Features, Online — November 29, 2011 at 1:24 pm

Good-Bye Counter-Insurgency; Hello Air-Sea Battle

By Ty Cobb* —

The U.S. is running as fast as it can from the defining strategy and focus of the last decade—fighting counter-insurgencies and engaging in nation-building. The new leitmotif the Defense Department is embracing is the “Air-Sea Battle,” with an unmistakable laser on China, the development of regional alliances to “contain” the PRC, and a stress on naval and air strike capabilities. The Department appears to be putting “COIN” in the rear-view mirror quickly, even with some 100,000 troops still deployed in combating insurgencies in the volatile Mid-East.

The shift in DOD’s strategic emphasis was clearly laid out recently in a major speech given by the Vice-Chairman of the JCS, Admiral James “Sandy” Winnefeld.  According to the Vice, the military is moving past COIN at a rapid velocity and must now plan for a new threat environment that will be centered in Eastern Asia and the Western Pacific. “We are not likely to have as our next fight a counterinsurgency,” the Admiral said. This means that while for the past decade we have been training troops in fighting insurgencies on land, assisting the troops in learning Arabic, securing villages and winning friends by drinking “Three Cups of Tea,” the “world has changed,” Winnefeld stated.

Future conflicts will likely occur in “a far more technically challenging environment.” The fight will be much closer to a conventional military conflict characterized by “intense electronic warfighting,” swarm attacks and cyber warfare. America’s enemies are coming up with “new asymmetric advantages,” with electronic warfare at the forefront. National borders will mean little as it will be difficult to ascertain origins of these attacks—for espionage, to cripple our commercial networks, or to neutralize our ISR systems, Winnefeld pointed out.

No more population-centric counter insurgencies. However, military force will still be a core aspect of the new mode of conflict. Special Forces type units and stand-off systems such as drones will be increasingly employed (Biden strategy for Afghanistan wins?), as will very mobile strike forces. The center of the force of the future will very much be air and naval as embodied in the emerging “AirSea Battle” doctrine.

China the Obvious Focus

While it is not explicitly stated, the obvious target of U.S. maneuvering and strategic realigning is what is perceived as the growing threat represented by increasing Chinese assertiveness and power. Indeed, “China bashing” seems to be widespread. Not that the PRC’s actions are without legitimate concern. China is involved heavily in cyber-espionage directed at American security interests and intellectual property theft aimed at U.S. financial institutions. It manipulates its currency to assure that Beijing maintains a healthy balance of trade advantage, human rights violations are omnipresent, the vast use of coal is contributing to global environmental damage, and the country is guilty of “orbital littering.”

However, the primary concern is in the security realm. China has close relationships with nations that export terror or weapons to insurgent groups, particularly Iran and North Korea. The PRC has expanded its military capabilities, to include the development of a (primitive) aircraft carrier, anti-ship missiles, and a modernized submarine fleet. Beijing has been very vociferous in maintaining that it has the right to control much of the South China Sea, a policy line that has been somewhat muted this year but has sounded alarm bells in neighboring countries. In response, East Asian and Pacific Rim nations have been more critical about Chinese power and intentions in the region.

This was made quite explicit in the most recent report by U.S. counter-intelligence experts calling China out for being the world’s “most persistent and active perpetrator of economic espionage.” One Senator (Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse) calls this the “biggest transfer of wealth through theft and piracy in the history of mankind.” A Congressional task force, the China Economic and Security Review Commission, has cited increased Chinese aggressiveness against Japan on the high seas, PRC attempts to hack into U.S. satellites, disputes with the Philippines and Viet-Nam over territorial rights, and threats over American arms transfers to Taiwan.

The Launch of the AirSea Battle Concept and the Emergence of a China Containment Policy

The Air Force and the Navy are developing a new warfighting strategy called the “AirSea Battle.” While China is never explicitly mentioned, there is no doubt that the strategy is aimed at the conduct of a major conflict with the PRC. The U.S. has been seeking closer ties with China’s traditional and new adversaries, most importantly Viet-Nam, the Philippines, and now, even India and Burma! Yes, Burma—that nation moving toward reform and now being welcomed back into the club of nations.

The Pentagon has indicated that the emerging operational philosophy was aimed at the threat of “anti-intervention and regional obstruction,” which China is developing, including long-range precision strike ballistic missiles, advanced anti-air missile defense systems, advanced electronic warfare capabilities, and modernized submarines. The U.S. is rapidly developing better anti-submarine techniques to counter the growing Chinese capability, and new U.S. “allies” Viet-Nam and Malaysia are ordering, in turn, new submarines from Western defense firms.

The implementation of “AirSea Battle” will rely on closer ties with regional powers. The U.S. Navy is making more port visits to China’s neighbors, most strikingly to our former adversary, Viet-Nam, with whom we are developing strong defense ties. Ah, the irony of it all! The Pentagon announced that a Marine Expeditionary Force will be based in Darwin on the north coast of Australia. Not that anyone thinks a MEF would be all that effective against a conventional Chinese threat, but it serves both as a “trip wire” and as a base for possible rapid reinforcement for the Navy.

Most importantly, in President Obama’s recent trip to Asia that included two Summits and several key bilateral discussions, the thrust was clearly focused on “containing China.” Philippine presidential spokesman Ricky Carandang exclaimed at the recent Asian Summit in Bali that the “enhanced U.S. presence bolsters our ability to assert our sovereignty over certain areas.” This year Viet-Nam signed its first defense cooperation agreement with the U.S. and the two navies have conducted joint exercises. India and Viet-Nam have expressed a desire to discuss trilateral cooperation in the South China Sea area, interesting given its distance from the subcontinent.

The upshot of this activity will be (1) American military strategy will be rapidly shifting away from the stress on COIN; (2) U.S. naval and air capabilities will get new emphasis for future defense acquisition programs; (3) The key role the Army has played in defense policy implementation will fade; (4) The U.S. will develop closer military ties with China’s neighbors, perhaps not formal alliances, but enhanced military cooperation; (5) The AirSea Battle doctrine and American diplomacy will be increasingly oriented on “Containing China.”

Image courtesy of the United States Government.

*Dr. Cobb was a professor at West Point and a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army in the years just prior to the Reagan Administration. He consulted with the National Security Council during the latter half of the Carter administration and the early Reagan administration on international energy issues. At the start of the Reagan administration, Dr. Cobb was on an exchange in the Soviet Union. After the change in National Security Advisor to William Clark and Deputy Robert “Bud” McFarlane, Cobb was asked to submit strategy papers regarding the long-range strategic position of the United States vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. As a result of these papers he was asked to join the NSC staff as a member of the European and Soviet Affairs Directorate to work on European issues and Canada, and to provide some input on long-range strategic Soviet policy. He took Dennis Blair’s slot within this directorate. Cobb worked very closely with Peter Sommer and they divided responsibility for 34 countries among themselves. Cobb was responsible for France, Italy, Canada, the Netherlands, Austria, the Vatican, etc. As part of his Soviet responsibilities, Cobb attended the Geneva and the Reykjavik summits. In 1988, Cobb took Robert Dean’s place as the Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director of the International Programs and Technology Affairs Directorate, with responsibility for science & technology agreements, export policy, United Nations issues, and the environment. He became President and CEO of the Business Executives for National Security (BENS) in 1991, then left to become President/CEO of the Yosemite National Institutes (1995-2002). He returned to his home town of Reno, NV, where he heads up the Northern Nevada Network as well as the National Security Forum. Dr. Cobb received a Ph.D. from Georgetown University, an M.A. from Indiana University, and a B.A. from the University of Nevada. He is married to Suellen Small of Reno, NV. They have three children.


  1. Re paragraph 11 of your piece, the current President of the Philippines is H.E. Benigno Aquino III no?

    • You are correct. Ricky Carandang is the chief spokesman for President Aquino. During our editing process, the “spokesman” somehow got dropped. We have corrected the mistake. Thank you for bringing it to our attention.

  2. Mr. Cobb,

    Is U.S. military/political leadership actually so naive and ignorant to think that a Presidential tour and a few magazine articles are actually going to make insurgency go away? I’m sorry to say that insurgency as a military option for lesser opponents in war predates the Bible, and is alive, active, and well today. So the idea that it will just disappear because it is hard and the U.S. does not like it is absurd and myopic.

    Trust me Sir, history and necessity will leave this mistaken notion in the dust, and the U.S. military will have to relearn it’s COIN doctrine/tactics all over again, again.

    John D. Gresham

    • You are correct. As one colleague remarked, “You might plan to avoid any more counter-insurgencies, but the insurgencies won’t be ignoring you”. Many feel that the real threat in the future will be “hybrid”–non state actors, perhaps, or insurgencies, employing high tech, standoff, cyber and anti-networing strategies.

  3. First, there’s an Africa sized-hole in the discussion above. Last I checked, it’s pretty hard to get a carrier battle group into the Congo, or an ARG-MEU into Uganda. I guess that’s where the “Air” in the “AirSea Battle” comes into play. I hope USAF has stocked up on anti-malarials. Or maybe there still is a role for the U.S. Army in “AirSea Battle doctrine” after all.

    Second, containment is a dubious success at best, and failed to fully integrate the Russians into the Western networks, c.f. Russian ire over NATO expansion, Georgia, Serbia, Kosovo. I’m sure this new policy will do wonders for defense contractors and arms sales overseas, but in terms of long term regional and global security and economic cooperation, engagement is the safer and stronger bet.

    Containing China, ignoring our strategic interests in Africa, and increasing arms sales in Oceania could contribute to turning one of our largest trading partners into more of adversary.

  4. Coicidentally “Air Sea Battle” happens to be the name of a seminal Atari 2600 video game from 1977. Perhaps, we could save consulting funds in the future by using the Activision and Atari back-catalogue for future strategic plans, i.e. “Battlezone,” “Canyon Bomber,” “Chopper Command,” “Combat,” “Defender,”
    “River Raid,” and of course, “Missile Command.”

    The Atari game pre-dates then-Commander John Stavridis’ written remarks at the National Defense University by 25 years: “We need an air sea battle concept centered on an immediately deployable, highly capable, and fully integrated force-an Integrated Strike Force.” CDR James Stavridis, USN, A New Air Sea Battle Concept: Integrated Strike Forces (Washington D.C.: National Defense University National War College, 1992)

    Silicon Valley strikes again.

  5. Correction: 15 years, not 25 years. Too many days playing Atari 2600 has apparently left me without basic addition skills.

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  7. I think its also important to remember that DoD created the conditions for a counterinsurgency in the first place. Rummy and the DoD staff would not allow for “post-conflict planning” to begin with. Also, the military had spent 25 years learning how to fight all manner of variations of “Rapid Decisive Operations” and had never trained for Stability Operations. This comment applies only to the GPF. Apologetics aside, The military, with the exception of the USMC failed to learn anything in 10 years because DoD would not let them. This is a different version of the so called “Vietnam Syndrome” if we dont use the word , we can pretend it did not exist; better yet, we (DoD) can shape the political commentary now to side step the blow back when things go south after we leave Iraq and Afghanistan. The Administrations failed to develop Strategy and we expected the military to execute a global war using only tactical success. Shame on DoD and DoS for letting the military take the heat for a civilian expertise surge that never happened and by default requiredthe military to step up to the plate. Do i sound a little bitter? I spent 51 Months in Theater, embedded and as a planner/advisor; the Pentagon and DoS should be imprisioned for Treason, Fraud, Waste and Abuse!

  8. Counterinsurgency may be going away but the insurgencies are here to stay. We will once again prepare for the “big war” and lose the ability to conduct COIN. I would guess over time that for every “big war” we fight are are somehow engaged to a greater or lesser degree in 20 counterinsurgenies.

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