The Air-Sea Battle was the product of both U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy thinking. It has since evolved into a major and controversial construct for projecting force through air and missile power using both land and sea based systems. The stated intent was to use this concept as a means for evaluating the strengths, weaknesses and gaps of the joint air-naval force in order to coordinate these capabilities better and serve as a future blueprint for technological development.
But the concept became caught up in the Obama administration's "strategic pivot" to Asia. As a result, few outside the Pentagon now believe that Air-Sea Battle was anything but an unsubtle message to China that the U.S. would use military force in the Pacific as a counter weight to China's military expansion. In military lingo, the threat was defined as an "anti-access, area denial capability" directed against American power.
Air-Sea battle does however have direct application to the Persian Gulf and Iran's potential ability to cut off that crucial waterway denying oil to slate the global thirst for petroleum.
However, the PLA (Peoples' Liberation Army) regards Air-Sea Battle as a serious and direct challenge to China and is developing both new and older systems to counter that strategy. Air independent propulsion diesel submarines (AIP) that can remain submerged in excess of a week and are quieter when running on battery than their nuclear sisters and maneuvering ballistic missiles armed with conventional warheads largely invulnerable to current air defenses are among them. Meanwhile the U.S. or any force remains vulnerable to the effects of electromagnetic pulse (EMP) generated by a high altitude nuclear explosion that would "fry" many of the electronics and computer systems on which American operations vitally depend.
The debate over the vulnerability of warships to air power is nearly a century old. Culminating in 1923 after a series of staged-managed demonstrations pitting bombers against vulnerable floating targets, Army Air Corps Brigadier General Billy Mitchell's aircraft sank the stationary and unprotected battleships Virginia and New Jersey. Mitchell declared that the battleship era was over and aircraft carriers and aviation were the forces of the future. Nearly two decades later, the attacks on Pearl Harbor made carriers the Navy's main battery as the behemoths anchored in Battleship Row went to the bottom.
To the Navy, the carrier remains the service's main battery. And the Air Force has always made the case for strategic bombing and the ability of air power to prove decisive in war. To be fair, while World Wars I and II could only be won by demolishing the enemy's armies and in 1945 occupying the defeated states, the Afghan experience in 2001 showed how precise airpower in conjunction with largely irregular forces could prove decisive in routing an enemy. Of course, China, and for that matter Iran, do not field only irregular forces.
In this debate, history and anecdotes can make virtually any case. In my own naval experience, two results of at sea war games and exercises that allowed "free play," i.e. few operational restrictions, were near certain. First, the submarine always got away and second, the carrier got sunk. Of course, no U.S. aircraft carrier has been sunk in battle since World War II.
The larger point is that if vulnerability at sea were not an issue, what could even a few hundred conventional air and missile strikes do to affect China? Yes, much of the Chinese Navy could become hors'd'combat. But what deterrent or operational impact would that have on a country of nearly 1.4 billion people that could mobilize millions of soldiers and whose tolerance to pain and loss is probably much greater than ours?
A sounder strategic alternative would be to contain China's military power geographically to prevent it being from deployed or used at a distance. The Sea of Japan and Taiwan straits would be exceptions. Both islands are truly large and largely impregnable aircraft carriers.
In this debate, we must remember that for too long, U.S. military strategy has relied on mass and money. Ultimately, we overwhelmed the enemy or lost as in Vietnam or did not prevail as in Afghanistan and Iraq. And while spending our way to victory in World War II worked, barring another world war, that largesse has limits.
This time around, we need to think, not spend our way clear of danger.
Harlan Ullman is Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business and Senior Advisor at Washington D.C.'s Atlantic Council and Business Executives for National Security. His latest book, due out this fall is A Handful of Bullets: How the Murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Still Menaces The Peace.