‘Access’ Challenges in Expeditionary Operations
by Lawrence P. Farrell, Jr.
One of the predominant themes in recent Defense Department strategic reviews
and blue-ribbon panel studies has been the “access” problem that
U.S. forces increasingly are expected to encounter in future military operations
around the world. These operations are expected to be, mainly, of an expeditionary
nature—with all that is implied in the word expeditionary.
The access issue became front-page news during the buildup for Operation Iraqi
Freedom, when the Army’s 4th Infantry Division was denied entry into Iraq
through Turkey, and the Air Force had to relocate command operations to Qatar
and other locations, after Saudi Arabia restricted the use of its airspace by
This predicament is not likely to go away, but rather will grow. Each of the
services has looked at ways to work around the access problem. The Air Force,
for example, developed a concept for a “global strike force” that
would rely less on air bases overseas and more on strategic projection of air
power in a “kick down the door” mode—with late generation
stealth fighters and bombers. The Marine Corps and the Navy, particularly, base
their war-fighting doctrine on the projection of power from the sea, highlighting
the value of aircraft carriers and amphibious large-deck ships.
But the Navy alone cannot solve this. In the long term, access is decidedly
a joint problem that requires joint participation.
That was the message heard loud and clear throughout the recent Expeditionary
Warfare Conference that NDIA hosted in Panama City, Fla. That event traditionally
had focused on amphibious operations, and most of the attendees and speakers
came from the Marine Corps and the Navy. Over the years, the amphibious theme
has changed to an expeditionary warfare theme. This year for the first time,
every service was represented, to include the Chief of Staff of the Air Force
Gen. John Jumper; the Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Vernon Clark; the Marine
Corps Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee, the Coast Guard Deputy Commandant, Vice
Adm. Thomas J. Barrett, and Army Brig. Gen. David Fastabend, deputy chief of
staff at the Training and Doctrine Command.
It is encouraging to see the services tackling these issues jointly, because,
in the future, every service’s ability to plan military campaigns will
be affected. As Gen. Hagee noted, the countries that restricted access to U.S.
forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom—Turkey, Austria, Belgium, Saudi
Arabia—are our allies. The fact that friendly nations are becoming sensitive
about hosting U.S. forces should be a wake-up call. “In the future, access
is going to become more difficult,” said Hagee.
Eventually, the services will need to develop a joint vision and concept of
operations for how to tackle these challenges. But Gen. Jumper cautioned that
the services still have a long way to go toward achieving joint operational
concepts. “Joint conops have not gotten off to a roaring start,”
he said. “But we are going to have to pound this through. The chiefs agreed
they have to give some direction.”
He suggested that future discussions should center around the notion of “equivalent
and substitute capabilities” that would focus on what assets can best
meet the mission at hand, regardless of what service provides them. Inter-service
competition so far has made this difficult, and that’s understandable,
because, as Jumper pointed out, the services are largely controlled by programs.
And no service wants to risk losing programs.
Jumper urged the services to overcome their rivalries and think more broadly.
If we need a permanent deployed presence, for example, we ought to be able to
discuss whether a carrier battle group has to be there or whether the requirement
can be filled temporarily by air or ground forces. This would permit the best
possible projection and use of high-demand, high-value assets like carrier battle
For the Army, overcoming the access problem also has emerged as a key challenge
that typically comes up in strategic wargames, according to Brig. Gen. Fastabend.
One solution for the Army would be to have more capable heavy-lift helicopters
or other vertical-takeoff cargo platforms. This would help the Army reduce its
dependence on C-17 and C-130 airlifters, which require long runways and ground
infrastructure. “You need a capability to get into a country away from
the airfields and away from the ports,” Fastabend said.
The expectation that the lack of access will become the U.S. military’s
Achilles heel led the Navy to design a concept for “sea basing,”
whereby the services could assemble, equip and support forces from sea platforms,
without relying on land bases. The Defense Science Board recently explored the
sea basing concept in a detailed report and urged the Defense Department to
support the development of new technologies needed for this effort.
Adm. Clark, who described sea basing as a “sovereign, maneuverable capability
to project power,” said he is hopeful that this concept will be embraced
by all the services, a prerequisite for its success. Although many of the details
still must be worked out, the sea basing concept holds a lot of promise.
As the Defense Department studies potential solutions to the access problem,
it also is important for industry to get involved. Every military official who
addressed the Expeditionary Warfare conference made reference to the key role
industry plays in this important effort. With the nation at war and the uncertainty
about what comes next, the services will be counting on industry to come forward
with innovative ideas that can help solve the challenges ahead.
The access issue, you may recall, was addressed in the most recent Quadrennial
Defense Review. That QDR seems prescient now, as many of its other themes have
surfaced in Operation Iraqi Freedom. These include non-contiguous combat operations;
new combinations of expeditionary and special operations forces; threats from
weak/failing states and non-state actors; off the shelf technologies available
to hostile states and groups; space control/space denial (GPS jammers); joint
integration of forces; integrated mix of UAVs, manned, space, maritime and terrestrial
forces; need to deny sanctuary; regional threats to regional stability, and
the integration of distributed forces. The QDR seems even more relevant now
than when it was written. I recommend that you also take another look at the
QDR. It still is a good blueprint of defense issues, needs and responses.
Please e-mail me your comments to Lfarrell@ndia.org