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AirSea Office Must Battle Through, Or Fail: Rep. J. Randy Forbes

Posted by Rep. J. Randy Forbes on

CAPITOL HILL: It has now been over a year since the Air Force and Navy signed a memorandum of understanding for implementing the AirSea Battle (ASB) limited operational concept. Six months ago I wrote that this effort – one that I strongly support – will be critical to maintaining our security commitments in the Asia-Pacific region and will only be successful if Congress and the Pentagon are able to forge a strong partnership.

Where does this process stand today? Two areas that deserve further consideration are the influence of the AirSea Battle Office in implementing the concept and the office’s broader strategic communications plan.

First, one of the main misconceptions about AirSea Battle is the focus on the concept. While it contains AirSea Battle’s guiding principles, absent any sort of bureaucratic implementation process, it is merely a thoughtful document. We need to recognize this concept in terms of the actual AirSea Battle Office (ASBO); the office is the heart of this effort. It is intended to manage the day-to-day implementation of the concept and oversees subject matter experts in ASB Working Groups that collaboratively develop doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel and facilities (DOTMLPF) solutions.

For AirSea Battle to be successful, however, the AirSea office must influence service defense budget submissions and advise Combatant Commanders as they grapple with anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) challenges. I worry that without an influential bureaucratic role, AirSea Battle will fail.

As it is currently structured, the ASB Office is designed to comprise at least two individuals from the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps at the O-4/5 and O-6 level. While the work of the current representatives in the inaugural year has been admirable, the office might benefit from being led by a more senior officer who could be a full-time advocate for AirSea Battle priorities.

The office staff should also be made up of some of the most innovative and disruptive thinkers the services boast. Often when the Navy or Air Force develop a PhD-level thinker they have difficulty figuring out what to do with them, sending them to think tanks or places like the Office of Net Assessment to try and put their skills to good use. The ASB Office is the perfect home for these disruptive thinkers to help challenge the bureaucratic forces that often plague the Department of Defense.

Far from being just a means to advocate for naval and air force capabilities, as some have criticized, for this project to succeed the Office must be capable and willing to draw conclusions that will make people uncomfortable.

Second, there is still a broader misunderstanding amongst the press, think tanks, and international observers of what AirSea Battle actually is and is not. This stems from a struggle by the Navy and Air Force to explain the concept, its purpose, or the role of the AirSea Battle Office. The classified status and diplomatic sensitivities surrounding AirSea Battle are partially to blame.

Also at fault is the Defense Department’s inability to clearly and concisely describe this project. As a result, some have assumed AirSea Battle is a type of “war plan” for Asia. Others have incorrectly identified it as a broader strategy for dealing with China. Still others have written that this effort is just a new way for the Air Force and Navy to lobby for a larger share of the defense budget. However, all of this is inconsistent with what has been said and written in official essays, articles, briefings, and speeches. Subsequently, reporting and writing on the topic has sent confusing signals to friends, allies and potential competitors around the world, while also driving misperceptions within various security and Asia-Pacific academic circles.

To remedy some of the lingering confusion, Navy and Air Force leadership, along with the ASB Office, should develop a broader strategic communications plan to clearly articulate the AirSea Battle message to Congress, the defense industry, foreign allies, and potential competitors. Just as Air-Land Battle was enshrined in Field Manual 100-5, the services should strongly consider publishing an unclassified version of the AirSea Battle concept. The existence of AirSea Battle is now well known, so an unclassified document should only help to avoid further misconceptions.

This document could serve to clear up some of the confusion for both allies and potential competitors. It could reinforce what AirSea Battle is not, while carefully articulating how AirSea Battle focuses on “networked, integrated, attack-in-depth” to disrupt, destroy and defeat (NIA-D3) A2/AD threats in a range of theaters. It could also emphasize the important role AirSea Battle can play in controlling the escalation of conflict.

The ASB Office should also create a formal mechanism for communicating to Congress what it considers its top DOTMLPF solutions for implementing AirSea Battle. An annual “Top 10 List,” of sorts, could identify critical DOTMLPFs while enabling Congress to better understand how the broader concept connects to the tactical level for Combatant Commanders, as well as the critical priorities necessary for resourcing this effort. It could also be a useful mechanism for stimulating interest and support for the concept. However, this document should not be used by the Pentagon as a political justification for specific decisions or programs.

Along with the steps I have briefly touched on, the burden will also fall on Congress to recognize the importance of this effort, push the Pentagon to exploit its full potential, and ultimately resource it. This starts with avoiding defense “sequestration” cuts, but it must continue with a commitment by the Congress to a national security budget for sustained American global leadership. I look forward to continuing to build a strong partnership between Congress and the military to make AirSea Battle an enduring success.

Rep. J. Randy Forbes, R-Va., is chairman of the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee and founder and co-chairman of the Congressional China Caucus.

What do you think?