Redefining AirSea Battle: JAM-GC, China and the Quest for Clarity

The operational concept formerly known as AirSea Battle created quite a stir. Where does its successor, JAM-GC, go from here? 

The unintended consequences of this approach were two. One, it conveyed the impression that Washington reserved the right to kick in the door to various regions for no apparent reason. That’s what happens when military folk hold forth about deploying military force but decline to explain why. Expecting readers to glean the context surrounding AirSea Battle from the mound of directives that explicate U.S. national security strategy was expecting too much. Documents like AirSea Battle and JAM-GC should contain enough larger context to stand alone.

And two, refusing to designate countries intent on access denial reduced potential foes to potted plants. Nameless adversaries were inert, bereft of ingenuity and competitive fire. Or, more precisely, it reduced them to collections of widgets—to squadrons of planes or ships, inventories of bombs and missiles, and sensors and computers. The U.S. military was planning to battle A2/AD networks, not living, breathing opponents who happen to operate access-denial weaponry. Concentrating on hardware abstracts war from its human context.

As military sage Carl von Clausewitz counsels, war is an intensely human endeavor. It pits societies that inhabit distinct geographic settings against one another in a climate suffused with chance, uncertainty, and strong—usually dark—passions like rage, spite, and avarice. That’s why there is no strategy without an adversary.

Its framers should put JAM-GC in context, showing how commanders will execute it in the China seas, the Persian Gulf, and other potentially embattled expanses. At a bare minimum, they should include language elucidating how JAM-GC fits with governing statements about U.S. policy and strategy. If that makes the document feel repetitious, so be it. Repetition is good. The more JAM-GC represents a standalone document, the better. Let’s situate this operational concept in the real world, showing how it will work against real opponents in real combat theaters.

Explain the nature of the campaign:

JAM-GC will persuade readers if it leads them through a coherent narrative about the A2/AD problem and the remedies the Joint Staff is proffering. The document should use maps. How better to illustrate the dilemmas associated with breaking into, say, the South China Sea? Though a big, semi-enclosed sea, it lies far from American shores; it’s not even especially close to forward U.S. bases in Japan, let alone in the Gulf region. U.S. air and sea forces will converge on Southeast Asia along “exterior lines” while PLA defenders move from side to side along “interior lines” in an effort to head off American advances. And so forth: a map is worth a thousand words. Portray basic facts visually.

China, then, will prosecute a strategically defensive campaign from an interior position while unleashing highly offensive tactics to enfeeble hostile forces. Opportunistic tactics and operations will drive up the costs of entry while shifting the balance in China’s favor. And how will a U.S. campaign unfold within this geospatial setting? In all likelihood U.S. forces will reprise their general approach from World War II. Submarines, that is, will venture into contested waters from day one, making life hell for Chinese merchant and naval traffic. Undersea raiders will fan out in what J. C. Wylie calls “cumulative” fashion, launching disparate, small-scale attacks across the map of maritime Asia.

Meanwhile, heavy U.S. air and sea forces will attempt to batter down A2/AD defenses in a “sequential,” linear offensive, steaming across the Pacific to the relief of allies and friends in the region. As strategist Edward Luttwak notes, sequential campaigns involve an operational decision of enormous moment. For Luttwak, in fact, the critical choice in theater strategy is whether forces should advance along a narrow or a broad front.

A broad-front advance is a typical choice for a strong, risk-averse combatant—think the Allied offensive into Germany after D-Day. Such a forces hammers away all along the enemy’s defense perimeter. A narrow front, by contrast, offers a weaker belligerent high rewards at high risk—think Blitzkrieg. Piercing an enemy frontier at one spot and pouring forces through, that is, could yield a quick victory—but at the risk of leaving hostile defenders assaulting the flanks if the advance falters. Worse yet, the offensive force could find itself surrounded and cut off from succor.

How the military balance stacks up—and how confident U.S. commanders are about their countermeasures to A2/AD—will shape American strategy in Eurasian seas. Will U.S. commanders resolve to take down a defender’s entire A2/AD network, or drive a spearhead into a contested sea and accept that naval task forces must do their work under fire?

The Pentagon shouldn’t divulge everything about its strategy, needless to say. No sane commander gives away his playbook. But the JAM-GC document should say enough to convince key audiences that America has compiled a clear view of the challenges before it and devised a robust, affordable, executable strategy for surmounting them. In so doing U.S. commanders can comfort friends and allies while discomfiting—and, with any luck, deterring—prospective antagonists.