Center for Strategic Communication

The U.S.S. Barry fires its MK-45 5-inch 54mm cannon during an exercise. Photo: U.S. Navy

In 2009, the Navy and the Air Force introduced a new concept for fighting called “Air-Sea Battle.”
Three years later, even Pentagon insiders are still completely baffled by it.

Popular consensus says Air-Sea Battle, or ASB, is one of the Pentagon’s plans to counter China, which is getting better and better at throwing up roadblocks for an invading force and eroding an aggressor’s ability to enter a contested territory. (The Taiwan Straits, for example.)

It’s true: China –along with Iran and North Korea — were obviously considered when the ASB concept was developed. But they are not explicit targets.

In fact, ASB isn’t even a doctrine or a strategy. It won’t produce a manual or a battle plan.

So what is it?

From a dozen conversations over the last nine months with defense officials, other reporters and gangs of think tankers here’s the best analogy I can come up with: ASB is a help desk for 21st Century warfare.

The ASB office is staffed with people who understand the capabilities of the Pentagon’s arsenal in intimate and exhaustive detail. Armed with that information, the ASB staff can concoct a solution for field commanders to coordinate against threats, be it against threats in the South China Sea, Strait of Hormuz or any other scenario on the planet.

Planes and ships from the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps move together in Exercise Valiant Shield 2006. Photo: U.S. Navy

Here’s an example: During 2011′s Operation Odyssey Dawn — the attack on Libya — ships in the port of Misrata were being fired on by regime loyalist small boat swarms and by a costal patrol craft. Air controllers on the nearby destroyer U.S.S. Barry scrambled the nearest aircrafts with any capability to deal with the threat. Those were a P-3C Orion sub hunter and a tank killing A-10 Thunderbolt II. It’s difficult to pick any two aircraft in the U.S. arsenal less likely to work in tandem. The P-3C is an aircraft that mostly acts as a reconnaissance platform on the open ocean geared toward detecting and killing submarines. It can be fitted with ground attack Maverick missiles, which are almost never used. The A-10 was built as a Soviet tank killer and until Misrata had never been used for fighting on water.

Controlled from the Barry, the pair quickly fought off the threat, likely without the benefit of the tactical data links common in most fighters.

The ASB office wasn’t involved in the Libya op. But the highly unorthodox Misrata air attack reflects what ASB will eventually do: fix the problem in front of you with the tools you have on hand or can get quickly.

However, popular consensus says ASB is the Pentagon’s plan to counter China; Most recently, the Washington Post made the assumption in his Thursday page one story on ASB.

The heads of the Navy and Air Force swear this isn’t true. But they’ve had trouble making this case — in large part, because they’ve been so awful at explaining ASB to the public.

In November, they made an attempt to allay confusion. About two dozen national security beat reporters, me included, were called to the ‘Gon to be briefed by members of the Air-Sea Battle office. A collection of unidentified officers faced off against a room of reporters that were struggling to understand.

“The Pentagon stressed that the office is ‘not about a specific actor, not about a specific regime,’” wrote Defense News Chris Cavas after the November briefing. ”Officials resisted efforts by reporters to link the effort to China’s rising capabilities.”

The Pentagon has been reluctant on the ‘for instances’ with ASB, with the understandable worry that a specific scenario would provoke China. But the lack of clarity on what ASB actually is having the same effect when general public writ large thinks it’s a secret China plan the Pentagon won’t acknowledge.

“The result has been an information vacuum that has sown confusion and controversy,” the Post’s Greg Jaffe wrote.

And though ASB isn’t specifically targeted at China, the Pentagon isn’t doing much to counter that view in the popular press or with the Chinese themselves, said former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James Cartwright in April at the Joint Warfighting Conference in Virginia Beach, Va. ”AirSea Battle is demonizing China. That’s not in anybody’s interest,” he said.

Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz said as much in May when asked how ASB would be used to counter China: “This inclination to narrow down on a particular scenario is unhelpful.”

But without greater clarification from the Pentagon the odds of conflating and misinterpreting ASB is high.

” To some, [ASB is] becoming the Holy Grail,” Cartwright said. “[But] it’s neither a doctrine nor a scenario and it’s trying to be all things to all people.”