Understanding America’s AirSea Battle concept
August 27th, 2013
11:26 AM ET

Understanding America’s AirSea Battle concept

By Joseph Singh, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Joseph Singh is a research assistant at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) North America. The views expressed are his own.

Amid emerging chaos in Egypt, daily bloodshed in Syria and uncertainty over how Iran’s new president will handle nuclear negotiations with the West, the increasingly complex security environment in the Middle East has complicated U.S. efforts to undertake the fabled pivot to Asia. At the same time, fiscal woes dictate that the Pentagon prepare to do more with less, even in an environment where U.S. adversaries are finding increasingly cheap means of challenging the conventional instruments of American power projection.

These realities make it all the more perplexing that many defense analysts have dubbed the Pentagon’s new operational concept – called “AirSea Battle” – a plan to fight a war with China. In fact, AirSea Battle may very well be more about the Middle East than the Pacific.

According to the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, a publicly released report by the U.S. Defense Department analyzing military objectives and potential threats, AirSea Battle seeks to “address how air and naval forces will integrate capabilities across all operational domains – air, sea, land, space, and cyberspace – to counter growing challenges to U.S. freedom of action.” To be sure, these challenges to U.S. freedom of action are certainly most pronounced in China. But they’re present in the Middle East, too.

And ultimately, the proliferation of analyses associating AirSea Battle with a China contingency obfuscates the prime relevance of this operational concept to the Middle East, a region in which the U.S. is surely most likely to actually fight a war in the coming years.

Challenges to U.S. freedom of action abroad stem in large part from the proliferation of extended range weaponry and surveillance systems – primarily in the form of surface-to-air and land-attack cruise and ballistic missiles – which enable countries to hold at risk forward-deployed U.S. land bases and naval assets and push U.S. forces further and further from their borders.

More from CNN: China wary of Pacific focus

These capabilities – what military analysts called “anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD)” techniques – reflect attempts to use increasingly cheap and readily-available military technology to decrease the freedom of maneuver of U.S. forces in theaters around the world, and in turn, compel the U.S. to further retrench from adversaries’ backyards. With U.S. forces held at bay, adversaries can credibly demonstrate their ability to prohibit, or make very costly, U.S. military intervention and thus increase their coercive leverage over their neighbors. Syria and Iran are two countries that field formidable A2/AD capabilities, and in which U.S. forces may find themselves intervening in the coming years.

Indeed, Syria boasts one of the densest air defense networks in the world. With more than 130 SAM batteries concentrated near its coast, Syria’s SAM network provides robust, redundant coverage of its largest cities and important military sites. The missiles on its most advanced SAM system – the S-200 – have an effective range of 300 kilometers. Syria also possesses an arsenal of anti-ship missiles recently delivered from Russia, which recent reports indicate Israel’s air strike last month was unable to fully destroy. In the event of conflict, these systems could enable Syrian forces to hold at risk some of America’s air and naval assets. Non-stealthy fighters like the F-15E, whose deployment would enable the United States to quickly generate high numbers of sorties, would be particularly vulnerable at the outset of conflict. Likewise, naval vessels operating in the Mediterranean Sea would face difficulty penetrating Syria’s littoral region to support air strike operations.

Similarly, Iran also has a robust air defense network, composed of Russian-made and indigenous SAM systems, which could threaten nearby U.S. naval and air forces. Its arsenal of anti-ship missiles – which cover much of its southern coast – along with a stockpile of thousands of naval mines could deny access to U.S. naval forces in the narrow Persian Gulf. Similarly, its conventionally-tipped ballistic missiles enable it to threaten nearby U.S. bases, home to short-range fighter aircraft in neighboring Gulf countries. Both A2/AD tactics serve to push U.S. forces further from Iran’s neighborhood, and would complicate U.S. efforts to amass forces on its border before a strike, a strategy which has informed most U.S. interventions of the past two decades.

More from CNN: Expect strike in Syria

Neither the Syrian nor Iranian A2/AD threat poses insurmountable challenges for U.S. forces. But AirSea Battle provides a general framework for planning operations in situations where U.S. forces must operate at long distances from their targets. It involves rapid, long-range stealth strikes on command and control, communication and air defense assets deep in the adversary's territory to disorient, blind and prevent it from effectively mobilizing its forces. And it emphasizes tight integration between the Air Force and Navy, with operations by one protecting or permitting the freedom of maneuver for the other. Combined, both principles build on U.S. technological superiority in surveillance, targeting and stealth strike capabilities to overcome the anti-access/area-denial challenges posed by U.S. adversaries.

A strike on both Iran or Syria would demand tight coordination between the Navy and Air Force, where one service’s operations would facilitate the others. For instance, Air Force strikes against mobile anti-ship cruise missile batteries on Iran’s coast would prove crucial in allowing naval vessels to engage Iran’s fleet of fast-attack craft and conduct anti-mining operations in the Strait of Hormuz. Similarly, in Syria, Tomahawk missiles launched from Sixth Fleet vessels in the Mediterranean could conduct suppression of enemy air defense operations and precision strikes against high-value targets, which would enable fighter aircraft to more safely conduct operations in Syrian airspace.

Ultimately, AirSea Battle appears to reflect an understanding that current and future threats will not necessitate the large-scale interventions that have characterized the past decade. Potential military contingencies of the future – as in Iran and Syria – will involve precision strikes in pursuit of limited military goals: stopping the transfer of chemical weapons, disrupting a nuclear weapon program or imposing a no-fly zone.

None of this is to say that military interventions represent, or are likely to represent, prudent courses of action in either Iran or Syria. But prudency also dictates that defense planners prepare for possible contingencies in both cases. AirSea Battle is almost certainly more than simply a backroom strategist’s blueprint for winning a highly improbable war between the U.S. and China. It appears to be a concerted attempt by the Pentagon to prepare for the real and near-term security threats U.S. forces could confront in the coming years, most of which emanate from the Middle East.

Of course, relatively little has been said on record about AirSea Battle, and clarifying what the concept is really about would no doubt bolster stability in the Middle East. It will deter Iran, whose leaders may currently overestimate the strength of their A2/AD strategy, and it will re-assure America’s allies in the region, many of who see the Asia pivot (and associated discussion around AirSea Battle), as problematic for their long-term security.

In an attempt to assuage allies and deter adversaries in the region, Pentagon officials have made few changes to the U.S. force posture in the Middle East, and much of the promised military re-balancing towards Asia has yet to take place. Paradoxically, a more transparent acknowledgement of AirSea Battle’s applicability to the Middle East could free up forces needed to undertake the pivot. And it would make conflict less likely, too.

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Topics: Asia • Middle East • Military

soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. sand

    USA and Britain are so weak they are weak economically they have inferior technology and huge new powers are rising in Asia, China and India so USA cant stop the development of India or China so it seeks to stop Iran’s development and there also USA has failed Iran has a nuclear power plant today and is sending satellites into space this is a new game and in this new global game there are new rules so USA should s h u t u p and learn these new rules.

    August 27, 2013 at 11:58 am | Reply
    • Ricky

      The only global rule that all nations must follow is: Do What The USA Says – Period! The uSA is th eonly ture master of the current world.

      August 27, 2013 at 2:49 pm | Reply
      • John McKane

        Tragically enough Rick, you're only too right! The globe now faces a truly bleak future for that very reason! It's enough to make Polyanna want to cry!

        August 27, 2013 at 5:16 pm |
      • Lane

        Gee, Ricky, I'm really sorry your mom blew up.

        September 1, 2013 at 8:22 pm |
  2. vonrock

    Yes, we need to be everywhere and be able to destroy whoever and whatever when and if we want to.
    Especially if we don't get what we want or need to run our happy free country.
    But we won't need to because everybody loves our President and love to do what He thinks is right.

    August 27, 2013 at 12:40 pm | Reply
    • John McKane

      Gee vonrock, you must have been born an ignorant, Obama loving Tea Party member. Your post above is one of the most stupid ones I've seen here yet. Aren't you kind of ashamed of your ignorance?

      August 27, 2013 at 5:13 pm | Reply
      • rob

        @johnmkane "ignorant, Obama loving Tea Party member". you are an idiot. you obviously have no clue what the tea party is. stop talking on the internet because you make all Americans sounds dumb.

        August 30, 2013 at 5:04 pm |
      • rob

        @johnmkane "ignorant, Obama loving Tea Party member". you are an idiot. you obviously have no clue what the tea party is. stop talking on the internet because you make all Americans sound dumb.

        August 30, 2013 at 5:05 pm |
  3. George patton

    Thank you Phunnie boy, for not usurping my name this time. I appreciate the break.

    August 27, 2013 at 1:25 pm | Reply
    • vonrock

      Don't mention it, George. I do this to a lot of people as I am a supporter of the Tea Party Movement!

      August 27, 2013 at 1:27 pm | Reply
  4. mickster1

    I wonder if Syria could blackmail the USA and allies by threatening to turn it's abundant supply of never toxins over to islamists extremists in the event of any kind of USA/Allies attacks? Moreover, Syria has a robust air defense and supplies of anti-ship missiles (e.g P-800 Oniks) to threaten 6th fleet naval assets. Syria is also in a position to launch chemical weapons into Israel. A reasonable strategy seems to imply going slow and no shoot-from-the-hip cowboyisms. As always that part of the world is a volatile mix ready to go off.

    August 28, 2013 at 1:53 am | Reply
  5. j. von hettlingen

    Mr. Singh, I have a question, does Syria have a submarine fleet?
    For Syria's A2/AD capability, it has to rest on wide-ranging ocean surveillance to detect and locate approaching enemy forces. Primary A2/AD weaponry includes a large submarine fleet and land-based aircraft carrying anti-ship cruise missiles. How accurate are their anti-ship ballistic missiles to target moving ships?

    August 28, 2013 at 7:48 am | Reply
  6. vonrock

    Now we see where all out hard earned tax money goes, trying to find ways to murder, for lack of a better word, people mercilessly. In Washington, we now have an Elite gone mad at the prospect of conquering the world! In other words, Washington is now being ruled by a bunch of right-wing megalomaniacs. In the meantime, our economy continues to tank and Detroit went bankrupt is now languishing in$18B + in debt! This insanity makes me sick!

    August 28, 2013 at 5:01 pm | Reply
  7. Larry

    Looking at Israel's effortless penetration of Syrian airspace and unopposed attacks against military targets that one would suppose would be tightly guarded, its hard to accept that Syrias A2/Ad. defences are effective at all. It doesn't appear they were ever aware of the three or four Israeli attacks till they were over, or even fired a shot. One has to suspect any defence based on Russian tech, especially older tech, which Syria and Irans are.

    August 29, 2013 at 3:32 am | Reply
  8. rightospeak

    A very good article, which unfortunately overlooks the real dangers to the US and Israel. It looks like the Iranian and Syrian capabilities may be underestimated-a real danger. People that start wars are usually not very bright and to me it looks like we have a little kid playing with matches in the Middle East right now-not a healthy situation of peace , prosperity and Health Care for all in the US.
    To speak of war between the US and China is nonsense-none of us will survive it and I want to live a few more years, so I am definitely against it.

    August 30, 2013 at 10:37 am | Reply
  9. krehator

    The world can talk about us, but they still cannot defeat us.

    September 2, 2013 at 4:01 am | Reply
    • globeharmony

      Unless America wants its citizens to self contain in its continent, time will come when Americans would be afraid of carrying their passports in countries they have raised wars.

      Raising war killing more innocents is not the solution for resolving conflicts. Imagine the respect America would get if the trillions being spent on humanity and helping the poor in the world instead of on past self inflicted wars.

      Fear will always be with warmonger.

      September 3, 2013 at 11:17 am | Reply
  10. DR STEVE RAMSEY- CANADA

    ALOOO USA SHOULD STRIKE LONG TIME AGO YOU DONT GO AND TELL YOUR ENEMY YOU GONE STRIKE THIS DATE IT IS STUPID WHERE IS THE TACTICS AND SURPRISING ELEMENTS THAT ARMY TEACHES YOU...SYRIA ALREADY MOVE ALL THE WEAPONS AND CHEMICAL BOMBS HIDING IT IN LEBANON WITH HEZBOLLAH SAFE HOUSES, AND ALSO HIDING THEM WITH THE SHIIA MOSQUES SAFE HOUSES CALLED HUSSAINIA PLACE AND ALSO IN THE OFFICERS HOUSES AND HOMES , SOME OF THE JETS ALREADY HIDDEN AND SOME WENT TO IRAQ AND LEBANON SOME TO RUSSIAN SHIPS....SO USA WILL ATTACK EMPTY BUILDINGS AND SOME ARMS AND CAMPS.....USA SHOULD ATTACK HEZBOLLAH BASES IN LEBANON IF THEY WANT TO DESTROY SYRIA EVIL ARMY AND IF IRAN WANT TO INVOLVE IT IS BETTER TO HIT 3 BIRDS IN ONE STONE ONCE AFTER ALL THOSE EVIL MUST GO...,

    September 8, 2013 at 10:44 pm | Reply
  11. DR STEVE RAMSEY- CANADA

    shia Iran cult government Iraqi almaleki shia government Syria shia thugs along with Hezbollah stole billions and killed more than 1 million Sunni kurds and Christians already those evil thugs killed 1444000 in Syria alone..and usa are silent!!!!!!!!!!!!attack them now before it is too late Syria sent most of the weapon to be hidden with Hezbollah and Iraqi shia wake up usa...

    September 9, 2013 at 8:51 pm | Reply
  12. Robert frank

    As an American i have no problem bringing all our military resources home or to where they are welcome.
    That goes for the billions in aid,the trillions in military hardware etc. Let these countries who despise us find there own peace if that's what they seek. But rest assured a war will find its way back to us,and in turn we will be brought back to where we are now.

    December 4, 2013 at 12:39 pm | Reply

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