Redefining AirSea Battle: JAM-GC, China and the Quest for Clarity

The operational concept formerly known as AirSea Battle created quite a stir. Where does its successor, JAM-GC, go from here? 

But service potentates could’ve refreshed AirSea Battle without playing the name game. It’s been done before. Getting the topic out of the daily headlines, consequently, must have impelled the decision to essay a makeover. Why? Because AirSea Battle excited feverish commentary during its short, troubled life. Just look at the title: AirSea Battle sounds warlike and vaguely sinister. JAM-GC, though, sounds like an obscure rap group. It would attract scant notice even if its substance were identical to AirSea Battle.

And indeed, the furor surrounding forcible entry subsided following last January’s linguistic switcheroo. Mission accomplished! So much for the retrospective on the Pentagon’s PR stratagems. What should JAM-GC say? Let’s take a back-to-basics approach:

Replace AirSea Battle with something—or nothing:

Official documents about strategy, doctrine, or war planning do more than elucidate how to harness martial means for strategic and political gain. They’re a venture in storytelling vis-à-vis important audiences. A well-executed document, in other words, defines worthwhile purposes and explains convincingly how Washington will deploy power to fulfill them. It makes believers out of domestic constituents, allies and friends overseas, and likely antagonists.

Pentagon spokesmen mishandled AirSea Battle, by contrast. They remained closemouthed about the concept—compelling outsiders to infer the content of AirSea Battle from think-tank reports and fellow commentators. Starting in February 2010, for instance, the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) published a brace of studies setting forth a vision of an AirSea Battle doctrine. It took the Pentagon until mid-2013—three full years—to publish an official, rather nondescript statement of its own.

During that three-year interval, analysts—including yours truly—fell back on the CSBA treatises when asked about the doctrine. We had little else to go on. In short, the keepers of AirSea Battle let the narrative get away from them rather than telling their story well. Commentary took on conspiratorial overtones as a result.

The CSBA reports set Washington abuzz for two chief reasons. One, the authors named names. They declared that AirSea Battle was about overcoming China’s anti-access strategy and weaponry. This was too frank and too premature for officialdom, not to mention many observers in the press and academe. Designating a rival great power as a potential enemy, they believed, could make that rival into an actual enemy. Better to keep mum about the prospects for unpleasantness.

And two, the CSBA analysts espoused launching a “blinding campaign” against China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at the outset of war. Disabling PLA intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets—radars, manned and unmanned patrol aircraft, and so forth—would keep Chinese rocketeers from targeting U.S. aircraft and warships operating offshore. For many observers this was a bug, not a feature, in the AirSea Battle scheme. They fretted that blinding an opponent could represent a prelude to escalation—perhaps even to a nuclear exchange.

An operational concept, then, could have repercussions wildly disproportionate to the strategic interests at stake. Armed-service chieftains never fully disentangled AirSea Battle, the official operational concept, from the unofficial version of AirSea Battle depicted in the CSBA reports. One hopes they’ll stay on top of the narrative when JAM-GC appears—putting an end to the Pentagon’s long AirSea Battle nightmare. Better to replace AirSea Battle with nothing at all than to allow outsiders to again usurp the narrative about maritime operations and strategy.

Make JAM-GC a strategy:

Mismanaging the message wasn’t the only trouble with AirSea Battle, though. The concept had an otherworldly feel to it. It was an operational concept in search of an enemy, and ripped out of any geostrategic context. The unclassified 2013 summary rightly observed that AirSea Battle was an operational concept, not a strategy. As such, it prescribed a generic approach to managing or defeating A2/AD challenges. It averted its eyes from specific scenarios, regions, and foes.