Tag Archives: ASB

Need a New Idea? Try An Old One: Revisiting PAC-10 in the Air-Sea Battle Concept

One does not need to look to far into the history of maritime operations to discern a pattern of importance: you are always attempting to locate and fix your adversary in order to destroy them, while simultaneously, your adversary is attempting the same. The sea provides a certain ubiquity that cannot be reduced in any aim of contestation by the other domains or more directly via control. Yet, when one considers the problems of a domain, there is interplay of practical constraints, which are: tactics, technology, organization, and doctrine. Here, I would briefly like to focus the reader’s attention on the latter item—doctrine—although there will be references to the other aspects throughout. Specifically, I would like to highlight the importance of the 1943 Pacific Fleet Tactical Orders and Doctrine, also known as PAC-10, and its possible relevance to the Air -Sea Battle Concept (ASBC).

The proper usage of naval aviation, and especially its carriers, has been debated since the days of Eugene Ely’s first flights launching and recovering on rudimentary aircraft carriers in 1910-11. During the interwar years between the World Wars there was vast variance in doctrine recursively revised as result of technological improvements, experimentation, and exercises. Doctrinal development and revision did not stop there, even as World War II unfolded in the Pacific, but in 1943, PAC-10 provided both timely clarity and flexibility to commanders in that theater.

Vice Admiral Richard “Terrible” Turner (Wikimedia Commons)
Vice Admiral Richard “Terrible” Turner (Wikimedia Commons)

Prior to World War II, specifically in 1937, U.S. Navy Captain Richard K. Turner presented a lecture at the Naval War College titled “The Strategic Employment of the Fleet,” and produced an associated pamphlet entitled “The Employment of Aviation in Naval Warfare.” While his lecture maintained a decisively Mahanian tenor, Turner’s pamphlet stated that “nothing behind the enemy front is entirely secure from observation and attack,” which provides rhyme to today’s “attack in-depth” in the ASBC.

According to Thomas Hone, before and during 1942, aircraft carrier doctrine focused upon three things: raids, ambushes, and covering invasion forces. Where raids attempted to fix Japanese forces in particular areas, ambushes would seek to attrit Japanese ability to control the seas, and invasion forces sought to add cumulative strategic effect by maneuvering amphibious forces to occupy specific islands for follow-on usage against Japan by joint forces.

A Japanese “Val” Dive-Bomber is shot down over the USS Enterprise on October 26, 1942 during the Battle of Santa Cruz (Wikimedia Commons)
A Japanese “Val” Dive-Bomber is shot down over the USS Enterprise on October 26, 1942 during the Battle of Santa Cruz (Wikimedia Commons)

The major shortfall of the doctrinal precursors to PAC-10 was that, while useful for thinking (and spurring debate) about the control of the maritime domain and maximizing the contest of the air and land domains, they fell short of effectively suggesting to commanders how to best employ aircraft and carriers operationally in task forces. This shortfall came into clear focus during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. Enter the innovation of PAC-10.

In his Naval College Review article entitled, “Replacing Battleships with Aircraft Carriers in the Pacific in World War II,” Thomas Hone described PAC-10 as the following:

PAC-10 was a dramatic innovation. It combined existing tactical publications, tactical bulletins, task force instructions, and battle organization doctrine into one doctrinal publication that applied to the whole fleet. Its goal was to make it “possible for forces composed of diverse types, and indoctrinated under different task force commanders, to join at sea on short notice for concerted action against the enemy without interchanging a mass of special instructions.” PAC-10’s instructions covered one-carrier and multicarrier task forces, and escort- or light-carrier support operations of amphibious assaults. It established the basic framework for the four-carrier task forces—with two Essex-class ships and two of the Independence class—that would form the primary mobile striking arm of the Pacific Fleet. However, it did this within the structure of a combined naval force, a force composed of surface ships— including battleships and carriers….

 PAC-10 solved two problems. First, “the creation of a single, common doctrine allowed ships to be interchanged between task groups.” Second, “shifting the development of small-unit tactical doctrine to the fleet level and out of the hands of individual commanders increased the effectiveness of all units, particularly the fast-moving carrier task forces.”

PAC-10 was truly a watershed moment in operationally considering complement of sea and air capabilities en masse for strategic effect. It moved beyond the oversimplified “duty carrier” (self defense combat air patrol and/or antisubmarine warfare) and “strike carrier” (maritime strike and/or support to land forces ashore) concepts. “Whether a task force containing two or more carriers should separate into distinct groups . . . or remain tactically concentrated . . . may be largely dependent on circumstances peculiar to the immediate situation,” the doctrine stated, where “[no] single rule can be formulated to fit all contingencies.” Unsurprisingly, context was key in the application of PAC-10. Ultimately, PAC-10 focused commanders upon unified effort by maximizing strike, whether that is raids, ambushes, or amphibious attack, while also mitigating the risk of destruction via advanced detection.

Account of the valiant engagements off of Sumar during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. (Wikimedia Commons)
Account of the valiant engagements off of Sumar during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. (Wikimedia Commons)

There are several similarities and differences that need to be drawn from PAC-10 to now for consideration with the ASBC. First, and most importantly, the doctrinal concept did not and could not divine strategic victory. It was neither easy to accomplish, nor did it ignore the necessary requirement for termination to be chosen by the adversary, and furthermore, many heroically died in its use. However, and this is a fundamental truth that cynical detractors of the ASBC chose to ignore, many more would have died had PAC-10 not been developed. Rather, and it was apparent to them at the time, PAC-10 provided commanders an improved tool for use towards strategic effect. So say we all with concern to the ASBC.

U.S. Army Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) Launch (SMDC Photo)
U.S. Army Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) Launch (SMDC Photo)

Second, and almost as important as the first comparison, PAC-10 was a doctrinal concept that entailed warfare. And although there were no further constraints against escalation in World War II, PAC-10 provided considerable potential for strategic effect. How such an improved tool is used is a matter of decision in either the march towards war or during warfare to be made by policy makers via strategic negotiation, careful signaling, and demonstration. One mustn’t deny the value of PAC-10, or the doctrinal aspects of the ASBC, simply because of an over-wrought conflation of a tool with its purpose.

Tactical proficiency and operational effectiveness, are best measured in peacetime from the potential ideal, with the acknowledgment that fog and friction will chew away at that ideal in exercise and practice; whereas, strategic effect is best measured relative to a status quo and desire for continued advantage. The ASBC is focused clearly upon the former, and will only contribute limited strategic effect towards the latter. Clear-eyed strategists must admit that limited effect may be sufficient, but then again it may not as determined by context. However, neither is cause for rejection of an operational concept like the ASBC as a useful tool.

U.S. Marine Corps Amphibious Assault Force (Wikimedia Commons)
U.S. Marine Corps Amphibious Assault Force (Wikimedia Commons)

Third, the tactical combination of air and sea forces in PAC-10 combined with amphibious land attack, contributed to numerous successes in the Pacific. Similarly, a balanced ASBC, that includes a naval economy of force (relative to World War II), along with concomitant of air and land component forces, will create a complicated problem for mounting a successful defense at any one place; just like the PAC-10 doctrine similarly achieved at the Marcus, Gilbert, and Marshall Islands and elsewhere in World War II. In recent, yet more modern times, fleet defense may have been sufficient with only carrier-based aircraft. But at present, both the smaller number of available carriers, an inability to replenish weaponry while underway in the current submarine and destroyer forces, not to mention the basic prudence of joint capability, means that combined arms by way of only one service is no longer a prerogative that the United States can afford to ignore. Similar to the PAC-10 doctrine of yore, the modern ASBC doctrine of the near-future must be able to more effectively balance all joint forces. Needless to say, even if service prerogative still dominates, using carrier aviation alone will diminish strike potential in fleet defense. Dissimilar to the PAC-10 doctrine of yore, the modern ASBC doctrine of the near future must effectively raise its doctrine above that of the fleet and into the joint realm. This means finding effective ways to use Air Force assets and Army assets in roles of fleet defense and sea control just like disparate forces from various carriers in PAC-10 effectively formed a coherent and formidable task force.

Learning Large LessonsAs a guide for the ASBC, the interoperability between air forces (of all types) and land forces (of both traditional and amphibious focus) have benefited from the development of joint doctrine from the combined capabilities and tactics of the Air Land Battle Concept (ALBC). Despite some cynical “easy war” views of ASBC, the ALBC provides a useful scorecard for joint action. The latter has proven unquestionably effective in both mission success and preserving lives in battle from Operation DESERT STORM to the current fight in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM; but its equal in terms of joint combined effect does not yet exist to the same fidelity in the maritime and littoral environments. Our ability to project power, achieve strategic effect by joint combined arms, and experiment with doctrine costs relatively little compared to operational failure. Instead of playing politics — actual joint thinking costs nothing. After all, history and pragmatic thinking proves the obvious, you can’t finish without access.

Need a new idea? Try an old one. Take a look at Pacific Fleet Tactical Orders and Doctrine (PAC-10), and you might see the future of a balanced Air Sea Battle Concept doctrine.

Major Rich Ganske is a U.S. Air Force officer, B-2 pilot, and weapons officer.  He is currently assigned to the U.S. Army Command and General Staff Officers Course at Fort Leavenworth.  These comments do not reflect the views of the U.S. Air Force or the Department of Defense.  You can follow him on Twitter at @richganske and he blogs via Medium at The Bridge and Whispers to a Wall.  Tip of the hat to “Sugar” for the reference to an old idea (or book).

Strategic Architectures

A primer on concepts and their relationships

Five strategic architectures can be applied to U.S.-China confrontation. The nature of how each achieves “victory” differs, and they have unique strengths and weaknesses. 

Inside Out is Air-Sea Battle elevated to a strategy despite self-stated limitations.  It is the DoD’s current vector via the rapid victory requirement dictated in planning scenarios.  In this strategy, the United States applies technological asymmetries to enable small, tailored forces to survive intensely defended approaches and strike vital PRC targets.  This demands operations at the furthest limits of our own power projection while holding the enemy at risk in his most defensible zone.  The risk of failure in this technological arms race is difficult to calculate as both sides depend on secretive “silver bullets.” Once an Inside Out fight begins, each side is likely to locally blind the other via space and cyber attacks, radically limiting control of combat forces and increasing the risk of miscalculation, stagnation, and inadvertent escalation.  This is an unsettling prospect against a nuclear-armed superpower whose redlines are difficult to determine.

Outside In relies on a more classic “peel the onion” approach to dismantle the PRC’s “anti-access/area-denial” (A2/AD) capabilities, without exclusive dependence on penetrating forces attempting a technological coup de grâce.  This approach targets Chinese power projection capability.  As PRC forces disperse beyond their shore based A2/AD zone they diffuse and lose synergistic protection.  This flips the long distances of the Pacific battle-space from an offensive liability to strategic depth.  In addition, while the U.S. military has been exercising its global reach throughout the 20th century, the Chinese have yet to demonstrate commensurate expeditionary air and sea operations.

Hedgehog strategy builds regional allies who complicate the PRC’s hegemonic calculus.  Enhancing the “spines” on the back of nations like Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand can mitigate PRC aspirations in the South China Sea as it blunted Soviet expansion in Europe.  Success looks like multi-lateral networks of lethally equipped partners who enable a favorable balance of power in phase 0.  This checks China’s ability to intimidate Southern neighbors into its sphere of influence.  Failure to invest in strong partnerships in Southeast Asia while reassuring existing alliances in Northeast Asia risks creating the perception of a “paper pivot” that boosts PRC regional clout.

Distant Interdiction exploits China’s massive dependence on foreign commodities.  Called the “Malacca dilemma,” Pacific topography creates natural choke points beyond the reach of PRC power projection. U.S. Air, Naval and amphibious forces could selectively interdict vital commodities (especially oil) to break the PRC’s war making potential.  This strategy can be executed with both lethal and non-lethal techniques, providing unique reversibility.  Logistics interdiction is, by the Chinese own admission, one of their worst vulnerabilities.  


Figure 1 Massive SLOC dependence for oil/LNG – most refineries on East Coast   (credit http://noelmaurer.typepad.com/aab/2011/08/)

No-Man’s Sea exploits our own A2/AD capabilities to make Chinese home waters a mutual exclusion zone.  The U.S. can pen-up both their military and merchant ships, forcing China to expend military capabilities on break-out operations to fetch vital supplies, while their merchant fleet sees the global market reconstitute without them.  The loss of China will hurt the world market, but the loss of the world market could be catastrophic for the PRC.


 Figure 2 Simultaneous application of A2/AD keeps the U.S. out, and the Chinese in (credit http://globalbalita.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Air-Sea-Battle-map.jpg)

Inside Out appeals to our preferred ways of war, and exploits the defense industrial base’s promotion of war as a contest between hardware rather than strategies. While Inside Out is only exclusive from Outside In, the former demands so much new-tech investment that it may totally strangle resources required to orchestrate the other four. Hedgehog allows the U.S. to engage the PRC in phase 0, where they have thus far demonstrated significant strategic gains.  While Outside In, Distant Interdiction and No-Man’s Sea obviously work together in phases 1-3, they do not attempt to promise Inside Out’s rapid victory.  Instead, they forego technological tempo compression – rife with potential for unpleasant strategic surprise – and accept that any war with a superpower will be measured in months, not days. 

The combined application of these  stratagems amounts to a grand-strategic maneuver campaign, from the Sea of Japan to the Straits of Malacca.  Seeing time and distance as assets rather than liabilities can allow the U.S. to pull apart and separately engage PRC diplomatic, economic and military COGs.  Air-Sea Battle enabling technologies and operational concepts can be useful in multiple strategies, but the United States should trade force design that emphasizes an Inside Out military gambit for a force that enables a more robust gamut of strategic options.

Jeremy Renken is a Major in the U.S. Air Force. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or U.S. Air Force.

Air-Sea Battle: Lots of Heat, Little Light

To date, the discussion of Air-Sea Battle has provided a great deal of heat but very little light. Worse, it has driven the discussion to the tactical/operational level and confused the strategic discussion. With luck, CIMSEC’s weeklong focus on the subject will add a bit more light.

One of the fundamental problems of any discussion of Air-Sea Battle is determining what the term means in a particular discussion. Even more problematic, the discussion has too often focused on inter-service competition for resources and the procurement necessary to conduct an aggressive anti-A2/AD campaign against China. This has largely blocked the discussion of much more important questions. The first is can the United States maintain the maritime and air dominance that has been the keystone of its military position in Asia since 1945? (ASB seems to be based on the unexamined assumption that we can.) If such dominance is possible, can we afford it? If so, what military strategy would make use of those capabilities to achieve our political goals in the region? Finally, if the political situation, technical developments, or sheer cost make such dominance impossible, what should the U.S. strategy be for dealing both with China’s “creeping expansionism” and a highly unlikely, but potentially devastating, major war with China?

Let’s deal first with why the discussion has created more heat than light to date. As unusual as it is for me to say this—it’s not the Pentagon’s fault. The Pentagon has been very clear about ASB. Both the Chief of Naval Operations and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force have repeatedly stated that ASB is NOT a strategy. The ASB Office’s report from May 2013, Air-Sea Battle:  Service Collaboration to Address Anti-Access & Area Denial Challenges. states “ASB is 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.” (p. 4) The Joint Staff has reinforced this by declaring that ASB is a supporting concept nested under the Joint Operational Access Concept. The same paper as above also thoughtfully outlined why the Anti-Access/Area Denial systems are a threat to the United States and how the Joint Force can respond. It notes:

While ASB is not a strategy, it is an important component of DoD’s strategic mission to project power and sustain operations in the global commons during peacetime or crisis. Implementation of the ASB Concept, coordinated through the ASB office, is designed to develop the force over the long-term, and will continue to inform institutional, conceptual, and programmatic changes for the Services for years to come. The ASB Concept seeks to provide decision makers with a wide range of options to counter aggression from hostile actors. At the low end of the conflict spectrum, the Concept enables decision makers to maintain freedom of action, conduct a show of force, or conduct limited strikes. At the high end of the conflict spectrum, the Concept preserves the ability to defeat aggression and maintain escalation advantage despite the challenges posed by advanced weapons systems. (p. i) …

The ability to integrate capabilities, equipment, platforms, and units across multiple domains and to communicate, interact, and operate together presents a joint force commander with more numerous and powerful options, which in turn, offer greater probability of operational success. (p. 5)

Despite the Pentagon’s repeated efforts to clarify what it means by Air-Sea Battle, the broader discussion still focuses on the ideas expressed in the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment’s AirSea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept. CSBA’s report addresses the very real, and pressing problem of China’s growing ability to threaten U.S. power projection into Asia. Almost all observers agree this is a serious issue that needs addressing. The controversy has evolved not over the definition of the problem but CSBA’s proposed solution. The CSBA concept paper called for a two stage campaign. It is the first stage that is controversial. CSBA calls for the United States and its allies to defeat A2/AD by

  • Executing a blinding campaign against PLA battle networks;
  • Executing a suppression campaign against PLA long-range, ISR and strike systems;
  • Seizing and sustaining the initiative in the air, sea, space and cyber domains.
Marine Corps Col. (ret.) T.X. Hammes speaks to USTRANSCOM workers about the evolution of war.
Marine Corps Col. (ret.) T.X. Hammes speaks to USTRANSCOM workers about the evolution of war.

In short, CSBA calls for not only striking targets inside a thermo-nuclear armed state but actually targeting the command and control of its nuclear forces. In order to suppress China’s long-range cruise and ballistic missiles, the United States will have to strike the command and control systems of the Second Artillery Corps, which, as Thomas Christensen points out, is also responsible for China’s strategic nuclear force. Attacking a thermo-nuclear armed state’s nuclear deterrent in order to gain a limited tactical advantage seems to be enormously risky.

This illustrates a key point about operational concepts. In absence of a strategy, even successful operational concepts can lead to failure. Blitzkrieg was highly successful against France. When used against the Soviet Union, it was an unmitigated disaster. In both countries it worked at the tactical and operational levels. But in the second instance, there was a major mismatch in the ends, ways, and means calculation. German planners assumed the same concept that worked brilliantly in a relatively limited theater like France would work in the expanses of Russia. This assumption ignored history. While the French in the 19th Century stood and fought, and if defeated, surrendered, the Russians had a history of withdrawing deeper into their interior and fighting on.

Thus an operational concept cannot be judged as good or bad unless it is applied to a specific strategy. Perhaps more dangerous is the fact that an operational concept can drive procurement even in the absence of a strategy—even in the total absence of any evidence the concept will work. Prior to World War II, the Royal Air Force’s fundamental operational concept was that strategic bombing could rapidly defeat an enemy. This was based on the dogma that the bomber would always get through. The RAF maintained its faith despite the fact that numerous tests had indicated the bombers often could not find, much less hit, their targets. Tests also indicated that bombers could be intercepted by fighters and thus would face heavy losses if they attempted to fly unescorted missions deep into enemy airspace.

Despite the evidence to the contrary, the RAF continued to push the concept of strategic bombardment. It focused on procurement of heavy bombers to the detriment of fighter forces, radar, and air defense command and control. Only the intervention of civilian leaders forced the RAF to grudgingly shift resources to the air defense network. The civilian intervention proved critical in The Battle of Britain. There is no doubt that early in the war, the British Air Defense Command was much more important to Britain’s survival than Bomber Command. In fact, the concept of Strategic Bombardment never lived up to its promises. While heavy bombardment played a key role in defeating Germany, it did so at only enormous human and financial cost. Even then, it did so only after both the U.S. and Royal Air Forces significantly modified their pre-war strategic bombing concepts.

This highlights why the discussion needs to shift away from the Air-Sea Battle Concept to the higher order questions of strategy and subsequent resource allocation decisions. Guiding U.S. resource allocation may be the area where strategy has the most immediate impact. Obviously, political imperatives will continue to drive a major portion of the U.S. defense budget, but as we face significantly reduced funding over the next decade, clear strategic logic may be a key factor in helping us make hard budgetary choices. Letting an operational concept drive procurement without a strategy would result in a significant waste of resources, especially in a constrained budgetary environment.

If one assumes the strategy to deal with China must include capabilities as endorsed by the CSBA to severely degrade China’s ISR, C2, and long-range strike capabilities thorough kinetic strikes, then heavy investment in expensive, stealthy, strike systems as well as redundant and highly capable C2 and ISR systems is required. However, if one assumes that U.S. strategy can use the advantages of A2/AD to protect allies and that U.S. dominance in submarines and blue-water surface ships can cut China’s trade, then investment shifts to more submarines, smart mines, and open ocean surveillance. The latter approach not only drives investment in a very different direction but also seeks a much more affordable force structure.

We need to stop discussing the enabling concept of Air-Sea Battle and begin a deep discussion of potential military strategies for the unlikely event of a conflict with China. Besides providing guidance to our own force planners and procurement programs, a strategy is required to reassure our Asian allies and friends. In numerous conversations with Japanese, Singaporean, Australian, and Korean leaders and scholars, I have heard repeated concerns that the U.S. plans to use the CSBA concept as the basis for a conflict with China. The combination of direct attacks into China and the U.S. refusal to share the details of ASB with our allies causes trepidation both about our strategy and our reliability. They have heard the Pentagon’s statements that ASB is not a strategy and is not focused at China; but in the absence of any acknowledged strategy, they assume we continue to rely on a strategy based on ASB.

Thus any discussion of strategy must include our allies in the region—and preferably will result in a strategy we can express openly, demonstrate convincingly, and implement jointly with our allies. An integral part of this discussion must be how that strategy supports our allies in stopping the “the creeping expansionism” approach China is using today. China is pushing outward using a number of approaches: the occupation of Scarborough Shoals; the pressure on Second Thomas Shoal; the declaration of “Sansha City” on Woody Shoal; the newly declared East China Sea ADIZ; the newly published fishing regulations for the South China Sea; as well as harassment of our allies’ fishing, freedom of navigation, and energy exploration efforts. Obviously these actions will not be stopped by a purely military strategy. Just as clearly, an affordable, demonstrated, and feasible military strategy is essential to reducing the possibility that incidents like these could escalate into open conflict.

So what should that strategy be? In an effort to start the strategic discussion, I have written about a strategy for conflict with China here, here, and here. I propose a particular approach but we need to have a serious discussion about a variety of approaches. We can strive to maintain the air and sea dominance in Asia that we have enjoyed since 1945. An alternative approach is to focus on denying China use of the sea while defending our allies in the region from Chinese attacks. A bit more distant approach would see the U.S. focusing on encouraging allies to defend themselves while we focus on a distant blockade as a form of coercion. We need to evaluate a potential strategy based on its utility in deterring China, reassuring our allies and friends in the region and its feasibility and affordability. With luck, this CIMSEC discussion will broaden and deepen the strategic discussion.

Circling back to the designated topic—Air-Sea Battle, I’d like to make a final point. While I am adamantly opposed to spending heavily for capabilities to directly attack the Chinese mainland, I am not opposed to pursuing work on the technical and tactical aspects of insuring we can fight as a truly joint force. The ASB office in the Pentagon may or may not be the way to accomplish this goal. However, one adjustment the office should make is to the allocation of resources. While it is difficult to tell from the outside how we are investing our resources, the written material and briefings from the ASB office indicate it focuses too much on Anti-Access and not enough on Area Denial. The Army and Marine Corps should aggressively contest this allocation of resources. While defeating Anti-Access will be necessary in the unlikely event of a war with China and, to a much lesser degree, Iran, defeating Area Denial weapons will be an integral part of any U.S. military involvement on the ground. It is Area Denial weapons that have caused the majority of U.S. casualties for the last decade. Further, the wide dissemination of both the technology and the techniques of AD weapons means U.S. forces will face these weapons wherever they deploy. One might also note that Area Denial weapons—sea mines—are the only weapons which have actually defeated a U.S. amphibious landing—at Wonsan, Korea in 1950.

T.X. Hammes is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. He served 30 years in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Sober Thinking Over a Glass of Air Sea Beer

The supremacy of the conventional projection of U.S. naval power has come under the threat of foreign naval expansion and comparatively low-cost Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) capabilities, namely those of China. As planners finally come to terms with these challenges, a loud and very confusing debate is raging between what many consider the two strategies to counter these threats: “Air-Sea Battle” (ASB) and “Offshore Control” (OSC).

A young ENS Patrick Hipple goes mad listening to the ASB debate and calls in all the airstrikes on himself.
A young ENS Patrick Hipple goes mad listening to the ASB debate and calls in all airstrikes on himself.

If you are lucky, you have missed most of the ASB vs. OSC debate outside the comforting walls of CIMSEC, since it has a high noise-to-signal ratio: many arguments with mislabeled terms.

ASB-detractors decry what they see as an expensive, high-tech campaign to penetrate Chinese airspace and pepper their critical networks with precision strikes. It is often labeled a “strategy,” with its central tenant being an escalatory, wide-spread attack on the mainland using a force that would actually only play into the opponent’s numerical and cyber/space advantages.

Detractors of OSC oppose what they imagine is a “sit back and wait” strategy in which a blockade is utilized to choke the economy of a belligerent China. It is accused of ceding the PRC too much freedom to pursue military objectives and too much time to develop the conditions necessary to consolidate gains before negotiating a lift of the blockade.

The problem is that these views are off-point; the ways in which ASB and OSC have been defined are wrong; the concepts are actually compatible, not oppositional.

ASB is not a “strategy” like a “convoy” is not a strategy. One could compare ASB to a brewery; it takes the water of the Navy, the hops and roasted malt of the Air Force, adds yeast and ferments them together into a delicious stout in which 500lb bombs get dropped from an F-16 onto boats attacking a carrier in a major strait. The military has always talked about acting in a “joint” way, but ASB imagines the capabilities, advantages, and application of taking that a step further: beer, not a cup of barely mixed with water. In spirit, ASB remain very close to its origins in ADM Stravridis’ (USN, Ret.) Naval War College papers (.pdf download).

The official DoD ASB report does talk about “attacks-in-depth” (.pdf download) that detractors claim are escalatory, but ASB is just a toolbox and not nation specific. As with every toolbox, not all tools are used for every job. The Kennedy administration emphasized this idea with “flexible response.” Though the United States had nuclear weapons, we also had other qualitative and quantitative degrees of force for our strategies as appropriate to the scenario. To quote the Old Salt Emeritus, ADM Harvey (USN, Ret.), ASB is “not about dropping JDAMs into downtown Beijing.” You don’t have to drink the whole keg of ASB; you can pour yourself a pint and you can definitely drink it in far more places than the Pacific.

Unlike ASB, OSC is a strategy, one that sees economic strangulation as the means to victory in a war against China. However, wouldn’t any campaign against a major conventional opponent seek at least in part to strangle their economy? Col TX Hammes (USMC, Ret.) created OSC as a sober guard against attacking the Chinese mainland, which he sees as the possible escalatory route nuclear war. He does note in his writings that he would not cede what is called the “first island chain” to a belligerent China and would, where able, attack force projection assets outside the mainland. However, in order to accomplish such a wide campaign…one might want to use ASB. The loud debates miss that actually, ASB and OSC could walk hand-in-hand if properly applied.

The major point of contention is then, not between ASB and OSC, but an operational debate on one side and on the other a debate about the nature of escalation, the capabilities we would retain, and our starting conditions. Arguably, with our pivot to the Pacific and concerns with China, that strategic debate is far more important.

OSC beats ASB as an “answer” in so much as it is an actual strategy against a specific opponent, but Col. Hammes doesn’t get away scot free. Robert McNamara, reflecting on the Vietnam War, said that one of our major flaws was that we assumed our opponents thought the same way we did. Would the PRC see the destruction of military assets and projection power capabilities as more escalatory than shutting down the Chinese economy? Would a “systemic” attack like a blockade be met with an in-kind cyber-attack to bring down the US economy as possible, in ways that a naval exchange in the South China Sea would not? The potential for escalation is difficult to divine, and OSC may not identify the correct tripwires. To be fair however, as GEN Eisenhower said, “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

In applying any “big” strategies, we are challenged by the unknown spark and scale of our conflict: from Taiwan, to the South China Sea, to North Korea. While there are many scenarios where the United States might respond with full-fledged military operations, there are far more that will involve general or targeted low-level escalation (such as the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone).

While we debate a potential high-end conflict, a real conflict of passive-aggressive escalation is occurring now in the East China Sea where the PRC is burrowing under our tripwires to their objective. In “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower,” the U.S. Navy declared that “preventing wars are as important as winning them.” We want a war-winning strategy, but we don’t want China to gain a position of confidence in which they would force us to use such a plan. Moreover, we don’t want to miss a subtle fait-accompli while we’re waiting for a war that will never come. Suffice it to say, an operational plan that puts American forces shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies, a soft power plan that strengthens political and military alliances and interoperability, and unwavering U.S. regional commitment is at least a start in preventing regional bandwagoning with the PRC.

Matthew Hipple is a surface warfare officer and graduate of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. He is Director of the Online Content and hosts of the Sea Control podcast. His opinions may not reflect those of the United States Navy, Department of Defense, or US Government. Did he mention he was host of the Sea Control podcast? You should start listening to that.