Small Wars Journal

Why Operational Access is No Revolution

Tue, 04/03/2012 - 9:05pm

Peter J. Munson and Nathan K. Finney argue at Adam Elkus's Rethinking Security blog that there is nothing revolutionary about the anti-access/area denial problem.


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  These concerns have been replaced by those of postmodern warfare:  first seeking to mitigate every last friendly casualty, second improving the precision and narrowing the effects of our fires in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? 

There is more at Elkus's blog.



Outlaw 09

Tue, 04/10/2012 - 2:58am

It is all about Design---we as a military are still using a specific staff driven decision making process that sorely lacks in the inherent inability of a staff to 1) ask the hard question of Why and 2)with that same staff equally attempting to answer the hard question of Why.

Reread Peter's comment--as it reflects exactly this newer style of descision making approach that the current senior leadership talks about, but really does not support.


Peter J. Munson

Mon, 04/09/2012 - 8:01pm

In reply to by Bill Rittenhouse

I'm happy to see that one of the authors of the concept made his way to SWJ to enter the dialogue. I won't address all of his points here, but will hit at the core of my concerns with the concept and his rebuttal.

Bill states, "The strategic questions about why we would operate in an A2/AD environment and risk vs. reward calculations are interesting and offer grist for debate on national security policy strategy implementation, but they are beyond the scope and intent of the Gaining and Maintaining Access Concept." This dismissal of the why behind operations in an A2/AD environment, and a seemingly off-hand dismissal at that, once again demonstrate the cognitive shortfall that undermines the entire concept. This isn't some trivial discussion point. Conceptions of operations in any environment must begin and end with why we are operating there. I'm not asking for a detailed discussion of all of the possible future scenarios, but rather a brief textual exploration (underpinned by far more substantive contemplation during concept development) of how different strategic situations, or at least different strategic poles would drive different ways of operating in the environment. Dealing with the precision guided weapons of a non-state actor in an irregular conflict would bring wholly different operating paradigms than the imperative to seize a hostile shore of a near-peer competitor. While this may seem to go without saying, a bland blanket concept may lead to bland blanket doctrine which may lead to dogmatic application of the wrong ideas at the wrong time. Additionally, the risk versus reward calculation of a Normandy as compared to a non-combattant evacuation off of Lebanon may seem so obvious as to be not worth saying, however our concepts of force protection and casualty avoidance have been so ingrained in the organization that these calculations need saying in our concepts, in my opinion.

Furthermore, I disagree that we "answer their own question by asserting that 'militaries have always had the requirement to be able to project power into areas where access and freedom to conduct operations were challenged.'" Agreeing that this has always been a challenge does not answer the why question that we were speaking to. As noted above, the why question I am asking is what are the range of "whys" and how will that affect our operations, the capabilities required, and the equipment required.

Finally, I am not finding the textual evidence that, as the commenter asserts, "the concept contains a common Army/Marine Corps operational and tactical approach to the joint force commander’s effort of overcoming A2/AD." I think Napoleon's corporal would agree. There are a lot of things thrown at a wall, but they have not been molded into an operational or tactical approach.

Bill Rittenhouse

Mon, 04/09/2012 - 3:44pm

This is in response to the Blog critique of Gaining and Maintaining Access: An Army-Marine Corps Concept by Peter J. Munson and Nathan K. Finney. The following comments are based on my experience as a member of the Concept writing team. As such, they are my opinions only and do not reflect official views of the Army or the Marine Corps.
Reference the title, “Why Operational Access Is No Revolution,” the Army-Marine Corps Concept is not revolutionary nor was it ever intended to be. Rather, it is a succinct statement of anti-access and specifically area denial challenges facing Army and Marine Corps forces, along with the key and supporting ideas for overcoming these challenges in support of the joint effort. And, as in any concept, after describing the why of the military problem, and describing what must be done, the Gaining and Maintaining Access Concept addresses the how question with a series of required capabilities listed by joint functions. The real outcomes of this concept is a more informed understanding of anti-access and area denial as we begin working a Joint Concept for Entry Operations and as we execute Service wargames and experiments.
I’d like to address some of the authors’ other points including the need to operate in an A2/AD environment, the relative nature of new ideas and challenges, and finally clear up some misunderstandings of what Gaining and Maintaining Access: An Army-Marine Corps Concept is all about.
Why would we operate in an A2/AD environment? The Blog authors state that “the concept 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.” They assert that any serious concept on gaining and maintaining access must address this question. Furthermore, they contend that the traditional strategic and operational risk vs. ends assessments have been overshadowed by current conflict, or “post modern warfare” concerns about casualty aversion and particularly civilian casualties. The strategic questions about why we would operate in an A2/AD environment and risk vs. reward calculations are interesting and offer grist for debate on national security policy strategy implementation, but they are beyond the scope and intent of the Gaining and Maintaining Access Concept.
The Blog authors actually answer their own question by asserting that “militaries have always had the requirement to be able to project power into areas where access and freedom to conduct operations were challenged.” This requirement is just as valid today and tomorrow as it has been in the past. The official basis for this requirement, as referenced in the Foreword to the Concept, comes from the new change in defense strategy, catalogued in the recently released Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense which assigns the Military the mission to “Project Power Despite Anti-Access/Area Denial Challenges.”
The Blog authors contend that today’s anti-access/area denial challenges are no more daunting than those encountered during World War II, e.g. open ocean navigation, island hopping campaigns, and the cross-channel Normandy Invasion. From a historical perspective, they have a good point. In today’s military discussions, we hear again and again how the current and future operational environment is more complex with a greater level of uncertainty. One wonders if commanders from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam would agree.
The key point that we tried to get across in the Gain and Maintain Access Concept is not whether future A2/AD capabilities are more challenging than those of the past. It is the fact that they are different and they require us to think differently about how we can overcome these capabilities. Modern sophisticated precision weapon systems are readily available now even to non-state actors: witness the 2006 Hezbollah attack on an Israeli warship with a single anti-ship missile. High-resolution satellite imagery is commercially available. The Russian use of cyber attacks is but one example of this growing threat. We will likely see over-the-horizon, real-time overhead surveillance capabilities available to anyone with a laptop computer and a high-speed internet connection; think “real time” Google Earth. This will make it difficult to hide a carrier task force beyond visual range of an enemy's coastline.
The Blog authors’ main criticism is that the ideas presented in the concept are neither revolutionary nor new. There is an old adage in the military concepts business that says the search for a new idea is like the quest for the Holy Grail, or as the authors state, “there is nothing new under the sun.” But there are ideas and required capabilities that could be described as new. These ideas and capabilities require technology advances in deployment, mobility, armored protected firepower, and in reducing the footprint of units engaged in ground and littoral maneuver. More important, the concept contains a common Army/Marine Corps operational and tactical approach to the joint force commander’s effort of overcoming A2/AD.
The Blog authors assert that the Concept “ultimately fails in setting the stage for capabilities land forces will require to overcome enemy area-denial threats.” They cite an “unidentified analyst” in a media article who states that the language of the concept is not clear, and the central idea is convoluted. In my mind, the concept problem statement, central idea, and supporting ideas are quite clear, and I invite others to read the concept and judge for themselves.
Finally a comment on mounted vertical maneuver or MVM. This truly is a revolutionary idea but it is not new. In the late 70s, the Soviet Army reportedly moved units equipped with PT-76 light tanks over mountain ranges in Eritrea. While, the ability to insert medium weight armored vehicles by heavy lift rotary wing aircraft may not be achievable in this budget constrained environment, MVM is still valid and worth considering – as a concept.
Bill Rittenhouse
Chief, Joint Interdependency Coordination Division
Concept Development and Learning Directorate
Army Capabilities Integration Center
Fort Eustis, Virginia