Belmont Club

The AirSea Battle

Readers have referenced a number interesting articles which shed more light on the “AirSea Battle” strategy that is said to guide the US posture toward China. To understand the concept, it is necessary to go back to the 1990s, when the ground forces realized that its small numbers meant that it would have to conduct any and all forward operations “under the umbrella of what we then called an operational exclusion zone” in the words of  BG Huba Wass de Czege, writing in the November 2011 edition of Army.

Czege, who commanded a rifle company in combat and advised a Vietnamese Ranger Battalion and commanded at all levels through brigade, before founding the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas asserted that helping an ally or deploying troops forward meant the Air Force and the Navy had to dominate the surrounding area for thousands of miles. That domination including “knowing” about any threats and striking the relevant ones.

But there was one problem in every case. Creating an “operational exclusion zone” could not be attempted or even hinted at up until the very last moment that diplomacy had completely failed. The challenge for the Air Force and Navy would be to go from being at peace with a friend to being totally dominant over a newly created foe without being pre-emptively agressive.  They had to figuratively keep the sun shining while the diplomats talked and be ready the next moment to make all the enemy systems go dark as night.

In the context of the 1990s Middle East the problem was how to resist the ‘temptation of preemption’ — “the price of which was to act before unequivocal evidence of aggression could be found … before it was possible to know whether the aggressor was merely posturing for political effect or was actually attacking” and not leave things until it was too late.

Czege called these ‘timing issues’.  ‘Timing issues’ would control when the Air Force and the Navy could act to “suppress surveillance strike complexes.

The ‘timing issues’ were particularly problematic with respect to China. Raoul Heinrichs writing in the Diplomat noted that Chinese “surveillance strike complexes” were far more capable and robust than Middle Eastern ones.  He relates an anecdote from 2009 which said it all.

The officer, a senior leader in US Pacific Command, looked down, fumbled with his papers and shifted uncomfortably in his seat. It was 2009, and he was answering a question about whether, in a Taiwan Straits crisis similar to that which occurred in the mid-1990s, the United States could confidently respond by again deploying aircraft carrier groups around Taiwan. ‘No,’ he conceded after a long pause, ‘and it’s the thing that really keeps me up at night.’ It was a telling response.

Yet if America responded to Chinese “area denial” efforts by a prolonged build-up which gave America the option to turn the lights out on the Chinese it would give rise to an arms race in the region. It would make diplomacy impossible and might not be possible at all. The problem was one of asymmetrical cost. Czege noted that the requirement to beat China to the punch — as opposed to pre-emptively striking them — was a sophisticated and expensive proposition. Such a requirement might bankrupt America. The cost of a realistic plan that would not threaten China — yet appear from seemingly nowhere to strike them down in the event of a belligerency — was a tough one to meet. Czege wrote that wargames showed that it was cheaper for the Chinese to defend than it was for America to beat them to the punch:

In those Army After Next wargames, of course, diplomacy and deterrence failed, and we had a war for the benefit of learning. We also learned that Clausewitz was right about defense being the stronger form of war (all things being equal). Surveillance strike complexes (defense) can be super-efficient when responding to recognizable, hostile incursions into defended space.

Lower levels of technology and less capacity are required to keep up such defenses than are required to dismantle them. We could, like the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, bankrupt ourselves for the sake of guaranteeing Taiwanese independence by military means alone. An arms race between their projected defenses and our projected dismantling offenses would cost us a considerable amount more than it would for the Chinese to offset it, and to be far enough ahead in the race to make deterrence credible would require us to spend a great deal more than the Chinese would need to spend.

Heinrichs like Czege, was concerned about the risks and costs of confronting China.

These are questions that Washington will, in time, be forced to answer. In the meantime, the US Navy and Air Force have begun preparing AirSea Battle contingencies, a war-fighting doctrine aimed at countering China’s denial strategy. By denying China’s capacity for anti-access, the United States intends to preserve its options for sea-control and power projection, reinforcing its primacy and role as the region’s guarantor of free navigation. This decision, in turn, reflects a deeper, more quixotic judgement that such an objective is both vital to the United States and attainable at a level of cost and risk commensurate with US interests in the region.

On both counts, though, there are reasons to be sceptical. First, the cost of AirSea Battle is likely to be prohibitive. Though it remains a largely notional concept, AirSea Battle will depend on an expansive set of upgraded capabilities: a hardened and more dispersed network of bases and C4ISR systems; more and better submarine, anti-submarine and mine-warfare capabilities; and new, long range conventional strike systems, including bombers and anti-satellite weapons. Then, of course, there are the aircraft carriers and other major surface combatants, strike-fighter aircraft, and possibly even amphibious ships.

Needless to say, these are expensive capabilities. Many are disproportionately costly (and vulnerable) relative to the platforms against which they’re being fielded. And in some cases, particularly anti-submarine warfare and ballistic missile defence, their prospective cost greatly exceeds the operational effect they can be expected to produce. All of this would be exacting for the United States in peak economic condition. In a new era of fiscal stringency, with US debt expanding and the Pentagon looking to save hundreds of billions over the next decade, expecting the US military to do more with less is at best unlikely, and at worst wholly untenable.

But that was not an answer. Leaving aside the critical issue of cost, the US military needed to have some doctrine to realistically face China if it was forced to. Necessity compels. In that event, clues to the military’s thinking were partly provided by Norton Schwartz, Chief of Staff of the US Air Force who gave an interview to the Joint Force Quarterly.

The key, it seemed, was to realize that a potential Chinese threat was not a special case. The Air Force had been in long discussion with the Navy, the only other service was “global perspective” and realized that irrespective of China, the fundamental US requirement was their joint ability to dominate the “global commons” for the required period.

Acting in accordance with their separate understandings of their universal missions, the Air Force and the Navy had developed “global strike” capabilities.  What was necessary, Schwartz argued, was to harmonize the “institutional thinking” of both services from the strategic level right down to the operational in order to dominate air, sea — and though they left out the word — space.

There are fundamentally two stealth platforms in the DOD [Department of Defense] portfolio. Clearly, the Air Force has one of them with the B–2. Clearly, the Navy has one of them with their fleet of submarines. It’s something that I quite frankly had never thought much about and that we haven’t collectively given much thought to in the past: Is there a way for those two stealth capabilities in the defense portfolio to better reinforce one another? Maybe there’s not, but this kind of thinking has potential to make better use of the resources we do have at our disposal and to moderate those capabilities out there that have the potential of making power projection a higher risk proposition for our country.

Czege’s “operational exclusion zone” requirement had become reworded to what Schwartz called “domain control”. Domain control was a universal requirement. The key to achieving that domain control was knowing (ISR), moving (lift) and striking at any point along the global commons. Schwartz felt that if the Air Force and Navy got their act together and fought differently they might be capable in ways nobody has yet suspected.

It is easy to see from a layman’s point of view what thinking might be developing internally. The correct perspective would be to regard China as a specific problem of the generic requirement of domain control. If you increase the domain control capabilities the China requirement is automatically met.

By increasing the ISR, mobility and strike capabilities of the Air Force and the Navy (especially its stealth platforms) the US can non-threateningly deter China in the same way that Beijing can fortify itself without seeming aggressive. This gets around the ‘timing issues’ raised by Czege. For as long as peace prevails not a cloud will darken the sky. China will build up its bases. America will build up its generic global capability. If the dreaded day ever comes, then that global capability will be focused like a laser beam somewhere to turn the sunlight off when and if an act of aggression or a failure of diplomacy makes this necessary.

But the problem remains: can the Air Force and the Navy continue to do this with the money at hand? Only time will tell.

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