Air-Sea Battle and Naval Strategy: Looking Forward or Looking Back?

October 19, 2016

Those who study or practice the art of strategy-making constantly debate whether it is best to understand the strategic landscape by looking forward through operational concepts or backward through the classics. Unfortunately, this is a false choice that adds more heat than light. In this vein, The Shadow of Air-Sea Battle and the Sinking of A2AD, by B.J. Armstrong, published on this site, repeats this false choice. Critics of Air-Sea Battle and anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) miss the forest for the trees. Armstrong states that these concepts are “merely new and more flashy descriptions of the things naval forces had been doing for generations” while acknowledging that we do need to do those things, just as long as we understand them through a classical lens.

What is a strategist to do? Are we cursed to be stuck in a perennial tug-of-war on terminology? Contrary to claims that newer operational terms will detract from sound strategic thought, terms like “A2/AD” and “Air-Sea Battle” add to our understanding of operational challenges and help us organize for them rather than detract from our understanding of strategy. They do that by speaking to an audience regardless of their familiarity with the great strategists and their teachings. There is, in fact, more in common between these forward looking operational concepts and the classics of naval strategy than may appear at first glance. And we do not need to indulge in one at the expense of the other.

Moreover, there are tasks of more importance than paying fealty to the Old Masters. Planners and strategists in the Department of Defense use operational concepts to paint a picture, develop a narrative, and engage in bureaucratic battles. When successful, this process ends with our forces properly manned, trained, and equipped to deter adversaries and, when necessary, fight and win the nation’s war.

Let us start with Air-Sea Battle itself. Armstrong writes: “Boiled down to its central thesis, the question at the keel of Air-Sea Battle was an examination of command of the sea in the coastal and near coastal waters of the modern world.” After reading about the denouement of Air-Sea Battle, readers might be surprised to know that the unclassified summary of the classified “Air-Sea Battle Concept” itself acknowledges, “A2/AD ideas are not new.” But what Armstrong does not acknowledge — and the unclassified summary does — is that technological advances are essentially changing the character of warfare. “Coastal and near coastal waters” will soon include everything between China’s coast and Guam. This is a temporal and spatial problem that the classicists did not have to grapple with. Fresh operational concepts, grounded in but not hostage to an understanding of classical strategy, can help military organizations adapt to warfare as it evolves.

Similarly, Armstrong envisions “localized command of the sea,” surmising that it may only be “established for a very specific period of time.”  However, this temporal factor is clearly acknowledged in the Joint Operational Access Concept. This document explains that the concept “envisions the joint force managing the fluid opening and closing of access corridors over time and space as needed.” The Joint Operational Access Concept was intended to be an umbrella for several operational concepts (including Air-Sea Battle) exploring the increasing A2/AD challenges in different operational settings. The concept assumes that localized control of the various domains will be limited in the future, something Armstrong asserts for the sea domain here.

New concepts such as Air-Sea Battle are not, in fact, barren of classical strategic influence. Armstrong references Mahan’s “building blocks of naval warfare” and finds it missing from Air-Sea Battle. He cautions against the simple, plodding application of the “building blocks” and encourages creativity.  But Air-Sea Battle does exactly that, advocating for multiple paths of attack and defense with capabilities from across the services.  It calls for a complex choreography that includes the cyber, electromagnetic, and space domains that Mahan could not have imagined. Armstrong seems to acknowledge room for growth from a classical approach when he states: “When the theoretical ideal of command of the sea was first developed the sea was the only global common which needed to be fought over.”

It is important for our strategic thought to reflect the canonic “greats” from Clausewitz to Mahan and Corbett. The fact that the documents behind concepts such as Joint Operational Access and Air-Sea Battle do not directly reference and instruct the reader in in these thinkers is — to Armstrong — evidence that their influence is absent. He writes:

[A] careful reading of many of the articles on the subject, and detailed considerations of their footnotes and sources could not help but offer readers the conclusion that the dialogue had been divorced from the actual thinking, writing, and theory of naval strategy.

We have to acknowledge that not every operator, programmer, and budgeteer will have backgrounds in strategy and history. These documents were written for the entire joint community — most of which is concerned with the tactical and strategic challenges of today and tomorrow being addressed in the planning and budget cycle. For those of us who worked on Air-Sea Battle, the task at hand was to develop an operational approach to enable concurrent or follow-on power projection operations in an A2/AD environment.  The concept writers, from all services, were certainly familiar with the classic strategic thinkers and the idea of sea control and built upon them, but their focus was more narrowly defined. By the time I joined the team, we were focused on experimentation and gaming of the concept. The feedback from the fleets and forces validated that narrow focus.

There is more to this story than a preferred lens and “classic” language. This is not an academic argument.  Concept development is a framework for looking at the future and brainstorming approaches to the changing character of war.  It informs programmers and it informs Congress: two audiences that have not digested the academic treatises of Mahan and Corbett.  Robert Farley makes a similar argument about the various audiences for A2/AD recently in The Diplomat. The idea of this concept inflamed passion.  Air-Sea Battle moved budgets. The same cannot be said for The Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower,” a.k.a. CS-21R, which also reflects the operator mindset more than classic Mahan and could be subject to Armstrong’s criticism as well.  Naval strategists long for the next “maritime strategy” and associated “600-ship” navy. Retrenching our collective mindsets to the vocabulary of 1890 will not get us there, neither will a focus solely on future concepts. A balanced approach was offered by Roberta Wohlstetter, who concludes her classic work on intelligence failure, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, by looking to the past, the present, and the future.  She breaks down her final chapter into “retrospective,” “perspective,” and “prospective” analysis. A similar balanced approach should be utilized by strategists.

In the end, trading the so-called buzzwords of operational concepts for references to strategists of the past yields no progress in strategic thinking. For just as buzzwords are decried by Armstrong, Adam Elkus, and others, there is similar hand-wringing over the misunderstanding, cherry-picking, and terms of art of the classical strategists like Mahan and Clausewitz (which Armstrong addresses in his article.) There is indeed a need for naval strategists to look back at the classics, to review the present, and to look forward with operational concepts. In the end, presenting a false choice does little to bridge the gap between operators and practitioners and those focused solely in one direction or the other.


Capt. John Callaway is a Navy strategist who worked in the Air-Sea Battle Office from 2012 to 2014. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the U.S. Navy or any part of the U.S. government.