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In a slow moving transition underway since late 2014, there are strong signs that the often-criticised US Air Sea Battle operational concept is being quietly — albeit not officially — sidelined as a focus of US military strategy. The likelihood is that a new program, the so-called Third Offset Strategy, is displacing it. This suggests that since the unsettling return of 19th century-style territorial annexation to 21st century Europe, Russia is looming as a serious threat in the minds of US defence planners — possibly even more than China.
First articulated by then-outgoing US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in September 2014, the Third US Offset Strategy is aimed at addressing a perceived erosion of US conventional deterrence and technological dominance, caused by budget constraints, unceasing operations in the Middle East and the rapid proliferation of US defence technology to competitors.
As the ‘third’ offset strategy, it aims to emulate the achievements and logic of those implemented to deter the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In the first of these, the United States deployed nuclear weapons to offset Soviet conventional superiority in Europe. When parity in nuclear capabilities made this approach unviable, the second offset approach was developed to harness precision strike weapons and surface-to-surface ballistic missiles to compensate for Soviet conventional numerical superiority.
These strategies ultimately led to the Air Land battle strategy, whereby US land forces in Europe served as a trip-wire for North American forces, symbolising US commitment to European security.
While the Third Offset Strategy is notionally applicable to ‘worldwide threats’, including the Islamic State, the choice of a new strategy with European Cold War antecedents is probably no accident. In his most recent explication of the new strategy, US Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work emphasised Russia as the focus, noting especially Russia’s own declaration of the United States and NATO as direct threats.
Where does this leave the Air Sea battle concept (ASB)? ASB was an operational concept originally designed to counter China’s advances in anti-access area-denial capabilities. These were best exemplified by China’s development of a so-called ‘carrier killing’ conventional ballistic missile, the DF-21. Given official blessing in 2010, the concept would employ advanced long-range and undersea weapons to ‘blind’ and ‘roll-back’ Chinese weapons.
Almost from the beginning there was a degree of discomfort about so obviously focussing on war with China. Consequently, the 2012 National Security Strategy rebadged ASB as the Joint Operational Access Concept and broadened its focus to other actors such as Iran. It was further criticised for its high cost, infeasibility, long timeframes and failure to explain how escalation — even to nuclear weapons — could be reliably avoided if attacks on key command and control targets on China’s mainland were undertaken.