Military Counters Anti-Access Threats

May 2012
By Rita Boland, SIGNAL Magazine


The U.S. Defense Department’s "Joint Operational Access Concept" (JOAC) addresses the threat of future enemies using anti-access/area-denial capabilities to prevent U.S. forces from operating freely in combat theaters. Preparing in advance to thwart these activities and projecting force will increase U.S. successes during forthcoming battles.

The U.S. Defense Department focuses on maintaining the freedom to operate wherever necessary, whenever necessary.

Marking a sharp departure from recent conflicts, the future of U.S. military action likely includes enemies equipped to deny forces the ability to enter and carry out missions within areas of operations. This threat compounds concerns for senior leaders already revamping to create more agile, technologically advanced fighting forces in an environment of reduced budgets and shifting global priorities. A recent document aims to prepare warfighters to thwart any movement-limiting methods, ensuring continued U.S. dominance in all domains.

In the “Joint Operational Access Concept” (JOAC), Gen. Martin Dempsey, USA, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stresses the real threat of anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) tactics that future enemies will use to combat coalition forces. Anti-access is defined as actions and capabilities, usually long-range, designed to prevent an opposing force from entering an operational area. Area-denial refers to actions and capabilities that generally have shorter range and limit an opposing force’s freedom of action within an operational area. During recent conflicts, U.S. and other militaries have moved easily into and around the spaces they need to occupy. However, the concept says that in battles to come, foes will have better capabilities—including weapons of mass destruction—for denying those same freedoms.

According to the JOAC document, future state and nonstate adversaries “see adoption of anti-access/area-denial strategies against the United States as a favorable course of action for them.” It outlines in broad terms the chairman’s vision for how joint forces will counter emerging A2/AD security challenges. Lt. Gen. George Flynn, USMC, director of  joint staff development, Joint Chiefs of Staff, explains that, “It underscores three major trends in the operational environment: the growth of anti-access and area-denial capabilities around the globe, the changing U.S. overseas defense posture and the emergence of space and cyberspace as contested domains. Adapting to these trends requires the joint force to realize complementary vice merely additive employment of capabilities across multiple domains. This requires the full integration of cyberspace and space with the air, land and sea domains, and it requires integration of operations in space and time to occur at a lower level and faster than in the past.”

The JOAC is one way the military is preparing for future warfare, providing the basis to develop the capabilities that will make the fighting force more effective and mitigate potential risks. In addition, the concept is intended as a guide for the development of supporting service concepts such as air-sea battle, entry operations, littoral operations and sustained land operations. To make all this reality, a greater degree of integration across domains and at more echelons is necessary. The document states, “Embracing cross-domain synergy at increasingly lower levels will be essential to generating the tempo that often is critical to exploiting fleeting local opportunities for disrupting the enemy system. The JOAC also envisions a greater degree [of] and more flexible integration of space and cyberspace operations into the traditional air-sea-land battlespace than ever before.” Joint warfighting will become increasingly prevalent and important, and the cyber domain will become an area of increased activity both in its own right and as a portion of other types of warfare.

To implement the concept’s recommendations successfully, Gen. Flynn says, the military must start integrating jointness into the force development process sooner. “In the past, joint integration was achieved at higher levels of command; in the future, leaders at lower echelons will be required to integrate the joint effort,” he states. Leadership will play a key role in the capability development process. “One of the challenges of orchestrating a faster pace of operations in an increasingly complex and uncertain environment is the unprecedented volume of information leaders will have to sift through and consider,” Gen. Flynn states. “Leaders at all levels will need the ability to conduct military operations through decentralized execution based on mission-type orders to responsibly exercise initiative and act aggressively and independently toward mission accomplishment.

“This is why a key part of the JOAC is the development and refinement of the mission command concept,” he adds. “We want to make sure our leaders can continue to out-think adversaries and stay inside their decision cycle to force favorable outcomes.”


In the JOAC document, released earlier this year, Gen. Martin Dempsey, USA, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stresses the likelihood of state and nonstate adversaries taking steps to deny access in and around areas in which the U.S. military will need to operate. Joint operations and cross-domain synergy will help the Defense Department counter these attempts.

Developers of the document do not focus on a specific threat but rather on identifying what defense leaders believe is necessary to maintain freedom of access and maneuverability across the range of military operations. Necessary critical capabilities are organized under eight categories: command and control, intelligence, fires, movement and maneuver, protection, sustainment, information, and engagement. “The intent is to provide a baseline for follow-on concept development, analysis and experimentation informing Joint Force 2020 and creating a balanced force capable of adapting and overcoming future challenges,” Gen. Flynn says. The JOAC places emphasis on the likelihood of more adept enemies through a dramatic improvement and proliferation of weapons and A2/AD capabilities.

In terms of integrating space and cyberspace more completely with other battle domains, Gen. Flynn says they are integrated to a point; but the degree in both space and time, as well as the operational flexibility afforded to the joint force, requires further review. “In the past we have viewed cyberspace and space as enabling operations in support of the three traditional domains,” he explains. “This is why we need to explore the idea that in overcoming envisioned A2/AD challenges, cyberspace and space may become the supported domains depending on mission requirements.”

Though the emergence of air power during World War II determined the need for a service branch dedicated to that domain—resulting in the birth of the U.S. Air Force in 1947—no plans are on the table for a similar cyberspace service branch. The concept does not advocate for a change in functions, roles or responsibilities of the services in future endeavors. “The JOAC is about integration, not separation,” Gen. Flynn states. Nor does the concept put forth a need for increased troop numbers to counter the evolving A2/AD threats. Statements issued by leaders around the military call for a reduction in the number of warfighters in coming years.

Enemy countries and other groups will have access to conventional and asymmetric A2/AD capabilities enabled by the proliferation of technology. “Joint force commanders should expect and must be prepared to counter both,” Gen. Flynn says. To that end, the military and the JOAC aim to develop a balanced force with the flexibility and adaptability necessary to seize advantage in any contested domain.

In some ways, the tools that enable battlefield benefits also are U.S. forces’ worst enemies, and personnel must be the solution. “As we develop more cost-effective technologies, we remain mindful of the fact that these new technologies may also become more available to our adversaries,” Gen. Flynn explains. “With the democratization of technology, potential adversaries may be able to counter new technologies by asymmetric means ... Our effectiveness is not solely measured in materiel; the core capability remains the ability of our joint warfighter. Dynamic, capable leadership provides the foundation for our competitive advantage.”

Another important factor to addressing A2/AD challenges is ensuring favorable conditions around the area of operations before the need for military action arises. An interagency approach to working with foreign groups can help establish favorable access conditions in advance. The JOAC lists capabilities critical to this function: the ability to develop relationships and partnership goals and to share capabilities and capacities to ensure access and advance long-term regional stability; the ability to secure basing, navigation and over-flight rights and support agreements from regional partners; and the ability to provide training, supplies, equipment and other assistance to regional partners to improve their access capabilities.

“The JOAC acknowledges that projecting U.S. military force invariably requires extensive use of international waters, international airspace, non-sovereign cyberspace, space and the electromagnetic spectrum,” Gen. Flynn says. “U.S. access to and freedom of navigation within these global commons are vital to its national interests, both because the American way of life requires free access to the global marketplace and as the means for projecting military force into hostile territory. As a global power with global interests, the United States must maintain the credible capability to project military force into any region of the world in support of those interests.”

Unfortunately, guaranteeing these freedoms could entail higher numbers of death and injury than any the United States has encountered in recent battles. The concept envisions joint forces attempting to penetrate into the depth of enemies’ A2/AD capabilities instead of focusing on the perimeter of defenses. The document states that, “This may actually play into the enemy’s anti-access/area-denial strategy, which likely will attempt to use space and time to inflict cumulatively unacceptable casualties on an advancing joint force.”

Gen. Flynn says that joint force commanders strive to minimize harm to troops at all times while accomplishing their missions. The JOAC offers an overarching framework to make U.S. troops more effective in countering emerging challenges and projecting power, thereby helping to reduce casualties. Moving forward, leaders will continue to examine and address threats to warfighters and to their objectives. “Our current plans are designed to continue the development of capabilities to overcome current and projected A2/AD challenges,” Gen. Flynn explains. “It is our job to continually adjust our approach to warfare and adjust our plans so we can meet emerging challenges.”

Joint Chiefs of Staff:
Defense Strategic Guidance:



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