January 1, 2013  

Naval power and the future of assured access

The Joint Operational Access Concept, which describes how the U.S. military will approach anti-access and area-denial challenges, identifies three trends that require a joint force solution: 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.

To these, we would suggest adding a fourth: The increasing ability of shore-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems and precision munitions to detect and engage naval forces beyond the littoral.

The old dictum, “a ship’s a fool to fight a fort,” has taken on new meaning since Lord Nelson’s day, when simply avoiding the near-shore was an effective way to avoid a fort’s guns. Today, near-shore and off-shore threats are converging. While naval forces remain far more survivable than fixed land-based assets, we must address head-on the emerging ability of shore-based systems to attack ships in the deep blue.

To effectively meet this trend, U.S. fleet capabilities must also converge into a coherent battle force. Amphibious ships and expeditionary operations should no longer be considered a class apart. All battle force ships and all naval operations should be approached as components of a single naval battle.

Keeping an adversary at a distance is as old as warfare itself, but the current prominence of A2/AD thinking can be traced to a late-1990s series of war games conducted by the Office of Net Assessment in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The games explored the trends and impacts of A2/AD capabilities. The Marine Corps participated in the development of Net Assessment’s report and has since continued to study the subject, which has guided the development of concepts such as Operational Maneuver from the Sea and Ship-to-Objective Maneuver.

More recently, there is a growing appreciation of the trends identified in the JOAC, which are changing the character, if not the nature, of how access is denied. It is not just the introduction of advanced technologies, but also their increasing availability and employability at much lower levels that call for our attention.

For several decades, the United States has been developing and fielding advanced ISR systems and long-range precision strike systems to create highly effective battle management and precision strike networks. However, after decades of U.S. ascendancy in this regime, others are entering this once-exclusive club. The threshold for entry has lowered and many state and nonstate adversaries are investing in A2/AD capabilities. While lower costs and increasing availability in international arms markets contribute to this proliferation, it is also caused by improvements in autonomy and in the sophistication of individual weapons, which reduce training and system interdependencies and thus simplify their employment.

The fielding of sophisticated autonomous and semiautonomous systems eliminates the need for large, sophisticated battle management networks. This is important because much of our conceptual thinking about strike warfare has been directed toward destroying key nodes to cause systemic failure of enemy command-and-control systems. But as smart and “brilliant” munitions create highly effective point-and-shoot capabilities, the centrality of key nodes will diminish over time and we will have to find survivable and discriminating ways to target a more distributed adversary.


In 2011, the Marine Corps, with Navy participation, established an Amphibious Capabilities Working Group to examine the future of amphibious warfare. Composed of sailors and Marines, the group was later renamed the Ellis Group after the amphibious warfare pioneer. Overcoming A2/AD challenges quickly became a central theme of the group’s efforts, and while it examined technical threats and associated counters, it focused much of its efforts on developing an operating concept for amphibious forces in an A2/AD environment. Much as had the JOAC and the recently released Capstone Concept for Joint Operations, the group determined that cross-domain synergy among all naval forces was essential.

The result was the articulation of a philosophy of (or approach to) command, designed to ensure that the joint force commander has a relevant, tightly integrated naval component that can assure access despite emerging A2/AD challenges. Dubbed Single Naval Battle, it was unveiled in August in a paper titled “U.S. Amphibious Forces: Indispensable Elements of American Seapower.” Its central idea is that technologies have effectively erased the bright line between the sea and land domains. Future ISR and strike systems are agnostic to ground or water. Dividing domains between sea and land creates an unnecessary seam that a competent adversary would seek to exploit.

The JOAC, approved last year by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, affirms this logic: “Cross-domain synergy is the complementary vice additive employment of capabilities of air, sea, land, space and cyber domains such that each enhances the effectiveness and compensates for the vulnerabilities of the others — to establish superiority in some combination of domains that will provide the freedom of action required by the mission.”

While there is much detailed work needed to implement this approach to naval warfare, SNB itself is a simple philosophy designed to inform our doctrine, training and investment decisions; it is commander’s intent for our naval force development. Further, it is completely compatible with Air-Sea Battle. It is the philosophy that provides context for the capability needs identified in the limited concept of ASB.

The Joint Force and Beyond

It is important that we not let our current focus on systems of systems, or the tenor of our current ASB discussion, obscure the fact that A2/AD efforts reflect military/political objectives that can be achieved by means other than arms. As history shows, from the Peloponnesian War to the present, keeping an adversary at a distance can also be accomplished by political means, the intelligent use of geography and, more recently, through the threat of weapons of mass destruction or various combinations of technical and nontechnical means. Thus, a successful counter requires a comprehensive strategic approach that includes a whole-of-government response, especially among the military services, Special Operations Command and the State Department, to ensure that we can bring to bear the right combination of economic, diplomatic, political and military resources.

Finally, we recognize the importance of the system-on-system approach taken by the ASB concept developers, and we are working as full members of the joint ASB team to develop and implement our unique contributions to the concept. But we also recognize the importance of the broader dimensions of the A2/AD challenge, beyond technical means, as described in the JOAC. The Capstone Concept for Joint Operations also makes clear, in its articulation of globally integrated operations, that all elements of the joint force have a role to play in defeating enemy A2/AD systems. Just as genetic variation is important in nature, the increased diversity in approaches, and the varied attributes provided by all elements of the joint force, will bring a range of capabilities essential to our response to emergent A2/AD threats.

The Corps’ Role

Within the ASB construct, the Marine Corps provides unique contributions to the gene pool. In particular, increased participation by the Corps, SOCOM and the Army in developing strategies to handle threats to access will complement the symmetrical, strike-centric orientation of the current ASB concept.

Two elements of the Marine Corps response to this new paradigm are our efforts to develop distributed ground maneuver, and dispersed aviation basing and employment. Mobility, reduced signatures and increased numbers of operating areas will greatly complicate adversary tracking and targeting systems and help shape their overall strategic calculus.

In operating areas ranged by theater ballistic missiles, our most effective counter will be sea-based mobility and VSTOL-enabled, dispersed tactical aircraft basing, coupled with forward arming and refueling locations. The Corps’ F-35B strike fighter will allow us to get within engagement range quickly and remain there persistently. Its short takeoff and landing capability allows dispersed basing and forward arming and refueling options that substantially increase sortie generation and survivability in the contested space. The new America-class amphibious assault ships, which will provide the target engagement capacities of a 1980s-era supercarrier, will offer a viable alternative to placing larger carriers within ballistic missile threat rings.

These new doctrines and systems will allow the Marine Corps to carry out, despite the proliferation of A2/AD capabilities, the traditional functions of forward-deployed naval forces. Such forces can develop situational awareness, provide a physical manifestation of resolve, create effects promptly when required, and deliver lethal effects with great discrimination. Our physical presence encourages friends and allies in ways that technical systems cannot. Ground forces associated with Marine Expeditionary Units and Marine Expeditionary Brigades can hold and secure locations for sea control missions, reinforce allies or occupy disputed territories.

Forward-deployed naval forces’ abilities to strike with a full range of ground, aviation and cyber capabilities provide command authorities with a range of options, which the Joint Operating Concept for Deterrence Operations notes is key to deterrence. A credible deterrent requires executable options that do not threaten general war. Forward-deployed forces with ground and aviation components provide an important added rung in the escalation ladder, thus providing command authorities increased options to create necessary suasion without resort to large-scale missile exchanges or blinding campaigns. Escalation control is critically important in contests involving nuclear-armed adversaries.

Our advances also position the Marine Corps for missions that are expected to grow in importance, such as working with special operations forces to support nonproliferation regimes and counterproliferation activities through a variety of missions.

To evolve beyond the ASB concept, fully implement Single Naval Battle and ensure our fitness for future competitions, we must expand our study of emergent threats and adapt to meet them. We must not assume we have the market cornered on technical innovation. We must expect to be surprised and work diligently to explore, discover, and learn so that we are not. AFJ