Beyond A2/AD: From Outside-in to Mosaic Warfare

For over two decades‭, ‬geostrategic thinkers and military planners have been mesmerized by the growing challenge that anti-access‭ ‬and area denial‭ (‬A2‭/‬AD‭) ‬strategies and capabilities present to US military power‭. ‬At the center of this debate are a range of capabilities that can be used to deny or constrain the entry of opposing forces into a given area of operations and subsequently‭ ‬reduce their maneuverability and effectiveness‭. ‬The starting point of the A2‭/‬AD challenge‭, ‬following a period of unparalleled military dominance by the United States‭, ‬has been the diffusion of precision strike capabilities to US adversaries‭. ‬China and Russia‭, ‬in particular‭, ‬have made major efforts to develop ever-widening A2‭/‬AD arsenals‭, ‬which are central to their efforts to establish spheres of influence‭, ‬that are isolated from US influence‭.‬

Central to these efforts is the ability to disrupt US efforts to amass forces in a theater of operations‭, ‬in case of conflict‭. ‬This requires the ability to cut or interrupt access to strategic infrastructure‭ ‬–‭ ‬such as bases‭, ‬ports‭, ‬and airfields‭ ‬–‭ ‬while limiting the ability of US forces to maneuver freely within striking distance‭. ‬Although initially focused on the air and‭ ‬sea domain‭, ‬US adversaries have increasingly widened their ambitions by developing A2‭/‬AD battle networks that seek to cut across‭ ‬the full spectrum of operations‭, ‬including the land‭, ‬air‭, ‬sea‭, ‬space‭, ‬and cyber domain‭, ‬as well as the electromagnetic environment‭.‬

The growing ability of China‭ ‬–‭ ‬and to some extent Russia‭ ‬–‭ ‬to develop cross-cutting A2‭/‬AD networks has been interpreted by some as spelling the end of a golden era of US power projection‭. ‬In light of these developments‭, ‬some have argued that China is making steady progress shutting the US out of the Western Pacific and East Asia theaters‭. ‬The argument is that by deploying a dispersed network of medium and long-range missiles‭, ‬precision sensors‭, ‬space‭, ‬aerial and naval assets‭, ‬and long-range standoff capabilities‭, ‬China is able to restrict US access to strategic waterways‭, ‬effectively turning them into a Chinese lake‭.‬

Limitations of the A2‭/‬AD Debate

The A2‭/‬AD challenge has had a galvanizing effect on the US military establishment‭, ‬resulting into vast resources being allocated‭ ‬to develop capabilities and concepts that would allow the US to penetrate China’s A2‭/‬AD umbrella‭. ‬In the process‭, ‬A2‭/‬AD has turned into an all-encompassing buzzword that has come to describe a vast array of capability and strategies‭, ‬in the process losing some strategic purpose‭.‬

Thus‭, ‬former US Chief of Naval Operations‭, ‬Admiral John Richardson‭, ‬argued that A2‭/‬AD serves only a limited purpose as a general‭ ‬buzzword‭, ‬but lacks precision and definition‭:‬

“To some‭, ‬A2AD is a code-word‭, ‬suggesting an impenetrable‭ ‬‘keep-out zone’‭ ‬that forces can enter only at extreme peril to themselves‭. ‬To others‭, ‬A2AD refers to a family of technologies‭. ‬To still others‭,‬‭ ‬a strategy‭. ‬In sum‭, ‬A2AD is a term bandied about freely‭, ‬with no precise definition‭, ‬that sends a variety of vague or conflicting signals‭, ‬depending on the context in which it is either transmitted or received‭.‬”‭ ‬

More concretely‭, ‬Richardson highlighted the following three problems with A2‭/‬AD‭:‬

•‭ ‬Different theaters present different challenges and adopting a‭ ‬“one-size-fits-all”‭ ‬approach to A2‭/‬AD is not helpful‭. ‬Instead‭, ‬there is a need to closely tailor strategies and capabilities to the specific theater and context‭, ‬and the specific array of capabilities and technologies of adversaries‭.‬

•‭ ‬A2‭/‬AD in and of itself is not a‭ ‬“novel”‭ ‬concept‭. ‬Military strategy in every age has been about denying your opponent access to strategic territory and constraining his‭ ‬movement‭.‬

•‭ ‬“Access denial”‭ ‬is in itself a misleading terminology and concept‭, ‬as it suggests that this is a strategic objective that is achievable‭, ‬whereas in reality it is more likely to remain an aspiration‭.‬

Other critics have zoomed in on the fact that in and of itself‭, ‬A2‭/‬AD does not change the military balance of power‭ ‬–‭ ‬and that for the time being Russia and China remain at a clear disadvantage vis-à-vis the US‭. ‬While it is unrealistic for US adversaries to use A2‭/‬AD to pose a direct military challenge to US forces‭, ‬it allows them to exploit a temporal advantage‭ (‬ETA‭) ‬to‭ ‬seize an objective and facilitate a political outcome‭.‬

Using the ETA as the starting point‭, ‬recent analysis has sought to shift the focus away from A2‭/‬AD as aiming to create‭ ‬“angry red bubbles”‭ ‬to four distinct processes seeking to shape the temporal advantage‭:‬

1‭ ‬Information degradation and command‭ (‬or cognitive‭) ‬disruption‭ (‬ID/CD‭), ‬which seeks to provide US adversaries a cognitive advantage by attacking US systems in space‭, ‬cyber‭, ‬and the electromagnetic spectrum‭.‬

2‭ ‬Contesting theater access and maneuver‭ (‬CTAM‭), ‬which seeks to limit or delay access by the US to contested areas by raising the‭ ‬associated risks‭, ‬often using inexpensive‭, ‬low-tech technologies‭.‬

3‭ ‬Degrading sustainment‭, ‬logistics‭, ‬and mobility‭ (‬DSLAM‭) ‬is aimed at interrupting or diminishing the complex supply and logistics‭ ‬networks that are crucial for US operations‭.‬

4‭ ‬Strategic actions to deter‭, ‬coerce‭, ‬and terminate‭ (‬SADCAT‭), ‬which can involve a wide spectrum of capabilities‭, ‬from attacks on commercial assets to the threat of nuclear weapons in order to deter escalation and end a potential confrontation to the advantage of the adversary‭.‬

Reconceptualizing and disaggregating A2‭/‬AD along these fields suggests a focus on different capabilities and concepts than the more static initial conceptualization of A2‭/‬AD as focused on‭ ‬“area denial”‭.‬

Outside-in‭: ‬Beating A2‭/‬AD at Range

Military analysts have developed a broad range of approaches that seek to deal with the amorphous A2‭/‬AD challenge‭. ‬An early example of this is the‭ ‬“outside-in”‭ ‬enabling operational concept‭, ‬which relies on dispersed forces at distance to puncture and degrade the adversaries’‭ ‬A2‭/‬AD capabilities before re-establishing US ability to maneuver within theater and to ultimately restore in-theater superiority‭. ‬This process relies on three distinct lines of operations in order to deal with A2‭/‬AD‭:‬

1‭ ‬The development of an enabling operational concept that revolves around dispersing US forces and military assets outside the reach of the anti-access threats of a military adversary‭. ‬This also requires developing key local/regional partnerships‭, ‬developing‭ ‬logistics concepts‭, ‬and setting conditions that would allow for the deployment of US forces to meet probable challenges‭.‬

2‭ ‬The second stage of this concept evolves around operating from range in order to degrade and reduce the effectiveness of any A2‭/‬AD assets‭, ‬undermine the opponents ISR capabilities‭, ‬and successively punch holes into the adversaries offensive and defensive operations‭.‬

3‭ ‬The third stage evolves around the re-establishment of local air‭, ‬maritime‭, ‬and land superiority in pockets‭, ‬in order to enable‭ ‬the force deployments and start operations in theater‭. ‬

This step-by-step approach revolves significantly around a local‭, ‬rather than a temporal‭, ‬view of A2‭/‬AD‭. ‬The focus is on pre-positioning forces strategically‭, ‬developing greater range and impact than the adversary‭, ‬and deploying protected bubbles from which large operations can be prepared‭. ‬This suggests the development and deployment of a specific mix of capabilities‭, ‬including long-range penetrating missiles and bombers‭, ‬carrier systems‭, ‬long-range UAVs‭, ‬precise and impactful stand-off ammunitions‭, ‬cyber‭-‬capabilities‭, ‬and theater missile defenses along other force protection capabilities‭.  ‬While this approach might be effective in‭ ‬specific theaters‭, ‬such as the Strait of Hormuz‭, ‬or for specific limited objectives and less sophisticated adversaries‭, ‬it is less clear that it provides a winning strategy in a contest with more sophisticated adversaries that seek to achieve well-defined‭ ‬limited objectives‭. ‬

Critics of concepts such as the outside-in approach point out that they largely rely on the US maintaining an edge on legacy systems that have long become appropriated by sophisticated adversaries such as China and Russia‭, ‬including systems such as stealth‭ ‬fighters and precision missiles‭, ‬and that it underestimates the temporal element and systems focus that are central to new and‭ ‬more sophisticated uses of A2‭/‬AD‭.‬

Mosaic Warfare‭: ‬21st Century Maneuver Warfare‭ ‬

In response to the challenges‭, ‬the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency‭ (‬DARPA‭) ‬has come up with a range of decision-centric‭ ‬warfare concepts‭, ‬such as multi-domain operations and mosaic warfare‭. ‬The focus of these concepts is to enable the US military‭ ‬to conduct multi-domain maneuvers against adversaries that possess precision-strike capabilities‭. ‬Mosaic warfare starts from the‭ ‬premise that the present composition of US forces that rely on large manned multi-mission units such as ships and aircraft are‭ ‬monolithic‭, ‬predictable‭, ‬and slow‭, ‬enabling adversaries to anticipate US actions‭. ‬They also provide an ideal target for the sophisticated A2‭/‬AD systems that are being deployed by Russia and China‭.‬

To counter this‭, ‬DARPA argues that the US should develop a form of decision-centric warfare that disaggregates some of these large platforms and instead relies on much smaller units‭. ‬These smaller units are networked‭, ‬flexible‭, ‬and can be rapidly configured and reconfigured in order to take on different roles and characteristics‭. ‬While integrated into a larger system‭, ‬units act independently‭, ‬with commanders not having complete situational awareness but embracing the fog of war‭. ‬Functions are disaggregated‭ ‬and spread among a multitude of manned and unmanned platforms that share data and process functions across a perpetually changing network that confuses and disorients the enemy‭.‬

To carry out this kind of operations‭, ‬mosaic warfare suggests the development of very different kinds of capabilities than those‭ ‬required for a more classical outside-in approach‭. ‬In particular‭, ‬mosaic warfare suggests the deployment of a range of autonomous systems that can be deployed in man-machine configurations relying on cheap‭, ‬fast and flexible systems that can be easily scaled‭. ‬The other capabilities that mosaic warfare prioritizes are AI-enabled systems that help to empower mission command‭. ‬By drawing on AI to enable fragmented decision-making‭, ‬units are more independent‭, ‬and less detectable‭. ‬

Rather than addressing A2‭/‬AD at range and through incremental improvements of legacy platforms‭, ‬mosaic warfare therefore seeks to provide more flexible answers that reflect the diverse nature of the challenge‭. ‬Moreover‭, ‬unlike the outside-in approach‭, ‬mosaic warfare is not focused on attrition and destroying the enemy’s forces‭. ‬Instead‭, ‬it represents a form of 21st century maneuver warfare that aims to dislocate and disrupt enemy operations‭, ‬in‭ ‬order to prevent him from achieving his objectives‭. ‬This can involve small flexible ground forces to establish beachheads in theater‭, ‬to open gaps in the A2‭/‬AD infrastructure of enemies or tackling the enemies A2‭/‬AD systems directly‭. ‬Mosaic warfare also emphasizes the temporal element of A2‭/‬AD and is less focused on seizing and controlling ground‭. ‬While the two approaches represent different views on how to better counter the A2‭/‬AD challenge they are located on a continuum of possible options‭. ‬As the nature of the A2‭/‬AD challenge to US forces continues to change‭, ‬it can be expected that this continuum of options will continue to widen as well‭. ‬

‮»‬‭ ‬By‭: ‬Dr Timo F Behr
‭(‬Co-Managing Director of Westphalia Global Advisory‭ & ‬Subject Matter Expert at The Hague Center for Strategic Studies‭)‬

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