Air-Sea Ops, Not Battle

A popular concept in planning circles at the Pentagon today, especially within the U.S. Air Force and Navy, is known as Air-Sea Battle. This approach to future war is, in part, designed to adapt to technological change but also reflects the rise of China. The People’s Republic wishes to exert greater influence over waterways to its east as its power increases.

Iran and one or two other states provide some of the impetus for Air-Sea Battle doctrine, but China is surely the main spur. As such, Air-Sea Battle is, in some ways, the military complement to the “rebalancing” strategy of the Obama administration, which places greater foreign policy emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region.

The main impetus behind the concept of Air-Sea Battle is quite reasonable. China is developing advanced submarines, precision-guided ballistic and cruise missiles and other capabilities to prevent the U.S. from treating the Western Pacific like the American lake it largely was in recent decades. In light of this, we need to reply.

American access to the Western Pacific remains crucial for supporting key allies and interests there. It requires improvements in missile defense, anti-submarine warfare, communications system resiliencies and other capabilities that improved integration between the U.S. Air Force and Navy can help provide.

However, there are a couple of ways in which this American doctrine should be refined. First, it needs a less provocative, more accurate name. This is not about political correctness. In Asia, semantics count a great deal, and we should be careful not to treat military planning for Asia like preparation for the next Operation Desert Storm.

Unlike Iraq under Saddam Hussein, or the Taliban government of Afghanistan, China is not an enemy. The essence of our military policy in Asia is not to prepare for war so much as to prevent it. Nor are we trying to contain it the way we sought to contain the Soviet Union, including through a doctrine of Air-Land Battle in the latter Cold War years.

War-fighting capability is naturally integral to any military operational concept. But the phrase Air-Sea Battle unduly emphasizes the prospect of war. Our overall military strategy for the region has other goals besides prepara¬tion for war. Indeed, its very purpose is to help prevent war.

Air-Sea Operations would be a much better and more strategically sound name for the doctrine. That would encompass planning for war, of course, but also normal peacetime presence missions, posturing for deterrence, exercising with allies, positioning for crisis response and even cooperating with China in some activities.

That shift in terminology will also allow U.S. military officials and diplomats to acknowledge what is already obvious to the Chinese, yet often denied by Americans: that Air-Sea Operations is largely designed to deal with China’s rise — but in a way designed less to prepare for conflict than to reinforce regional stability.

Two more changes also make sense. First, Air-Sea Operations should not anticipate a pre-emptive or even early campaign against targets on the Chinese mainland in the event of war. Rapid escalation to include attacks against such targets risks general war and is far more dangerous than some have recognized to date.

The right answer is not to ask U.S. and allied military forces to operate in harm’s way without defending themselves, but to look for indirect or asymmetrical ways of responding to possible Chinese aggression that lower the risks of such escalatory dynamics while still ensuring protection of core American interests to the extent possible.

In addition, Air-Sea Operations needs to move beyond a strictly Air Force and Navy concept. The other military services have important contributions to make. One set of smart changes would entail asking the Marine Corps, with its naval affiliations and expeditionary traditions, to prepare for possible defense of Navy and Air Force assets and installations in the broader Asia-Pacific region.

It could even prove necessary, in a future conflict, to help establish and secure bases in the Indonesian or Philippine archipelagos, or to help defend existing bases on Okinawa and Guam against special operations forces attack from a hostile adversary. Creating such a ring of military capabilities in defense of national territory and the territories of friends and allies may be the wisest long-term response to a China that becomes hostile someday.

As the Pentagon looks ahead to a new Quadrennial Defense Review under either a President Obama or a President Romney, it needs a concept of military operations and a name for that concept that supports and accurately reflects U.S. grand strategy goals. Air-Sea Operations would be a sound choice.