Air-Sea Battle
Our defense intellectuals, seeking a new Big Idea, need to seek farther.


Jim Lacey

Unbeknownst to most Americans, the U.S. military is in the midst of another of its many revolutions in thinking. As we depart Iraq and begin positioning ourselves to exit Afghanistan, the military appears in a rush to put the whole idea of Counterinsurgency Warfare behind it. All over D.C. one can hear the sounds of the nation’s deepest military thinkers closing the door on one era as they scramble about in search of the next big thing. Counterinsurgency had a good run — almost ten years. Few military fads, in recent decades, have had such a spectacular run. Entire forests have been decimated for the discussion of ideas such as Shock and Awe, Network Centric Warfare, A Revolution in Military Affairs, and Effects-Based Operations, none of which lasted half as long. You may have not have heard about any of these, but trust me, each, in turn, has absorbed the full mental capacity of nearly every defense intellectual in the country. And now these thinkers need something new.

This is where the latest idea exciting the defense-intellectual community — Air-Sea Battle — comes in. Although the pedigree of Air-Sea Battle is a bit obscure, it got its most recent impetus from former secretary of defense Robert Gates, who in 2010 asked for a comprehensive plan to ensure that the United States could maintain its access to strategic waterways around the globe, even as the defense budget shrinks.

For the Air Force and Navy, Gates’s request was massive. As far as they were concerned, the Army and Marine Corps had been allowed to play the “We’re fighting two wars” card for too long. It was just too hard to claim a bigger portion of the budget when you had to justify taking it from the guys actually doing most of the fighting. To make sure they were not the big losers in any future budget cuts, the Air Force and Navy needed a big idea — a concept or strategy that would place them at the center of any future military effort. Gates’s request was the answer to their dreams. Almost immediately the two services (along with the Marines) established the Air-Sea Battle Office (ASBO), to start coming up with new war-fighting concepts that would catch the imagination of Congress for the next ten or twenty budget cycles. They did not even invite the Army to send a representative to the meeting.

In truth, the Air-Sea Battle concept addresses a very real problem: How does the U.S. military operate in a world where many potential foes can afford missiles and other weapons that could deny it entry to or use of an area. Problems arose, however, when this search for a technical fix to a tactical problem began to morph into a strategy, one that was widely perceived as being aimed at containing or if necessary militarily defeating China. As China is the one country that can afford a substantial amount of “area-denial” weapons, it was only natural that the planners should first consider how they would match the strongest potential force they may one day have to face. Unfortunately, a lot of the early commentary on Air-Sea Battle made it look like a modern redo of the pre–World War II Plan Orange, which envisioned the Pacific Fleet rushing headlong across the ocean to destroy the Japanese Imperial Navy. Only this time around, Japan was replaced by China as the enemy of choice.

Of course, given today’s political concerns and current diplomatic niceties, having the Pentagon work on plans for how to defeat China was beyond the pale. So, for the past several months, the Department of Defense has been busily walking back the idea that Air-Sea Battle is a “strategy” aimed at militarily defeating China. Rather, it is once again firmly in the “concepts” corral, where it is available to assist U.S. military commanders in any region where they might encounter an enemy with substantial “anti-access” or “area-denial” capabilities. To make sure it stays corralled, the Joint Staff last week issued the Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC), which subsumes Air-Sea Battle into a larger war-fighting context applicable anywhere in the world.