CSAF, CNO attempt to demystify Air-Sea Battle

The chiefs of the Air Force and Navy go on the record and explain DoD's elusive "concept."

So enough with all the Zen koans, the circular logic, the tautologies and the buzzwords — just what the hell is Air-Sea Battle?

Why, the chiefs of the Air Force and Navy were glad to answer that question, in language even a human being could understand, in a packed auditorium Wednesday morning at the Brookings Institution.

Air-Sea Battle, they said, is about inter-service interoperability; avoiding duplicative programs; and exploring new ways to achieve old effects. In practical terms, that means the Navy and Air Force need new, common data links; it means they shouldn’t pursue similar weapons or platforms — and should actively collaborate on the ones they do acquire; and it means they need to start fresh in the way they think about battlefield problems.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert gave an example that made hacks’ and audience members’ eyes pop: Why not use a submarine to suppress an adversary’s air defenses, and why couldn’t it do so without a cruise missile — say, electronic countermeasures or cyber-attack? He did not go into any more detail about this, even when pressed.

And that brings us to the first lingering problem with defense officials’ attempt to sell their long-beloved Air-Sea Battle as a panacea for 21st century defense planning — they can never give open-source audiences the full picture about exactly what’s involved. (We talked about this just this week with the Air Force’s hopes for its B-52 upgrades.) So could Greenert’s sub eliminate the bad guy’s air defenses permanently, or just blind them for awhile? Does the sub need to stay offshore to keep doing it, or can it come and go? Why would it make more sense to devote an important asset like an attack sub to this mission, rather than letting a cruise missile or a strike aircraft handle it? Can the Navy do this today, or is this something Greenert wants five years from now? Or 10 years?

Normies can’t get enough of these details to form the full picture. That’s why, so often in the past, service chiefs or other presenters have had to say things such as: “Let’s say you’re a fish. Air-Sea Battle is the water.” Or: “Let’s say you wanted a fine glass of merlot. Air-Sea Battle is the crystal goblet in which I serve you that wine.”

To their great credit, Greenert and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz stayed mostly away from that kind of rhetoric on Wednesday, though Greenert did repeat that Air-Sea Battle is a “framework.”  For his part, Schwartz gave perhaps the best explanation anyone has yet offered about the vision here:

“We’re not thinking about things in the ‘airman’ and ‘sailor’ stovepipes anymore,” he said.

The ultimate goal is for service planners to solve problems agnostic of the logos on the units involved. Schwartz returned to the Air Force’s new favorite example of this — an F-22 that re-targeted a Tomahawk cruise missile in mid-flight, after it had been launched from a Navy submarine.

Greenert offered another example: Suppose an Air Force E-3 Sentry AWACS aircraft could share its tracks with a Navy E-2 Hawkeye, and vice versa — “What a concept,” he said — and Navy and Air Force fighters, bombers, patrol aircraft, ships and unmanned systems could all talk to each other seamlessly.

The net effect would be that if the bad guy drew a “keep out” line designed to target, say, an aircraft carrier strike group, that wouldn’t matter, because other American forces could still cross that line and achieve their goals in a different way. Instead of Navy carrier aircraft striking a target, even perhaps a maritime target, a stealthy Air Force bomber sneaks through and attacks it with a new standoff weapon. Instead of Air Force pilots strapping on their F-35s and screaming over the nap of the earth to strike a surface-to-air missile site, Greenert’s offshore submarine zaps it long enough for Air Force B-1s to pass over, say hello to their targets, and then get out of there.

Which brings us to the second problem with Air-Sea Battle: It sounds tremendous — “Transformers” made real — but just the technical challenges of implementing anything like it will be daunting, and doubly so in Austerity America. Look at how much time, money and effort it has taken DoD to acquire the Joint Tactical Radio System, or to consolidate and upgrade its computer networks, and now bolt that level of effort onto the entire subsurface, surface, air and space fleets of the Navy and Air Force.

The problem is compounded by the U.S. military’s dependence on access to satellites. Schwartz acknowledged that for most of the modern era of warfare, the U.S. could use space almost with impunity, but it’s going to be a “contested domain,” if it isn’t one already, and that threat could ruin all those PowerPoint slides in which everything is connected by little lightning bolts. There are ways to deal with this: Making satellites more “resilient,” he said, and exploring “high flyers,” such as airships, that could serve as relays for some signals in a pinch. A line of high-altitude airships over the Pacific, for example, could be easier for American forces to defend and might be able to handle some of the bandwidth all this inter-connectedness will require.

There’s also a human challenge: Imagine being the Navy surface warfare officer who spent her career getting ready for a pitched battle at sea, devoted years of training to turn-and-burn gunfights with swarming attack craft, and secretly yearns for a chance to say: “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” Now the brass tells you that your job is to park your cruiser off Guam with your air defense radars energized, just in case there’s an attack on the airfield there. Or you’re in the crew of the upgraded B-52 we heard about this week, but you don’t ever get to say “Bombs away!” Your job is to patrol a grid square of nothing but ocean, looking for “fishing trawlers” and dropping sonobouys.

That isn’t to say these and every other servicemember won’t follow orders and do their utmost — clearly, they will. But the changes in roles of the magnitude that Greenert and Schwartz seem to want could face major resistance from the “tribes” involved, in Greenert’s phrase. That’s why it’s so important to “institutionalize” the links between the light and dark blue services now, both chiefs argued, so they’ll be in place in the event of a conflict and won’t need to be built “ad hoc” only to be abandoned again.

Many members of Wednesday’s Brookings audience walked away with a much clearer understanding of what Air-Sea Battle is, but no closer to understanding how, or whether, DoD can achieve it.