Thursday, May 10, 2012

AirSea Battle Failings

AirSea Battle Report from the CSBA

Much has been made about the AirSea Battle document produced by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.  For those of you who are only casually familiar with it, the AirSea Battle (ASB) describes the scope and impact of Chinese Anti-Access/Area Denial (AA/AD) capabilities and attempts to provide a battle strategy for countering it.  The document does a fairly nice job of the former by providing a fairly explicit description of Chinese capabilities, objectives, and methods and for this reason alone the ASB is worth reading.  Unfortunately, the ASB fails to deliver on the latter.  The battle strategy is deficient on two counts, one practical and one conceptual. 

Again, for those less familiar with it, the ASB’s strategy envisions a two stage process whereby the Chinese capabilities are sequentially countered and then methodically rolled back during a period of prolonged combat.  The rollback will allow the Navy to operate closer and closer to China (the location of most of the U.S. military objectives, of course) over time.  The rollback phase is deemed necessary since the U.S. military, and Navy in particular, have only limited range weapons and must achieve a certain level of “closeness” in order to employ their weapons.  This is, essentially a war of attrition.

Thus, the ASB’s first failing becomes apparent.  In a war of attrition, the side with the most, wins.  Setting aside the adverse public reaction to a war of attrition and the resulting lack of support, the U.S. military does not have sufficient numbers of planes, ships, weapons, or people to successfully engage in a war of attrition.  While the U.S. may maintain a technological superiority enabling it to achieve a favorable kill ratio, the end result will be depletion of U.S. forces to a point where “victory” becomes impossible. 

The U.S. military has recognized since WWII that mutual attrition is not a desirable strategy.  Every battle doctrine and strategy since then has emphasized selective concentration of forces, maneuver, stand-off engagement, and so forth for the express purpose of achieving victory without mutual attrition.  To return to a strategy of attrition, especially against a numerically superior enemy is both simplistic and impractical.

Besides, what’s the point?  Is the purpose of a rollback strategy of attrition to kill every person in China?  Of course not.  But what, then, is the point of the rollback strategy?  This question reveals the second and most serious failing of the ASB.  It does not define what victory is.  What end result or set of conditions constitutes victory?  A certain number of people killed?  A certain level of degradation of Chinese military capability?  A level of destruction of industrial capability sufficient to ensure that the Chinese military can’t be rebuilt within a given time frame?  A simple return to pre-war boundaries?  What? 

ASB itself seems to recognize its own failing to certain degree with the statement, “As a doctrine for the operational level of war, AirSea Battle should not be seen as a “war-winning” concept in itself.”  Fair enough but if the authors don’t see their own strategy as “war-winning” then what is its purpose?

Without a definition of victory the suggested strategy has no frame of reference against which to measure its value.  This is analogous to describing how to throw a baseball.  Interesting in and of itself but without knowing the context the value is limited.  Is the throwing for the purpose of playing catch in the backyard?  Playing professional baseball?  The answer will determine the intensity of the effort, the amount of time that should be spent learning the skill, and the ultimate degree of skill required.

So, too, with a strategy of rollback.  To what purpose is it being applied?  To what degree and level of completion must it be taken?  If we know the victory conditions we can begin to make assessments of the amount and type of weapons that will be needed.  Without the victory conditions we can only describe vague generalities about warfare – and that is exactly what the ASB winds up doing. 

Now, having criticized the ASB, let me turn around and briefly praise it for what it does well.  It presents a though-provoking description of Chinese objectives, strategies, and weapons.  It’s a good start for a further, serious discussion of the issue.  To be fair to the authors, the title itself recognizes this, “AirSea Battle, A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept”.  Unfortunately, too many people within the Navy seem to believe that ASB is a complete and finished work of strategy.  It’s not and I’m waiting for someone to take the next step and define victory and begin matching strategy and force structure to the victory conditions.  Hmmm…..  sounds like another post about to happen!

For those interested, here's the link to the actual AirSea Battle document.



    1: archaic : teaching, instruction

    2: a : something that is taught
    b : a principle or position or the body of principles in a branch of knowledge or system of belief : dogma
    c : a principle of law established through past decisions
    d : a statement of fundamental government policy especially in international relations
    e : a military principle or set of strategies

    You are being unreasonable in your critique.

    AirSea Battle is an operational concept intended to spark serious debate and ultimately consensus about *doctrine,* not to create an operational war plan.

    Also, the US is attempting to preserve the status quo of commonly accepted international laws, and military balance. It does not fallow that the US has to “invade” any nation to maintain the status quo.

    JFC Fuller and later Heinz Guderian expounded on the doctrine of armored warfare; describing the challenges they were trying to solve, proposed the capabilities of forces (tanks, motorized infantry, etc.), how those forces would be organized and employed, and ultimately, potential enemy counters. These concepts ultimately evolved into Blitzkreig (sadly, the British and French ignored JFC Fuller). Note that none of these works described “victory conditions” or really set out a specific war plan, and certainly did not describe a particular enemy. In fact, they used theoretical case studies of generic tactical formations to illustrate their points. These men were writing to influence colleagues in the armed forces, who were no doubt aware which armies they might face on the battlefield.

    Likewise, AirSea Battle seeks to raise awareness of A2/AD problems likely to complicate US efforts to defend its allies/interests, describe what sorts of capabilities/forces are needed, and give some examples of how the US might employ these capabilities/forces.

    1. First, welcome aboard.

      Second, I'm not quite sure how to respond because I'm not sure what your point is.

      You state that my critique is unreasonable but you don't really state why.

      You mention legal issues but neither the ASB doc nor my post deal with that so it's not really relevant.

      The doc does, actually, present a moderately complete war plan and that is what I critiqued.

      You suggest that ASB is a concept intended to spark further discussion. I acknowledge that in my critique. Also, there are several different AirSea Battle concepts floating around. My critique was specifically about the CSBA version whereas you seem to be looking at this from more of a generalized ASB that the military has discussed publicly.

      I'd love to discuss this further but you need to give something more to respond to. What, specifically, do you think was unreasonable?