In a recent column, I discussed how the Obama administration's new defense strategy resurrects former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's vision of a high-tech and networked military using slimmed-down manpower to operate advanced hardware. Sept. 11 and a decade of counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan tripped up Rumsfeld and his plans. But President Barack Obama's pivot to Asia has brought Rumsfeld's vision back and with it, shifts in resources from the Army and Marine Corps to the Air Force and Navy.
This week, Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force Chief of Staff, and Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the Chief of Naval Operations, explained how they plan to work together to achieve the responsibilities the new strategy thrusts upon them. In an essay for The American Interest titled simply Air-Sea Battle, Schwartz and Greenert explain the justification and goals of the new warfighting concept that goes by that name. They succeed in explaining how Air-Sea Battle attempts to support "forward presence," the fundamental U.S. diplomatic and military strategy over the past seven decades. They also explain why close coordination between the Air Force and Navy, the underlying feature of the concept, will be essential during an impending era of Pentagon budget austerity.
Since World War II, the United States has pursued a steady strategy of maintaining military forces in the western Pacific, Middle East, and Europe, around the periphery of Eurasia. In the early decades of the Cold War, this "forward presence" of U.S. power was there to protect U.S. allies from what was believed to be an expansionist Soviet Union. After the Cold War, U.S. policymakers continued forward presence to provide regional stability, prevent arms races from breaking out, and to keep open the sea lanes and "global commons" that world trade has counted on. But with the U.S. military capacity to continue that policing coming under question, military planners devised the Air-Sea Battle concept, a smarter and deeper integration of Air Force and Navy capabilities, in an effort to reinforce the long-standing U.S. forward-presence strategy.
However, the Schwartz and Greenert essay only hints at the stiff challenges Air-Sea Battle is expected to overcome. These challenges raise fundamental questions over long-standing military assumptions, portend more friction between the military services, and create doubts about whether the United States will be able to sustain its forward-presence strategy.
Military strategists began work on the Air-Sea Battle concept when it became clear that the development of long-range precision missiles threatened the ability of Navy surface ships and non-stealthy U.S. warplanes to operate in the sea lanes and airspace where the U.S. military has roamed freely for decades. Participants in the global trading system have long assumed that the U.S. Navy and Air Force would keep shipping lanes and air traffic routes open in the western Pacific, Indian Ocean, and around the Middle East. But potential adversaries like China, Iran, North Korea, and even non-state actors like Hezbollah are now acquiring very capable anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles, calling that assumption into question.
Equally important for the United States is the viability of its forward-presence strategy. The forward positioning of U.S. military forces in East Asia, Europe, and the Middle East has provided credibility to Washington's post-World War II alliance system. But a growing surface-to-surface missile threat could turn those forward-deployed U.S. troops into hostages rather than assets. And the "anti-access/area denial" threat posed by anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles could prevent U.S. commanders from supplying, reinforcing, or moving deployed forces forward during a conflict.
As Schwartz and Greenert explain, their goal is to create synergies and better cooperation between the Air Force and Navy in order to respond to these challenges. For example, in last year's military campaign over Libya, Tomahawk cruise missiles, launched from Navy ships, suppressed the Libyan air defense system and cleared a path for NATO strike aircraft. Likewise, in some situations long range Air Force early-warning aircraft could protect Navy task forces better than the Navy might be able to do on its own.
At the theater level, U.S. combat headquarters like Pacific Command or Central Command will improve war plans with Air-Sea Battle lessons in mind and establish training exercises to test out those concepts. And at the Pentagon, Schwartz and Greenert discuss how the Air Force and Navy will coordinate procurement to achieve Air-Sea Battle objectives. For example, the Air Force and Navy can make sure that their joint purchases of systems such as the Global Hawk reconnaissance drone, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, electronic warfare systems, and space hardware are coordinated with Air-Sea operational goals in mind.
All sensible enough. But despite these measures, the structural challenges posed by adversary missiles remains immense. When the United States is going up against adversaries on the Eurasian landmass, these continental adversaries will enjoy home-court advantages over U.S. expeditionary forces. Precision ground attack missiles may make fixed U.S. bases in the region untenable. The remaining naval and air forces will necessarily operate at the end of vulnerable trans-ocean supply lines and with a limited set of basing options. Adversaries by contrast will have many more basing choices and will be close to their logistical support.
Next is the problem of finding the adversary's missiles. Modern ballistic, cruise, and anti-aircraft missiles operate from truck-mounted launchers, which can move around, hide, and then return to action somewhere else. In 2006, the Israeli air force had difficulty finding Hezbollah mobile launchers while searching a relatively compact area in southern Lebanon. In a hypothetical conflict against China or Iran, U.S. reconnaissance assets would have to search very wide areas, including inside cities and residential areas. With current technology, the "finders" will struggle against the "hiders."