From Mahan to Corbett?

The new U.S. Joint Operational Access Concept implies a shift in navy strategy in contested parts of the world.

Last Thursday, Inside the Pentagon released an advance copy of the “Joint Operational Access Concept,” or JOAC, a directive reportedly set to be signed by Gen. Martin Dempsey, the new chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. I haven’t had time to read the document in detail, but at a glance it seems to signify a healthy shift in attitudes toward contested regions of the globe. The Soviet Union officially disbanded twenty years ago this month. With no major opponent, the U.S. armed forces grew accustomed to “commanding” the global “commons,” the seas and skies beyond the jurisdiction of any government. If the United States no longer had to fight for control of the commons, it was logical for commanders and their civilian masters to refocus their energies on “power projection” into embattled regions. Command was a virtual U.S. birth right.

In recent years, though, regional powers like China and Iran have bought or built weaponry that equips them to challenge U.S. mastery of offshore waters and airspace. Commanders can no longer assume they can gain access to forward bases in places like Japan or Bahrain, let alone project power onto foreign shores with impunity. The JOAC acknowledges the new, yet ancient, reality that external powers may encounter resistance from strong local powers that boast sizable advantages when fighting in their own backyards. Its “central idea” is that “cross-domain synergy” across the military services will be critical to piercing regional antagonists’ “anti-access” and “area-denial” measures. Equally important is that the document tries to dispel any lingering illusions about untrammeled U.S. access to disputed regions.

More likely, say the JOAC’s drafters, U.S. expeditionary forces will have to impose local, temporary superiority at critical places on the map at critical times. “Superiority in any domain,” it observes, “may not be widespread or permanent; it more often will be local and temporary.” Only full integration of land, air, and sea power can help commanders exploit “fleeting local opportunities for disrupting the enemy system.” If the United States holds command at the outset of a conflict, then, it may well lose command and have to restore it by force of arms. It may be no accident that the Joint Operational Access Concept appeared the day after the 70th anniversary of the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor – the last time U.S. sea and air forces found themselves driven from the Western Pacific and had to battle their way back.

To me, the JOAC appears to mark a transition from “Mahanian” to “Corbettian” assumptions about warfare in regions like the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean region. Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, the second president of the august institution I call home, exhorted naval commanders to seek out and defeat enemy battle fleets, thereby winning command of the sea. Mahan defined command as “overbearing power” that cleansed vital waters of the enemy’s flag or at most allowed that flag to appear as a “fugitive.” He seemed to assume permanent, absolute command of important expanses was possible. His contemporary, Julian Corbett, a British historian, agreed that “permanent general control” was a worthy goal, but he also insisted it might prove unattainable. The “normal position” was an “uncommanded sea,” simply because no navy was big and wide-ranging enough to be at all places at all times.

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So naval commanders needed to think in terms of wresting control of key points from adversaries for finite intervals. Nor must naval campaigns proceed in linear fashion. Logic, declared Corbett in his classic treatise Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (1911), dictated that fleets overcome enemy fleets before exercising command – blockading enemy shores, landing troops, and doing the other things that victory entitles a navy to do. But war “is not conducted by logic, and the order of proceeding which logic prescribes cannot always be adhered to in practice.” The “special conditions of naval warfare” rendered it “inevitable that operations for exercising command should accompany as well as follow operations for securing command.” That is, a navy might have to exercise command before winning it – accepting the attendant dangers and hardships.

As U.S. Army, Navy, Marine, and Air Force commanders ponder how to execute the Joint Operational Access Concept, they could do worse than dust off that old copy of Some Principles of Maritime Strategy.

James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.