AirSea Battle for Dummies

By Harry Kazianis

With the AirSea Battle Office's recent document laying out in greater detail this important operational concept, one would think most would have a good grasp on this important topic.

For the last several years, debate has raged in a variety of national security circles. Various pundits have argued against the concept as highly escalatory risking even greater tensions in the U.S.-China relationship. Despite ample disclosures from the U.S. military and the scholarly community, there still seems to be confusion concerning what AirSea Battle (ASB) is, what it is not, and its possible effects on the future of modern warfare.

First, let's clearly state what ASB is: an operational concept (as pointed out by M. Scott Weaver), not a battle plan or a blueprint to fight a war or even conduct a military campaign. According to Milan Vego, an operational concept "is used to refer to the application of military power within a certain framework, regardless of the objective to be accomplished. It does not pertain to a specific level of war, and is generic or universal in nature." So while ASB would predominately be a guiding operational concept targeting the Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) capabilities of states like China and Iran, it certainly would never be a fully conceptualized battle plan. AirSea Battle would be used in various scenarios to gain and maintain access to a contested combat zone or theatre of operations. Other military objectives as part of a larger battle plan would call for other tactics, fighting likely across multiple domains (land, air, sea, cyber and space), utilizing various plans or strategies. Simply stated: ASB is only one piece of a larger puzzle when it comes to 21st century warfare.

Second, ASB must be understood as a reaction to a unique military problem -- but not all problems U.S. forces may need to confront in the future.  Just as the revolution in military affairs (RMA) brought about the age of smart bombs, stealth fighters, network-centric warfare and combat forces that can communicate and wage battle with an ever increasing level of "jointness," a counter-revolution has also been building. Nations who find themselves at odds with the U.S. have looked for ways to compete asymmetrically with Washington's impressive military power. Many have come to the conclusion that denying access or creating a challenging environment for U.S. forces to operate in across multiple domains thanks to the proliferation of ballistic and cruise missiles, ultra-quiet conventional submarines, sea mines, and cyber warfare is the only way to compete with the arsenal of a superpower. This is the challenge that ASB seeks to negate.

Cleary though, A2/AD is not the only challenge America will face in the years to come. Domestic and international terrorism, climate change challenges, natural disasters, and hostile non-state actors must all be part of U.S. military contingency planning.

Third, since we do not have access to the classified version of ASB, we will never know for sure how this operational concept will be rolled into a battle plan. However, one of the main critiques of ASB, that it could allow for airstrikes on mainland China with the possible threat of a conflict going nuclear, must be looked at through the prism of modern war. Yes, there is a possibility that American planners in various scenarios could advocate for such strikes. However, equally frightening, many scholars who study China's A2/AD strategy see the possibility of Beijing launching massive conventional ballistic and cruise missile strikes against U.S. and allied bases in Okinawa, the home islands of Japan, and possibly Guam and others in a first strike in various scenarios. Simply stated: any conflict between China and the United States where A2/AD and ASB go head to head would be a frightening affair -- with ghastly consequences globally that should not be taken lightly.

Fourth, and perhaps most important of all, cyber will eventually become the most important domain of modern warfare, and an area where ASB must link all domains together to create the ultimate advantage over asymmetrical competitors. With the modern battlefield interlinked together like never before, losing control over cyberspace on any level could create a situation where a would be aggressor puts in play all other domains of the modern battlefield. If an opponent were able to strike U.S. command and control (C2) with malware or a virus that cripples the ability to communicate between combatant commanders and their superiors or took away the ability to track enemy movements, the damage to combat operations and lives lost would be incalculable. In the years to come, cyber will be the most important domain for competing forces to control as it will have vast influence over all others. For ASB to be an effective strategy, the proper resources, training, and staffing must be ensured so cyber does not become a domain of doom for U.S. war fighters. Thankfully, the latest ASB document clearly makes cyber a top priority.

Truthfully, an operational concept cannot cover all contingencies and is never perfect. Yet, ASB's goal is to solve the problem posed by A2/AD allowing battlefield commanders to gain and maintain access and achieve wider military goals. There is no gentle way to solve such a challenge as nations crafting anti-access strategies have developed strategies that attempt to keep parties away from contested areas. Fighting the U.S. symmetrically would be suicide. A2/AD is an attempt to level the playing field --  but we must remember what ASB is and its limited scope of operations. ASB is a response to a unique challenge that is already before us that is not going away, like it or not.

Harry J. Kazianis is Managing Editor of National Interest. He is a non-resident WSD Handa Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, PACNET. 

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