Cheap Continuity

5 Jun

Atari ASBThe United States Navy released its official line on AirSea Battle, which Robert Farley cautions should not be confused with AirLand Battle.

The political situation facing the modern USAF and USN is obviously different, and different enough that the implied connection between the two doctrines may obscure more than it illuminates. The objective of smoothing inter-service cooperation is obviously worthy, and AirLand Battle is worth remembering for the peace it represented between the Army and Air Force. Given the differences between the two concepts (one is a doctrine, one is not; one had an enemy in mind, one does not; one involved a lead and support service, one involves equal cooperation between two services, etc.), the confusion generated by the comparison may outweigh the rhetorical value of the (admittedly nifty) naming strategy.

What is impressive about the USN’s rollout, though, is how far they go to convey an impression, that ASB is just a minor tweak on ALB. That humility obscures, according to Sydney J. Freedberg, Jr., just doesn’t dispel confusion.

That kind of intimate cooperation can’t be imposed by the joint theater commanders on their own, and it needs more than just better communications networks. It requires, instead, new “procedures [and] authorities” to let those operational commanders reach across traditional lines of jurisdiction and bring in capabilities they need. (The document doesn’t say, but such changes would require new Pentagon policies and perhaps new laws, developments we’ll be watching for and writing about).

This new jointness also must reach all the way back into the core of the armed services’ jurisdictions, into how troops are trained, units organized, and equipment developed and procured. The services need “mutually developed capability gaps” – i.e. a shared official analysis of the problem – and “integrated solution sets” – i.e. a shared official program to solve it. That kind of coordination would require require changes in how the services train to fight and could affect every defense contract for items more complex than combat boots.

As awe-inspiring as the ensuing turf wars will be, however, they’re not nearly as scary as the real wars. Tit-for-tat, unimaginative “symmetrical” combat – my planes dogfight your planes, my subs hunt your subs – is not a particularly effective way of winning conflicts. But it is at least modestly effective at controlling escalation. Both sides know, more or less, what to expect: If we do X, the other guy will probably do Y or Z, and Z is pretty bad, so maybe we don’t want to do X, after all.

Predictable, symmetrical responses are a big part of why the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, did not lead to war. The Soviets put missiles in Cuba, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff advised bombing the missile sites, but Kennedy realized Russians would strike back. So instead we used our ships to stop their ships that were trying to bring more missiles in. It was a near-run thing, but it worked, and no one got blown up. Conversely, using new weapons and tactics can provoke people to retaliate in ways you don’t expect. The Germans thought a proportionate response to the Royal Navy’s blockade of German ports would be for U-boats to sink every ship bound for Britain, including neutral ones, but Woodrow Wilson disagreed, which is why the US ended up entering World War I.

In the future AirSea Battle, that “cross-domain attack in depth using both kinetic and non-kinetic means” makes the old rulebook irrelevant. If, during some crisis over Taiwan or the Japanese-held Senkaku Islands, for example, missile launchers on the Chinese coast threaten our ships in the Western Pacific, the Chinese would certainly expect us to try to shoot down any missiles when and if they’re actually launched. But if a missile launcher is about to fire on our ships and we preemptively bomb it, is that proportional use of force or irresponsible escalation? If we strike a missile site on the Chinese mainland to protect our ships, should we expect the Chinese to retaliate against our Pacific Fleet or against Los Angeles?

Or what if, instead, we neutralize the missile threat before it ever launches, let’s say by hacking the Chinese satellite in orbit that spots our ships or the Chinese computers in Beijing that coordinate the attack? Does such a cyber-offensive count as an escalatory, inflammatory threat against the core of their national command-and-control system? Or, since nobody got hurt and nothing blew up, is it not even an act of war? If you want a chance of keeping a conflict from escalating, each side had better understand what the other considers escalation – and the fight for cyberspace has, by some measures, already begun.

It is unnervingly unclear how thoroughly the people working on AirSea Battle have thought this out. Admittedly, they’re only four years into it, and it took us much longer to work out nuclear deterrence in the Cold War.

Let’s hope the four services have the opportunity to fight their turf war before a real conflict gets planned.


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