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

October 13, 2015

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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

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6 thoughts on “Great Power Rivalry: Anti-Access and the Threat to the Liberal Order

  1. This commentary, reflecting a prominent US perspective, appears to be founded on several assumption whose validity, at the very least, could be debatable.
    Firstly, the US-led liberal political-economic order has been longstanding. This assertion is correct only to the extent that US “leadership” of the global order began in 1991 when, following the fission of the Soviet Union, the USA occupied the entirety of the systemic core, thus turning a hitherto bipolar system into a unipolar one. The Soviet collapse and China’s acquiescent and defensive self-abnegation which lasted until around 2010-11, launched the era of US systemic primacy. It has lasted a quarter century but many commentators have insisted this primacy began at the end of World War II in 1945. This assertion is factually inaccurate.
    Secondly, any challenges to US systemic primacy is malign and illegitimate. This assumption must appear axiomatic to those who have only experienced and profited from US primacy and must, to that extent, worry about the unknown and unknowable consequences of an alternative. The author appears to neglect the fact that a large part of the politically organised planet still lies beyond the US-led liberal order and profits little from this systemic arrangement. Just because the denizens of the liberal order enjoy a wonderful life, nobody should automatically assume that their particular lifestyle is divinely sanctioned and must be mirrored elsewhere and, conversely, any order other than the liberal one must be considered to lie beyond the pale and abhorred. This appears to be comparable to the perspective of a fish living inside a fish-bowl.
    Thirdly, and finally, for the purpose of this commentary, Chinese, Russian and Iranian A2AD challenges to the enforced spread of the liberal order are malign and unacceptable, and must be counteracted. There are operational and tactical elements to the soundness of this assertion; but normative and strategic? Let the facts from recent experience speak for themselves. US-led coalitions seeking to bring the benefits of the liberal order to Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria have demonstrated quite conclusively the folly of their ambitious undertaking. If motley crews and ragtag militias in Afghanistan and Iraq can defeat (semantic contortions cannot conceal that reality) the world’s greatest military coalition ever, and all four states at the receiving end of the liberal order’s affections serve as examples of what such liberalising enterprises actually do, then one has to think somewhat more carefully about the assumptions on which this commentary appears to be based. No?

    1. Syed, I think you’re approaching this with a pretty heavy political bias at work, which seems to be foundational in the three issues you’ve raised here.

      1) The multi-polarity of the international order prior to 1991 is essentially irrelevant to Iskander’s point. At Bretton Woods the United States established a global trade network with what constituted the liberal democracies of the world, or government who were generally acceptable to that order. This global trade network was, and is today, underwritten by the global primacy of the United States Navy which, since 1945, has guaranteed open and unfettered access to the global commons. This is the basis for the global trade system we enjoy today and it is foundational to the way the global economy works in 2015. The development of A2/AD technologies has, for the first time since 1945, posed a direct challenge to free access by commercial shipping across large areas of strategically vital ocean, such as the SCS. The Soviet Union was never integrated into this global network, as the WARPAC nations were generally economically self-sufficient, bar some specific hi tech industries. Thus, the fact that there was a geopolitical challenger to the US prior to 1991 is completely irrelevant to Iskander’s point, because in terms of global trade and naval capability the US has been the global leader since 1945.

      2) Again I fear you’ve missed the point here. Isakander isn’t arguing this from some sort of objective moral viewpoint, claiming that the western position is inherently righteous. War on the Rocks is an American policy outlet, it’s contributors are all US and allied foreign policy and strategic academics and military personnel. Obviously, Iskander, and all other War on the Rocks contributors, are advocating actions designed to further US strategic interests. This isn’t about challengers to US primacy being malign or evil, it’s about realpolitik. What do you expect US policy makers to do? Not develop counters to A2/AD technologies because China deserves a chance at world leadership? That’s either a very naïve way of looking at foreign relations, or you are just making this point because you are politically/morally opposed to US leadership.

      3) The third objection is essentially an extension of the second, and has exactly the same problems. What do you expect the US to do? Allow its allies to be coerced? This isn’t about right and wrong, it’s about national interest. If you are after a moral commentary on US foreign policy I don’t think war on the rocks is the right place for it. Hence these objections are completely tangential and address neither the intellectual foundation, nor the specific prose, of Iskander’s article.

  2. I think the key problem with many of the A2/AD discussions it the presumption that we cannot risk the lives of service members when attempting to seize military objectives. Although it is laudable to minimize casualties where possible, it is also possible to accept casualties (and a lot of them) in a war that matters to the domestic population. The Allies absorbed several thousand casualties on D-Day alone, just to gain a beach head for months of additional fighting. The US lost over over 20,000 taking Okinawa, along with 35 ships and hundreds of aircraft. While I am not recommending we repeat those hard fought battles, I merely point out A2/AD is most effective on the mind of the enemy (deterrence) rather than on the outcome of battle.

    1. I’m not sure that’s the problem, a single Ford class costs over $10bn, and takes years to build. The loss of a single CVN would be catastrophic to US global naval capacity. Its not 1945 any more, wars aren’t industrial in scale. Ever since the development of Air Land battle the US hasn’t relied upon attrition and mass to achieve tactical or operational victory. Hence, this isn’t just about the ability to sustain personnel losses, its about preserving extremely expensive systems.

  3. For various reasons I would take issue with any presumption that the U.S. has benefited from the notation that””

    “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 … [or that] upsetting the foundations of the liberal international order by expanding spaces of enclosure or instability” will somehow be economically detrimental to the U.S.

    President Clinton did lead this country into the global economy which process began beginning in the late-1990’s, accelerated throughout the 2000’s, and continued thereafter. Since that time our nation’s trade deficit increased from around $20 / $40 Billion to around $500 Billion annually, the result of which was that this country lost almost 6 million higher paying manufacturing jobs to China and Mexico – and all the tax revenues those jobs produced. Three quarters of those jobs were lost before the 2008 Economic Crash.

    Additionally, through the multiplier effect in reverse the nation lost another several million jobs. As a result our Middle Class is disappearing. Corporations have set up Subsidiary corporations overseas and using an accounting method called cost transferring have moved their income and cash offshore – precluding it being taxed in the U.S. and providing needed revenues. Foreign Countries amassed huge amounts of American Cash and some such as China once loaned much of that U.S. money back to this country earning interest on it.

    Further, an increasing number of needed components for our weapons systems now come from foreign countries – unheard of in the 1970’s and 1980’s and before.

    If the economic trend put in place by Clinton is a definition of global prosperity resting on access to the global commons – fine lets end our reliance on foreign manufacturing, give up those supposedly endangered global commons, and return our economy to its pre-President Clinton era economic structure – and the U.S. will be far better off economically / far more prosperous for it.

    As for oil moving through the Persian Gulf into the Indian Ocean, lest we forget at one time the Saudis sent their oil via pipeline to Mediterranean Ports. They made the error of changing to ship borne shipments from the Persian Gulf due to political instability in Mediterranean Sea bordering Arab Countries. They are rectifying that problem by building pipelines to Red Sea Ports. Eventually, only Iran and Iraq along with their trading partners will have an interest in safe transit in the Persian Gulf.

    As for the South China Sea, most Merchant Vessels transiting that route are going to and from China. Having spent much of my life as a Navy Officer on the South China Sea I know it well. If the Japanese are concerned about shipping in that region going to and from Japan, the impacted shipping (if it is impacted) can easily be re-routed at small cost through the countless Seas among the Philippines.

    Leave control of the South China Sea to China – geography and history dictates they are going to have control of that area sooner or later. It is 7,500+ miles from most of the U.S. And, if that produces negative economic results for some other nations in that area – who cares. They are our nation’s economic competitors, we do not (overall) benefit from their prosperity. In fact, their prosperity (“Overall”) has been quite damaging to our economy as more and more of Middle Class better paying manufacturing jobs have been lost to the nations of that region. The number of jobs from our exports to that area are minuscule when compared to the number of manufacturing jobs we have lost as a result of our products being made in that area of the world.

    This country needs a more intelligent strategy when dealing with other nations of the world. These are often countries which were once colonized by the West or which lived under the yoke of Western Imperialism. They are coming of age as we in the West comparatively decline. They are not intimidated by an economically and militarily declining West — given the cause and effect of the relationship between those two facts. Our choosing to contend with their rising power, their struggles to take back control over their area of the world, far from our doorsteps, is the threat to the yet to be completed “liberal order” across the globe.

    We best pick our battles wisely, lest we add to our ever growing list of strategic failures and multi trillion dollar expenditures that have produced nothing positive for this nation.