JOAC begins the discussion on access, but tough problems remain

Last week, the Pentagon released to the public version 1.0 of its Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC), a 64-page document that outlines how the U.S. military will overcome looming “anti access/area denial” (A2/AD) problems and threats. Over the past few years, it has dawned on defense analysts and military planners that open access to Eurasia, something that U.S. planners have taken for granted for decades, is no longer a valid assumption. In the future, the U.S. may very well have to fight to achieve access or to restore freedom of navigation to the global commons. This has logically led to the development of a joint concept on access, the JOAC. JOAC provides a good outline of the theater access challenges for defense policymakers and planners. But it only begins to describe how difficult those challenges will be.

JOAC achieved at least three noteworthy successes. First, it listed 30 specific capabilities U.S. forces will have to possess if the U.S. is to overcome adversary A2/AD barriers. JOAC doesn’t say what investments or systems are needed for each of these capabilities; that will be left to the completion of subsequent assessments. But outlining the required capabilities is an important first step.

Second, JOAC stresses that the U.S. will achieve access against challengers only if it can achieve “cross-domain synergy.” To the JOAC’s authors, cross-domain synergy means synchronizing efforts and effects among land, sea, air, space, and cyber operations. In addition, JOAC wants U.S. military forces to achieve this synergy not just at the theater level, but also at much lower levels in military organizations. Obviously much work remains to achieve these expected benefits.

Third, JOAC includes a list of ten detailed risks that come with attempting to implement JOAC’s concepts. This risk analysis is a bright warning to policymakers across Washington. A2/AD is an unfamiliar problem which will require solutions that are disruptive to existing practices, institutions, and policies. The risk analysis calls for fresh thinking and implies that botched implementation could result in serious harm.

JOAC is the beginning outline for addressing the A2/AD problem. By contrast, the document barely describes how difficult those challenges will be. For example, the A2/AD challenge is commonly structured as U.S. expeditionary forces competing against precise and mobile missiles of a continental power. In these scenarios, adversary mobile missiles are the “hiders” and the U.S. is the “finder.” With current technology, the U.S. is usually on the losing side of this competition.

The solution is for the U.S. to attempt to “blind” the adversary through deep strikes to the adversary’s C4ISR network, in an attempt to render his missiles useless. U.S. planners will be counting on strategic air power to achieve the C4ISR blinding required. But these planners should also keep in mind that since the Korean War, top policymakers have placed boundaries on, or clawed back during hostilities, the targeting freedom air campaign planners initially assumed they would have. Adversaries know this and know how to take advantage of it to protect their C4ISR networks.

A C4ISR blinding campaign will inevitably lead to widespread war in space and cyberspace. This will occur either because U.S. policymakers will perceive combat in these domains preferable to the sight of explosions on television, or more likely because the adversary will see an advantage in escalating to these two domains. U.S. policymakers are well aware of the U.S. vulnerability to military escalation in space and cyberspace. Regrettably, solutions to the problem of U.S. escalation inferiority are hard to find.

Finally, war termination remains a major gap in JOAC, the Capstone Concept for Joint Operations, and many other top-level doctrinal publications. Many of the authors of these documents no doubt see war termination and setting the conditions for a stable and favorable endstate as beyond the scope of their mandates. However, this stance may also be part of the explanation for why the U.S. has had such difficulty over past decades with effective war termination. With planners and policymakers pointing their fingers at each other whenever the subject of war termination comes up, it is little wonder the U.S. has had problems ending wars.

The “cross-domain synergy” that JOAC seeks needs to be directed toward not just warfighting but also toward achieving stable outcomes. Very few doctrine-writers seem interested in making a clear connection between military effects and sustainable endstates. Someone should step up to that challenge, too.

 

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At the risk of exposing the depths of my cynicism, I think it is possible that all the A2/D2 talk remains a way to assuage Congressional fears that our billion dollar surface combatants remain EXTREMELY vulnerable to ASMs. By continuing to beat the A2/D2 drum, while continuing to build large vulnerable ships at the fastest possible rate, some folks are hoping they can convince enough people that they are addressing the problem while truly changing nothing. What will happen in the US Congress when another USS Stark-type incident happens? I think it will look and sound something like the debate post Katrina; but instead of folks asking what happened to the billions of dollars that had been provided in the past for infrastructure repair, they will ask - what happened to the billions we provided for A2/D2? What did that money buy us? This will simply become people's exhibit number 218 in the public opinion trial on DoD's use of tax payer dollars.

Ironically, an initiative began by the Army in '09, but then latched onto by other services to drive nails into the Army's coffin.

At a minimum, this concept must be tailored to the same constraints contained within the strategy published a couple weeks earlier. In fact, this should not of been released without such constraints clearly identified. Why anyone would think we need anytime, anywhere access to the sovererign spaces of others is beyond me, and certainly beyond what our coming budgets can support. We may have enjoyed such a capability for a narrow window of post-Cold War time, but that is not the norm, and not a power ever possessed before by any nation, and not likely to be seen again any time soon. To set this as an expected norm for the future and then attempt to resource it makes no sense to me.

We only need a fraction of this, and to use this concept to justify Billions in Air Force and Naval capabilities not necessary to securing the truly vital interests of our nation is borderline criminal, and certainly not "selfless service."

Now is the time to get smarter and more focused. Chasing Cyber missions and excessive A2/AD capabilities will only rob resources needed for much more critical missions and capabilities. These missions won't make the budget bigger, they only server to cut the pie into smaller slices. These types of ininitiatives are what "hollows" a force. Sure, congressional commitment to bases and programs we don't need hollows the force from the other end, but the Service Chiefs are digging just as hard from their own end.