Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Air/Sea Battle Revisited, Fads, and the Future of Warfare

As we know, the military (and Navy) has no actual military strategy for dealing with China.  Instead, they substitute technology for strategy and, occasionally, toss out operational concepts which become passing fads.  Do you recall the hype and craze about Air/Sea Battle (ASB) from a just a few years ago?  It was all the rage for a while but we haven’t heard a peep about it for some time now.  It came and went.

To refresh your memory, ASB, as articulated by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment think tank, envisioned a long, drawn out roll back of the Chinese Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) zone in what amounted to a battle of attrition.  Aside from the inherently losing nature of a battle of attrition when you don’t have superior numbers, ASB offered no actual victory conditions and didn’t suggest what to do after the roll back had been achieved.

Flaws aside, ASB was the hot operational thinking for few years.

ASB was published in May 2010.  The astute military observer might wonder why a think tank was publishing military strategy that the military immediately latched onto?  Are our professional military leaders incapable of formulating their own strategy and have to use a civilian think tank’s offering?  The answer, of course, is a resounding yes!  Our military lacks any semblance of strategic thinking.

Moving on, in Oct-2013, the House Armed Services Committee’s Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee held a hearing on AirSea Battle (ASB) with a panel of senior uniformed leaders from each of the services (see, “AirSeaBattle Testimony”). (1)  The hearing was striking for the utter lack of planning by the military and culminated with Congress asking the military leaders what our military strategy was.  The resulting blank looks and silence was proof our professional leaders incompetence.  But, I digress …

In January of 2015, the Pentagon announced a major ASB development.  They announced that they were renaming it to Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (JAM-GC).  And … that’s pretty much the last we heard of it.

So, ASB arose from out of nowhere, was enthusiastically embraced by the military, and, in the space of some four plus years … vanished.

This illustrates the fad-ish nature of our military strategic thinking.  Let’s examine that fad-ish tendency a bit closer.

Do you recall the fad that came before ASB?  That’s right, “littoral”.  Starting in the early 2000’s, all naval warfare was going to take place in, and be solved by, “littoral” combat ships.  Yes, the LCS the key to winning wars and would render all other ships obsolete.  Well, we know how that turned out.  LCS aside, when was the last time you heard discussions of “littoral”?  Yeah, that’s pretty much died out unless it’s trotted out to justify another LCS purchase.

Do you recall the fad that came after ASB?  That’s right, distributed lethality which popped into existence a few years ago, around 2016 or so.  Distributed lethality, whereby cargo ships, amphibious ships, and, according to the Navy, anything that can float, will be armed with a few anti-ship missiles and sent into enemy territory alone to wreak havoc and rain destruction down of a bewildered enemy, totally confused and operationally paralyzed by the multitude of targets.  Of course, even distributed lethality talk has been dying down of late. 

So, we went from Littoral to Air/Sea Battle to Distributed Lethality.  Each was guaranteed to be the key to the future of warfare.  Three “futures of warfare”, all in the space of around 14 years, as seen in the brief time line below.

2002 – Littoral

2010 – Air/Sea Battle

2016 – Distributed Lethality

Where are we now?  Well, we noted that even the distributed lethality talk has been dying down.  What’s taking its place?  Why, the F-35, of course!  The next “future of warfare” is the F-35 – the magic plane that will leisurely make its way, unseen, through enemy air space while simultaneously acting as an all-seeing, all-knowing AWACS, guiding missiles launched by ships or airborne missile trucks, providing ECM support to the battlefield, conducting close air support for ground forces, directing unmanned UAV wingman aircraft, and achieving a kill ratio of … well, infinity because the F-35 can’t be shot down!  The F-35 will change the face of warfare as we know it, proponents claim, rendering all previous operational combat concepts obsolete.  Yeah, I think it’s safe to say that the F-35 is our current fad.  Of course, history says that this fad will pass in a couple of years to be replaced by some new, hot concept.

So much for our professional warriors with a clear and consistent philosophy, huh?



  1. USN strategic thought concerns budgets, operational thought concerns congressional manipulation.

    "55 Days at Peking" contains more strategic thinking than the whole USN apparat.

    1. "USN strategic thought concerns budgets, operational thought concerns congressional manipulation."

      I think I slightly understand your first point but I'm completely lost by the second. I think you've got the germ of a good idea but it didn't come across. Would you like to expand a bit?

    2. Great movie +1!


    3. ""55 Days at Peking" contains more strategic thinking than the whole USN apparat."

      Any particular bit of wisdom you got from the movie that you'd care to share with us?

    4. ""55 Days at Peking" contains more strategic thinking than the whole USN apparat."

      "Any particular bit of wisdom you got from the movie that you'd care to share with us?"

      I think the point was not that the movie offered such great insight, but that the Navy has none.

  2. Well the new news on the F-35 does suggest it will have to be "leisurely" since it seeming cannot fly at top speed w/o damage.

  3. I think the issues with the fads is once the hype fades, reality tears it apart.

    Instead of attempting to be trendy, why hasn't the strategy of the late 80's been reexamined? Have we fallen so far that we can't use it as a template for our current situation?

    1. The larger and more important issue is not what specific strategy (80's or otherwise) can we use but why our professional military leadership is unable to elucidate a coherent, lasting strategy and then build our force towards that strategy. If I were SecDef, I'd be firing every flag officer in every service for their utter inability to construct a viable, lasting strategy.

  4. The latest fad is unmanned surface vehicles, which plays off distributed lethality. When you hear Navy Leadership talk about the "possibilities for use being endless" and that they are still coming up with great ways to employ them, be very afraid. Navy wants to spend north of $4B for things with no more requirement than LCS had in the beginning. Classic systems in search of valid requirements. Congress is right to say "get back to me when you can clearly convey why they are needed and what they are supposed to do, because we can't figure it out from what you've said."

  5. Well there is another strategy coming out from It's called Continuous Long Operational Weapon Nonuse. Apparently the side better able to CLOWN has quantitative and qualitative edge over its adversary. ;)

  6. I found a quote recently about the Battle of Savo Island that I think may be apt. I wasn't able to find the original copy of the source, but its origin is a memorandum to CINCPAC with the subject Comment on Hepburn Report. Admiral Turner says:

    The Navy was still obsessed with a strong feeling of technical and mental superiority over the enemy. In spite of ample evidence as to enemy capabilities, most of our officers and men despised the enemy and felt themselves sure victors in all encounters under any circumstances... The net result of all this was a fatal lethargy of mind which induced a confidence without readiness, and a routine acceptance of outworn peacetime standards of conduct.

  7. Navy officers share a common strategy. Get promoted. The up-or-out rules mean that people who like being in the military are forced to become ever more expert at getting promoted, and this occupies their minds fully.

    Furthermore, since the people making the decisions on who gets promoted are also in the same situation, a rank or two higher, there's a systematic tendency to build conformity. So you get a structure composed of officers who want to keep the system running as it is, because that's what they know how to deal with.

    This is fairly normal for a military that's had an extended period of peace. The Army and Marines have seen some action in the last couple of decades, but the Air Force and Navy have not. They've dropped a lot of bombs, but they have not really been challenged.

    The situation is very comparable to the British Empire around 1900, when the Royal Navy hadn't been challenged for decades. They had a radical reformer in Jackie Fisher, and still managed to mess up the beginning of WWI quite significantly.

    The things the USN of 2020 has worse than the RN of 1900 are the lack of a radical reformer (so far), and the sad fact that war happens much faster these days. A few months for taking losses, falling back and getting organised, as the RN did in both World Wars, and the USN in WWII, probably aren't available.

    1. It does seem like Congress is pushing for reform

      And separately I noticed everyone but the Air force seems to using warrant officers more to retain technical specialist so they don;t jump to industry

  8. You know...

    If 'Deep Blue' (or 1 of its descendant) can defeat world's best human Go player, and the latest version can even defeat its human opponent in a strategic game...The future is not that far away that AI can iteratively simulate/learned to be the supreme Sun Tzu.

  9. I would note that each of those phases is not an operational strategy but an acquisition justification mantra.

    1. Quite right. We've substituted technology for strategy and procurement for planning.


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