Politics & Policy

Air-Sea Battle

Our defense intellectuals, seeking a new Big Idea, need to seek farther.

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.

As far as “joint operational concepts” go, this one is as good as any. It even has something to cheer up all those defense intellectuals who were concerned that our political phobia about saying anything that might annoy China might stop them from publishing a tome on Air-Sea Battle. You see, according to the JOAC, the only way to defeat the anti-access threat is through “cross-domain synergy.” What is that? In short, it appears to mean combining every available resource so as to create a lot more bang for the buck (1 + 1 + 1 = 24). Of course no one, least of all the military, will know what the heck it truly means until the defense intellectuals have finished explaining it to us, an endeavor sure to wipe out at least one more forest.

So what is wrong with the new concept? Plenty. Although this is a “joint” concept and therefore supposed to include all the services, the Army still seems to be odd man out. According to the JOAC: “. . . large land forces generally will be the last to penetrate within range of an enemy’s anti-access and area-denial weapons because of the potential for catastrophic loss. That is not irrevocably true, however. Land forces, for example, could be used to seize advanced bases on the outskirts of an enemy’s defenses from which to project air and naval power into the heart of those defenses.” First, notice the use of the term “catastrophic loss.” This wording plays right to another of the nation’s perceived phobias: incurring heavy casualties. What secretary of defense is going to allow the Army a place at the table if by doing so he ensures “catastrophic loss” at some future date?

Take that, Army and Marine Corps. Never mind that for the past 75 years, 95 percent (+) of all the fighting and dying has been done by the ground forces. When it comes to the future, the Navy and Air Force have it: You ground-pounders can go rest up. The problem with this is that the past is still more often than not a prelude to the future. Unless we are willing to consider the use of nuclear weapons, the Air Force and Navy have never won a war, and are unlikely to do so in the future. Their role has almost always been to assist the Army and Marines, as they fought their way to victory. In this JOAC, the roles are reversed. The land forces’ only role is to seize advanced bases, so as to make it easier for the Navy and Air Force to get on with winning the war.

This begs a few questions. What happens after the Navy and Air Force have defeated the anti-accessand area-denial threats? What if our enemy does not roll over and surrender? Do we keep pounding at already wrecked missile systems, or do we escalate? How far do we escalate, before the enemy decides to pop a nuke rather than surrender? Here you can see what is missing. The primary reason the Navy and Air Force would conduct missions to defeat anti-access defenses is to clear the way for the entry of ground forces. In fact, the only justification for such a major campaign is to place an element in the theater capable of having a decisive and war-ending impact. That has always been a ground force, and for the foreseeable future, it always will be. The new JOAC has it exactly backwards. The land forces are not there to hold secure bases for the Navy and the Air Force. Rather, those services are there to make sure the Army and Marines can get to the war zone safely and then to support them once they arrive.

Any concept or strategy that places the elements required for a decisive conclusion to military action in a secondary role is flawed from the start. A final question requires asking: How does one go about creating those all important cross-domain synergies by neglecting the domain that has proven to be the most crucial to victory over the past 3,000 years of recorded history?

— Jim Lacey is professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College. He is the author of the recently released The First Clash and Keep from All Thoughtful Men. The opinions in this article are entirely his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense or any of its members.


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