Hardly a week passes in the defense world without the appearance of some news article, a speech or a panel discussion trying to explain what the Pentagon’s Air-Sea Battle (ASB) concept is all about.
It’s an operational concept, a tactical battle plan, a political ploy to convince the Chinese they can’t compete militarily with the US. It’s likely to be costly, it will help reduce spending. It will deter aggression, it will lead to nuclear war.
Often, the discussions feature declarations of what Air-Sea Battle is not. It’s not about China, it’s not about a specific threat. It’s not a new version of the 1980s-era Air-Land Battle plan. It does not have a specific budget. It’s not just about its database of military assets.
Four years after the concept was conceived, three years after a major monograph described it, two years after a special office was set up in the Pentagon, Air-Sea Battle remains an enigma.
Explaining it remains difficult, retired Navy Adm. Gary Roughead told Defense News this month. “I know that’s a challenge.”
Roughead was chief of naval operations from 2007 to 2011. In 2009, he and his Air Force counterpart — then-Gen. Norton Schwartz — joined to develop and sponsor the Air-Sea Battle concept. The idea, Roughead said, was about using assets more efficiently.
“What do we think about intelligence, about the types of operations we want to do? How we put together capabilities in the most efficient and effective way,” Roughead said. “And you have to look globally — how much you need, what’s the technology, where do you need it. There are intelligence, operational, procurement components to it. It’s a way of more thoughtfully, more strategically, more effectively and efficiently leading ourselves into the future.”
A jargon-laden Pentagon briefing in November 2011 to announce the creation — three months after the fact — of an Air-Sea Battle office did little to help. Many of the media stories from the briefing cast the concept solely as a plan to attack China, even though briefers strove to discourage that idea.
A seminal monograph in 2010 from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), a Washington think tank, only bolstered the impression that Air-Sea Battle was all about China.
“The Air-Sea Battle campaign has two stages,” the document declared. “The initial stage, commencing with the outbreak of hostilities, comprises four distinct lines of operation: withstanding the initial attack and limiting damage to US and allied forces and bases; executing a blinding campaign against PLA [Chinese People’s Liberation Army] battle networks; executing a suppression campaign against PLA long-range ISR and strike systems; seizing and sustaining the initiative in the air, sea, space and cyber domains.”
The “blinding” campaign against Chinese forces is cited repeatedly in the study.
So is this a tactical battle plan to attack the Chinese?
“No, not at all,” said Jan van Tol, the principal author of the CSBA report. “One of the key assumptions is that China initiates the conflict on a large scale, and that the US would never do so.
“The whole concept of ASB is to maintain the military balance, so that there’s never a day where the authorities in Beijing say today might be a propitious time to initiate a conflict they’re sure to win.”
The concept’s targets, van Tol said, are an enemy’s efforts to keep out US or coalition forces, a concept called anti-access/area-denial, or A2AD.
“It’s meant to be an operational concept to counter A2AD, to allow US forces to operate in a non-permissive environment,” he explained. “It’s just a tool.”
Some critics have charged that the Air-Sea Battle concept is driving China to increase its A2AD capabilities, often pointing to recently fielded weapons that could threaten US aircraft carriers. Van Tol scoffs at the notion that such developments are driven by Air-Sea Battle.
“China has been trying to field those capabilities well before ASB,” he observed. “Interest in ASB did not trigger Chinese interest in fielding these systems.”
A leading critic of the concept feels otherwise.
Air-Sea Battle is designed to “break” China, said Amitai Etzioni, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University (GWU) in Washington, who frequently writes and speaks about the concept.
“The strategy requires going in to the Chinese mainland, because that’s where the anti-ship missiles are,” Etzioni told Defense News. “The ASB requires you to go into the Chinese mainland. And that leads to a major confrontation.”
Etzioni, unlike van Tol, doesn’t see Air-Sea Battle as a response, but a plan of attack. “ASB requires a first strike,” he said.
The Pentagon, when explaining Air-Sea Battle, increasingly speaks about interservice cooperation and coordination rather than offensive capabilities. Etzioni has noticed the trend.
“It’s true that they’re now walking it back, because it’s really very escalating,” he said. “The Chinese keep pointing to it as a reason to escalate.”
Rather than calming tensions, Etzioni says Air-Sea Battle has an inflammatory effect.
“It’s a horrible idea,” he said. “It will lead to nuclear war. It’s the military driving what should be a civilian strategy.”
Roughead strongly disagreed, particularly with the claim by a recent panel discussion Etzioni took part in at GWU that echoed the assertion that Air-Sea Battle will result in nuclear confrontation.
“That’s a grossly inflammatory perspective on how defense planners deal with looking to the future,” Roughead said. “That title is there, in my view, only to inflame. It doesn’t take into account or consideration the work that responsible, serious, intellectually engaged planners need to do.”
Roughead, who also commanded the US Pacific Fleet and is now a fellow at the Hoover Institution, has visited China and the Asia-Pacific region several times since retiring in 2011. He acknowledged Chinese concerns about the concept.
“There is a sense [among the Chinese] that it is aimed at China. My answer is, it’s not,” he said. “Their perception is that it is aimed exclusively at them, that it’s there to contain them.
“My point is: We’re not containing China. If we were containing China, why do I have an iPhone” assembled in China “on my desk?”
To divine the concept’s true intent, Roughead pointed to its origin.
“I set up a director of warfare integration,” he said. “Then [Schwartz] came in” with the Air Force piece, and Air-Sea Battle was born.
Seeking a ‘Habitual Relationship’
Within the Air-Sea Battle office itself, the discussion — at least to outsiders — today centers on the interservice cooperation and integration the concept is attempting to foster.
Navy Capt. Philip Dupree and Air Force Col. Jordan Thomas, the co-leads of the office, were given top-level access to look at a variety of capabilities and assets throughout the Pentagon. Such access gives them an appreciation for what the US military can and cannot do.
“We have access, and that is really important,” Dupree acknowledged during an interview at the Pentagon. “We are informed at the highest level. We can say she has got something you need to know about — you two need to talk. And out of this, a habitual relationship should ensue.
“We may walk across the grass the first time, but eventually we are hoping there is a sidewalk between these two places and people and things, so they can really begin to integrate better.”
Thomas pointed to the evolving relationship between major Navy and Air Force commands in the Norfolk, Va., region as an example of the office’s effectiveness.
“Now you have the conversation going between Fleet Forces Command and Air Combat Command, and they are only 12 miles apart,” he said. “Because of the focus on [counterinsurgency] and our involvement in Afghanistan, they might as well have been thousands of miles apart. Now they are actually coming together.
“And it’s not, ‘Hey I’m going to link up with you and do my thing and we are going to link up together and do your thing,’” Thomas said. “It is actually recognizing that the training we need to integrate together is the training we need for the future. That’s how we are facilitating.”
Only 17 officers are assigned to the Air-Sea Battle office, which has no specific budget. The officers are counted as part of the Plans, Policy and Operations offices from their respective services.
The database of military assets is not a completed work, Dupree said, nor will it be finished soon.
“You’re right, we are creating a database. But the database is not like we worked it all out,” he said. “This is a process that is going to take years. It is a lot of capabilities that we are tying together.”
The real work of the office, Dupree said, “is to facilitate the conversation. We are trying to inform force development. How should we spend our money? How do we make the right force to accomplish this task? We inform operational planning.”
The office has regular contacts with senior commanders.
“We are talking to the combatant commanders,” Dupree said. “Then we inform the force development, we inform the operational planning and we inform strategy.
“What is Air-Sea Battle really trying to deliver? Options. Options to senior decision-makers. If you don’t address the A2AD challenge, you may find yourself in a very untenable situation.”
Thomas echoed the emphasis on interservice cooperation.
“In 10 years, when people write the story on Air-Sea Battle, it is not going to be about fighting China, it is not going to be about what we bought,” he said. “It is going to be about the culture change that occurs. We are facilitating that.”
Roughead acknowledged the effort remains a work in progress.
“This is hard stuff. It’s really complex,” he said. “The technology is changing, the budget environment is not stable. You’re trying to knit this together in a very complex geo-strategic environment.”