The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Levee en Masse–but it’s only an operational concept!

August 9, 2013

Over at the National Interest T.X. Hamnes has a nice critique of AirSea Battle, seemingly the Pentagon’s reigning  strategy…sorry, operational concept…for dealing with a rising China and the problem of Anti-Access/Area Denial (for the official overview, see here).  I expect I’ll be writing a bit on ASB during my time at the Duck, so I won’t try to engage in every debate in the first post. For now I’ll limit myself to one question Hamnes raises: does it make any sense to talk about an operational concept as isolated from strategy?

Some quick background.  The argument that ASB is an operational concept, rather than a strategy, is a key point for those claiming that ASB is not the destabilizing offensive strategy its critics contend.  ASB, in this argument, is not a strategy, but “an analysis of the threat and a set of classified concepts of operations (CONOPS) describing how to counter and shape A2/AD environments, both symmetrically and asymmetrically, and develop an integrated force with the necessary characteristics and capabilities to succeed in those environments.”  You see, it’s a concept.  There’s no enemy, certainly not the Chinese!  There’s no specified end goal, such as controlling someone’s mainland or shipping lanes or whatnot.  It’s just about dealing with A2/AD situations more efficiently.

How does one evaluate an operational concept apart from a larger strategy?  I admittedly am having some trouble understanding this position.  Operational concepts are effective only insofar as they fit with an overall military strategy, and we can only evaluate the effectiveness of an operational concept by understanding how it furthers strategic ends in terms of a well-defined threat.  How are we supposed to evaluate whether ASB is effective if it fails to specify ultimate aims?

Moreover, do we expect somehow that ASB will not be seen as offensive because it is a mere operational concept?  I was talking to a colleague about this recently, and neither of us could wrap our head around this  logic.*  Perhaps von Moltke was simply proposing a nice way to integrate railroads and the mass army and deal with the problem of overwhelming firepower.  And blitzkrieg was merely designed to get tanks, infantry, and planes working well together for efficiently.  Yes, in this light, it is indeed puzzling why France spent over a century worrying about Germany’s operational concepts.

This is not to say that ASB might not be a single operational concept considered appropriate to multiple threats and ends in international security.  But even here, discussing  strategic context is critical to evaluating the operational concept, and it is not helpful for ASB’s supporters to elide these larger questions of strategy.

*Much credit due to Paul MacDonald for these examples.

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