Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 2, Issue 4  /  

Air-Sea Battle as a Military Contribution to Strategy Development

Air-Sea Battle as a Military Contribution to Strategy Development Air-Sea Battle as a Military Contribution to Strategy Development
To cite this article: Finney, Nathan K., “Air-Sea Battle as a Military Contribution to Strategy Development”, Infinity Journal, Volume 2, Issue No. 4, Fall 2012, pages 8-11.

[S]trategies are developed in an ongoing process of negotiation and dialogue among potent stakeholders, civilian and military.

Colin S. Gray[i]

As the United States continues to shift its political focus away from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the importance of a rising China and the Asia-Pacific states to international stability continues to garner attention. A portion of this attention includes the military threats that are present and possible capabilities necessary to ensure stability and access to that area of the globe today and into the future.

For the U.S. military a set of concepts that are colloquially merged in the media under the phrase “Air-Sea Battle” are being developed to address these access threats and the possible military response to their use. While many, particularly in the world of political and military analytic punditry, continually conflate the concepts tied to Air-Sea Battle with strategy, they are in reality a military’s contribution to strategy development.

While strategy is the identification of a desired political effect and the means that are to be used to attain it while balancing the inherent risks, Air-Sea Battle is merely a starting point for the negotiation that ultimately leads to a strategy. These sets of concepts are designed to identify the operational access-related challenges created by other actors, the capabilities required to overcome those challenges, and possible operational means for employing those capabilities to achieve military success – regardless of the political effect desired. This paper is intended to assist in separating the issues that swirl around the Air-Sea Battle concepts, while also pointing out deficiencies in our common conceptions of strategy highlighted by these debates.

Air-Sea Battle: A Short History

As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recognized as far back as 2009, the ability of the U.S. to ensure access to a theater of operations had become an afterthought due to the last decade’s use of the established and secure logistical hubs in the Middle East to safely move personnel and materiel into military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, as the U.S. looked beyond these wars to other threats in the world, the proliferation of modern anti-access and area-denial technologies, particularly in places like the Asian mainland, inhibited the access required by military forces in the event of conflict.

To address the growing challenges created by anti-access and area-denial threats, Secretary Gates directed the two services most likely to encounter access challenges based on military threats – the U.S. Navy and the Air Force – to develop approaches to address them.[ii] While some elements of access challenges can be addressed within the realm of diplomatic and political channels, the Department of Defense was concerned with employing forces into a contested theater and acquiring the freedom of maneuver required to achieve military objectives. The result of their efforts, particularly to address anti-access threats, became known as Air-Sea Battle.

While many are likely aware of Air-Sea Battle, most are familiar with the concept only through the confused information conveyed by articles and reports written in reaction to its initial and continued opaque development. As a recent article in the Washington Post noted, “Even as it has embraced Air-Sea Battle, the Pentagon has struggled to explain it without inflaming already tense relations with China. The result has been an information vacuum that has sown confusion and controversy.”[iii] To make matters worse, what in reporting is frequently called Air-Sea Battle has been conflated with multiple military concepts developed in reference to anti-access and area-denial threats. These include the Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC)[iv], of which the U.S. Air Force and Navy’s Air-Sea Battle provides the air and naval aspects, and the U.S. Army and Marine Corps’ Gain and Maintain Operational Access Concept[v] provides the land component.

These facts are largely peripheral to those interested in strategy. Air-Sea Battle is not the early 21st century silver bullet that will guarantee success in the next conventional conflict (despite Wired’s description of it as “a help desk for 21st Century warfare” [vi]). Air-Sea Battle’s true nature is to serve as part of the negotiation pursuant to strategy development. Air-Sea Battle does not identify the ends desired and risks inherent in a specific strategy, but it does identify many of the military resources and operational means necessary to enter a theater contested by anti-access capabilities. The Joint Operational Access and Gain and Maintain Operational Access concepts similarly address the resources and operational means needed to address area-denial technologies.

Strategy as a Negotiation

As those frequenting the pages of this journal are likely aware, one way to describe the development of strategy is as a negotiation between all organizations and personalities that have a stake in the execution of policy.[vii] In the case of employing coercive force to create a political effect, and thereby achieve a desired policy (e.g. using cyber attacks and targeted air strikes to degrade an adversary’s nuclear capability in order to decrease that nation’s ability to threaten international stability), those stakeholders include the military as a whole, as well as the individual services that each speak for their aspect of military force.

The military services are not chartered to develop the political effects the nation as a whole is trying to achieve, typically referred to as the “ends”. This function is the domain of the nation’s politics and should be encapsulated by the policies the executive branch provides as a guide and specific objectives to be attained. Instead, the military’s role in this negotiation is to provide the specific capabilities, or the “means” available for employment and the “ways” in which they are used to achieve a favorable condition, all within acceptable ranges of potential attrition and opportunity cost.

In reality, politics determine the policy prescribed, which may or may not be articulated clearly. This policy shapes the negotiation between the stakeholders responsible for their execution, leading to how each organization will achieve that policy and with what resources at their disposal and the risks inherent to their given approach. When these ends, ways, means, and risk are consolidated into actionable behavior they become a strategy. For the military, the difficult part is ensuring their behavior serves that policy.[viii] Concepts like Air-Sea Battle are merely one element of the U.S. military’s contribution to that negotiation.

The fact that strategy development can be concisely summed up in a few short paragraphs belies its true nature, which as an inherently human endeavor is complex. In the words of Colin S. Gray, in the development of strategy, “the quality of strategy…is driven by the character of key unique people’s performance both as individuals and as members of a group.”[ix] Personalities, organizational structures, procedures and cultures, competing priorities and budgetary demands and straightforward disagreements on possible solutions all create friction within the system. This friction must be accounted for during the strategy development negotiation.

Getting to Right: Operational Access and U.S. Military Concepts

As a part of the military element of the negotiation toward a strategy to overcome adversaries that possess advanced anti-access and area-denial capabilities, Air-Sea Battle and its associated concepts have helped generate the conversation on what resources and means are required to meet the challenges of the future. They are initial organizational documents that were compiled for use as a framework for further discussion, and have effectively begun the conversation on what resources and means are required. As such, we should carefully consider each of the three base documents that comprise Air-Sea Battle to understand this framework.

First, the parent concept written to describe operational access, anti-access, and area-denial (as well as to pull the previously developed Air-Sea Battle Concept into a fully joint context) is the Joint Operational Access Concept. This document primarily provides an operational context in which military forces find themselves when confronting an adversary that possesses anti-access and area-denial capabilities. The key point made by the document is that the U.S. military forces must more effectively employ and integrate complementary capabilities across all domains; land, air, sea, space, and cyber. Finally, this concept identifies operational capabilities that military forces will need to develop in order to be successful in anti-access and area-denial scenarios.

Air-Sea Battle itself was the initial concept developed to address anti-access threats, and though the initial idea was developed before the strategic pivot, it has greatly influenced strategy development in the Asia-Pacific.[x] Air-Sea Battle as a written concept has remained classified and can only be inferred from the original Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments report, various official statements made by those within the Air Force and Navy, and reporting by defense news analysts. These various sources have created confusion. Some have defined Air-Sea Battle narrowly as an operational concept focused on overcoming China’s anti-access capabilities should that be desired by the U.S. government, while other sources, including official statements from Department of Defense senior leaders and Air-Sea Battle proponents, are more expansive in describing it as “agnostic” toward regions of the world and strategic interests based upon the relatively easy proliferation of these technologies.[xi] This latter camp focuses less on what needs to be accomplished in any given theater and more on defeating capabilities to provide access to U.S. forces, while the former focuses on a specific threat and the desired capabilities to address it.

Finally, the Gaining and Maintaining Access: An Army-Marine Corps Concept is the land power addition to what was developed in the Joint Operational Access Concept and Air-Sea Battle concepts. It does this by describing how land forces would conduct operations to counter area-denial threats once in theater and support defeating remaining anti-access threats. Under this concept the main focus of land power would be to support the air and maritime forces efforts to expand access as they enter the littorals and – more importantly – create secure areas from which to expand ground presence. Once on the ground, land forces maneuver against land-based anti-access and area-denial capabilities to secure greater access for follow-on forces.

Together, these three concepts address the land, air, and sea domains of operational access and integrate operations among the military services and the capabilities they must bring to bear on anti-access and area-denial threats. None of these concepts – even when used in conjunction with the others – was developed to do anything more than describe the context of a military problem and the capabilities required to address it in the absence of any specific context. They begin the process of strategic negotiation by identifying the resources needed and likely operational means required to achieve access. Operating outside of any political context, without also considering a desired political effect or awareness of risks inherent in any given approach, these concepts do not constitute strategy on their own.

Not Quite There: Issues Identified in Operational Access Concepts

Viewing Air-Sea Battle and its associated concepts as only one element of the negotiation that is strategy development clears up many of the criticisms seen in and out of the defense sector, but not all. There are still significant issues that the overall discussion of Air-Sea Battle has created:

  • its potential use as a tool for the bureaucratic knife-fighting that is inevitably tied to the defense budget[xii]
  • its use as a catch-all solution for varied operations such as amphibious operations conducted on the Asian mainland, the integration of Services on cyber issues, and medical support to areas affected by natural disasters, and responses to climate change[xiii]
  • its development as a concept based around the use of technology instead of defeating a thinking enemy.[xiv]

The first two points are almost inevitable in any bureaucratic and political process, but particularly in one that involves an organization as large as the U.S. Department of Defense. Leveraging concepts that are tailored to legislative and executive priorities in order to fund weapons systems and other military programs is merely a part of procurement programs that provide the materiel for operational strategies and overall strategy development as a whole. Strategy is inherently a human endeavor that incurs personal and organizational loyalties and priorities – such cognitive biases and local influences are unavoidable aspects of any human process. But in the process of competing demands and narratives, a balance should be struck to flesh out exactly how available capabilities are used to create the desired political effect.

Of paramount concern to strategists is the final point regarding capability-based vice threat-based planning. By focusing merely on capabilities divorced of any desired political effect, we not only set ourselves up for failure against a thinking adversary, but also fall prey to wishful thinking and strategies that will most likely result in failure. As Colin S. Gray has noted in respect to over-attention on our own problems versus a constant attention to an adversary in strategy development,

When politicians and military commanders focus unduly, even exclusively, upon their own problems at the expense of appreciation of the enemy’s difficulties, their strategic performance is certain to be impaired. However, when it comes to problems, enemy behaviour must be a principal worry; indeed, as a general rule it should be the major concern.[xv]

Instead of focusing on the threats created by anti-access and area-denial technologies and the capabilities we must develop to overcome them, we should focus more on the human dimension with the support of current and on-the-horizon technologies, including “ideas tailored to the potential in combined arms prowess of new technology [as the] major engine of radical military and strategic development.”[xvi] The Joint Operational Access Concept trended toward this by directing the integration of capabilities across domains and functions, but more work remains to be done. Above all, our military concepts and our diplomatic pressure must mitigate against an imbalance caused by basic human misunderstanding; throughout history there has been a fine line between preparedness and provocation.[xvii] Only when a thinking adversary is considered, and political ends are articulated can the Air-Sea Battle and associated concepts be used to best effect in strategy development.

Improving Our Tools for Strategy Development

While many have taken to the airwaves and blogosphere to criticize Air-Sea Battle and its associated concepts, few are viewing them in appropriate context: as the military contribution to the negotiation that is strategy development, which happens simultaneously in many different political environments. As a part of this process we must ensure that when we use Air-Sea Battle and associated concepts to develop a national strategy that takes into account both the usefulness in these documents and their limitations. This includes the limitation that these concepts are merely a starting point for negotiation, not an answer to all operational access-related problems. The true usefulness of Air-Sea Battle and its associated concepts is that they will force the U.S. military and other stakeholders to develop the tools – physical, bureaucratic/organizational, programmatic, and mental – to create adaptive and specific strategies when required and in conjunction with all elements of national power; all while, as quoted at the beginning of the article, acting as part of the process of negotiation and dialogue that is strategy development.


[i] Colin S. Gray, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 56.
[ii] Philip Dupree & Jordan Thomas, “Air-Sea Battle: Clearing the Fog”, Armed Forces Journal, June 2012,, accessed 28 June 2012.
[iii] Greg Jaffe, “U.S. model for a future war fans tensions with China and inside Pentagon”, The Washington Post, 1 August, 2012,, accessed 13 September 2012. Also see Randy Forbes, “AirSea Office Must Battle Through, Or Fail”, AolDefense, 13 September 2012,, accessed 14 September 2012 for discussion on the confusion created by Air-Sea Battle (and its proponent office).
[iv] Department of Defense, Joint Operational Access Concept, Version 1.0, 17 January 2012,, accessed 8 August 2012.
[v] United States Army, Army Capabilities Integration Center & United States Marine Corps
[vi] Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Gaining and Maintaining Access: An Army-Marine Corps Concept, Version 1.0, March 2012,, accessed on 21 August 2012.
[vii] Sam LaGrone, “Pentagon’s ‘Air-Sea Battle’ Plan Explained. Finally.”, Wired,, accessed 7 August 2012.
[viii] See Gray, Strategy Bridge, 123-166 for more detail on the concept of strategy as a negotiation, and as strategists working on the “bridge” between military tactics and desired political effects.
[ix] Colin S. Gray, “Strategy: Some Notes for a User’s Guide”, Infinity Journal, Volume 2, Issue No. 2, Spring 2012, 4.
[x] Gray, Strategy Bridge, 138.
[xi] Department of Defense, Defense Budget: Priorities and Choices, January 2012,, accessed on 21 August 2012, 5-6, and Sustaining US Leadership: Priorities for the 21st Century Defense, released in January 2012, accessed on 21 August 2012,, 4-5.
[xii] Chief of Staff of the Air Force and the Chief of Naval Operations, Air-Sea Battle Doctrine: A Discussion with the Chief of Staff of the Air Force and Chief of Naval Operations, Brookings Institution, 16 May 2012,, accessed 21 August 2012.
[xiii] Peter J. Munson & Nathan K. Finney, “Why Operational Access Is No Revolution”, Rethinking Security, 3 April 2012,, accessed 20 August 2012.
[xiv] CSAF & CNO, Air-Sea Battle Doctrine, 12.
[xv] Bernard Finel, “Capabilities-Based Planning Comes Home to Roost”,,, accessed on 20 August 2012. While Bernard Finel discusses capabilities-based planning/programming and its failures, he does not directly tie to Air-Sea Battle and its associated concepts. Rather, he addresses the inherent danger of planning for technological capabilities instead of a thinking enemy: “But the problem is that none of these capabilities make sense in the abstract. They all require a specific adversary with specific capabilities in specific scenarios to do a cost and benefit analysis of any given system. Capabilities-based planning unmoors defense programs from any solid analytical foundation.”
[xvi] Gray, Strategy Bridge, 128.
[xvii] Gray, Strategy Bridge, 72.
[xviii] Graham Allison, “Avoiding Thucydides’s Trap”, Financial Times (London), 22 August 2012,, accessed 9 Sep 2012.