Out of Balance: Rebalancing Access and Overcoming Denial

Nathan Finney, Brett Friedman and Jon Klug

Out of Balance: Rebalancing Access and Overcoming Denial
To cite this article: Finney, Nathan, Friedman, Brettand & Klug, Jon, “Out of Balance: Rebalancing Access and Overcoming Denial”, Military Operations, Volume 2, Issue No. 1, Winter 2014, pages 8-11.

‘A ship’s a fool to fight a fort.’ – Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, British Royal Navy

Against a backdrop of shrinking defense budgets and a diminishing military commitment in Afghanistan, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has developed several concepts to address future defense challenges. Among those challenges, the proliferation of anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) capabilities has drawn the most attention. Enabled by cheap, easily acquired, yet advanced weapons, potential adversaries are building the capability to contest access to the global commons to a degree not seen since the demise of the Soviet Union and the decline of its navy. To combat this rising A2/AD threat, the U.S. Air-Sea Battle Office has proposed the Air-Sea Battle concept (ASB). This concept is, naturally, primarily focused on the technology and processes that maintain freedom of movement in the air and at sea. Whilst the ability to defeat A2/AD is vital, we argue that DOD should write about and communicate ASB as only one piece of a larger set of concepts. The DOD should also avoid allowing the ASB to drift to become more than a concept for A2/AD. Recent discussion of ASB has included the use of precision strikes to change an opponent’s strategic calculus, such as the debate between Harry Kazianis and William Yale in The Diplomat.[i] This carries the danger of being conflated with ASB: while related, strategic precision strikes are a separate concept and a separate discussion. The U.S. also needs to demonstrate effort in developing other concepts, such as land operations, to reassure American allies and potential coalition partners that the U.S. military has the capability to do more than remain behind a blockade, which would leave these partners potentially exposed.

Whilst ASB may have been initially intended as an operational concept to defeat Chinese A2/AD efforts, it has expanded beyond its original scope. ASB has been criticized for, among other things, being a justification for more advanced technological systems to solve tactical problems.[ii] In fact, Undersecretary of the Navy Robert Work has described the concept as, ‘winning a two-sided guided munitions salvo competition in order to facilitate concurrent and follow on operations.’[iii] Those follow on operations, however, are absent from the concept. Seen from this angle, ASB needs to be limited to only countering A2/AD. To assure this, facilitate other concurrent or follow-on operations, and reassure our potential coalition partners, additional concepts are required.

Before further debating8 ASB, the U.S. needs to recognize and discuss the conceptual gaps left unaddressed, and to discuss the concepts for larger long-range precision strike and other offshore capabilities which are very likely to be required in addition to overcoming A2/AD. Only after developing this array of concepts will there be a set of all the tools necessary. The larger conceptual gap above and around ASB stems from the fact that ASB was originally developed in isolation by services and was not ‘born joint’ or ‘born combined’. ASB’s origin, however, can be overcome with additional work. ASB and its associated concepts should take into account the integral littoral and ground capabilities required for assuring access and incorporating likely U.S. coalition partners.

History shows that anti-access capabilities, specifically shore defenses, cannot be overcome with air and naval surface fires alone. Substantial pre-landing bombardments were standard procedure in both the Pacific and European Theatres during World War II. Despite aerial and naval fires, Axis defenders exacted high costs from the Allies on defended beaches, such as Tarawa and Normandy. Given adequate time and resources land forces are able to improve and conceal their positions and defend against amphibious or airborne attacks. Additionally, adversaries will attempt to deceive us into striking false targets while leaving actual combat power largely untouched.[iv] As Captain Wayne P. Hughes, Jr. stated in his seminal work Fleet Tactics, ‘strikes may in all instances be necessary but they will not in all instances be sufficient to achieve a national military purpose…[and] a fleet is incomplete which has no elements that can operate in waters next to the enemy coast.’[v] Joint fires are essential to successfully suppressing or destroying A2/AD capabilities; however, the tactical and operational effects of joint fires are always temporary in nature.

Long-range precision strikes are being touted as a sufficient approach to strategic problems as part of the debate surrounding ASB. While long-range precision strikes intended to have strategic effects are not part of ASB, these strikes can certainly be used in conjunction with ASB. In fact, the tactical, operational, and strategic effects of joint fires should be examined; however, muddling the ASB concept with a concept for long-range precision strikes is hazardous both conceptually and due to the message it sends to potential enemies and coalition partners. Additionally, ASB needs to have a partner concept that addresses projecting land power ashore, thereby avoiding the ‘over-investment in strike warfare at the expense of other critical power-projection capabilities.’[vi] Together, ASB and a concept for joint forced entry of land forces need to support the Joint Operational Access Concept.[vii]

Amphibious Operations in Joint Forcible Entry

One of the most important of the capabilities that provide land power for forcible entry is amphibious forces. These forces will typically be introduced due to the fact that enemy defenses ashore must be reduced to a level where shipping can get close enough. The exception to this is the seizure of offshore islands. The importance of such islands is increased by more sophisticated surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles. While these islands can be used to extend the reach of A2/AD systems, they are also a ‘chink in the armor’ as they can be easily isolated from the rest of the system. Additionally, once seized, they can be turned against the erstwhile defenders by providing the attackers with a location for offshore surface fires, usually in the form of surface missile systems like the multiple launch rocket system or high mobility artillery rocket system.

The key to success in amphibious operations is to transition as much combat power from ship to shore as quickly as possible. Once A2/AD systems are suppressed and reduced by air and naval forces, amphibious forces will need to flood the enemy’s defense and ‘mop up’ dislocated and remaining defensive positions. Since some camouflaged and underground defensive positions will inevitably survive initial air and naval bombardments, these remaining positions will need to be eliminated by boot and bullet. The introduction of amphibious forces also hardens the lodgment against enemy counterattacks from further inland and assists in preparing the lodgment for the introduction of follow-on forces.

Amphibious forces are ideal for building up mass ashore as quickly as possible. The key to this ability is not the amphibious forces themselves, as specially trained troops are not necessarily required. Rather, the key is the availability of sufficient amphibious shipping and ship-to-shore connectors. While protection is important, it is far more important to have enough simple, reliable connectors to get as many troops ashore as possible. For acquisitions, planners should shy away from attempts to acquire ‘leap ahead’ technology in ship-to-shore connectors, such as the U.S. Marine Corps’ recent disastrous attempt to acquire the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV), and instead seek more cost-effective connectors that can be purchased in sufficient numbers to fulfil their primary purpose: rapid build-up ashore.

Most professional militaries maintain troops dedicated to certain environments or specific types of operation, like mountain or airborne units. Amphibious troops have been an essential component of maritime powers since ancient Greece; this remains true today. As Major General McKenzie mentioned in a recent article in the Armed Forces Journal, ‘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.’[vii] This applies to operations that may occur simultaneously or sequentially with ASB. Similarly, the ability to transport troops from any service ashore is the central purpose and task in overcoming A2/AD systems and exploiting the access gained. It is also arguably the most important critical vulnerability for the joint force during the operation: if troops are unable to seize a lodgment ashore, the mission is not and will not be accomplished. Therefore, the ship-to-shore connection is the single point of failure for any operation that means to overcome A2/AD systems.

Unfortunately, the United States and many other nations can only boast ageing technical capabilities in this area. The cancellation of the botched EFV, while appropriate due to mismanagement of the program, has left a vacuum that risks access around the world. The EFV was to replace the Marine Corps’ obsolescent Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV). The U.S. Navy can utilize the Landing Craft, Air Cushioned (LCAC) vehicle and the future Ship-to-Shore Connector (SSC), but the hovercraft offer little protection to troops embarked. Similar drawbacks plus more limited range plague the Landing Craft Utility (LCU). Other options like small boat teams and troops delivered ashore via submersibles are more clandestine, but can deliver few troops with limited firepower. The Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV) is promising but will not be capable of extending ashore like the existing AAV and is not designed for contested areas of operation. The vital need for a modern amphibious assault platform was recognized by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, the intellectual grandfather of the ASB concept, and they recommended the development of such a vehicle.[ix] While any amphibious effort linked to A2/AD could involve all of these assets, they are insufficient to guarantee a timely buildup of combat power ashore.

While the United States Marine Corps is one of the largest amphibious forces in the world, it is not large enough to overcome significant A2/AD defenses by itself. Indeed, this has historically been the case. Marine Corps-led amphibious operations usually involved U.S. Army support or combat units. For example, the Army’s Americal division replaced the First Marine Division on Guadalcanal after the Marines had fought the Japanese for several brutal months. The battle for Okinawa is another example as both Army and Marine divisions conducted an amphibious landing and fought throughout the campaign. Additionally, the Marine Corps is the smallest U.S. military service and is dependent on support from other services. NATO and coalition partner forces involved in amphibious operations would be in a similar situation. The support of ground troops ashore will be an essential task for the naval and the air forces for operations that may be associated with ASB. Additionally, if an operation lasts longer than a few weeks, the size and robustness of army forces and their logistical systems are required. From setting the theater to expanding lodgments for follow-on forces, army capabilities will be required.


There are three main areas necessary to maintain the capability to conduct joint forcible entry operations and, at the same time, demonstrate commitment to allies and potential partners, in support of an ASB concept focused on defeating A2/AD. These include equipment and technological solutions, dual-service concept development, and greater inclusion of land power in future joint access programs.


First, it is in the vital interest of land forces to have technological assets that can get their troops from ship to contested shore in a quick and safe manner. While marine forces in most Western nations, whose core competency is amphibious operations, would typically lead the development of a new amphibious assault vehicle, army forces must contribute both ideas and resources to their development. The resultant program would not be wed to an EFV-like vehicle but should examine a multitude of options to address technological and conceptual gaps. To conduct this development, an example working group could include the fusion of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Ellis Group and the U.S. Chief of Staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group. These internal think tanks, which have counterparts in most Allied militaries, could be convened to work on the strategic requirements of such capabilities and then oversee their development through the acquisitions and testing processes. Additionally, any U.S. efforts in this area could consult similar groups in potential coalition partners, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nations and the America, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand Armies Program, or ABCA, which includes the U.S. and Royal Marines.

However, it is less important to have the most technologically advanced equipment money can provide than it is to be able to purchase amphibious ships and ship-to-shore connectors, both surface and aerial, in sufficient numbers to arrive at lodgment points and deliver sizable land forces ashore. Leap-ahead technology is necessarily expensive, and a fiscally constrained environment around the globe will necessitate the purchase of fewer assets; however, the delivery of ground forces ashore is not a capability where less can equal more. The most important factor in amphibious joint forcible entry is the rapid buildup of combat power ashore. Minimalism is incompatible with achieving access; quality is important, but it must be balanced with quantity.

Dual-service concepts

In addition to acquisitions, the development of dual-service concepts on transitioning from securing a beachhead to supporting the in-flow of additional land forces for deeper penetration is required. Historically for the U.S., securing lodgments ashore has been the Marine Corps’ mission, although the U.S. Army has trained for the task as well. The development and training of marine and army forces together, particularly for the subsequent exploitation by both forces of an amphibious landing, has been underdeveloped in recent years. This is also true with respect to large combined amphibious training with likely partner nations.

In the future, should coalition forces be required to directly overcome an A2/AD system, the sole mission for U.S. and partner marine forces may be to gain and maintain a beachhead to allow heavier army forces access to the interior of the country, exploiting success that can then be translated into deeper operational objectives by both marine and army forces. In operations to gain access, the Marine Corps and partner nation marine forces could be required to provide the vital bridging mission between initial access on shore and the reaching of strategic objectives farther inland by heavier army forces with marine support.

In the U.S., the Gaining and Maintaining Access Concept developed jointly between the Marine Corps and the Army is a good first step in the direction of developing these capabilities, but much work remains.[x] The two services must foster more conversations, concept development, wargaming, and dual-service capability requirements. Additionally, the U.S. must reach out to allies and potential coalition partners to build combined capabilities and confidence.

Joint Concepts

Development of amphibious entry concepts that take into account contemporary A2/AD threats and tie in with ASB, including the sequencing or simultaneous use of complementary operations, is necessary. The current tranche of concepts was developed without enough consideration of, and concern for, the realities of joint entry, amphibious or otherwise. These concepts and the ASB concept should be subsumed into a future, truly joint strategic concept that ties together the Joint Operational Access Concept, Air-Sea Battle, Gaining and Maintaining Access, joint forcible entry, and the new requirements determined by the above recommendations. Concurrent similar efforts in NATO and organizations such as ABCA are also required.

The current U.S. Air-Sea Battle Office, joined together with elements of the USMC Ellis Group and the Army Chief of Staff’s Strategic Studies Group, could be used as a nucleus to form the development team under the auspices of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to redesign a 21st Century access concept. Using Joint Publication 3-18 Joint Forcible Entry as a point of departure, this effort should design a new, truly joint concept that utilizes assets from every branch of service, leveraging expertise on land power and amphibious operations as well as air and naval power. Again, multinational fora should be involved in these ongoing efforts.

Additionally, rather than working under a shroud of secrecy as has been the norm for ASB, the development team should also seek to collaborate with applicable schools. For example, in the 1930s, the amphibious doctrine that helped US forces advance to victory in the Central Pacific Operations Area during WWII was written by the students of Marine Corps University – which shut down for a year to complete the task – and wargamed by the Naval War College.[xi] The intellectual capital needed to tackle these issues is resident in DOD, but it has thus far gone untapped.

One Way Forward

The U.S. Navy and Air Force are correct that a new scheme for gaining and maintaining access and combatting area-denial threats is necessary in the current and future operating environment, for our allies as well as solely U.S. forces. That being said, there are larger concerns that must be addressed in addition to ASB. First, other concepts are required, including concepts that include allied and possible coalition partner forces. Separate concepts are needed for precision strikes intended to have strategic effects and for combined joint forced entry operations. Changes in technology alone demand new conceptual work for amphibious operations. It is up to land-centric forces to create the concepts needed to balance the concepts related to ASB, building the additional intellectual framework for potential broader requirements. It takes little pressure for marines to focus on forcible entry as a concept of maneuver, but the mishandling of the EFV program has created a critical vulnerability for the entire joint force in terms of technical capability. History shows that soldiers may also be called upon to fight for access.

Despite the current budgetary challenges to DOD and other nations’ defense establishments, the U.S. joint force and likely coalition partners must address the problem of A2/AD and incorporating ASB with other operations in a more integrated and cooperative manner. No concept or investment in our Armed Services is worthwhile if it does not address key strategic issues of today and the future. This must be done through a better prioritization of material acquisition, joint training and doctrine development, and an integrated development of concepts for joint forcible entry operations tied to the ASB concept. Additionally, all aspects of these issues need to be discussed in appropriate multinational groups and fora. In short, we must rebalance our approach to access.


[i] Harry Kazianis, ‘Air-Sea Battle 2.0: A Global A2/AD Response,’ The Diplomat, 14 November 2013, http://thediplomat.com/2013/11/air-sea-battle-2-0-a-global-a2ad-response/, accessed 13 Dec 2013; William Yale, ‘Air-Sea Battle Isn’t Misunderstood,’ The Diplomat, 1 December 2013, http://thediplomat.com/2013/12/air-sea-battle-isnt-misunderstood/, accessed 13 December 2013.
[ii] Robert C. Boyles, ‘A U.S. Military Force-Political Objective Disconnect: Assessments and Assumptions Matter’, Infinity Journal. Winter 2010. Pages 15-18.
[iii] Douglas Macgregor and Young J. Kim. ‘Air-Sea Battle: Something’s Missing.’ Armed Forces Journal, http://www.armedforcesjournal.com/2012/04/9772607/, accessed 13 March 2013.
[iv] Benjamin Lambeth, NATO’s Air War for Kosovo: A Strategic and Operational Assessment (Washington, DC: RAND, 2001), page 130.
[v] Hughes, Wayne P., Jr., Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, 2nd Edition (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000), pages 249–50.
[vi] James W. Hammond III, ‘A Fleet Out of Balance,’ Proceedings, February 2013, pages 38-43.
[vii] Department of Defense, Joint Operational Access Concept, Version 1.0, 17 January 2012, www.defense.gov/pubs/pdfs/JOAC_Jan%202012_Signed.pdf, accessed 28 February 2013, page 1.
[viii] Kenneth McKenzie, ‘Naval power and the future of assured access,’ Armed Forces Journal, January 2013, http://www.armedforcesjournal.com/2013/01/12842317, accessed 29 November 2013.
[ix] Christopher Doughtery and Mark Gunzinger, ‘Outside In: Operating from Range to Defeat Iran’s Anti-Access and Area Denial Threats,’ Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2011, page 91.
[x] Department of Defense, Gaining and Maintaining Access: An Army-Marine Corps Concept, Version 1.0, March 2012, http://www.defenseinnovationmarketplace.mil/resources/Army%20Marine%20Corp%20Gaining%20and%20Maintaining%20Access.pdf, accessed 13 December 2013.
[xi] Victor H. Krulak, First to Fight: An Inside View of the U.S. Marine Corps (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1999), pages 80-81.