U.S. Confronts an Anti-Access World

Posted on October 22, 2012

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The U.S. military is no longer as overwhelmingly superior in numerical and qualitative terms as it was not so long ago. That has big implications for its plans in Asia.

U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey recently bottomlined the final draft of the Joint Operational Access Concept, or JOAC. I liked Dempsey’s initial draft concept; I like the smooth version. How well the armed forces act on it – and how successfully prospective antagonists counteract it in stressful times – will be the arbiter of its worth.

The JOAC document confirms what commentators have been saying for the past few years. The proliferation of increasingly lethal, increasingly affordable precision weaponry makes venturing into contested regions a hazardous prospect for U.S. forces despite their superiority on a one-to-one basis. Ambitious regional powers – China and Iran come to mind – covet the option of barring nearby seas and skies to adversaries in wartime. Tools of the trade include anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles, missile-armed combat aircraft, and missile- and torpedo-firing submarines. Effective access denial would imperil important U.S. interests, especially around the Asian periphery, while corroding U.S. commitments to allies within weapons range of access deniers.

The Joint Operational Access Concept defines “the military problem” in disputed expanses as “opposed operational access in an advanced anti-access/area-denial environment.” Let’s simplify the Pentagon-speak. It means the U.S. armed forces must be prepared to fight their way into – and perform their missions within – zones on the map where local adversaries can mass enough precision firepower to do American task forces serious damage. Even lesser foes can hope to inflict unacceptable costs on the U.S. military through precision strikes.

Access denial, then, can pay significant operational dividends for regional opponents. Think about it. If U.S. political leaders and commanders anticipated suffering heavy losses, they might think twice before ordering U.S. forces into harm’s way. The defender, or “red team” in American military parlance, would gain time while Washington mulled over the rewards, risks, and feasibility of sending forces into a hot zone. If the United States abjured the effort, so much the better from the red team’s standpoint. If the U.S. leadership decided to proceed with offensive action anyway, well-armed defenders could exact a heavy penalty from forces that entered proscribed waters and skies. And they could hamper surviving units’ liberty of movement once there – helping defeat U.S. war aims.

This adds up to a “layered defense.” Under this construct, an expeditionary force closing in on Asian shores faces repeated assault as it comes within reach of each of the defender’s weapon systems. Its aggregate effect is to weary a superior opponent, whittle down its numerical superiority, and compel it to expend precious lives, ammunition, and stores defending itself. If access denial succeeds, the stronger side is too harried and too spent to stage a decisive action by the time it reaches the decisive point on the map or nautical chart.

The JOAC’s remedy? To overcome the anti-access challenge, it says, “future joint forces will leveragecross-domain synergy – the complementary vice being merely additive employment of capabilities in different domains such that each enhances the effectiveness and compensates for the vulnerabilities of the others – to establish superiority in some combination of domains that will provide the freedom of action required by the mission.” (Domains refers to air, sea, land, and cyberspace.)

What that means is that the U.S. armed services must combine their distinctive strengths – overcoming disparate service cultures of many decades’ standing, not to mention the “interoperability” problems encountered when forces employing unlike equipment and procedures fight alongside one another – in order to survive and prosper in fiercely contested settings like the Western Pacific, the northern Arabian Sea, and the Persian Gulf. The JOAC “envisions a seamless application of combat power between domains, with greater integration at dramatically lower echelons than joint forces currently achieve.” Strikingly, it foresees creating “tailored joint formations able to deploy, operate, and survive autonomously.” Assets drawn from the army, navy, air force, and marines might comprise a combat formation. This all sounds good, although a wait-and-see attitude toward the feasibility of composite formations seems fitting. Easier said than done.

So much for what the JOAC says. How does it fit into the larger strategic context? The directive marks a return to history following America’s post-Cold War strategic holiday. Since the Soviet Union folded in 1991, U.S. commanders have enjoyed the luxury of – more or less – disregarding the dangers and hardships associated with fighting one’s way into distant, embattled regions. There was no one to challenge the U.S. military in the commons; why worry? Furthermore, the JOAC marks a return to sobriety about the limits of U.S. power. And it marks a return to healthier respect for prospective adversaries and their capacity to balk a superpower’s strategy. Discounting the likes of Iran or China is seldom smart policy.

Politics and war are interactive enterprises. As military theorist Carl von Clausewitz observed, wise statesmen and commanders understand that their stratagems and operations operate not on some lifeless mass, but on a living, ambitious, equally intelligent antagonist able to formulate stratagems of his own. Armed strife is fraught with peril, chance, and dark passions. Its outcome is never foreordained. The dynamic resembles two sumo wrestlers struggling to throw each other. Each tries to anticipate the other’s next move, to counter it, or to exploit it by using the adversary’s momentum against him. Think about giants towering over the Asian seas as they grapple for strategic advantage.

Acknowledging the likelihood of more evenly matched struggles for advantage – as the JOAC appears to – represents a welcome departure from “Mahanian” thinking about the course of armed conflict. Historian Alfred Thayer Mahan popularized the notion of the high seas as a global “common” a century ago. He seemed to assume dominant navies could amass “overbearing power” sufficient to rid important waters of rival fleets. Having pummeled the vanquished, the victor could impose a blockade, land troops, and exercise the many prerogatives unfettered maritime supremacy bestows.

Such assumptions apparently linger in the U.S. naval establishment. One small example. Upon assuming duty as chief of naval operations (CNO) last fall, Adm. Jonathan Greenert issued a set of “Sailing Directions” proclaiming that “we own the sea.” Coming from America’s top naval officer, these words express a hyper-Mahanian vision of U.S. custodianship over the commons. Mahan concerned himself mainly with making the U.S. Navy the preeminent force in the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. His 19thCentury forerunner to anti-access was a modest affair. By building up superior naval might, believed Mahan, the United States could prevent European fleets from emplacing themselves at naval bases along the sea lanes leading to the new Central American canal. Or, the U.S. battle fleet could defeat them if they made mischief in the United States’ maritime backyard.

However bellicose he sounded at times, Mahan would have blanched at the thought of “owning” the Caribbean and Gulf, let alone trying to rule the Seven Seas. There’s doubtless a bravado quotient to statements like Greenert’s. The CNO has gone out of his way to set an upbeat tone for U.S. mariners. Nonetheless, references to American ownership of the maritime domain accurately capture the sense of entitlement commonplace among sea-service leaders since the Soviet downfall. This is a strongly proprietary worldview.

The JOAC seems to demand that the military establishment rethink such expectations of absolute command. “Superiority in any domain,” declare the document’s framers, “may not be widespread or permanent; it more often will be local and temporary.” To my mind, consequently, Mahan’s contemporary and rival Sir Julian Corbett makes a surer guide to operational matters. The fin de siècle British historian insisted that an uncommanded sea was the norm in strategic affairs. No navy boasted enough ships, surveillance assets, or firepower to police the empty vastness of the world’s oceans and seas. The nautical domain is too big, assets too few. The same holds true for the airspace above.

Corbett’s critique involved more than mass. He also disputed Mahan’s (and other sea-power practitioners’) linear way of thinking about maritime campaigns. He agreed that commanders should usually seek decisive battle with enemy fleets at the outset of a conflict, as Mahan and orthodox naval doctrine urged. It only made sense to win command before exercising it. Indeed, Corbett conceded that such was the right course of action nine times out of ten. But he paid inordinate attention to the remaining tenth of cases. Nothing, he maintained, is “so dangerous in the study of war as to permit maxims to become a substitute for judgment.” Royal Navy commanders – his primary audience – may as well plan a campaign by singing “Rule Britannia” as by regurgitating hoary axioms!

Dogma blinded commanders to certain realities of warfare, and to certain operational possibilities. While logic might dictate a stepwise approach, Corbett declared that war “is not conducted by logic, and the order of proceeding which logic prescribes cannot always be adhered to in practice…owing to the special conditions of naval warfare, extraneous necessities intrude themselves, which make it inevitable that operations for exercising command should accompany as well as follow operations for securing command.” Doing things out of order carried extra risk, but conditions sometimes demanded it. As Corbett’s icon Clausewitz maintained, savvy commanders know when to flout orthodoxy.

Though not in so many words, the JOAC seems to embrace the nonlinear, Corbettian approach to anti-access challenges. It’s worth keying in on two decidedly non-sequential “operational access precepts” set forth in the concept. First, the JOAC enjoins planners and commanders to “seize the initiative by deploying and operating on multiple, independent lines of operations.” Second, it envisions creating and maintaining “pockets or corridors of local domain superiority to penetrate the enemy’s defenses…” By mounting efforts in multiple domains, at multiple places, at the same time, U.S. air, sea, and ground forces can overload “an enemy’s ability to cope.”

These passages evoke President Abraham Lincoln’s logic of “concentration in time.” Lincoln exhorted Union commanders like Ulysses S. Grant to assault numerous points around the Southern perimeter simultaneously – preventing Confederate armies from moving from side to side to defeat any single offensive, as they had so adroitly during the early phases of the American Civil War. Like Union legions, today’s U.S. forces must be able to mount superior aggregate combat power at each decisive point on the map. But unlike Lincoln’s huge, well-supplied armies, they can’t rely on sheer mass to overpower enemy resistance. Combining capabilities artfully to generate asymmetric advantages is a must, lest U.S. forces disperse and attenuate their strength without ever achieving a breakthrough.

Which brings us to strategist Edward Luttwak’s writings. In his 1987 book Strategy, Luttwak opined that “the great choice in theater strategy” for the side that took the offensive was “between the broad advance that only the very strong may employ – for otherwise the [force] advancing everywhere must be everywhere outnumbered – and the narrow advance that offers the opportunity of victory even to the weak, by focusing strength at the expense of a more complete weakness elsewhere.” The broad-front advance boasts the virtue of simplicity. And there are no vulnerable flanks for an enemy to assail.

By contrast, a narrow-front advance masses overwhelming force at select points, piercing enemy defenses in “pencil-thin penetrations” reminiscent of the German blitzkrieg. Says Luttwak, it’s “part adventure and part confidence trick.” It offers daring commanders great rewards, but at great risk. A force that manages to punch through enemy defenses can achieve great things, or it can find itself cut off, surrounded, and outmatched, with little chance of succor from friendly forces. Luttwak’s central insight, and the one the JOAC seems to endorse sotto voce, is that the “cautious broad advance” is reserved to “those who already have a margin for imprudence in their superiority of means.” Powers lacking such a margin of dominance “must be bold to have any chance of success at all.”

In edging toward the narrow approach, the JOAC tacitly admits that the U.S. military is no longer as overwhelmingly superior in numerical and qualitative terms as it was not long ago, and that it must accept new risks to fulfill traditional missions like keeping the Strait of Hormuz open or coming to the rescue of an embattled Japan or Taiwan. With audacity comes the possibility of failure and defeat. No longer can U.S. commanders assume they will arrive on station in the combat theater with no losses. No longer can they concentrate their attentions and energies solely on what U.S. forces should do once there, such as projecting power ashore.

Acknowledging that the U.S. armed forces can no longer take access to important theaters for granted is a praiseworthy thing. The hidden danger is that military officers, their civilian masters, and defense pundits will lurch to the opposite extreme. Alarmed at the prospect of being kept out of important operating grounds, they may start spending so much effort thinking about how to gain operational access that they neglect the main question: what should U.S. forces do after obtaining access?

As an operational concept, the JOAC is couched in abstractions and generalities. To pour content into this vessel, U.S. leaders must have the candor to name specific adversaries and theaters, and to specify strategic circumstances under which they will pry open disputed parts of the commons.

One hopes Washington will follow up with a series of theater strategy documents clarifying these matters and explaining what goals U.S. forces should accomplish after reaching zones of conflict. These would make the JOAC an actionable concept, and part of a larger strategy. Otherwise it may end up atop the military’s pile of largely unread doctrinal publications. That would be a shame.

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James Holmes

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