The Shadow of Air-Sea Battle and the Sinking of A2AD


Throughout history, one of the fundamental roles of naval forces has been the ability to get close to an adversary’s coast and have an effect on life ashore. From the raiding of Viking squadrons on the coasts of Europe and Great Britain to American island-hopping assaults in the Pacific in World War II, this created a need for a second element of maritime strategy traditionally termed coastal defense. Rarely a naval responsibility in its own right, coastal defense has been more decidedly “maritime” because of the involvement of not only navies but also armies, revenue services, and – in more recent history — air forces.

In the 21st century all of this history, and the writing and discussions of coastal defense as an element of maritime conflict, have largely been overlooked because instead of discussing modern challenges from a perspective based on past experience, today’s defense establishment relies on futurist “concept development” and the ubiquity of the associated buzzwords that result.  Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson made an important counter-strike against this tendency at the Center for Strategic and International Studies this week when he questioned the usefulness of the term “A2AD (Anti-Access, Area-Denial) and all but banned it from the navy’s lexicon. In Richardson’s “Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority,” issued in January, he encouraged sailors and naval professionals more widely to consider their history and to work to understand strategy and think strategically. This effort to move beyond buzzwords is a critical step in the process.

The Shadow of Air-Sea Battle

Prior to Admiral Richardson setting his sights on the question of whether letters and numbers like A2AD can be everything to everyone, we experienced the hand wringing over another buzzphrase: Air-Sea Battle. The term came to mean many things to many people, which was the reason it became a budget battle bogeyman and led to its downfall as a buzzword. The Pentagon issued reports, think tanks offered their studies and papers, but few examined the root ideas behind it to determine, for the most part, Air-Sea Battle and its competing or associated buzzword concepts “Offshore Control” and “Joint Operational Access” were merely new and more flashy descriptions of the things naval forces had been doing for generations. 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.

The term Air-Sea Battle was replaced by the un-buzzworthy acronym JAM-GC (Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons). Yet it remained true that for years, the use of this jargon on PowerPoint slides masked the fact most of what the concepts were attempting to describe had been discussed before and were already embedded in classical naval theory. As Bernard Brodie once wrote, “Contrary to popular belief, there is nothing especially esoteric about the basic principles of warfare.” Despite this, in the decade long Air-Sea Battle blitz, few attempted to examine the phrase through the lens of those basic principles.

The Basic Principles

The initial point of any discussion of naval strategy is command of the sea. As Geoffrey Till has written, command of the sea “is one of those ringing phrases that dominates the imagination but confuses the intellect.” While the phrase is regularly attributed to Mahan, almost all of the leading naval thinkers have written about the idea. Mahan described the goal of sea power, and the establishment of command of the sea, as “the possession of that overbearing power on the sea which drives the enemy’s flag from it, or allows it to appear only as a fugitive.” This explanation comes after historical examples in which he details how some nations have achieved the condition, making it clear in most cases it was neither perfect nor total. Much like Clausewitz’s comparisons between the idealized and theoretical form of warfare, and the actual and frequently limited execution of war, the concept of command of the sea must be seen with a theoretical eye.

Whether using the classical phrase “command of the sea” or the neo-strategic language of “sea control,” the first concept any discussion of naval strategy must cover is how, when and where a force obtains the ability to keep its enemy from using the vast maneuver space of the sea. And thus open the opportunity for the successful use of the space for your own purposes. This was the fundamental question being tackled in most of the discussion over Air-Sea Battle. How does one achieve command of the sea in the near seas of an opponent that has an elaborate coastal defense? Because, at its heart, when you look at the roots of the challenge described by the A2AD moniker, that is what is being discussed: a modern and technologically advanced coastal defense. 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.

The official writing of the Air-Sea Battle Office (now the JAM-GC Office) repeatedly used the word “access.” The 2015 version of the Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower also embraces this idea by dedicating a whole discussion to “all-domain access.” This, of course, is the result of access being central to A2AD concept development. 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. In the 21st century, the air above the oceans, space, and the cyber realm are all contested as well, but the theoretical construct remains valid even if the commons have expanded.  What concepts like Air-Sea Battle/JAM-GC, and the discussion of “all-domain access,” are doing, when viewed through the lens of traditional naval strategy, is discussing the ways naval forces achieve command of the sea, and the commons around it. Fighting for access is, by definition, what naval forces do in wartime.  It is not something new, or special, or particularly assured.

But in naval warfare command of the sea — the ability to gain access and keep your adversary from having or using their access — is insufficient. And here, the Air-Sea Battle/JAM-GC debate strayed into shoal waters. The classical strategists like A.T. Mahan, Julian Corbett, Raoul Castex and others, agreed that while it might be possible, and was the best case scenario, it was unlikely that establishing command of the sea would be sufficient to obtain the political objective desired. In an idealized war, an opponent who lost command of the sea would surely see the futility of continuing the conflict and relent. But everyone recognized such idealized rationality was not likely to happen. Instead, the naval strategist would then be required to exercise the control, which was established by command of the sea, to achieve their national goals. This led Corbett to his famous but often misrepresented dictum that “in no case can we exercise control by battleships alone.”

Exercising the control offered by command of the sea takes many forms and has many variations. However, with an eye for clarity, the options available to a naval strategist can be generally collected into three categories. A nation with command of the sea can attack the enemy’s shipping and commerce, strike at targets ashore with their sea based weapons, or launch an amphibious operation to land ground forces in the adversary’s territory. In the simplest terms, exercising control means using the “3 Bs” of blockade, bombardment, or boots on the ground. As with the concept of command of the sea, these ideas are familiar to many of those with even a passing knowledge of naval affairs. However, they also have a whole stable of synonyms and modern names, sometimes calling them interdiction, strike, and amphibious assault, among other things.

When considered alongside these elements of traditional naval strategy, the counter-proposals and alleged competitors of Air-Sea Battle and JAM-GC did not really appear to be counter-proposals at all. The ideals of Offshore Control, built around the interdiction of shipping and a far blockade as first suggested by T.X. Hammes and then supported by others, are an important part of the strategic discussion because they illuminate one of the ways maritime forces exercise control. The vision of the CSBA study on AirSea Battle (note: spelled without a hyphen or space) includes a wide discussion of strike and the targeting of bombardment ashore in order to exercise control. Finally, the writing on the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Force 21 and the Joint Staff’s Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC), are at their heart about the use of the sea and the commons to put boots on the ground.

The Naval Art

Establishing command of the sea and exercising the control through blockade, bombardment, or putting boots on the ground, is of course a simplified way of looking at the basics of naval strategy. Admittedly, from this discussion these principles appear sequential, but in the real world that is not necessarily the case. They are simply building blocks of naval warfare and can be put together in an almost infinite number of ways. Maybe they are best described as the Legos of naval strategy.  As any parent can tell you, the best results of a new Lego set rarely have anything to do with the directions inside or the picture on the front of the box. Mahan described the conduct of war and creation of strategy as an art. He wrote: “art, out of materials which it finds about it, creates new forms in endless variety…according to the genius of the artist and the temper of materials with which he is dealing.”

Understanding how to combine the elements of naval warfare is the central task of naval strategy.  It is not about “either/or” choices, or black and white picks from a checklist. Each element has its own temporal and geographic factors in play as well as a moving scale of totality. The ideas volleyed back and forth over A2AD should not be considered strategies by themselves or in isolation. Thus, localized command of the sea may be all a naval force can accomplish, but it also may be sufficient to achieve the political objectives desired. Command might also only be established for a very specific period of time. Again, however, that may be sufficient. As John Hattendorf has written, “there are gradations that range from an abstract ideal to that which is practical, possible, or merely desirable…control is to be general or limited, absolute or merely governing, widespread or local, permanent or temporary.”

What tends to be lost when we focus on the buzzwords and tactical challenges, or on the specific technologies and weapon systems of a coastal defense network, is the larger strategic view. We lose the ability to engage in an effective dialogue about naval affairs. The scaling of the principles of naval warfare, and their artful combination into a method by which the naval strategist hopes to achieve the nation’s goals, is the heart of the task. It is not just the tactical employment of technology for kinetic effect.

As Brodie observed, “to say that the basic principles of war are easy to understand is not to say that it is easy to…determine upon a wise plan of strategy to carry it out.” These are some of the fundamentals we should be discussing when considering the doctrinal and operational writing of maritime affairs in the 21st century.  This is the reason reliance on acronyms, operational jargon, and beltway buzzwords like A2AD have the potential to hurt naval thinking more than they help it.

A Naval Thinking Reset

If the Chief of Naval Operations wants to move sailors toward a more strategic mindset, and to do this by ensuring that we define our terms and definitions accurately and we engage with strategic concepts and theory more readily, this is an important step.  As Peter Haynes ably demonstrated in his recent book, we naval officers tend to be very comfortable engaging in the discussion of how new technologies and new tactics fit into operational concepts. We are operators. First and foremost, we do things on and from the world’s oceans. We don’t tend to study things, or develop theories about things. Instead we do them and then we move along to the next operation which needs to be completed. This has important benefits for a force which has been deployed continually for over 240 years, in peace and war. Yet, because of this reality most naval officers internalize the belief that the most important thing for success in their work is their own personal experience. Less value is placed in learning from the experience of others, or the ideas and concepts others have used to describe the same or similar issues.

This operator mindset results in a service which is particularly vulnerable to the pernicious effects of the defense buzzword industry recently described by Adam Elkus. An easily digested op-ed in the defense press can describe something we have seen in our own experience, projecting that observation into a dangerous future with rapid change, and we quickly latch onto the buzzword peddled as a defining characteristic of the world. It integrates easily with our personal perception of the challenges directed our way. With little grounding in history or the strategic theories of the past, we rarely react to these concepts with the understanding that most of what is being discussed has already been faced in a modified form and which can be better described using those prior experiences.

Just as we always extend naval discussions “down” from operational ideas to the development of new weapons and technology, we must also look “up” to how they contribute to strategy. Jumping from one bit of invented jargon to the next not only confuses, but it also can mislead an organization looking for direction. Instead of looking at the strategic environment, and using our established knowledge to describe it and our actions, we look through the prism of an idealized future and create a strategic narrative that fits with our preconceptions rather than the world which our adversary inhabits. There is a great risk that in jumping on the bandwagon of buzzword invention and defense concept branding from the DC beltway, we obscure rather than clarify the tasks our navy faces during what is admittedly a time a change and re-emerging challenges. Use and understanding of the established strategic frameworks, the classical tenets of naval strategy, will help us with the bearings we need to properly chart our course.
BJ Armstrong is a naval officer reading for his PhD with the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London. He is the editor of the “21st Century Foundations” series from the Naval Institute Press which include his books “21st Century Mahan” and “21st Century Sims,” and the author of numerous articles on naval history and strategy. Some ideas in this article were first presented at the EMC Chair Symposium on Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College. These are his views and do not represent those of the U.S. Navy or any part of the U.S. government.


Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jeanette Mullinax