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The Operational Art of Air-Sea Battle

Air-Sea Battle is described as a limited objective concept by the Department of Defense.[1] Some critics have argued that Air-Sea Battle must be more than a limited objective concept, possibly a war plan or a strategy. Others have argued that it is less than a concept and is just a meaningless set of buzzwords. From a military planner’s perspective, Air-Sea Battle is a piece of art – operational art that describes the “broad actions the force must take to achieve the desired military end state.”[2]

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Navy Quilt #2 (in progress) ©2010 Ayn Hanna, ~40"x40", Textile Painting (dye painted on cotton fabric)
Navy Quilt #2 (in progress) ©2010 Ayn Hanna, ~40″x40″, Textile Painting (dye painted on cotton fabric)

Joint doctrine uses operational art to begin the military planning process by developing an “operational approach.” An operational approach is based on an understanding of the military environment and the problem facing the commander.[3] Air-Sea Battle describes an operational approach to address the anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) problem and is “limited” in objective to the access required to conduct concurrent or follow-on actions, not decisive defeat of an adversary. If faced with an operational A2/AD challenge, a combatant commander may build on the operational approach described by Air-Sea Battle to design a war plan suited to the specific region and situation. This is an important distinction, especially for those who believe Air-Sea Battle is focused on a specific country. No matter what specific operational plan is used, Air-Sea Battle’s operational approaches can be applied if access and freedom of action in the global commons is at risk.

Why Air-Sea Battle is Important: The A2/AD Mission. Understanding strategic goals and the military missions that support them is an important first step in developing an operational approach.[4] The 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance assigned the ability to project power despite anti-access/area denial challenges as a distinct mission for the U.S. armed forces.[5] Countering A2/AD challenges is separate from and in addition to the traditional, conventional mission to deter and defeat aggression because of the complexity and paradigm-breaking challenge created by A2/AD capabilities. The Defense Strategic Guidance directs the implementation of the Joint Operational Access Concept as one of the ways to address A2/AD challenges. Joint Operational Access Concept begins to describe the A2/AD environment and then refers to the Air-Sea Battle Concept to address specific aspects of A2/AD.

The Air-Sea Battle Concept in turn applies military operational art to A2/AD: an understanding of the A2/AD operational environment, the specific problems posed by A2/AD, and an operational approach that envisions how a commander can mitigate the risks of the A2/AD environment and continue to operate in the global commons. The name “Air-Sea Battle” is derived from the air and maritime domains traditionally associated with the global commons and the new assumption that U.S. forces must fight to achieve and maintain access in those domains.[6] This simple etymology of the Air-Sea Battle Concept in Department of Defense writings clearly defines the intent of Air-Sea Battle and should not be confused with think tank and other commentator “sources.”

Envisioning the A2/AD Operating Environment. Air-Sea Battle was directed by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to shake-up the institutional inertia generated by uncontested access.[7] The A2/AD operating environment will be one where U.S. forces will not only fight to get to the fight but also fight to sustain access and the ability to maneuver in all domains. A2/AD presents a layered, multi-domain, integrated system-of-systems that gives potential adversaries a new dimension of strategic depth. While U.S. forces have always expected to be contested in theater when they maneuver within the operating range of adversary organic capabilities, the ability to merely move and sustain forces from homeports and bases to and across distant theaters will now be contested as well.

In addition to the increased technological sophistication of military capabilities on land, at sea, and in the air, the nascent development of potentially hostile space and cyberspace capabilities expands the access challenge across all five warfighting domains. Friendly forces in the air, sea, land, space and cyberspace domains are now threatened not only physically but also through the electromagnetic spectrum and cyberspace. The expectation that command and control structures will be attacked through the disruption of friendly communications and decision-making architectures is probably the most-significant change from today’s warfighting paradigm. In short, our traditional understanding of the phases of conflict, the definition of battlespace, our access to and ability to maneuver within domains, and our expected operational tempo will all be challenged.

Maintaining freedom of action in the global commons requires overcoming the physical threats of long-range missiles, torpedoes, mines, and other threats as well as maintaining our ability to command, control, and communicate with the forces from the strategic to the tactical levels. Initial analysis led some to conclude that only through striking the land-based hosts of these threat capabilities would the U.S. be able to maintain access.[8] The Joint Operational Access Concept acknowledges the risks associated with that approach.[9] To provide national leadership and military commanders with an array of viable options, Air-Sea Battle promotes operational art, not prescriptive solutions and advocates the innovative use of existing technology and potential future developments as the means to maintain U.S. qualitative superiority in the global commons.

Defining the A2/AD Problem. The Air-Sea Battle Concept defines the A2/AD problem and desired end-state as “capabilities (that) challenge U.S. freedom of action by causing U.S. forces to operate with higher levels of risk and at greater distance from areas of interest. U.S. forces must maintain freedom of action by shaping the A2/AD environment to enable concurrent or follow-on operations.”[10] In short, the A2/AD environment consists of threats to movement, threats to maneuver, and threats to command and control.

For example, capabilities in space and cyberspace as well as terrorist tactics may threaten the movement of deploying forces, logistics forces and follow-on forces from home bases to theater. These threats will challenge our understanding of the phasing of conflict. In addition, increased area denial capabilities are directly and indirectly challenging the long-range air and missile capabilities of U.S. forces, specifically to negate U.S. stand-off capability and driving a change to our understanding of battlespace and operating areas by making our current frames of reference obsolete. Finally, adversaries are preparing to contest the domains of space and cyberspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum in order to create a degraded or denied communications environment that directly challenges U.S. reliance on ”reach back” communications and theater level command and control. This will greatly impact our ability to dictate the tempo of battle. The effect of these A2/AD capabilities is summarized in the Concept: “(t)he range and scale of possible effects from these capabilities presents a military problem that threatens the U.S. and allied expeditionary warfare model of power projection and maneuver.”[11]

An Operational Approach to A2/AD. An operational approach is a “commander’s description of the broad actions the force must take to achieve the desired military end state.”[12] It is a “visualization of how the operation should transform current conditions into the desired conditions at end state.”[13] The Joint force uses operational approaches to provide the foundation for planning guidance, to provide a model for execution and assessment and to enable a better understanding of the operational environment and of the problem.[14] Air-Sea Battle provides an operational approach to A2/AD.

Air-Sea Battle’s operational approach to the A2/AD challenge in the global commons is a networked, integrated force capable of attack-in-depth to disrupt, destroy and defeat adversary forces (NIA/D3).[15] As defined above, the A2/AD problem at its core is about sophisticated threats to movement, maneuver and command and control. Readers of the Concept document will find the broad framework of Air-Sea Battle as it addresses A2/AD threats. The individual parts of Air-Sea Battle are briefly summarized as follows, but the reader is cautioned to view them not as individual lines of effort but as strands woven together when a commander is designing a plan:

Networked. “Networked” describes not only the communications pathways but also the authorities and relationships needed to enable commanders faced with threats to their decision-making process. Cross-domain operations are conducted by integrating capabilities from multiple interdependent warfighting domains to support, shape, or achieve objectives in other domains. The Joint Operational Access Concept advocates for cross-domain synergy, which goes beyond the merely additive, de-conflicted capabilities of today where commander’s must “reach back” for space, cyber and long-range fires.[16] Cross-domain operations will go a step further to exploit asymmetric advantages in specific domains to create positive and potentially cascading effects in other domains, as commanded at the operational level.

Integrated. “Integrated” reflects three emerging trends that will challenge the current U.S. understanding of the opening phase of war with A2/AD adversaries. First, an adversary can initiate military activities with little or no indications or warning. Second, forward deployed friendly forces will likely be in the A2/AD environment at the commencement of hostilities and, third, adversaries will likely attack U.S. and allied territory supporting operations against adversary forces. In other words, the U.S. will no longer have the luxury to build up combat power in an area, perform detailed rehearsals and integration activities, and then conduct operations as desired.[17] To overcome this, forces must train against A2/AD capabilities together, as an integrated Joint and combined force, for cross-domain operations prior to deploying to theater. This pre-deployment Joint and combined training is called pre-integration.

Attack-in-depth. “Attack-in-depth” includes offensive and defensive fires and includes both kinetic and non-kinetic means to attack an adversary’s critical vulnerabilities without requiring systematic destruction of the enemy’s defenses. This is a significant departure from today’s rollback methodology that relies on uncontested communications and the ability to establish air superiority, or dominance in any other domain. The attack-in-depth methodology seeks to create and exploit corridors and windows of control that are temporal in nature and limited in geography. At the tactical level, Air-Sea Battle’s attack-in-depth methodology provides a unique lens to consider the A2/AD threat. Air-Sea Battle analyzes adversary effects chains, or an adversary’s process of finding, fixing, tracking, targeting, engaging and assessing an attack on U.S. forces. The insight from this analysis contributes to the operational approach of Air-Sea Battle.

Disrupt C4ISR. “Disrupting” adversary effects chains focuses on impacting an adversary’s decision-making ability, referred to as Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C4ISR). Ideally, friendly efforts to disrupt an adversary’s decision-making will preclude attacks on friendly forces. For example, commanders faced with threats to planned “movement” into theater should consider disruptive offensive operations to combat the adversary’s ability to track and locate forces in transit using all five domains.

Destroy and Defeat. The “Destroy and Defeat” operational tasks focus the commander on adversary A2/AD platforms and weapons systems that threaten forces in theater as they maneuver.[18] Destroying or neutralizing adversary weapons systems enhances friendly survivability and provides freedom of action. In terms of access, destroying adversary platforms regains access and defeating employed weapons sustains it.

The Air-Sea Battle Concept document, and not the blogosphere, should be read in detail for a deeper understanding of how the operational art of Air-Sea Battle addresses the A2/AD problem. As stated in the unclassified version of the concept, for those with appropriate clearances and need to know, there a growing body of work that explores subordinate tactical concepts and mission essential tasks that will be required for Air-Sea Battle to evolve from operational art, to operational design, to concepts of operations and operational plans.

Historical Analogy: War Plan Orange. Air-Sea Battle is not a strategy or a war plan; however, there is a particularly appropriate analogy to Air-Sea Battle in the development of War Plan Orange during the interwar years. There are striking similarities in the institutional changes driven by the changing operational environment as well as the specific time-distance-resistance military problem confronted by planners in the Pacific then and in the global commons today.

First, the era of uncontested power projection for U.S. forces may well be over – Air-Sea Battle assumes U.S. forces will have to fight to get to the fight – an assumption also made by the planners of War Plan Orange. Similar to the historical evolution of War Plan Orange, Air-Sea Battle’s development is driving institutional changes to better understand the challenges of potential future fights. Edward Miller’s book, War Plan Orange, explores what he called “the American way of planning” in detail and perhaps future historians will compare the “color” planning efforts of the pre-World War II era and the overall effort to explore the anti-access and area denial challenge through the Air-Sea Battle Concept, the Joint Operational Access Concept, and others.[19] War Plan Orange’s many iterations included the Through Ticket and the Royal Road, evolutions in the plans that accounted for better understanding and new insights between the Services. Air-Sea Battle represents a similar evolution in 21st century warfare.

Second, the defining military problem faced by Army and Navy planners working on War Plan Orange in the decades preceding World War II was largely one of geography, where access to the high seas and international airspace was defined by the air and maritime distance between bases and the Pacific islands. The same geographic considerations bound Air-Sea Battle in the global commons, but with the added complexity of access to non-sovereign cyberspace, space, and the electromagnetic spectrum. Air-Sea Battle is in the vanguard of a likely long-term effort to address a similar problem of time, distance and resistance associated with A2/AD.

In conclusion, Air-Sea Battle describes an operational approach that, for military planners, helps make sense of the A2/AD operating environment, defines the military problem of A2/AD, and describes the characteristics needed in the future force and the broad actions U.S. and allied forces must take to achieve access in the global commons. For every complaint about Air-Sea Battle generated inside the Beltway, there are numerous requests for support from the Fleets and Forces in how to approach the growing challenge of advanced A2/AD capabilities. Further, the operational approach of Air-Sea Battle promotes mutual understanding and unity of effort not just forward in the Fleets and Forces but among the Services in their Title 10 force development roles. Air-Sea Battle’s operational framework is being used to find the solutions necessary for the U.S. military to continue to operate forward and project power wherever an A2/AD challenge emerges.[20]

CDR John Callaway, U.S. Navy, is a strategic planner assigned to the Air-Sea Battle Office. He is a graduate of Georgetown University, Harvard’s Kennedy School, and the National War College. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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[1] Air-Sea Battle: Service Collaboration to Address Anti-Access & Area Denial Challenges, May 2013, p.4

[2] Joint Pub 5-0, Joint Operation Planning, 11 August 2011, p.III-5

[3] Joint Pub 5-0, p.III-6

[4] Joint Pub 5-0, p.III-7

[5] Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, January 2012, pp.4-5

[6] The “Air-Sea Battle” name is attributed to various sources, including former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, Andrew Marshall, Andrew Krepinevich’s “AirSea Battle” or to Admiral James Stavridis’ 1992 war college paper. While it does not take much imagination to jump from AirLand Battle to Air-Sea Battle, perhaps the credit really belongs with the Atari Corporation which launched a video game called Air-Sea Battle in 1977.

[7] Air-Sea Battle, p.1

[8] See reports authored by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments on this topic. These reports preceded and are often confused with the actual Department of Defense Air-Sea Battle Concept.

[9] Joint Operational Access Concept, Department of Defense, 17 Jan 2012, p.24 (footnote) and p.38

[10] Air-Sea Battle, p.3

[11] Air-Sea Battle, p.2

[12] Joint Pub 5-0, p.III-5

[13] Joint Pub 5-0, p.III-5-III-6

[14] Joint Pub 5-0, p.III-13

[15] Air-Sea Battle, p.4

[16] Air-Sea Battle, p.5

[17] Air-Sea Battle, p.2

[18] Air-Sea Battle, pp.7-8

[19] Miller, Edward S., War Plan Orange: The U.S. Strategy to Defeat Japan 1897-1945, (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD: 1991.) As an interesting aside, and potentially a strategic message about the willingness of the United States to work with those formerly considered competitors and adversaries, planners from more than one country targeted by a “color plan” are included in the Air-Sea Battle implementation effort.

[20] Air-Sea Battle, p.13

Attrition, Maneuver, and Air Sea Battle

Since the development of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Air Sea Battle concept (ASB) became public knowledge, discussion of its merits has proliferated faster than you can say “multi-axis saturation attack by advanced precision-guided munitions.” (That’s still reasonably fast, I promise.) Many analysts have debated ASB’s implications for alliance politics, U.S. strategy, force structure, and crisis stability, among other topics. Several have proposed well-reasoned alternative concepts intended to address ASB’s limitations. Few, however, have asked whether or not ASB is likely to work at the operational level of war.

One tool available for addressing this question is military and naval theory. Though prominent in the debate surrounding doctrinal changes that led to AirLand Battle in the 1980s, theory has recently taken a back seat in discussion of Air Sea Battle. [1] Placing ASB in context in the realm of military thought enables us to examine the concept’s underlying logic. Theory isolates the key mechanisms of victory or defeat out of the mass of detail to be found in the history of warfare. In doing so, it provides a guide for how—not what—to think when developing operational concepts for application to specific present and future scenarios.

Good theory, grounded in history, is a point of reference. Where an operational concept or its key assumptions deviate from theory, developers should look to specific technological and tactical circumstances of the case to determine whether these deviations are appropriate. This permits informed decisions about departures made from what naval historian Julian S. Corbett termed the “beaten track” of successful precedent.

For example, any operational concept predicated on “dominant battlespace knowledge,” rather than Clausewitzian fog and friction, would receive special scrutiny from a theoretical perspective. Similarly, theory would cast doubt on concepts like Effects-Based Operations, which assume—contrary to historical evidencethat political will can be directly targeted by kinetic effects. In both cases, the validity of the concept would depend not whether it agreed with theory but on whether the unprecedented capabilities or causal relationships the concept required could be realized.

Two paradigms in military theory are attrition and maneuver. Like the wave and particle models of electromagnetic radiation, the applicability of each to a given situation depends on context. The context for ASB is the (re-)appearance of the anti-access/ area-denial (A2/AD) network (nee reconnaissance-strike complex) composed of a variety of weapons and sensors distributed over a wide geographic area, and linked together for mutual support. Specifically, ASB is intended to serve as a general guide to how a strike campaign against such an A2/AD network would be best conducted in order to secure U.S. maritime forces freedom to operate in the context of war.

Published accounts of ASB suggest the concept is all about attrition. That’s a good thing. This line of thinking emphasizes things that matter in maritime wars: minimizing operational risk and ensuring favorable combat-loss exchange ratios.

Open-source assessments of the capability of potential adversaries suggest that high-risk approaches associated with maneuver theory would be prohibitively costly. That ASB eschews this type of risk is grounds for confidence in the path the concept’s development is taking.

Attrition vs. Maneuver

Maneuver theory sees victory as the result of destroying the enemy’s cohesion. In this view, making decisions faster than the enemy allows friendly forces to seize and hold the initiative. Maneuver theory posits enemy dispositions composed of distinguishable strong and weak points. Separated from one another by time and space, these represent potentialnon-cooperative centers of gravity.” Exploiting these weaknesses depends on “reconnaissance pull,” or the direction of attacks by organic reconnaissance assets, rather than higher command. Rapid, unpredictable attacks against enemy vulnerabilities produces psychological and organizational collapse, preventing effective cooperation between segments of the enemy force. [2] 

In contrast, attrition theory prescribes victory through the cumulative destruction of the enemy’s material strength. For attritionists, battle can further at least one of two ends—physically destroying the enemy’s fighting power, and breaking his will to resist. This school of thought emphasizes that one’s own military strength and political will are also at risk in battle. This produces a tactical focus, or a search for methods to maximize the adversary’s losses while minimizing one’s own.

Where maneuver looks to dispersion of forces to confuse and disorient the enemy, attrition tends to favor concentration for effectiveness. This view is reflected in the logic of the Lanchester Square Law: the more firepower massed against the enemy, the faster and cheaper the victory. 

At the heart of ASB is the “Networked, Integrated, Attack-In-Depth” to “Disrupt, Destroy, and Defeat” (NIA-D3) enemy A2/AD networks. NIA-D3 aims to win the “salvo competition” by attacking both the sensor and shooter components of A2/AD networks, reducing their effectiveness. On land, NIA-D3 targets integrated air defense systems (IADS), theater ballistic missile sites, command and control nodes, and long-range sensors. At sea, anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare efforts would destroy cruise missile-armed surface ships and submarines. In the air, tactical aircraft—initially operating from distant bases and aircraft carriers at standoff distance—would attack long-range airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms as well as enemy fighters and bombers.

What all these provisions have in common is a focus on maximizing tactical advantage in every battle, and ensuring U.S. forces take much less punishment than they deal out over an extended period of time. Although CSBA’s report identifies certain high-value targets—especially over-the-horizon targeting radar sites and command centers—neither the DoD or CSBA accounts of ASB envision causing the systemic collapse of a robust A2/AD network. ASB envisions the defeat of enemy A2/AD networks through cumulative erosion of their capabilities, not causing their sudden collapse by attacking their cohesion. 

Theory Meets Reality

Maneuver theory appears a poor guide to addressing A2/AD challenges. There are two reasons a maneuver-style campaign would be a poor choice. First, reconnaissance-strike complexes do not share the same vulnerabilities as adversaries organized along the lines of 20th-century conventional forces. Second, the decentralized command and control system required by maneuver theory would be unable to cope with the scale and interconnectedness of an advanced A2/AD network.

Central to maneuver theory is the proposition that rapid attacks against isolated points of weakness can disorient the enemy, causing the fragmentation and systemic breakdown of the ability to resist or counterattack. This assumption appears inapplicable to a sophisticated reconnaissance-strike complex like that visualized in open-source accounts of ASB.

The imperative of decision speed requires the decentralization of command authority through “mission-type” or “objective” orders. Maneuver advocates admit that this “inherently results in diffuse operations.” [3]

First, the inherent and self-imposed ISR limits of maneuver forces will require them to accept greater losses in searching for appropriate targets. Second, capable adversaries will concentrate defenses around key A2/AD network nodes. Third, the nature of a theater-sized reconnaissance-strike complex—a network characterized by the mutual support and redundancy of many components–suggests that its wholesale collapse would be difficult to achieve.

Decentralized control is integral to maneuver concepts, which require tactical commanders to discover enemy weaknesses by reconnaissance pull. The limited view provided by tactical ISR, however, will be insufficient for attacks on dispersed reconnaissance-strike complexes. Tactical ISR platforms would soon become priority targets for a capable adversary defending itself against a maneuver-style operation. Only higher echelons seem likely to have the resources to form and support the comprehensive “picture” of a theater-sized battlespace. Given the complexity and dispersal of integrated air defense systems (IADS), among other high-value military targets, such a picture seems necessary for adequate battle damage assessment.

In searching for weakness, a maneuver-inspired operational concept would run into strength. As amply demonstrated in the course of Operations ALLIED FORCE and DESERT STORM, IADS components and missile launchers can exploit terrain, mobility, and controlled emissions, making such searches time-consuming. [4] To minimize the risk advanced surface-to-air and anti-ship cruise missiles pose to the tactical aircraft and surface combatants that shoulder much of the strike mission, the time available for future Scud Hunts will be necessarily reduced.

Against continental adversaries with the ability to exploit buried fiber-optic communications, generating “non-cooperative centers of gravity” seems a tall order. It seems likely that capable adversaries will guard key nodes in reconnaissance-strike complexes—long-range sensors and C2 sites—reducing the possibility that surprise could compensate for dispersion in securing a favorable outcome in a given engagement.

Battle networks are designed for mutual support between their component systems. One example is the typical integrated air defense system (IADS). In such systems, the vulnerabilities of long-range tracking radar to low-altitude threats are mitigated by short-range radar and anti-air artillery systems placed to guard against such approaches. 

So if ASB is an attrition concept, and an attrition mindset is the right one to deal with A2/AD challenges, is ASB in keeping with the precedent of previously successful attrition campaigns? While no definitive answer is possible, there are reasons for confidence on this score. Successful attrition campaigns of the past, such as U.S. Army GEN Matthew Ridgway’s “limited objective attacks” in the Korean War, have consistently maintained a focus on minimizing losses as the best way to deliver the maximum damage over time.[5]  

In naval warfare, purely tactical advantages—tactical surprise and the concentration of firepower— have produced favorable loss-exchange ratios. [6] The cumulative destruction of Imperial Japan’s fleet played a central role in inducing that country’s surrender. It did so through the effects of defeat on Japan’s national leadership as well as indirectly through permitting the capture of the Marianas as forward air bases for a strategic bombing campaign. [7]

For generations of military leaders and analysts reared on tales of World War I’s Western Front and U.S. Army GEN William Westmoreland’s search-and-destroy operations in Vietnam, “attrition” may be something of a dirty word. Yet it appears an attrition mindset—that appearing in ASB—is the right one for tackling advanced A2/AD networks.

Critics argue that ASB is not a useful concept because it emphasizes the erosion of the enemy’s conventional forces and largely ignores questions of escalation and political will. [8]

Yet—unfashionable though it might be to say—killing people and breaking stuff can pay political dividends. The increased cost and length of time required to acquire major platforms and weapons systems suggests their importance as a source of strategic leverage has also grown. If potential adversaries cannot fight a conventional conflict without confronting the likelihood of losing, rather than gaining, military strength relative to the United States and its allies, a potential threat to stability will recede. ASB may yet play a role in bringing about this favorable scenario.

ENS Adam Humayun is a graduate of The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and has completed coursework at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent those of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

[1] Edward N. Luttwak, “The Operational Level of War,” International Security vol. 5 no. 3 (Winter 1980-1981): 61-79; Edward N. Luttwak, “Attrition, Relational Maneuver, and the Military Balance,” International Security vol. 8 no. 2 (Autumn 1983): 176-179; John J. Mearsheimer, “Maneuver, Mobile Defense, and the NATO Central Front,” International Security vol. 6 no. 3 (Winter 1981-1982): 104-122.

[2] William S. Lind, Maneuver Warfare Handbook (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1985 (5-6). See also Boyd’s Patterns of Conflict presentation (hyperlinked in paragraph).

[3] Robert R. Leonhard, “Maneuver Warfare and the U.S. Army,” in Richard D. Hooker, ed. Maneuver Warfare: An Anthology (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1993), 42-56 (45).

[4] Arend G. Westra, “Radar Versus Stealth: Passive Radar and the Future of U.S. Military Power,” Joint Force Quarterly no. 55 (October 2009): 136-143; Benjamin S. Lambeth, “Reflections on the Balkan Air Wars,” Air Power History, Spring 2010: 31-43.

[5] Carter Malkasian, “Towards a Better Understanding of Attrition: The Korean and Vietnam Wars,” Journal of Military History vol. 68 no. 3: 911-942 (918-928, 939).

[6] Wayne P. Hughes, Jr. Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000) 40-44, 193-202.

[7] Robert A. Pape, “Why Japan Surrendered,” International Security vol. 18 no. 2 (Fall 1993): 154-201.

[8] See among others Thomas P.M. Barnett, “Big-War Thinking in a Small-War Era: The Rise of the Air-Sea Battle Concept,” China Security vol. 6 no. 3 (8-9).

Air-Sea Battle in Orbit

The threat of China’s Anti-Access and Area Denial (A2/AD) systems looms large in the minds of U.S. military thinkers and planners.   The threat posed to U.S. naval forces by anti-ship ballistic missiles, submarines, and swarms of small combatants are well known to the readers of this blog.   Air-Sea Battle, however, will not simply be fought in the air and seas of the Asia-Pacific but in space as well.  The Air-Sea Battle Concept recognizes that “all domains will be contested by an adversary—space, cyberspace, air, maritime, and land.”   While space is usually thought of as an Air Force domain, the Navy can make an important contribution to ensure the success of U.S. operations.

Space systems are a key source of U.S. military advantage.  The United States has been uniquely successful in leveraging satellite communications, space-based intelligence capabilities, and the GPS constellation to enable global power projection and precision strike.  This tremendous success has also made the United States particularly vulnerable to attacks on its space assets.   Seeking to exploit this vulnerability China has invested heavily in counter-space systems.  The potential of China’s counter-space program was illustrated most clearly by its successful test of a direct ascent anti-satellite weapon in 2007, destroying an obsolete Chinese satellite and filling low earth orbit with thousands of pieces of debris.

While the dependence of U.S. forces on space systems is relatively common knowledge, less appreciated is China’s increasing dependence on space to accomplish its own military missions.   China uses space assets not to enable global power projection (at least, not yet) but as key parts of its A2/AD kill chain.  China is building a maritime reconnaissance-strike complex, much like the one fielded by the Soviet Union during the cold war, including optical and radar imaging satellites as well as electronic intelligence satellites, that will allow it to locate U.S. ships at sea.  Weather satellites will also aid China’s over-the-horizon radars tracking U.S. ships in the Western Pacific.  Once Chinese satellites locate U.S. carrier groups and other targets, the Beidou satellite constellation, China’s counterpart to GPS, will guide long-range missiles to their targets.

Faced with the threat to important U.S. space assets and the threat from Chinese space assets, what contributions can the Navy make to the Air-Sea Battle fight in space?

The Navy can help mitigate the U.S. dependence on space assets.   While current operations are dependent on targeting, navigation, and weather information from space assets, the Navy operated for decades before the first satellite was launched.   Relearning how to operate without space assets- navigating and targeting weapons without GPS, for instance- will make U.S. forces more resilient in the face of threats to U.S. space systems.  The Navy can also try to reduce its reliance on space systems when acquiring new weapons and platforms.   Unmanned aviation, for instance,  is a major consumer of satellite communication bandwidth.   Finding alternatives to vulnerable satellite communications should be a major part of the Navy’s embrace of unmanned systems for maritime surveillance and carrier operations.

The threat from adversary space surveillance is not a new one.   The Soviet Union deployed radar and electronic intelligence satellites to track and guide attacks on U.S. carrier groups as part of its own A2/AD effort.  In response, the Navy developed countermeasures and deception tactics to blunt the threat from Soviet satellites.   Relearning tactics such as emissions control (EMCON), maneuvering to avoid the orbital path of surveillance satellites, and dispersed formations to confuse tracking and targeting, will improve the chances of U.S. forces surviving Chinese A2/AD systems.

The Navy could also go on the offensive in space.   As demonstrated in 2008’s Operation Burnt Frost, the Aegis ballistic missile defense (BMD)  system is capable of destroying targets in space.  While the Missile Defense Agency called Operation Burnt Frost a “one-time Aegis BMD mission,” any SM-3 equipped Aegis ship with the same software modifications as the USS Lake Erie would be capable of attacking satellites in low earth orbit.  Laura Grego, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, describes the 43 Aegis BMD ships and the two Aegis Ashore sites that make up the Phased Adaptive Approach as “the largest destructive ASAT capability ever fielded.” How widely to install the necessary software modifications and how to balance the escort and BMD missions of Aegis ships with their potential counter-space role will be important decisions for the Navy to address in the face of China’s A2/AD challenge.

Air-Sea Battle depends on the success of joint operations in all domains.  While space is not a traditional Navy domain, threats from space pose a challenge to naval operations and the Navy possesses unique capabilities to respond to these threats and should be integrated into efforts to address the challenge of contesting the space domain.

Matthew Hallex is a defense analyst who lives and works in northern Virginia.  His opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer or clients. 

The Evolution of Air-Sea Battle

Just as history and past experiences have guided the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on a path towards the deployment of a robust anti-access/area-denial capability (A2/AD), Washington’s own historical narrative will guide its own counter response. Such a response, known as Air-Sea Battle (ASB), has gone through an important evolution–thanks mainly to an important and often times heated debate–over the last four years that many scholars and followers of this operational concept are quick to gloss over or are unaware of. Understanding such an evolution and tracking its progress is key not only for understanding ASB itself but also in monitoring how nations and non-state actors dependent on A2/AD might attempt to adapt or counter such efforts.

ASB: Core Foundations

American planners over the last several years have sought techniques to continue to deploy a superior conventional military capability in spite of growing A2/AD capabilities, retain the ability to mass forces and enter a combat zone decisively while controlling the global commons across all domains (land, air, sea, space, and cyber). Despite carefully worded statements, Washington is clearly trying to negate PRC and in some respects Iran’s A2/AD capabilities along with non-state actors.  The most widely discussed option when it comes to defeating A2/AD strategies is the highly controversial operational concept known as AirSea Battle. Many times confused as a war fighting strategy, in its simplest form, ASB is an effort by America’s military to ensure access to the global commons from any adversary that would contest such access across any and all domains.

The initial phrase ASB is a most likely a borrowed one. It derives its likeness from the Cold War concept of AirLand Battle (ALB). ALB was its own joint warfighting concept; however, that is largely where the similarities stop. As Robert Farley has noted, ALB succeeded Active Defense as U.S. Army doctrine in the early 1980’s. The doctrine primed NATO forces for  combat in Central Europe against the Warsaw Pact, although many of its basic precepts could also apply to other scenarios (like the 1991 Gulf War, for example). Farley explains that “ALB represented an accommodation between the Army and the USAF, providing a respite to the decades of intra and inter-service strife…” The Air Force essentially set aside its own strategic concept in order to provide operational and tactical support for army forces in a protracted struggle with a much larger conventional adversary.

CSBA Version of Air-Sea Battle: ASB 1.0?

The first comprehensive study of ASB and what it could offer U.S. war planners is a widely cited 2010 report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) entitled: AirSea Battle – A Point of Departure Operational Concept. To this day, the report is one of the most authoritative documents concerning ASB, even though the concept has evolved dramatically since publication. While the document was developed without Department of Defense support, it provides important detailed operational and strategic guidance of how ASB could be moved from an operational concept into a war-fighting strategy to defeat A2/AD battle networks.

While the CSBA version addresses ASB capabilities at the tactical and strategic levels, it is the operational level that is most important, as ASB is an operational concept—which many scholars confuse. As the CSBA report notes:

Air-Sea Battle must address the critical emerging challenges and opportunities that projected Chinese A2/AD capabilities will present, and to which currently envisioned US forces do not appear to offer a suitable response. In general, since A2/AD capabilities seek to impose ever-greater constraints on US operational freedom of action, an AirSea Battle concept must address how the challenge can be offset or, failing that, how freedom of action can be regained in at least selected temporal/positional aspects for purposes of power projection.

The CSBA version of ASB would see combat take place in two stages. The first stage is detailed as an initial stage, comprised of several distinct lines of operation.  U.S. forces would first withstand an initial attack and limit possible damage. Next, a “blinding campaign” would commence against PLA battle networks. Next, a “suppression campaign” would then commence, focusing on PLA long-range ISR and strike systems. Focus would also be placed to ensure “Seizing and sustaining the initiative in the air, sea, space and cyber domains.” Emphasis would also be placed on “distant blockade operations,” and increased procurement and production of precision guided munitions—among other goals.

ASB would rapidly find acceptance and quickly be adopted by official U.S. war planners as part of an overall strategy to shift U.S. thinking away from COIN based operations to future military challenges—specifically operating in A2/AD environments. During late fall of 2011, it was announced that an Air-Sea Battle office was in the process of being formed to “oversee the integration of air and naval combat capabilities in an age of smaller budgets and leaner forces.”

ASB and the JOAC

ASB continued its evolution as part of a much wider Joint Operational Access Concept, or commonly known as JOAC, in early 2012. Signed by U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, the goal of this document is to show how U.S. “joint forces will operate in response to emerging anti-access and area-denial security challenges.” The JOAC places the first official U.S. definition of ASB into the public domain:

The intent of Air-Sea Battle is to improve integration of air, land, naval, space, and cyberspace forces to provide combatant commanders the capabilities needed to deter and, if necessary, defeat an adversary employing sophisticated A2/AD capabilities. It focuses on ensuring that joint forces will possess the ability to project force as required to preserve and defend U.S. interests well into the future.

Enter The ASB Office

ASB would again be refined and further sculpted once more in U.S. government documents for public disclosure, this time by the newly formed AirSea Battle office itself. On May 12, 2013, the ASB office released an unclassified version of what was dubbed a “summary” of the ASB operational concept:

A limited objective concept that describes what is necessary for the joint force to sufficiently shape A2/AD environments to enable concurrent or follow-on power projection operations. The ASB Concept seeks to ensure freedom of action in the global commons and is intended to assure allies and deter potential adversaries. ASB is a supporting concept to the Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC), and provides a detailed view of specific technological and operational aspects of the overall A2/AD challenge in the global commons. The Concept is not an operational plan or strategy for a specific region or adversary. Instead, it is an analysis of the threat and a set of classified concepts of operations (CONOPS) describing how to counter and shape A2/AD environments, both symmetrically and asymmetrically, and develop an integrated force with the necessary characteristics and capabilities to succeed in those environments.

Confusion, Evolution and Revolution?

Even after the ASB offices authoritative documentation, many still confused ASB for a war-fighting strategy against China. Many mistakenly continue to this day cite and attack the CSBA version of ASB. The area of the document that draws the most attention is where it calls for controversial kinetic strikes on mainland China to disrupt important A2/AD C2 and C4ISR that would control PLA A2/AD combat capabilities. Because of this confusion, members of the House Armed Services Committee held a special session on October 10, 2013 in an attempt to remove any ambiguity (I was able to attend). The meeting was described as “for the first time ever, senior leaders from the Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Army and Joint Staff discussed the Air-Sea Battle Concept in an open hearing.” As U.S. Navy Rear Admiral James Foggo testified, ASB is:

Designed to assure access to parts of the “global commons” – those areas of the air, sea, cyberspace and space that no one “owns,” but which we all depend on – such as the sea lines of communication.  Our adversaries’ anti-access/area denial strategies employ a range of military capabilities that impede the free use of these ungoverned spaces. These military capabilities include new generations of cruise, ballistic, air-to-air, and surface-to-air missiles with improved range, accuracy, and lethality are being produced and proliferated. Quiet modern submarines and stealthy fighter aircraft are being procured by many nations, while naval mines are being equipped with mobility, discrimination and autonomy. Both space and cyberspace are becoming increasingly important and contested. Accordingly the Air-Sea Battle Concept is intended to defeat such threats to access, and provide options to national leaders and military commanders, to enable follow-on operations, which could include military activities, as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster response. In short, it is a new approach to warfare.

In many respects the debate and confusion around ASB has played a critical role in its evolution and definition in publicly available sources of information. While scholars will surely battle over the abilities of ASB to provide effective solutions to confront the challenge of proliferating A2/AD technologies and strategies, having a correctly understood definition of ASB are crucial to such a debate. As ASB has been misinterpreted, misunderstood, or mistaken for something it is not, those who look to the benefits of ASB have been forced to refine and develop the motivations and aspirations of this operational concept. While issues of national strategy, budgetary politics and public opinion may ultimately cause ASB to become nothing more than an historical curiosity (for the record, I sure hope not) its evolution continues on for those who wish to see it.

Harry J. Kazianis is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the China Policy Institute (University of Nottingham) as well as WSD Handa Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies: PACNET. Mr. Kazianis also serves as Managing Editor for the National Interest. He previously served as Editor of The Diplomat. The views expressed are his alone.