These passages evoke President Abraham Lincoln’s logic of “concentration in time.” Lincoln exhorted Union commanders like Ulysses S. Grant to assault numerous points around the Southern perimeter simultaneously – preventing Confederate armies from moving from side to side to defeat any single offensive, as they had so adroitly during the early phases of the American Civil War. Like Union legions, today’s U.S. forces must be able to mount superior aggregate combat power at each decisive point on the map. But unlike Lincoln’s huge, well-supplied armies, they can’t rely on sheer mass to overpower enemy resistance. Combining capabilities artfully to generate asymmetric advantages is a must, lest U.S. forces disperse and attenuate their strength without ever achieving a breakthrough.
Which brings us to strategist Edward Luttwak’s writings. In his 1987 book Strategy, Luttwak opined that “the great choice in theater strategy” for the side that took the offensive was “between the broad advance that only the very strong may employ – for otherwise the [force] advancing everywhere must be everywhere outnumbered – and the narrow advance that offers the opportunity of victory even to the weak, by focusing strength at the expense of a more complete weakness elsewhere.” The broad-front advance boasts the virtue of simplicity. And there are no vulnerable flanks for an enemy to assail.
By contrast, a narrow-front advance masses overwhelming force at select points, piercing enemy defenses in “pencil-thin penetrations” reminiscent of the German blitzkrieg. Says Luttwak, it’s “part adventure and part confidence trick.” It offers daring commanders great rewards, but at great risk. A force that manages to punch through enemy defenses can achieve great things, or it can find itself cut off, surrounded, and outmatched, with little chance of succor from friendly forces. Luttwak’s central insight, and the one the JOAC seems to endorse sotto voce, is that the “cautious broad advance” is reserved to “those who already have a margin for imprudence in their superiority of means.” Powers lacking such a margin of dominance “must be bold to have any chance of success at all.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
In edging toward the narrow approach, the JOAC tacitly admits that the U.S. military is no longer as overwhelmingly superior in numerical and qualitative terms as it was not long ago, and that it must accept new risks to fulfill traditional missions like keeping the Strait of Hormuz open or coming to the rescue of an embattled Japan or Taiwan. With audacity comes the possibility of failure and defeat. No longer can U.S. commanders assume they will arrive on station in the combat theater with no losses. No longer can they concentrate their attentions and energies solely on what U.S. forces should do once there, such as projecting power ashore.
Acknowledging that the U.S. armed forces can no longer take access to important theaters for granted is a praiseworthy thing. The hidden danger is that military officers, their civilian masters, and defense pundits will lurch to the opposite extreme. Alarmed at the prospect of being kept out of important operating grounds, they may start spending so much effort thinking about how to gain operational access that they neglect the main question: what should U.S. forces do after obtaining access?
As an operational concept, the JOAC is couched in abstractions and generalities. To pour content into this vessel, U.S. leaders must have the candor to name specific adversaries and theaters, and to specify strategic circumstances under which they will pry open disputed parts of the commons.
One hopes Washington will follow up with a series of theater strategy documents clarifying these matters and explaining what goals U.S. forces should accomplish after reaching zones of conflict. These would make the JOAC an actionable concept, and part of a larger strategy. Otherwise it may end up atop the military’s pile of largely unread doctrinal publications. That would be a shame.
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College and co-editor of the forthcoming Strategy in the Second Nuclear Age: Power, Ambition, and the Ultimate Weapon.The views voiced here are his alone.