Like the Holy Trinity or the designated hitter rule, the concept known as AirSea Battle has been much discussed but little understood. The Defense Department released an official and unclassified summary of the concept for the first time this evening on a Navy website . (BreakingDefense got the document before it was made public). AirSea Battle would break down longstanding barriers: barriers to cooperation among the four armed services, barriers separating domains of conflict like submarine warfare and cyberspace, and, most problematically, barriers that have kept past crises from escalating to greater destruction and even, ultimately, to nuclear war.
Over a decade ago, Chinese military theorists started talking about “unrestricted warfare.” AirSea Battle is unrestricted warfare, American style. It’s central to a Pacific nightmare scenario with China, to reopening the Persian Gulf if it were blockaded by Iran, and to waging interservice budget battles in Washington. It’s been dissected by thinktanks, criticized by Sinophile strategists, and alternately envied and imitated by the Army. Yet unlike its acknowledged inspiration, the Army-Air Force concept of AirLand Battle against the Soviet Union, AirSea Battle remains more vague than vivid. Part of the problem is so much of it is classified, part is that the idea is still evolving, but some of the blame must fall on the Air Force and Navy, the concept’s chief proponents, who have never articulated it all that well in public – that is, until now:
Back in September, Rep. Randy Forbes, an advocate of AirSea Battle and chairman of the House armed Services seapower and emerging forces subcommittee, wrote an op-ed for us urging the services to come out with “an unclassified version of the AirSea Battle concept.” Nine months after Forbes’s entreaty and almost four years after then-Secretary of Defense Bob Gates officially tasked the Air Force and Navy – joined belatedly by the Army and Marines – to develop the AirSea Battle idea, we finally have an unclassified explanation of what it actually is. Better yet, with some context and a little parsing of military jargon (which we’ll try to do here), this summary is remarkably lucid.
Start with the basics. AirSea Battle began as, and remains, an attempt to solve the operational problem known in clunky Pentagon jargon as Anti-Access/Area Denial or (even worse) A2/AD. In essence, anti-access is how an enemy keeps US forces out of a region altogether, area denial is how they bog us down once we get there, but the two inevitably overlap.
Adversaries have obviously tried to keep us out and bog us down before. The new danger, however, is that technologies that were once an American monopoly are now proliferating to China and then onwards to anyone who can buy weapons from China, which is basically anybody who’s got the cash. So after decades of US forces being able to fly, sail, and drive more or less anywhere they wanted (even roadside bombs, for all the casualties they inflict, never actually stopped us moving around Afghanistan or Iraq), we increasingly have to worry about sophisticated weapons that can reach out and touch us at long range, from “a new generation of cruise, ballistic, air-to-air, and surface-to-air missiles” (in the summary’s words) to anti-satellite and cyber attacks.
That said, the summary goes on, “even low-technology capabilities, such as rudimentary sea mines, fast-attack small craft, or shorter range artillery and missile systems” can keep us from stopping aggression “in certain scenarios” which they decline to name. (One much-discussed example, though, would be an Iranian attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz to oil shipping). But it’s the high-tech threats, especially ballistic missiles and cyberattacks, that worry strategists most, not only because they could keep the US from intervening in a regional crisis but because they could enable an enemy to strike the United States itself. As the summary warns, “even the U.S. homeland cannot be considered a sanctuary.”
What the new document makes clear, in a way it has not been clear before (at least to me), is how the US military intends to respond. In essence, if an enemy can now reach out and touch us in ways and at distances they never could before, we’re going to find all sorts of ways to reach out and touch them back.
The document describes this as a “cross-domain” “attack in depth” using “both kinetic and non-kinetic means.” In plain English, this means we won’t just sit back and defend ourselves. We won’t just try to shoot down enemy missiles after they launch, block cyberattacks once they’re already underway, or jam sensors that are already scanning us, although all those defensive activities are certainly necessary. Nor will we just respond tit-for-tat, with our airplanes shooting down the airplanes that attack us, our ships shooting at their ships, our cyberwarriors hacking theirs, although such “symmetrical” forms of fighting remain important, too.
Instead, we’ll throw all sorts of wrenches into the enemy war machine at every possible point, what the top officers of the Air Force and Navy, Gen. Mark Welsh and Adm. Jonathan Greenert, called in an article they co-wrote “breaking the kill chain.” Of course you should try to shoot down the enemy missile once it’s launched. But it’s much better to blow up the launcher before it actually launches, or to blind the radar that’s trying to find you, or, best of all, crash the enemy communications network that is orchestrating the attack in the first place, whether by blowing up their headquarters, jamming their wireless datalinks, or hacking their computers. Instead of trying to shoot down an enemy satellite, just bomb the ground control station to which it’s transmitting data, or better yet hack into that data stream to feed the enemy false information.
Instead of fighting fire with fire, in other words, throw water on it, or sand. As the summary puts it, “cyber or undersea operations can be used to defeat air defense systems, air forces can be used to eliminate submarine or mine maritime threats, or space assets can be used to disrupt adversary command and control.”
Here’s where it gets difficult, of course. All these capabilities answer to different commanders in the theater. Back home, they are all organized, trained, and equipped by four different armed services, each one further subdivided into its own stovepiped fiefdoms.
Overcoming these barriers even partially has been a decades-long struggle for what the military calls jointness. It took 20 years, for example, just to get Air Force and Navy aircraft to work properly together. Back in the 1991 Gulf War couriers had to fly the strike plans between airbases ashore and carriers at sea because the two services’ transmission systems were not compatible. Since the 1980s debacles of Desert One and Grenada, which prompted Congress to pass the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act over the objections of Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Navy Secretary John Lehman, there has been tremendous progress.
In the current conflict, Army and Marine ground troops have worked together closely in Afghanistan, and Air Force and Navy planes provided close air support to both. But that’s still a long way from, for example, a Navy pilot over the West Pacific needing an enemy radar shut down in a hurry and getting an Army signals officer at the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Maryland to hack into it for him, on demand in a life or death situation. Yet that seems to be precisely the kind of thing that AirSea Battle envisions.
“The purpose of ASB is not to simply conduct operations more jointly,” the summary says sweepingly. “Commanders, whether defending or attacking, must have ready access to capabilities, no matter what domain they reside in or which commander owns them.” (The staggeringly infelicitous term the document uses to describe this concept is “networked, integrated forces capable of attack-in-depth to disrupt, destroy and defeat adversary forces (NIA/D3).” Let’s all pray that one never catches on; anti-access/area denial is bad enough).
That kind of intimate cooperation can’t be imposed by the joint theater commanders on their own, and it needs more than just better communications networks. It requires, instead, new “procedures [and] authorities” to let those operational commanders reach across traditional lines of jurisdiction and bring in capabilities they need. (The document doesn’t say, but such changes would require new Pentagon policies and perhaps new laws, developments we’ll be watching for and writing about).
This new jointness also must reach all the way back into the core of the armed services’ jurisdictions, into how troops are trained, units organized, and equipment developed and procured. The services need “mutually developed capability gaps” – i.e. a shared official analysis of the problem – and “integrated solution sets” – i.e. a shared official program to solve it. That kind of coordination would require require changes in how the services train to fight and could affect every defense contract for items more complex than combat boots.
As awe-inspiring as the ensuing turf wars will be, however, they’re not nearly as scary as the real wars. Tit-for-tat, unimaginative “symmetrical” combat – my planes dogfight your planes, my subs hunt your subs – is not a particularly effective way of winning conflicts. But it is at least modestly effective at controlling escalation. Both sides know, more or less, what to expect: If we do X, the other guy will probably do Y or Z, and Z is pretty bad, so maybe we don’t want to do X, after all.
Predictable, symmetrical responses are a big part of why the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, did not lead to war. The Soviets put missiles in Cuba, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff advised bombing the missile sites, but Kennedy realized Russians would strike back. So instead we used our ships to stop their ships that were trying to bring more missiles in. It was a near-run thing, but it worked, and no one got blown up. Conversely, using new weapons and tactics can provoke people to retaliate in ways you don’t expect. The Germans thought a proportionate response to the Royal Navy’s blockade of German ports would be for U-boats to sink every ship bound for Britain, including neutral ones, but Woodrow Wilson disagreed, which is why the US ended up entering World War I.
In the future AirSea Battle, that “cross-domain attack in depth using both kinetic and non-kinetic means” makes the old rulebook irrelevant. If, during some crisis over Taiwan or the Japanese-held Senkaku Islands, for example, missile launchers on the Chinese coast threaten our ships in the Western Pacific, the Chinese would certainly expect us to try to shoot down any missiles when and if they’re actually launched. But if a missile launcher is about to fire on our ships and we preemptively bomb it, is that proportional use of force or irresponsible escalation? If we strike a missile site on the Chinese mainland to protect our ships, should we expect the Chinese to retaliate against our Pacific Fleet or against Los Angeles?
Or what if, instead, we neutralize the missile threat before it ever launches, let’s say by hacking the Chinese satellite in orbit that spots our ships or the Chinese computers in Beijing that coordinate the attack? Does such a cyber-offensive count as an escalatory, inflammatory threat against the core of their national command-and-control system? Or, since nobody got hurt and nothing blew up, is it not even an act of war? If you want a chance of keeping a conflict from escalating, each side had better understand what the other considers escalation – and the fight for cyberspace has, by some measures, already begun.
It is unnervingly unclear how thoroughly the people working on AirSea Battle have thought this out. Admittedly, they’re only four years into it, and it took us much longer to work out nuclear deterrence in the Cold War.
“The argument goes both ways,” wrote one Navy officer, who’s read the classified version of the concept, in an email exchange with me today. “[You can argue either] because we are more capable (with ASB), we have a better deterrent and can avoid conflicts, or, because we are more capable, the adversary is forced to resort to nuclear weapons sooner.”
“The ASB concept assumes nuclear deterrence holds (which I know some think is a poor assumption),” the officer acknowledged. That means hard thinking about the risks of escalation “may not be as prominent in ASB discussions as some would like.”
None of this is to say that AirSea Battle is a bad idea, or inherently escalatory, or even primarily about fighting China. “The Concept is not an operational plan or strategy for a specific region or adversary,” the summary insists, as Pentagon officials have for years. When I asked Rep. Forbes and his staff about escalation, they agreed: “Air-Sea Battle is a limited operational concept; it is not a doctrine, a military strategy, or a warfighting plan” against any particular country, Forbes responded in an emailed statement.
While people may laugh behind their hands at these denials, there is some truth in them. We do need to think about fighting China, because the People’s Liberation Army is the forcing function, the cutting-edge example of an anti-access/area denial threat. But while it is unlikely we will ever go to war with China, it is very likely we will have to fight someone, somewhere who has imitated China and even bought their equipment and learned from Hezbollah’s battles with Israel. It’s similar to how we fought Soviet-equipped armies in Iraq and Vietnam without ever fighting the Soviets themselves. We put tanks and planes and missiles in Western Europe, organized according to the AirLand Battle doctrine, not to provoke the Soviet Union into attacking but to deter it.
The ideal for AirSea Battle would likewise be to deter conflict, not to escalate it. “As for escalation, the potential is there in any conflict, but I don’t see the ASB concept as directly affecting the chances either way,” the officer went on. “The sensitive game of ‘know your enemy,’ strategic posturing and messaging, and calculated risk-taking still apply as always.”
To play that game, of course, it helps for both sides to know the rules, which is precisely why official documents like this one matter. They don’t just lay out AirSea Battle for the benefit of Washington pundits. A key audience for this document is the Chinese political and military leaders. It helps inform Iranian, North Korean, and other foreign policymakers as well.
“The ongoing confusion about the actual scope of ASB is exactly why it is so important for DoD to carefully articulate the limited nature of this concept,” Rep. Forbes told me. “I have consistently argued that the success of ASB will depend not just on its implementation within the Department of Defense, but also our ability to effectively communicate its true intent to both allies and adversaries alike.”