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 leverage cross-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.
Photo Credit: U.S. NavyView as Single Page