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.

Army units stationed in East Asia and the Middle East are building good relationships with host countries and nearby nations that would permit the U.S. access to their territories in the case of armed conflict, he said.

Boots on the ground

The Army’s troops and integrated air and missile defense systems also would be the first line of defense in protecting those assets if naval and air assets are denied access into a region, Mr. Bechtel said.

The service also is working on how to move equipment quickly out of the Asia-Pacific, where it has several assets afloat in the Pacific and Indian oceans, he said. Soldiers also are working on how to operate in degraded environments, such as cases where the enemy knocks out U.S. communications systems.

According to Army figures, about 57,690 soldiers, reservists and Guardsmen are stationed in the Pacific, based in Japan, South Korea, Guam, Alaska, Hawaii, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands and the Philippines.

The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has developed a concept for anti-access, area-denial challenges in the Persian Gulf, where soldiers could face threats that make improvised explosive devices “pale in comparison,” Mr. Gunzinger said.

Guided rockets, artillery, mortars and missiles in the hands of irregular or proxy forces that could attack U.S. troops, bases and infrastructure in the Middle East could create a lot of damage, he said.

“IEDs are crude devices. You add guidance, and you add a little bit of range to those kinds of weapons, and it could create terrible havoc amongst our ground forces,” Mr. Gunzinger said.

The military has struggled to explain Air Sea Battle to the general public, making it hard for some Americans to discern what it is.

“We’re not going to communicate with them when we use concepts like Air Sea Battle, or A2/D2 [or] R2/D2,” said John Hamre, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Those aren’t concepts that Americans understand. Americans are trying to understand purposes and goals and directions.”

Pentagon planners say the concept is here to stay. In August 2011, the Defense Department opened the Air Sea Battle office to facilitate coordination among the services during the development, implementation and execution of the concept.

“Do I think Air Sea Battle has legs? The answer is yes,” Mr. Gunzinger said. “These threats aren’t going to go away.”

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