U.S. Military Pivots to Air and Sea
A new operational concept currently under development by the United States military will form a key part of its 'pivot to Asia' and represents a similar pivot from land-based to air- and sea-focused military strategies. The emergence of the Air-Sea Battle Concept (ASBC) follows years of classified work by the US military on how to contend with near-peer competitors or high-end asymmetric threats.
The US is beginning to brief some of its allies on the ASBC, demonstrating not only the importance of the concept in US military thinking, but also its intended role as a reassurance to partners in Asia. Few ideas are currently influencing the posture and doctrine of US naval and air forces more than the ASBC. However, few concepts of such potential significance have been so closely guarded - until recently only a small coterie of Pentagon officials knew its full details.
Though the limited official material available on the ASBC does not identify any specific nation that is seen as a threat, but rather sets out capabilities that an adversary could possess, the strategy is likely to have been conceived as a signal to Beijing that Washington is cognisant of its military developments, and is taking what it considers appropriate measures.
The ABC of the ASBC
The first public mention of the ASBC by the Pentagon came in a solitary paragraph of the February 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which explained that: 'The Air Force and Navy together are developing a new joint air-sea battle concept for defeating adversaries across the range of military operations.' Under Secretary of the Navy Robert Work then gave a detailed conference presentation on the ASBC in October 2010. Since then little more detail has become apparent, primarily because the ASBC remains classified.
A report published by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in May 2010 entitled 'AirSea Battle: A Point of Departure', though unofficial, accurately suggested that the ASBC was being developed to ensure continued freedom of manoeuvre and access for US forces in an increasingly contested theatre, namely the western Pacific.
It is clear that the proliferation of advanced military technology - particularly anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) capabilities that seek to deny an adversary entry into a theatre and to limit its manoeuvrability within it - is the main driving factor behind the creation and development of the new operational concept.
The US and its allies are now faced with the prospect of a growing number of nations, some of them potential adversaries, armed with conventional precision weapons systems that have a comparable accuracy and reach to those of their own inventories. Washington last found itself in this situation towards the end of the Cold War. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, it has enjoyed almost entirely unopposed access to the maritime and aerial global commons.
There are two areas of the world where the US military could face severe access issues and constraints on its freedom to manoeuvre. These are the western Pacific, given China's increasingly capable military, and the Persian Gulf, where Iran's (often Chinese-supplied) A2AD capabilities continue to give the US cause for concern.
More information about the ASBC was released in January 2012 when, within two weeks of the public announcement by President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta of the much-discussed US pivot to Asia, the Pentagon released the Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC), intended to provide the 'overarching concept under which we can nest other concepts dealing with more specific aspects of anti-access/area-denial challenges, such as the Air-Sea Battle'.
The JOAC stresses the need for 'cross-domain synergy': a closer working relationship between the different services, including the use of dispersed forces in several bases to operate on 'multiple, independent lines of operations' and bringing these forces together to 'manoeuvre directly against key operational objectives from strategic distance'. These ideas were reflected in the US military's proposals for new forward deployments, including the rotation of up to 2,500 Marines through Australia on six-monthly deployments, the deployment (although not basing) of up to four littoral combat ships in Singapore and an increased presence in Guam.
At its simplest, the JOAC can be seen as a framing document for how to get to the fight - it addresses how to overcome an opponent's efforts to deny access - but does not focus on how subsequently to stay in the fight by countering the adversary's area-denial methods.
The most comprehensive exposition of the ASBC by a serving US military officer was published in The American Interest in February. Written by US Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz and US Navy Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the article, entitled 'Air-Sea Battle: Promoting Stability in an Era of Uncertainty', lays out the broad theoretical concepts behind the ASBC.
It confirms that the ASBC is 'designed to sustain America's freedom of action' in the face of an adversary's A2AD capabilities by establishing networked and integrated forces to attack in depth. This will entail the further development of inter-service communications capabilities, allowing the Air Force and Navy to communicate more quickly, efficiently and at various levels of command, accompanied by close coordination to enable cross-domain operations. Attacking in depth implies assaulting forces at any location, rather than attempting to 'roll back' layers of enemy defences to ultimately achieve a target.
These networked, integrated air-sea forces would be expected to 'disrupt, destroy and defeat' - disrupt the C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) networks of an adversary, destroy weapons-delivery platforms, and defeat incoming weapons and platforms to prevent damage to US forces. Essentially, the ASBC is designed to allow freedom of access and manoeuvre by destroying the networks and weapons platforms that might deny that freedom at the start of any conflict. This could, controversially, involve attacking the sovereign territory of an adversary rather than destroying forward-deployed ships and submarines on the high seas or missiles in flight.
Given that the ASBC is an operational concept, not an operational plan, the language used to describe it is fittingly oblique and theoretical. The intention is for the ASBC to inform national strategy, force posture and budgets, but not to act as a specific proposal for a particular hypothetical scenario. ASBC thinking is still in its infancy and has yet to produce many specifics: although the idea was discussed before and during the 2010 QDR, the Air-Sea Battle Office was only created in August 2011 and now employs between 12 and 15 people from USAF, USN and the Marine Corps.
Nonetheless, the ideas of how the ASBC may guide future operational planning and exercises are slowly fermenting. An exercise held by the US military in November 2011 involved a variety of communications between a fifth-generation fighter aircraft, a forward-deployed command and control node, a floating maritime operations centre and a nuclear-powered submarine that launched a Tomahawk cruise missile against a target identified and located by the aircraft. The February 2012 American Interest article mentioned the prospect of coordinated exercises between stealthy submarines, stealthy aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles. Video will be streamed from unmanned aerial vehicles to naval vessels, and operations centres will be networked to combine command and control.
The primary aim is to encourage integration between the USAF and the USN (and to a lesser extent the Marine Corps), but the Pentagon has taken care to mention that the concept affects all five domains (land, sea, air, space and cyberspace). This is to ward off the possibility of inter-service politics complicating the progress of the ASBC, with the point being made that it allows for the more effective insertion of land and amphibious forces into contested space, and hence benefits all services. However, there is a risk that the ASBC will be viewed unfavourably by the US Army - it might be anxious that such a concept will serve to reinforce the thinking that led to the 2013 budget's more significant cuts to land forces.
The ASBC reflects more than just service rivalry within the US military: it also underlines changes in the global balance of power and wider international trends such as the shift in focus from land to sea. The maritime domain has become more contested in recent years as traditionally land-focused powers, particularly China, have sought to secure their growing maritime interests. Thus, the People's Liberation Army Navy has seen considerable investment since the 1990s, and since 2008 has maintained China's first out-of-area active operation in more than six centuries in the shape of its ongoing counter-piracy patrols. The increased importance of maritime trade to China and other trading nations in Asia has also created a new imperative to protect trade routes.
Following a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and despite its concerns about Iran, the US has little appetite for another protracted land campaign and is shifting its focus to the sea and air. Hence, the pivot to Asia is also a pivot to air- and sea-focused military strategies.
Does the ASBC actually matter?
Air-sea combined operations are not a particularly new idea. The US military's Second World War Pacific operation was essentially an air-sea campaign, focused on naval deployments and aircraft carriers providing air cover for amphibious landings as part of the island-hopping strategy. Further, improving cross-domain operations seems like a simple exercise in stating the obviously desirable: in modern militaries integrating networked services is undoubtedly a positive way of enhancing the ultimate effectiveness and efficiency of any operation.
Nevertheless, it is likely that the ASBC will be a guiding principle for future joint-service military exercises and could even influence procurement and force posture decisions, particularly in Asia. But perhaps its greatest impact will be in regional dynamics. By focusing on anti-access/area-denial capabilities, the ASBC essentially alerts potential rivals, particularly China, to the US military's willingness and ability to adapt to any challenges they might offer. For example, one potential scenario could be that the US would escalate a conflict situation early in a crisis by aggressively attacking targets on the Chinese mainland and dismantling A2AD networks and capabilities. In this way it would maintain freedom of access and manoeuvre, and assume total battlespace dominance.
The concept will be a significant comfort to Washington's allies in the region, demonstrating its continued commitment to and investment in the idea of providing them with a security umbrella to shield them from China's growing military power. However, the ASBC may also have a negative impact on regional security, as it may encourage China to think more exclusively about reacting to US military developments, and vice versa.
Though the region is far from the kind of naval arms race that was seen in early twentieth century Europe, the ASBC, along with the related JOAC and US pivot to Asia, will enhance the rivalry between Beijing and Washington in the western Pacific. Whether this encourages further dialogue and transparency from China in order to mitigate tension, or whether it merely inspires a reinvigorated military modernisation process as the People's Liberation Army looks to offset the ASBC, has yet to be determined.