The newest shiny object in the military – the concept that will bring about a “revolution in military affairs” following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – is operational access. This concept has its roots in two reports from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, which asked “Why AirSea Battle?” and set “A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept” around AirSea Battle. These concepts ultimately led to the establishment of an AirSea Battle Office in the Department of Defense and the publication of the overall thematics of AirSea Battle pushed in the Joint Operational Access Concept. It is important to note that the creation of this AirSea Battle concept was tasked to the Air Force and the Navy by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Losing the battle of the budgetary narrative, the US Army and US Marine Corps recently joined the bandwagon by publishing their addition to the operational access concept – Gaining and Maintaining Access: An Army-Marine Corps Concept.
Concepts are written to clearly describe how a military force intends to accomplish a specific type of operation against an articulated threat, the capabilities it is required to do so, and how it will be done with the resources likely available. It is extremely important to understand, however, that concepts and the glossy brochures that they come in are a powerful bureaucratic tool that can be circulated within the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill, and in the defense establishment writ large to justify programs, requirements, and the expenditures that underpin them. This may explain why this concept reads a bit more like a capability shopping list than a unifying idea of how the military will operate in a given environment. Even if we accept the validity of this ulterior motive, however, the concept still falls short in crafting a compelling narrative because it fails to fully consider why we would be operating in an anti-access/area-denial environment (A2/AD). Any serious concept on gaining and maintaining access, to be seen as more than simply a procurement strategy, must address this critical question. In this, I will dismiss the concerns of diplomatic denial of access, which has always been a problem and we are actively addressing with both security cooperation and whole of government diplomatic efforts.
Militaries have always had the requirement to be able to project power into areas where access and the freedom to conduct operations were challenged. The capabilities this concept discusses are nothing new. The unmatched capabilities of the U.S. military in recent years, however, have created a conceptual environment where the traditional concerns of operational art and strategy – that being how to balance significant risks to the force against the requirement to attain ends determined by political masters – have receded from the institutional memory and even imagination. These concerns have been replaced by those of postmodern warfare: first seeking to mitigate every last friendly casualty, second improving the precision and narrowing the effects of our fires in order to avoid civilian casualties – but not at the cost of the first imperative (e.g., a drone delivered low-yield precision-guided weapon over a well-aimed bullet), and third seeking transformational socio-political change rather than domination within the limits of the first two constraints. While these points may be seen as a bit of a caricature or at least an anomaly guided by the experiences of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, it is of critical importance that we delineate whether we expect to operate in an A2/AD environment under similar constraints, presumably driven by limited levels of national commitment, or if we expect that we will forgo limited interventions when faced with such a threat and only contemplate a much higher level of warfare and national investment.
Here, it is important to remember the A2/AD environments of the past. We can fast forward past the innovations that brought the Persians to Europe and the Greeks to Asia, that propelled various European powers across the seas and the steppes, and the asymmetric development of firearms and armor to get to some more familiar examples. Can we truly say that any A2/AD threat faced today or in the mid-term is truly more robust than the aviation, surface, and subsurface patrols that sought to deny American access to the European or Pacific theaters? Can we say that today’s cyber challenges present a more daunting task than crossing the open ocean the air or on the sea with only a wet compass and perhaps celestial navigation? Was the island-hopping campaign of the Pacific or the assault on Normandy any less daunting of an A2/AD challenge both from the loss of aircraft carriers and troop ships in the blue water to the incomprehensibly deadly fire at the water line? Are distributed operations with the aid of advanced communications and navigation more challenging than the maneuver of massive sea-landed, aviation, and airborne forces based almost solely on a single plan? Finally, are current and prospective threat weapons any more asymmetric or smart than the Kamikaze planes that targeted ships in the Pacific or the fanatical Nazi storm troopers that defended the beachheads of Europe?
The challenges we believe we will face in the coming years are not new. They simply arise from a strategic environment we have not experienced for over half a century. The weakness of the concept is that it imagines that technological and tactical advances can mitigate the risks of A2/AD environments without acknowledging that the risk/reward balance is affected by the operational and strategic situation and the import of the interests at stake. Instead of acknowledging such fundamental issues, the concept speaks instead to the requirement, for example, to integrate special operations with conventional forces; exploiting challenging and austere locations to surprise the enemy; conducting operations in multiple and distributed areas simultaneously; using sea-based assets for maneuver and command and control; and exploiting initial entry with follow-on forces. When did these concepts become new and not merely aspects of any operation? What has changed to make this a revolutionary concept? The truth is that, while technology is progressing as it always has, the only revolutionary change is the return of the balance of military power toward a more normal distribution. Historically, this is nothing new under the sun. This lack of strategic understanding leads us to focus on a race for technological complexity rather than the strategic restraint to avoid situations where risk outweighs reward, the pursuit of resilience to decrease our sensitivity to risk – both perceptually and in reality, and the imperative to find our own asymmetric solutions to this problem.
Strategically, we have recently seemed to bite off more than we can chew. Appetite control will be even more important in an A2/AD environment. At the same time, though, we must seek ways to improve resilience and create our own asymmetry. The concept’s focus on land power as the best guarantor of the area-denial portion of A2/AD denies us the full exploitation of both of these realms. The document states that Air and Sea forces gain access for land forces through strategic air, inter-continental ballistic missile, and sea power assets. Once an area has been prepared for the forcible entry, land forces enter the area of operations and maneuver to defeat and/or control enemy anti-access and area-denial capabilities, thereby maintaining operational access for follow-on forces. In other words, air and sea power attack anti-access weaponry and create a “beach head” for land forces to enter, who then attack selected targets to assure the ability of more forces to enter the area. At this point, as enough units enter the theater to take the fight to the enemy, they do so until the cessation of hostilities. By assuming a phased campaign to attain sea and air dominance first, we are reducing our resilience against threats as robust as those faced in World War II, as well as denying ourselves the conception of resilient and asymmetric air and sea capabilities such as low cost, simple, and expendable robotic weapons systems. What is more, we are missing the synergistic and holistic conception of how to integrate sea, air, and land power in threat environments that will defy a phased approach aimed at dominance in any domain. This is counter to the concept of “cross-domain synergy” that the Joint Operational Access Concept – the document under which the Army-USMC concept is supposed to nest – holds up as the core goal of operational access.
Where the Army-USMC concept ultimately fails is in setting the stage for the capabilities land forces will require to overcome enemy area-denial threats. Part of this failure was identified in a recent article from Inside the Pentagon. As one analyst identified, “the language in the concept is not clear enough…the central idea is so convoluted” it prevents the ability to determine how to move forward. Instead of providing the guidance necessary to conduct experiments and start developing operating concepts for land forces to conduct entry operations, the concept comes off as a laundry list of justifications for equipment procurement, which may be in fact what it truly is.
The concept, too, fails to specify even generally how we would approach some of the capabilities suggested. Take for instance the requirement for forces to employ medium-weight capabilities (think MRAPs and other armored motorized equipment) into austere environments by lift assets, an operation called mounted vertical maneuver (MVM). This is designed to allow us the increased ability to place forces with greater protection and firepower in a better position to defeat the enemy. To do this, we must develop either lift resources that can carrier heavier loads that do not require developed landing surfaces, or lighter vehicles that can be transported by current lift platforms. This capability does not currently exist and does not appear to be on the horizon.
In sum, the Army-USMC concept missed an opportunity to provide clear guidance on the capabilities our forces will require to succeed in the A2/AD environment. In order to do so, any future revisions or supplements to the concept should do several things. First, while Department of Defense planners cannot restrict the choices available to the National Command Authority, it would be prudent to frame the balance of risk against core interest and the level of risk that those interests will drive commanders to accept in the A2/AD environment. We must ensure that the risk-averse bureaucracy understands that we cannot always fight wars with the high sensitivity to casualties we have exhibited since 9/11. While this may come off as callous, we honor but do not question the necessity of the tens of thousands of dead it took to secure Normandy or a handful of Pacific Islands, but we shake our heads at the waste of a fraction of those lives over a decade of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan. We must realize that in future wars, we may have to once again accept far higher casualty levels to defend our core interests.
Second, we must realize that the A2/AD environment, especially when it comes to the potential denial of space, cyber, and electro-magnetic domains, requires more in the way of training and thought than it does in the way of technological solutions. We have operated “off the net” in the not too distant past and we can do so again, but not without significant training to return to the communications, command and control, and navigation methods of our fathers. The time for building these skills is now.
Third, we can attain asymmetric advantage if we abandon the geometric imperative of improving technology along existing lines. In this, we should seek cheaper, more numerous and expendable robotic assets, from unmanned aerial systems to robotic boats and vehicles armed with precision weapons systems, that can couple with distributed units as a force multiplier. Geometric improvements of expensive weapons systems drive down numbers and drive up the protection requirements, making for a force that is not resilient against advanced threats. We must put our technological prowess to work in conceiving capabilities that offer far more bang for our buck.
In all, we must exceed the bounds of our recent experiences when coming up with concepts for our future. Even if they are only meant to be a shopping list, without the right strategic foundation, we are going to the store for the wrong capabilities.