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CSBA AirSea Battle Concept: More Stealth, Long-Range Strike to Counter Chinese Battle Networks

I spent the morning at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment’s release of their new report “AirSea Battle: A Point of Departure Operational Concept” (you can find the report here as well as the briefing slides). Lots to unpack here from the 123 page report, the author’s brief and the lively discussion that followed.

CSBA says that China’s military modernization aims at denying U.S. air and maritime freedom of maneuver and access in the Western Pacific (WestPac) by targeting bases and ships with precision guided missiles. China’s buildup of increasingly capable anti-access/area-denial “battle networks” will, over time, make the current “American way of war” prohibitively costly.

This shift in the military balance is perhaps best exemplified by China’s widely reported development of “carrier killing” anti-ship ballistic missiles, a weapon that potentially threatens the very symbol of American military might and global presence.

CSBA president Andrew Krepinevich emphasized that CSBA’ AirSea Battle concept is not about fighting a war with China, or “rolling back” China’s influence in the Western Pacific. Instead, it should be seen as an “offsetting strategy” that reaffirms a U.S. commitment to maintaining presence, coalitions and influence in that strategically vital area.

CSBA’s AirSea Battle concept envisions a two stage campaign. The first phase would be to survive what would likely be Chinese pre-emptive strikes on U.S. and allied bases across the Western Pacific, particularly airfields. It envisions more than just trusting in missile defenses and base hardening. Prompt U.S. counterattacks would first go after the PLA’s reconnaissance strike complex, the U.S. would try to deny China the ability to accurately target fixed installations and ships and conduct battle damage assessment.

This “blinding campaign” is at the core of the AirSea Battle concept, said CSBA’s Jim Thomas, the PLA’s surveillance and targeting systems are the “Achilles heel” of its anti-access networks. In any WestPac confrontation, one of the PLA’s main advantages is its very large, and growing, arsenal of precision guided missiles; those missile magazines could be rendered useless if they can’t be guided.

If China loses it’s over the horizon situational awareness, U.S. naval assets regain their freedom of maneuver and ability to close in on the Chinese mainland. Short ranged tactical aircraft could also be moved closer if allied bases weren’t being bombarded with PLA ballistic missiles. The blinding campaign would include cyber attacks, PLA space assets would be targeted, electronic warfare aircraft would spoof PLA radars and sensors and seaborne pickets would be targeted.

The blinding campaign would be followed by strikes against the PLA’s fixed and mobile missile launchers using land and sea based manned and unmanned stealthy penetrators. Using stand-off and EW, the U.S. would try and open corridors in PLA air-defenses. Simultaneously, PLA Navy ships and subs would be targeted to prevent them from getting out into the open ocean.

If the first phase of the campaign aims to prevent China from achieving a “knock-out blow,” the second phase would aim to win what would possibly be a prolonged conflict. In the second phase of the campaign, CSBA envisions the U.S. seizing the initiative by targeting PLA assets on the mainland and seas, establishing a blockade of Chinese sea lines of communication, surging supplies and warfighting material into WestPac and ramping up industrial production of precision guided weapons.

The real value of the ASB concept, Thomas said, is not to develop a new war plan, but rather to develop a conceptual “lens” through which to view future investment decisions. Peering through that lens, CSBA recommends some pretty hefty shifts in investment to execute an effective ASB campaign.

Much of what CSBA recommends program wise emphasizes stealth, long-range and prompt strike, redundancy and Air Force and Navy interoperability. There is a very extensive list of programmatic and force structure changes in the report, including:

• To mitigate the ballistic missile threat to Guam and other WestPac bases the Air Force should harden its bases on Guam and refurbish bases on Tinian, Saipan and Palua to allow aircraft dispersal and force China to play a shell game with American aircraft; the Air Force-Navy should jointly assess tactical air-based ballistic missile defenses and laser weapons; and BMD exercises should be carried out with Japan.

• The Air Force and Navy should invest in a long range strike capability against time sensitive targets in a cost imposing strategy to force the PLA to beef up its own defenses; and the Navy should consider investing in conventionally armed, relatively short range sea-based ballistic missiles, similar to Tomahawk, that could be spread across the fleet’s VLS tubes.

• The Air Force and Navy should develop and field long-range next generation stealthy air platforms, both manned and unmanned, and payloads for these platforms; the Navy version capable of operating off of carriers.

• The Air Force and Navy should jointly develop a long-range precision strike family of systems that include: ISR, EW and strike. The Air Force should develop a stealthy multi-mission, long-range persistent bomber as part of this strike family. The Navy should expedite developing and fielding a carrier-based drone.

• The Air Force and Navy should develop joint command and control mechanisms to enable Air Force aircraft to target enemy ships using Navy surveillance and targeting systems.

• The Air Force and Navy should jointly develop a long-range anti-ship missile.

• The Air Force should equip some of its B-2 stealth bombers with an offensive mine laying capability to mine Chinese harbors.

• The Air Force and Navy should significantly increase investment in joint EW platforms both manned and unmanned.

• The Air Force and Navy should increase research and development in laser weapons for land and sea based point defense against missiles.

I'll have much more as soon as finish reading the entire report.

-- Greg Grant

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