Page 2 of 2 Suppose we offered battle ...
By Peter Lee
The Navy has its own equipment issues, though at $37 billion they are of a lower order of magnitude than those confronting the Air Force:
[I]n the seas, the Navy faces a similar square-peg, round-hole problem with the vessel it plans to buy more of than any other - the Littoral Combat Ship. ''These are not large surface combatants that are going to sail into the South China Sea and challenge the Chinese military; that's not what they're made for,'' Adm Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, said at a Government Executive event in April. ''You won't send it into an anti-access area'' by itself.
Greenert's candor triggered a cascade of other Navy leaders insisting that LCS was, indeed, a warship. The service has committed to buying 55 Littoral Combat Ships at an estimated cost of $37 billion, and the program already was under fire for cost overruns, schedule slips and construction defects on the first two vessels.
LCS will play a vital role in the future fleet, but a supporting one. Smaller, cheaper and significantly less damage-resistant than the standard Arleigh Burke-class destroyer ...
The first LCS, the USS Freedom is forward-deployed at Changi in Singapore (to be followed by three more ships by 2017), one of
the first fruits of the US ''pivot to Asia'' and, potentially, a building block for ASB. The LCS also has a certain camel's nose in the tent significance, because it turns out it needs destroyer escort in order to complete its mission in less than friendly environments:
[T]here are no plans to kit out LCS for the long-range strikes at the core of AirSea Battle, a role reserved for the more robust destroyers and the giant aircraft carriers. Indeed, the most survivable strike platform in the face of long-range anti-ship missiles is not a surface ship at all, but a submarine, which the Navy buys at a steady rate of two a year, more than any class of vessel except the LCS itself. But submarines can't shoot down incoming missiles. So if Littoral Combat Ships go in to hunt subs and clear mines close to the coast of a well-armed enemy, they will need destroyers to escort them. 
So, in addition to its other problematic elements, we can add to the dubious virtues of Air Sea Battle that it will require a U-turn on existing armaments and several decades and hundreds of billions of dollars for the military to bring its capabilities in line with the demands of the doctrine.
By 2013, Air Sea Battle seemed to be in retreat.
The Air Sea Battle Office issued a concept summary in May 2013 that did not mention the C word - China - and downplayed ASB as ''not a strategy'' and ''a limited but critical component in a spectrum of initiatives'':
ASB is a limited objective concept that describes what is necessary for the joint force to sufficiently shape A2/AD environments to enable concurrent or follow-on power projection operations. The ASB Concept seeks to ensure freedom of action in the global commons and is intended to assure allies and deter potential adversaries. 
Recently, Defense News reported rather disbelievingly on assertions that ASB was ''not about China'' despite the existence of dozens of pages in the 2010 CSBA report describing details of protracted war with the PRC - complete with maps showing Chinese missile facilities, including factories, that would be recipients of the US military's special attention.
Admiral Roughead (now retired), one of the progenitors of ASB, deployed his iPhone to rebut charges that it targeted - well, sought to ''contain'' - China:
''There is a sense [among the Chinese] that it is aimed at China. My answer is, it's not,'' he said. ''Their perception is that it is aimed exclusively at them, that it's there to contain them.
''My point is: We're not containing China. If we were containing China, why do I have an iPhone'' assembled in China ''on my desk?''
To divine the concept's true intent, Roughead pointed to its origin.
''I set up a director of warfare integration,'' he said. ''Then [General Norton Schwartz] came in'' with the Air Force piece, and Air-Sea Battle was born. 
Equally embarrassing was the allegation, difficult to prove or rebut but at the same time rather plausible, that the announced US interest in ASB had actually accelerated China's A2AD efforts:
Some critics have charged that the Air-Sea Battle concept is driving China to increase its A2AD capabilities, often pointing to recently fielded weapons that could threaten US aircraft carriers. [Jan] Van Tol [one of the authors of the CSBA report] scoffs at the notion that such developments are driven by Air-Sea Battle.
''China has been trying to field those capabilities well before ASB,'' he observed. ''Interest in ASB did not trigger Chinese interest in fielding these systems.''
One of those critics, Georgetown University's Amitai Etzioni, begged to differ:
The Pentagon, when explaining Air-Sea Battle, increasingly speaks about interservice cooperation and coordination rather than offensive capabilities. Etzioni has noticed the trend.
''It's true that they're now walking it back, because it's really very escalating,'' he said. ''The Chinese keep pointing to it as a reason to escalate.''
Currently, ASB appears to be out of vogue, judging by the key Pentagon metrics - budget, staffing, an exciting mission, and institutional heat - as reported by Defense News:
Within the Air-Sea Battle office itself, the discussion - at least to outsiders - today centers on the interservice cooperation and integration the concept is attempting to foster. ...
Only 17 officers are assigned to the Air-Sea Battle office, which has no specific budget. The officers are counted as part of the Plans, Policy and Operations offices from their respective services.
The database of military assets is not a completed work, [Navy Captain Philip] Dupree said, nor will it be finished soon.
''You're right, we are creating a database. But the database is not like we worked it all out,'' he said. ''This is a process that is going to take years. It is a lot of capabilities that we are tying together.''
The real work of the office, Dupree said, ''is to facilitate the conversation ... ''
However, there are serious issues pertaining to the military positions of the People's Republic of China that ASB attempted to address, sometimes haltingly and sometimes indirectly, by evoking new norms under the guise of establishing a new doctrine - or concept.
The first is to reaffirm absolute US military dominance (and not just military parity or maintenance of a credible deterrent) as an existential necessity, even as the technological and financial costs threaten to become prohibitive.
The US Navy and Air Force are accustomed to sailing and flying wherever they want without fear of suffering a devastating attack. In a decade or two, China might have the capability to A2/AD the United States, maybe just in the near-shore areas, maybe out to the first and second island chains.
It's understandable that the United States wants to be No 1 militarily everywhere. Nobody likes to be Number 2, even though the 150+ other nations that make up the rest of the world have dealt with being Number 2 with varying degrees of success for the last 70 years.
For the United States to maintain its hegemon status in the Western Pacific as China ''rises'' will require a truly massive investment. Since the PRC is not an overtly hostile power, it's difficult for a democratic government which already has some serious budgetary problems to find the money and political will to fund that contingency.
ASB tries to justify that investment - and preclude an alternate future in which pursuit of a balance-of-power parity between the United States and China in the West Pacific keeps war off the table - by imagining a future in which the PRC would initiate an attack. If ASB is in place, the can US fight back and wins. Without ASB, our forces get chased out of the West Pacific Theater of Operations or WPTO per the jargon.
The second issue involves the accepted scope of military operations protecting Taiwan. The inconvenient truth about defending Taiwan is that the PRC's aggressive deployment of surface-to-surface missiles means that a PRC attack can only be thwarted by strikes against Chinese missile bases deep on the mainland - a dangerous, escalating tactic.
In 2011, Raoul Heinrichs wrote in The Diplomat about the Taiwan element of ASB:
The officer, a senior leader in US Pacific Command, looked down, fumbled with his papers and shifted uncomfortably in his seat. It was 2009, and he was answering a question about whether, in a Taiwan Straits crisis similar to that which occurred in the mid-1990s, the United States could confidently respond by again deploying aircraft carrier groups around Taiwan. 'No,' he conceded after a long pause, 'and it's the thing that really keeps me up at night.' It was a telling response.
... new doubts are emerging about the credibility of certain US strategic assurances, particularly in relation to Taiwan, which other US allies use as a barometer of Washington's regional commitment. 
ASB implicitly puts conventional warfare against the PRC mainland (with a crossed-fingers hope that the exchange doesn't go nuclear) on the Taiwan agenda and, for that matter, on the Senkaku agenda, and asserts a new norm meant to blunt the advantage that the PRC enjoyed if hostilities were restricted to the vicinity of Taiwan and the Taiwan Strait: no sanctuaries, meaning that the arena of controlled aggression and mutually managed escalation, at least as defined by the United States, includes the entire Chinese mainland.
Taiwan independence offers the most plausible occasion for direct conflict between the United States and the PRC, since the Chinese leadership maintains its absolute claims to sovereignty over the island and has trumpeted its resolve to deny independence by any and all means. However, for obvious reasons the United States does not wish to go on record that it will barrage the entire Chinese mainland on behalf of Taiwan in order to regain military parity on behalf of Taiwan independence advocates.
The third norm relates to defining the People's Republic of China as a first-strike military threat against US forces. Up until now, the PRC, like other nations that found themselves the object of US hostility, has been extremely canny about asymmetric counter-programming against US military superiority.
To date and for the foreseeable future, in its maritime arguments with its neighbors, the People's Republic of China has eschewed direct military confrontation for deployment of civilian elements such as maritime surveillance vessels, coast guard vessels, and whatnot. A major purpose of this strategy is to deny the US military the opportunity to place its currently sole-hegemon thumb on the scale.
However, as America's adversaries have learned to their terminal chagrin, carefully modulated defiance and careful appeals to international law and the authority of the United Nations butter no parsnips once the United States has decided it wants to drop the hammer on a nettlesome adversary.
... and enter Vietnam
For an illustration of how a US naval force engaged in routine patrol exercising its rights to freedom of navigation near an adversary's waters was disrupted by an unprovoked surprise anti-access/aerial denial attack, which the US countered with a rapid, coordinated deployment of a broad spectrum of military assets (in ASB speak)
... or parlayed a confrontational stance into the dreaded Land War in Asia (in history speak)...
... we can look beyond this September of Syria and consider the Gulf of Tonkin incident of 1964.
In 1964, the Lyndon Johnson administration was acutely aware of the shaky status of the South Vietnamese regime under its current bossman, General Nguyen Khanh, and was eager to secure a congressional resolution that would enable the provision of more direct US aid.
There was considerable interest in achieving a casus belli - a direct outrage against US military forces that would justify escalation of US military action. The goal was obtained with the August 4, 1964, Gulf of Tonkin incident, in which two destroyers with an NSA Sigint mission - which involved trespassing into North Vietnamese territorial waters in order to provoke and record radar and radio responses - were supposedly attacked in international waters by a swarm of torpedo boats.
As a trickle of declassified documents has made clear, there was no attack on the night of August 4. There was, instead, a considerable amount of confusion and, perhaps, its inglorious doppelganger, panic, aboard the two destroyers, the Maddox and the Turner Joy as they sailed in circles evading non-existent torpedoes and then interpreted the sonar signal of their own propellers bouncing off their own wakes as more torpedoes. Over an hour and a half, hundreds of rounds were fired and fighter planes were summoned to bombard the empty ocean.
The heightened nervous tension aboard the two vessels was a product of the fact that, two days earlier, there had been a real attack, in which North Vietnamese torpedo boats chased down the Maddox in broad daylight and exchanged fire before fighters from a nearby US aircraft carrier plastered the boats.
And the reason that the North Vietnamese were so aggressive was because they had conflated the two destroyers with an apparently unrelated slice of US provocation: attacks on North Vietnamese targets by South Vietnamese special forces in Norwegian vessels (known as ''Nastys'') arranged by the United States, whose missions were subject to White House approval and under the direction of the US Military Advisory Command Vietnam to escalate pressure on North Vietnam with unprecedented direct attacks on North Vietnamese territory in order to get the Vietcong to ease off their campaign against General Khanh.
In fact, the August 2 attack had been triggered by a Nasty attack against Hon Me, a strategic Vietnamese island that was also a North Vietnamese PT boat base near the patrol area of the Maddox. On August 4, the US Navy was even more on edge because that night the Nastys had, for the first time, shelled the North Vietnamese mainland.
The NSA (whose voluminous sigint concerning the incident underwent considerable suppression and distortion in the weeks after the incident) then made its own modest but signal (pun intended) contribution to the emerging cock-up by misinterpreting intercepted North Vietnamese radio traffic as evidence of PT boats massing for an attack. The Maddox and the Turner Joy received a message warning of the danger of an attack. They demanded US jet fighters from the Ticonderoga and Constellation overhead at all times, and not just 15 minutes away. 
The two vessels bravely continued with their near-shore missions because of the importance of upholding the principle of freedom of navigation (the official reason):
1. Termination of DESOTO patrol [the cage-rattling Sigint mission] after two days of patrol ops (operations) subsequent to Maddox incident as planned in Ref A (this was basic instruction for patrol), does not in my view adequately demonstrate United States resolve to assert our legitimate rights in these international waters. ...
The above patrol will: (a) clearly demonstrate our determination to continue these operations.
Or, according to the jaundiced view of a secret report prepared by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1968:
It says clearly that CINCPACFLT was disappointed with the results of the mission thus far - that is, the United States had not yet ''demonstrated'' its resolve to assert its legitimate rights in international waters. This seems to mean that we had not as yet had the opportunity to demonstrate this forcibly.
... Although the administration described the patrol of the Maddox and Turner Joy as routine but prepared for attack, there is considerable evidence that the objective of the patrol was to provoke the North Vietnamese and then to bloody them if they responded to the provocation. 
Later on August 4, US personnel at the scene quickly backed away from apocalyptic narrative they had been feeding their superiors during the supposed encounter. However, it was too late to stop the roll toward launching a retaliatory raid - for whatever reason; it was followed by an address to the nation and passage of the Tonkin Gulf resolution, which LBJ approvingly characterized as ''like Granny's nightgown; it covered everything''.
The question has been asked why the White House ignored the dubious nature of the August 4 action, and the reasonably prompt caveats issued by officers on the scene, and did not wait for daylight and a survey of the surrounding ocean to see if the US fusillade had actually hit anything before ordering the retaliatory raids against North Vietnamese boats and ports which - since the North Vietnamese PT boats had not been engaged in any actions on August 4 and were unaware that a ''red line'' had supposedly been crossed - caught them completely napping.
In 2009, Gareth Porter made a compelling case that secretary of defense Robert McNamara knew the case was weak, but decided to issue the executive order for the attack and get the Vietnam War ball rolling instead of sharing his doubts with LBJ. 
In the secret 1968 staff investigation (only declassified through the efforts of John Kerry in 2010), the Senate Foreign Relations Committee determined that secretary McNamara had misled the committee by stating that the North Vietnamese had fired first on August 2 (the Maddox had fired first as the boats approached at high speed and clearly unfriendly intent), by characterizing the August 4 attack as unprovoked and in international waters (given the provocation of the Nasty attacks and the fact that the Maddox's mission involved sailing inside North Vietnamese territorial waters and the fact, unearthed with some difficulty by the staff, that the US Navy knew about the Nasty missions.
On the even more sensitive question of what personnel of the US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, were doing aboard the destroyers the night of the incident - and the coastal raids - the committee apparently chose not to go there).
This exercise in near-shore assertiveness gives an idea of how quickly an incident can turn into a war, especially when the desire to start a war is barely disguised.
The commander of the Navy task force in charge of the Maddox and Turner Joy sent out the message (page 71 of the report) that reads like the distant but director ancestor 21st century Air Sea Battle fear-mongering:
It is apparent that DRV [Democratic Republic of Vietnam] has thrown down the gauntlet now considers itself at war with the United States. It is felt that they will attack US forces on sight with no regard for cost. US ships in Gulf of Tonkin can no longer assume that they will be considered neutrals exercising the right of free transit. They will be treated as belligerents from first detection and must consider themselves as such. DRV PTS [patrol craft] have advantage, especially at night, of being able to hide in junk concentrations all across the Gulf of Tonkin. This would allow attack from short range with little or no early warning.
Tonkin 1964 looks a lot like ASB 2030: hostility and hair-trigger reactions in an adversary's near-shore waters under the flag of ''freedom of navigation''.
Of course, ASB can deter war, if the destabilizing escalation it engenders is managed by men and women of infinite wisdom and with the best of motives; but extrapolating from the 1964 precedent, in other hands, it can simply make provoking a war easier.
Considering that ASB needs the plausibility of the PRC launching an initial attack to justify itself, that should be enough to make people nervous.
In 1968, digesting the staff report in executive session, the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee ruminated on the implications of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and the war resolution it enabled:
Senator CASE: Mr Chairman, I think one of the suggestions, I do not know that it has quite been put into these words, is that the Defense Department, for purposes which it considered most patriotic and necessary, decided that the time had come to stop shillyshallying with the commies and resist, and this was the time, and it had to be contrived so that the President could come along, and that the Congress would follow. That is one of the things.
Senator HICKENLOOPER: I think historically whenever a country wants to go to war it finds a pretext. We have had 5,000 pretexts historically to go to war. [page 97]
5,000 pretexts for war. Make ASB the five thousand and first.