US Navy cruiser COWPENS launches Harpoon missile - 2012 02051ad2f3e44d1d1370304318

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.”

Unrestricted Warfare

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.


  • bobbymike34

    For Air-Sea Battle to work the US needs to leave the Inter-mediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty so they can develop and deploy missiles in this range (up to 5500 km)
    The reason is simple China, not a signatory to the INF Treaty, can and goes build hundreds of missiles in this range and now the US has no counter. This is both a tactical and strategic disadvantage and forces Navy carriers closer than needed.
    The US needs to be able to target key missile and radar sites from thousands of KM away before having to move the carriers closer. This is a perfect mission for Prompt Global Strike.

  • Morten A. Andersen

    Very, very interesting. Keep up the good work ASBO.

    • george

      I actually meant a thumbs up!

  • SS BdM Fuhress ‘Savannah

    I’m wondering if we came up with a defensive shield as a Force Field if we would move on Russia or China before they figured it out? I would think China with their labor markets and numbers would surpass us in a decade or two. A Nuke war is a very scary scenario for all. Our branches of war though I can’t really see them in a full blown war working together without somebody wanting to be the top dog as those resources need to be in this department under my choice of were to deploy.

    • Jack

      Their has not been a real military leader since Eisenhower.

      • SS BdM Fuhress ‘Savannah

        I’ve heard Eisenhower was not a great leader but was good getting people to work together or at least not having them wanting to kill each other as Patton/Montgomery. The failure of the Allies to catch the attack in the Bulge seems a great negative towards Eisenhower. I don’t know how dicey that Omaha beach incident on Normandy came into play either. I go with a greater leader would have been whoever was in charge of the 8th USAAF and get those guys to go on the missions before the proper fighter cover arrived. I guess that was Lemay, Spatz, Eiker or Doolittle? I guess a negative for that would have been whoever thought the bombers could protect themselves because of the box formation.

        • Jack

          What you hear and what history shows are two different things. I served
          under Eisenhower and MacArthur and I now better. Their are no more
          military leaders that could take us through another world war they are
          all corporate military industrial complex such ups.

          Eisenhower was a good strategist and MacArthur was nothing but a glory seeker.

          • SS BdM Fuhress ‘Savannah

            Your true I am sure on what you hear and read and what history shows. My dad was in WW2 at the end and in the Korean war. Might have been on Iwo, I thought he told me that. Never told me of any fighting but told a cousin he had woke up once with a dead Japanese soldier right by him. He was in Hiroshima after the bomb and was also in Nuremberg. That was a Hell of a time WW2. Hard to believe you had the Nazi’s and the Japs both running thinking they was meant to rule the world. Hopefully there are no more World Wars and we can also get rid of a lot of these engagements we get ourselves into.

          • Jack

            I didn’t serve in the Pacific war but was in the process of being shipped from Europe to Hawaii to join the fight when the dropped the nukes. Many people say we shouldn’t have nuked Japan but it saved an estimated million man deaths to storm the Japanese shores.

            The war with Hitler and Japan were for two entirely different reasons. Hitler wanted to control the world. Japan was more of an economic war. Japan has no natural resources and has to import everything it needs and the worldwide depression that effected Japan so bad took away their ability to trade with the countries and when a country can’t get the resources it needs it tries to take them. I don’t make excuses for Japan and what hey did but few young people today know what they are talking about when it comes to the world wars.

            Hope you dad made it back to enjoy what he fought for. I lost so many friends I made in the wars I hate to think about it to much.

          • SS BdM Fuhress ‘Savannah

            Yeh my dad got back Jack, had a decent life. He swore he spit out something on the sidewalk in front of our house as something radioactive in him that charged up. Said it burnt the sidewalk. I’m iffy on that one, don’t remember? Didn’t the Japanese people think they was superior to other races though Jack? As it was destined the same as Hitler ( Hitler wanted to do away with all things not Nazi of course ) for them to rule others. Again I wasn’t there and all I can do is see on the tube and in books. Read the Deathmarch of Battan, also about those in the camps under Japanese rule and know the little japs loved to beat the Big Americans with clubs and stuff to show them who was superior. I think the B-29’s bombing and the atomic bomb cured that plus all the forces hopping those islands and fighting the sea and air battles. Those that supplied those forces.

          • Jack

            A lot of what you say is true but it was not the Japanese that sent our troops into areas that were still live with radiation. The Japanese paid a heavy price for what they did just like Germany did and we just have to move on.. The Japanese are fearless and very loyal fighter and what they did to captured troops was not right and their leaders were punished for it.

            Is their any difference in what Japanese did to prisoners than what Bush did in his torture camps and terrorism wars based on lies?

            Their are many hard feeling generated from war but WWII has been settled and the Germans of today are not the ones that put Hitler into power and the Japanese have changed many of their war like ways since we created a free economy for their people.

            Korea was the toughest for me. The N. Koreans are tough fighters even though they are half starved and out gunned they are fierce even though they are brainwashed.

          • SS BdM Fuhress ‘Savannah

            Jack what I saw on that radiation because of the test at Bikini Island it seems our gov had no clue what that radiation would do to you except it was not good. And still questions on if that German sub with the radioactive dust it was taking to the japs but surrendered to us if that did not help complete the bomb or the one dropped on Nagasaki.

          • Jack

            Bikini Island was after the war.

          • SS BdM Fuhress ‘Savannah

            Yes Jack I know but what I saw on that tells me we did not have much clues as to what the Bombs lasting effects was.

          • george

            Jack. I would likes to say thanks for your military service. We owe you.

          • Jack


            Their was a lot of testing nukes after we nuked Japan including putting troops where they were exposed to radiation so hey could see the effects. Don’t forget France did much of the nuke testing at the time. France, Russia and U.S. are the only three countries that can send nukes anywhere in the world, all the rest are short range nukes for protecting their border only. I hope I never live long enough to see a nuclear war.

          • george

            The bomb was only used to pressure Stalin and backtrack on our promises.

          • Jack

            Japan was nuked for revenge and to save a million American lives it would have cost to storm the Japanese beaches.

          • george

            Jack. I too wanted to believe that the bomb was dropped to save millions of lives but it is the view of most historians now that the bomb was dropped only to put pressure on Stalin. Japan had been trying to mediate through Russia to negotiate surrender terms and had been doing so for weeks before the bomb was dropped.
            There is now overwhelming evidence to show that the bomb was a cynical ploy in a power play with Russia, simply to give the West a better bargaining position.

        • Edward Ellis

          LeMay and Doolittle were Cossacks. LeMay advised JFK to invade Cuba during the Missle Crisis, and Doolittle was the biggest cheerleader nuclear weapons ever had.

  • PolicyWonk

    W/r/t ballistic missiles being used for A2/D2, a little over a decade or so ago the US wanted to field a “global strike” capability, comprised of ballistic missiles armed with conventional warheads.

    The Russians bluntly told us, that they wouldn’t be able to determine if a launched missile was nuclear or conventionally armed, so they would assume the former. That ended the effort.

    We should make that same assumption clear to the Communist Chinese.

    • Jack

      You should stop buying communist goods it would be a better cause.

      • george

        You are being daft again. If we stopped buying Chinese it would be better than 1000 F35s. Cant have that, the lobbyists wont like it.

        • Jack

          All you commie supporters have an excuse to keep supporting China.

    • bobbymike34

      At intermediate ranges you could use depressed trajectories or boost glide. China has hundreds in IRBM’s if they ever attack Taiwan or one of our carriers do we assume any missile launch is nuclear and do a full scale nuclear response?

  • Jack

    While their at it tell the corporate military industrial complex to build a few more of those air craft carriers that are sitting ducks and to expensive to operate and make great additions to the moth ball fleet.

    Keep playing war with nobody to fight. America sold out to the WTO and their is nothing the corporate military can do about it they own America lock, stock, and barrel. It’s pretty convenient how our worthless leaders sell us out to communists and then try to make them look like the bad guy.

    It’s like Bush said: “Mission accomplished”.

    • george

      You are obviously half crazy. The problem is I agree with you. So we know who to blame. Lets move on, what do we do about it? I hope someone who counts has a plan because it does not look good.

      • Jack

        Nothing will happen unless Americans get off their lazy ass and start voting these corporate pigs out.

  • Mark

    Excellent article. I agree with bobbymike34 about leaving the IRNMT. For Air-Sea Battle to be effective it needs to have striking teeth beyond aircraft delivered weapons. This implies long-range ordinance like IRBMs, long range cruise missiles, or theater ballistic missiles. These do not neccessarily have to be nuclear tipped. With the ever shrinking CEP that advance guidance systems provide, conventional explosives and fuel-air/thermobaric warheads may be sufficent to destroy most target. Even hardened and buried targets can be taken out with deep penetrator technology. The Army needs to develop modern, updated versions of missiles like the Pershing 2 and the USAF Thor. Additionally, long range (500-3,000 miles) supersonic/hypersonic cruise missiles need to be developed an deployed.

  • Euromissile Inventor

    Utter, total fantasy, having nothing to do with the real world. Take, for instance, the phrase, “while battling enemy “anti-access/area denial” (A2/AD) forces trying to keep us out.” Keep us out? Why are we to go into, i.e., invade, the only countries cited (as in every stupid drill like this): China, North Korea, and Iran. These articles sometimes talk about “others,” but only those three are ever specified. This country is not going to invade any of them. As someone who worked closely on defense for 51-plus years (not including my three years in the U.S. Navy), I have watched all this febrile activity of fantasization, over and over — when the U.S. military has no new wars to fight (especially after the fiascos of Iraq and Afghanistan — talk about the beauties of invasions — and thus their sole worry is whether Congress will continue to cut their budgets. Try to explain any of these wild dreams to our ruling party, the Tea Party. They don’t even know the world exists. Dream on, you 17 dreamers. You are totally detached from reality.

    • george

      The fact is after Iraq you tend to wonder if the military has a brain at all. It is so bad, so appalling that you wonder if they did it on purpose. That is not as daft as it seems. The fact is that wars and terrorism are affordable, that could mean we are not worried about a few hundred or even a few thousand suicide bombers as long as the price of oil is stable. So, how can instability mean stable oil prices? Well a democratic middle east would present a very different face to the west than the present dictator dictators. Affordable wars and terrorism undermine democracy.
      If anybody gives a blow, I am a liberal that believes in a strong military because the World is not a friendly place, but with power comes responsibility. The key word is oversight.

      • ycplum

        Iraq had very little to do with the military, at least the uniform military. The Iraq fiasco was a national policy and strategic failure by the civilian and civilian military side. The national goals and objects were extremely nebulous and while the military complete almost all thier military objectives (after fighting for resources from the Administration), it was the non-military objects that often failed.
        Using a football analogy, the miltary is not the quarterback, reciever or one of the running backs, but rather the offensive line. The military holds the enemy at bay, buying time for teh quarter back to throw or reciever to get into position. They make holes in the enemy defense for the backs to rush through. Basically, tehmilitary creates an environment suitable for a a favor diplomatic solution. Time and time again, our military did their job, but the Administration (civilian side) failed to make the pass or fumbled the ball becasue there wasn’t a plan. They kept hiking the ball without calling a play.

  • TX Chainsaw

    A key issue is joint systems of systems (SoS) connectivity. Even tho SoS is a 90’s concept, service requirements and procurement officials are largely only interested in working within their own kits. Parsing the article we see the ASBO is spending a lot of energy to encourage USN and USAF to get their kits together (sorry about the pun)! My observation is that most services want all their SoS elements to be organic and don’t want an ounce of capability reduced to pay to ensure connectivity to another service.

    Let’s also see what the services do when they execute Joint/Coalition ASB exercises. The measure of service support, and likely success of ASB as a strategy, by the inclusion of ASB-related requirements for mods and upgrades for existing and emerging systems, to heighten cross-service interoperability.

    For example, I recall very little Army interest in F-35, the premiere air-to-ground (a/g) system for the other services. A minimum degree of a/g capability was included in requirements, but not because of Army’s squawking. During development, the Army thought centers have little use for F-35 sensors data, EW, CNI or battlefield management capabilities. The traditional Army perspective seemed to be that the F-35 was just another future source of fires.

    We can hope that the ASB conversations will help all the services to move forward and become more relevant in the future battlespace.

  • Curtis Conway

    I wonder how this groups feels about the administrations nuclear reduction ideas, particularly to 300 weapons?