Foot soldiers march their way into new Air Sea Battle concept

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The Army is preparing to officially join the Pentagon’s “Air Sea Battle” operational concept, as the Defense Department shifts its focus from land operations in the Middle East and Europe to mostly naval and aerial activities in the Asia-Pacific region.

Along with the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, the Army soon will issue a memo that outlines how it will implement the battle plan, which seemingly excluded ground forces at its inception more than three years ago.

The Army’s inclusion should come as a relief to some of the service’s leaders and supporters who are concerned about a loss of relevance. The Army is absorbing the bulk of personnel cuts under a smaller defense budget, and the U.S. is pivoting away from Afghanistan and toward the Asia-Pacific.

Additionally, the Obama administration’s strategic guidance downplays the chances that the U.S. military would become engaged in a large ground conflict such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2009, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates directed the Air Force and Navy to develop a concept that would integrate air and naval assets and capabilities to defend against likely threats. The concept’s name — Air Sea Battle — had no mention of the Army’s chief domain: land.

“Let’s put it this way: Imagine that you had two sisters, and you believed they were planning something for your parents and didn’t tell you. How would you feel?” said Mark Gunzinger, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, which has designed its own air sea battle concept to inform the official one.

The Army’s exclusion at the outset wasn’t intentional, said Mr. Gunzinger, a retired Air Force colonel and former deputy assistant defense secretary for forces transformation and resources.

In fact, he said, the service has a large role to play in the concept, which is designed to counteract “anti-access, area-denial” challenges that could prevent or cripple U.S. military action inside global common areas — specifically air, sea, space and cyberdomains in the Asia-Pacific and the Persian Gulf.

Anti-access, area-denial

“The Army is going to be part of this too,” said a Defense Department official who briefed reporters on the Air Sea Battle plan in November. “We are actively seeking now to fold the Army in and on board so that we will be a four-service program on this.”

“Anti-access” challenges would prevent U.S. military entry to a region, and “area-denial” challenges would degrade its capabilities once inside a region. Together, these are known to military strategists as “A2/AD.”

Analysts say the challenges are not new to warfare, but the increasing sophistication of the weapons being developed, proliferated and acquired is. These include better long-range ballistic missiles, electronic and cyberwarfare techniques, integrated air and missile defense systems, increasingly capable submarines, surface warships, aircraft, rocket mortars, improvised explosive devices and weapons of mass destruction.

Pentagon officials say that Air Sea Battle is not directed toward China, but at the same time note the communist nation’s growing spending on long-range missiles that can attack aircraft carriers far out at sea, new stealth jet fighters, and the country’s first aircraft carrier, which was commissioned last week.

Officials frame Air Sea Battle not as a strategy or war plan directed toward a particular adversary, but as a blueprint for how the four services can better team up to defeat and deter threats to U.S. military autonomy.

Peter Bechtel, the Army’s representative on a defense department Air Sea Battle senior steering group, said the service can do a lot to counteract A2/AD challenges before, during and after a military flare-up.

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