The Enigma of Air Sea Battle

The current debate about Air Sea Battle is either speculation or a proxy for the Pentagon’s budget wars.

Air Sea Battle is taking center stage in the emerging American Pacific regional military strategy. Now that the concept has acquired newfound fame, it has also similarly acquired enemies. Marine Corps War College Professor James Lacey is the latest to attack Air Sea Battle as a operational concept elevated to strategy. Bryan McGrath of Information Dissemination has counterattacked in a recent blog post. But there’s the thing: what is Air Sea Battle?

Unlike Air Land Battle, its Cold War namesake, Air Sea Battle is not clearly defined in a doctrinal publication. There is no equivalent of FM 100-5: Blueprint for the Air Land Battle. Air Sea Battle is a nebulous joint concept promoted in military journals, a paper by the Center for Strategic Budgetary Assessments looking at an operational solution for access problems in the Pacific, and a multiservice office. There’s also a Joint Operational Access Concept, which is not necessarily the same thing as an Air Sea Battle concept.

So what is Air Sea Battle? In the absence of any further information it is probably what its proponents say it is — a military operational concept for dealing with the ability of certain states and groups to prevent the United States from entering conflict areas. These groups use a variety of forms of standoff weaponry in both land, sea and air. While it is strongly suggestive that this concept does, in fact, refer to China, it should be observed that there are other maritime areas in which anti-access and area denial threats exist. Air Sea Battle is not a strategy, and it is hard to find anyone who has referred to it as such.

There is, somewhat of a similarity to Air Land Battle in that putting both into operation puts some incongruities of policy into sharp relief. Air Land Battle leveraged emerging military capabilities for deep attack, such as the Assault Breaker and Follow-On Forces Attack, just as Air Sea Battle would presumably benefit from increased investment in long range strike across longer operational distances.

But lost in Air Land Battle nostalgia is the fact that it was necessitated by two unpleasant facts: overwhelming Soviet conventional superiority and the political (not necessarily military) desirability of a forward defense. And there was also the dicey matter of engaging in a massive conventional war with a nuclear power, a power that knew that we had previously refused to rule out first use of nuclear weapons to offset conventional weakness. Air Land Battle was the lynchpin of a potential military strategy of conventional defense in Northeast Europe and a policy that Western Europe would be maintained free of Soviet expansion. But that military strategy was always precarious.

Similarly, Air Sea Battle, at least in the Pacific, is part of an overall military strategy that supports the American policy goals of maintaining its own access to the maritime commons of East Asia and maintaining the balance that has allows the structured ambiguity of American, Chinese and Taiwanese understandings of the One China Policy to continue. Of course, given that the anti-ship missiles are themselves located deep inland and supported by C4ISR battle networks, the crux of Air Sea Battle could hinge on striking both. It remains uncertain whether the United States would be realistically commit to such an escalation, or whether it would be wise.

Either way, much of the current debate about Air Sea Battle is at this point either speculation or a proxy for a more existential battle in Washington: the Pentagon budget wars. The parameters of the concept will continue to evolve, unfortunately dating most writing on it (including this post, perhaps).

This story first appeared at Asia Security Watch, December 22, 2011.