Great Power Rivalry: Anti-Access and the Threat to the Liberal Order


Like many of the acronyms emanating from the Pentagon, A2/AD — or anti-access and area denial — is a new term for an old way of war. From the invention of the English longbow to the development of the modern torpedo, states have always sought the most cost-effective means to deny access and inflict heavy losses on their more conventionally powerful foes. While the challenges posed by China’s rapidly maturing reconnaissance-strike complex and bristling array of missiles are certainly formidable, they are not altogether without precedent. During the Cold War, U.S. military planners were well aware that any attempt to project naval power against a Soviet coastal bastion might result in nightmarish levels of attrition. Naval officers have long cautioned that “blue-water” navies would encounter increasing difficulties in conducting “green-water” operations in congested and bathymetrically challenging littoral waters. The potentially devastating effect of Russian surface to air (SAM) missiles was made painfully apparent to the Israeli air force as early as 1973. In many ways, the U.S. military’s relative freedom of maneuver following the dissolution of the Soviet Union constituted more of a brief interlude, or an exception, than the reflection of a historical norm. Power projection should never have been taken for granted.

Contemporary analysis has rightly focused on Russia and China’s deepening inventory of anti-access systems, and on both nations’ growing propensity to engage in acts of coercion, sub-conventional provocation, and/or hybridized warfare under the protective screen of their respective regional denial complexes. The link between the development of these military systems by revisionist powers and their adoption of a number of destabilizing security policies, now appears increasingly self-evident. What is less frequently discussed, however, is how this century’s two major challengers to the Western-dominated liberal order, Russia and China, have deliberately strengthened mid-sized revisionist actors with advanced anti-access weaponry.

In some cases, the motivation may be to ensure an embattled ally’s survival, as when Russia shields the regime of Bashar Al-Assad behind a dense thicket of advanced, integrated air defense systems (IADS). In others, it may form a material sub-component of a wider regional strategy, like when China plies its Pakistani partner with large numbers of mobile batteries of C-802 anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), or with supersonic air-launched cruise missiles designed to cripple Indian aircraft carriers. Similarly, China’s sale of a broad gamut of weaponry to Iran, ranging from naval mines to fast-attack craft and cruise missiles, may go beyond simple commercial imperatives and possess a diversionary strategic rationale. The secondary motivations behind such arms sales and transfers may vary, but their first-order strategic effects are the same: They strengthen the nuisance capacity and resolve of irredentist regional actors, while significantly raising the risks and costs of external military intervention.

For decades, global stability and prosperity has rested on the maintenance of an open economic order, and on freedom of access to the global commons. The rapid metastasis of these regional denial complexes — what NATO top commander Gen. Phillip Breedlove has referred to as “A2/AD bubbles” — risks upsetting the foundations of the liberal international order by expanding spaces of enclosure or instability. If the United States can no longer rely on its ability to project power, or harness its military superiority in order to project deterrence, revisionist actors could find themselves emboldened, while fretful allies might fear abandonment. Perhaps most importantly, by neglecting to recognize that the provision of anti-access weaponry now forms a major aspect of great power competition, the United States and its democratic partners might find themselves outmaneuvered or outbid in ongoing battles for regional influence.

In order to forestall such developments, the United States should adopt a three-pronged strategy.

Strengthen the power projection capabilities of allies and partners

The United States should bolster the ability of its allies and partners to penetrate or “burst” enemy A2/AD bubbles through the supply and development of stand-off weaponry, “blinding” capabilities in the form of electronic and cyber warfare, and more “access-insensitive” platforms such as submarines. As the United States seeks to more closely associate its allies in the crafting of its much-touted “third offset strategy,” these warfighting domains could provide rich opportunities and areas for further cooperation. The strategic effect of European arms sales on regional balances of power, particularly in Asia but also in the Middle East, is often underappreciated in the beltway. Looking beyond the more prosaic concerns tied to economic competition between various national arms industries, there could be a real strategic benefit to concerting more closely with European allies on the issue of arms sales in certain key regions — and of submarine, sensor, and precision-guided munition (PGM) sales in particular.

Encourage partners and allies to develop their own anti-access capabilities

There is little that can be done to arrest the diffusion of precision, particularly in the face of Russian, Chinese, and increasingly Iranian proliferation efforts. This unwelcome new strategic reality has already led to a profound rethinking of U.S. concepts of operation, as it seeks to preserve the ability to maneuver within deeply contested environments. As regional reconnaissance strike complexes continue to mushroom across the globe, the United States should ensure that its allies and partners are not left unshielded, and are provided with their own anti-access bubbles behind which to mount ripostes, much as medieval archers only approached enemy fortresses when sheltered behind mobile ramparts — or heavy pavises. Frontline nations have a natural proclivity to invest in military systems and strategies geared toward denial. This is the case not only for smaller, fiercely independent countries such as Vietnam or Finland, but also, increasingly, for larger powers such as Japan. Everything should be done to further encourage this operational proclivity, so that nations caught under a revisionist neighbor’s anti-access dome can threaten punishment as well as project deterrence by denial. In short, to quote George Kennan, they should be like “the porcupine, who … gradually convinces the carnivorous beast of prey that he is not a fit object of attack.”

Prevail in the dual-use infrastructure competition

Finally, the effectiveness of regional denial complexes will hinge in large part upon the tightness and resiliency of their battle networks, in the form of supportive infrastructure (radar and early warning systems, underwater sonar arrays, fiber-optic cabling, etc.). By its very nature, a lot of this communication and detection infrastructure is dual-use. Under the guise of regional capacity-building, nations such as Russia and China can slowly expand their influence and develop the intelligence and support infrastructure needed to forward-deploy and/or employ anti-access systems in times of conflict. For example, by spreading coastal radar chains in Indonesia and shore-based electronic sensors in places such as the Seychelles, or by discreetly laying undersea acoustic arrays along portions of the Indian Ocean seabed, Beijing has increased its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) in certain contested maritime regions, enabling it to provide additional discrimination and targeting information to Chinese military platforms in times of conflict. This dual-use infrastructure competition forms part of a larger struggle for access and influence, one in which the United States and its partners must ultimately prevail.


Iskander Rehman is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Project for International Order and Strategy (IOS), at the Brookings Institution. Prior to joining Brookings, Iskander was a Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), where he focused on U.S. grand strategy, Asian defense issues, and emerging security challenges in the Indo-Pacific. From 2012 to 2013, he was a Stanton Fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment. A Franco-British citizen, Dr. Rehman has lived and worked in France, India, and the United States. He holds a doctorate in political science, with distinction and a specialization in Asian Studies, and a master’s degree in political science, as well as a master’s degree in comparative politics, from Sciences Po. He can be followed on Twitter @IskanderRehman.


Photo credit: U.S. Navy