Why AirSea Battle is Not AirLand Battle Redux

You can’t judge a battle concept by its name. Explaining AirSea battle in terms of AirLand battle only serves to confuse.

The AirSea Battle office has released a new document attempting to provide a clearer picture of what AirSea Battle is and what it is not , a topic which seems to evoke an endless amount of confusion. The problem may be that AirSea Battle inevitably (and explicitly) evokes comparison to AirLand Battle, which structured warfighting expectations in the early 1980s. While this link is understandable, it probably produces more confusion than necessary as to the aims and purposes of AirSea Battle.

As we know, the AirSea Battle concept is intended to answer concerns about how anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities can limit the ability of the United States military to access hostile littorals. As the name implies, the focus is on the joint AirSea force, to ensure that no adversary can take advantage of the borders between services (especially the Navy and the Air Force).  However, AirSea Battle is hardly neutral as to how the battle against anti-access forces will be fought; it clearly emphasizes offensive action against the enemy in depth.

Rhetorically, AirSea Battle is the child of AirLand Battle, which succeeded Active Defense as United States Army doctrine in 1982. AirLand Battle doctrine explicitly prepared the United States and NATO for a war in Central Europe against the Warsaw Pact, although many of the basic precepts could also apply to other contexts (much of AirLand Battle translated well to Iraq in 1991, although cooperation between the Army and Air Force was already beginning to break down at that point). AirLand Battle represented an accommodation between the Army and the USAF, providing a respite to the decades of intra and inter-service strife that ran back as far as the 1920s. Effectively, the Air Force set aside a great deal of its strategic concept in order to provide operational and tactical support for the Army.

It is critical to remember that only utter, disastrous failure made AirLand Battle possible in the first place.  The Army was badly damaged by the Vietnam War, suffering a cultural and institutional crisis that deeply threatened the identity and effectiveness of the force.  The Air Force was, in some ways, even more threatened.  The complete failure of Rolling Thunder to compel North Vietnam to end the war threatened many of the dearest conceptions undergirding strategic airpower theory.  While Linebacker I helped save South Vietnam in the spring of 1972, it succeeded primarily through a concentration on tactical and operational targets. Linebacker II was a costly fiasco in that the strategic bombing resulted in the loss of 27 aircraft (including 16 B-52s) while producing no observable change in North Vietnam’s behavior.

It was in the context of this failure that the Army and the Air Force were willing to work closely with one another.  As suggested, however, this cooperation didn’t last; some of the concepts undergirding AirLand Battle would begin to fall away even before the First Gulf War.  By the early 1990s, jointness notwithstanding, the Army and Air Force would again drift toward their own conceptions of national strategy and operational military reality.

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The political situation facing the modern USAF and USN is obviously different, and different enough that the implied connection between the two doctrines may obscure more than it illuminates. The objective of smoothing inter-service cooperation is obviously worthy, and AirLand Battle is worth remembering for the peace it represented between the Army and Air Force. Given the differences between the two concepts (one is a doctrine, one is not; one had an enemy in mind, one does not; one involved a lead and support service, one involves equal cooperation between two services, etc.), the confusion generated by the comparison may outweigh the rhetorical value of the (admittedly nifty) naming strategy.