Is AirSea Battle Obsolete?

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Is AirSea Battle Obsolete?

China’s development of A2/AD capabilities is much discussed. An AirSeaCyber response may be needed.

China’s development of a highly capable Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) battle plan to deter, slow, or deny U.S. forces from entering a contested geographic area or combat zone has been well covered in The Diplomat by myself and others. It makes sense for American military planners to assess the challenges such a strategy will present as Chinese forces begin to deploy over greater distances.

But it’s also clear that the United States should develop its own symmetrical and asymmetric strategies to counter such threats. A joint operational concept of AirSea Battle combined with a strong cyber component could damage, deter, and destroy any Chinese A2/AD capabilities and ensure U.S. maritime access. A newly reconstituted “AirSeaCyber” operational concept would give U.S. forces the best chance to defeat Chinese or any other nations’ A2/AD forces now and in the future. 

Of course, the present Joint Operational Access Concept does make strong mention of cyber operations. However, an even stronger emphasis on cyber warfare is needed beyond present day convention. In short, AirSea Battle as an operational concept might already be obsolete.

The first component of a refocused AirSeaCyber operational concept would be defensive: the hardening of all U.S. airfields in range of Chinese ballistic or cruise missiles. U.S and allied air forces as currently organized are in large part unprotected from Chinese missile strikes. Kadena Air Base in Okinawa has a total of 15 shelters, enough for at most 30 fighters if one packs two into each. The Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Futenma, also located on Okinawa, has no aircraft shelters whatsoever.  There are also surprisingly no shelters at MCAS Iwakuni and Yokota Air Base on Honshu, or Andersen Air Force Base either. Chinese forces could quickly deal a fatal blow to U.S. and allied aircraft sitting out in the open. This can be remedied with hardened shelters for U.S. and allied planes and essential equipment.

A second vital element of AirSeaCyber would be the fully funded procurement of a new long range bomber. Such a weapon is being conceptualized to replace the B-52, B-1 and possible B-2 platforms. This system should have an optional unmanned component, carry large payloads of precision guided conventional or nuclear ordinance, and have longer ranges then present B-2 bombers with reduced need for in-air refueling. The aircraft should also be able to conduct deep strikes against Chinese command and control capabilities (C2), disabling many Chinese weapons systems. The cost of such a bomber per unit has been assessed at $ 550 million per unit, compared to the B-2 at $1.07 billion per unit.

U.S. underwater naval assets would play a pivotal part in AirSeaCyber.  Chinese forces lack proper operational deployment, equipment, and training in areas of Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW). American attack (SSNs) and guided missile submarines (SSGNs) would have tremendous capacity to attack Chinese naval assets, launch guided missiles strikes on coastal or inland targets, as well as deny access to the near seas. American planners must therefore continue to design, fund, and deploy Virginia-class attack submarines with increased payloads of Tomahawk cruise missiles.  This will be of increased importance as Ohio class SSGNs start to retire around 2029.

As Chinese planners rely heavily on asymmetric warfare strategies, American tacticians, if developing AirSeaCyber, must also prepare to utilize such abilities. Cyber warfare offers proportionally the strongest asymmetrical capabilities at the lowest possible cost. Almost all of China’s military C2 and deployed weapons systems rely on computer hardware and software. As Chinese planners develop networked joint operations for multi-domain warfare, they also open their systems for exploitation by U.S. cyber-attack. American technology experts must begin long range studies of Chinese hardware, software, computer networks, and fiber optic communications. This will allow U.S. cyber command to deploy malware, viruses, and coordinated strikes on fiber-based communications networks that would launch any Chinese offensive or defensive operations. Cyber warfare, if conducted in coordination with standard tactical operations, could be the ultimate cross-domain asymmetrical weapon in modern 21st century warfare.

Asymmetrical warfare must also extend beyond the cyber domain and into modern combat operational domains. Larger next generation air and sea-based drone weapons could be utilized for intelligence gathering as well as offensive operations as part of AirSeaCyber.  One new approach could be to utilize smaller submersible drones to gather intelligence outside of Chinese ports or in the near seas if possible hostilities appear imminent. Such undersea drones could be armed with small packages of torpedoes or possibly cruise missiles, and could strike rapidly. In theory, such a weapon could be developed with an extended loitering capability of several months while being highly cost effective.

These are only a sample of capabilities that could be utilized to create a joint operational concept that transitions from present AirSea Battle ideas into a more focused AirSeaCyber operational concept. Such notions are compliant with current fiscal realities, utilize modern military technologies, and take advantage of current Chinese weaknesses. Any operational concept that will guide America’s armed forces in the future is obsolete without intense conceptualizations of cyber warfare.  U.S. military planners must develop cross domain symmetrical and asymmetrical capabilities as nations such as North Korea, Syria, Iran, and others are intently studying Chinese A2/AD capabilities. It should be the policy of U.S. strategic planners to develop an AirSeaCyber concept to negate any such abilities.