PENTAGON: In intellectual terms, Air-Sea Battle is the biggest of the military’s big ideas for its post-Afghanistan future. But what is it, really? It’s a constantly evolving concept for high-tech, high-intensity conflict that touches on everything from cyberwar to nuclear escalation to the rise of China. In practical terms, however, the beating heart of AirSea Battle is eleven overworked officers working in windowless Pentagon meeting rooms, and the issues they can’t get to are at least as important as the ones they can.
“It’s like being a start-up inside a great, big, rigid corporation,” one Air-Sea Battle representative told me in an exclusive briefing last month. The Air-Sea Battle Office (ASBO) has just 17 staff: those eleven uniformed officers, drawn from all four services, plus six civilian contractors. None of them ranks higher than colonel or Navy captain. Even these personnel are technically “on loan,” seconded from other organizations and paid for out of other budgets. But those 17 people sit at the hub of a sprawling network of formal liaisons and informal contacts across the four armed services and the joint combatant commands.
“Air-Sea Battle has left the building,” said a second officer at the briefing. “We’ve reached the grass roots, and we’re getting ideas from the grass roots.”
So the good news is that the Air-Sea Battle Office isn’t just another big Pentagon bureaucracy, let alone the anti-China cabal it’s sometimes of accused of being. Instead, in essence, it is an effort to develop compatible technologies and tactics across all four services for a new kind of conflict: not the Army and Marine-led land war against low-tech guerrillas we have seen since 9/11, but an Air Force and Navy-led campaign against “anti-access/area denial” forces that could fry our networks, jam GPS, and hit our planes, ships, bases, and even satellites with long-range missiles. China is the worst case scenario here, but not the only one.
The bad news is, precisely because ASBO is not a big bureaucracy, the smart, earnest, small staff of the “start-up” can only really focus on existing weapons and organizations. They are deluged by the near-term nitty gritty of getting existing organizations and weapons programs to work together in a future war. That leaves little time to explore potentially revolutionary new technologies not already embedded in the Pentagon’s seven-year plan, the Program Objective Memorandum (POM). That also leaves them little time to think through the often scary strategic implications of how the next war will be waged.
In fact, the ASBO was very carefully set up not to handle war planning, strategy, or high-level policy. By design, it is only a collaboration between the four armed services – originally just the Air Force and Navy, but now joined by the Army and Marines. It is deliberately distinct from the Joint Staff and the joint combatant commands. “That’s not to say we’re divorced from the Joint Staff, [let alone] fighting against each other,” said one officer, but “the benefit for the service chiefs is they can reach right down to us,” without going through joint intermediaries.
That leaves the Air-Sea Battle Office to focus on the services’ Title X responsibilities to “train, organize, and equip” the force, while leaving how, when, and why to use the force up to the joint world. “We’re working on making sure that a rifle has interchangeable magazines and ammunition,” another officer said, as an analogy. “We’re not worried about how it’s going to be used. Those policy decisions are not really what this office considers.”
It’s not that they’re blind to those bigger issues. Originally, “when the concept was written, we put a boundary on it and we said, ‘hey, we’re not going to address nuclear weapons,’” said another officer. “Since then we’ve realized, ‘hey, we do need to deal with nuclear operations.’”
Most military officers are as reluctant as the rest of us to contemplate nuclear war, and since the Berlin Wall came down, they’ve largely been able to ignore it as we fought relatively low-tech foes. But Air-Sea Battle is driven – though few will say so on the record – by threats from Iran, which may soon have the bomb, from North Korea, which has had it since 2006 and is working on fitting nuclear warheads into an ICBM, and from China, which has had nukes since 1964 and already has a sizable arsenal of nuclear missiles. Air-Sea Battle envisions a clean campaign of precision non-nuclear strikes, but, paradoxically, the more effective such conventional operations become, the more likely a hard-pressed adversary is to resort to nuclear weapons in response.
China, Iran, and the US itself are also all increasingly aggressive in cyberspace, a brave new war whose ramifications are as little understood today as nuclear radiation was in the early 1950s. Unlike nukes, cyber operations – both offensive and defensive – have been at the heart of Air-Sea Battle from the beginning, since it envisions future warfare as a clash not just between missiles, ships, and aircraft but between the computer networks linking them. Why shoot down planes or satellites one at a time when frying the enemy’s network can neutralize all his hardware at once?
Even here, however, the Air-Sea Battle Office keeps its approach carefully and consciously constrained. Wargames have explored what kinds of cyber capabilities might be useful in what scenarios and how quickly military decision makers need to be able to react. But there remain huge unanswered questions about who has the legal authority to do what in a cyber conflict. ASBO makes recommendations, said one officer, but “who makes the decision, ultimately, to authorize the release [of a cyber weapon such as a virus] is not in this office’s wheelhouse.”
Nor has anyone worked out what counts as escalation or provocation in cyberspace. In the nuclear and espionage arenas of the Cold War, the equivalent questions took academics, strategists, and diplomats decades to work out. Cyber conflict is at least as complicated, but if anyone’s working out the game theory, it isn’t the Air-Sea Battle Office.
“We’re providing the capabilities for the combatant commanders so the president has options,” said one officer. “Escalation is a policy decision.”
What ASBO does deal with is scary enough. Air-Sea Battle is typically depicted as a doctrine for long-range exchange of missiles with China in the troubled Western Pacific or with Iran in and around the Persian Gulf: US air and sea forces try to push their way in while battling enemy “anti-access/area denial” (A2/AD) forces trying to keep us out. But that’s just part of it.
To start with, it’s nigh impossible to keep such conflicts safely contained “over there,” in some distant war zone. Any enemy that wants to defeat US forces at its front door must attack the global networks that support them, especially the worldwide “Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance” (C4ISR) system, whose backbone is satellites in orbit.
“There’s no range associated with cyber and space effects,” said one officer, “and the longer and longer range of the sophisticated technologies drives you to be ready when you deploy.” That’s actually an understatement, however. An enemy savvy enough to hack our global computer networks – or just send a suicide bomber to, say, the Navy base in San Diego – can bring our forces under attack before they deploy.
Even in the foreign war zone, US forces won’t start outside the reach of enemy weapons and work their way in, as they did in the Pacific and European campaigns of World War II. Modern cruise and ballistic missiles are so long-ranged that our forward forces may well be inside the enemy’s A2/AD defense zone when the bad guys turn it on.
So even if Iran can’t hack our global networks, our ships in the Gulf and our ground bases in Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar may be in missile range as soon as the shooting starts. They’ll be under threat and quite possibly cut off. The same holds for US ships in the Western Pacific and for forces based in South Korea and Japan in a conflict with China. So the opening phases of an Air-Sea Battle may look a lot less like Douglas MacArthur’s island-hopping campaign, with US forces advancing across the Pacific, and much more like MacArthur’s doomed defense of the Philippines, with US forces unprepared, under siege, and fighting for their lives.
This, incidentally, is where the ground forces come in to Air-Sea Battle, not just as targets but as the first line of defense. The Army is responsible for land-based missile defense, so Patriot and THAAD batteries will play a crucial role in defending the Air Force’s forward bases. Even Navy ships at sea may well find it advisable to fall back towards friendly shores so they can augment their own Aegis anti-missile systems with the Army’s land-based defenses. Just getting all these systems to work together is a major technical challenge.
(There’s also a significant minority that wants the Army to revive the offensive intermediate-range ballistic missile capability that it had during the Cold War, albeit this time with non-nuclear warheads, to give missile-shooting enemies a taste of their own medicine).
The Marines don’t do missile defense, but they do provide short-ranged airpower, especially airpower that doesn’t depend on long runways or full-sized aircraft carriers. V-22 Osprey tilt-rotors might rescue downed Air Force and Navy pilots, while F-35B jump jets can operate from roads, parking lots, and other ad hoc airfields too numerous and low-profile for the enemy to easily target, offered one officer.
Both Army and Marine ground troops may also be essential to defending forward bases and missile-defense batteries against terrorist-style strikes, seaborne raiders, or even conventional ground attack. US ground troops may stage their own amphibious strikes to seize sites for new forward bases, which was their main role in the Pacific in World War II. Special operators may slip ashore to pinpoint targets for long-range strikes and to inflict damage and confusion behind the enemy’s front lines.
So while Air-Sea Battle may be mostly about the air and sea, one officer said, “it’s going to interlink with land throughout. You can’t think of a place where you’re going to fight where there isn’t going to be a single atoll, peninsula, or some form of a land mass” that can serve as a forward base for one side or the other.
The trick, of course, will be surviving. Big US bases in Afghanistan and Iraq were immune to anything but harassing fire from the insurgents, but being a large, stationary target in range of sophisticated missiles is another matter. “In Gulf War I [in 1991], we had the SCUD… a land-attack ballistic missile,” said one officer. “We were worried about those, but we weren’t very worried because they weren’t too accurate.” (That said, a single lucky SCUD strike on a US barracks in Dhahran killed 27 soldiers). “With the advances in technology, these systems are now becoming more precise and more lethal.”
As a result, there’s real anxiety among some allies who live inside the range of, for example, Chinese missiles that the US will simply pull back and fight from a safer distance. “One of the questions you commonly get from the Japanese [about Air-Sea Battle is] they wonder if it’s about moving back to a defensible perimeter, withdrawing from the Japanese islands, withdrawing from forward positions,” one officer said. “We’ve told them actually it’s quite the opposite, it’s about being able to maintain forces forward deployed under a threat.”
If we get Air-Sea Battle right, it will reassure friends and deter adversaries. If we get it wrong, though, it will unnerve friends and provoke adversaries instead. The problem is that getting it right depends on much more than tactics and technology – and it’s not clear who, if anyone, is answering the crucial strategic questions.
Edited 6:45 pm.