Sunday, April 14, 2013

AirSea Battle and the Pivot to Asia

In light of last week’s discussion about interagency cooperation in the military, a post about the impact of AirSea Battle (particularly when it comes to Asia) seems appropriate. 
Planes and ships from the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corp move together in Exercise Valiant Shield. 

Discussing the potential of AirSea Battle (ASB) requires first defining what it is. ASB was initially a classified—but frequently talked about—program of the Air Force and Navy that created a great deal of speculation. In the absence of other information, some commentators elevated it to a strategy specifically focused on China in accordance with the Obama administration's proposed "Pivot to Asia". Journalists and think-tank analysts speculated it would start with a strike campaign by long-range bombers and submarines deep into China to blind its defenses. This discussion has created significant strategic confusion for the United States.

The close connection assumed by some between the concept of ASB and the pivot became evident in 2011, when the parameters and intentions of the program were still classified. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) sought to clarify the discussion noting that the concept of ASB offers a "concept designed to maintain a stable military balance in the Western Pacific Theater of Operations, one that offsets the PRC's Liberation Army and their rapidly improving capabilities ... [They] have titled this concept 'AirSea Battle' in recognition that this theater of operations is dominated by naval and air forces, and the domains of space and cyberspace". (The full text of that paper can be found here). 

Photo: US Navy
According to the CSBA, AirSea Battle would allow U.S. forces to operate in the western Pacific against Chinese missile, air, mine, and submarine threats. The above referenced paper from the CSBA made the ASB concept the focal point of discussion for US military strategy against China and the combat systems that would be necessary to pursue such a strategy. However, over the last year and a half the Pentagon has retreated from its earlier position that ASB is targeted specifically at China. In May of 2012, Air Force chief of staff General Norton Schwartz stated that ASB is "not [designed] for any particular region of the world" and that it is intended to assure "access wherever our wide ranging strategic interests are located."

Despite recent efforts by the Pentagon to downplay ASB’s focus on China, many Chinese officials and policy-makers believe that ASB was created with China in mind and view it as an prematurely aggressive military strategy. As a result, U.S. Air Force and Navy leadership continue to reiterate that ASB is simply a concept to enhance cooperation and communication between the services. It seems like the hype surrounding the ASB since its inception has created widespread misunderstanding and concern among both allies and potential enemies. Questions remain not only about the intentions of ASB, but also about the political credibility and financial feasibility of the concept, which relies heavily on submarines and a future new bomber, rather than existing surface vessels.

The confusion surrounding ASB's original mission statement and implications distort the U.S.'s current approach and do not capture the nuance in the emerging US strategy and posture.Without a common and broad understanding of the basic strategy, it will be difficult to build and sustain the regional and domestic understanding and support that is necessary for that posture and strategy to be viable over the long term. The current geostrategic window of opportunity for the US may well close before it can sufficiently explain to the region what it is trying to do and how.

Before the United States seriously invests in the resources necessary to see AirSea Battle come to fruition, it must more clearly define ASB's purpose and intentions. AirSea Battle will remain incomplete without the enduring political and budgetary support and therefore it will largely be up to Congress to address the shifting balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region by capitalizing on the opportunity that ASB presents and properly investing in the capabilities necessary to project power throughout Asia. 

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