Five years ago, the Pentagon’s Air-Sea Battle (ASB) concept was the fledgling province of a handful of military strategists who argued that America’s air and naval forces must more intimately collaborate against potential enemies.
Today, the concept has backing from the Obama administration, and the Defense Department has established an Air-Sea Battle office to determine how best to interlink the two services and shape future systems and concepts.
Last week, Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, and Adm. Jon Greenert, the chief of naval operations, made clear during a Washington think tank presentation that the two services would foster closer interoperability. They also stressed that ASB — contrary to popular perception and critics’ assertions — isn’t only about the threat posed by China, but also about allowing U.S. forces to operate in areas where nations are investing in so-called anti-access, area-denial (A2AD) systems to keep the American military at bay.
China is, however, a leading A2AD thinker that is militarily advancing far more quickly than most in Washington thought it would. That, combined with its growing assertiveness over claims to the South China Sea, has made Beijing the focus of attention in the Pacific.
And China is paying attention to ASB. American writings on the subject are immediately translated into Mandarin, and analysts say Beijing has accelerated deployment of DF-21D missiles and J-20 fighter jets in response.
So it’s worth thinking through what ASB needs to be in the wider context of American military thought at a time of global technological transition and domestic fiscal pressures.
First, ASB, as part of the joint operational access concept, must drive a new era of honesty within DoD about what real joint war-fighting is all about.
It’s not about everyone playing together equally in the sandbox; rather, it’s objectively bringing to bear key strengths to deliver specific outcomes. At the same time, it’s a key posturing strategy aimed at avoiding warfare. Merely applying the ASB label to existing approaches, systems and doctrines is a road to failure. Second, ASB may be attempting to tackle anti-access challenges without sufficient understanding of potential enemies’ intentions, strategies, capabilities, weapon stocks, doctrines and politico-military relationships. These enemies are investing considerable effort in novel approaches under utmost secrecy to mask intentions and capabilities. And they have been effective. For example, while most of the world sees China’s new J-20 as a stealth fighter, it appears to be a long-range strike aircraft dedicated to shooting down tankers and command planes.
During the Cold War, U.S. military leaders understood how potential enemies would react to territorial attacks, such as the kind of tactical nuclear response Moscow would deliver to a territorial incursion. How Beijing would respond to a myriad of crises remains unclear. Also during that time, America and its allies conducted large-scale training of linguists and country specialists as part of the enormous effort to study potential enemies. Such investment is urgently needed today because of the pace of China’s military growth and other regional concerns. It would be pivotal to better integrating U.S. operational capabilities. Without rigorous experimentation and prudent investment, ASB — like “transformation” a decade ago — will become regarded as a mere bumper sticker that is applied to everything but means nothing.