The Limits of AirSea Battle

By M. Scott Weaver

On May 21, 2013, former Editor-in-Chief of The Diplomat Harry Kazianis wrote in an op-ed for RealClearDefense ("America's Anti-Access Nightmare Coming True," May 21) that it's time to make a clear shift in priorities toward Air-Sea Battle and other measures to combat anti-access capabilities.

Access is not enough. U.S. forces overcome the operational access challenge to be able to "project military force into an operational area and sustain it in the face of armed opposition." Only then can the work begin on achieving the strategic goal that necessitated an effort to gain access. Let's be clear: long range strike and precision attack Air-Sea Battle tactics should not be mistaken for an effective military solution. Taking down anti-access systems, if not integrated into a theater campaign, would be wasteful at best, and at worst could lure the U.S. into a broader conflict it did not intend nor have the political will to sustain.

Mr. Kazianis rightly makes the case that to ensure freedom of action in the future, the U.S. military must increase its capability to defeat anti-Access and area denial efforts. Observers of American military operations during the past quarter century have learned the lesson well: adversaries place themselves at a likely insurmountable disadvantage should America, with its allies and partners, gain operational access. Moving Air-Sea Battle from theory to new and better capability is, as part of the Joint Operational Access Concept (January 2012), a necessary endeavor. It is not, however, a stand-alone nor a sufficient one.

In the future, as in the past, America will need to use military force to defend, to maintain, or to advance its core interests because an adversary or adversaries will not be turned from an intolerable policy (or unacceptable activity) by other means. Produced to place Air-Sea Battle in its intended context, the Joint Operational Access Concept makes clear that "Air-Sea Battle is a limited operational concept" by itself insufficient for achieving operational access, let alone gaining strategic objectives. Air-Sea Battle operations fulfill the first precept of, and opens the way to, operational access by enabling a joint force to secure an area from which to project and sustain forces. Operational access allows the positioning of forces with sufficient freedom of action to resolve a crisis, forestall conflict, or to win conflict if it should come. These are the purposes, the set of overarching objectives, which create the requirement for operational access.

Military objectives serve larger national strategic objectives. Those larger objectives are anchored in enduring, core interests such as free flow of Commerce or upholding treaties and International Law. Conducting operations, especially those involving destructive and lethal use of military force, changes the strategic math, and usually in ways that defy ready anticipation or prediction. Experience teaches that the attainment of the original military objective does not yield the national strategic objective-often for non-military reasons. More must be done than is planned, and operations take longer and cost more than anticipated, to include the employment of means and methods rejected at the inception of the action. A quick survey of military operations from Desert Storm to Enduring Freedom makes this apparent.

The Joint Operational Access Concept takes this as a fundamental if unstated fact about the nature of using the military instrument to achieve national strategic objectives. Thus, it envisions that Air-Sea Battle actions defeating an adversary's anti-access and area denial capability aim either to secure an area from which to project and sustain forces; or enable the entry of air, sea, and land forces. These forces are employed to make changes that better suit U.S., allies and partners' interests. A military that, having won access, cannot bring to bear force sufficient-in both size and strength-to change the situation that prompted its employment loses its utility as an instrument of national power.

Long range strikes with precision targeting are effective at producing destruction, if targets can readily be found. Such strikes are tactically effective, but of proven insufficiency for delivering the strategic outcome sought. Beyond destruction and lethality, Landpower can protect or take and hold. It can deny wealth and war-making resources to an adversary, while preserving the possibility of their future return upon the negotiation of favorable terms. This gives Landpower singular utility in the broad categories of military activity outside of combat: relief & reconstruction, engagement, and security. In combat, when Landpower cannot be brought to bear, the options are to "make the rubble bounce" or to widen the swath of destruction and lethality. This changes the strategic math still more, without bringing any closer the original strategic objective that prompted military action: the stakes go up, likely with the avoidance of military failure becoming a compelling national strategic objective in itself.

The capacity to overcome an adversary's anti-access and area denial strategies is a necessary first step that requires new emphasis for thought, focus, investment and development. America will not always achieve cooperative access, or may find it unworkable because of hostile activity. Unhindered national use of "select sovereign territory, waters, airspace and cyberspace" and the global commons requires the capability and capacity to take and hold land and to control resources and populations: operational access cannot be attained without it. Air-Sea Battle will become a dangerously incomplete notion for employing military force unless it remains firmly integrated within a joint campaign design for achieving strategic outcomes. Such campaigns are executed by military forces with the capacity for strategic decision. Not only must the U.S. "maintain the credible capability to project military force into any region of the world in support of [its global] interests," but, more importantly, the credible capacity to bring about the broader strategic goals that define and prompt the military mission.

M. Scott Weaver is a U.S. Army strategist and is currently a member of the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania.

M. Scott Weaver
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