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 19th Century 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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.”