coalitions within countries getting what they want from national budget battles. It’s about thinking more than muscle.

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