Metaphors stress similarities of logic but mask differences. In introducing its AirSea Battle concept in May 2010, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank, alluded to AirLand Battle — the military strategic concept underlying the Reagan administration’s buildup of the 1980s, and the package of ideas that convinced the Soviet military that not only could America build weapons it could not match, but could employ them with sound tactical and strategic effect.
The military heads of the Air Force and Navy show their tacit support for the CSBA concept by adopting the same title — Air-Sea Battle — for their dual-service program of doctrine and hardware. In doing so, they have followed CSBA into a misframing of the problem by way of a misleading metaphor. As a participant in the evolution of the AirLand Battle concept, I can understand the attraction, but I also see why the metaphor is mostly inappropriate. Where it applies, it is inappropriate for our times or entirely superficial and, in many important ways, it does not apply at all.
One sense in which the metaphor applies is the curious capitalization of one of the letters in the middle of the word and the marketing intent of the catchy label. Both concepts were misnamed as having to do with “battle,” a wartime tactical event of limited scope and duration usually identified in hindsight, when they are in fact intended to be about complex multiservice and multinational extended military operations.
Both gave short shrift to at least one contributing partner. AirLand Battle did not openly recognize the considerable naval effort that facilitated continental campaigns. AirSea Battle does not recognize the considerable potential contribution of American and allied ground defenses to the defensive and deterrent purposes ascribed to the concept.
Finally, both provide the logic for modernization programs aimed at a central strategic problem: AirLand Battle for the so-called Reagan buildup, AirSea Battle for Air Force and Navy capabilities after years of heavy spending on ground combat capabilities.
But in other and more important ways, AirLand Battle and AirSea Battle are not analogous at all. First, where AirLand Battle was the conception of the serving military professionals responsible for the military mission of the day, AirSea Battle is the conception of a commercial enterprise — the CSBA. AirLand Battle was conceived because certain Army and Air Force senior leaders realized the impossibility of thinking usefully in terms of separate air and land domains. It was also about an integrated approach to force modernization.
The AirLand Battle conceptual work was the beginning of serious multiservice doctrine integration and capability planning that led to the writing of the first joint operations manual, Joint Publication 3-0, and many other joint concepts to follow. And the formulation of AirLand Battle benefited from outside thinkers such as Col. John Boyd, Edward Luttwak, William Lind and others. They challenged our thinking and improved it.
AirSea Battle is a new phenomenon of an insidious kind: the commercial outsourcing of military strategic thinking to civilian think tanks that tend to pander to the current threat-based groupthink in the Pentagon to stay in business. The CSBA concept arrived for review by the military services with a strong political tailwind, having been pre-marketed to legislators and high-level civilian defense officials and to allies within the technical services that benefit most. In spring 2011, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ announcement that AirSea Battle “has the potential to do for America's military deterrent power at the beginning of the 21st century what air-land battle did near the end of the 20th.”
The CSBA authors spent months rallying the forces of the Revolution in Military Affairs transformation first. That hardly promotes critical review; it distorts it. The military establishment is inherently conservative enough, and because the strategic concept is a smoothly packaged and effectively marketed innovation that arrived ready for programmatic execution, military professionals with different views, especially those in the Army, are having difficulty resisting it. They should be braver and more outspoken.
CSBA, an independent, nonpartisan policy research institute, is transparent enough about its business model and intent: to promote innovative thinking and debate about national security strategy and investment options. But if this is a foretaste of trends to come, then the military career professionals within the defense establishment become mere military tacticians, and civilian contractors and the political appointees in the Defense Department, who cycle between think tanks and government service as administrations change, become the military strategists.
Second, AirLand Battle authors conceived not only of a highly integrated air-and-land approach to warfare in depth against the Soviet Union, but an important aspect of the concept was a way to extend the time for crisis management, should the Soviets decide to attack, between the beginning of hostilities and nuclear release. They did not need to invent a scenario, or an adversary, or the formulation of the problem these presented. The authors merely accepted the consensus view of the case before them every day. They employed the consensus logic of deterrence — causing the Soviet side to question whether aggression could succeed. And the concept addressed not only the initial stages of war that might ensue, but the concept for both offensive and defensive air-land warfare for that time and in the shadow of nuclear release. An import rationale was to extend the viability of the conventional defense against overwhelming forces and to extend the time for conflict resolution before the West would need to resort to selective release of nuclear weapons.
The AirSea Battle authors frame a problem that is as yet unreal, one possibility among many, to which they present a single and inflexible solution of ways and means — a concept for a high-tech, air-sea fight for freedom of action to intervene on behalf of one of our allies in the Western Pacific that, once begun, will inevitably bring on a long and protracted war with China based on dubious defeat mechanisms. There is no embedded concept of escalation and crisis management.
Instead, the CSBA strategic concept is more than likely destined to lead to long and very expensive global warfare without winners. For instance, if, during a crisis, China forcefully denies U.S. forces access to international waters needed merely to join and reinforce nearby allied forces and military installations, the CSBA AirSea Battle concept logic would give the U.S. no option but to respond with attacks to destroy well-protected and long-range Chinese counter-access defenses based in depth throughout mainland China — defenses the authors assume China will deploy within a decade. If this triggers war with China, it advances the idea of “distant blockading” China into submission with air and naval forces because a land war with China should be avoided.
This is weak logic, trying to mimic the Cold War rationale of nuclear deterrence with modern conventional means. The U.S. services have a long history of agreeing to concepts that apply at the beginning of wars, but not thinking through how such concepts would deter war or how follow-on concepts would lead to finishing them. We have not progressed in this regard.
Backward, Not Forward
Third, where AirLand Battle provided the logic for a defense buildup that was in line with professional consensus thinking, AirSea Battle provides the logic for a defense drawdown that is also a radical shift backward. But it satisfies the wishful thinking of a large constituency in Congress and in the Defense Department who believe in the universal fungibility of modern precision firepower and boots on the ground. And it satisfies those who like a simpleminded division of labor among the services: “high-end” conflicts are handled by the Air Force and Navy and “low-end” conflicts are handled by the Army and the Marine Corps. But to thinking professionals, such distinctions should make less sense.
During the Cold War, it was fashionable to minimize the threats to the brittle peace that actually existed in the Western Pacific. Today, it is fashionable to exaggerate the risks of “managing the rise of China.” Both can pose dangers. A clear-eyed view would see the current peace in that region as more stable and more advantageous to America than any in many decades. And it would see China rising to expand its military capabilities to fit its place in the upper rank of world powers rather than as the inevitable military competitor. This is a dangerous possibility, but it is not inevitable.
This strategic concept derives in part from old Cold War thinking: planning backward from a fixed worst-case assumption in which the only relevant dynamic variables are military technology and potential weapon deployments, and the fundamental logic that situational relationships are stable. However, the current situation in the Western Pacific is not the risky condition of the Cold War, and the logic of situational relationships is complex and dynamic. While the imagined worst case could materialize if the rise of China is mismanaged, to prophesy it and to act on that prophecy is not sound strategy. That strategy would ignore the many other-than-weapons-technology variables that are as much, or even more, relevant in a highly dynamic and multidimensional Western Pacific situation.
The most accomplished strategists in turbulent situations throughout history have always designed their courses forward to avoid the potential worst cases and have instead created ways and means to keep or restore an advantageous peace. And they learned from their activities and adapted their thinking and actions.
Those who agree with the AirSea Battle concept’s authors and proponents fail to recognize that Cold War-era tactical methods of deterrence and reinforcement are subject to failure due to the unstoppable advances in weapon technology. These inevitable advances give rise to counter-access systems that challenge old tactics worldwide, not only in the Western Pacific. The conceptual strategy of deterrence and reinforcement needs new concrete methods for deterring aggression, ones that will work even if strong and increasingly effective defensive deployments materialize — and ones that work without immediately tipping an emerging crisis into war.
Furthermore, AirSea Battle derives from faulty thinking about military power and its applications in the modern world, thinking that assigns unwarranted causal power to the “shock and awe” of modern air and naval weaponry over the decisions of hostile governments and other relevant actors. This logic skews the cost-benefit calculus of choosing war by minimizing the costs of success and by exaggerating the efficacy of its methods.
This combination of faulty strategic design and unrealistic expectations of AirSea forces leads to an unrealistic and dangerous strategy. Any strategy that seeks to change an intolerable status quo with insufficient ground forces will enter into warfare too optimistically and will too often precipitate long, indecisive and uncontrollable warfare instead. It is better to appreciate this at the beginning, when it could have been avoided, rather than after precipitating a war that must run its ugly and unpredictable course.
There are safer and more beneficial ways to frame the problem of managing the peaceful rise of China. And should a more dangerous China emerge, there is time to learn and adapt. The combatant commands and ground services have already conducted a clear-headed critique of the AirSea Battle concept, and the concrete steps proposed to implement it, to produce the still evolving Joint Operational Access Concept. But they have not yet framed the problem broadly and usefully enough.
Military professionals need to disregard the political tailwind and reclaim the lead in innovative institutional strategic thinking from Beltway think tanks. They should abandon the conceptual aspects of AirSea Battle that are unrealistic, unreliable and unnecessarily provocative, and focus instead on developing the capacity and concepts that are most realistic and most needed.