In Secretary of Defense Gates’ speech to the Air Force Academy cadets a few weeks ago, he continued his tour of blunt speeches to the services by outlining the hard realities these soon-to-be officers would face. The mention of a shrinking budget received some groans. The expanded use of UAV platforms, large numbers of cargo missions, and personnel recovery sorties may have invoked some panic. The cadets probably felt pretty good about Gates’ mention of the 2,400 F-35s on the way. But what seems to be drawing the least amount of attention in his speech so far are the implications of the Air Sea Battle Concept (ASBC).
The concept itself is over half a century old, as it was originally used in the North Atlantic where B-24 bombers were used to target German U-boats before they could sink ally supply ships. Gates believes the ASBC can do for America’s military deterrent power now what the Air Land Battle Concept did at the end of the 20th century. To categorize it, Gates said “think of naval forces in airfield defense, or stealth bombers augmented by Navy submarines.” However, the ASBC intends to go beyond deterrence. In contrast to the 2001, 2006, and 2010 QDR where China is referred to as a close competitor, it names China as a “pacing threat” and seems to signal a move away from the management of China’s peaceful rise. Efforts to keep military tensions low in order to prevent a new arms race may be have been pushed aside as the ASBC is now “actively and publicly planning, training, and equipping a joint air-sea force to confront even something as benignly described as a pacing threat” and implicitly challenges China’s military (PLA) influence in Asia. The strategy looks like this:
- Air Force counter-space operations would blind PLA space-based ocean surveillance systems to prevent the PLA from targeting Navy surface assets, providing the Navy with operational freedom of maneuver.
- Navy Aegis ships would supplement other missile-defense assets in Air Force forward bases in the Western Pacific.
- Long-range penetrating strike operations would destroy PLA ground-based, long-range maritime surveillance systems and long-range ballistic-missile launchers to expand the Navy's freedom of maneuver and reduce strikes on U.S. and allied bases. Concurrently, Navy submarine-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and strike support against PLA integrated air defense systems would pave the way for Air Force strikes.
- Navy carrier-based fighters' progressive rollback of PLA manned and unmanned airborne ISR platforms and fighters would secure the forward operation of Air Force tankers and other support aircraft. This would require the Navy to rethink its current inventory of missiles, jammers, and decoys.
- Air Force aircraft would support the antisubmarine warfare campaign through offensive mining by stealthy bombers and persistent non-stealthy bomber strike support of Navy ships conducting distant blockade operations.
For those who worry about the US’s lack of response to China’s military growth, development of anti-ship missiles, and the J-20 stealth jet, the ASBC should provide some comfort. Naming names is controversial, as it has the potential to produce unwanted friction and many skeptics of the ASBC will surely note it. But calling China a threat doesn’t mean we will go to war tomorrow or ever. It tells the Chinese military that we know who their anti-ship missiles, stealth fighters, and growing military influence in Asia are targeting. And the US will continue to pursue countermeasures to any potential threat’s anti-access and area denial capabilities to maintain our preponderance strategy in the Pacific.