The Case for a Politically Correct Pentagon

Why we need to move from Air-Sea Battle to Air-Sea Operations.

Adam K. Thomas/U.S. Navy via Getty Images
Adam K. Thomas/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

As readers of Foreign Policy understand quite well, a popular concept in planning circles at the Pentagon today, especially within the U.S. Air Force and Navy, is Air-Sea Battle, a doctrine that focuses on preserving and protecting U.S. and allied access to the maritime commons around Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and other areas such as the South China Sea. This approach to future war is in part a response to the march of technology. It is also in part a response, surely, to the rise of China — a country bent on establishing greater control and influence over waterways to its east and complicating American efforts to dominate the seas the way it has for more than a half century. Although Iran and one or two other states provide some of the impetus for Air-Sea Battle doctrine, China is overwhelmingly the country with the resources and aspirations that has provoked this new American military doctrine.

Much of the thinking behind Air-Sea Battle is understandable, even desirable. Just as we should not be too surprised that China is developing advanced submarines, precision-guided ballistic and cruise missiles, and other capabilities to prevent the United States from treating the Western Pacific like the American lake it largely was in recent decades, China should understand our response. American access to the Western Pacific remains crucial for undergirding key alliances there and requires improvements in missile defense, antisubmarine warfare, communications system resiliencies, and other capabilities that better integration between the U.S. Air Force and Navy can help provide. Moreover, Air-Sea Battle is not unduly provocative in most of its substance, in that it is not associated with purchases of new types of strike systems, major weapons platforms, nuclear weapons systems or the like. Associated with America’s "re-balancing" toward Asia, now, it is actually intended more to preserve access and protect capabilities for the Asia-Pacific region from budget cuts than to present new offensive options for Pentagon planners.

There is however at least one way in which American doctrine can usefully change — starting perhaps with Secretary Panetta’s visit to the region this week. The concept of Air-Sea Battle, while largely sound on military terms and understandable as a way of ensuring important U.S. access to international waterways and areas around key allies, has become central enough in U.S. defense planning that it needs a more accurate and less provocative name.

It may seem curious to worry about semantics and political correctness when talking about military systems or plans for war. But in Asia, semantics count a great deal; on a recent trip there, I heard lots of complaints about America’s perceived efforts to contain China, with frequent reference to the so-called re-balancing strategy as well as Air-Sea Battle doctrine. And in dealing with a doctrine that many (rightly) see as spurred on by China’s rise, despite Pentagon protestations to the contrary, we should be sensitive about not treating military planning for Asia like preparation for the next Desert Storm. Unlike Iraq under Saddam, or the Taliban government of Afghanistan, China is not an enemy. Nor are we trying to contain China the way we sought to contain the Soviet Union, including through a doctrine of Air-Land Battle in the latter Cold War years — but the parallels in phrasing are unambiguous and for China, surely, foreboding.

While warfighting capability is naturally integral to any military operational concept, the phrase Air-Sea Battle emphasizes unduly the prospect of war. But to the extent it is a central organizing paradigm for U.S. military planning for the Asia-Pacific, it has other goals besides preparation for war — indeed, its very purpose is to help prevent war.

Rather than Air-Sea Battle, Air-Sea Operations would be a much better, more strategically sound, and more diplomatically fruitful name for the doctrine. That would encompass planning for war, to be sure, but would also include normal peacetime presence missions, posturing for deterrence, exercising with allies, positioning for crisis response, and indeed even cooperating with China in some activities. Put differently, our central paradigm for future force planning for Asia needs to have a name that we can expect China to accept, even welcome. Air-Sea Operations accomplishes this in a way that Air-Sea Battle cannot. Such a shift in terminology will also allow U.S. military officials and diplomats to acknowledge what is already obvious to the Chinese, yet often denied by Americans — that in fact Air-Sea Operations is largely designed to deal with the PRC’s rise, but in a way designed less to prepare for conflict than to reinforce regional stability.

Two more modifications are also in order. First, Air-Sea Operations should not be interpreted to presume a preemptive or even early campaign against targets on the Chinese mainland in the event of war. The logic of Air-Sea Battle, with its focus on preserving access, can and does lead military planners to think about attacking the bases from which China’s military could challenge and threaten American assets in nearby waters. This is a delicate line to walk, because the worthy and important goal of preserving access to international air and maritime domains near China’s shores will not be achievable if the Chinese mainland is indefinitely granted sanctuary in a future conflict. But at the same time, rapid escalation to include attacks against such targets risks general war and is far riskier than some have recognized to date. The right answer is not to ask U.S. and allied military forces to operate in harm’s way without defending themselves, but instead to look for indirect or asymmetric ways of responding to possible Chinese aggression that lowers the risks of such escalatory dynamics while still ensuring protection of core American interests.

The other change is this: Air-Sea Operations needs to move beyond a strictly Air Force and Navy concept. As these two services watched the Army and Marine Corps in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade, they rightly looked for a new concept of operations for the Asia-Pacific, but whatever the bureaucratic and historical origins of the idea, it is time to broaden it. This is not necessary simply to be ecumenical, or politically correct, by including the U.S. Marine Corps and Army (and possibly the Coast Guard too). Rather, it is because the other services have important contributions to make. No Army plan to spearhead an invasion of mainland Asia is needed or appropriate. But one set of smart changes would entail asking the Marine Corps, with its naval affiliations and expeditionary traditions, to prepare for possible defense of Navy and Air Force assets and installations in the broader Asia-Pacific region. Perhaps it will be necessary, in a future conflict, to help establish and secure protect bases in the Indonesian or Philippine archipelagos, or to help defend existing bases on Okinawa and Guam against special forces attack from a hostile adversary. Creating such a ring of military capabilities in defense of national territory and the territories of friends and allies, may be the wisest long-term response to a China that becomes hostile someday. And there is no reason to believe that isolated bases of the necessary type will be granted sanctuary or spared from attack by hostile forces under such circumstances.

As the Pentagon looks ahead to a new Quadrennial Defense Review in 2013, it needs a concept of strategy and a name for that strategy that works with rather than against the central goals of U.S. global security policy. Air-Sea Operations fits that bill.

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