It was on November 9, 2011 that the US Department of Defense announced the creation of a new office to integrate air and naval combat capabilities in support of emerging US national security requirements. In the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had directed the US Navy, US Air Force and US Marine Corps to develop a comprehensive concept to counter emerging anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) challenges, primaril;y of Chinese origin. The US armed services consequently collaborated to develop the Air-Sea Battle (ASB) concept. On August 12, 2011, US Navy Admiral Jonathan Greenert, US Marine Corps Gen Joseph Dunford, and USAF Gen Philip Breedlove established the Air-Sea Battle Office (ASBO), thereby creating a framework to implement the ASB concept. The ASB concept will guide the US armed services as they work together to maintain a continued US advantage against the global proliferation of advanced military technologies and A2/AD capabilities. ASB will leverage military and technological capabilities that reflect unprecedented US Navy, Marine Corps and USAF collaboration, cooperation, integration, and resource investments. The ASBO will oversee the concept implementation by facilitating coordination among the US armed services, influencing tri-services war-games, fostering development and integration of air and naval capabilities, and collaborating with the joint forces. The Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps will each dedicate a minimum of two field-grade officers or civil service equivalents to the ASBO. Implementation of the ASB concept by the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps will endeavour to foster positive changes in the institutional relationships among the services, the integration of acquisition strategies, and the conceptual approach to warfare. The ASB concept is a natural and deliberate evolution of US warfighting to counter emerging A2/AD threats that include conventional ballistic missiles, long-range precision cruise missiles, advanced integrated air and missile defence systems, electronic and cyber warfare capabilities, submarines, surface combatants, and modern combat aircraft. According to the US Defense Department, ASB will also enable the projection of force in defence of US interests and those of its allies and by sustaining stability and freedom of access throughout the global commons.
At a recent seminar organised in New Delhi, it was explained by visiting US officials that ASB initially was conceived as a way to increase inter-operability between the USAF and US Navy through increased training and improved technical interoperability. Given the overlaps in their strike capabilities, especially in aircraft, it makes perfect sense for the two most technical services to work closely to ensure inter-operability. But like its progenitor, AirLand Battle (ALB), ASB has progressed to an operational concept to address a specific military problem. While ALB was conceived to counter the Soviet Union, ASB is billed as the answer to growing anti-access/area-denial capabilities generically, but as everyone knows, specifically the People’s Republic of China. ALB and ASB are different in that ALB required the integration and inter-operability of two distinct domains, ground and air. Because of the overlap between USAF, US Marine Corps and the US Navy in strike assets, and because ASB is focused on strike (kinetic, electronic, cyber), the integration required for ASB is far more limited than that required for ALB. Additionally, ASB assumes that a confrontation between two great powers (US and China) can be resolved with only half the nation’s military assets. It is the first conception, since early advocates of nuclear warfare, that envisions no or extremely limited use of ground forces. This has no precedent in the history of conventional warfare and should in itself give one pause. ALB posited an asymmetric approach in relation to the erstwhile Soviet Union. ALB would attack all echelons of the Soviet forces with aviation and long-range fires because NATO was badly outnumbered on the ground. In contrast, ASB is symmetrical, pitting US precision strike against Chinese precision strike. Since ASB is by definition an away game, how can the US be expected to build sufficient expeditionary naval and air forces to counter Chinese forces that possess a home-court advantage? Is it prudent to expect the weapon magazines of an entire industrial nation to be smaller than those of the US Navy and USAF deployed more than 3,000 miles from home? What happens when the vertical-launch systems of US warships and the bomb bays of USAF aircraft are empty? From a strike perspective, one therefore must consider China’s ground-based strike and intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance systems a seamless extension of its navy. One cannot simply compare its navy to the US Navy; one must compare all relevant combat power applicable to an anti-access/area-denial fight. Just on the face of it, one should recognise the need for an asymmetric approach to counter China’s growing war-waging capabilities. The US simply can’t afford to outgun China symmetrically. ASB’s symmetrical approach is also highly escalatory given China’s shore-based “fleet-in-being”. The US cannot close its naval and tactical air forces into theatre without striking the Chinese mainland. Surely, given the nuclear weapons China possesses and its growing irregular warfare and economic assets, one should question very seriously any operational concept that requires extensive strikes on the Chinese mainland. There are alternatives, after all.
China is surrounded by littoral nations interested in balancing China’s new assertiveness. The US should therefore look for ways to establish co-binding relationships with these countries to assure sovereign access to the region beyond the more easily challenged access to the commons. The threshold for China to strike these sovereign countries is certainly higher than the threshold to attack US warships in the commons. The US should make use of this advantage by encouraging the use of “dual-use” infrastructure that would improve their port facilities for commerce but would also facilitate the use of these ports for basing or periodic use by US sealift and combatant naval forces. For example, a large, medium-speed, roll-on/roll-off ship from a maritime prepositioning squadron would show commitment while offering tangible benefits for humanitarian assistance and disaster-relief missions in the host country or the region. A military confrontation with China would be the biggest national security challenge since World War II, yet ASB advocates suggest that it can be handled by just two of the four services. To the outside observer, this is astonishing; to the insider skeptic, it is absurd. Many ASB advocates follow the logic that the US will never conduct a land war in China, therefore long-range precision strike is the only practical alternative. What is missed in this line of thinking is that there are other, more fundamental choices that also don’t require a land war in China. It would thus appear that there is an unstated assumption by many that conflict with China must include a race across the Pacific to defend Taiwan; many war-games over the past decades have solidified this point of view. Unfortunately, this assumption is outdated. Chinese capabilities now, but especially 10 years from now, simply preclude a rush to Taiwan and would require a very deliberate campaign similar to that described in the a CSBA report to gain access. Without ground forces and with limited magazine capacities, what happens once the US gets there?
A few questions can help elucidate some of the most glaring ASB fallacies. If the US is concerned by the costs and escalatory aspects of a land war, why are substantial precision strikes on the Chinese mainland less costly and less escalatory than using ground forces in peripheral areas, key choke-points or the Indian Ocean to control vital Chinese sea lines of communication? Why must the US be so conventional and symmetrical? Another alternative to deter or shape a confrontation would be to use ground forces to backstop regional allies. This would be far less escalatory than placing vulnerable surface combatants into a kill zone, where the threshold for a Chinese strike would be significantly lower for attacking a surface combatant in the commons than a ground force in the sovereign territory of a neighbour. Even more fundamentally, the US should certainly think hard before entering a shooting war with China. One should likely ask the same question Caspar Weinberger and Colin Powell recommended we ask: Is a vital national security interest threatened? An additional question might be warranted as well: Is the challenge serious enough to warrant the application of the full range of conventional and special operations forces? If the answer is no, then it is unlikely the issue is of vital national interest and the US should find alternative means of resolution.
In the final analysis, it appears that ASB is essentially ‘shock-and-awe’ expanded from an opening act to a complete campaign approach. The US should work to improve Navy and Air Force inter-operability through increased training and experimentation, but as with many bureaucratic initiatives, ASB has escaped its banks and threatens to unduly influence the composition of the joint force and distort critical relations with an essential trading partner by solidifying a symmetrical arms race the US is structurally committed to losing. The US therefore needs to put ASB back in its tactical riverbed and develop a more comprehensive and winnable strategy for dealing with peer and near-peer competitors.