Breaking the Kill Chain
How to keep America in the game when our enemies are trying to shut us out.
Our military services and national security leaders are consumed right now with reductions to defense budgets. Whether from years of continuing resolutions, sequestration, or just less funding in general, our military will have to adjust to getting fewer dollars to protect our nation's security interests. At the same time, the world continues to present challenges to U.S. interests, including instability in North Africa and the Middle East, regular provocations from Iran and North Korea, and territorial disputes between China and its neighbors. Our military will need an affordable and effective approach to counter coercion and assure access to places where conflict is most likely and consequential.
The caps established in 2011 by the Budget Control Act place defense spending at the same level as the early 2000s. This level of funding was sufficient to organize, train, and equip a force able to defeat Saddam Hussein's military, deter Chinese aggression against Taiwan, and occupy Iraq and Afghanistan. But our fiscal situation is different today. Personnel and infrastructure maintenance costs have risen by double-digit percentages since 2003 as our services took on new missions, such as defending allies from ballistic missiles and countering piracy and illicit trafficking. Meanwhile, our competitors are more capable than a decade ago thanks to proliferation of weapons and other military technology. Less funding will compel us to reprioritize our efforts and make some hard choices with respect to the size and shape of our forces. This does not mean we will be unable to address our nation's security needs, but we will need to focus our investments and operations on our most important interests.
The Defense Strategic Guidance issued in January 2012 assessed our security environment and fiscal circumstances following the first set of BCA-imposed budget reductions. Although we are reevaluating that strategy in light of potential additional cuts imposed by sequestration, one of the most significant challenges the strategy identified remains a concern: the dedicated effort by some nations and groups to prevent access to parts of the "global commons" -- those areas of the air, sea, cyberspace, and space that no one "owns," but upon which we all depend. These "anti-access" strategies employ military capabilities, geography, diplomatic pressure, and international law to impede the free use of ungoverned spaces. The Air-Sea Battle concept -- which disrupts the so-called "kill chains" of our potential adversaries -- is our services' approach to negate these efforts.
Our military services and national security leaders are consumed right now with reductions to defense budgets. Whether from years of continuing resolutions, sequestration, or just less funding in general, our military will have to adjust to getting fewer dollars to protect our nation’s security interests. At the same time, the world continues to present challenges to U.S. interests, including instability in North Africa and the Middle East, regular provocations from Iran and North Korea, and territorial disputes between China and its neighbors. Our military will need an affordable and effective approach to counter coercion and assure access to places where conflict is most likely and consequential.
The caps established in 2011 by the Budget Control Act place defense spending at the same level as the early 2000s. This level of funding was sufficient to organize, train, and equip a force able to defeat Saddam Hussein’s military, deter Chinese aggression against Taiwan, and occupy Iraq and Afghanistan. But our fiscal situation is different today. Personnel and infrastructure maintenance costs have risen by double-digit percentages since 2003 as our services took on new missions, such as defending allies from ballistic missiles and countering piracy and illicit trafficking. Meanwhile, our competitors are more capable than a decade ago thanks to proliferation of weapons and other military technology. Less funding will compel us to reprioritize our efforts and make some hard choices with respect to the size and shape of our forces. This does not mean we will be unable to address our nation’s security needs, but we will need to focus our investments and operations on our most important interests.
The Defense Strategic Guidance issued in January 2012 assessed our security environment and fiscal circumstances following the first set of BCA-imposed budget reductions. Although we are reevaluating that strategy in light of potential additional cuts imposed by sequestration, one of the most significant challenges the strategy identified remains a concern: the dedicated effort by some nations and groups to prevent access to parts of the "global commons" — those areas of the air, sea, cyberspace, and space that no one "owns," but upon which we all depend. These "anti-access" strategies employ military capabilities, geography, diplomatic pressure, and international law to impede the free use of ungoverned spaces. The Air-Sea Battle concept — which disrupts the so-called "kill chains" of our potential adversaries — is our services’ approach to negate these efforts.
A new form of coercion
Nations seeking to intimidate their neighbors are turning to anti-access strategies because they are cost-effective. Merely threatening to close key maritime crossroads such as the Strait of Hormuz or demonstrating the ability to cut off a country from cyberspace or international airspace can be an effective tool for regional and international coercion. Similarly, these capabilities can be applied to prevent or slow U.S. or allied assistance from arriving in time to stop or repel an attack — providing an aggressor much greater leverage over neighbors who depend on allies for security.
Three well-known developments made this shift in our competitors’ strategy possible. One, the world economy has become more interconnected, so impediments at air or maritime chokepoints have a much faster global impact. Two, technological advances in sensing and precision have spurred the development of more lethal air defenses and anti-ship cruise missiles; cheaper, more integrated surveillance systems; and new weapons, such as anti-ship ballistic missiles. Improvements in automation have made these systems easier to use while proliferation has put them in the hands of a range of potential new adversaries. And three, the American way of projecting force changed from placing bases and garrisons close to potential battlefields to a more expeditionary strategy whereby a smaller overseas presence is supported by forces that can surge into the area from hundreds or thousands of miles away.
In history there are numerous examples of anti-access capabilities and strategies. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the "Desert Fox," used aircraft, gun emplacements, and mines during World War II to disrupt access to France during the D-Day landings at Normandy. Mines were used in the Arabian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq "tanker war" of the 1980s to hinder the passage of both countries’ oil. Serbian forces and Saddam Hussein each employed Cold War-era air defenses in an attempt to deter intervention by NATO and a U.S.-led coalition respectively. Anti-access strategies have always been employed to increase the cost of intervention beyond an acceptable level and show potential victims of aggression that help is not likely to come. Today, however, anti-access capabilities have much greater range and lethality. And they are typically employed as part of an overall strategy in peacetime alongside legal, diplomatic, and geographic means to deny access even before a conflict occurs.
Anti-access strategies also undermine our ability to stabilize crises. Suppose an aggressor threatens to attack a country within range of its anti-access military capabilities. If we cannot reliably defeat the aggressor’s array of cruise and ballistic missiles, submarines, aircraft, etc. and project power, U.S. forces will be less able to move into the area to interdict attacks, reassure our allies, and defuse potential hostilities.
The Air-Sea Battle concept
The Air-Sea Battle concept, approved by the secretary of defense in 2011, is designed to assure access, defeat anti-access capabilities, and provide more options to national leaders and military commanders. Air-Sea Battle is one of the operational concepts nested within the overarching Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC) — the Joint Force’s approach to defeating threats to access. Air-Sea Battle is not focused on one specific adversary, since the anti-access capabilities it is intended to defeat are proliferating and, with automation, becoming easier to use. U.S. forces need a credible means to assure access when needed to help deter aggression by a range of potential adversaries, to assure allies, and to provide escalation control and crisis stability.
Some examples of where Air-Sea Battle may apply include the Arabian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz, where a favorable location provides Iran the ability to threaten the production and passage of almost 20 percent of the world’s oil. If Iran can demonstrate or credibly assert that it can prevent or slow a U.S. response to its aggression, it is more able to coerce its neighbors or the international community. In the eastern Mediterranean, the government of Syria has deployed an array of modern anti-air missile systems to raise the costs of outside intervention in its ongoing civil war. And in the Pacific, North Korea has already demonstrated its willingness to employ anti-access capabilities with the sinking in 2010 of the South Korean ship, Cheonan.
Air-Sea Battle is not a military strategy; it isn’t about countering an invasion; it isn’t a plan for U.S. forces to conduct an assault. Air-Sea Battle is a concept for defeating threats to access and enabling follow-on operations, which could include military activities as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster response. For example, in the last several years, improved integration between naval and air forces helped us respond to floods in Pakistan and to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
Normally, operational concepts are developed by commanders to carry out a specific set of actions in their area of responsibility. In contrast, the military services are using JOAC and Air-Sea Battle to guide their efforts to organize, train, and equip forces provided to operational
commanders. Further, we are integrating these concepts into the tactics and procedures we develop to operate with our allies. This is similar to the effort in the 1980s to implement the "Air-Land" Battle concept and associated NATO concepts to defeat Soviet aggression in Central Europe. That effort resulted in programs such as the JSTARS radar aircraft that we still use to track targets on land. And while Air-Land Battle was focused on a singular threat and region, the idea of using a specific operational concept to guide investment is the same approach we are taking with Air-Sea Battle.
Breaking the "kill chain"
Air-Sea Battle defeats threats to access by, first, disrupting an adversary’s command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems; second, destroying adversary weapons launchers (including aircraft, ships, and missile sites); and finally, defeating the weapons an adversary launches.
This approach exploits the fact that, to attack our forces, an adversary must complete a sequence of actions, commonly referred to as a "kill chain." For example, surveillance systems locate U.S. forces, communications networks relay targeting information to weapons launchers, weapons are launched, and then they must hone in on U.S. forces. Each of these steps is vulnerable to interdiction or disruption, and because each step must work, our forces can focus on the weakest links in the chain, not each and every one. For example, strikes against installations deep inland are not necessarily required in Air-Sea Battle because adversary C4ISR may be vulnerable to disruption, weapons can be deceived or interdicted, and adversary ships and aircraft can be destroyed.
U.S. forces need not employ "symmetrical" approaches to counter each threat — shooting missiles down with missiles, sinking submarines with other submarines, etc. Instead, as described in the JOAC and Air-Sea Battle, we will operate across domains. For example, we will defeat missiles with electronic warfare, disrupt surveillance systems with electromagnetic or cyberattacks, and defeat air threats with submarines. This is "networked, integrated attack" and it will require a force that is designed for — and that regularly practices — these kinds of operations.
Building a truly "joint" force
Conducting operations across domains requires rapid and tight coordination between air, ground, and naval forces — a level of integration well beyond today’s efforts to merely pre-plan and deconflict actions between services. This integration can’t be achieved effectively and efficiently on an ad hoc basis. Forces must be "pre-integrated" — before the fight begins. This compels us to work more closely as we develop and prepare our forces.
Today, for example, instructors from the Navy’s "Top Gun" school routinely train with their counterparts at the Air Force Weapons School. As part of Air-Sea Battle we are pursuing this type of inter-service cooperation between all the services, as well as within each branch of each service. Just as in tactical aviation, we are expanding our doctrine integration to include additional areas of collaboration — such as Army air-defense forces and Marine reconnaissance units. With the doctrine, procedures, investment, and training included in Air-Sea Battle’s initiatives, we are moving from cooperation toward integration across domains. To foster integration we are directing an intensified approach to building common procedures, complementary budgets, combined exercises, and joint war games.
An essential prerequisite for cross-domain operations is communication and data links that connect sensors, decision-makers, and shooters armed with kinetic, electromagnetic, and cyber weapons. Our investments, guided by the Air-Sea Battle concept, are building increasingly robust networks able to communicate between each service’s platforms, even in a contested electromagnetic environment. Part of this effort is focused on the systems and procedures for Joint Tactical Networking to connect today’s aircraft and ships with new 5th generation aircraft, such as the F-35 and F-22.
Two recent tests advanced our efforts to promote Joint Tactical Networking. In the first, an Air Force F-22 provided updated targeting information to a Navy submarine-launched Tomahawk missile. Similarly, in September 2012 an Army Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) ashore successfully guided a U.S. Navy SM-6 surface-to-air missile to intercept an incoming cruise missile, demonstrating the ability to extend the range of an Aegis-equipped ship to well beyond the horizon and over land. These examples show how integrating capabilities from multiple services and domains combine to provide greater range and more options for commanders.
We cannot forget, however, that the enemy gets a vote. Electromagnetic jammers and decoys are becoming less expensive and easier to obtain, and they can emit more complex signals. Our communication networks will need to be resilient and redundant. We are investing together in new waveforms that are resistant to jamming while also building systems that can back up traditional satellite communications. Through the FY 2013 Air-Sea Battle Implementation Master Plan, our services will continue to pursue communication network improvements through technology development, war games, and the operational alignment of our Air and Maritime Operations Centers around the world.
By improving our integration, we improve our combined capability to assure access without expensive new investments. A more efficient and effective force will provide a starting point for evaluating how and where we should address potential reductions in future defense budgets.
Keeping up the momentum
We continue to implement the Air-Sea Battle concept in three main ways: compelling institutional change, fostering conceptual alignment, and promoting programmatic collaboration.
Compelling institutional change. The Air-Sea Battle concept establishes a "new normal" for integration between services so they are able to conduct successful cross-domain operations. This approach will require breaking down traditional service and community paradigms. Each of our services and each of the communities (e.g., fighters, bombers, submarines, surface ships, satellites, cyber operators, patrol aircraft, etc.) within our services have decades of established tactics, procedures, and traditions that may not align with each other. We will have to eliminate some of these differences to become a more integrated force able to operate across domains. For example, fighter aircraft may be used as surveillance platforms to support submarines attacking air defenses, or submarines may operate remotely-piloted aircraft to support Marine special forces attacking a radar.
This change will take sustained effort. We established a joint Air-Sea Battle Office (ASBO) with representatives from each service to lead day-to-day implementation of the concept. The ASBO sponsors war games and simulations, assists with service-level doctrinal changes, and advises on budget decisions. Most recently, in December, the ASBO hosted 150 personnel from all four services for the 2012 Air-Sea Battle Implementation Working Group. Representatives from U.S. Central and Pacific Commands, as well as their supporting components, played prominent roles during the discussions. The working group made significant progress in solidifying the habitual relationships Air-Sea Battle will require between the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps.
Fostering conceptual alignment. The ASBO promotes incorporation of Air-Sea Battle concept elements in service concepts and assures the Air-Sea Battle effort stays consistent with and supports the overarching Joint Operational Access Concept. For example, Air-Sea Bat
tle was incorporated into each of the services’ war games during 2012. The Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Warrior (March), Army’s Unified Quest (June), Navy’s Global (August), and Air Force’s Unified Engagement (December) included objectives that explored Air-Sea Battle as a way to meet anti-access challenges. The Air-Sea Battle focus increased with each successive game, culminating with Unified Engagement 12, a "table-top" wargame including about 300 participants from a dozen nations. This was the first Air-Sea Battle war game to include participation by our treaty allies. Allied participation will remain a priority going forward, with the intent of influencing multinational military concepts, tactics, and doctrine.
Promoting programmatic collaboration. The ASBO assesses service programs and budgets and recommends specific solutions to address Joint Force shortfalls against anti-access challenges. To most efficiently deliver solutions, the ASBO’s specific programmatic recommendations are coordinated between the services. Starting with the FY 2010 budget, application of the Air-Sea Battle concept has resulted in tangible investments to deliver the integrated, cross-domain capabilities required to defeat modern threats to access. Over the past two years these investments included the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile; Navy electronic warfare systems, such as Ship Signals Exploitation Equipment; and new data links for our fighters.
As part of its assessments, the ASBO is identifying redundancies across the services that can be eliminated. These efforts will be important as our resources become more constrained. For example, in the FY 2013 budget our services proposed reductions in Global Hawk unmanned vehicles, Air Force strike fighters, and Navy surface combatants. We will use the Air-Sea Battle concept to help integrate our force further and maintain our capability in the face of smaller budgets.
A challenge we can’t ignore
Some will argue the United States can afford to retrench and "reset" following more than a decade of war, with decreasing resources and without an existential threat such as the Soviet Union. We don’t have that luxury. Anti-access threats erode confidence in the freedom of the global commons that underpins our global economy. Nations are fielding and directly threatening their neighbors with anti-access systems. And potential aggressors are using these capabilities to assert that they can slow or prevent a U.S. response in order to undermine confidence in U.S. security guarantees.
The United States must sustain its capability to assure access when needed to counter these trends. Our services will continue to increase the integration of our training and improve our coordination in developing doctrine, operating concepts, new capabilities, and investment plans. We will need, however, the support of our partners in Congress and the Office of the Secretary of Defense to ensure this integration is implemented in our budgets and strategies. Through our combined efforts, Air-Sea Battle will assure continued U.S. freedom of action and with it our ability to deter aggression, maintain regional stability, dampen crisis, and assure our allies and partners.
More from Foreign Policy
Stop Falling for Russia’s Delusions of Perpetual Victory
The best sources on the war are the Ukrainians on the ground.
Could Sabotage Stop Putin From Using the Nuclear Option?
If the West is behind mysterious fires in Russia, the ongoing—but deniable—threat could deter Putin from escalating.
While America Slept, China Became Indispensable
Washington has long ignored much of the world. Beijing hasn’t.
The World Ignored Russia’s Delusions. It Shouldn’t Make the Same Mistake With India.
Hindu nationalist ideologues in New Delhi are flirting with a dangerous revisionist history of South Asia.