What Should We Do If the Bomber Can’t Get Through?
Fueled by large and sustained economic growth, China’s military modernization program has created an impressive force. Widely reported advances indicate an existing regional power and an aspiring global one. China’s recent military advances in naval, aerial, ground, space, and cyberspace domains reveal a capable and credible force that gives it strong advantages in Asia, even if it is not yet equivalent to American forces in head-to-head competition.
American strategists are wringing their hands about challenges in the Western Pacific and the South China Sea. These experts lament China’s aggressive military buildup, its geographic sleights of hand, and its increasingly deadly anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) web. Can our bombers or aircraft carriers get through today’s state-of-the-art defensive layers and strike their targets? The current answer does not seem as satisfying as it once was, though it hasn’t stopped a continued American fixation on investing in symmetric ways to counter the threat. This strategic myopia puts at risk America’s ability to successfully respond to threats and to deter adversaries.
Strategy is most successful when geared toward precluding conflict; after all, preventing wars is far less costly than winning them. In concert with American strategy, a proper military posture should respond to threats and shape adversaries in ways that avoid conflict while furthering American interests. With this in mind, we must not surrender to the growing advantage of adversary defensive technologies that may tempt them to act against us.
The details and specifics of adversary A2/AD systems are beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say, the ability of A2/AD threats to punish fixed and mobile targets is substantial and growing. Absent a coherent U.S. response, A2/AD threats compromise the U.S. military’s ability to project power, strike globally, and maintain its overseas force posture. By keeping U.S. forces out of the theater or on the sidelines, our adversaries hope to threaten the credibility of American deterrence, diminishing our promises to allies and eroding international norms. But do not fret. While the challenges facing the U.S. military are substantial, so are the opportunities.
The Bedeviling Challenges of A2/AD
The willingness of the U.S. military to properly prepare for this threat may determine America’s ability to maintain its global leadership role. A2/AD threats present four major areas of competitive disadvantage: ubiquity, vulnerability, proximity, and relative cost.
A variety of challengers have eroded America’s unchecked freedom to project power. China is only the most difficult case. Cheap, capable A2/AD systems are ubiquitous. Even non-state actors are producing and proliferating capabilities that offer them new opportunities to locally challenge the United States. These systems are most threatening to vulnerable forward-deployed or forward-stationed U.S. forces.
America’s vulnerability to the strategic effects of A2/AD stems partly from the same burdens we have placed upon others in the recent past. The overwhelming conventional superiority of the U.S. military has severely punished adversaries who concentrate their forces. In many ways, the spread of A2/AD is forcing American forces into similarly vulnerable situations.
America’s overseas presence is typically characterized by concentration at large bases that simplify defensive measures while easing logistical challenges. Similarly, America’s mobile platforms are traditionally organized around concentrated core formations that are defensible and easily resupplied. As a result of improved adversary capabilities, however, concentrated American positions are no longer sanctuaries and may instead invite preemptive attacks. Geographical realities magnify this vulnerability.
The combination of an adversary’s location and weapon ranges allows them to strike with long-range precision systems from well-prepared homeland positions. Short supply lines further increase the inherent advantage stemming from proximity. American forces, on the other hand, are forced to project far from the United States to less-hardened staging areas where they are more vulnerable.
A2/AD systems are also cost-imposing, as the price of employing them is usually lower than the cost of defeating them. The competition between A2/AD and its counters is steadily growing more challenging and unsustainable for the U.S. military. As we try to spend our way out of the problem, we may actually be spending our way out of the competition. The only way to win may be to develop and employ asymmetric methods to change the nature of the competition itself.
America’s Own Asymmetric Alternatives
Making our way through these deadly A2/AD defenses cannot be the only answer to the challenges of ubiquity, vulnerability, proximity, and relative cost. While finding ways to penetrate dense webs of threats should remain an area of focus, there are at least three other mutually reinforcing areas that must be considered as game-changing alternatives: partnerships, friendly A2/AD, and distant superiority. While our enduring interest in global strike will continue to propel us towards more symmetric solutions to these problems, considering asymmetric alternative strategies would be wise.
There is growing international wariness regarding China’s military growth as a potential destabilizing force in the Asia-Pacific region. Asian nations are concerned about provoking China, but they are taking considerable steps to deter Chinese aggression and bolster their defenses. These nations are investing in a variety of advanced military capabilities and seeking closer partnerships with American forces.
First, the United States should seek a forward military force posture with these nations based on interoperable forces. Such a multilateral approach would enable the pursuit of collective interests while sharing budgetary burdens. True, these close partnerships may decrease American operational freedom of action by tying U.S. forces to less capable militaries, but they still outweigh a unilateral approach because these partnerships ultimately increase strategic freedom of action by creating a sustainable strategy matched to current vulnerabilities, threats, and resources. Recent moves by senior Department of Defense officials have put America on the right track by strengthening partnerships with India, Australia, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, and the Philippines.
In conjunction with partners, America’s overseas force posture should disperse away from vulnerable sites of concentration to complicate the strategic calculus of potential aggressors. Such a concept does not increase the quantity of forward-positioned forces, but instead distributes overseas forces into a larger variety of host nations. Importantly, it does not cede geography to an A2/AD threat. Instead, it utilizes host nation facilities, logistical structures, and a broader range of base and port options to assist in sustainability and integration. This concept also establishes a wide array of possible deployment locations through regular visits that increases the targeting uncertainty of potential adversaries.
Closer integration would require heightened levels of common technology, training, and doctrine. Though the U.S. military currently engages in “building partner capacity” missions, many of these concern patrolling, anti-piracy, counter-insurgency, and disaster assistance efforts. Experience and theory have demonstrated that these missions help meet national security objectives, improve international perceptions of the United States, heighten American influence with partners, make reactive military intervention less likely, and enhance intervention if necessary. A high-end version of the building partner capacity mission can achieve similar results against advanced A2/AD threats.
Yet, these new high-end missions would require increased integration of military capabilities, and current U.S. export controls and technology restrictions hinder the ability of partners to buy advanced weaponry. The most coveted American technologies – stealth, precision, and propulsion – stand to gain enhanced strategic utility and improved economies of scale by carefully considered sales to American partners. Still, sound partnerships require nurtured relationships as much as they require common technology. Security assistance is necessary, but not sufficient. True security cooperation, preferably multilateral but bilateral if necessary, would be required to make such a concept successful.
Such a strategy would reduce the growing American competitive disadvantages against countries like China. While unable to completely overcome the inherent advantages of an adversary that can choose its moment of attack, a broader range of partners and basing locations would provide a larger allied force prepositioned closer to the threat. This partnership plan, when combined with networked command-and-control and common processes, shortens friendly response times and increases uncertainty for an adversary. Swift and synchronized responses from various axes further increase the risk to would-be threats.
Other competitive disadvantages would also be mitigated by a more distributed force posture that leaves U.S. forces less vulnerable. Similarly, more closely integrating U.S. forces with allies improves burden-sharing and harnesses economies of scale based on common systems. Yet, the largest benefit of a more distributed force posture may be its more coercive nature.
By sharing vulnerability between forward-based U.S. forces and allied militaries, the adversary’s cost-benefit ratio becomes far less attractive. First, distribution of friendly forces drastically reduces the adversary’s temptation to conduct preemptive strikes against concentrated U.S. main bases. Second, distributed rotational forces foster uncertainty as to the location of friendly forces and commit an adversary to a much broader variety of targets. Third, the intertwining of friendly forces within host nations makes an attack from an aggressor more than just an attack on American forces. Thus, coercive credibility is enhanced because an attack would be on the vital interests of a host nation, creating a situation more akin to central than extended deterrence. Finally, a force posture that shares burdens is more coercively sound because it is more sustainable in the long run.
Second, the United States should also promote partnered A2/AD networks among friendly nations. After all, why should adversaries alone enjoy the benefits of A2/AD? We can and should turn the ubiquity, vulnerability, proximity, and relative cost of A2/AD systems into strengths instead of weaknesses. This concept would be enabled by supporting stronger host-nation defenses and integrating capabilities with American defensive technologies to raise the costs and decrease the benefits of aggression.
The competitive disadvantages stemming from increased A2/AD threats can be shifted to adversaries themselves who would be forced to operate within areas of contested access created by these capable and cost-effective systems. Even smaller American partners could play substantial roles by employing A2/AD to create a series of overlapping A2/AD networks. Expanding a ubiquitous threat to aggressors, creating vulnerabilities for concentrated enemy forces, leveraging localized benefits, and utilizing systems with relatively small resource requirements would create the same challenges for potential adversaries that such systems do for the United States. These systems would also enhance defenses, create further escalatory options, provide improved credibility, and promote sustainability, thus transforming distinct disadvantages into notable advantages.
Third, the U.S. military must maintain its unique ability to project power globally. An enduring American competitive advantage is the on-going global reach of air, land, and sea forces via mobile military capabilities that can act outside the range of A2/AD systems. While vulnerabilities exist within an A2/AD network, the American military retains freedom of action outside the threat envelope to interdict supplies, strangle energy resources, and otherwise harm an adversary’s global interests. Such a strategy would also be enhanced by integrating our power projection forces with more capable partners. It retains the initiative instead of yielding to the disadvantageous competition of constantly creating costly systems to counter A2/AD within their spheres of influence.
Certainly, the implementation of this recommended strategy would not be trivial. It demands a major shift in overseas force posture, reassessment of technology export controls, reconsideration of partner capacity, rebalancing of resources, sharing of burdens, and relinquishing the dogged pursuit of symmetrical counters to A2/AD systems. It would face adversary attempts to fracture coalitions, exploit sensitivities, and expose decreases in American force protection at shared base locations. Its distributed nature would also create significant challenges for command-and-control, intelligence, and logistics. Yet this strategy offers resilience and sustainability in light of realistic environmental considerations and sound strategic assessments.
Several advanced adversaries are successfully building defenses that are becoming impenetrable. Meanwhile, brute-force solutions to the A2/AD problem are demonstrating diminished utility. Instead of pouring resources into counters to this decided disadvantage, it is time to think asymmetrically ourselves. Partnerships, friendly A2/AD, and distant superiority can provide the foundation for our own successful strategy – even if the bomber and the carrier cannot always get through.
Colonel E. John Teichert, United States Air Force, is currently serving in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He has commanded an operational test and evaluation group and an F-22 test squadron. The views expressed herein are his own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense or the Air Force.
Photo credit: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class James R. Evans, U.S. Navy