AirSea Battle Isn't about China
Discussing the impact of AirSea Battle requires first figuring out what it is. The fact that AirSea Battle was initially a classified—but frequently talked about—program of the air force and navy created a great deal of speculation. In the absence of other information, some commentators elevated it to a strategy focused on China. Journalists and think-tank analysts speculated it would start with a strike campaign by long-range bombers and submarines deep into China to blind its defenses. This discussion has created significant strategic confusion for the United States.
The close connection assumed by some between the AirSea Battle (ASB) concept and the Asia pivot was evident in 2011, when the program was still classified. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) sought to clarify and frame the discussion, with Jan van Tol writing that ASB
offers a point-of-departure concept designed to maintain a stable military balance in the [Western Pacific Theater of Operations], one that offsets the [Chinese People’s Liberation Army]’s rapidly improving A2/AD [anti-access/area denial] capabilities. We have titled this concept “AirSea Battle,” in recognition that this theater of operations is dominated by naval and air forces, and the domains of space and cyberspace.
According to van Tol, ASB is designed to allow U.S. forces to fight through the Chinese missile, air, mine and submarine threat to operate in the western Pacific. The CSBA paper ensured that the AirSea Battle concept became the focal point of discussion for military strategy against China—and, of course, the combat systems needed to pursue such a strategy.
But over the last year, the Pentagon has walked back from the position that ASB is targeted at China. In May, Air Force chief of staff General Norton A. Schwartz noted that AirSea Battle “is not the design for any particular region of the world. . . . AirSea Battle is agnostic with regard to specific regions of the world and is intended to assure access wherever, wherever our wide ranging strategic interests are located.” At the same presentation, Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert, chief of naval operations, also focused on the operational aspects: “At this national security inflection point, AirSea Battle is a framework for us to organize to train and equip their efforts and provides an effective and efficient way ahead.”
Despite the Pentagon’s efforts to downplay ASB’s relationship to China, Chinese authors have written that ASB is directed at them and have consistently made it part of their strategic discussion about U.S.-Chinese relations. U.S. allies also perceive ASB as a way to confront China but complain the United States has failed to clarify what it is. Distinguished Japanese commentator Takashi Kawakami of the Association of Japanese Institutes of Strategic Studies noted that the Third Armitage-Nye Report “proposes pursuing an A2/AD strategy for US carrier strike groups and responding to the Chinese Navy's expansion beyond the first island chain with the US military's concept of AirSea Battle and the Japan Self-Defense Forces' ‘dynamic defense.’" In short, ASB is perceived as a direct response to China’s A2/AD efforts and a strategy for defeating China.
The Missing Strategy
This focus on China has taken all the oxygen from the room. All discussion has focused on what is only an operational concept, not a strategy. As a result, there has been very little discussion of an actual strategy. This in turn has injected uncertainty into our relationships in the region.
Perhaps even more dangerous, ASB is being touted by some as the operational concept that will support a specific military strategy. But because ASB operations rely heavily on space and cyber assets, any strategy employing this concept is highly escalatory. In the space and cyber domains, the offense remains dominant. Therefore, the first nation to attack in these domains gains a significant advantage in the overall conflict. If you fail to attack first, you suffer badly. Any strategic approach that is escalatory against an opponent armed with thermonuclear weapons and effective delivery systems has existential risks.
In fact, the operational concepts employed by ASB are neither good nor bad in the abstract. Rather it is the strategic context that establishes its value. For instance, blitzkrieg was a powerful operational concept. Against France, its application led to a brilliant strategic success. Only a year later, its use against the Soviet Union led to strategic disaster for Germany.
Similarly, ASB can only be evaluated in a specific strategic context. The original CSBA paper suggested ASB was necessary to meet anti-access challenges from China and Iran. In Iran, the requirement to maintain the energy flow through the Straits of Hormuz requires the United States to defeat A2/AD capabilities there. Victory in this case would be destroying the Iranian ability to interdict the flow of energy. Clearly, the level of investment necessary to ensure U.S. forces can defeat Iran in the Straits of Hormuz is an order of magnitude less than the resources needed to apply ASB against China. Thus, ASB contributes to a viable strategy in that region.