By Owen R. Coté, Jr.

Modern military technology can make fixed, non-hardened land targets essentially indefensible from conventional attack. US forces have already exploited this revolution by embracing standoff weapons with guidance that integrates signals from Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites and miniaturized inertial navigation systems (INS). China is emulating this development with the mobile missiles of its Second Artillery Force deployed along the littoral of its Inner Seas. More recently, spurred on by the demands of the War on Terror, US forces have also greatly increased their ability to detect, identify, and locate a variety of land-mobile targets by creating networks of persistent sensors that can cue attacks by precision weapons. Today, these networks depend on non-stealthy, air breathing sensor platforms and relatively insecure communication links, and debate has already begun regarding how, if at all, to replicate these capabilities in a peer competition with an opponent that possesses modern air defenses and electronic warfare capabilities. At the same time, China, like the Soviet Union before it, is taking the first serious steps toward a mobile target capability of its own, albeit one that is focused on anti-ship attacks to deny access by US naval forces to the Western Pacific.

Beginning from a very low base in the mid-1990s, China’s rapid military modernization has consistently been informed by the realization that fixed targets have become terminally vulnerable. By contrast, much US force structure, and particularly land-based tactical aviation, is a legacy of an era when alliances and geography enabled the construction of many hardened and dispersed bases near the opponent, and in which precision, conventional attack by weapons like Tomahawk were not a threat. Neither condition applies in the Western Pacific today or will apply in the future.

Two significant but different doctrinal challenges result, one for the Air Force and one for the Navy. The Air Force is in the midst of a phase where it’s internal organizational hierarchy, and therefore resource allocation, is out of synch with the demands of the future military competition. Fighter pilots, and particularly those who specialize in air-to-air combat, still dominate the Air Force, while longer range bombers and surveillance platforms, whose pilots and operators have much lower status in the organization, are under-funded relative to demand. As Thomas Ehrhard has shown, these hierarchies within the Air Force tend to be more pronounced and self-sustaining than in the other services. Thus, the bomber community retained control of the Air Force long after the switch from Massive Retaliation to Flexible Response made the fighters of Tactical Air Command its most important contribution, and the reverse is happening now when long range strike and persistence surveillance are central to answering the A2/AD challenge.

The Navy’s challenge is different. The Navy needs to make the transition back to a force equipped and trained first and foremost to gain command of the sea from a force that has been able to take command for granted for almost 25 years. Contrary to much current debate, this does not threaten the continued viability and relevance of aircraft carriers, surface ships, or submarines. Rather, it requires that those platforms adopt new sensors and weapons, and more intensely combine their arms in order to achieve traditional ends under modern conditions. One example of the type of doctrinal innovation envisaged would be for the submarine community to embrace the destruction of enemy air defenses (DEAD) mission.  This would require two sets of developments.  First, submarines would need to possess and deploy organic networks of electronic intelligence (ELINT) sensors to identify and precisely locate the mobile radars necessary to the functioning of modern air defenses. Second, they would need to deploy tactical ballistic missiles (TBMs) that can quickly strike those radars after the briefest emissions and before they relocate (for more on this particular concept, see Together with cruise missile strikes against discrete ocean surveillance systems such as over-the-horizon (OTH) radars, submarines could create the conditions needed for carriers and their air wings to operate safely within the outer rings of an advanced A2/AD network.

In general, the emerging Air Sea battle concept will likely involve intensifying combined arms operations across different domains.  (This will certainly be an aspect of future anti-submarine warfare operations – see New cross-domain combined arms operations will require innovation in both technology and doctrine, and it is the obstacles to doctrinal innovation that likely will pose the largest challenge.

Owen R. Coté, Jr. is Associate Director of the Security Studies Program at MIT.