U.S. Military Pivots to Air and Sea

By International Institute for Strategic Studies

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.

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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.

Shedding light
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.

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