The A2/AD Predicament Challenges NATO’s Paradigm of “Reassurance Through Readiness”

The A2/AD Predicament Challenges NATO’s Paradigm of “Reassurance Through Readiness”

Octavian Manea

Small Wars Journal interview with Luis Simón, Research Professor at the Institute for European Studies (Vrije Universiteit Brussel), Director of the Brussels Office of the Elcano Royal Institute, and Associate Fellow of the Baltic Defense College. He specializes in geopolitical and strategic affairs.

It is important to clarify the danger that the proliferation of A2/AD capabilities poses to Europe and especially the Eastern Flank. In your opinion how do these capabilities challenge traditional security paradigms, the ways NATO used to reassure and deter and what is the impact for the most exposed allies? What role do A2/AD capabilities play in Russian strategy?

The global proliferation of Anti-Access and Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities is indeed a very important problem for Europeans, and I would say that this seems to be getting increasing attention in NATO circles. Anti-access capabilities are used to prevent or constrain the deployment of opposing forces into a theater of operations, whereas area-denial capabilities are used to reduce their freedom of maneuver once in a theater. Over the last two decades, countries like China and Russia have successfully leveraged the kind of precision-guided systems once solely possessed by the U.S. and its allies to develop A2/AD capabilities, by way of precision-guided anti-ship, anti-aircraft, land-attack, anti-satellite cruise and ballistic missiles as well as cyber and electronic warfare capabilities. In addition to that, the application of precision-guided systems to rockets, artillery rounds, mortars, missiles, anti-tank munitions or shoulder-fired surface-to-air-missiles can significantly augment the military potential of unsophisticated militaries and terrorist groups. A2/AD capabilities are also (slowly) finding their way into Europe’s extended southern neighborhood, a geographical space running from the Gulf of Guinea, through the Sahel, the Mediterranean and Red Sea into the Western Indian Ocean – as far as the Persian Gulf.

I would say that the development and proliferation of A2/AD capabilities in and around Europe poses two kinds of challenges to NATO, and to the European allies in particular. The first is a defense and deterrence challenge in the so-called Eastern European Flank. Russia’s inroads in precision-guided, network-centric warfare have resulted in a significant improvement in its A2/AD capabilities, i.e. by way of overlapping air and missile defenses, dense concentrations of surface-to-surface ballistic missiles and land-, air-, and sea-launched cruise missiles, as well as layered anti-submarine warfare capabilities. Moscow’s ability to deny the use of the airspace of border countries, and even constrain the movement of ships and land forces in a crisis or conflict, appears to have improved significantly in recent years. For instance, through 2014 and early 2015, Russia’s use of artillery and large-scale electronic jamming complicated substantially the communications of Ukraine’s armed forces, as well as its ability to access the Donbas region (within its own country) and move safely there.

NATO member states bordering Russia are increasingly vulnerable to A2/AD. Russia’s integrated air-defense system and short-range land-attack missiles already cover the Baltic States in their entirety, as well as large swathes of Polish territory. This problem is further compounded by the presence of Russian S400 missiles in Kaliningrad, which could endanger NATO operations deeper into Europe. In addition to that, former Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Philip M. Breedlove has warned that Russia’s militarization of Sevastopol is leading to the emergence of an A2/AD ‘bubble’ in the Black Sea area, one extending as far as the eastern Mediterranean and the Levant. Last but not least, the rapid buildup of Russia’s military arsenal in Murmansk has translated into an A2/AD bubble covering parts of Norway and parts of the Barents and Norwegian seas.

The second challenge relates to power projection. The present and future proliferation of A2/AD bubbles in Europe’s southern neighborhood challenges the assumption that European militaries can safely access most operational theaters in Africa and the broader Middle East, and move freely within those theaters. This assumption has guided most European thinking on expeditionary concepts and capabilities since the end of the Cold War, having led to much emphasis on military transport aircraft and vessels; air tankers for air-to-air refueling; satellites for military communications; as well as helicopters, both for transport in theater and tactical strike missions. All of these platforms are distinctively non-stealthy, and therefore increasingly vulnerable in maturing A2/AD environments.

Anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities (deployed in Kaliningrad and increasingly in Crimea) are questioning most of the assumptions of the reinforcement based security recipe at the core of NATO Russia Founding Act. I am wondering what options does NATO have in order to boost the credibility of deterrence in face of the A2/AD challenge? This should be a core concern at the NATO’s forthcoming summit in Warsaw.

A good question indeed. Russia’s growing A2/AD capabilities pose a very concrete operational problem for NATO. In the case of a conflict or crisis, it might be risky for the Alliance to try to move aircraft and ships into the frontline states, whether in northeastern Europe, southeastern Europe or the High North. As acknowledged by NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow, any allied aircraft and vessels that head into the frontline states are highly vulnerable to Russian surface-to-air, anti-ship and land-attack missiles. In some ways, it could be argued that this challenges the paradigm of “reassurance through readiness” that came out of the 2014 NATO Wales Summit, i.e. the notion that you can guarantee the security of frontline allies simply by signaling that you have forces that are in a high state of readiness and, in the event of a crisis, can move easily into theater from Western and Central Europe (where most of NATO’s manpower and resources are). This is challenged by A2/AD.

As the Alliance gears up for its July 2016 Summit in Warsaw, you hear more and more officials arguing that a more permanent, larger and heavier U.S. and NATO military presence in Eastern Europe may well be the only way to offset Russia’s A2/AD challenge and restore deterrence in eastern Europe. And I would say that the narrative shift from “reassurance” to “deterrence” signals a progressive “hardening” of U.S. and NATO policy in Europe, i.e. an intent to go beyond readiness and emphasise the need for more presence. A good example of that is President Obama’s request to quadruple the funds for the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) in fiscal year 2017, which is aimed at supporting a more persistent U.S. military presence in Central and Eastern Europe, i.e. through larger and longer rotational deployments and infrastructure development to support the pre-positioning of equipment.

Europe is catching up with the whole A2/AD operational reality, but is somehow far behind the “offset strategy” discussion.  Deterrence played a key part during the overall containment posture that the U.S. and NATO adopted during the Cold War. What role did the previous offset strategies play in bolstering NATO’s deterrence credibility? What lessons do they provide for today’s strategic context?

A word on the third U.S. offset strategy. In order to overcome or, at least, mitigate the impending global A2/AD challenge, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel tasked Deputy Secretary Work in late 2014 to develop a “game changing offset strategy,” by leveraging U.S. advantages in technologies like big data, stealth, advanced manufacturing (e.g. 3-D printing), robotics, directed energy and so on.

Many discussions on offset have revolved around new technologies, but I think it is important to situate the Pentagon’s third offset strategy within its broader context. Because what matters is not so much technology itself, but its ability to generate concrete operational and strategic effects. New strategic and operational challenges call for innovative concepts of operations, which in turn require new capabilities as well as doctrinal and organizational reforms within the armed forces. I would call that the first “leg” of offset, so to speak. The second leg relates to technological, organizational and industrial innovation. In this regard, much emphasis is being placed on how to ensure the Pentagon can better exploit cutting-edge technologies and research available in the global commercial sector, whose investment in research and development currently dwarfs that of the defense sector. What does all this mean for Europe?

In Europe, pretty much every discussion about U.S. military innovation is followed by questions about the growing transatlantic capability gap. In this regard, the Pentagon’s third offset strategy could be seen as just another iteration in the long-running drama of European disinvestment in defense, and the aversion of most Western European countries to all things military (Britain and France being exceptions). But this time may be even worse. Previous waves of U.S. military innovation during the Cold War were followed by sustained efforts to channel emerging cutting-edge capabilities and technologies into the armed forces and defense companies of America’s main European allies. This was facilitated by the fact that Americans and Europeans held similar perceptions about the nature of the strategic threat posed by the Soviet Union – and about the need to use military power to counter such a threat. In other words, the political, military-strategic and technological foundations of transatlantic cohesion went hand in glove.

I would say that the third offset strategy must be set against the backdrop of Washington’s intention to ‘rebalance’ its attention to the Asia-Pacific region, and against the need to overcome a very concrete operational challenge there: the one posed by China’s A2/AD capabilities. In this regard, the fact that most European countries (bare the usual exceptions!) are uninterested in strategic developments in the Asia-Pacific may pose a systemic challenge to transatlantic cohesion. However, as I was saying, Europeans face their own set of A2/AD challenges, both in the context of defense and deterrence in Eastern Europe, as well as when it comes to projecting power into their ‘extended southern neighborhood’. Each of these geographical areas presents its own strategic and operational challenges, which are in turn different from those the U.S. faces in the Asia-Pacific. However, the fundamental problems concerning how to overcome or mitigate A2/AD are essentially the same – and many of the capabilities required are fungible.

Most U.S. discussions on offset revolve around the need to strike the right balance between operational concepts aimed at defeating the A2/AD challenge and those aimed at hedging against it. Defeating strategies require both preemptive strikes against the enemy’s A2/AD capabilities (i.e. missile launchers and command and control systems) as well as more effective (missile) defenses. They are technologically intensive, in that they emphasize capabilities such as stealth, long-range strike, cyber and electronic warfare and advanced missile defense systems. In contrast to that, hedging strategies seek to ‘turn the anti-access tables’ on the enemy or competitor, in order to raise the costs of potential aggression. Hedging strategies are less technologically intensive and more asymmetric in nature.

I think that in confronting their own A2/AD challenges, Europeans must grapple with the same conceptual puzzle as the U.S., i.e. how to strike the right balance between defeating and hedging. However, in addressing that question Europeans must consider the geographical features of the eastern flank and southern neighborhood, the level of technological maturity of Europe’s A2/AD challenges and their own military-technological prowess and political limitations. This suggests a somewhat different approach to offsetting A2/AD than that adopted by the U.S. An important difference has to do with geography, and range. Insofar as both Eastern Europe and the broader Middle East are geographically close to Europe, Europeans should perhaps prioritize short- and medium-range strike capabilities, in contrast with Washington’s emphasis on long-range strike capabilities in an Asia-Pacific context. It is also important to distinguish between Europe’s eastern ‘flank’ and its ‘extended southern neighborhood’, because different levels of A2/AD maturity require different balances between defeating and hedging and different sets of capabilities.

What role can the BMD capabilities as well as what Bob Work has emphasized in his speeches as Raid Breaker capability (a potential mix between Patriots, Paladins and THAAD) play in counter-balancing A2/AD capabilities?

If I understood it correctly, the concept of Raid Breaker, as expressed by Deputy U.S. Secretary of Defense Bob Work, revolves around the need to demonstrate if someone throws a salvo of a hundred guided munitions, the U.S. should be able to ride it out. To do that, the U.S. would rely on a missile defense ecosystem of sorts that would use different kinetic and non-kinetic solutions, and include lasers and electromagnetic guns, but also electronic warfare. All these operational concepts, capabilities and technologies are being discussed in the context of the third U.S. offset strategy. And I would say they are all highly relevant for Europeans, especially in an eastern flank context, which presents an increasingly pressing missile challenge. I think that is something that applies to the Baltic space as much as it applies to the Black Sea Basin.

Russia is emphasizing a comprehensive type of warfare. Are we forgetting that integrating A2/AD umbrellas with hybrid tactics is a potential tool of choice for a revisionist power like Russia? 

I think there is indeed a risk that we may be overlooking that A2/AD-hybrid connection. It seems to me that many of our discussions about the Russian challenge in Eastern Europe tend to focus focused on so-called ‘hybrid’, ‘ambiguous’ or ‘non-linear’ ways of warfare, such as the use of intelligence and special operations operatives for destabilization purposes; the threat of cutting off energy supplies; financial, political and cyber penetration; the waging of information warfare, etc. And we can challenge the concept of hybrid warfare in many ways, and say that it’s as old as warfare and so on – although I would say that “hybrid” has become a buzzword in policy circles, and has acquired a life of its own. But that’s not even the point. To go back to your question, I would say that we may not be paying enough attention to how ‘hybrid’ and A2/AD tactics reinforce each other in the context of Russian strategy. I would say A2/AD and ‘hybrid’ can reinforce each other in at least two ways. On the one hand, they create a sort of “double deterrent” to NATO intervention in a military crisis, i.e. by first generating a blurred or non-military cause that may negate the legitimacy of an imperiled ally’s invocation of Article 5, and then by raising the specter of a defeat for any NATO force that would be dispatched, thus strengthening the sense of a geopolitical fait accompli in the minds of risk-averse (Western) European. Secondly, and relatedly, by raising the military (and political) costs to western reinforcements, Russian A2/AD capabilities can serve to undermine NATO’s credibility in frontline countries. This could, in turn, strengthen the voices of those stakeholders claiming for accommodation with Russia, and thus make frontline countries more vulnerable to hybrid means of penetration.

What role did the 2nd offset strategy (mid-1970s and 1980s), with its technological, doctrinal and organizational innovations, play in changing the Russian perception on their battlefield competitive advantages within the European theater of operations? How did the 2nd offset strategy help deter Russia?

I think it played a very important role, but let me perhaps say a few words about the 1st offset strategy before getting into the 2nd. Because I think they are intimately related. What most people are now referring to as the 1st offset strategy dates back to the 1950s. When Dwight D. Eisenhower came into office in 1953, he understood that it would take too many U.S. and allied army divisions to balance against Soviet conventional power in Europe. Such a strong conventional effort was not realistic either politically or economically. Therefore, President Eisenhower came up with his New Look strategy, which identified Washington’s edge in nuclear weaponry and long-range missiles and bombers as the most efficient and cheapest way to offset the Soviet Union's conventional military superiority in Central Europe.

Eisenhower’s New Look would spark greater emphasis on nuclear weapons and delivery systems throughout the 1950s and 1960s, thus creating the conditions for credible deterrence in Europe. That, in a nutshell, was the first offset strategy. The problem is that while the U.S. and NATO turned their attention towards nuclear weapons and delivery systems, the Soviet Union did not stand still. Throughout the 1960s, the Soviets devoted increasing resources to building up their own tactical and strategic nuclear arsenals, expanding the destructive potential of their bombs, and improving their means of delivery and propulsion.

I would perhaps emphasize the importance of Europe and the European allies in the context of the 1st offset strategy. On the one hand, Europe was the epicenter of U.S.-Soviet global geopolitical and military competition. On the other, the success of the 1st offset strategy would largely depend upon the cooperation of the European allies. Britain and France stood out, by virtue of their increasing investment in nuclear weaponry. But beyond those two countries, NATO as a whole came to increasingly rely on (tactical) U.S. nuclear weapons from the mid-1960s onwards.

I would say that the 2nd offset strategy arose out of the realization that by the mid-1970s, the Soviet Union had reached parity with the U.S. in nuclear weapons and enjoyed about a 3-fold advantage in conventional weapons. That constituted a threat to the European balance, and something had to be done. It was in that context when, during the tenure of Secretary Harold Brown (1977-1981), the Pentagon set in motion what was then called the offset strategy, and which we have come to know today as the “second” offset strategy. Thus, the 1978 Assault Breaker program of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration (DARPA) concentrated on electronics, computers, the global positioning system, and stealth. Advances in these technologies and their effective integration into a “reconnaissance-strike” operational complex would allow the U.S. to “see deep” and “strike deep” into Soviet territory.

Upon arriving in office in 1981, President Ronald Reagan became even more interested in leveraging U.S. technological advantages to throw the Soviet Union off balance, and devoted ever more resources to that enterprise. By the late 1980s, further advances in precision-strike, coupled with significant increases in U.S. defense spending, led the Soviet Union to come to the realization that it was on the losing side of a military competition.

When we talk about the second offset, I think it is also important to look past technology, and look at its geostrategic application, and its ability to generate concrete operational effects. Once again, it was developments in the European theater of operations that propelled the 2nd U.S. offset strategy and informed its development. And once again, the European allies played an important part throughout the process. The U.S. had a vested strategic (and economic) interest in transferring new concepts and technologies to its European allies, because their contribution was deemed to be critical to the preservation of a balance of power in Europe. And NATO was at the center of this process.

From 1982 onwards, Air Land Battle (a U.S. Army operational concept) and the Alliance’s Follow-on Forces Attack worked hand in glove, emphasizing close coordination between (U.S.) precision-guided attacks against Soviet rear forces and supply lines and aggressive moves on the part of NATO land forces. Air Land Battle called for U.S. and NATO forces to “hold the line” against the initial wave of Warsaw Pact forces while engaging the second wave coming from Eastern Europe and the western Soviet Union through precision-strikes.

And let me also perhaps end with a few words to link this historical discussion to the current A2/AD challenge and the 3rd offset strategy.  

I would say that advances in precision-strike weaponry certainly played an important part in accelerating the Soviet Union's strategic decline, but it was the end of the Cold War itself that actually opened the path for the U.S. and its European allies to claim the geopolitical dividends of the military-technological paradigm embodied by the 2nd offset strategy. Because, ever since the end of the Cold War, Americans (and Europeans) have sought to draw on their advantages in communications, navigation, and precision-guided munitions to assert their strategic ownership over the “global commons”, i.e. the world's oceans and seas, air, space and cyber-space. This has allowed them to move with a relatively high degree of freedom around the globe, and transit in and out of different operational theaters pretty much at their will. Since the end of the Cold War, the benefits afforded by the revolution in precision-guided weaponry have very largely informed U.S. and European perceptions of the military instrument around expeditionary operational concepts, whereby ‘free access’ and ‘free movement’ were seen as givens in the West.

However, I would say that the Pentagon’s interests in a 3rd offset strategy represents an acknowledgement that the assumption of unhindered global operational access and movement (a product of the 2nd offset strategy) may be reaching the end of its cycle. And this is probably explained by multiple reasons, but I would say it very much related with the fact that, over the last two decades or so, we have witnessed the proliferation of the sort of precision-guided weaponry and systems associated with the 2nd offset strategy, which have given the U.S. and its allies a global military-technological edge. This includes both precision-guided munitions (PGMs) and the supporting capabilities that underpin them, including commercial sources of imagery, precision navigation and timing and upgraded command and control systems. In this regard, a number of countries (most notably China and Russia) have begun to leverage precision-strike systems to develop anti-ship, anti-air, anti-satellite, cyber and electronic warfare capabilities designed to undermine U.S. military access to their respective vicinities. This is at the root of the A2/AD challenge we are discussing today. And the purpose of the 3rd offset strategy is to overcome or mitigate that challenge, through innovative operational concepts and technologies, as well as doctrinal and organizational innovation.

For additional info see Luis Simón’s latest article, “The ‘Third’ U.S. Offset Strategy and Europe’s ‘Anti-access’ Challenge”, just published in the Journal of Strategic Studies.

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This is actually a very timely interview for a number of reasons.

Right now Russia via Putin's FP has in effect "surrounded" NATO airspace with FIVE distinct A2/AD "bubbles" and it applies not only just to the Baltic region and runs down into the southern flank and into Israel.

The big difference to the Cold Days is that in those days the SU now Russia had a AD in depth built around SAM belts consisting of SA5/6/8s AND the really big difference is the USAF had specifically trained SEAD air units which knew their loses could well exceed 80% but they knew in the end they could break the belts. AND those air units were forward based in Europe and where is the USAF forward based today??

These "bubbles" now extend from extreme low level to the upper height limits of most of the USAF AC flown today. In the Cold War days this was not always a given and a single point of failure in those days for the SU.

In about 2008/2010 the very last USAF SEAD unit that was actually in the Air Reserve was converted and certified to drop bombs in a CAS mode as the USAF felt no further need for SEAD units and the pilots wanted to deploy to Iraq and AFG and not sit at home.

Another big difference is that these current Russian A2/AD bubbles actually project rather deep into NATO border air space which was confirmed recently in a comment coming out of Moscow..."there is no such thing as NATO air space" AND these "bubbles" when turned on actually threaten commercial air travel as well and can be used as political leverage against any country bordering them.

Regardless of what NATO and others say...this has not been addressed in any meaningful way as I think they really do not have an answer yet outside of combat drones.