U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says it has the “potential to do for America’s military deterrent power . . . what AirLand Battle did” in the 20th century.

The chief of naval operations sees it as paradigm-shifting. “I don’t want to be over the top,” Navy Adm. Gary Roughhead said at an Aviation Week conference in February, “but it’s pretty ground-breaking.”

What has these men seemingly so excited? The answer: The nascent AirSea Battle concept now being hammered out by Air Force, Navy and other defense officials inside the Pentagon and elsewhere. But while this high-profile joint battle plan may be the vanguard of U.S. operations for this century, questions linger over whether it is even keeping up with the threats known and otherwise.

It is no revelation that long-term U.S. Air Force and Navy planning is focused on China. But while some innovations are underway, like the unmanned combat aerial system (UCAS), U.S. options in response to Chinese threats largely do not include the rapid development and deployment of major new weapons, especially with limited research, development and procurement resources under increasing budget pressure. The emerging AirSea Battle concept, consequently, relies on the reorientation of current programs and the use of networking to ensure freedom of operation in anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) environments.

The Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) has issued some of the more detailed, public documents behind AirSea Battle thinking. (Former CSBA analysts, including now-Deputy Navy Secretary Robert Work, occupy key positions in Washington.) CSBA’s most comprehensive report stresses that “AirSea Battle, as a doctrine for the operational level of war, cannot and should not be seen as a ‘war-winning’ concept in itself. Nor should it be viewed through the lens of a particular scenario, for example, the defense of Taiwan. Instead, it should be considered as helping to set the conditions at the military operational level to sustain a stable, favorable conventional military balance throughout the Western Pacific region.”

So it is not about fighting China, but maintaining a military balance to sustain stability in the region—but it is a military concept for combat operations, which responds to visible Chinese developments and China’s lack of transparency about strategy and intentions. Some of the key “air-sea” linkages mentioned by CSBA and others include:

•Air Force counter-space operations to blind PLA (People’s Liberation Army) space-based ocean surveillance systems and prevent targeting of antiship ballistic missiles (ASBM). Whether this is why U.S. Air Force officials are developing the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is not known for sure, but according to the Heritage Foundation’s Dean Cheng, Chinese defense bloggers are upset about it.

•In January, it was announced that the Air Force Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (Joint Stars) aircraft had completed a demonstration of the Network Enabled Weapon architecture, in which moving ships were tracked by Joint Stars and hit with AGM-154C glide bombs released from Boeing F/A-18E/Fs.

•Navy Aegis ships in the ballistic missile defense (BMD) role would provide a front line of defense for USAF forward bases and permit shoot-look-shoot engagements of incoming missiles. Sea-based BMD has driven a shift in Navy fleet planning in recent years, with curtailment of the DDG-1000 and its replacement by a BMD-optimized version of the Burke-class frigate.

•Long-range penetrating strikes would destroy PLA ground-based, long-range maritime surveillance systems (such as over-the-horizon radars) and missiles aimed at ships and bases. Concurrently, Navy submarine-based strike support against PLA integrated air-defense systems would pave the way for Air Force strikes.

Another example of air-sea collaboration would be the development of an airborne infrared sensor capability for BMD based on long-endurance, land-based unmanned aerial vehicles, to fill the gap until a space-based system is available in the 2020s. Either system allows the new Burke, armed in the future with the Next Generation Aegis Missile (formerly the SM-3 Block IIB), to be equally or more effective than the now-abandoned CG-X missile cruiser.

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Long-Range Anti-Shipping Missile (LRASM) project is also aimed at air-sea warfare deficiencies. LRASM is a three-part program that encompasses two airframe/propulsion approaches, both developed by divisions of Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control, and a common multimode seeker from BAE Systems of Nashua, N.H., the former Lockheed Sanders.

One set of demonstrations will focus on air launch and the other on surface-ship launch, but both teams will define air- and ship-launched versions, confirming that the plan would be to take only one weapon into full-scale development. LRASM-A is being developed by the Lockheed Martin Strike Weapons unit in Orlando, Fla., and is based on the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile Extended Range airframe. Its demonstration program will culminate in two air-launched demonstrations.

LRASM-B is run by Lockheed Martin Tactical Missiles of Grand Prairie, Texas, and uses “prior ramjet development activities” to provide a supersonic-cruise missile with some stealth qualities. The ramjet technology comes from Pratt & Whitney of West Palm Beach, Fla. LRASM-B will wind up with four boosted launches out of Vertical Launch System tubes. The program is due to be complete by April 2013.

BAE Systems’ role suggests that the core of the sensor suite is based on passive radio-frequency technology. However, previous discussion of LRASM has made it clear that it will use multiple sensors to autonomously select warship targets even in a cluttered sea lane while operating in a GPS-denied environment.

But will developments and concepts like these, based on an early effort to conceptualize and explain China’s strategy and possible intentions, remain adequate, as evolving PLA strategies and new weapons extend its strategic reach? These newer trends are not sufficiently reflected in U.S. government documents like the annual China Military Power report (which made no real mention of J-20 stealth fighter development in 10 years) that influence debate over strategy and spending priorities. One possible result is that U.S. weapons decision/development timelines will increasingly trail rather than lead PLA developments. More timely disclosure of classified information is one alternative, but must be balanced with source protection.

In the Soviet era, it was commonplace for U.S. intelligence agencies to exaggerate Soviet capabilities and predict that new systems would enter service sooner and in larger numbers than happened. A consistent trend in analysis of China’s developments is to do the reverse. The emergence of the DF-21D antiship ballistic missile (ASBM) program (around 2007) startled the U.S. Navy, triggering a crash program to retrieve SM-2 Block IV missiles from storage to establish an initial terminal ballistic missile defensecapability.

Late in 2010, U.S. Pacific Command leader Adm. Robert F. Willard made the surprise declaration that the DF-21D had roughly reached the initial operational capability, indicating not only that the missile and its guided reentry vehicle had been tested but were ready to be used with targeting systems such as OTH radar and ocean reconnaissance satellites. (Around the same time, Chinese documents emerged describing the use of submunitions to disable a carrier and damage its aircraft.)

Other potential developments are being hinted at. The PLA’s preparations to carry out the new “historic mission” given by the Chinese Communist Party in December 2004, which includes a mandate to defend the party’s international interests, takes the PLA’s challenge beyond its increasing A2/AD capabilities in Asia. The beginning of distant activities is seen in the PLA’s deployment of joint-force packages for exercises in Russia (2008) and Kazakhstan (2010) and its participation in counter-piracy patrols off Somalia since late 2009.

In some cases Washington’s initial A2/AD response is meeting new challenges. For example, one potential counter to the DF-21D 2,000-3,000-km (1,240-1,865-mi.) range ASBM has been the Navy’s UCAS demonstration program, for which the Northrop-Grumman X-47B made its first flight on Feb. 2. The X-47B has an initial advertised range of about 2,100 nm, but may not enter the fleet until about 2020. On Feb. 20, China’s Global Times carried a rare public disclosure that by 2015 the PLA would deploy a new family of 4,000-km intermediate-range ballistic missiles. This family, the publication said, would carry out offensive missions, likely nuclear and non-nuclear strike, and defensive missions, probably meaning it will carry improved terminally guided antiship warheads.

Chinese sources have referred to future DF-25/26/27 missiles: one may be the new 4,000-km missile. Future PLA medium- and short-range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles can be expected to become faster and more maneuverable to counter defenses. A new air- and missile-defense interceptor family, sometimes called the HQ-19 (HHQ-26 for the naval version), is described as having performance goals similar to the 400-km Russian S-400.

By the 2020s the U.S. hopes to have resolved science and technology challenges to allow deployment of directed-energy weapons. However, many indicators point to the possibility that the PLA is not far behind in the development of tactical lasers, high-power microwave weapons and rail guns. China’s laser research extends to the early 1960s, and informal sources suggest a tactical laser may equip the next class of PLA Navy destroyer. There is also heavy investment in defense, corporate and academic research centers for electromagnetic launch technology, the basis for rail guns, electromagnetic aircraft catapults and spacecraft launchers.

China is working on counter-stealth and counter-network technology. At the IDEX show in February, China released details of the meter-wave (VHF) HK-JM and HK-JM2 radars, both mobile and with detection ranges of 330 and 500 km, respectively. The radars could cue more accurate tracking systems. China has also unveiled the DWL002 ground-based electronic surveillance measure system, similar to the Czech Vera-E, which could be deployed as a passive coherent-location radar, using long-range broadcast signals to detect non-emitting targets.

China historically has demonstrated little to no interest in negotiations or agreements that would limit its military power or options. Since the late-1980s Washington has failed to thwart China’s goal of creating loosely controlled nuclear proxies in North Korea, Pakistan and Iran by diplomatic means. China’s refusal to consider useful dialog on its nuclear weapons and space weapon intentions indicates that the country’s broad military buildup will continue without diplomatic or other external restraint.