In a recent article here in Flashpoints, William Yale attempts to make the case that Air-Sea Battle is, as the title points out a “dangerous, unaffordable threat.” Indeed, such an argument has been made before among a vocal crowd here in Washington defense circles. One of the chief concerns among such anti-ASB voices is the often repeated fear that “long-range strikes deep within the Chinese mainland, are highly escalatory and offer no good way to end a limited war.” Unfortunately for Yale and others who make similar arguments against ASB, the operational concept has evolved and matured – while their line of attack has not.
In order to debate the issue, one must have an idea of what ASB is today, and not what it was or at least was perceived to be in the past.
But first, it’s worth noting that ASB is easily misunderstood. That’s because much of the analysis and controversy is driven from the first major ASB publication, the 2010 Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments study (which according to at least one source received no input from DOD). ASB has evolved dramatically since this founding document, as attested to by the Joint Operational Access concept, comments by senior officials as well as public documents from the ASB office itself.
We now have a clear understanding of what ASB and its intended goals are as displayed in multiple mediums. Nonetheless, some still seem to be confused by the concept and therefore regurgitate old thinking and analysis on the subject. At a recent hearing I attended of the House Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, Admiral James G. Foggo defined Air-Sea Battle in clear, precise language that should once and for all move defense circles past the CSBA document of three years past:
“The Air-Sea Battle Concept…is designed to assure access to parts of the ‘global commons’ – those areas of the air, sea, cyberspace and space that no one ‘owns,’ but which we all depend on – such as the sea lines of communication. Our adversaries’ anti-access/area denial strategies employ a range of military capabilities that impede the free use of these ungoverned spaces. These military capabilities include new generations of cruise, ballistic, air-to-air, and surface-to-air missiles with improved range, accuracy, and lethality are being produced and proliferated. Quiet modern submarines and stealthy fighter aircraft are being procured by many nations, while naval mines are being equipped with mobility, discrimination and autonomy. Both space and cyberspace are becoming increasingly important and contested. Accordingly the Air-Sea Battle Concept is intended to defeat such threats to access, and provide options to national leaders and military commanders, to enable follow-on operations, which could include military activities, as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster response. In short, it is a new approach to warfare.”
The above represents the clearest, most honest assessment to date from a U.S. government official of what ASB is and what it intends to do from a U.S. government official. How ASB would be moved from an operational concept (for the record: ASB IS NOT a strategy, a war fighting doctrine, or my mother’s secret chili sauce) to something much larger is above my pay grade, but it is likely part of the classified version of ASB. One thing is certain, we must move on from the analysis of years ago and focus any critique on the statements of the present. Fighting old ghosts old creates perceptions that are unfair and dated at best.
Even with the above, there are still certain myths about ASB that need to be addressed. The biggest and most bizarre is that ASB is all about China or deterring China. For starters, China is not the only nation developing A2/AD capabilities. Iran is clearly developing very potent A2/AD weapons and systems, as are many other nations, as well as non-state actors. Clearly China represents the greatest A2/AD challenge the U.S. military might face in the future, but it is one of many. ASB is an attempt to create an operational concept that tackles a specific challenge presented in many forms, across many domains, and by many opponents – not just one. To not prepare to confront the military challenges of the future, even if controversial, would be foolish at best and at worst cost U.S. service men and women their lives.
Another often repeated ASB criticism is the line that the concept is highly escalatory for its supposed use of strikes on mainland China – which originated in the CSBA 2010 report. And to be fair, yes, an ASB-based strategy could in theory utilize strikes on the mainland in various scenarios. However, the U.S. military has many options in confronting the various A2/AD weapons and the systems that drive them, which do not require kinetic strikes.
For example, cyber weapons of various types could in theory be used against the C2 and C4ISR that would drive not just China’s but many nations various A2/AD systems. This could be done, for example, if intelligence revealed possible strikes were imminent against U.S. or allied assets. Kinetic strikes could also be employed against other drivers of A2/AD systems that are not physically located on enemy territory, such as anti-satellite strikes. In fairness, no nation will tip their hat as to when strikes against a potential adversary’s homeland would or would not be used. That said, considering the fact that the U.S. military will not be handing out its ASB-based war plans anytime soon, it seems silly to dismiss ASB outright as escalatory based on one possible use of the concept.
So if ASB is so bad and all about China, why not if it ever came down to it just use a massive naval blockade and choke off Beijing’s economic lifelines? There has been a tremendous amount of research querying this subject, and to be fair, much of it very reasonable (and would require much more discussion than this simple post). So, while a blockade style strategy might in theory be able to deal with a Chinese A2/AD threat, it is specific to one nation. What about against challenges from other nations who are deploying A2/AD strategies and non-state actors? Would a blockade work against say Iran considering the level of sanctions already in place? Hezbollah? An ASB style strategy deals with the various challenges coming from many anti-access problems, not just one nation. And if you want to get really picky concerning using a blockade against China in some sort of war scenario in Asia, how would U.S. allies respond if American forces decided to drop back behind a blockade? Somehow I don’t think Asian capitals would think kindly on such a prospect and this factor could fuel the types of arms races we all fear.
In the end, I doubt such debate will end, and that is a good thing. These types of public debates are a good thing and flesh out the weaknesses in one’s argument and bring the best ideas to the surface. Also, any military concept that has a hint of being aimed at China in any shape or form and especially with the title Air-Sea Battle is going to be draw headlines. However so, let us engage in debate about the current state of ASB and not outdated or speculative analysis. The threat of A2/AD is very real with many ways to confront such challenges now and in the future. Now that is a debate worth having.