U.S. Military's A2/AD Challenge


Since the 1990s, when the Office of Net Assessments first identified the threat Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategies can pose to unimpeded passage, U.S. military strategy has undergone a remarkable transformation. But with two counter-insurgencies, a “Global War on Terror” and various humanitarian interventions and peacekeeping operations having seized Washington’s attention, some have argued that A2/AD issues have been somewhat overlooked.

More recently, the AirSea Battle Concept,which first appeared in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, has raised hopes for rapid development of capabilities that will allow the United States to confront A2/AD challenges.  But despite the excitement, much of the commentary so far on the issue has seemed largely speculative.

That has changed somewhat, though, with the Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC) having breathed some fresh air into the topic. The document appeared several weeks ago, and its version 1.0 was finally officially signed and released by Gen. Martin Dempsey yesterday. It’s an excellent start, coming from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and lays the foundation for a more systematic approach to “forcible entry operations.”

JOAC aims to establish “an overarching concept under which can nest other concepts dealing with more specific aspects of Anti-Access/Area-Denial challenges, such as the Air-Sea Battle Concept.” After having identified U.S. credibility over power projection as the sine qua non for the protection of its global interests, the document goes on to suggest that “cross-domain synergy” should inform decisions over what operations should be planned for and executed.

The concept transcends the limits of “joint synergy,” which “focuses on the integration of service capabilities,” and instead puts the emphasis on “a seamless application of combat power between domains, with greater integration at dramatically lower echelons than joint forces currently achieve.” The purpose of such an application of combat power is to enhance flexibility and adaptability, along with operating capabilities, in a degraded environment. Decentralized command and control, therefore, is a key phrase that appears more than once in the document, and is translated as enabling “subordinate commanders to act independently in consonance with the higher commander’s intent.”

Apart from touching upon operations, the concept also offers some policy prescriptions in the form of “preconditions” that facilitate or even enable forcible entry operations such as the maintenance of forward bases or partnerships/alliances. As The Diplomat blogger James Holmes has very accurately pointed out, “JOAC acknowledges the new, yet ancient, reality that external powers can encounter resistance from local powers that boast sizable advantages when fighting in their backyard.” The “degrading effect of distance,” as it is described in the document, can be offset through forward bases as well as common training and exercises, something which has also been stressed by the Pentagon’s recently published new strategic guidelines.     

The concept recognizes that there are financial constraints on implementation, noting that “it could be economically unsupportable in an era of constrained defense cuts, as in its fullest form, this is a resource intensive concept.” After all, its successful implementation is closely linked to investments in long-range strike capabilities that should comprise land-based (latest generation long-range bombers, for example) and sea-based options such as the UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike aircraft). At the same time, the focus of U.S. military options is envisioned as turning away from small numbers of big, non-flexible ships towards large numbers of smaller but very capable ships with greater maneuverability.

The added value of the concept, however, is that apart from focusing on the readiness and adaptability of U.S. forces when in contact with the enemy, JOAC stresses the need for changes with regard to the way forces are generated in the first place. As Lt. Gen. Michael A. Vane has pointed out, operational adaptability is “a quality that leaders and forces have to exhibit based on critical thinking, comfort with ambiguity and decentralization, a willingness to accept prudent risk and the ability to make rapid adjustments based on a continuous assessment of the situation.” At a tactical and operational level, the idea goes back to Clausewitz, and what he described as “the nature of strategic genius.” However, what Vane wants to focus on is the need for high adaptability across the whole of the strategic spectrum, from the very lower levels of strategy to the highest ones.

Hence, the concept is all about turning a page in U.S. strategic and military thinking. The raison d’être of the document is to establish a new “common intellectual framework for the challenge of opposed access which will inform subsequent joint and service concepts, and will result in doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel and facilities solutions (DOTMLPF).” In other words, the document lays the theoretical foundation for the transformation of the U.S. military, a shift that would allow it to effectively face today’s challenges and threats.

All this being said, change hinges on the training or education of not only the soldiers tasked with fighting, but also political and military leaders’ perception of operations. Such a transformation isn’t easy in a bureaucratic behemoth like the U.S. military. In addition, in a budgetary environment characterized by austerity and across the board cuts, it’s difficult to be optimistic about how things will finally unfold.

Ultimately, though, the concept appears to be a challenge: asking for both material (weapons systems, facilities, bases) and non-material (perceptions, education, and training) changes. The obstacles that lie ahead notwithstanding, JOAC gives a powerful push towards countering of A2/AD strategies and (better late than never) provides an excellent theoretical framework that grasps the threat in an accurate way.

JOAC is a reminder that regardless of the budgetary environment, the United States can’t afford to lose what makes it a superpower: credible power projection and unimpeded access. 

Eleni Ekmektsioglou is a non-resident fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS.

January 20, 2012 at 16:59


you are wrong atleast one thing.India isnt lining up in usa’s side.they are balancing relation between both china and usa.i dont know why every blogger thinks india is usa’s lackey and against china,where indo-china relationship is flourishing.indo-china have some border problems.but ganging up against china will make it worse.no country you mentioned has a land border unlike india.so they can make gangs against china,but india dont wants to be a part of it.that is clear from indian officials stated against the statement of australian defence minister.

John Chan
January 20, 2012 at 16:14

USA has issued order to arrest innocent New Zealanders living in New Zealand. Unfortunately spineless New Zealand government obeyed the USA order.

January 20, 2012 at 07:14

Aaron, you are obviously comprehension challenged. I am raising the issue of foreign policy discussion as well as America’s overseas deployment of its military in terms of morality. What is so non sequitur about that? At the level of strategic policies, morality is a major component of discussion. It stems from values, or “superior values” as some chickenhawks would have it. I am apalled that such discussions could discuss tactics awith such scant regard and callousness of the lives of Asians particularly the Chinese which the Americans have deemed as enemies. Enemies to what regard? Did China threaten America? In fact why are we talking as though China is an enemy? Because Washington deem it so? How does Iran threaten America? How does N Korea threaten America or Japan?

The way the article went, it might as well be totally technical and say that the most efficient way to defeat your (own self declared) enemy is to obliterate them with nukes, or blast the entire Manila city just to finish off the few Japanese irregardless of the millions of innocent Filipinos living in the city, or the Japanese psychological tactic of massacring a few hundred to a tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands to cow the civilian population so that they won’t rise up against the imperial occupiers, or using drone to shoot missiles or CIA agents to plant bombs to kill the intended targets irregardless of the “collateral damage”?

If you think you can divorce morality from war, you better think again. Why do you think we have the Geneva Convention, the International Court of Justice? As it is, Washington is becoming ultra vires international law. It is increasingly behaving like a cowboy and lawless …. think Guantanamo, and similar torture and imprisonment centres around the world directly controlled by Washington or outsourced to criminal elements, passing of laws even within their own country to arrest any American without direct evidence as long as he is deemed a threat to the country, prying into the privacy of indvidual citizens by tapping their phones or reading their email, etc..

This article contributes to that increasing lawlessness of Washington by writing as though Asians are nothing more than statistics for killing in the event of a war; How the war may be efficiently and coldly prosecuted with nary a thought as to the ethics or morality of its execution. Perhaps Asians are second and third class citizens of this world and gooks and nips and chinks and klings and paks can be dispatched off without a second thought. It is also encouraging the war mongering politicians, abetted and aided by the Military-Industrial Complex, in its staus quo to increase troops overseas and seeking to fight people and countries which does not threaten America.

So, Aaron, you are too simple minded. Perhaps you ought to move over to some other forums such as the Muppets forum perhaps. This forum may be just too deep for you.

January 20, 2012 at 06:39

Sometimes I really wonder about you Wumao…is wumao really worth it? It’s not like you could possibly believe this BS. I mean, the idea that China is a victim and the rest of the world is out to get it is just so out of touch with reality. But I guess it is tough for people that grew up in China to imagine other governments acting any differently. I pity you mindless Wumao…

January 20, 2012 at 06:22

John, I think you mean Al Capone. Also, here’s another thing the US practices: :”If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

John Chan
January 19, 2012 at 16:05

Al Capron and his boys went to collect extortion; of course there were more body count on the Al Capron side and less body count on the victim side. Al Capron was an American and America practises Al Capron politics, hence Japan, Australia, S. Korea, the Philippines, Singapore and India are Al Capron’s boys. That’s the moral reality of US policy in the East Asia.

A bully and a group of lackeys around him do not make them right and legitimate.

January 19, 2012 at 14:15

@ari – This is not an article on morality. But if you must; the United States has Japan, Australia, South Korea, the Philippines, Singapore and also India lining up on its side. Think about that before you judge the morality of U.S. policy in East Asia.

January 19, 2012 at 05:58

Why does James Holmes fail to question the morality of America’s behaviour and actions? Look at this statement quoted :

“JOAC acknowledges the new, yet ancient, reality that external powers can encounter resistance from local powers that boast sizable advantages when fighting in their backyard.”

May Americans one day be treated the same way as they treat others.

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