AirSea Battle Observations
The following are my own observations on the recent AirSea Battle concept report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, with authors Mark Gunzinger, Andrew Krepinevich, Jim Thomas, and Jan Van Tol. I have probably left out a lot for the sake of space but here are several thoughts after reading:
The New Battleships
Planes will wear out faster than ships, which can be repaired and sent back into the fight. Missiles will be easier to build and replace than fighters.
Even if every US aircraft carrier was sunk or driven into port, there would still be numerous surviving TLAM submarines and surfaces ships to take the fight to the enemy, as pointed out:
Upon warning, US and Japanese AEGIS ships would proceed to pre-assigned BMD stations…US and allied submarines would move to forward stations and commence ASW operations (including operations inside the First Island Chain and ASW barrier operations along the Ryukyus island chain and across the Luzon Strait).
US SSGNs and selected SSNs, allied submarines, and other undersea strike systems would be positioned in Chinese littoral waters for ISR, support for joint strike missions (e.g., SEAD), and missions against undersea infrastructure targets.
Carriers would remain out of this initial struggle, except to support the Aegis ships, which is an astounding role reversal:
Particularly high-value units such as carriers would remain or move beyond the PLA’s A2/AD threat range and operate in accordance with appropriate operational deception precepts to avoid attack.
The authors assume forward bases such as Guam will be temporarily immobilized. So, we are reinforcing these bases at great expense why?
The conflict is characterized as a “scouting battle”, which is typical in warfare, yet with satellites, ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) planes and other forms of information gathering necessary to initiate the PLA’s anti-access weapons, plus the US counterstrike weapons, on a scale unparalleled. Still, the gathering of intelligence is mindful of the Japanese and US carrier pilots seeking one another in the grey skies of the Pacific, with varied results. Another new factor would be each side seeking to “blind” the other, with anti-satellite weapons, and perhaps even EMP technology. All told, it will be the first “space war”, and the battle could be won or loss in these initial stages, whoever maintains an advantage in intelligence.
Finally, if US and ally suppression operations are even modestly successful in reducing the PLA’s ability to conduct optimum salvo missile strikes on friendly forward bases, this reduces the stress on allied missile defenses, further complicating the PLA’s problem — and raising its costs…The attrition of PLA ISR battle network components over maritime areas would be crucial to neutralizing the Chinese ASBM and long-range air- and submarine- launched ASCM threat to allied surface ships.
Carriers would possess a new role in intercepting enemy ISR aircraft. Plus E-2 aircraft could be used to assist targeting for BMD ships (more here). I wonder why AWACS planes wouldn’t be more helpful since they are not bound by vulnerable forward-based platforms? The flattops’ traditional role (by Cold War standards) of land based strike would be delayed until it is reasonably safe for the to do so.
The challenge for the Chinese defense would be to keep Western counter-strike assets from attacking their missile sites and airbases. This is why the anti-access missiles attacking carriers and forward bases are so important. In other words, the Chicoms don’t want what happened to Saddam Hussein to happen to them. So, you negate airpower’s ability to perform.
The aircraft carriers would be easy to counter, principally because of their short-range bombers. Of greater concern to the PLA are USAF bombers, cruise missiles from submarines, and perhaps stealthy UAVs.
War Under the Sea
I think the report glosses over the problems of 21st century anti-submarine warfare, and the extent the Red submarines would inhibit naval relief efforts in the Western Pacific, except to say:
The ASW sub-campaign by contrast would be much slower. It would therefore be the pacing sub-campaign in terms of enabling US and allied operations closer to China’s littorals.
Concerning the use of allied subs, I thought the following statement a logical call for the deployment of AIP or conventional boats to increase numbers:
For reasons elaborated upon below, while submarines are generally the most lethal ship killers, their
small numbers and payloads, as well as their allocation to other priority missions, limits their employment in anti-surface warfare operations, save against very high-value targets.
And further down:
Whereas US submarines sought to destroy Japanese merchant shipping wherever it could be found, and operated close to Japan almost from the start of the Pacific War, in AirSea Battle US submarines would be assigned other, higher-priority missions as described above.
Meaning, no matter how capable our nuke boats are, they can only be in once place at a time. I don’t think 30-40 boats for the US, or 8 for the UK is enough, and these are the numbers we are headed for.
One problem faced by the modern American nuke mariner in ASW: his boat was designed to defeat very large, very noisy Soviet submarines in the Cold War. Even toward the end, a very easy, or at least manageable problem. His new adversary, the d/e boat is exactly the opposite–quiet, small, very stealthy. In this case could the hunter actually become the hunted, because in wargames over the years, this has actually happened?
The report places a premium on mines and UUVs to defeat Chinese subs, because of their short range and dependence on ports. Again, long range airpower comes into play, with USAF bombers and Navy patrol planes joining the fight against the new U-boats.
I am a little troubled by the lack of a clear ASW strategy in the AirSea Battle plan. Convoy, the only historically successful counter to the world’s most prolific ship-killer is ruled out from the beginning. The idea of choke points and using hunters to chase these most elusive targets was also a failure in these wars, as was the use of large warships to hunt submarines. During the Cold War the Navy planned to sail aircraft carriers into the Soviet sub bastions, right into their safe areas, and destroy them with carrier-based ASW aircraft. This “Charge of the Light Brigade” strategy mercifully wasn’t revived here, but I would not doubt some air-minded admiral isn’t thinking “just leave the subs to us”! Make the Chicoms’ day, right?
Offensive mining appears particularly attractive, given its comparatively low cost and the difficulty and time-consuming nature of countermine operations. However, these capabilities — armed UUVs and mines — will likely need to be deployed almost exclusively from submarines, as they represent the allies’ only highly survivable maritime asset during the conflict’s early stages. Given the theater’s enormous size and the submarines’ comparatively small payloads, establishing effective minefields near all PLA submarine bases would require a prolonged effort if submarines alone were assigned the mission.
I’m not saying offensive mining won’t work, matter of fact its sounds intriguing, but lets be sure about our strategy, putting it on the front burner. Twice the West has been surprised by the abilities of the U-boats to lay waste to our merchant assets, and with cruise missiles and nuclear power, now matches the reach and speed of our most powerful warships. Lets consider from the outset that we aren’t where we need to be in terms of capability. Yes, time to panic. Concerning ASW, it is OK to plan for the worse case scenario.
Long Range Strike
I get the impression any PLA attack on Taiwan might be like the 1973 Egyptian crossing of the Suez canal. The point there was to deny the Israelis the ability to use their overwhelming conventional capability through the use of missiles, AA guns, and a defensive stance. In the same spirit, the Chinese would seek to defeat USA suppression tactics (SEAD), so successful since Desert Shield, through an overwhelming use of missiles. If the enemy bypasses that shield they would be at the mercy of US countermeasures from Japan based strike planes, and naval assets.
Almost certainly the PLA could gain only local superiority, but that would be enough for her gains and hurt the US severely in terms of attrition of weapons, as well as politically.
I also think it interesting the authors point out the need for distant blockade, as yours truly has referred to. The USN or its allies currently have too few assets IMHO to initiate proper control in such a mission.
The allies’ most effective operation could be a distant blockade of China. Whereas the United States has a major asymmetric advantage in that it would be able to maintain the vast bulk of its prewar overseas trade, a large proportion of Chinese trade would be essentially cut off. As shown both in World War I against Germany and in World War II against Japan, strangling an enemy’s foreign commerce can prove crucial, and perhaps even decisive, in winning the war.
This is interesting:
The Navy should consider investing in conventionally-armed, relatively short-range sea-based IRBMs to further complicate PLA planning. Depending on missile technical characteristics, both submarines and surface ships (not necessarily combatants) could serve as potential firing platforms. Ballistic missile striking power should be distributed across a large number of platforms similar to the way Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles distributed Navy strike power that had previously been concentrated in a small number of aircraft carriers. An ASBM variant should also be considered.
The PLA already have such weapons. These might substitute for the manned bomber, which will be almost impossible to replace in the future because of cost, $2 billion each for the last one we purchased. Also the following suggests that the manned jet’s days are waning:
The Navy should expedite developing, experimenting with, and fielding a carrier-based UCAS system designed to operate either independently or in conjunction with manned platforms…The Air Force and Navy should jointly develop future-generation stealthy long-range land-attack cruise missiles capable of carrying a wide variety of payloads to replace today’s Tomahawk (TLAM) and Air-Launched Cruise Missiles (ALCM).
The reports also encourages the replacement of short range assets, like JSF and F/A-18 with longer range weapons and platforms:
The Air Force and Navy should alter the current ratio (roughly 20:1) of planned investments in short-range strike relative to long-range strike to favor long-range strike.
It is interesting the primary long range strike asset for the near future is the 70yr old B-52 with JASSM-ER, outdistancing the younger B-1 and B-2 bombers by 1000 miles or more!
On Small Warships
However, many of the platforms most suited for this kind of operation, such as Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), patrol craft and small frigates, do not carry ordnance sufficiently heavy to stop larger ships determined not to halt and be boarded.
This oversight, however, can be fixed:
The Navy should examine options for increasing the numbers and combat capability of lower-end warships suitable for SLOC protection and MIO missions.
The LCS may be readily adaptable, but the cost of uparming a warship already over $1/2 billion each would likely provide a ship near the price of a DDG-51 destroyer, only far less capable. Foreign guided missile corvettes, already armed with cruise missiles and even AAMs price near this number or less, weapons and all.
Also this comment:
The Navy should continue its efforts to develop and field the capability to rearm surface ship VLS cells at sea.
I don’t see the problem of missile reloads any worse than gunnery ordnance reloads during the World Wars. It may even be less a problem since the missile weapons are precision guided. This is not a big deal.
AirSea Battle–What Stands Out
A few initiatives in the report stood out to me as most important:
- The defining battle would be over ISR assets.
- The carrier relegated to a subsidiary though important role, which I have expected.
- The importance of surface BMD platforms.
- The prime significance of submarine assets.
- USAF bombers also crucial.
- Mining campaign by naval and air assets to defeat PLAN subs (inadequate IMHO).
- “Distant blockade”.
- The urgency of new long range strike weapons.
- UUVs and UAVs.
What was left out:
- In my opinion, the threat of PLAN submarines was not clearly defined, nor was the problem conclusively dealt with.
- The required buildup of small naval assets and d/e subs to maintain numbers and proper sea control. The need for “distant blockade” was given but nothing called for to maintain this. Simply uparming the LCS would be inadequate because of their already high cost.
The final questioned not answered: where will the funds come from? It is debatable how the Navy and USAF will justify funding a massively expensive conventional strategy in a time of sparse budgets, and with the threat of terrorism looming constantly, to prepare for war with a nation whom we are heavily indebted to.