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CNO vs A2AD: Why Admiral Richardson is Right about Deconstructing the A2/AD Term

CNO vs A2AD: Why Admiral Richardson is Right about Deconstructing the A2/AD Term

Editors note: This is the beginning of a periodic column by Dr. Tangredi, "The Emperor's New Concepts," in which he dissects the many "buzz-words" that control defense debates.

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson's desire to minimize use of "A2/AD" made no headway with the rest of the Department of Defense (DoD).  In particular it bumped up against Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work, who has used the term A2/AD for over 15 years and thinks that it most excellently captures our main warfighting challenge.  However, the CNO has a valid point, even if it was not completely articulated.  His remarks in his National Interest article (“Deconstructing A2/AD,” October 3, 2016) remain a necessary corrective for "deconstructing" an artificial term that indeed appears to mean too much to some and too little to others.  He is right that "A2/AD 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."  But there is more to it than that.

As those who have read my book Anti-Access Warfare: Countering A2/AD Strategies know, I am no fan of the A2/AD acronym.  To most Americans it sounds like a character from the Star Wars movies (R2-D2, CP-3O, etc.), and it is never in the long-term interest of DoD to confuse the public.  It would not have appeared in the title of my book if the publisher hadn't insisted.  The problem is that A2 and AD are two distinctly separate concepts that represent different levels of warfare and require differing forms of analysis to be understood.  

In short, A2 (anti-access) is a strategy in which combat operations are but one part.  In contrast, AD (area denial) represents tactics that can be used to achieve A2 objectives in a military campaign, but are largely indistinguishable from "standard" land warfare or sea denial operations.  AD can support an A2 strategy, or can support another strategy.  If an opposing force needs to apply area denial (AD) tactics in a combat situation--particularly on land--then we have already won the A2 phase of a protracted conflict.  

An anti-access strategy is a plan for keeping a strategically-superior military away from one's region.  It is intended to either deter interference by an outside power while achieving a regional military conquest, or if deterrence fails, achieve a quick victory while avoiding a force-on-force contest.  The fear of the nation (or armed group) adopting an anti-access strategy is that if the strategically superior power is allowed to build up its force in the region it will win.  They would face the same situation that Saddam did in the Gulf War of 1991; he could capture Kuwait, but could never hold it if opposed by the U.S. and the coalition.  The objective is to convince the "outside" power to go away and accept the de facto results.  Since nations and non-nations rarely start a war intending to lose, adopting an anti-access strategy when a stronger force may intervene makes logical sense.  

Anti-access warfare was the strategy of Imperial Japan in World War II.  Japan was determined to conquer the Dutch East Indies, as much of China as possible and everything in between.  Since the Philippine and Guam were in between, that would bring it in conflict with the U.S.  Admiral Yamamoto and the other Japanese strategists who were not blinded by "racial superiority" knew that in a protracted war, Japan would lose.  The U.S. could out-produce every nation in terms of weaponry, and was thus the strategically superior power.  Yamamoto specifically stated that he could only guarantee victory for six months.  His vision was that if he could destroy the U.S. fleet, both in Asian waters and at Pearl Harbor, and sever the line of communication with Australia, the U.S. government would consider a negotiated agreement since it would be too costly in lives and treasure to fight its way back into the region.  

This strategy had some logic; one must recall that Yamamoto traveled the United States before the war and knew the isolationist sentiment that appeared to prevail.  Since Britain was fighting for its life, and France and the Netherlands had fallen to Germany, the U.S. was the sole power who could threaten the expansion and control of the Empire.  (The Soviet Union could threaten possessions in northern China, but not Japan at sea.)

Of course, the Pearl Harbor attack had the opposite effect.  Yamamoto et al. lost the gamble.  The anti-access “great wall” of Pacific islands was breached at Midway, and U.S. forces—primarily the Navy and Marine Corps—took it apart brick by brick.  American forces faced and defeated the most determined anti-access strategy in its greatest naval war.  Admiral Richardson is certainly correct in saying that A2/AD “is not a new phenomenon” and that “history has much to teach us about maintaining perspective.”                    

Fast forward to today.  Given current military and diplomatic capabilities (Soviet military planners would have called it the “correlation of forces”), a force-on-force conflict between the U.S. joint force and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), along with its naval component, fought in some theoretical “neutral” zone away from the Chinese mainland—the Iraqi desert for example--would almost certainly result in a U.S. victory.  A force-on-force engagement in Southeast Asia could also result in a U.S./coalition force victory, particularly in conjunction with a Chinese revolt against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).  If U.S. land and air forces were firmly entrenched in Taiwan—as well as in place as it is today in Japan, Korea and throughout the “second island chain,” Chinese military power would be constrained in the region it considers its own.  A force-on-force confrontation would be a gamble the CCP would be unlikely to take.  The logical strategy in any Chinese military expansion would therefore be to attempt to drive forward U.S. forces out of the region (diplomatically if possible, militarily if necessary) and prevent them from coming back in.  The primary battlefield would obviously be maritime.  Similar situations exist in other parts of the world. 

The problem with the A2/AD term is that conflates strategy with tactics in a way that neglects the non-military aspects of anti-access warfare, minimizes the role of deterrence, and focuses us “like a laser beam” on tactical analyses on how particular opposing weapons systems will perform. 

How does all this relate to Admiral Richardson’s preference for a different description of the potential situation the Navy and U.S. joint forces might face in East Asia?   The problem with the A2/AD term is that conflates strategy with tactics in a way that neglects the non-military aspects of anti-access warfare, minimizes the role of deterrence, and focuses us “like a laser beam” on tactical analyses on how particular opposing weapons systems will perform.  Indeed, we do need to analyze how weapons systems will perform.  But that does not equate to an analysis on the strategic requirements for defeating an anti-access strategy.  I would argue that most national security planners are not analyzing the strategic requirements because we they are too busy debating about Chinese DF-21 missiles versus aircraft carriers.  AD has driven our attention away from A2.  And, as the CNO maintains, from the tactical perspective “the A2/AD problem is currently well understood—challenging, but understood.”  I would also argue that the strategic requirements to counter A2 are not as well understood—particularly in the area of economics—and must be analyzed with the same fervor as the missiles versus carriers debate.

The CNO also claims that our current concept of A2/AD is “inherently oriented to the defense.”  Whether one agrees or not with that depiction, and many of the A2/AD scenarios discussed within DoD do include offensive operations, breaking the “great walls” of anti-access strategies requires an offensive orientation, which, by its existence, could provide a greater deterrent effect in East Asia than our concentration on defense. Yamamoto’s goal was to sink U.S. strategy, not just U.S. ships.  By separating A2 from AD, perhaps we can begin to truly analyze and understand the big picture as well as the details.  For this, A2/AD must indeed be “deconstructed.”

So what should be done?  A2/AD is not going to be replaced anytime soon.  It has been used too long, was created by the dominant defense-issues think-tank (Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments), and there is not a good alternative term.  However, it is an operational term and should only be used when discussing DF-21s, aircraft carriers, or other specific hardware.  When discussing strategy, which should include political, diplomatic, and economic efforts, not just military, anti-access is the term that captures the concept.

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