Five Myths about AirSea Battle

In my view, the world would be a much better place without “AirSea Battle” (ASB).  Not the concept, mind you, but the limited public knowledge thereof leading to misinterpretation, misunderstanding, and intellectual malpractice.  It would have been much better for the Department of Defense (DoD) never to have acknowledged that it was working on the concept (which it did in the February 2010 release of the Quadrennial Defense Review), so all that existed in the public domain was the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments’ (CSBA) May 2010 work on ASB, an enormously important, well-written and well-thought out work.  ASB would then still only be the machinations of a think-tank (well-regarded as it is), rather than something approaching stated U.S. government policy, with frequent Service Chief mentions and public knowledge of the existence of a multi-service organization dedicated to its ends, whatever they may be.

In other words, we would all be much better off if DoD had kept its collective mouth shut, but they haven’t.  I write this on the basis of close observation of the scene over the past three years.  Public acknowledgement created a good deal of angst among our friends and allies in the Pacific who felt that they were not sufficiently consulted.  Public acknowledgement created antibodies within the least-common-denominator, dominated joint resource allocation community. Land force advocates took to their sedan chairs with the vapors over what was (to them) an obvious resource grab by two services (Navy and Air Force) that felt neglected over the past decade.  Public acknowledgement generated concern on Capitol Hill among even those that DoD should consider friends.  And public acknowledgement stirred up a cottage industry of academics and strategists for whom ASB has provided a rich subject for uninformed speculation.

However, there are some strategic communication goals I can conjure that are served by bringing it into the public domain, irrespective of the costs.  ASB skeptics have bemoaned the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) predictably hostile reaction, but whatever churn that public acknowledgement caused in the PRC, was worthwhile, if only to briefly arrest the constant drumbeat of defeatism and doom that we were hearing at the end of the last decade from U.S. Pacific Commanders about how quickly the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was advancing its capabilities to keep us at bay.

But DoD did not keep quiet, and we find ourselves today in an odd situation in which the Pentagon does in fact have an active and vibrant AirSea Battle office pursuing the concept largely by aligning service acquisition, training, and concept development.  In predictable “me too” fashion, an Office of Strategic Land Power is planned, presumably to contest whatever currency AirSea Battle gains. At the same time, CSBA’s document lays out in vivid detail a vision for how the U.S. might contest the PRC’s growing anti-access/area denial (A2AD) complex, portions of which with senior officials in the Navy and Air Force have publicly associated themselves and their services.  DoD officials have indeed attempted to “walk-back” some of the initial furor over ASB, generally by insisting that the concept is opponent agnostic, aiming instead to contest any nation’s desire to limit freedom of the commons.  But the genie is out of the bottle.

In an effort to reconcile some of the misinformation (and worse), I offer the following “Five Myths about AirSea Battle.”  I do so from a position of having read both the CSBA ASB work and the Navy/Air Force ASB classified narrative, in addition to writing and thinking about A2AD issues for several years.

Myth Number 1:  AirSea Battle is little more than a budget share grab by the Navy and Air Force, two services that believe themselves to have been left out of the open bar budget party during the past twelve years of land conflict.  Lots to unpack here.  First, the Navy and the Air Force did, in fact, decrease in size while we pursued two land wars.  Both the Army and the Marine Corps increased dramatically in size. Taking contingency funding into consideration, the land forces share of DoD outlays was significantly greater.  This was of course, logical and rational, as we were fighting two land wars.  But we have withdrawn from one of those land wars and the President is threatening to pack up and leave the second.  In any event, the land forces were by any measure, due for cuts in a post-war world.  This does not mean though, that the Navy and Air Force were necessarily due for increases.  Were China not rising and in the process, sometimes throwing sharp elbows at its neighbors, neither service would have much of a case for anything above the status quo.  But that isn’t the China we have before us.  Nor is the Iran we have before us quiescent.  The world we face appears to be telling us to look again at the size, capability and readiness of our seapower and air power.  Our President has put forward a strategy that applies more emphasis to the Pacific, where aerial and maritime commons dominate.

Secondly, U.S. taxpayers would be gratified to know how the AirSea Battle Office spends much of its time.  And that is in the pursuit of efficiencies and commonalities in how (primarily) the Navy and Air Force do their jobs in contesting adversary A2AD capability.  The sense that there are a bunch of mad scientists egged on by swaggering operators is simply misplaced.  What goes on in the office are careful reviews of existing capabilities at both the unclassified and classified levels in order to eliminate duplication and divergence that can both cause additional expense.  Some readers would be shocked (Shocked!) that sometimes, our armed services buy a capability that one of the other services already has, or already has in a state that could be easily altered to fit the purposes of other services.  Additionally, subjects as mundane as training and doctrine are reviewed in order to ensure unity of effort.  I am reliably told that there are indeed highly classified programs within both the Navy and the Air Force that are designed to mitigate A2AD capability.  What the ASB Office brings is an organization where those highly classified programs can be analyzed across entire effects-chains in order to ensure that the Joint Force is the beneficiary of the goodness of all service efforts.

Finally, ASB has become necessary because since at least 1996 (when China tried to manipulate elections in Taiwan and President Clinton sent two aircraft carriers to the region in order to demonstrate our interest). China has since invested heavily in capabilities designed to prevent U.S. forces from “intervention” in the region.  In fact, the PLA refers to what we call its A2AD capability as “anti-intervention” capability.  Land power advocates fail to consider that without investment in ways to contest China’s A2AD capabilities, our land forces will not play a meaningful role in conflict in the Pacific.  Period.  The plain truth is that you’ve got to get there, you’ve got to assemble there, and you have to be resupplied there.  All of this is contested by China’s rising capabilities.  Now of course, the most often cited land power charge is that “we’re never going to fight China, so all of this is a waste of money.”  I do not feel comfortable with this assumption.

Myth Number 2:  Pursuing Air-Sea Battle makes war with China more likely.  The logic of this myth goes like this:  “China is rising as a result of its economic might, and its military improvements are designed to increase its own security.  Our investments in ASB provide a destabilizing influence, one that is more likely to bring on war with China.  We should be finding ways to cooperate with China on regional security in a way that does not threaten it.”

There is an internal logic to this view, but it simply doesn’t account for one significant fact:  China’s buildup began long before ASB was even a gleam in the Chief of Naval Operation’s eye, and one can only view that buildup as “increasing its (China’s) own security” if one concedes that reducing U.S. power and influence in the region is a worthy concession to Chinese security.  China is not interested in sharing power in the Western Pacific; it is interested in asserting it.

The obvious implication of the view that ASB makes war more likely is that if we abandoned ASB, war with China would be less likely.  This is contestable and quite possibly backwards.  One of the reasons ASB was so important to pursue was the growing uneasiness of friends and allies in the region, uneasiness born of increasing Chinese capabilities and the aforementioned wobbliness coming out of the Pacific Command at the end of the last decade.  Longtime allies began to seriously question our staying power in the face of the growing perception that the PLA could someday contest U.S. dominance in the region.  Would not failure to pursue counter A2AD capabilities (and the concomitant erosion of allied confidence in our ability to provide security) embolden the PRC in its various regional aims?  Would this not create a more unstable security situation by leaving the PRC more comfortable launching a war, confident that the U.S. would not be able to intervene?  Or perhaps a “Findlandization” of the region is tolerable to the anti-ASB crowd, wherein nations pay fealty to a new hegemon and quietly bear what they must?

The danger of miscalculation is the bugbear of great power relations.  A strategy of retreat or downsize only increases the odds of such miscalculation.  A strategy that asserts our Pacific interests and provides the means to protect them is less likely to create miscalculation.  Notice please, that I did not refer to ASB as a strategy.

Myth Number 3: AirSea Battle is a strategy.  No amount of table-pounding by anyone authoritatively connected with AirSea Battle seems to kill this myth, but I would be remiss if I were to pass on the opportunity to state it once again.  I actually sat through a panel of academics last week in which one highly regarded fellow with nary a blink attempted to compare “AirSea Battle” and “Containment”.  I nearly fell out of my chair.  AirSea Battle is a concept for how operating forces might contest the ability of an opponent to deny them freedom of the commons.  It is a limited application of military power for defined, limited operational ends. It is nothing like containment, in scope, aim, resources or ends.  That an educated man would make such a statement is in part due to the miasma of misinformation floating around, in part due to DoD’s inadvisable and uncoordinated release of ASB information.

Myth Number 4:  AirSea Battle is nonsensical without a larger strategic framework.  This one continues to baffle me, both because of its own nonsensical nature, and the fact that a good friend of mine, and a man whose intellect I respect greatly, continues to make it his primary criticism of ASB.  My fellow War on the Rocks contributor, Dr. T.X. Hammes, of the Institute for National Strategic Studies, believes that without a strategy into which it can be comfortably nested (vis-à-vis China), ASB is a waste of time, energy and money.  He and I have debated this issue before (see this Center for National Policy video), and we recently re-opened the discussion after another forum. Hammes has gone as far as to create his own military strategy for the conduct of war with China, something he calls “Offshore Control”.  The central idea of his strategy is to bring about war termination with China through effective economic blockade and escalation control.  I regard this work highly and there are a lot of important ideas within it.  Truth be told, if I were the Pacific Commander charged with the unfortunate task of conducting war against the PRC, large parts of T.X’s approach would be near the top of my list in how to do so.  Where he goes off the rails is in his deprecation of ASB as being without merit, simply because no authoritative military strategy for war with China has embraced it.  Then again, no authoritative military strategy for war with China has embraced refueling and rearming ships at sea either, not because it isn’t wise, but because there is not a publicly available authoritative military strategy for war with China….period.  This is, of course, a good thing.  The PRC’s propensity to read our mail leads me to believe that if such a strategy does exist, it ought to be highly protected.

Hammes hangs his intellectual six-shooter on the peg of a challenge that he issued some 18 months ago, and that is, for someone to create a coherent (ends, ways, means) strategy for the conduct of war with China that can comfortably embrace ASB.  And since no one has, ASB be must therefore be strategically unsupportable…quod erat demonstrandum. 

Hammes was able to write and release his strategy using time and resources provided by his employer (the U.S. government). As of yet, no one has offered to finance my participation in such an effort.  Still, the suggestion that an operational concept is without merit unless there is an accompanying strategy into which it must fit neatly is vexing.  The ability to contest an opponent’s capability to deny access to the commons seems axiomatic, easily fitting into any number of potential strategies.  In fact, T.X.’s approach seems designed almost exclusively to create a strategy that minimizes counter-anti-access capability.  In doing so, he makes assumptions about Chinese reactions that defy understanding.

His fear of nuclear retaliation on the part of the PRC is born from suspicions that a strategy embracing ASB would require conventional military strikes on the Chinese mainland—which it would.  Hammes worries that this could lead to nuclear escalation.  Putting aside for the moment the wisdom of taking  conventional strikes on the Chinese mainland off the table from the get-go (as he does), why anyone would consider an American strangulation campaign less worthy of a nuclear response is beyond me.  Additionally, he avers that the last thing we would want is for the Chinese Communist Party to fall, leaving a huge country to plummet into civil war.  Presumably, he believes mainland strikes would or could cause this.  Why he believes that destroying the Chinese economy wouldn’t hasten such a demise is again, confusing, particularly since the Chinese Community Party has based its legitimacy almost solely on reliable annual economic growth.

But what most concerns me most about T.X.’s approach is the as yet uncompensated suspicion I have that there is a military strategy for the defeat of the PRC (again, the devil is in the details about what “defeat” is) that would comfortably embrace both counter-A2AD effects (read: ASB) and a distant blockade.  Again, were I to be in charge of waging such a war, I would want both tools.  Yet were we to pursue T.X.’s proposed path, we would only have the blockade.  Standing our ground at the first island chain means creating vast internal lines across the East China Sea and the South China Sea for the PRC to own and operate during peacetime and the prelude to war.  Put another way, if we embrace the “ASB-less” approach, we cannot contest China’s A2AD capabilities.  If we pursue a strategy which embraces “ASB”, it does not obviate the operational value and utility of blockade.

Putting a final set of words in my friend Hammes’ mouth, he would say (among other things) that we cannot afford ASB.  Which brings me to Myth Number 5.

Myth Number Five:  We cannot afford ASB.  This is patently false.  Of course we can afford ASB.  The question is not whether we can afford it, but whether we choose to afford it.  Let’s do a little thought experiment.  Let’s assume that to fully implement a mythical ASB roadmap, an additional $25 billion a year would be needed.  What does that $25 billion represent?

  • 4.6% of the base DoD budget for 2014.  Under five percent of $534 billion.
  • 1.9% of the total Federal Budget for 2014 or $1.3 trillion.
  • .16% of our projected 2014 GDP of $16 trillion.

If we as a nation believe that building and sustaining a quantitative and qualitative military edge over the Chinese for the foreseeable future – one that provides an effective deterrent to Chinese mischief and positions the U.S. for combat should deterrence fail – is worth resourcing, then ASB is affordable and worthwhile.