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The rise and fall of Air-Sea Battle


Everybody's talking about Air-Sea Battle this week, and no wonder -- when two of the topmost military officers in the land take a few hours out of their day to get together and say something, they draw an audience.

And even though their subject was one of the most maddening and elusive in the defense world, people actually seemed to get it: "Air-Sea Battle" dictates that if there's a target somewhere, commanders have to be able to dream up new ways to hit it, because the old ones may not work anymore. To do that, the Air Force and the Navy must be able to get into places and stay there for awhile, if necessary, even if the bad guy doesn't want them there.

Simple enough. Plus, it's kind of fun: Now, you can take the pieces from your Navy box and play with them on the same board as the ones from your Air Force box. In fact, your green Marine Corps and Army men are supposed to be able to play on the board, too. With all of them together and under your command interchangeably, no one can bar you access or deny you an area. You hope.

That, as of this week, and as close as open-source normies can know, is approximately Air-Sea Battle. So why is it called "battle?" It's not like its antecedent, AirLand Battle, which prescribed a much more specific doctrine: How to respond to the advance of a Warsaw Pact land attack with maneuverable, integrated defenders and airstrikes deep into the enemy's supporting forces to cut off resupply to his vanguard.

Air-Sea Battle, however, is a "focusing lens," as we learned in last November when the Pentagon stood up its office dedicated to this "concept." It applies anywhere; you can scale it up from your breakfast table to the Western Pacific. Here's what one of the DoD briefers said that day:

"Anti-access/area denial is about systems, it’s about technologies and capabilities. It’s not about a specific actor.  It is not about a specific regime.  It’s about our ability to confront those systems and overcome them no matter where they are or how they're presented.  To that end, for example, we see state actors with well-funded militaries that possess the most advanced kinds of anti-access/area-denial capabilities and technologies -- in some cases, multilayered across all of the war-fighting domains."

In other words: China. Although Air Force chief Gen. Norton Schwartz on Wednesday slapped down a request to talk about how Air-Sea Battle applies specifically to China ("that's unhelpful," he said) we all know that's the origin of this whole thing. But, at least as Schwartz and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert explained it, there was nothing terribly novel about it. The Pentagon already has buzzwords that cover the vision they laid out: "Jointness," "interoperability;" "fusion." One of its key precepts is already a blue flame that burns in the heart of every airman: Hold any target at risk.

So ... what was the point?

Air-Sea Battle might be the biggest example of buzzword back-filling since "citizen journalism" or "active learning" -- a nifty-sounding castle in the air under which someone was forced to improvise a foundation. When defense officials first started talking about Air-Sea Battle back in 2009, it was in hushed, reverential tones; this was going to be It -- the greatest capital-S Strategy since containment. It was going to bring the 21st century into focus as though you'd just put on new glasses, and, oh, by the way, it was going to justify next-level hardware like you wouldn't believe -- death rays and cloaking devices and "Avengers"-style flying aircraft carriers.

Meanwhile, the unlucky staffers who were tasked with turning the phrase "Air-Sea Battle" into something more found themselves in the same position as the writing team charged by Disney with turning gummi bears into a children's cartoon: They had to work backward from somebody else's end product. Plus DoD wanted to signal to China that it was planning for war, even as it denied stridently it was doing so, and yield something at least partially public -- as opposed to a classified campaign plan for a Taiwan Strait flare-up, for example, that DoD would never release.

When DoD officials used to talk about Air-Sea Battle, they talked about it the way they talk about the Quadrennial Defense Review: A bound, printed document that hits your desk like an oar slapping a lake. There'd be weeks or months of "study," lots of staff chop, drafting, printing, and here'd be this final product, a doorstop called "Air-Sea Battle." It would explain itself. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, bless its heart, appeared to have expected just this kind of document in its "point of departure" whitepaper from 2010. It called for Pentagon guidance that would mandate "significant changes in its program of record" and offered its own detailed suggestions for how to prepare and arm for The Big One against China.

(CSBA's recommendations included "mitigating the missile threat to Guam and other selected bases, and to maritime forces" and "Developing and fielding directed-energy weapons.")

But something happened. Or, rather, nothing happened. "Air-Sea Battle," the tome, never materialized. It still hasn't. According to November's briefers, there may never be one. Greenert and Schwartz didn't mention one this week. Instead we got the Air-Sea Battle Office, which is helping with "more than 200 initiatives," as Greenert said. Hill and Building sources have said Air-Sea Battle was "finished" awhile ago, that it was "on Secretary Panetta's desk," yet something apparently happened and it became a non-thing.

"The secretary of defense has acknowledged the work as credible work and has given us the green light to move forward with the implementation of the Air-Sea Battle concept," one of November's briefers said. As we said at the time, maybe that meant Panetta was so blown away he greenlit the Air-Sea Battle TV pilot to become a full series. Or maybe he said, "I don't understand a word you're saying, colonel -- you guys need more time on this thing because I can't make heads or tails of it."

Either way, if you take away  "Air-Sea Battle," a lot of what Greenert and Schwartz said this week were things they and their predecessors have been saying for years: We have to work better together. Our platforms have to talk to each other. We can't afford to duplicate what we buy, and we need to collaborate better on what we do. "One team, one fight."

Meanwhile, there are no death rays or cloaking devices or flying carriers in the Future Years Defense Plan -- that could be the real reason why the "Air-Sea Battle" we learned about this week is so meek and mild compared to the one we were promised. Pentagon leaders may have looked at their steady or declining budget projections and thought: Before the death ray, let's make sure all of our ships can talk to all of our airplanes.

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