Let's Talk AirSea Battle

Earlier this week, on a flight back from Utah where I was visiting my ageing parents, I finished reading CSBA president Andrew Krepinevich’s new paper titled “Why AirSea Battle?” (.pdf) The evolving AirSea Battle concept is a spin on the Army’s 1980s AirLand Battle concept that aimed to rain punishing ground and air strikes on Soviet shock armies before they could steamroll NATO defenses.

Today, AirSea Battle is targeting China’s rapidly growing arsenal of anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) weapons, such as aircraft carrier killing ballistic missiles, sea-skimming missiles, stealthy submarines, bristling air-defense networks, anti-satellite and cyber weaponry.

Krepinevich writes that China is creating a “no-go zone” off its coasts with its “assassin’s mace” war doctrine to prevent U.S. naval and air forces freedom of movement. Beijing has been building up its A2/AD network for decades, but things really accelerated since the 1996 Taiwan Straits crisis when the U.S. sailed two carrier strike groups into the strait.

U.S. military dominance is eroding “at an increasing and alarming rate,” Krepinevich writes, because precision guided munitions pit very costly U.S. platforms, such as ships and aircraft, against an opponent’s much cheaper and voluminous missile magazines. The ability to project and sustain military forces overseas is threatened by this modern, high-tech equivalent of the U-Boat menace.

The Chinese military buildup aims to threaten key point targets such as Kadena Air Force Base in Japan and Andersen Air Base on Guam. Early in any conflict, the Chinese would launch massive salvos of ballistic missiles at those bases followed by waves of strike aircraft, Krepinevich writes.

Additionally, any fleet attempting to steam into the waters within the second island chain would be destroyed by China’s very long-range anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and submarines. China has also developed and tested anti-satellite weapons and cyber weapons that could cripple U.S. targeting networks that are reliant on satellites and data networks.

Krepinevich, who is a very smart guy, has been thinking through something like AirSea Battle for at least the last two decades and CSBA has pioneered the intellectual work on battle networks and what they mean for future warfighting. I highly recommend his paper, as the AirSea Battle concept appears to be gaining some serious adherents among the Navy and Air Force.

Krepinevich promises a subsequent report will flesh out some of the AirSea Battle war fighting concept. Before that comes out it would be great to hear from DT readers on how they thin the U.S. should address the anti-access challenge.

One point I think merits highlighting is that much of our current ideas about power projection are Cold War holdovers where the Navy’s main task was to ensure secure sea lines of communication to allow unimpeded troop and equipment flow to Europe so as to reinforce NATO.

Yet, any conflict against China would be limited, not a total war like NATO versus the Warsaw Pact. In a limited war, it’s difficult to envision any scenario where the U.S. must deploy and maintain large ground forces inside China’s maritime domain. If that’s the case, then why would we ever need to steam a carrier battle group past the second island chain and within range of China’s vast missile magazines.

Developing a war fighting concept, and capabilities, to beat back China’s vast A2/AD network seems the most costly and potentially riskiest approach and would play directly to Chinese strengths. (Side note: a U.S. military officer who spent years as a NATO planner told me one solution to penetrating the thick Warsaw Pact SAM belt along the inner-German border was to use tactical nukes to blow corridors through which could pass NATO’s bomber force. That’s not really an option in a conflict with China, thank goodness).

My own opinion is, if the Chinese strategy is to create a no-go zone off its shores, it seems plausible that the U.S. counter strategy would be the same: prevent Chinese naval and air forces from operating freely in its own air and maritime space. Hitting China’s land and sea based targets from stand-off range exploiting U.S. advantages in targeting and precision strike and using stealthy attack submarines to close China’s waterways and choke them off economically seems a plausible approach.

The Air Force and Navy should pursue a cost imposition strategy: develop better long-range strike capabilities so as to force China to spend heavily to maintain its A2/AD network.

As always, I’d be curious to hear reader’s comments on where the Navy and Air Force should go with this fledgling concept.

-- Greg

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