Small Wars

This Week at War: Can the Navy and the Air Force Get Along?

On a changing global battlefield, the U.S. military services will have to work together. 

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."

Finally, the United States will find itself on the losing side of marginal costs. It is much cheaper for "home team" continental adversaries to produce and field additional missiles and launchers than it is for the United States to acquire and deploy additional aircraft carriers, submarines, and air force bombers to the far side of the world. This explains why the Pentagon has always been keen to maintain its technological edge through high research and development spending; it is attempting to make up with quality what adversaries have often enjoyed in quantity. Even so, the cost of even hundreds of additional anti-ship missiles, which could swamp U.S. defensive schemes, is almost trivial compared with the cost of another U.S. aircraft carrier. Air-Sea Battle planners thus face some daunting challenges.

The first conflicts sparked by Air-Sea Battle will occur inside the Pentagon, as the services attempt to justify their weapons programs amid strained procurement budgets. In spite of Pentagon budget cuts, program managers hope to push forward on a new strike fighter jet, a new Air Force bomber, new ships and aircraft for the Navy, and numerous other systems. There won't be enough money to go around. When implementing Air-Sea Battle, top Pentagon leaders will need to make choices that deliver "the most bang for the buck." For example, the ancient debate between the Navy's aircraft carriers and the Air Force's long-range heavy bombers could resurface.

The new Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier, under construction in Virginia, is now expected to cost $15 billion (this figure excludes the cost of Ford's airplanes and escort vessels, which could total another $15 billion). For its part, the Air Force plans to buy up to 100 new stealthy bombers for $55 billion. The Ford's $15 billion price tag would pay for 27 of the Air Force's new bombers. According to one study, one of these heavy bombers could carry the bomb load of 10 of the Navy's new carrier-based F-35C strike aircraft. Five new bombers could equal the striking power of the Ford's entire air wing, with much greater range, and without risking the lives of thousands of sailors to missile attack (the F-35 has a combat radius of only 600 miles). Give $15 billion to the Air Force and the Pentagon can get the striking power of five Gerald R. Ford carriers. Even if the new bomber experiences wild cost overruns (the Air Force claims the new plane will use already-proven components and little new technology), this "bang for buck" trade seems compelling.

Navy officials will argue that the Ford, being the first in its class, will be the most expensive, with subsequent ships in the class becoming less costly. They will also argue that the Navy has extensive experience preparing for missile attacks and that a future carrier-based unmanned strike drone could greatly extend the carrier's striking range, further reducing the missile threat.

But the Navy's most important argument is that the aircraft carrier and all of the Navy's surface ships display U.S. military power in the Persian Gulf, in the South China Sea and everywhere allies need the visibly reassuring presence of U.S. military power. Stealth bombers and submarines, which by design are secretive creatures, are not capable of showing the flag. They thus have little visible value in supporting U.S. forward presence, the cornerstone of Washington's diplomatic and security strategy. Only the Navy's surface ships and fixed overseas bases -- increasingly vulnerable to missile attack -- do this job.

Schwartz, Greenert, and future top-level planners at the Pentagon will struggle against the structural barriers confronting the Air Sea Battle concept. It does not help that the Pentagon's budget could get cut by $1 trillion over the next decade while China's military budget may double by 2015. In the long run, the most visible symbols of U.S. power -- its fixed overseas bases and the Navy's surface ships -- may not be able to keep up against the missile threat. By contrast, the Air Force's long-range stealthy bombers and the Navy's submarines -- the secretive systems that provide the least visible support to the U.S. forward presence strategy -- will be the most powerful components of U.S. striking power.

The U.S. government deployed forces in South Korea, Japan, and Europe to supply stability and prevent conflict from starting. Stealth bombers and submarines may not be able to show the flag, but they can inflict punishment, presumably in retaliation, or threaten punishment in an attempt to deter conflict.

Should the proliferation of missiles overwhelm Air-Sea Battle's attempt to save the forward presence strategy, U.S. planners may have to fall back to a strategy of over-the horizon deterrence, enforced by survivable submarines and long range stealthy bombers. In this case, U.S. planners may opt to maintain a thin veneer of forward deployed military forces, mostly as a "trip wire," while withdrawing the most valuable and mobile units out of adversary missile range, to avoid having them trapped in a sudden conflict.

U.S. policymakers may find it difficult to keep allies reassured while they pull most of their forces out of missile range. Observers will also question whether out-of-sight submarines and bombers will be able to maintain stability as well as visible forward deployed forces did in the past. Such a strategy worked for strategic nuclear deterrence. Whether it could work for broader conventional deterrence is less clear. If it can't, the United States may need a dramatically new diplomatic and military strategy.

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

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