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.”