How Air-Sea Battle undermines our grand strategy
In the intervening year since I expressed my concerns regarding Air-Sea Battle (ASB) in these pages, a cottage industry has formed to assure citizens, friends and potential adversaries that there is really nothing to worry about.
ASB is just an idea, they say, and the Pentagon’s ASB Office is happy to call it whatever you like to ensure no offense is taken. They say ASB deters but doesn’t threaten; it is a concept, not a strategy, although it dictates how we will engage with key competitors; it is the joint force; it is the Navy and the Air Force; it is designed to take down specific systems but is not about any specific adversary; it is a broad theoretical concept, but it is classified. In news conferences, news releases, briefs and most recently in “Air-Sea Battle: Clearing the Fog” (AFJ, June), ASB has been described as an innocuous, nonthreatening concept — move along folks, nothing to see here. Yet, it is argued by the ASB Office to be worthy of significant investment. If ASB has produced anything, it is this cavalcade of contradictions.
We are still talking about ASB because it’s about money and programs. It’s about who gets cut and who gets more resources as budgets are tightened. Because it’s about resources, even though it is called a concept, it is much closer to a strategy than its proponents suggest because it materially influences the ways by influencing the means. So even if we all agree ASB is just a limited concept, it still strongly influences our competitive approach to an emerging maritime peer competitor. It is the concept that ate the strategy.
ASB is often compared to AirLand Battle, a detailed concept for countering a specific adversary: the Soviet Union. Critically, AirLand Battle was developed 30 years into the Cold War. The nature of the adversarial competition between the United States and the Soviet Union was well-established. The parameters of the relationship between the United States and China today are not analogous to the 1980s Cold War, so we should be wary of analogizing Air-Sea Battle to AirLand Battle.
There is unending debate about the utility of grand strategy, and even whether it is possible for a democracy to produce a meaningful grand strategy. Thanks to ASB, we have at least a partial answer. Strategy is important if civilian leadership wishes to control the relationships between states. In the absence of a grand strategy, we are seeing a military operational concept become the most tangible component of our national security policy toward China. Perhaps, then, grand strategy does have a role to play even with all the inherent shortcomings and challenges. What would W. Averell Harriman, Dean Acheson, Dean Rusk or George Kennan say about America’s most important diplomatic matters being critically influenced by mid-level officers working by committee in the Pentagon? Certainly, they could never have conceived of diplomacy by PowerPoint.
One might reasonably argue that the administration clearly conveyed our Pacific strategy in January’s “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense” and in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s excellent “America’s Pacific Century” (Foreign Policy, October). Discussions of our pivot to the Pacific have been far more prevalent in the press than ASB, which might seem to militate against my concerns about the influence of ASB on our grand strategy. In reality, though, it is just the opposite. While the rhetoric of these policy pronouncements is sound, the implementation of these policies is what ultimately counts most, and it is here that ASB has its corrosive effects. Given our nation’s current fiscal circumstances, the DoD budget is largely a zero-sum game. Applying significant resources to ASB capabilities will actually delay our pivot to the Pacific and produce an imbalanced military poorly suited for assuring our friends and allies in the region.
Recent events make this clear. As China threatens to garrison disputed territory in the South China Sea, what capabilities would be more relevant: strike assets designed to strike the homeland of a nuclear peer competitor, or forward-deployed expeditionary forces that can deter adventurism, reassure allies through tangible presence or even do some “garrisoning” of their own? Ironically, such ground and naval expeditionary forces exist and do not depend on expensive speculative technical solutions to provide important strategic effects. Naval expeditionary forces can pivot today, setting sail with no need to harden bases with tons of concrete, wait to build PXs and commissaries, or finalize seemingly unending consultations with foreign governments about permanent basing arrangements. So, while in theory ASB does not contravene our government policy for the Pacific, in practical terms it does.
It is certainly necessary and prudent for the Pentagon to develop operational capabilities and concepts to confront even notional adversaries, but it should do so quietly. ASB has suffered greatly from the publicity its progenitors have sought. This is why many critics see ASB more as program advocacy than as serious operational thinking. If it is necessary to cultivate broader, external constituencies to bring it to fruition, how compelling is it really?
Rather than continuing to pursue the current approach, the Pentagon should consider the following:
Disband the ASB Office.
Integrate and coordinate key aspects of service laboratory efforts to guide research and experimentation into joint force capabilities to defeat anti-access/area denial capabilities.
Train aggressively. A training plan that regularly combines all components of the joint force into exercises designed to counter anti-access/area denial capabilities will move the institutions further than an office producing slides in the Pentagon.
Insist on interoperability across all services. Rigorous joint training will highlight what the interoperability priorities should be.
Submarines need not be the only silent service. We should expound less and think more.
In conclusion, it is good that the Pentagon recognized the importance of dealing with A2/AD challenges. It is essential that we keep a vigilant eye on potential adversaries, and we must work diligently to ensure we maintain our technological advantages, but this should all be an inherent part of the military profession and the normal requirements process. It should not be reliant upon an acronym or a separate office disconnected from strategy or the other demands on the services and combatant commanders. The threats are real. The Pentagon needs to get equally real and ensure the entire joint force is ready to support the nation’s grand strategy once fully articulated. AFJ
J. Noel Williams is a retired Marine Corps officer and a graduate of the USMC School of Advanced Warfighting. He provides strategy, policy and budgetary analysis support to Headquarters, Marine Corps. The views expressed here are the author’s own.