A European Perspective on Anti-Access/Area Denial and the Third Offset Strategy


Editor’s Note: This is adapted from the author’s article in the latest issue of the Journal of Strategic Studies.

Over the past two decades, China, Russia, Iran, and others have developed anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) capabilities such as ballistic and cruise missiles, offensive cyber weapons, electronic warfare, and more. A2/AD capabilities undermine the key foundation of the global liberal order and threaten the U.S. military’s global freedom of access presence across all operating domains: air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace.

In order to overcome or at least mitigate the impending global A2/AD challenge, the U.S. Department of Defense began to roll out its third offset strategy in late 2014. The aim of this offset strategy is to leverage U.S. advantages in technologies such as big data, stealth, advanced manufacturing (3D printing), robotics, and directed energy, with a view toward sustaining and advancing U.S. military-technological superiority for the 21st century. Arguably, the key driver behind the third offset strategy is Chinese advances in A2/AD capabilities. Strategic developments in the Asia-Pacific region will likely set the pace and evolution of U.S. military-technological innovation for years or even decades to come.

Why, if at all, should Europeans care about offset? At times of financial strain and geopolitical upheaval in eastern Europe and across the Middle East and Africa, it might be tempting for Europeans to seek comfort in the assumption that the kind of military and geopolitical challenges the United States faces in the Asia-Pacific theater are very different from the ones Europeans face. However, that assumption is highly problematic. As I argue in an upcoming article in the Journal of Strategic Studies,  Europeans face their own set of A2/AD challenges.

As such, the fundamental problems faced by Europe and the United States in overcoming or mitigating A2/AD threats are essentially the same, and many of the capabilities required are fungible. The United States, which remains committed to the security of Europe its eastern and southern neighborhoods, has warned about the development of A2/AD challenges therein. If Europe is willing to listen to this advice from across the pond, the transatlantic relationship could offer a promising framework for Europeans to offset A2/AD challenges in and around Europe.

When confronting their own A2/AD challenges, Europeans must grapple with very similar conceptual puzzles as the United States. Most discussions on the offset strategy 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 (e.g. missile launchers and command and control systems) as well as more effective 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. “Hedging” strategies seek to turn the anti-access tables on the enemy or competitor to raise the costs of potential aggression. They are less technologically intensive and more asymmetric in nature.

In trying to strike the right balance between defeating A2/AD and hedging against it, Europeans must consider the geographical features of their eastern flank and southern neighborhood, the technological maturity of Europe’s A2/AD challengers, and Europe’s own military-technological prowess and political limitations. This suggests a somewhat different approach to offsetting A2/AD than that adopted by the United States in the Asia-Pacific.

Geography is key to any discussion on A2/AD. In order to deny access to its long and open littoral, China needs sophisticated A2/AD capabilities constituting a long-range maritime reconnaissance and strike complex covering huge swaths of the Pacific Ocean. In turn, a country like Iran can focus its maritime denial capabilities on the far smaller Persian Gulf and the key chokepoint at the Strait of Hormuz. Relative to the western Pacific, the Persian Gulf region is rather compact, and population centers and military bases in the southern Persian Gulf are well within range of Iran’s short- and medium-range strike assets, while the narrow waters of the Strait of Hormuz make it relatively easy for Tehran to block access into the Persian Gulf.

Russia is perhaps closer to Iran than China on the scale of difficulty of imposing A2/AD ecosystems in eastern Europe. This is because the Black and Baltic Sea recesses are sufficiently compact to allow relatively small numbers of anti-air and anti-sea platforms to dominate neighboring regions. To be sure, Russia’s long continental border could offset these advantages, as it could potentially force Moscow to spread its military resources across a 1,000-mile frontier. However, this problem is mitigated by two factors: a) the fact that Belarus is strategically close to Russia and Ukraine is not a member of NATO; and b) the absence of NATO offensive capabilities in or close to the frontline, with the partial exception of Poland.

Taking into account the geographical differences between the western Pacific and the European neighborhood, range constitutes an important difference between U.S. and European approaches to offsetting A2/AD challengers. Since 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 and sets of capabilities for defeating and hedging.

Russia, A2/AD and NATO’s Eastern Flank

In eastern Europe, Russia’s advances in precision-guided systems have resulted in significant improvements in A2/AD capabilities, such as overlapping air and missile defenses, dense concentrations of surface-to-surface ballistic missiles and land-, air-, and sea-launched cruise missiles, and 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.

NATO member states bordering Russia are increasingly vulnerable to A2/AD systems. Moscow’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 alleged presence of Russian S-400 missiles in Kaliningrad, which could endanger NATO operations deeper into Europe. In addition, 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 that extends as far as the eastern Mediterranean and the Levant. Last but not least, the rapid build-up of Russia’s military arsenal in Murmansk has translated into an A2/AD bubble covering parts of Norway and of the Barents and Norwegian seas. The proliferation of Russian A2/AD capabilities across Europe’s eastern flank poses a serious operational problem for NATO. In the event 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 Scandinavian countries.

Much like the United States is doing in the western Pacific, NATO should try to simultaneously defeat and hedge against A2/AD challenges to force Russia to split its resources between offense and defense. “Hedging” strategies are mainly about turning the tables on Russia. In this regard, some experts have alluded to the need for NATO frontline allies to invest in air, sea, and land denial capabilities to negate and reduce the risks posed by the Russian conventional force aggression or else resort to “protracted warfare” through small and highly distributed irregular resistance forces, prepositioned and concealed weapons, and clandestine support networks or auxiliaries that focus on lethal maneuvers, ambushes and sabotage. By building up their irregular forces, the Baltic States would advertise their indigestibility to a potential predator, thus raising the costs of a potential Russian aggression and contributing to deterrence by denial.

At the same time, NATO should also aim to defeat Russian A2/AD capabilities. One way to defeat Russian A2/AD capabilities is to invest in advanced missile defense systems by drawing on some of the technologies being discussed in the context of the third offset strategy, such directed-energy weapons or electromagnetic rail guns. Another option is to invest in offensive capabilities that can defeat Russian A2/AD systems and restore deterrence by investing in strike capabilities that can cut through Russia’s A2/AD layer, such as stealthy air-to-air and air-to-ground systems, submarines (which are becoming increasingly important in the context of land-strike missions), offensive cyber and electronic weapons, and short- and medium-range missiles that can target Russian launchers and command and control infrastructure. The high costs and technological requirements mean strategies aimed at defeating A2/AD may only be available to Europe’s main military powers such as Britain or France and would in any case require a significant U.S. contribution. The recent trilateral U.S.-U.K.-French air exercises simulating attacks on sophisticated integrated air defense systems (IADS) shows that some steps are being taken in this direction.

When thinking about how NATO can counter A2/AD challenges on its eastern flank, frontline states should concentrate primarily on hedging, while the western European allies could deploy some of the more offensive, deep-strike capabilities aimed at defeating A2/AD altogether. The countries closest to Russia’s western perimeter do not possess the military resources to pursue similar deep-strike “shoot the archer” strategies on any meaningful scale. Therefore, this sort of layered, tiered defense would both fit the resource base of the different NATO countries and would allow the alliance to keep its high-end platforms beyond Russia’s reach.

A2/AD and Europe’s “Extended Southern Neighborhood”

A2/AD capabilities are also finding their way into Europe’s “extended southern neighborhood,” , i.e. the geographical space stretching from the Gulf of Guinea through the Sahel, the Mediterranean and Red Seas into the Western Indian Ocean as far as the Persian Gulf. Countries like Iran, Pakistan, Syria and terrorist groups like Hizbollah are combining the application of precision-guided munitions and asymmetry to create strategic effects.

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

In their extended southern neighborhood, Europeans face a wide range of medium powers, small powers, and non-state actors whose A2/AD capabilities boast different degrees of maturity and technological sophistication. Overall, however, the absence of great power competitors, states capable of threatening Europe with nuclear weapons (with Iran being a partial exception), and the lesser degree of A2/AD maturity means that offensive strategies involve much less risk in the southern neighborhood than in the eastern flank. This means that the balance should normally tilt toward expeditionary concepts and capabilities and offensive ways of defeating A2/AD threats for the foreseeable future instead of hedging against them.

Arguably, the main obstacle to European power projection in the extended southern neighborhood is political: growing public aversion to military engagements abroad. This suggests a shift toward subtler, more indirect ways of projecting force and toward power projection capabilities that are “A2/AD-proof” such as attack submarines, strike drones, special operations forces, and offensive cyber and electronic warfare capabilities. Finally, if Europeans want to project power in those parts of their extended southern neighborhood that are further away from Europe (West Africa and the Persian Gulf), they must also invest in A2/AD-proof long-range surveillance and strike capabilities. This is perhaps particularly relevant for those few European powers that still boast extra-regional ambitions, most notably Britain and France and, to a lesser extent, Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands.


Luis Simón is Research Professor at the Institute for European Studies (Vrije Universiteit Brussel), Director of the Brussels office of the Royal Elcano Institute, and co-founder of the online magazine European Geostrategy. He has a PhD in International Relations from the University of London (Royal Holloway College) and a Masters in European Studies from Sciences-Po (Paris).