A2/AD capabilities and global security environment

In recent years‭, ‬there has been substantial discussion on whether and how anti-access/area denial‭ (‬A2‭/‬AD‭) ‬capabilities are changing the global security environment‭. ‬A growing number of‭ (‬state‭) ‬actors are opting for A2‭/‬AD capabilities as a way to stand up to adversaries that are generally considered militarily superior‭. ‬A strong defensive posture can raise the costs of attack so high‭, ‬that a potential adversary would not even try‭. ‬

This makes A2‭/‬AD an important warfare tool of deterrence‭. ‬But there is nothing truly new‭, ‬nor truly remarkable about the concept‭. ‬Throughout history‭, ‬rivaling powers have tried to deny each other access to critical areas and assets‭. ‬This dynamic was already present in the clash between Athens and Syracuse‭, ‬more than 25‭ ‬centuries ago‭. ‬In another historical example‭, ‬in 1915‭, ‬the Ottomans dotted the Dardanelles with naval mines and defeated a naval operation staged by the UK‭, ‬the French‭, ‬Austria and Russia in‭ ‬the narrow but important waterway between Europe and Asia‭. ‬Another example was the‭ ‬“missile wall”‭ ‬by Turkey‭, ‬Syria and Egypt against Israel during the 1973‭ ‬war‭. 

While the principles behind A2‭/‬AD have long existed‭, ‬technological developments and changes in global and regional power constellations‭, ‬have revived the concept‭. ‬Unfortunately‭, ‬A2‭/‬AD is often used as a buzzword‭, ‬in which important nuances are lost‭. ‬Whereas it is exactly those nuances that matter for military strategists and operational commanders‭. ‬This article looks into the current A2‭/‬AD challenge‭, ‬assesses the slight differences between the strategies and capabilities of China and Russia and draws some conclusion on their impact on military thinking and the way the West handles this‭.‬

Increasing sophistication and proliferation of A2‭/‬AD capabilities‭ ‬

The strategic principle behind the concept of A2‭/‬AD is one of all times‭, ‬but its practice has changed throughout history‭. ‬Currently‭, ‬these changes are taking place at two important levels‭:‬

‭(‬1‭) ‬The increasing sophistication of A2‭/‬AD capabilities‭. ‬Missiles tend to take central stage and they are getting ever faster‭, ‬travelling at hypersonic speeds of Mach 5‭ (‬five times the speed of sound‭) ‬and far more‭. ‬Aerodynamism makes that they can much better conceal what the actual target is than missiles travelling along a specific arc‭. ‬At the same time‭, ‬strikes are getting more‭ ‬precise‭. ‬Armed‭ (‬swarms of‭) ‬drones are entering the battlefield and systems get ever more truly integrated‭. ‬Cyber space is also adding new A2‭/‬AD possibilities‭. ‬Denial of internet-based operability and jamming in the electromagnetic spectrum can be just as harmful as denying access to physical environments‭.‬

‭(‬2‭) ‬The proliferation of A2‭/‬AD capabilities‭. ‬For decades‭, ‬the US and some of its NATO partners had such political and military overweight‭, ‬that they could operate pretty much uninhibited in every corner of the world‭. ‬But a large number of states is acquiring capabilities such as precision-guided munition and long-range weapons with the aim of building up defensive A2‭/‬AD postures to‭ ‬hinder the US and others‭. ‬This proliferation is giving way to a more contested military-strategic context and helps in levelling the military-technological playing field‭. ‬The most important‭ ‬“trend setters”‭ ‬in this regard are China and Russia‭.‬

China‭: ‬A2‭/‬AD capabilities to claim back control over the Pacific

In the early 1990s‭, ‬China decided to accelerate the modernization of the People Liberation Army‭ (‬PLA‭) ‬and to push for advanced military capabilities‭. ‬A2‭/‬AD capabilities became an important element of that modernization‭. ‬The reason was that China was concerned about the dominance of the US in the Gulf War‭. ‬China’s objective was first and foremost to decrease the room for maneuver of the US armed forces‭ (‬and potentially others‭) ‬in the waters surrounding China‭. ‬China wanted to be in control over what it considers its own backyard‭. ‬

The Chinese A2‭/‬AD strategy rests on a number of connected elements‭, ‬most notably missiles‭, ‬sensors and newly constructed artificial islands that can serve as military bases‭. ‬In 2016‭, ‬a Rocket Force was established with a number of different missiles for different purposes‭. ‬The DF-41‭, ‬for example‭, ‬can reach the US mainland‭. ‬The DF-26‭ ‬is geared towards reducing the usefulness of US military bases in the Pacific‭, ‬such as Guam and Okinawa‭. ‬The missile is therefore nicknamed‭ ‬“the Guam killer”‭. ‬The force is also endowed with a‭ ‬“carrier killer”‭, ‬the DF-21‭ ‬medium-range ballistic missile platform‭, ‬even though it is unclear whether it has actually been tested against a moving target‭. ‬China is extending the range from which it can conduct military operations with a number of artificial islands and military facilities on them‭. ‬China also invests heavily in space-based satellites and sensors which helps China to dispose of full coverage of its surrounding waters and to build up a precise picture of a target’s location‭. ‬

Russia‭: ‬A2‭/‬AD capabilities for a decisive‭, ‬first mover advantage‭ 

Russia‭, ‬just like as it did at the height of the power of the Soviet Union‭, ‬invests heavily in A2‭/‬AD capabilities‭. ‬It deploys them around the Baltic states‭, ‬the Black Sea‭, ‬the Eastern Mediterranean and the Arctic‭, ‬areas of strategic importance for Russia‭. ‬The military objective that Russia has with these capabilities is slightly different from the Chinese aim of keeping the Americans out‭. ‬That is also not so surprising‭, ‬as Russia‭, ‬first and foremost‭, ‬is a continental land power operating in a significantly‭ ‬distinct geographical context than China does‭. ‬Russia actually expects the US to be the aggressor and that the US will not be deterred to stay out of the conflict theater in case of escalation‭. ‬Russia’s strategy is therefore based on the idea that the first moments of war will be decisive‭. ‬Its‭ (‬Russia‭) ‬A2‭/‬AD capabilities are as‭ ‬such not put in place to interdict‭, ‬but rather to defend and to attack‭, ‬to disorganize the adversary and to cause attrition‭. ‬Russia’s chief of General Staff‭, ‬General Valery Gerasimov‭, ‬calls this the‭ ‬‘active defense strategy’‭, ‬emphasizing initiative and preemption‭.‬

Russia has stationed aircraft and submarines and deployed new surface-to-air missiles in its enclave Kaliningrad‭, ‬in the Baltics‭. ‬Around Crimea‭, ‬Russia has introduced air-defence systems such as the Almaz Antey S-400‮ ‬Triumf‮ ‬medium‭- ‬and long-range surface-to-air missile system‭. ‬In Crimea‭, ‬Russia also combines subsonic and supersonic coastal-defence missiles‭. ‬At Tartus in Syria‭, ‬Russia deploys strategic weapons such as the advanced S-300‭ ‬and PANTSIR‭ (‬SA-22‭) ‬air defense systems‭, ‬the Yakhont land-to-sea anti-ship missile systems‭, ‬Iskander short-range ballistic missile‭, ‬long-range detection systems‭, ‬and electronic warfare systems‭. ‬Russian aircraft deployed at a base near the port of Tartus‭, ‬is apparently intended to provide air‭ ‬“umbrella”‭ ‬to the Russian navy operating in the Mediterranean‭. ‬

Changing the security environment and military adaptation

The strategy and capabilities built up by China are largely considered to be sufficient to deter the US in the Pacific‭. ‬This‭ ‬‘success’‭ ‬has inspired other‭, ‬less powerful states to try copy the A2‭/‬AD playbook in order to gain regional influence and to decrease the‭ ‬room for maneuver of others‭. ‬A larger number of states are acquiring more destructive‭, ‬faster capabilities and their range is getting extended‭. ‬This growing sophistication and the proliferation of these‭ ‬“defensive”‭ ‬capabilities are adding to a new military-technological paradigm‭, ‬which will require new ways of thinking at the strategic‭, ‬operational and tactical levels‭. ‬At the strategic level‭, ‬the security environment is moving towards a mature precision strike context and the‭ ‬“power to hurt”‭ ‬is likely to become a more prevalent theory of victory‭. ‬At the operational level‭, ‬the conduct of forced entry operations and expeditionary missions are likely to change‭. ‬And at the tactical level‭, ‬for example‭, ‬integrated systems are increasingly crucial‭, ‬thereby also growing the importance of electronic warfare and space-based assets‭.‬

NATO is well aware of the potential psychological effect of Russia’s powerplay on its Baltic and Eastern European members‭. ‬Afterall‭, ‬maintaining access to a war theatre affecting any of the alliance members constitutes the bedrock of its collective defense‭. ‬To provide the necessary confidence to its periphery‭, ‬NATO decided in 2016‭ ‬on the deployment of a so-called Enhanced Forward Presence‭ (‬eFP‭), ‬consisting of four multinational battlegroups stationed in Estonia‭, ‬Latvia‭, ‬Lithuania and Poland‭. ‬Led by the UK‭, ‬Canada‭, ‬Germany and the US‭, ‬these battlegroups are like trip wire that would have any Russian aggression escalate into a war involving the alliance‭. ‬NATO has also created a Very High Joint Readiness Task Force‭ (‬VJTF‭), ‬consisting of 5,000‭ ‬troops able to deploy at short notice‭. ‬Plus‭, ‬it urges the development of necessary capabilities within its framework for capability development‭ (‬the NATO Defense Planning Process‭). ‬

With regard to China‭, ‬the US is anticipating the possibility of having to engage in a counter A2‭/‬AD campaign‭. ‬In such a scenario‭, ‬it is less relying on NATO‭, ‬which has Russia as its main focus‭. ‬The US joint doctrine mandates that the US Armed Forces‭ ‬“must be capable of deploying and fighting to gain access to geographical areas controlled by forces hostile to U.S‭. ‬interest‭.‬”‭ ‬The US conducts exercises for forcible joint entry operations‭, ‬such as in September 2020‭ ‬as part of the exercise Defender Pacific 20‭.  ‬As in reality‭, ‬the exercise scenario was not so much about a direct escalation between the US and China‭, ‬but about a‭  ‬clash between China and a smaller Asian nation with a mutual defense treaty with the US‭ ‬–‭ ‬which as a result triggered an unintended great-power showdown‭.‬

By‭: ‬Dr‭. ‬Saskia van Genugten
A Senior Research Fellow in the MENA Peace‭ & ‬Security Prograamme of the Emirates Diplomatic Academy‭ (‬EDA‭) ‬in Abu Dhabi‭)‬

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