'Air/Sea Battle,' Escalation, and U.S. Strategy in the Pacific

Since the first reports of its development, the new U.S. military concept of “Air/Sea Battle” (ASB) has been the focus both of hope and of criticism. An operational concept that seeks to improve joint operations by the Navy and Air Force against foreign “anti-access and area-denial” (a.k.a. “A2/AD”) capabilities, ASB is widely viewed as a conceptual blueprint for the contingency of a conflict against China in the Western Pacific.

To be sure, the Pentagon has said little in public about what ASB actually envisions, and it reportedly exists at multiple levels of classification within the U.S. government. As a result, most commentators who write about it in the press are only speculating about its contents.

Its general contours, however, are generally believed to involve “fighting back” into the region by using sophisticated long-range attacks against the command-and-control (C2) networks, strike platforms, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets associated with Beijing’s A2/AD capabilities. For this reason, ASB has generated controversy.

The most pronounced criticism has been the argument that acting according to ASB’s assumed recommendations would represent a dangerous escalation in a conflict, because the targets that would need to be destroyed in order to cripple Beijing’s A2/AD capabilities include a great many that are on the Chinese mainland. ASB, in other words, is decried in some circles for being likely to take things one step closer to a general (and implicitly nuclear) war by involving us in strikes upon China itself in response to Chinese attacks merely upon forward-deployed U.S. forces.

To evaluate this criticism, however, it’s helpful to look back at an earlier articulation of U.S. naval strategy that was also decried as being dangerously escalatory: the “Maritime Strategy” adopted in the early 1980s in order to help deter (and if necessary, fight) war with the Soviet Union.

The story of its development is a fascinating tale of groundbreaking open-source analytical insights, deep intelligence penetrations that corroborated radical new conclusions about Soviet war planning, and bureaucratic serendipity within the U.S. government that permitted a wholesale revision of the U.S. Navy’s planning for World War Three.