The “Joint Operational Access Concept” – first look disappoints

The “Joint Operational Access Concept” – first look disappoints

Posted on January 25th, 2012 in Blog, Services, Top Picks

On January 17th, the Pentagon released version 1.0 of the Joint Operational Access Concept (1.5 MB PDF file). By the standards of joint doctrine, it makes for interesting reading and introduces new ideas. By most other standards, it disappoints, and perhaps raises more questions than it answers. Its stated purpose is to be an overarching concept for things such as air-sea battle; it mostly succeeds in this, largely because it is so broad and general that almost anything could be encompassed. But it concludes with a discussion of “risks” that casts doubt on how vigorously DoD will follow through.

The authors say the document “describes how future joint forces will achieve operational access in the face of [antiaccess/area-denial] strategies.” But that implies a countervailing strategy–which it’s not. The JOAC really doesn’t describe “how”–the ideas presented are too broad and unfocused. It is more of a catalog of generally good rules of thumb. There is no attempt to weave them together into a real operational approach–nor would you expect this in an unclassified publication. Still, as a guide to what US forces can or should do when faced with improved A2AD capabilities, even at the “concept” level, it falls short. Its central idea is “cross-domain synergy”–which hardly seems new or innovative. It also sounds more like consultant-speak than military operations.

The JOAC includes other things one might expect in a joint doctrine document. Many pages on process, defining terms and cataloging threats, a set of “precepts” (see below) that seem quite commonplace, and  30 required “operational capabilities,” which are little more than a rehash of standard principles of war. From a Service perspective, the JOAC contains something for everyone: the need for permanent bases, expeditionary bases, austere operations, working with allies/establishing agreements, naval forces, and so forth. As a guide to priorities for future acquisition, it’s of little use.

The JOAC does contain a perhaps belated recognition of “Emerging Trends,” which are:

  1. The dramatic improvement and proliferation of weapons and other technologies capable of denying access to or freedom of action within an operational area.
  2. The changing U.S. overseas defense posture.
  3. The emergence of space and cyberspace as increasingly important and contested domains.

Hardly new or surprising. These “trends” do incorporate ideas from recent DoD documents on cyber and the National Security Space Strategy, and including those “domains” along with air and space is a sign of a bureaucratic victory of sorts, and an ongoing evolution of thinking in DoD. Still, the trends are presented more as a grudging acknowledgment than as the basis of new thinking.

Perhaps the most interesting point: the “Risks of Adopting this Concept” (Chapter 11, pp 36-38) are more specific and hard-hitting than anything else in the document. Rather odd–presenting a more forceful “con” argument than the case in favor of “Joint Operational Access.” Just a sign of thorough planning and anticipation? Or an indication of the strength of internal DoD opposition to the concept? Either way, the impression that emerges is of a concept that will have a hard time becoming real.