Towards a More Intelligent Debate over Air-Sea Battle

One of the curious aspects of the debate over Air-Sea Battle has been that the arguments taking place often dwell not on substance, but on definitional disagreements. For example, one side will critique ASB out of concerns of strategy or the nature of our relationship with China; the other side will rightly complain that these concerns belong in a separate, well-deserved debate because ASB is an operational concept, not a strategy. CIMSEC has commissioned an entire week on ASB in the hope that we can move past this inescapable logic-loop. On that note, I recently came across two pieces (both published journal articles) that are stand-ins for where we do and do not want this debate to go.

One is a recent article published in the journal Military Review, entitled “A Role for Land Warfare Forces in Overcoming A2/AD,” written by COL Vincent Alcazar and COL Thomas Lafleur, formerly Air Force co-lead and Army strategist for the Air-Sea Battle Office, respectively. Sounds promising! Unfortunately, what followed was a jargon-laced, logically questionable, and utterly indefensible article. In a sentence, they argued that ASB is not sufficient to meet the A2/AD challenge of the future. Instead we should land a Brigade Combat Team on the soil of our future putative enemies to conduct reconnaissance, raids, and seizures of key A2/AD capabilities. What an incredible argument! Without any reference to actual scenarios, concrete adversaries, or political costs this is not just a useless argument, it is a dangerous one, because someone somewhere out there might actually take it seriously. Beyond substantively bad ideas, this article is also marred by poor writing. For example:

Land warfare forces are not an invasion or long-term occupation force, or utilized as the vanguard of a nation-building effort; even “kicking in the door” comes later. Early land warfare force employment against A2/AD is about tailored BCTs and slices of BCTs that enter the neighborhood to shape its places for the joint force subsequently to kick in the doors to the key houses, which themselves constitute key opponent targets. (p. 80)

If you can understand that, I’m not sure I can congratulate you. The entire article reads like this. A final problem is that the article bizarrely confuses strategy, operations, and tactics. One choice quotation: “Nations employing A2/AD have four goals; however, it is inaccurate to conflate these ‘goals’ with ends. Rather, these goals are considered a framework to explain the strategic and operational so what of A2/AD.” (ital. original) (p. 82-83) How are the authors distinguishing “goals” from “ends?” How can you even talk about strategy without referring to specific countries? What does the term “so what” mean? In sum this article indicates to me that even within the ASBO itself people are still confused over definitions, and basic logic. Pardon the overwrought nautical metaphor, but it does not instill in me much confidence that the ship is being steered in the right direction.

Striking a completely different tone, Jonathan Solomon’s recent article published in Strategic Studies Quarterly, “Demystifying Conventional Deterrence: Great-Power Conflict and East Asian Peace,” was a tour de force. Even though I do not necessarily agree with his conclusions, Solomon expertly defends the necessity of Air-Sea Battle and long-range conventional strike systems through a clear and logical (if dense) elucidation of conventional deterrence theory. He also makes criticisms of blockades that proponents of competitors to ASB, like Offshore Control, must contend with: that over-land blockade running or rationing could thwart a blockade; that a blockade might harm third-party allied countries; and that an adversary could put the US in a situation where it had to choose between further escalation or compromising the integrity of the blockade.

But I still have issues with an article even as well written as this. First, the author is largely talking about an “end of the world” scenario in which China initiates a premeditated first strike a la Pearl Harbor. Solomon spends comparatively little time addressing lower-order conventional deterrence/crisis escalation scenarios, except to say that high-end conventional deterrence is still useful between levels of escalation and that U.S. and allied constabulary functions are still necessary. While some argue that China has an incentive in certain situations to conduct a preemptive strike, it seems likely that such a strike would come in the context of an ongoing political crisis rather than as a bolt out of the blue attack. In this case, lower-end deterrence (defusing the crisis) would be more important than higher-end deterrence.

Second, Solomon intelligently lays out example after example of how both conventional and nuclear deterrence could fail due to strategic misperceptions, psychological issues, China becoming more volatile, and the U.S. fiscal situation weakening, etc. But then he pins the solution on confidence-building measures and multi-track diplomacy. But what happens when multi-track diplomacy does NOT work and China continually rejects confidence-building measures? I am actually one of the biggest proponents of Sino-U.S. mil-mil cooperation, but I am NOT confident that, as Solomon puts it, the United States and China “educate” each other about “their respective escalatory threshold perceptions.” (p. 133)

This is why it is important to craft a more conservative deterrence policy that does not depend on having perfect knowledge of the adversaries’ intentions, doctrine, strategic culture, or leadership psychology. As is well documented by history, intelligence has often been catastrophically wrong, and signaling has been imperfectly interpreted or outright failed—such as the fine-tuned signaling intended by U.S. strategic bombing during the Vietnam War, or when the United States thought it was fighting an anti-communist war in Vietnam while the Vietnamese thought they were fighting a nationalist and anti-colonialist war. We absolutely must try to increase transparency and mutual understanding, but we also have to be aware that we could fail, with catastrophic results. It seems as if Solomon is well aware of these issues, but at times he contradicts himself; there is even one section where he suggests “overt, predeclared ‘automaticity’ in [the] deterrent posture,” which clashes with his warnings against misperceptions, etc. (p. 136)

Finally, the author rightly points out that a Chinese first-strike would inflame the Clausewitzian passions of the U.S. and allied publics and would provide a psychological boost to our side. Why then wouldn’t U.S. retaliatory strikes against mainland targets (even if they are only against counterforce targets) not inflame the passions of the Chinese public, making de-escalation on the Chinese side that much more difficult? We have ample evidence of the nationalist sentiments of the Chinese public, and the below-the-surface antipathy towards the United States that could erupt (e.g. the Belgrade embassy bombing). CCP leaders could fear popular revolt if they capitulated, even if they understood themselves to be in a long-term losing situation. The CCP’s interest in maintaining their leadership position may not be the same as China’s national interest. That is a scary thing to consider.

These two articles seem to strike out two different future intellectual trajectories for the military and our national security apparatus. In one, alternative strategies are debated with an eye towards academic theory, well-informed history, and sound logic. In the other, a gob of reheated mush is coated in incomprehensible jargon and delivered to us as “fresh thinking.” Which direction do we want to go? We can have intelligent or unintelligent debates about ASB. The choice will directly influence our national security, and whether we stumble into yet more undesired wars or keep an uneasy peace. It is my hope that this week at CIMSEC will steer us in the right direction.

William Yale is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins SAIS. He has lived in China for two years, and worked at the Naval War College and the U.S. State Department. He tweets @wayale and blogs at williamyale.com.

10 thoughts on “Towards a More Intelligent Debate over Air-Sea Battle”

  1. Will,
    I want to start this by saying I generally agree with your assessment of the two Colonel’s land power refrain to ASB in your content critiques. Otherwise, I suggest you try to understand the “jargon-laced, logically questionable, and utterly indefensible article” a little better as your polemics paint your opinion in a worse light than the authors

    -”hey argued that ASB is not sufficient to meet the A2/AD challenge of the future, and that we should land a Brigade Combat Team on the soil of our future putative enemies to conduct reconnaissance, raids, and seizures of key A2/AD capabilities”

    Is this your sentence or theirs? If its yours then you might want to go back and read up on security cooperation, THAAD, and some of the more major items that are all left of boom type stuff the authors were purporting to be the strength of land forces. I don’ really see their piece as saying land forces will rehash Guadalacanal/Gallipoli/Iwo Jima at the first drop of the China hat. It is much more that land forces offer presence and deterrence options not available in ASB. Now, I can take issue with that point but it is much different than the summation you offer. Their discussion of raids, seizures, and reconnaissance is all related to doctrinal terms that I would hope you understand the depth and breadth of before you assail them. Do you have your JP 1-02 handy? If not, then please get one before you blast off with both barrels.

    -”Without any reference to actual scenarios, concrete adversaries, or political costs, this is not just a useless argument, it is a dangerous one, because someone somewhere out there might actually take it seriously.”

    How is discussion of denied entry seizure (again grab your JP 1-02) any more dangerous than discussion of ASB and its talk of penetrating defended battlespace with the intent to conduct robust strikes? If you can answer that than please educate me on the last time a long term strike campaign was conducted with no ground based seizure of FARPs, staging Areas, and other strong points? Caveat your answer to a theater as large as the westpac, and you will come up with only one answer which is never.

    -”What does the term “so what” mean”

    The article was written in Military Review, so it does not take wild leap of rationality to assume most of the readers would be well versed in pentagonese. “So What” is a term you will find in every point paper, powerpoint, and memo crafted at the Potomac Office Bldg for Displaced Planners since time immortal. Anyone who has touched the beast that is DOD for more than 5 minutes understands the term. It means whats the point.

    Your polemics and almost disrespectful treatment of two individuals who have a good amount of experience and background detracts from some of the valid flaws in their argument that you bring up.

    Semper Fi
    Chris Barber

    1. Hi Chris,

      Every institution has necessary jargon but I think even for a specialized audience writers should strive for clarity. This article, regardless of the content, used unnecessary jargon and was poorly written. You’re right, I have not encountered “so what” before because of my relative youth and inexperience. That does not change the fact that it is a terrible phrase.

      In general I subscribe to scenario-based planning. If we’re thinking of how to counter A2/AD capabilities, we have to think of the contingencies in which we would encounter A2/AD. Yes, one can say there are plenty of minor actors that utilize some form of A2/AD, but we’re mainly talking about China, Iran (and maybe North Korea). Yes there are some situations here where land power is necessary (if we get into an actual war with North Korea, for example). But there are many others where it would not be, like pretty much any scenario involving China. (how would you logistically even land and then extract a BCT on Chinese soil? how would this further our strategic ends?) Land power of the kind that article is talking about is also not particularly relevant for deterring China, because we can’t credibly threaten to use land power in that way during a conflict.

      You asked why talking about denied entry seizure is any more dangerous than penetrating strikes. I also don’t believe penetrating strikes are a terribly good way to deter China either!

      I believe the authors do briefly mention security cooperation and army missile defense. Yes, of course these are wholly positive and useful for deterrence. But that was not the bulk of their argument.

      You are correct that the first half of this article was very polemical–and perhaps I should have tried to calmly deconstruct their argument. I found this very difficult to do, again, given the poor writing. It made it difficult to take their arguments seriously. I don’t know the authors of that piece, and I didn’t address them as individuals or their qualifications except in that they were part of the ASBO. This is disturbing to me for all the points above, and I was passionate about it.

      All of that said, I also spent a larger portion of the piece talking about an article that I thought was extremely well written despite the fact that I disagreed with some of the author’s points. While I may not have been even-handed to the the two Colonels here, I was intentionally trying to be evenhanded to the larger topic–ASB.

      Best Regards,

  2. Ok so to close this one out….
    You are mad that Military Officers wrote in military language about military doctrine in a military publication-Ok that works, but I would advise that if you want to continue tilting at windmills maybe pick a less established windmill. They were writing a doctrinal piece aimed at discussing how they believe another piece of doctrine can be improved.

    To your youth and inexperience, I will say the same that I tell my grad school classmates of a more youthful persuasion- LEARN THE LINGO. Professionals talk professionally, you can hate the phrase “so what”, but guess what, a lot of GOFOs and SES’s like it and it is hear to stay. Your feelings on the literary merits of it or any other “jargon” don’t count for much. The profession has chosen them and the profession will decline them if and when such a time comes about. I am sure there are many doctors who hate medical phrases and lawyers who hate legalese-it does not change the fact their profession demands them to wield such language even if they don’t like it.

    You failed to grasp a lot of what the authors were discussing because you don’t understand their language. If I am feeling you out correctly, you believe in a measured and slow hand vis a vis strategy against China. If you would have paid more attention to the left of boom (uh oh there is that dreaded jargon again) items they were discussing you would have understood the authors probably mirror more of your views than you had initially thought

    Finally, don’t compare apples to oranges. The Colonels piece is one that is primarily aimed at practitioners and specifically at how to improve doctrine as it pertains to A2/AD. The piece you enjoyed is a more academic pursuit aimed at an IR/Strategy crowd and concerned with the higher machinations of grand strategy and how they can be improved regarding China. You are essentially comparing a quarterback’s wrist sheet to a coache’s pregame plan for his offensive and defensive coordinators. They are not similar in scope, intended audience, or rhetoric.


    1. This is just a comment, not an argument–Chris, I have talked to a good number of people about this article. You may find your views challenged even within the beloved military establishment.


  3. Will
    Never implied you had not done your reasearch, just that your approach to the counter Land Forces article’s argument was ham-fisted and demonstrated a lack of knowledge concerning institutional norms. My “beloved” military is capable of ignorance and ineptitude of the highest level, so if you are implying that I think the doctrine in the Colonels piece or any other writing about ASB/China by military folks is without fault then you are mistaken.

    My hope in these comments was to educate and not chastise, and I hope to see more of your thinking-but also hope that thinking tries to understand the people,objects, and organizations it is critiquing a little better next time.

    1. The “operational vignette” that the Colonels use really doesn’t help their argument. They theorize “small units of land warfare forces” along with SOF being transported onto hostile shores to take out enemy missiles. This is certainly plausible, and in line with lots of historical ops (lots of stuff in WWII done by airborne, rangers, UDT, etc…), but the way its posed, not even addressing the air or seapower needed to deliver that capability, is problematic. The BCT they propose at the beginning of the article as doing this sure sounds a lot like a MEU, and their undersea delivered commandos sound like SEALs, but both of those capabilities are enabled by sea forces that need to address their own A2AD challenges before they can deliver those guys to the fight, a factor not discussed in the piece. I don’t see how they get around the need for at least temporary sea control of a particular area, even with “high-speed survivable horizontal vertical lift platforms.”

      The way much of this article reads is that landpower is a substitute for seapower or airpower…when in fact they are all complementary aspects of national military power (dominance afloat and in the air lets a state use its land forces to achieve its military objectives abroad). They admit that A2AD makes it hard for an expeditionary land force to operate abroad…but that’s precisely why they Navy and Air Force need to figure out how to do operate in an A2AD world…so that they can make sure the Army can get to the fight and be sustained there.

      1. As to the point you make in your first paragraph…absolutely correct, Mark. In relevant scenarios (China, and even Iran), if you’re not willing to go for broke with a larger ground force/regime change/different political objectives, then you will have immense difficulty getting troops on the ground, sustaining them, and extracting them.

        You know, Chris, I’ve thought about this some more. I am not against adapting to institutional norms per se. But I have trouble understanding why jargon should be defended for its own sake. There has to be a better reason for keeping a piece of jargon–for example, if it somehow improves clarity. Again, from conversations I’ve had, everyone I’ve talked to thinks this article is junk. An army strategist friend of mine–you would think the prime audience–had such a headache trying to read this that he could barely get through! It was quote “god-awful” and that it was “disturbing” that these men have influence over JOAC and ASB, because they don’t have the “slightest idea of what A2/AD even is, nor how the land domain and forces operating within it should be employed to counter-A2/AD.”

        I think Edward Tufte made a very elegant argument about something similar–powerpoint, which the military uses in abundance. There are independent (if subjective) standards for what qualifies as good writing. Every profession should strive to reach those standards. The military is not exempt.

  4. Will
    Again, your criticism of their writing style does not really hold much water for me. Your main critique of their piece was centered on that. If you are looking for Hemingway in the DOD you will likely be disappointed. Spend a little more time understanding the jargon, as painful as that may be. It will likely pay dividends for you later on. Additionally, if we want to press for clear writing we can certainly clean up some of the academicese/ IR-ese in the other piece. Lets be fair in our nitpicking shall we.

    Additionally, they are basically saying that if one thinks ASB can be successful without a land force component they are probably wrong. I think that is a very valid point to bring to the discussion of the benefits and negatives of ASB writ large. Now, as to how one would integrate land forces,why, and what service-their argument leaves much to be desired

    Mark, agree on your point about them making a parochial advocacy for a BCT when the capability is already present in a MEU-but I think the crux of what they are saying gets much more into your point about being complementary.

    The authors are making the argument that yes, ground forces will be used in extremis ASB situations (going for broke), which one would hope would be the only situations that ASB would even be considered in. Woe to the one who thinks the events ASB would unleash could easily be put back into a bottle-so we better consider how one would integrate all domains of military power into the fight.

    I am not going to try and elevate the Colonels piece, it is again just an examination of doctrine, by doctrine writers, concerning tactical/operational issues. Some of their points strike me as obtuse (their SOF vignette is highly out of the realm of rational, reasonable, and efficient IMHO). I just think you shot on the wrong goal in terms of your critique. I am sorry your friend had trouble reading the piece, but if a dumb as rocks Marine JO like me can understand what they are saying then maybe Army Strategists need to reexamine their MOS qualifications.

  5. No, my main argument is that they have bad substantive ideas, encapsulated by the sentence “Without any reference to actual scenarios, concrete adversaries, or political costs…” This is along the line of Mark’s questioning how you would get a BCT to shore in an A2/AD environment. I would add, especially in a China scenario, the political costs of a land invasion would be even higher than an air campaign, which would already be prohibitively high (IMO). An ancillary argument is that they communicate poorly.

    When I meant “go for broke” I basically meant discard all political limits on the use of force. This abstraction will never happen.

    Yes, the IR think piece is very dense. But the logic is much clearer, and it is by far a smarter piece. (even though I disagree with it! and yes they can and should be compared)

    Bottom line, Chris, my personal reaction would have been enough for me to write this piece, but when I’ve got a dozen extremely smart and competent people well-versed in these issues (not just my army strategist friend–who by the way, is very qualified, although I would rather let him defend himself if he wants too) all saying the same thing, then I definitely feel like I’m on solid ground here and not just an aberration.

    If you want to argue that I’m not going to persuade the colonels of their errors because my tone is alienating and sharp, true. That’s part of the point. But I get the sense that by and large you think that the thrust of that piece is substantively legitimate (with a few exceptions) and that poor writing somehow has value in of itself, because, that’s just the way they do it, and you better get used it. I also get the feeling you’re judging my argument based off my credentials (which to a point is fair–I certainly do that all the time), and that it would be received differently from someone else’s pen.

  6. I am exiting this, because its becoming an echo chamber between you and me. As my final redress.

    1. Doctrine is almost always developed “Without any reference to actual scenarios, concrete adversaries, or political costs…” or better yet it is developed to be as wide ranging as possible-if you do develop it as specifically as you seem to want than it would be classified as it should be. You don’t generally hand the playbook out over facebook.

    2. You doth protest too much when you use, as evidence, unknown conversations with “dozens extremely smart and competent people”- they don’t matter as far as I am concerned because they may as well not exist. Take apart their piece based on better ideas about how to formulate or refute their doctrine not with magical, unheard of geniuses who told you these guys suck. Show me the “so what” of why thinking about how you actually fight a land force in an A2AD is implicitly bad.

    3. If you are diametrically, 100% percent opposed to any “scenario based planning” that supposes the need for ground forces in a pacific war than you and 100% opposed to the historical record. Please point me to a war involving A2AD where we did not have “raids, reconnaissance, and seizures” by ground forces – Russo-Japanese War, 1933-1941 China/Japan, 1941-1945 US/Japan (thats just Pac)- those won’t work. Ok lets look at other A2AD- Mark Munson’s great piece on 1973 Yom Kippur, or 2006 Lebanon, hell what about the Athenians and the Spartans. All involved one side trying to deny maneuver to the other via a new means (missiles, missiles, and greek fire/a working navy) . All involved the eventual need for ground forces. Reason, passion, chance- you seem to be forgetting the last two. Planners like the two colonels cannot forget them, and policy makers should hope they do not. I am glad someone is thinking about the really, really bad time that a pacific ground/air/sea campaign would entail and how we would actually confront it with forces currently designed to do long haul COIN. So, yes I agree with the Colonels that thinking, and developing sound doctrine, about how to use ground forces in A2/AD is worthwhile.

    3. I am judging you based on a lack of military affairs experience coupled with writing that supposes anything but. I have no shame in admitting I think dilettantes not just annoying, but dangerous. How you approached two individuals who have a great amount of experience screamed “no credibility”-my opinion. You have a great analytical mind, but the real world values analysis tempered with experience. I would advise a tempering of language till that experience is gained as a heuristic to put your thinking on an even keel.

    Regardless, ASB week is certainly filling my need to penetrate some dense idea space and I thank you for the exchange.

    Semper Fi

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