Gen. Norton Schwartz after his final flight as an active Air Force officer.

Gen. Norton Schwartz after his final flight as an active Air Force officer.

CRYSTAL CITY: Don’t think Beijing. Think Abottabad. The evolving concept known as Air-Sea Battle isn’t all about a war with China, nor a budget war with the US Army, said the former Air Force chief of staff who is one of the concept’s founding fathers. Instead, said Gen. Norton Schwartz, who retired just last fall, Air-Sea Battle is an earnest effort to find ways to operate in the face of high-tech defenses, and the lessons learned apply everywhere from North Korea to the commando raid into Pakistan that killed Osama Bin Laden.

“It’s harder to address some of the mythology over the phone,” Gen. Schwartz said as he sat down with me at a restaurant a few minutes’ subway ride from the Pentagon. As Air-Sea Battle gained momentum and attracted attention, both good and bad, he said, “there were efforts, I would argue, to sort of hijack the concept.”

The harshest criticism has come from those who felt Air-Sea Battle “demonized” China as a potential adversary. In fact, “there were those who argued we shouldn’t have called it ‘battle,'” Schwartz said, “but in the end, this is about warfighting” — just in a much broader range of scenarios than the critics gave it credit for.

Air-Sea Battle began with conversations in 2008 between Schwartz and Adm. Gary Roughead, then the Chief of Naval Operations. Schwartz and Roughead, personal friends as well as service chiefs, were both worried about the proliferation of long-range threats to US forces in the air, at sea, and even in space, domains in which their two services had operated with near impunity since 1991.

While China’s rapidly evolving military is the worst case of such an “anti-access” threat, it’s hardly the only one, even in the Pacific. “The North Koreans have done considerable work in placing high-value assets underground,” for example, Schwartz said, and in general, “contrary to what many people think, they are actually pretty sophisticated” militarily. In the Middle East, meanwhile, any intervention in Syria would have to deal with the Assad regime’s extensive air defenses and perhaps its long-range anti-ship cruise missiles as well. And then there’s Osama Bin Laden.

“The Abbottabad mission was anti-access,” Schwartz said. “That was a special operation that had very significant support from the [conventional] Air Force and the Navy.”

“Maintaining the element of surprise was all-important,” Schwartz noted. Just to get to Bin Laden’s complex in the garrison city of Abbottabad — hub of Pakistan’s powerful military — the helicopters carrying Navy SEALs had to slip in undetected past Pakistani air defenses, then get back out before those defenses went on full alert. Pakistan has invested in anti-aircraft systems for an all-out war with nuclear-armed India, no easy opponent. And while India lies to the east, incidents with NATO helicopters accidentally hitting Pakistani frontier troops along the Afghan border meant Islamabad wasn’t blind to low-altitude threats from the west.

What’s more, the US helicopters had to get in and out without airstrikes clearing a path. As damaging as the raid was for US-Pakistani relations, actually killing Pakistani radar and missile operators would have been far worse. Schwartz didn’t divulge details, but disabling air defenses without destroying them would typically require radar-jamming aircraft like the Navy EA-6B Prowler and perhaps even some kind of cyber attack.

So, I asked, Air-Sea Battle isn’t just about blowing stuff up at long range? “That’s the whole point,” Schwartz exclaimed. Air-Sea Battle precepts even apply to non-combat operations like disaster relief, he argued, because a big part of the effort is simply improving training, tactics, and communications technologies so the Air Force, Navy, and, increasingly, the Army and Marines can all work together better.

“The focus of AirSea battle was pragmatic,” said Schwartz. “The question is where do you get the most return in investment [with] the broadest applicability.”

That emphasis on the broadly applicable is what led Schwartz and Roughead to leave nuclear escalation out of the original vision for Air-Sea Battle. (Since then, nukes have come more into play). “Deterrence is still important,” Schwartz said, but Air-Sea Battle had to prioritize “those capabilities that would enable the joint force to respond to the largest range of scenarios — and those are predominantly conventional.”

So while it’s fun and easy to fixate on the blowing-stuff-up aspects of Air-Sea Battle, most of the effort is on the unglamorous mechanics of inter-service cooperation. In particular, Schwartz said, “pursuing common data links is one of the coins of the realm. [And it’s] still a major work in progress.”

Navy systems tend to focus on transmitting data, Air Force ones do more with voice, and until fairly recently few worked well with the others. It’s possible to work around such problems in interservice command posts like the Joint Air Operations Centers (JAOCs), where the exhaustive and sometimes ponderous planning process called the Air Tasking Order (ATO) takes place. But if the two services’ aircraft want to work together to seize fleeting opportunities, they need to be able to communicate in the air and on the fly. That requires, among many other things, rejecting proprietary data systems exclusive to one contractor in favor of common and widely compatible technologies.

That communications architecture needs to bring in the Marine Corps and the Army, especially since the Army runs many of the military’s long-range networks. The two ground services are part of the Air-Sea Battle Office now, but they were not involved at the beginning.

“This was not exclusionary by any means,” Schwartz insisted. Yes, he and Roughead did come up with Air-Sea Battle and, in 2010, got then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates‘s endorsement to proceed as an Air Force and Navy effort, initially without ground force participation. But, he said, “at the time… we had the bandwidth to do it, unlike the Army and Marine Corps, who were completely consumed by the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

There were certainly suspicions in some quarters that Air-Sea Battle was a budget grab by the air and sea services after a decade of massive investment in ground operations, Schwartz acknowledged. But, he argued, at least the senior leaders of the Army and Marine Corps came to understand that they, too, would benefit from solving the anti-access problem. If the Air Force and Navy couldn’t break through such defenses, after all, Army troops and Marine amphibious units weren’t going anywhere. The difference is that while the ground forces have to move through the air and sea to their areas of operation, the air and sea forces have to operate in and control those environments, at least in key areas, full-time, said Schwartz: “It’s our job.”

Yes, Schwartz said, he and Roughead were trying to restore “balance” between the services after a decade of all-consuming land wars. That said, he went on, “we’re not going to tilt back to where we were in 2001,” when pre-9/11 proponents of “transformation” sometimes focused on high-tech, long-range warfare so much that they neglected ground forces.

It’s also true, Schwartz readily acknowledged, that he and Roughead originated Air-Sea Battle after 2008 very much aware of the drawdown of ground forces in the Iraq and the impending end of generous wartime budgets. “Both Gary and I understood what was likely to happen on the resource side,” Schwartz said. “We both saw the downturn approaching.”

But their fiscal objective in Air-Sea Battle was not to grab budget share from the ground forces, he argued, but to strip out redundancy between Air Force and Navy programs so their two services could make the most of what would soon be a diminishing pool of money.

“Was there self-interest involved?” Schwartz said. “Of course there was: to make the best use of the dollars Congress allocated to us.”


  • PolicyWonk

    If Air-Sea Battle is misleading and causing a lot of misunderstandings, perhaps a better title would have been “Joint Operations”, which has been already out there for a long time.
    Air-Sea battle certainly never (IMO) gave be the impression that it had much to do with counter-terror operations (i.e. the Bin Laden’s of the world). Besides, according to our national intelligence agencies fighting terrorism using the military as the first option was a tragic mistake (they instead recommended strongly that the Bush Administration continue fighting terrorism with law enforcement as the primary method, using the military as back up when tangling with heavily armed groups).
    Regardless, the shift to the pacific requires a lot of navy, and a good deal of air force. That said, one always has to bear in mind that neither the navy or air force is equipped to put boots on the ground (this is what the marines and army are for). In this case, we should be increasing the number of baby carriers (LHD’s, maybe LHA’s) and ARG’s (many defense analysts believe big-deck carriers = big targets) . Then we get to project our interests from the sea, air, and ground, until the army can get there.

  • Don Bacon

    Generals always like a good fight; presidents not so much.

    Remarks of President Barack Obama, May 23, 2013 (excerpt)

    The AUMF is now nearly twelve years old. The Afghan War is coming to an end. Core al Qaeda is a shell of its former self. Groups like [al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula] must be dealt with, but in the years to come, not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States.

    Unless we discipline our thinking and our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant Presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states.

    So I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.

  • Don Bacon

    But their fiscal objective in Air-Sea Battle was not to grab budget share from the ground forces, [Schwartz] argued

    Look at his nose!

    • Don Bacon

      Why did Schwartz say that? It makes no sense. Why maintain the arbitrary “Golden Ratio” without any consideration of defense needs and costs?

      Travis Sharp, one of the most outspoken critics of the Golden Ratio: “Since fiscal year 1948, the Army, Navy, and Air Force have on average received 28 percent, 31 percent, and 33 percent, respectively, of DOD’s annual budget.”

      So let’s look at the situation:
      –US land wars have failed and from all reports there will be no more of them.
      –The US has “pivoted” to Asia-Pacific, where air and water predominate.
      –Both personnel and equipment costs are skyrocketing.
      –Given the above, equipment must take priority over personnel in the budget.
      –The personnel-heavy Army must cede budget space to the equipment-heavy Air Force and Navy (incl. Marines).

      So why did Schwartz say that? Stupid. Irresponsible. And probably untruthful as well. But these characteristics aren’t unusual for generals.

      • Curtis Conway

        Good comments. It has been observed that many of our senior military commanders are more political than military. That is influencing this equation.

  • Curtis Conway

    Air–Sea Battle(?)

    The concept was myopic only to North Africa, the Middle East, and the Arabian Sea ? . . and the cross hairs are on Osama Bin Laden’s al Qaeda? The largest and most combat ready force on the planet reduced to myopic bad planning? Who owns that ? . . . the author of the plan! A representative of which . . . was evidently sitting in front of you and valiantly defending it! If any “Warfighting” plans are made, AND representatives of all JOINT Forces are not present, then one transgresses.

    How can one author a comprehensive and coherent Air-Sea Battle Plan when the land forces, who must do the heavy lifting at the end, are not represented? Plan your activities and live your plan, or you plan to fail. The objective of the plan is sacrosanct, and well understood by all at the beginning, or you get what we got . . . evidently. Either the objective was well understood up front, or something else was
    going on. US Military Forces have GLOBAL responsibilities, mostly spelled out in treaties. Planning Myopia will be fatal in the future under the types of considerations that were being presented over a meal.

    Trying to tie Air-Sea Battle planning and execution with the Osama Bin Laden raid is ludicrous, and tying that one time event, sensationally effective and successful as it was, to a larger problem that is screaming for a global coherent solution, is beyond the pale.

    SOF is SOF and the majority of our forces (US Air Force and US Navy) are not SOF. The JAOC and ATO issues are GLOBAL in nature. The Bin Laden raid was specific, special. And BLACK! The Air-Sea Battle infrastructure provides the environment in which this activity must be facilitated and take place, not necessarily provide the specific capability. THAT is the CONTEXT of this duscussion.

    To focus on capabilities and limitations of Joint equipment is necessary and appropriate.

    The US Air Force has already decided it will not make large capital investments in ‘Tactical’ JAOC aircraft (E-8 Joint STARS case in point). The US Navy is coming on strong with aircraft and systems that can take their place if necessary. Some of the unsung heroes in this area over the last decade have been P-3 crews and the like. Their replacement (P-8A Poseidon) will serve in this capacity quite well particularly with some equipment that can augment aircraft capabilities. We may end up seeing
    some flight suits with strange US Army patches on them in the future.

    Our necessary and key element to success in the future is superior situational awareness, and the dissemination of that information in a timely manner to the units involved. This requires very capable, reliable, and persistent, communications equipment that can function in the harshest electromagnetic environments. Many elements in that communications specification must be automatic, know from where it came, know all the participants locations in three dimensions, real-time, and once accomplished be 100% accurate. The General alluding to that capability was encouraging.

    Our history is replete with individual members, elements, and units of our armed forces taking advantage of a fleeting opportunities, and exercising initiative to great effect. Unfortunately our command structure and social norms, are migrating to positive control models. This will be to our detriment.

    My primary beef with the USAF is they will not support our ground troops with Time Sensitive/Mission Critical (TS/MC) Combat Airlift Support in a timely manner (USTRANSCOM’s 96 hrs is good enough?). The computer driven parachutes can get loads on target quick, but that system will never pick up TS/MC cargo. That responsibility has been relegated to the Air Guard and Reserve, and the mission will be accomplished with Legacy C-130H aircraft (?), of which the USAF 2014 Budget Request contained little dollars for maintenance, upgrades, and improvements. Thank G-d Congress was paying attention and restored the AMP upgrades all the way back to 2012, included T56 engine upgrades (hopefully including FADEC), and added new propellers. That was responsible budgeting for our TOTAL force health across the board. We spent over a $Billion developing C-130 AMP and the USAF was going to chunk the investment. The US Navy has already developed the T56 engine upgrade packages so it gets expanded. The Legacy C-130s can now have efficient 6-bladed props like the C-130J, or 8-bladed props like the LC-130’s in the New York ANG.

    The TEAM has got to work together as a cohesive unit, not individual elements. The budget is . . .what the budget is . . . and there is nothing we can do about that in the short term.