Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 2, Issue 4  /  

Way of War or the Latest “Fad”? A critique of AirSea Battle

Way of War or the Latest “Fad”? A critique of AirSea Battle Way of War or the Latest “Fad”? A critique of AirSea Battle
To cite this article: Fontenot Greg and Benson Kevin, “Way of War or the Latest ‘Fad’? A critique of AirSea Battle”, Infinity Journal, Volume 2, Issue No. 4, Fall 2012, pages 22-25.

In the absence of an identifiable symmetrical threat to the United States, there is no consensus on how to assure its interests are maintained and obtain advantage from its position in the world. Debates within the defense establishment and beyond have not produced consensus on a new American way of war. The “revolutions in military affairs” defaulted to boots on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in a form of warfare the Romans would recognize. None of these revolutions seriously considered strategic context, nor did they envision a fundamentally altered American approach to (way of) war. The debates within the armed services have produced, for want of a better term – a series of fads.

Fads are breathtaking concepts that sprout unbidden from think tanks and the Department of Defense that consume resources without results. Among them, the idea that distant precision guided munitions coupled with digital links would change the conduct of warfare. Net-centric operations and “Shock and Awe” are among the knowledge fads. More recently effects based operations and design held sway. Yet none of these concepts helped improve performance in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The latest potential “fad” is AirSea Battle. According to an unnamed official, “Air-Sea Battle is not a war plan, not a [conops] plan, not an operational plan, it’s a framework of design which articulates and describes what the problem is.”[i] Jan van Tol, the author of an authoritative paper on the AirSea battle concept stated, “AirSea Battle, as a doctrine for the operational level of war, cannot and should not be seen as a “war-winning” concept in itself.”[ii] So, the Defense Department is investing time, money and people into a concept that is at best incomplete and is not a war winning concept. Although we believe the concept responds to a genuine requirement for joint operations we offer several criticisms. This criticism is based exclusively on the public record given that we, like the Chinese and the Iranians who seem to be the inspiration for this concept, know only what is in open sources.

The most authoritative public sources on the AirSea Battle concept are two papers written under the auspices of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis (CSBA): Why AirSea Battle and AirSea Battle: A point-of-departure Operational Concept. In the former, Andrew Krepinevich argues that AirSea Battle is necessary based on the growing capacity of China and Iran to challenge the force projection capability of the United States. In the latter, Jan van Tol proposes an incomplete campaign that attacks the depth of mainland China to wrest control of the air and sea space in order to conduct a distant blockade. Krepinevich and van Tol conflate the terms framework, concept, and doctrine interchangeably. Further, they do not satisfactorily link the development of this capability to a clear strategic priority.

Policy and Strategy

Policy establishes strategic priorities and guides the use of force. Given the existing economic conditions security policy should be made assuming shrinking budgets. For this article we use Eliot Cohen’s model for a 21st century strategy, which includes assumptions, ends, ways, means, priorities, sequencing and a theory of victory.[iii] But AirSea Battle is not proposed as a strategy but rather a concept. So what is the purpose of an operational concept?

Uniformed officers of all services generally understand that the purpose of a concept is to adapt the force for the future. Service doctrine, the product of military theory, education and experience enabled adaptation to the realities of current operations. LTG (ret) L. Don Holder described the difference between concept and doctrine as: “Concepts describe the force of the future; doctrine employs the force in the motor pool.” Observers of our military know there were times when doctrine, described as the engine of change, was written for the force we wished we had “in the motor pool.” Given the differences between strategy, concepts and doctrine what do we need for the 21st century?[iv]

The Obama administration’s answer to this question may be found in “Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense.” This document codifies the shift from a Euro-centric defense policy toward the Pacific. “Sustaining Global Leadership” establishes a course that will result in fewer defense dollars and a clearer focus on the future for military planners. Among ten priorities listed for defense, projecting power in the face of Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD ) efforts by potential enemies is listed third. Although there is no announced priority among the ten listed, one can infer that power projection is third among them behind counter terrorism and irregular warfare (at least until the United States withdraws forces from Afghanistan) and deter and defeat aggression.

So what questions arise about AirSea Battle in the context of the administration’s defense planning guidance? First and foremost the only investment mandated is a stealthy bomber. This makes sense if the danger posed by anti-access is long range anti-shipping missiles. What this suggests is the carrier battle group is a liability and not an asset in the face of anti-access capabilities such as long range anti-ship missiles. Then why keep building super carriers, since they are both enormously expensive and increasingly vulnerable? If, on the other hand, the F-35 is built, launched from carriers and refueled by Air Force tankers the carrier retains a role, why develop a stealthy bombe, given what the B-2 costs? Is this investment really necessary now? Given the Chinese investment in stealth aircraft and long range air-to-air missiles specifically targeted at US aerial refueling and AWACs, the long range bomber may be the only option for a penetrating manned system. This leads to two obvious questions. First, do we need a manned system for penetration? More important, should we even be conducting penetrating strikes into a thermo nuclear armed state?

More important to solutions to anti-access capabilities are what power is imagined to be projected if the AirSea Battle concept goes forward? The two CSBA AirSea Battle papers and some unfortunate allusions to rebel success in Libya warrant posing this question. Are land forces to be projected? If so what does the phrase “balanced lift” mean when it appears on page four of “Sustaining US Global Leadership?” The CSBA AirSea Battle papers are silent here suggesting that projection will be limited to projectiles to avoid expensive land campaigns. This begs the question of why invest in such a concept if the intent of anti-access is to preclude decision on the ground? If China, Iran or anyone else develops an anti-access/area denial capability, is the threat of bombing sufficient to deter them from attacking our ships if they enter the denied areas? Is the threat of distant blockade and strategic bombing throughout the breadth and depth of the country sufficient deterrence?

What DO we need?

What is needed, given the conditions of our times, is a combination strategy and concept. Our strategy, guided by our security policy, will serve as the framework for the design of campaigns that ensure the United States and its allies freedom of navigation of the global commons; sea, air, space, and cyber.[v] The strategy will be executed by the force in being. Ensuring access to the global commons requires a joint combined arms team of air, sea, land and special operations forces. The size of these forces depends on the policy objectives we establish for ourselves and the amount of risk we wish to assume. The need to defeat current anti-access and area denial weapons systems will be addressed by the current force. AirSea Battle appears to overlook the area denial challenge posed by land and sea mines, guided missiles, artillery (and its host of guided munitions) as well as mortars. This step toward developing a total campaign, even if we choose to not assist in restructuring of post-hostilities governance, will require land operations as well as sea, air and cyber. Although AirSea Battle is not a war winning concept in itself it is a comprehensively stated outline for operations to defeat anti-access/area denial weapons systems in an overall campaign. If the point of denying access is to prevent the introduction of ground forces then the obvious first step for AirSea Battle is to destroy these systems and take away, even if temporarily, that which the weapons defend.

Taken as a concept for the future what we know of AirSea Battle can serve as a guide for a portion of the force we want and need as anti-access and area denial weapons grow in complexity and lethality. The world still requires commerce thus freedom of navigation at sea, in the air and within the ether are all vital interests. The conceptual underpinning of AirSea Battle, as a necessary phase within a total campaign, is vital in providing guidance for developing weapons programs from missile, counter-missile, surface and sub-surface vessels and aircraft, manned and unmanned. For example, if there is a ballistic missile designed and built to destroy large deck aircraft carriers at strategic distances perhaps the era of the current large capital ship is over and we should develop, or resurrect, the “jeep” carriers of WWII. These smaller carriers could carry unmanned aircraft.[vi] We could also explore the possibility of deception measures that would mask the large deck carrier or cause multiple radar images on the ballistic missiles’ guidance systems. For that matter, why risk surface vessels at all? Why not invest in submarines that can attack and destroy the anti-access platforms that our enemies might employ.

If Iran is not one of the inspirations for this concept then big combatant ships may not be required. If Iran is part of the inspiration the sea component, alone, will not suffice in any case. Before looking for a threat, policy should lead to strategy. A strategic vision will suggest adversaries and thus what forces are required to execute that strategy. This is the critical point. We need to identify the enemies that may use A2/AD against us and build appropriate forces. While we might not need to land on mainland China we do need to keep the Straits of Hormuz open until we find another way to move the millions of barrels of oil per day. That said, it will take a massively more capable force to deal with China than with Iran. Without this process, a genuine concept is not feasible. The purpose of any concept after all is to describe the force of the future.

So while there is a growing capability of anti-access and area denial efforts by potential enemies, there is very little in the public record that suggests a compelling reason to invest large sums to overcome that capability. The Iranian threat to close the Straits of Hormuz is real, but they could easily do that with anti-ship missiles that neither naval aviation nor the Air Force can be sure of destroying. Moreover, there is little clear evidence that an AirSea Battle concept as articulated in the open media is sufficient in any case. When queried as to why defeating anti-access efforts are necessary some AirSea Battle advocates claim what is required is to assure that passage through maritime defiles can be secured. If the problem is penetrating the Persian Gulf, land forces would prove crucial. The geography of the straits is telling. One tanker, if successfully attacked, paralyzes the oil shipping industry by raising shipping insurance rates. In any Straits of Hormuz scenario land forces must have the capability to forcibly enter Iran and take away decisive terrain until a political settlement can be reached. Clearly, the straits must be opened relatively swiftly or the oil-dependent global economy crashes. If the problem is defeating Chinese anti-access threats, it is difficult to see why that would be required if there is no intent to fight China on land; and that is not envisioned by the proponents. In short, access to the global commons is not an end in itself but the means to an end. Humans do not live in the global commons.

21st Century Strategy

Cohen’s strategic outline proposed assumptions, ends, ways, means, priorities, sequencing and a theory of victory. The essential assumption regards U.S. policy. We assume the economic health of the United States depends upon freedom of navigation and freedom of commerce; a vital national interest. Therefore a threat to control maritime defiles is a threat to a vital national interest of the United States. Other assumptions can be developed but for our purposes this one will suffice.

In support of our policy of assuring freedom of navigation our strategic end is a restoration of that freedom to global sea traffic. The central way of the strategy is the application of the joint military power of the United States in coherent campaigns designed to remove that threat, and the means the U.S. will use are our existing and future military forces. The priorities of such a strategy are budgetary, as well as based on adversary analysis.

Think tanks(e .g. the Center for New American Security and the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis) propose refocusing on American air and naval power in light of a requirement to operate in the global commons. In the aftermath of two protracted land wars it is time for a strategic re-evaluation and, perhaps, some shift in budget priorities. A pragmatic assessment of real and potential adversary capabilities clearly must be a part of the strategic review. For example, if our air bases are vulnerable to Chinese intermediate range ballistic missiles then perhaps an investment in Patriot anti-missile equipped brigades is necessary. However, the concern about forward bases may be overdrawn. Throughout the Cold War our bases in Europe lay well inside the range of the weapons systems of the Warsaw Pact. The same is true on the Korean peninsula. Why then is this new threat more compelling than the one which the United States and NATO confronted in Europe and the US and South Koreans still endure? China does possess thousands of missiles that are accurate enough to hit selected targets. Thus, by choosing to operate bases within the range fan of these missiles–and we will have to use these bases–we need a range of options for defense to include hardening and rapid recovery. Frankly, the case is yet to be made that the threat from either China or Iran is so compelling as to require large investments to mitigate.

Nonetheless, AirSea Battle is a cogent articulation of a phase of campaign to reduce or eliminate an adversary’s ability to deny the use of a maritime defile or preclude the United States from assisting a friendly nation in repelling an assault. The current Joint Staff campaign phasing model addresses the sequencing of the use of military power throughout a campaign; the shift from defense to offense and the priority of effort. Coupled with the exercise of diplomatic and information power a coherent strategic outcome could be the removal a threat without a direct clash of arms. Demonstrated capability underpins deterrence, complicating the strategic calculus of potential adversaries. This coherence and unity of effort supports the theory of victory a strategy for the 21st century demands.

Whither AirSea Battle?

So what are the major criticisms of AirSea Battle? First, anti-access/area denial is not a new problem. To check the assertions examine the investments in mine clearing in the last four decades. If AirSea Battle is required to assure the integration of Air and Sea assets, what does this suggest about the utility of Goldwater-Nichols and the shibboleth that the Department of Defense has made about “jointness.” What are the strategic imperatives that necessitate this concept which addresses a single phase of a joint campaign? If this is not about Iran and China who then is it about? Is this about Somali pirates? If this is, as it surely must be, about China and Iran, once we have defeated their anti-access efforts, then what? This is one of the critical questions. In what strategic context is this concept essential or is it a lesser included offensive within a larger joint concept or way of war? Frankly, answers to these questions cannot be found in open sources. Congress should demand answers before it authorizes and appropriates resources and re-apportions the defense budget to meet the requirements the Air Force and Navy seem to contemplate.

Although it is possible a peer competitor will seek to deny access and use one or more of the global commons to its advantage this does not make the AirSea Battle concept a war winner. Before AirSea Battle is taken seriously as a useful joint concept it is necessary to articulate the strategic context, as noted, this is the critical question, and to examine whether this is a serious attempt by the air and sea services to deal with a legitimate problem, or an institutional response to the threat of reduced budgets. Critical review of the claims of each of the services must be taken. Institutions do not willingly reduce their consumption of resources nor do they typically stray far from their culture and institutional prejudices. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the Air Force Association’s October 2011 presentation: “Air Power Advocacy.” As Lt Gen Paul Van Riper said, “Meanwhile in a most ‘non-joint way’ two services offered up the concept of Air-Sea Battle (ASB), which they plainly developed more to support weapons programs than as an actual operating concept.”[vii]

Given that the Air Force Association is unlikely to take positions that are not tacitly supported by the Air Force this presentation suggests how the Air service is thinking. “Air Power Advocacy” renews the vision of Guilio Douhet, promising a clean, decisive fight with few casualties if only the Air Force gets a larger share of the budget. This argument is supported by, to say the least, shallow analysis of recent campaigns.

With fewer than 300 ships the Navy quite reasonably contends that it will need more vessels. How many and what kind of vessels are needed is the question? If the Navy is serious about defeating anti-access we should be looking for investment in demining capability and very long range anti-ship and land attack missiles. In a Navy staff briefing to Undersecretary of the Navy Robert Work on 26 October 2010 one chart was titled, “At its core, AirSea Battle is about winning a guided munitions salvo competition.” Congress should ask hard questions about why the United States should continue to build super carriers at the current rate of approximately $13 Billion a piece.

Finally, look carefully at how the Army balances the need for combat brigades with the need for capability to shape future theaters of war and the capacity to expand rapidly. This will indicate if the Army organizes for an ambiguous future or for the last war, exclusively counter-insurgent. AirSea Battle may well be necessary to wage future campaigns but it is unlikely to be sufficient. As noted earlier, this is one of the key issues.

The Congress should be wary of any concept proposed by the services or the Department of Defense that requires large investment in the absence of clearly articulated strategic requirements which are not forthcoming publicly where, in the end, the case must be made. No matter what the threat is, the projected $487B in defense cuts over the next decade will affect the capability we are likely to require. Thinking through the problem vice protecting service “rice bowls” is essential in an era with fewer resources, and no clearly identifiable symmetrical threats to the United States.


[i] Philip Ewing, Services promise to add Army to “Air-Sea Battle,” Wednesday, November 9th, 2011 5:28 pm Posted in Policy
[ii] Jan van Tol, et al, AirSea Battle A point-of-departure Operational Concept, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2010, p. 10.
[iii] T.X. Hammes, “Limited means strategy: What to do when the cupboard is bare,” Infinity Journal, Issue No. 3, Summer 2011, p. 8. Also from a personal e-mail exchange between Dr. Benson and Professor Cohen, 14NOV11.
[iv] Personal e-mail from MG (ret) David Fastabend, 8 November 2011.
[v] All theorists and practitioners owe a debt to Professor Barry Posen of the MIT Security Studies Program for coining this term of art in Command of the Commons: The Military Foundation of U.S. Hegemony, in International Security, Vol. 28, Number 1, Summer 2003, pp 5-46.
[vi] The Navy is fully aware of the increasing vulnerability of the carrier forces and more importantly of the resulting decrease in actual combat capability they provide. See Captain Henry J. Hendrix, USN and Lieutenant Colonel J. Noel Williams USMC, “The Twilight of the $UPERfluous Carrier,” Proceedings May 2011 at WWW.USNI.ORG. Hendrix and Williams opine that smaller decked “carriers” launching VSTOL aircraft manned or unmanned may be part of the solution to solving the sea control problem. See also Commander John Patch, USN retired, “Fortress at Sea? The Carrier Invulnerability Myth,” Proceedings January 2010, at WWW.USNI.ORG.
[vii] Dempsey’s New Vision For 2020 Joint Force Sparks Mixed Reactions By Christopher J. Castelli,, October 3, 2012