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Opinion: What’s the point of Air Sea Battle?

The 1977 cover art for the Atari 2600 game: Air Sea Battle

The 1977 cover art for the Atari 2600 game: Air Sea Battle

The recent mantra regarding Air Sea Battle is that “it is not a strategy, it’s an operational concept.” If so, what is the concept? It seems predicated on improving interoperability between the Navy and the Air Force, but that’s just joint operations — what the Pentagon says its been doing for years.

Why the fancy name and media blitz?

Other operational concepts revolve around simple ideas. Population-centric counterinsurgency is an easy, recent example: get the local population on your side and the insurgents cannot exploit them. Sea-basing is utilizing offshore assets to sustain a force ashore. Operational maneuver from the sea is using the sea as maneuver space in order to gain an advantage over the opponent. Ship-to-shore maneuver is using advanced connectors to get a landing force farther inland, thus avoiding a slow buildup on a beach.

Air-Land Battle is more complicated, but had a doctrinal manual backing it up. Where’s the substance of Air Sea Battle?

The closest idea we have is this recent USNI News article concerning AirSea Battle Office initiatives. But none of the initiatives are compelling. They include cross-domain command and control; war at sea; attack operations to defeat anti access area denial (A2/AD); active and passive defense; distributed basing; contested space operations; contested intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; contested logistics and sustainment; and contested cyberspace operations. Most of those are so broad as to apply to all warfare across history: basing is almost always distributed; ISR and logistics are always contested. Cyberspace and space operations are new, but of course they will be contested. Cross-domain command and control has always been an issue. Every defense in history has been active, passive, or both. “War at sea” is nothing more than a simple description of the Navy’s job.

Of those initiatives, only one directly addresses the problem that Air-Sea Battle claims to solve: A2/AD systems. It does so in such a broad way, however, that it is virtually meaningless. It says only that we have to attack an A2/AD defense to defeat it.

Air Sea Battle is not a strategy, but neither is it an operational concept. Right now, it’s just a jumble of good ideas in need of a cohesive idea to tie them together into something larger than the sum of their parts. Until that ingredient is added, the sum of their parts is not compelling enough to match the rhetoric surrounding it.

Until Air-Sea Battle is presented as something tangible and unique, it’s all just marketing. The product remains shrouded in confusion. Additionally, we already have Joint Forcible Entry which addresses the same problem. Is joint forcible entry no longer viable? If not, why? If not, how is Air-Sea Battle a better solution to the problem? These are the questions the Air-Sea Battle Office should be answering, with a viable, compelling solution to the A2/AD problem. If “20-something military intellectuals” working non-stop on the concept cannot answer those questions, then maybe there is no answer at all.

  • Arthur Savard


  • Matthew Hipple

    It *is* an operational concept, you called it: jointness. Unfortunately, “jointness” or “getting my damn people to work together” doesn’t get funding. The USN, by replacing gunnery support with air support, has already a long practice of learning how to punch holes in the shore for further air assets, so this is probably more of an effort to get the air to work at sea.

  • Steve

    Your’s are interesting observations, especially wrt the ‘only’ compelling initiative being the A2/AD dialogue. A tough nut for sure. As for how A2/AD differ’s fm JP 3-18, JFEO, I’m thinking the latter assumes that the joint force has already gained lodgement — and is now taking decisive action to push-forward from this lodgement into contested territory. In contrast, the A2/AD connundrum addresses what it takes to ‘get close enough’ to engage the enemy… with a leaner joint force; my sense is that the ASB Concept reminds the current generation of officers for the need to ‘work smarter not harder’ … in other words; we’ve not faced this ‘near peer’ and large scale challenge for more than a generation within our collective ranks…

  • nimblebooks

    Doesn’t it pretty much come down to B-1s and B-2s striking Chinese ASBMs?

    • markbuehner

      Which isn’t going to happen, because it would be unacceptable escalation. Once you have aircraft penetrating homelands of a nuclear power hunting down ballistic missiles, you have a serious problem.

      • wfzimmerman

        Like MAD, ASB is about deterrence — threatening that we *can* take the fight to the Chinese homeland effectively if they try to deny access to the inner ring. Agree that likely will never happen.

        • markbuehner

          Maybe but thats a question of nuclear deterrence, which is the big leagues. What ASB is about is something of a low intensity shoot out (relatively). My point is precisely because it threatens MAD, we wont execute ASB, and China knows that. You cant deter anyone with an obvious bluff, and in fact you could be encouraging them.

          • wfzimmerman

            Well, the argument back would be that MAD worked even though it was an obvious bluff. This is about building giant weapons systems and enforcing policy through the threat of using them. the logic seems to be, it worked in the cold war, why wouldn’t it work now?

            Also, I don’t think ASB is about low-intensity shoot out — as I understand it, it’s about using *all* the nonnuclear toys in the arsenal to avoid an unacceptable result.

          • markbuehner

            MAD was anything but a bluff. If the missiles fly they fly back, its practically automated. Had MAD been a bluff (and a national leader willing to allow their nation to die without taking the enemy with them for some reason) or even appeared to be a bluff, it would have been more dangerous than having no policy at all.

            And by low-intensity- you aren’t going after vital infrastructure like bridges and power plants and factories, and there arent ground troops shooting at each other (at least Americans) most likely. Such a ‘war’ is more like the mercantile quasi wars of the 16th and 17th centuries on the high seas than another Korea for instance.

  • markbuehner

    Air/Sea is just another derivation Air/Land which is window dressing for Deep Strike which is code for strategic bombing winning your war with the other branches conveniently providing targets to draw the enemy out to allegedly face certain destruction. Its been a failed concept time and time again.

  • Avid Flyer

    For The most part I see this as the Person has said just window dressing, however a good tactical officer could come up with battle plans and a way to hit a target at the same time. Even though it is unlikely for an attack occur in the U.S. this still needs to be looked at, If you look back at WWI and WWII you could see the need for what we have now I suggest you do some history reading to find an ideal and become a General sir, Keep your head down though as Obomber is getting rid of many of our top officers.

  • Cl1ffClav3n

    Air-Sea Battle IS a strategy — a strategy to compete for funding during a time of fiscal austerity. It was a way for CSIS to collect some federal cash and for the Air Force and Navy to raise their stock in the eyes of legislators controlling purse strings. The warfighting part is, of course, only branding and bumper sticker sloganeering pasted on top of rehashed Rumsfeldian tranformation buzzwords and already well-established Goldwater-Nichols jointness doctrine. At the core there is an inadequate tactical focus on evolving capabilities of missiles and radars and intel and cyber, and a nod to the operational challenge of long-distance logistics, but this stuff is not news and has been the meat and potatoes of war plans for 50 years, and should be the concern of all three services in all of the nation’s war plans.

    ASB is the kind of rubbish that generals and admirals and think tank wonks use to make their peace-time careers, but that serves the nation poorly when eventually tried for real (Rapid Decisive Operations anyone? Shock and Awe?). The good news is we no longer have a Joint Forces Command pushing their homegrown hemp-inspired powerpoint fantasies out to the Pentagon by the metric ton per day. Glad to see Capt. Friedman exposing the emperor’s nakedness.