James Holmes

Top 5 Obstacles to AirSea Battle

Deciphering what it is and fitting into a strategy could be a challenge.

Is there no end to the Naval Diplomat’s treachery? Last week I sallied outside the comfortable redoubt of The Diplomat to comment on why the U.S. military’s AirSea Battle concept is, and must be, about China. It’s not because a U.S.-China war is fated, but because of expediency. Military planners are negligent if they don’t plan against the toughest challenge elected leaders may order them to face. For instance, the U.S. Navy planned for war with Britain’s Royal Navy well into the interwar years. No one wanted or expected an Anglo-American conflict, but the Royal Navy remained the gold standard for naval power. It only made sense for the U.S. Navy to measure itself against the most exacting standard available while hedging against the unexpected. Herewith, my list of the Top 5 hurdles facing executors of (and commentators on) the emerging operational concept:

5. Deciphering what it is. This obstacle conceivably may not be a problem for the armed forces at all, but simply for scribblers such as myself. That lingering doubt is why I place it last on my list. Namely, no AirSea Battle concept has yet been officially published. What is it, then? Observers must still extrapolate from a 2010 study from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. One key example: will the doctrine countenance the “blinding campaign” envisioned by the CSBA report, which seems to mean strikes against the Chinese mainland? Hitting an opponent’s homeland raises the prospect of escalating a conflict beyond the limited goals presumably at stake for Washington. Many commentators, myself included, fret over this possibility.

One hopes AirSea Battle’s framers consider the barrage of commentary an opportunity to vet and revise the concept before officially releasing it—a sort of brass-knuckles peer-review process. (Welcome to the scholar’s world!) There is precedent for a lengthy gestation process. The U.S. Navy’s 1982 Maritime Strategy, for instance, originated as an internal strategic concept years before the Reagan administration officially endorsed it as strategy. An unclassifiedversion appeared in a 1986 edition of the Naval Institute Proceedings. AirSea Battle could be undergoing a similar interlude of debate and refinement. The past could be prologue.

4. Conflating politics with operational planning. Pentagon spokesmen have a thankless job before them. Insisting it’s “unhelpful” to envision executing AirSea Battle against any particular prospective adversary—the usual talking point—would mean ripping the concept out of any strategic context. Concepts devoid of context, such as “capabilities-based planning” or “effects-based operations,” typically have scant value or longevity. War is an interactive clash of wills carried out through the medium of armed force. To somehow remove one party to the interaction reduces strategy and planning to a kind of shadow-boxing. One hopes the architects of AirSea Battle aren’t sincere about divorcing the concept from real-world adversaries and regional settings.

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Strenuous denials are hopeless in any event. Will Chinese or Iranian leaders or rank-and-file citizens really believe that a concept designed to pierce the very defenses they are busily erecting isn’t about them? Managing AirSea Battle’s image may be an insoluble problem. Candor may not be a solution, but it would at least ameliorate conspiratorial thinking in precincts like Beijing and Tehran.

3. Developing the right hardware. As retired CaptainWayneHughes likes to point out, strategists have a bad habit of writing checks tacticians or their weaponry can’t cash. From a bird’s-eye view, that is, it’s easy to devise plans by which one’s forces go hither or yon, do X, Y, and Z to vanquish the foe, and proceed on toward ultimate victory. But strategy can’t succeed if warfighters lack the implements or the tactics to win. Continual dialogue among the levels of war is crucial, lest commanders or their political masters fail to see the limits of the possible. AirSea Battle is no exception to Hughes’s counsel.

There’s another hardware aspect to AirSea Battle. Over the past twenty years, if not more, the United States’ competitors have excelled at developing low-cost technologies that are comparatively expensive—sometimes by orders of magnitude—to defeat. Think about U.S. ground forces’ scramble to “up-armor” their vehicles to withstand improvised explosive devices—many of them homemade—in Iraq and Afghanistan. China and Iran have harnessed this logic as well. For example, anti-access defenders can afford a lot of cheap but lethal anti-ship missiles for the cost of an American Aegis cruiser or destroyer, let alone an aircraft carrier. One metric for AirSea Battle’s success is finding creative ways to turn this logic back on its leading practitioners, unearthing inexpensive ways to impose high costs on access deniers.

2. Transforming service cultures. My department convened its biannual Teaching Grand Strategy workshop last week, bringing some of the leading lights in our field to Newport. One side discussion really stuck with me, in part because organizational culture ranks among my research interests: people learn primarily from failure. Defeat clears the mind. The same might be said of institutions, which after all are bodies composed of individuals. How, then, can an institution’s leadership induce a sense of failure, and thus a desire for healthy change, short of actually failing—perhaps catastrophically? How can organizations adapt to setbacks or defeat before they occur, and thus forestall them altogether?

Niccolò Machiavelli despaired of this, concluding that the timber of humanity is to keep doing what worked last time. That’s an elegant way to rephase the old maxim, “Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.” Planning for past contingencies is not unique to military institutions, despite all the tired old jokes about fighting the last war. Since the Cold War, nevertheless, the U.S. Navy has grown accustomed to not having to fight for control of the maritime commons, while the U.S. Air Force doesn’t regard combat at sea as one of its central functions. Remaking institutional cultures for the reality of fierce anti-access defenses poses a stiff leadership challenge for the services.

1. Fitting it into a strategy. AirSea Battle is essentially an operational concept for kicking in the door in East Asia, the Persian Gulf, or other contested zones on the map. But what comes after AirSea Battle? How will it contribute to strategic and political success? Carl von Clausewitz posits three routes by which commanders and statesmen can compel opponents to do their bidding: they can defeat and disarm them (the obvious way), drive up their costs to unbearable levels, or convince them a win is improbable. How will prosecuting AirSea operations compel an adversary to do Washington’s bidding? And how will this enterprise help convince the Beijings or Tehrans of the world to accept the verdict of arms rather than try to overturn it later—as Clausewitz says defeated powers often do?

Devising an overarching strategic framework for likely theaters—whether it’s waging “warbycontingent” along an adversary’s coastlines or essaying “offshorecontrol” of his shipping to squeeze him economically—constitutes the sternest task before U.S. leaders. Otherwise AirSea Battle will remain a concept in search of its larger purpose.

Compiling this list was reasonably straightforward, but assigning rankings was maddeningly difficult. Should I reshuffle my priorities? Should other things make it into the top five? If so, what should they displace?