Challenges to American Access: The Joint Operational Access Concept and Future Military Risk

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    Jan 5, 2012

    The recently released Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC) foreshadows an era of increased constraints on U.S. military actions abroad. The reality is that U.S. military power now competes on a substantially more complicated playing field in a number of important regions around the world. As a consequence, U.S. policymakers and military commanders should anticipate novel obstacles to global access emerging from some combination of improved adversary military capabilities and new, less favorable political realities. In short, the comprehensive anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) challenge is rapidly compounding, necessitating innovative U.S. military responses to overcome it.

    The JOAC is an excellent first step toward cracking future access challenges. However, it is (self-admittedly) an incomplete treatment of the issue. Further, it is only one of many essential new concepts the Department of Defense (DoD) will need in order to effectively navigate the post–Iraq/Afghanistan strategic reset. Too often to date, China has been the central focus of the A2/AD debate. However, current tensions in the Persian Gulf, violent turns in the Arab Spring, North Korean succession, and a teetering Pakistan suggest equally complex, alternative A2/AD dilemmas. U.S. strategists would be well-advised to account for these alternatives with the same rigor devoted to potential A2/AD threats emerging in East Asia.

    Q1: What is the Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC), and why is it necessary?

    A1: Worries about operational access predate the current administration. However, this president’s National Security Strategy, the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, and the most recent National Military Strategy all underscore a growing consensus among defense strategists that future access to the global commons and critical regions of the world may be at increasing risk, especially in extremis. Though the JOAC is an operational-level vision statement intended to shape the character of future military capabilities and operations in the face of A2/AD threats, it does have a number of policy-level implications. And, an impending “pivot” to Asia, anticipated cuts in DoD spending, and furious debates among various service advocates about AirSea Battle mean that those implications are not insignificant.

    First and foremost, however, the JOAC is just what it implies, a concept. It is not strategy, and it is not military doctrine. It is a joint force assessment of an emerging military challenge and a tentative joint force prescription to solve it. In brief, the JOAC argues that U.S. commanders will encounter new barriers to theater entry and operations in the event of major hostilities.

    Since the end of the Cold War and until very recently, the U.S. military enjoyed somewhat unhindered access to and freedom of action within virtually every conceivable theater of operation. The United States had three solid aces in this regard: a constellation of strong alliances and partnerships, dominant forward posture, and unchallenged military-technical advantages vis-à-vis all potential military competitors. These together have long been perceived as sufficient both to enable persistent influence through routine military presence and, in the event of war, contingency entry of U.S. forces into contested theaters of operation. Now, it is clear that many these advantages are becoming much more tenuous in the face of sophisticated A2/AD strategies combining both technical and nontechnical capabilities and methods.

    Though not explicit in the JOAC, in the near term, the most significant potential state-based A2/AD challenges spring from the Chinese, Russian, and Iranian militaries. However, if, as the JOAC suggests, U.S. access is threatened most by the proliferation of sophisticated military capabilities and lowered barriers to competition in space and cyberspace, it is reasonable to expect that access-based threats will multiply over the next two decades.

    Q2: What specifically is an A2/AD threat?

    A2: According to the JOAC, longer-range “anti-access” (A2) capabilities include (but are not limited to) modern surveillance and strike assets like satellites and cruise/ballistic missiles; cyber, space, and counter-space systems; and surrogates like terrorists and foreign paramilitaries. In theory, adversaries can combine these capabilities, according to deliberate design, to limit U.S. use of the global commons, begin raising barriers to effective U.S. power projection, and finally, impose high costs on intervening U.S. forces at substantially greater distances than previously imagined (starting with departure from the United States itself). “Area denial” (AD) capabilities, on the other hand, are employed closer in to thwart U.S. efforts to establish an operating presence in or over an adversary’s sovereign territory or waters (or hotly contested areas of operations) and, subsequently, severely restrict U.S. freedom of action once American forces are present in force. According to the JOAC, AD assets include air defenses; precision guided missiles, rockets, and artillery; mines; weapons of mass destruction; and innovative irregular warfighting capabilities like paramilitaries and special forces.

    Consequential state and nonstate actors already possess significant AD capabilities. Therefore, AD threats might be considered more immediate and universal challenges to U.S. military operations today than are more comprehensive A2/AD methods and capabilities. In the future, the most sophisticated U.S. opponents can be expected to employ a matrix of A2/AD instruments, first to raise the cost of access to exceedingly high and increasingly unacceptable levels as a deterrent and, failing that, to deny U.S. access through new-age attrition in the event their deterrent efforts fail. In either case, given finite resources, A2/AD threats will inevitably weigh heavily in future U.S. risk calculations; regardless of the anticipated outcome of hostilities, a sophisticated A2/AD design, inadequately accounted for in U.S. strategic planning, would impose heavy costs on U.S. forces.

    Q3: How immediate is the A2/AD threat?

    A3: Iran’s recent threat to close the Strait of Hormuz demonstrates how immediate the threat might actually be. The current Iranian A2/AD threat is not necessarily as lethal or sophisticated as that envisioned by the JOAC. In fact, at present, it leans more substantially on the AD side of the equation. It is, nonetheless, real. It shouldn’t be underestimated. And, it will likely grow more potent over time. The United States has long-standing interests in maintaining Gulf security and has been at odds with the Iranian government for 30 years, most recently over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program. In the 1980s, U.S. and Iranian forces also faced off in a series of brief, one-sided air and naval confrontations foreshadowing the potential character of future access-related confrontations.

    For its part, Iran appears to be building military and paramilitary capabilities focused less on traditional battlefield success and more on inhibiting access to the Persian Gulf in a crisis, intimidating Gulf Arab neighbors, and threatening international commerce. In short, Iran’s capabilities are best suited for imposing high costs on those who might need to force their way through the Strait of Hormuz and on those in the region whom the Iranians perceive as being complicit in enabling foreign access. In response to additional pressure to curb its alleged nuclear weapons program (e.g., sanctions, military strikes, etc.), for example, Iran has the potential to combine a number of traditional and irregular methods and capabilities into a complex hybrid “counteroffensive,” key components of which pose classical A2/AD–type threats. According to prominent U.S. strategist Frank Hoffman, “The Iranian ability to constrict, if not deny, access is palpable given the geography of the Gulf and Iran’s multiple means for producing maritime mayhem.”

    While likely not extensive enough to defeat comprehensive U.S.-led military operations to force and underwrite continued Gulf access, Iranian military and paramilitary forces boast just enough of the right kinds of missiles (cruise and ballistic), surface and subsurface naval attack craft, mines and minelayers, and air defenses to complicate military planning and threaten secure passage. Further, its longer-range ballistic missiles, intelligence and paramilitary operatives, and closely affiliated surrogates like Hezbollah extend Iran’s reach across the region. In the event of an access-centered conflict in the Gulf, Iran might be expected to employ (or threaten to employ) these “longer-range” capabilities to open alternative fronts and impose additional costs on adversaries.

    Q4: How effectively does the JOAC address the comprehensive access challenge?

    A4: The JOAC is a great start. Building the most relevant twenty-first century force requires the U.S. military to deliberately think through how it might breach sophisticated A2/AD barriers; force entry; maintain freedom of action in and around contested territory, water, and airspace; and prosecute military operations in the face of continued AD-focused opposition. However, the JOAC has two important limitations. I suggest defense strategists undertake additional work to address them.

    First, the concept’s most substantive discussions only address the most sophisticated, high-end (read large state competitor) challenges. According to the JOAC, these are “highly capable enemies with advanced, multidomain” capabilities. As, at the highest level of intensity, this involves conflict with a state like China, access would most likely be pursued only to enable limited air, sea, space, and cyberspace campaigns focused on coercion and the restoration of status quo ante bellum. While this might be the most lethal set of circumstances from a traditional military standpoint, it is also the least likely and the most speculative.

    As suggested above, the most immediate and destabilizing access challenges may spring from less technically capable adversaries (e.g., Iran) who may not have the ability to deny theater access outright but, nonetheless, do have the ability to exact high costs on U.S./partner forces and threaten regional allies with unacceptable harm. Here, intervening U.S.-led forces can expect to face fewer high-tech A2 threats and instead would confront a thicket of less-sophisticated but still lethal AD capabilities nearer to and in the immediate area of operations.

    Second, the concept implicitly focuses only on deliberate, coordinated, and (traditionally) organized access threats, suggesting these are the most important, dangerous, and immediate demands. Yet, as of this writing, an uncertain succession in North Korea, the questionable stability of a nuclear-armed Pakistan, and dark turns in the once peaceful Arab Spring suggest the potential for a very different kind of future A2/AD threat model, where relatively sophisticated military capabilities are suddenly under no centralized command and control and, therefore, are also less vulnerable to the comprehensive pressure of organized U.S. military campaigning. Here, significant A2/AD challenges will be as numerous and threatening to intervening U.S. forces as there are distinct armed factions of the fallen state vying for primacy with one another in a disordered post-collapse environment. Social networking and the proliferation of personal electronic communications devices also raise the specter of “smart” or “flash” mobs of varying levels of capability operating against U.S. forces at key points of entry or in important areas of operation as well.

    While it is easy to conceive of more traditional and ordered “great power” anti-access challenges falling predominantly on the shoulders of air and sea forces—enabled by space and cyber capabilities—the more disordered A2/AD threat would most likely occur under conditions requiring the early application of U.S. military forces across all domains of land, air, sea, space, and cyberspace. And, therefore, they would not be as vulnerable to the deliberate and sequential application of U.S. technical capabilities suggested in the JOAC.

    Nathan Freier is a senior fellow in the New Defense Approaches Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and a visiting research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

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