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U.S. Military’s A2/AD Challenge

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New Leaders Forum

U.S. Military’s A2/AD Challenge

The Pentagon’s Joint Operational Access Concept breathes new life into discussion of Anti-Access/Area Denial.

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.