“It’s not about a specific actor,” a senior defense official told reporters last year. “It is not about a specific regime.”
The heads of the Air Force and Navy, meanwhile, have maintained that Air-Sea Battle has applications even beyond combat. The concept could help the military reach melting ice caps in the Arctic Circle or a melted-down nuclear reactor in Japan, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the U.S. chief of naval operations, said in May at the Brookings Institution.
At the same event, Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief, upbraided a retired Marine colonel who asked how Air-Sea Battle might be employed in a war with China.
“This inclination to narrow down on a particular scenario is unhelpful,” Schwartz said.
Privately, senior Pentagon officials concede that Air-Sea Battle’s goal is to help U.S. forces weather an initial Chinese assault and counterattack to destroy sophisticated radar and missile systems built to keep U.S. ships away from China’s coastline.
Their concern is fueled by the steady growth in China’s defense spending, which has increased to as much as $180 billion a year, or about one-third of the Pentagon’s budget, and China’s increasingly aggressive behavior in the South China Sea.
“We want to put enough uncertainty in the minds of Chinese military planners that they would not want to take us on,” said a senior Navy official overseeing the service’s modernization efforts. “Air-Sea Battle is all about convincing the Chinese that we will win this competition.”
Like others quoted in this article, the official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
A military tech ‘revolution’
Air-Sea Battle grew out of Marshall’s fervent belief, dating to the 1980s, that technological advancements were on the verge of ushering in a new epoch of war.
New information technology allowed militaries to fire within seconds of finding the enemy. Better precision bombs guaranteed that the Americans could hit their targets almost every time. Together these advances could give conventional bombs almost the same power as small nuclear weapons, Marshall surmised.
Marshall asked his military assistant, a bright officer with a Harvard doctorate, to draft a series of papers on the coming “revolution in military affairs.” The work captured the interest of dozens of generals and several defense secretaries.
Eventually, senior military leaders, consumed by bloody, low-tech wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, seemed to forget about Marshall’s revolution. Marshall, meanwhile, zeroed in on China as the country most likely to exploit the revolution in military affairs and supplant the United States’ position as the world’s sole superpower.