6.1  AirSea Battle & JAM-GC Concepts

1 May 2018

China’s RMA & its Impacts on the US in the Western Pacific

 

For the past six decades, U.S. forces have generally enjoyed unrestricted and unchallenged access to the global commons. US ground, air and naval forces have been accustomed to operating from sanctuary. Their main operating bases, ports and facilities have been largely invulnerable to serious conventional attack since World War II. Navy surface and carrier aviation forces are accustomed to operating from sanctuary at sea, enabled by the near-absence of enemy navies with long-range detection and targeting capabilities. And the cyberspace and communication networks upon which command and control, target detection, precision strike, and post-strike battle damage assessment operations depend critically on have remained intact and not compromised despite consistent probing by other adversarial state and non-state entities.

 

In the Western Pacific Theatre of Operations (WPTO) today, this assumption of invulnerability is set to change. The success of the US military in transforming itself by embarking on its revolution in military affairs (RMA) to enable the military to exploit emerging new technologies has become a model for China to modernize its military. But unlike the US, whose objective is establish sea control over every stretch of water around the world, China embarked on its own RMA to field robust anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities to make US power projection in the Western Pacific increasingly risky and, in some cases and contexts, prohibitively costly.  By building a rich arsenal comprising of anti-ship missiles, short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, stealth submarines, and cyber and space arms, China now has the capabilities to threaten two key elements of the US’ force projection strategy: its fixed bases (such as those in Japan and Guam) and aircraft carriers. US thus faces the unsavoury prospect of being effectively locked out of a region that has been declared a vital security interest by every administration in the last sixty years, leaving longstanding US allies and partners vulnerable to aggression or coercion by the Chinese.

 

Currently there is little indication that China possesses the capability or the intention to extent their A2/AD capabilities beyond the second island chain but the technological gaps between the two countries are closing rapidly and intention can change overnight. At the very least, China’s modernization of its military forces threatens to render invalid US’ long time assumption that US forces are invulnerable to any attack in the expansive Western Pacific. In the event of conflict, the overall Chinese strategy appears using its growing A2/AD capabilities designed to inflict substantial losses on US forces in these sanctuaries within a very short period of time to render US unable to defend its allies. This would possibly be achieved by PLA 

  • conducting large-scale pre-emptive attacks designed to inflict severe damage on US forces based or operating in the WPTO;

  • keeping other US air and naval forces well out of range or unable to penetrate into the homeland;

  • disrupting US command and control (C2) networks; and

  • heavily constraining US operational logistics by destroying major supply nodes and the relatively few US logistics ships.

 

US’ Response to China’s RMA:  AirSea Battle Concept

 

To offset the risk arising from PLA’s rapidly improving A2/AD capabilities, the Pentagon came up with the concept of “AirSea Battle” (ASB) in 2010.  The US Army and Air Force employed AirLand Battle principles, designed to deter the Soviet Union in Central Europe, very successfully in both Gulf Wars. But in the WPTO, actions will be dominated by naval and air forces.

 

The leading advocate of AirSea Battle concept is the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) whose research culminated in the 2010 report "AirSea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept" outlining the US military's growing operational difficulties in the WPTO. The report argues for the US to diversify its military strategy away from "the demands of modern irregular warfare" to one that highlights the Chinese PLA’s quick ability to field A2/AD technologies.”[1]

 

The events leading to the origination of the ASB concept, however, began earlier in 2008 following Pacific Vision, a wargame financed in part by Marshall’s Office of Net Assessment and conducted by the US Air Force in October 2008. Despite the Pacific Air Force Command (PACAF) assessment that it could realistically expect to defeat China in the Pacific through 2016, a parallel study by RAND analysts, who also took part in the wargame, claimed that US airpower in the Pacific would be inadequate to thwart a Chinese attack on Taiwan in 2020.[2]

 

In any case, the simulation convinced others in the Pentagon of the need to face up to China, and the PACAF staff set about drawing up its conclusions and fashioning a framework for ASB which in essence is a plan to develop the new weapons and integrate capabilities across all operational domains to overcome the challenges posed by China’s growing A2/AD capabilities.

 

In 2009, the ASB project received Defence Secretary Robert Gates’ official imprimatur  which led to CSBA releasing its reports in 2010. In late 2011, Gates’ successor, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, also signed off on the ASB project and formed the new Multi-Service Office to advance the operational concept. Thus, ASB was conceived, born, and began to grow.[3]

Conduct of a US Two-Phase AirSea Battle Campaign

 

Based on CASB’s conception, an AirSea Battle campaign against China would encompass two stages. The initial stage, commencing with the outbreak of hostilities, could be broken down into four distinct lines of operation:

  • Withstanding the initial attack and limiting damage to US and allied forces and bases;

  • Executing a blinding campaign against PLA battle networks;

  • Executing a suppression campaign against PLA long-range ISR and strike systems;

  • Seizing and sustaining the initiative in the air, sea, space and cyber domains.

This would be followed by the second-stage operations designed to create options to resolve a prolonged conventional conflict on favourable terms. These operations include:

  • executing a protracted campaign that includes sustaining and exploiting the initiative in various domains;

  • conducting “distant blockade” operations;

  • sustaining operational logistics; and

  • ramping up industrial production (especially of precision-guided munitions).

 

To ensure the successful conduct of the AirSea Battle, it has been recommended that the Air Force and the Navy undertake various initiatives, mostly on a dual-service basis:

  • Mitigating the missile threat to Guam and other selected bases, and to maritime forces;

  • Correcting the PLA-US imbalance in long-range strike for high-value and/or time-sensitive targets, to include developing and fielding greater penetrating and stand-off long-range intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and precision strike capabilities and capacities;

  • Enhancing capabilities for undersea operations, to include submarines, submersible robotic systems, and mines;

  • Offsetting the vulnerabilities of space-based C2, communications, and ISR capabilities and capacities, to include fielding high-capacity airborne C3 relay networks to back up space-based systems;

  • Emphasizing future standardization and interoperability of data links, data structures, and C2 and ISR infrastructures;

  • Increasing emphasis on and investment in cross-service electronic warfare capabilities and capacities;

  • Enhancing cyber warfare offensive and defensive capabilities; and

  • Developing and fielding directed-energy weapons.

 

Criticism of US’ AirSea Battle Concept

To begin with, given the highly contested world of inter-service rivalry among US armed services, one of the majors flaw in ASB, as its name implies, was its exclusion of a role for US land forces.

 

Second, ASB concept was criticized for naming names. The report released by CSBA in 2010 declared openly that AirSea Battle was about overcoming China’s anti-access strategy and weaponry in the WPTO. This was too frank and too premature. Designating an adversarial great power as a potential enemy could make that rival into an actual enemy.[4]

 

Next, several critics point out that ASB is inherently escalatory and is likely to accelerate the arms race in the Asia-Pacific. Australian military strategist Hugh White, for example, points out that the ASB will result in China putting a very high priority on maintaining its capacity to strike the US.[5] It can result in China accelerating its expansion of its conventional forces as well as its nuclear, cyber, and space weapons programs. Moreover, deep inland strikes as proposed by ASB could be mistakenly perceived by the Chinese as pre-emptive at­tempts to take out its nuclear weapons, thus cornering them into “a terrible use-it-or-lose-it dilemma.” China is thus likely to respond with all the military means at its disposal—including its stockpile of nuclear arms. In short, ASB is prone to lead to a nuclear war.[6]

 

Critics thus proposed several alternative ways that can help to sustain U.S. military power in the region without leading to escalation.

 

One such alternative is the War-at-sea” option which would deny China use of the sea within the first island chain (which stretches from Japan to Taiwan and through the Philippines) by means of a distant blockade, the use of submarine and flotilla attacks at sea, and the positioning of expeditionary forces to hold at-risk islands in the South China Sea. By foregoing a mainland attack, the strategy gives “opportunities for negotiation in which both sides can back away from escalation to a long-lasting, economically disastrous war involving full mobilization and commitment to some kind of decisive victory.”[7]

 

Another alternative, the “Offshore Control Strategy”, seeks to use a war of economic attrition to bring about a stalemate and cessation of conflict” by establishing a distant blockade and a maritime exclusion zone within the first island chain “to ensure the continued flow of trade to our allies while tightening the blockade against China.”[8] Even though this would not bring a decisive victory, it would allow the US to achieve its objectives of protecting its allies and maintaining free access to sea lanes, while giving China space to back down.

 

Of course, a final alternative which is clearly not on the US’ list for consideration is to accommodate the rising power by allowing it an increased sphere of influence, just as the former superpower Great Britain once accommodated the US as an emerging regional power in the 19th century.[9]

 

Despite the risk of escalation in the event of a conflict, the strategy of the ASB planners is to make the US so powerful that China would choose not to engage militarily and would lose even if tries. In other words, for the US, the rise of China as a regional power is a zero-sum game to be avoided at all costs, including a highly costly and destructive military intervention as well as a risk of nuclear war.[10]

 

In January 2015, amidst all the debates and criticisms, Pentagon announced that the “Air-Sea Battle” concept was being renamed and absorbed into a broader multiservice effort to develop a “Joint Concept for Access and Manoeuvre in the Global Commons” or JAM-GC.[11]

 

How is JAM-GC Different from ASB?

JAM-GC enhances ASB’s proven best ideas and incorporates them into a joint concept that is more applicable and adaptive to the quickly changing and increasingly difficult operational environment. In effect, JAM-GC is a joint concept built on the ASB “chassis” though with a few subtle differences.

 

First, while the ASB’s approach focused on changing the environment by systematically defeating an adversary’s A2/AD capabilities so the joint force could operate as it preferred, JAM-GC is focused on defeating an adversary’s plan and intent using an approach that does not rely on first overcoming those A2/AD capabilities.[12]

 

Second, JAM-GC is not predicated on any one potential adversary, theatre of operations, or geopolitical scenario. Rather, the concept is driven by the global proliferation and increasing sophistication of A2/AD threat capabilities. It thus has global applicability. This change acknowledges the trend that as military technologies become more dispersed, more adversaries, (particularly China, Iran and Russia) will acquire A2/AD capabilities.

 

Next, while ASB focused on going to war depending predominantly on Navy and Air Force, JAM-GC integrate the forces from all five warfighting domains (land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace).

 

Finally, JAM-GC concept also includes the capabilities and capacities of allies and partners when and where appropriate, as access to the global commons is a collective interest of the international community. Improved interoperability with allies and partners is thus a fundamental tenet of the new concept.

 

Despite the refinements, some observers have called the change a mere renaming exercise which had to be carried out because AirSea Battle sounds warlike and vaguely sinister. In contrast, JAM-GC sounds like an obscure rap group. It would attract scant notice even if its substance were identical to AirSea Battle.

 

In essence, JAM-GC is still about A2/AD only that China is no more the outwardly named potential adversary; the theatre of operations is no more just Western Pacific but the global commons (i.e. any stretch of water in the world); and that the focus is no more just on Air Force and the Army but all the five warfighting domains (land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace). As a director of a Joint Staff director put it, tongue in cheek, JAM-GC is the concept “formerly known as Air-Sea Battle.”[13]

 

Despite the criticisms, JAM-GC is indeed an improvement over the controversial ASB concept. Unfortunately, even this concept has several current and former senior pentagon officials worried. Because of a current readiness crisis, the U.S. military might not be able to implement the concept at all.[14]

 

The US Navy, for example, has steadily declined over the past 20 years in term of size, from 590 ships in 1990 to 318 in 2000 to 288 in 2010.[15] The absence of a major blue-water rival has weakened the case for maintaining a large US fleet while the need for post 9/11 large-scale ground occupations and operations dictated that the US shifted priority to maintenance of larger ground forces.[16] The situation is further exacerbated by budget sequestration in recent years which seriously curtailed the ability of the military to keep up with hardware upgrading and materiel acquisition. The contraction of funding has inflicted serious harm to the U.S. military's ability to fight the next great war, especially against China, an increasingly formidable power still on the rise.

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REFERENCES

[1] See Jan van Tol & Mark Gunzinger, et. al. (2010). “AirSea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept.” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

[2] See Richard Hollaran. (2009). “PACAF’s ‘Vision’ Thing.” Air Force Magazine. January 2009.

[3] See Amitai Etzioni. (2013). “Who Authorized Preparations for War with China?.” Yale Journal of International Affairs. Summer 2013.

[4] See James Holmes. (2015). “Redefining AirSea Battle: JAM-GC, China and the Quest for Clarity.” National Interest. November 22, 2015.

[5] See Hugh White. (2012). “The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power” Melbourne: Black Inc. Pg. 78.

[6] See Joshua Rovner, “Three Paths to Nuclear Escalation with China,” National Interest, July 19, 2012,

[7] See Jeffrey Kline and Wayne Hughes. (2012). “Between Peace and Air-Sea Battle: A War at Sea Strategy.” Naval War College Review,

vol. 65, no. 4 (2012), Pg. 36.

[8] T. X. Hammes. (2012). “Strategy for an Unthinkable Conflict,” The Diplomat. July 27, 2012

[9] See Amitai Etzioni. (2013); Hugh White. (2012).

[10] See Amitai Etzioni. (2013)

[11] In short, ‘commons’ refers to land or resources that belong to no one. In this context, ‘global commons’ thus refers to the stretches of water around the world that do not belong to any country and thus can be accessed by anyone.

[12] See Michael E. Hutchens & William D. Dries, et. al. (2017). “Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons: A New Joint Operational Concept.” Joint Force Quarterly 84. January 27, 2017.

[13] See James Holmes. (2015).

[14] See Harry Kazianis. (2017). “The U.S. Military's Greatest Advantage Is Dying a Slow Death.” Popular Mechanics. February 28, 2017.

[15] Naval History and Heritage Command, 2011.

[16] See Gompert, David C. (2013). p. 91.