On Thursday, the House Armed Service Subcommittee on Sea Power and Projection Forces conducted a hearing on the lengthy topic of "USAF, USN and USMC Development and Integration of Air/Sea Battle Strategy, Governance and Policy into the Services' Annual Program, Planning, Budgeting, and Execution (PPBE) Process." The hearings allowed leadership from the branches of the armed forces that are most involved in the Air-Sea Battle Concept (ASB) to express their respective objectives in the process, as well as clarify realities and dispel myths that accompany the concept.
The focus of this article is not to explain the basic tenets that make up the foundation of ASB, ( click here for a more thorough introduction of the Air-Sea Battle Concept) but rather to highlight the primary talking points from the military leadership that was present at the subcommittee meeting (the major points that were said by the military during the meeting will be bold and in italics, and the opinions of this author will precede them-but these are not direct quotations from the witnesses, but rather a summary of their comments during the meeting).
It IS NOT an Overhaul of Current American Military Doctrine
Air-Sea Battle is not a strategy but an approach or framework
Not a strategy but a concept--a method to obtain specific capabilities
There seems to be some misconception among those who follow the Air-Sea Battle concept, as many believe that it is to eventually be the guiding principle of a new unified American military doctrine. This does not appear to be the case. Specific geographic areas were repeated among the witnesses as likely areas in which the ASB concept could be utilized: Arabian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, Pacific Rim, and the Eastern Mediterranean. This hardly encompasses the entire globe. While ASB does have a potentially wide range in which it could be used by American forces, it is not without limitations.
It IS in the Early Stages of Development
Air-Sea Battle is still developing and we are unsure what is needed
Air-Sea Battle mission focus areas are still being developed
Perhaps the most surprising response that came from the military witnesses was in an answer to Chairman Randy Forbes (R-VA) question, in which he asked quite simply: "What more do you need from us?" Forbes is known to be one of ASB's core Congressional supporters, and his potential voice of support for military platforms that would be requested by military brass would hold some serious weight. Yet ASB is still such a new concept that there is a great deal of uncertainty of what is needed, as well as what a definitive concept will entail. It should be of no surprise that the answers to Congressman Forbes questions were answered with a high level of uncertainty. The phrase Air-Sea Battle exercises allow all the branches to look through a prism to see what future needs may be was uttered more than once.
The Army DOES Have a Role to Play in ASB
While the primary focus of ASB is to integrate the capabilities of the Air Force, Navy, and Marines into a layered network that will allow for enhanced cohesion during military operations, the army will likely a niche role in the concept. Witnesses from the army spoke about exercises that have taken place with the navy in which army apache helicopters were positioned on navy carriers and used naval radar capabilities to track down small fast moving maritime targets in exercises. While it seems likely that the marine corps is being counted on to bear the majority of "boots on the ground" responsibilities under the current ASB framework, the army will likely have an increased role to play as the concept develops further.
The Air-Sea Battle Concept IS NOT Based on Platform Procurement (...Yet)
Strategy is not based on procurement
Military witnesses stressed that platform procurement was not a requirement for ASB to be developed and integrated into the military lexicon. There was, however, an emphasis by the branches on the need to maintain the F-35 joint fighter, the development of a new long-range strike bomber (LRSB), and the KC-46 refueling air tanker. The first two platforms, especially, are of high importance. One of the primary tenets of ASB is the need to counter potential threats by means of enhanced stealth capabilities. If such capabilities are slow to come online, it could prevent ASB from reaching its full potential.
Air-Sea Battle COULD Involve Varying Levels of Preemptive Maneuvering and Strikes
The Primary Focus of Phase 0 in Air-Sea Battle is the attempt to shape the battle space
One witness stated that there could be scenarios in which the US military would need to rely on stealth capabilities in order to place assets inside a potential area of conflict in order to shape a potential battle space. From the American perspective, this mindset is encouraging in that it shows a proactive mindset that may be favored in circumstances in lieu of a reactive approach that the US military has had the luxury of undertaking in recent decades following the Cold War.
"Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy will be fresh for the fight; whoever is second in the field and has to hasten to battle will arrive exhausted"
(More on Mr. Sun's country of origin later)
Air-Sea Battle WILL Rely Increasingly on the Dispersion of US Military Assets
Air-Sea Battle requires rapid and tight coordination
A2AD Ranges have expanded
There is a need to build sustained operations
One of the primary ASB was deemed necessary by the US military was that new military capabilities by potential enemies: cruise and ballistic missiles with enhanced range, quiet diesel submarines and stealth aircraft, and the uncertainty within the realms of cyber and space, could leave assets that were concentrated into limited areas vulnerable to attack. Since the ASB concept requires not only "breakthrough" ability in terms of pushing through an enemies defense; but also a need to sustain control over choke points and vital areas within the conflict, the US has looked to diversify its military real estate portfolio in recent years--in particular the Eastern and South Pacific. The following has taken place within the past 2 years.
* Hardening of bases in Guam
* Increased rotations or Marines and Air Force assets into Australia
*Refurbishing of World War II airfields in Tinian and Saipan
* Negotiations with the Maldives about a large scale naval presence on multiple locations within the country
* Negotiations with the Philippines regarding a resumption of an American presence
* Invitation from Palau to resume a US military presence
In addition, the US Air Force is currently splitting its 40 F-22 fighters into a highly elusive, four plane "Rapid Raptor Packages". It also should be noted that the Marine Corps is planning to do the same with its F-35B joint fighters. With military assets spread among such a wide array of locations, ASB development will be critical in order for join force communication and actions to maintain optimum levels.
Air-Sea Battle IS Directed Towards the People's Liberation Army
Air-Sea Battle is not focused on a particular adversary or region but towards accessing area challenges
China. The elephant (or perhaps more geographically accurate, the obese panda) in the room. While the country was only mentioned once by name (and not at all by members of the military), the primary focus of ASB is undoubtedly focused on the capabilities of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). While there can be some focus on regional actors such as Iran and North Korea, an entire military concept is not being developed simply because these countries have some enhanced range on new ballistic missiles. When speaking about ASB, nearly all academics and analysts look to its potential strengths and pitfalls by measuring it against the capabilities of China.
There is virtually no conflict scenario in which the ideas of a developed Air-Sea Battle concept would not be of use against a conflict vs. the PLA in the East Asian region. Although there are undoubtedly regions and maritime choke points in which ASB could be utilized, the necessity of such a complex and expensive undertaking of creating Air-Sea Battle would not be necessary if the military did not believe that a clear threat existed, or would in relatively short time--As was the primary reason AirLand Battle was developed by the United States, which was to counter the Soviet military threat in Europe.
American Allies WILL BE a Major Part of the Air-Sea Battle Concept
A US Marine General who was a witness to the hearing stated that "One of the most asymmetric advantages that the United States has is our allies". Although in very early stages, the United States has begun to reach out to its allies to inform them of how ASB is developing, and the respective role that they could choose to have. One example of this is the sale of the F-35 to allied countries. Once brought online, these countries will be implemented into the United States joint communication network. There will likely be further moves made to implement allies into ASB in the areas of naval vessels, satellite communication, cyber security, and infantry.
While there is still a great deal of speculation of what ASB will become, there at least can be some understanding of what it is not--which is small thinking.