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China Drives AirSea Battle


In the early 1980s, the Army, with Air Force cooperation, came up with a warfighting concept known as AirLand Battle designed to rain punishing ground and air strikes on Soviet shock armies before they could steamroll NATO defenses. Today, the military is formulating a new concept called AirSea Battle designed to counter 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.

The 2010 QDR directed the Air Force and Navy to jointly develop the concept to “guide the development of future capabilities needed for effective power projection operations.” Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, has been thinking through just such a concept for the last two decades and has a new paper out titled “Why AirSea Battle?” that lays out the case for why its needed.

Krepinevich writes that China’s burgeoning anti-access arsenal is intended to, “raise the US cost of power-projection operations in the Western Pacific to prohibitive levels, thereby deterring any American effort to meet its defense obligations to allies in the region while setting the conditions for a potential latter-day Chinese Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere of influence.”

China is creating a “no-go zone” off its coasts with its “assassin’s mace” war concept designed to prevent freedom of movement of U.S. naval and air forces. 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.

The CSBA paper also examines Iran’s efforts at building a similar no go zone in the Gulf. In the development of AirSea Battle, Iran is definitely the lesser included case.

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.

In the face of such threats, traditional notion of power projection must adapt or accept a loss of access to the Western Pacific. Krepinevich promises a subsequent report will flesh out some of the AirSea Battle war fighting concept.

The strategic rationale for U.S. power projection has historically been based on the ability to support forward deployed forces, reassure allies with presence and maintain the flow of resources on which the economy depends. During the Cold War, one of the U.S. Navy’s major tasks was to ensure an unimpeded troop and equipment flow to Europe so as to reinforce NATO, a maritime “Red Ball Express,” if you will.

Yet, in a conflict against China, it’s difficult to envision a scenario where the U.S. must deploy and maintain large ground forces into China’s maritime domain. Any conflict against China would be limited, simply because anything larger could cripple both countries. 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.

There would appear to be alternatives to steaming carrier battle groups within range of China’s vast missile magazines or presenting China with opportune fixed targets on land. Hitting China’s land and sea based targets from stand-off range exploiting U.S. advantages in targeting and precision strike is one. Using stealthy attack submarines to close China’s waterways and choking them off economically would be another.

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. Developing better long-range strike capabilities so as to raise China’s costs to maintain its A2/AD network would likely be the asymmetric warrior’s approach.

We eagerly await Krepinevich’s second installment to see what concepts he devises. In the meantime, we’ll keep an eye out for further AirSea Battle developments from the Pentagon.

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