Monday, August 27, 2012

AirSea Battle - What Is It?

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 China’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. 

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

Mines.  This is probably the biggest threat due to the cheapness of the weapon, the ease of deployment, and the presence of numerous chokepoints which are ideal for mine warfare.  I’ve seen estimates that the Chinese mine inventory numbers in the 100,000 range but who knows?

Subs.  While the Chinese submarine threat is not yet at a world class level, it is evolving rapidly both in numbers and expertise.  Again, due to the presence of relatively shallow water chokepoints and the presumed familiarity with local underwater features and conditions, submarines are a major threat.

IRBMs.  Intermediate Range 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 US has not figured out how to accurately detect and target small, moving ships at ranges of several hundred miles and I seriously doubt that China has either.  More serious is the threat posed by IRBMs to fixed land based targets such as harbors and airbases.

Aircraft.  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 US 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. 

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.  China 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.

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 US desperately needs an effective BMD for fixed bases. 

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?

There are only two platforms that can provide that kind of strike and really only one of those is probably survivable.  The Air Force B-2 bomber offers long range, stealthy, deep penetration strike capability.  However, given the incredibly small size of the B-2 bomber force (approximately 20 planes) and the sheer distances involved compared to the numbers of defenders, it seems unlikely that the bomber force could last more than a couple of sorties before attrition would render this option inoperable.  I see B-2s being used more as pinpoint strikers against extremely high value targets rather than general purpose strike against a multitude of less high value targets like airbases, docks, mine laying ships, fuel storage, etc.

The second, and far more survivable, long range penetrating strike platform is the guided missile submarine (SSGN).  The Navy has converted four of these subs from Ohio ballistic missile platforms to Tomahawk guided missile platforms carrying 154 missiles each.  These subs are virtually undetectable and would provide a large day-one pulse strike capability.  The only drawback is that there are only four of them and once their missiles are expended (rather quickly, one assumes) they have to return to port to reload.

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. 


  1. If the USSR was a Land / Air battle,
    China will be a Sea / Air battle.

    Its not a strategy, but a framing device.

    "For example, the way to deal with the aircraft threat is to attack the airbases rather than the aircraft in the sky."

    I try to avoid soliciting readers, mostly on account of the fact that most of what I type is ill thought out gibberish, but

    SSGNs (or just SSNs) to knock out the runways and taxiways, followed up by 2000lb penetrators to blow aircraft shelters, munitions bunkers and fuel silos.


    My only disagreement is more carriers, unless Congress overthrows 50 years of budgetary equality between the services and gives the navy 50-60% of the budget, more carriers will out compete for the required funds.

    1. TrT, remember that identifying capability gaps and the resulting requirements is only step one and it ignores fiscal constraints. We may, for example, identify a need for 40 new supercarriers but fiscal is going to raise its head. At that point, we need to identify alternatives and assess the balance between affordability and operational risk. Just because I've identified a gap/need doesn't mean that the need can or should be filled but it does need to be addressed in some fashion.

  2. Mine is a long one too.

    ASB is an attempt to articulate a turn to China without calling it a turn or even mentioning China. This is not entirely new. The United States Navy’s War Plans of the 1920-30’s had different scenarios for each of the major world powers; Japan’s was the famous War Plan Orange. Black was Germany and the U.K. had Red.

    What is new is that ASB is about as vague a plan can one can possibly be. It is not geographically specific and only points to the need to build up long-range assets like UCAVs and bombers. It makes the USN and USAF happy, and has alienated the Army.

    I agree with the ASBM/IRBM threat being a little overblown. We have yet to see one all-up test of their missile against a target barge at sea. And even when they succeed with that, they will have to develop the infrastructure, satellites, aircraft, and sensors to allow the targeting of a 30 knot CSG operating near Taiwan. At this rate, the USN will be prepared for the ASBM threat before it materializes, which is unusual.

    MCM is pitiful. Even if all the Angers and Ospreys were still in service we would need more. We have a total of two helicopter squadrons that are focused on MCM. Eventually the MH-60S Knighthawk is supposed to have a bolt-on MCM kit, but there have been problems with the blue-green lasers. In the 1990’s we had an old LPH dedicated to MCM. We need to take an old LHA, like the Nassau, and make it an MCM mother ship to the Avengers and MH-53s.

    The Air Force has demonstrated JDAMs dropped from bombers to have a limited ability to hit moving ships at sea recently. But I do not think many of the B-52Hs have Harpoon capability. During the Cold War all the B-52Gs had Harpoon, and demonstrated it frequently. The B-1 has the big bomb bays and rotary launchers for all sorts of heavy ordnance, why can’t Harpoon be added to their weapon load outs?

    If the Navy is serious about getting back into the blue-water realm versus littoral then they need to reconstitute ASW and anti-ship assets on existing platforms. From what I have seen in news reports:

    SSNs do not have encapsulated Harpoon as an option anymore and Flight IIA Burkes have “weight and space” for Harpoon to be installed, but never have been. USN Harpoons to my knowledge are mostly Block I with some Block IIs. What about the Block III? A rapid way to build up the Navy’s anti-ship strength is to “re-Harpoon” the fleet the way we originally “Harpooned” ships and subs in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

    Block IV Tomahawks need the upgrade to hit ships and not just land targets to make up what we lost with TASMs being turned into LACMs.

    Long term I know we need something better than Harpoon or Tomahawk for the ASuW mission, but reconstituting what all these assets originally had is better than waiting for the next generation of missile to one day be built.

    Subroc was also taken off SSNs in the 1990’s without the conventional Sea Lance replacing it. So if a Los Angeles or Virginia detects a target one or more convergence zones away, it can do nothing about it.Why?

    And not all DDGs have towed arrays, as they should.

    Every CIWS needs to brought up to 1B standard. And Mk-38 mod 2 mounts should be on more ships than just the few deploying to the Persian Gulf.

    All of this can be done now relatively cheaply compared to spending billions on ships we will not see for five or more years.


    1. I agree with 100% with your point concerning upgrading existing weapons to achieve immediate improvements. The Navy seems constantly to sacrifice existing weapons and platforms in favor of far-future and ever more expensive miracles of technology, most of which never pan out.

      The Burkes went through a period of decreasing capability (removal of Harpoon, towed arrays, and CIWS, for instance) which seems to have been due to cost concerns, primarily, as best I can tell. Apparently, the Navy is actively working on adding some of those capabilities back now. That's fine but it shows the screwed up thought process of Navy leadership that the Burkes, the active backbone of the fleet, should be allowed to atrophy while the LCS, for example, gets fully funded.

      Thanks for checking in!

  3. Not to pick nits - but its anti-access / area denial (A2/AD). Two distinct but inter-related concepts:

    1. Oops! Typo, brain fart on my part. Now corrected. Thanks! By all means, continue to pick nits. I try to hold myself to a high standard despite falling short on occasion, as you saw.

  4. In this sort of analysis it would probably be worth including the assets of our potential allies in such a conflict. The Japanese navy for instance has more then two dozen modern mine-sweepers in service, and their fleet is probably one of the world's best when it comes to ASW.

  5. Jrg, correct, but the last time we had mine problems, during the late eighties, we asked our allies for help and the delayed and said no and dragged their feet until a ship got hit outside the Gulf.

    If something big happens, and Japan is directly involved we can count on them.

    But we need to beef up our MCM capabilities.

  6. I don't agree that we necessarily need more aircraft carriers. The 11 CVNs we have planned are sufficient.

    I do think we need more carrier aircraft, since most of our CVW top out at around 65 aircraft - when the ships are designed to carry 85+.

    I think we need a lower-end, non-stealthy sea-control aircraft. An S-3 replacement that can do long-range ASW, tanking and ASUW.

  7. Just saw this on the web:

    Still doesn't shed much light on ASB. The authors state that part of the ASB is classified, which is a cop out. They argue that ASB "pre-integrates" air and sea forces before a conflict. I thought all the purple work of Goldwater-Nichols since the 1980's was supposed to allow the services to work together more seamlessly.

    I agree with need to regain what we lost with the S-3. A very flexible aircraft that if brought back either from the boneyard or new-build would allow a CVN to do ASW, ASuW, and AAR with better fuel tankage. It's wasn't glamourous but it got the job done. It's still a very good aircraft like the other design it shares the TF34 engine with: the A-10.



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