All right people, this is a big one so grab your favorite beverage and settle in. Read carefully, think about it critically, and hopefully, you'll find it worth the time!
What is AirSea Battle (ASB)? Well that depends on who you listen to. Outside the military, everyone has their own idea. From inside the military we hear little that’s useful or informative – mainly just buzzword babble and fantasy wish lists. In fact, a not uncommon belief is that ASB is just a ploy to justify funding from Congress in the same way the Navy used “littoral” to obtain the LCS. Well, since the official Navy position is virtually unintelligible, we’re left to come up with our own definition and analysis. In other words, is ASB even a legitimate concept?
Sifting through the Navy babble, ASB seems to be linked to countering Anti-Access/Area Denial (AA/AD or A2/AD). Further, while the Navy denies that ASB is targeted towards any specific country, it is clearly a response to
’s Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBM), the so-called “carrier killers”. A cursory study of the geography of the region shows that there are a number of features, such as chokepoints, that lend themselves to aiding China ’s defense of the region, hence the A2/AD concerns. The A2/AD zone is generally said to extend about 1000 nm out from the mainland. China
It is also important to realize that ASB is not a strategy. A strategy, by definition is a pathway towards a goal – the goal, in this case being victory in war. ASB, as fumblingly articulated by the Navy is more of a tactical or doctrinal concept and, for purposes of this discussion, we will stick with that level of detail.
So, ASB should be a conceptual description of tactical and operational requirements for operating within the A2/AD zone. Let’s proceed.
What are the threats the Navy will have to face if it wishes to penetrate and operate within the zone?
|Number One A2/AD Threat|
Ballistic Missiles (IRBM) have gotten a lot of attention as the so-called carrier killers. While the potential for destruction from a supersonic, large payload missile is certainly huge, realistically, the difficulties in targeting make this a much lesser threat for the time being. The Intermediate Range has not figured out how to accurately detect and target small, moving ships at ranges of several hundred miles and I seriously doubt that US has either. More serious is the threat posed by IRBMs to fixed land based targets such as harbors and airbases. China
will be able to fill the skies with aircraft in the A2/AD zone. Of course, many of these aircraft will be a generation or two behind current and near-future China aircraft. Still, this is where quantity has a quality of its own. The sheer numbers of available aircraft will help to make up for technological deficiencies. US
Ships. The Chinese Navy is not a serious threat, yet, although it is evolving rapidly. Again, the number of ships that will be deployed in the zone make surface ships a more serious threat than would be suggested by a simple examination of their specifications. Large numbers of small missile boats, in particular, pose a severe threat if allowed to get within targeting and launch range.
So, with an awareness of the threats in the A2/AD zone we can begin to see what capabilities our ASB will need to be able to allow us to operate within the zone with a reasonable chance to succeed and survive.
Far and away, the number one need is for a robust and effective mine counter-measures (MCM) capability. Currently, the Navy has only the 12 Avenger class MCM vessels and until very recently they were being allowed to waste away with inadequate maintenance in anticipation of the LCS taking over the function. Of course, the LCS won’t be conducting useful MCM for quite some time and so the Navy has had to scramble to try to restore the Avengers to operational status.
The Navy desperately needs a tactically useful MCM capability. What does tactically useful mean? In the context of the Chinese A2/AD scenario, it means the ability to clear mines quickly and in a war zone. Consider that minesweeping has historically been a painfully slow operation with clearance rates measured in days and months. If a Carrier Strike Group is waiting for clearance in order to advance, waiting days or months is not going to be tactically useful. Clearance is going to have to be on the order of hours and, unfortunately, that technology does not yet exist. The situation is further complicated by the need to conduct the minesweeping in contested waters – a war zone. Since the MCM vessels have no inherent self-defense capability, significant resources will have to be devoted to protecting them as they work.
The next most serious threat is submarines.
is rapidly increasing the numbers and capabilities of its undersea fleet. The A2/AD zone will be crowded with both nuclear and non-nuclear subs. Unfortunately, the Navy has allowed its ASW capability to atrophy to the point of embarrassment over the last few decades. Chinese subs are literally popping up in the middle of carrier groups. Inexplicably, the Navy has no equivalent to the Spruance class ASW destroyer and the S-3 Viking was retired without a replacement. The Navy’s subs (SSNs) and destroyers desperately need to revitalize their ASW capability. Additionally, the Navy’s SSNs, while superb platforms, are trending down in numbers. This is the quantity versus quality issue. The Navy is in danger of simply not having enough subs to do the job. China
The IRBM threat, while vastly overblown by the media, is at least being addressed by the Aegis BMD modifications among other measures. More urgently, the
desperately needs an effective BMD for fixed bases. US
The threat from aircraft is well understood and quite manageable at a technical level. The combination of Aegis AAW and naval carrier aircraft can hold their own. Air Force F-15s and F-22s can provide plenty of protection if they can find a base to operate from. The problem in dealing with the air threat is numbers. Simply put, the Chinese have, or will have, far greater numbers of aircraft than we have. While the Navy is banking on superior technology overcoming superior numbers, the Navy trend is, unfortunately, in the wrong direction. We have ever fewer carriers, fewer aircraft, smaller air wings, and smaller squadrons. At some point, numbers trump technology. Again, quantity has a quality all its own.
The Chinese naval threat is manageable though growing rapidly. The Navy lacks a long range, supersonic, stealthy anti-ship missile to replace the aging and borderline obsolete Harpoon. In fact, developmental programs for just such a missile are underway though the history of recent weapons development programs does not fill one with overwhelming optimism.
That sums up the threats and our ability to deal with them on a largely defensive and more or less one-for-one basis meaning, for example, our surface ships against theirs, our MCMs against their mines, and so on. What’s left is the potential to further manage the threats on a more offensive, asymmetric basis.
For example, the way to deal with the aircraft threat is to attack the airbases rather than the aircraft in the sky. No base, no aircraft. Similarly, IRBMs, ships, and mines are all easier dealt with at their points of origin rather than after they’ve been deployed. Given that the points of origin are largely on the mainland, we are going to need massive first-day strike capability that can bypass the A2/AD obstacles.
|B-2 - Limited Usefulness?|
So, where does this leave us as regards ASB and A2/AD? We’ve stated that ASB is about being able to operate in within the A2/AD zone. We need to be able to deliver day-one and sustained follow-on strikes all the way to the Chinese mainland. We need to be able to pass through the various chokepoints created by the outer islands. We need to be able to neutralize the mine and sub threats. We need to be able to deal with the IRBM threat. We need to be able to establish air supremacy. Thus, ASB is, or should be, about establishing the tactics and doctrine required to accomplish these things. Comparing ASB requirements to our current capabilities we can readily identify gaps in our current capability that need to be filled. Specifically, the Navy needs,
- Long range, survivable, penetrating strike aircraft, whether manned or unmanned.
- More SSGNs.
- Tactically useful MCM.
- A class of dedicated open ocean ASW destroyer (or frigate or whatever name you want to use).
- More carriers and carrier aircraft.
- More SSNs.
- Long range, stealthy anti-ship missiles.
Of course, there are many other aspects to ASB such as interservice communications (we were supposed to have addressed that after Grenada but I guess not), the ability to operate with lost or degraded GPS, the ability to operate in high jamming environments, and the ability to establish and maintain extremely long distance communications with, and control over, UAVs. For the sake of brevity and simplicity, I’ve also left out discussions of unmanned subsurface intelligence gathering platforms, interactions with the Air Force (the famous idiotic example of a B-2 shooting air-to-air missiles), and a host of other, related topics. This is a blog post not a book.
To sum up, ASB is a description of the tactics, doctrine, and equipment required to operate within the A2/AD zone. Properly formulated and analyzed, ASB provides clear recognition of our current shortfalls and offers a roadmap for future weapons and platform acquisitions.
Now compare this description of ASB to the Navy's incoherent ramblings and tell me what you think.