Air Sea Battle: The Pentagon's Poorly Understood Playbook for Countering China

I flew into Hickam Air Force Base outside Honolulu last week. If you ever make the flight yourself, take a close look at some of the older buildings. You will notice something interesting: pockmarks and battle damage still visible from the Japanese attack in 1941. I’d seen a similar phenomena played out on a much larger scale during my Iraq deployment in the bombed out hangars found at nearly every major Forward Operating Base in that country – legacies of American-led air campaigns in 1991 and 2003.

And now, on a smaller scale, in Hawaii. Within eyeshot of one another, F-22 Raptors and the evidence of strafing and bombing runs by propeller-driven Japanese aircraft more than 70 years ago. Reminders that the United States has been committed to a deceptively volatile Asia-Pacific region by treaty, economic interest, and real estate for more than a century.

Today Camp Smith, located just down the highway from Pearl Harbor, is home to U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) – the “combatant command” responsible for orchestrating U.S. military operations in the Pacific region in the same way CENTCOM does in the Middle East. PACOM manages military exchanges and alliances through the region, and plans for threats ranging from piracy in the Strait of Malacca to the kind of periodic North Korean saber-rattling that is now capturing headlines around the world. It also factors centrally in recent discussions of any U.S. foreign policy “pivot” towards Asia – it would play an integral role in any potential China-U.S. confrontation. In the Pentagon, public debate and diplomatic statements are followed closely by contingency planning. Everyone needs a purpose in life, and the DOD is no different.

The present relationship between the U.S. and China is complex to say the least. On one hand, China’s economic rise over the past three decades was made possible largely by U.S. investment and access to its domestic market. U.S. companies have taken advantage of Chinese labor and the U.S. Treasury has found a tremendous lender in China, to the chagrin of many in the U.S. on both counts. At the same time, some trends portend future strains on the relationship. China’s military is eager to assume a more prominent role on the global stage, and has become increasingly provocative in disputes with its neighbors, perhaps most notably in the Sendaku islands which are claimed by Japan.

Enter “Air Sea Battle” doctrine (if you think “Air Sea Battle” sounds like an Atari game that never took off, that’s because it was. I checked.), known in military jargon as “ASB.” While you will never hear any official source publicly acknowledge it, this doctrine is widely believed to serve as the playbook for the military component of the Obama administration’s much-publicized “pivot” towards Asia as the war in Iraq has finished and Afghanistan is winding down. The question is, does “ASB” consist of a 21st century “War Plan Orange,” the pre-World War II contingency which governed a then-hypothetical war with Japan, with a new focus on war with China instead? Or is it simply a new approach to integrating military assets and communications technology?

The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), the think tank integrally involved in the doctrine’s creation, published a document in 2010 entitled “Air Sea Battle: A Point Of Departure Operational Concept.” It states plainly that the U.S. has a problem in the Pacific:

“The U.S. military today faces an emerging major operational challenge, particularly in the Western Pacific Theater of Operations (WPTO). The Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) ongoing efforts to field robust anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities are threatening to make US power projection increasingly risky and, in some cases and contexts, prohibitively costly.”

As you can see, the document very clearly states that Air Sea Battle was designed with countering China in mind. It features Pacific time-distance charts, graphs entitled “Ranges of PLA Missiles and Strike Aircraft,” and even has a picture of China straddling the globe on its cover.

In essence, the document argues that in the unfortunate event of any future conflict with China the U.S. would face the specter of a massive early wave attacks ranging from the use of surface to surface missiles, anti-satellite weapons, cyber warfare, and other methods of sabotage aimed at denying the U.S. the ability to effectively conduct military operations in the Pacific. China would attempt to deny the use of aircraft carriers, Japan, Guam, or even Vietnam as regional bases for the U.S. in the manner it used Kuwait in 2003 or Saudi Arabia in 1991.

It seems those bombed out Iraqi hangars made as much of an impression on the Chinese military establishment as they did on me.

I spoke with the PACOM Public Affairs office during my time in Hawaii in an effort to gain some insight into the significance of this new doctrine (calls to the Pentagon’s “ASB Public Affairs Office” were met only with a “voice mailbox full” message). PACOM provided me the following statement from a previous interview given by its commander, Admiral Samuel Locklear, which stressed that ASB is not a strategy focused on any particular adversary, but rather a concept for modern military operations:

“…where we have made investments in (producing) tremendous weapon systems and link architectures and interoperability between Services…and leverage them best to address these which I refer to as anti-access area denial (A2AD) threats.”

Cyber security has rightfully come to occupy the concerns of security planners in recent years, to the extent that the Pentagon created a full-time Cyber Command in 2009. I inquired also about the implications of cyberwarfare in the Pacific Theater, amidst increasing allegations of cyber warfare emanating from China. I was provided the following candid statement from Admiral Locklear on the threat posed by cyber warfare, also taken from an earlier interview:

“This particular theater because of the tyranny of distance is heavily reliant on cyber, heavily reliant on space, heavily reliant on assurance of access to cyber and space…Now I think we are a little behind already and we are making steps as a joint force to catch up…But I believe we now understand the problem and we have a way ahead. We just have to be hopefully fast enough with it to stay ahead of how fast the cyber world is changing.”

An old Army buddy of mine gave me a guided tour of the many sprawling military installations on Oahu during my stay. We’ve known each other for ten years, and my truck company convoyed his unit’s containers and equipment to the heart of Mahdi Army territory in east Baghdad when we were deployed. He didn’t have much to say about the “Asia Pivot.” His unit is much more focused on their upcoming deployment to Afghanistan and on the impact of sequestration-related cuts to their training budget. At the end of the day, my friend explained, units still rotate through the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, CA. And they still deploy to Afghanistan.

Lieutenant Colonel DeDe Halfhill, a spokesperson for PACOM, offered a similar assessment of the impact of sequestration at the strategic level. “PACOM will prioritize all resources to ensure our continued commitment and obligation to the region. We will continue to meet our security commitments in the Asia Pacific, and work with our security partners to further harness the increased capacity many nations now have due to their commitment to collective security.”

Another Schofield Barracks Army officer I met during my time in Hawaii replied very simply when asked if he was familiar with Air Sea Battle.


It seemed that he was similarly too focused on an upcoming deployment to Afghanistan to have paid much to attention to the debate which has surrounded the development of this new doctrine or any pivots in American foreign policy away from the wars that have been the focus of his entire Army career.

I rented a car one day and drove up to Oahu’s northern shore, world-famous for its massive waves and slightly less so for its massive Mormon Temple. Along the way, I stopped to pick up a hitchhiker. He was wearing a tattered Army ACU top, so I figured he was an Army vet.

He was ex-Navy, it turned out.

He had been stationed at Pearl Harbor, and stayed behind when his time was up. Unfortunately for him someone had stolen his wallet and phone the previous night, which was how he met me. But he had a pretty good idea who the culprit was. He insisted that his response would be non-violent, consisting merely of some “rattled cages.”

In Hawaii, as the wheels of geo-strategy turn, life goes on. Next stop: Guam and the specter of North Korean nuclear provocation in paradise.

Author: The Blue Route

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