Battle of the Bastions
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union, warned by the Walker spy ring — active from 1967 to 1985 — about the vulnerability of its nuclear submarines, concentrated them in the Barents Sea close to the Russian mainland. Later, Moscow did the same on the Pacific coast in the Sea of Okhotsk. With their most precious assets huddled in isolated waters, the Soviets then implemented what became known as the “bastion concept” to protect them. As the nuclear submarines maneuvered within a defined space, they were protected by approximately 75 percent of the Soviet navy’s attack submarines, every surface vessel in its northern and Pacific fleets, and hundreds of aircraft. It was a truly formidable defense, one that NATO spent considerable energy and resources finding counters to.
Well, bastions are back. Worse, they are proliferating and are more formidable than ever. And today, they are being employed for operational and strategic offensive purposes. As such, battling bastions represents the future of naval and probably land warfare. Though China and Russia represent the leading edge of modern bastion development, as advanced weapons technologies — particularly precision missiles — diffuse and become plentiful, other nations — North Korea, Vietnam, Iran, Israel, Taiwan — are implementing the bastion concept, either to ward off enemies or as secure bases from which to threaten their neighbors. Even the United States — keen to defend its forward bases in the Pacific and logistics hubs in Europe — is developing concepts calling for the rapid placement of bastions across the globe.
Bristling with the same panoply of weaponry that made the Soviet’s Arctic strongholds nearly invincible, these 21st-century bastions will also benefit from the installation of thousands of long-range precision missiles and other technologies and capabilities that the Soviet Union never possessed. It is not difficult to envision a near future where bastions are protected by a range of weapons just starting to crawl out of the laboratories such as railguns, lasers, and electomagnetic pulse weapons, to name only a few. Moreover, these modern bastions will be linked to cyber and space assets employable for both offensive and defensive purposes.
A nascent, doctrinal definition of the bastion concept might be “geographic locations where A2-D2 capabilities are massed and integrated to defend valuable strategic assets or to provide secure fires complexes in support of offensive and operational maneuver.” In short, bastions are the visible manifestation of how anti-access/area denial capabilities are increasingly being employed by potential enemies to support wider operational and strategic thinking.
Because of their increasing resilience as well as their capacity to engage distant targets, the role of bastions is changing. While protecting nuclear assets remains a vital mission, particularly for already established bastions, newer installations are taking on other roles. This is clearly visible as strategists examine how China and Russia are employing an offensive bastion strategy to tilt regional balances of power and extend their global influence. Russia, for example, still needing to protect its ballistic submarines, never fully dismantled its northern bastions, which are becoming increasingly strong as Russia’s northern fleet is revitalized. But the mission of Russia’s great northern bastions is no longer exclusively defensive. Rather, they have become the strategic center for Russia to extend its influence throughout the resource-rich Arctic Ocean. Similarly, it is hard to look at Kaliningrad without seeing a bristling defensive bastion in the heart of NATO —one that can easily take on an offensive role as a fortified pivot in support of Russian forces maneuvering in either the Baltic states or Poland. Farther south, Russia appears intent on making the Black Sea a Russian lake, with Crimea rapidly becoming the core of a military bastion capable of employing offensive fires to dominate the surrounding seas.
In the Pacific, American strategists are warily observing China’s accelerating installation of bastions along the mainland, on nearby islands, and, more recently, deep into the South China Sea. Clearly, they are not all needed to protect China’s nuclear systems. Rather, China is repurposing the Soviet-era bastion strategy as the military backbone for its strategic offensive during ongoing great-power competition. If this competition erupts into a conflict, these bastions are already positioned to support Chinese operational maneuver throughout the first island chain and to engage targets beyond the second island chain.
A glance at the map below reveals a new and troubling aspect of these Chinese bastions — they are overlapping and networked together. When NATO was developing plans to deal with Cold War-era Soviet bastions, they had the benefit of there being only two of them, thousands of miles apart. More crucially, these Soviet strongholds were almost totally defensive in character, although the northern bastions could be used as a secure base from which to attempt penetrations of the GIUK gap.
Figure 1: Bastion MapSource: Image generated by Allison Lacey.
Further, regional powers are clearly starting to build bastions aimed at threatening or countering their neighbors: Iran at the Strait of Hormuz; Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the same straits; Vietnam in its northern provinces to counter China; and Taiwan, which is turning its entire island into a bastion. Such bastions are sure to proliferate further as tensions rise among the globe’s most dangerous flashpoints.
At present, the United States seems most concerned over current and developing Chinese bastions, as these formidable modern fortress zones clearly underpin a strategic offensive. They are just as clearly designed to support potential operational offensives. For instance, the military power assembled on the western shore of the Taiwan Strait is unambiguously designed for a single offensive purpose — a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Similarly, the transformation of Hainan Island into a military fortress was evidently planned as a first step in a series of developing bastions reaching deep into the South China Sea. As each additional stronghold is completed, it becomes part of a string of interlinked bastions increasingly able to dominate the surrounding seas. Moreover, once long-range precision missiles are inserted within these bastions, they take on a sea denial mission that extends hundreds or even thousands of kilometers beyond the bastion’s core.
Countering Chinese, as well as Russian, bastions during competition requires the creation of American bastion networks across much of the globe, particularly at points considered key maritime terrain. I have previously argued that such bastions will play a crucial role in ensuring the U.S. Navy will be able to maneuver and control vital sea lanes in a future conflict as without the defensive umbrella provided by such bases it is hard to see how expensive and vulnerable platforms could survive in an environment saturated with precision weapons.
The creation of such bastions on a permanent basis during our current period of competition is by far the best option. But without the presence of an immediate threat, many of America’s potential allies are unlikely to allow the United States to build installations that may antagonize great state powers in their own backyards. To a large degree, they are also deterred by the fear of creating internal political opposition that will rally against what many will perceive as a provocative move. For example, even a causal examination of a map clearly shows that a NATO bastion centered near Narvik in northern Norway would be an essential element in bottling up Russia’s northern fleet as well as in providing the firepower necessary to successfully penetrate Russia’s Arctic bastions. But despite Norway being a NATO member, it is unlikely that any Norwegian government is going to allow their northern regions to become heavily militarized. Even the Philippines, already encountering Chinese encroachment in waters it claims as sovereign Filipino territory, remains uncertain as to the wisdom of allowing the construction of military installations capable of deterring further Chinese aggression.
This is what makes the Marine Corps expeditionary advanced base operations concept vital to success in any future conflict, as at its core the concept is all about seizing key maritime terrain upon which future bastions are going to be built. The upcoming 2020 Defender Pacific exercise demonstrates that even if the U.S. Army has not formally adopted the Marine Corps’s Pacific concept, it is clearly heading in the same direction.
So, what will a future war look like?
It is becoming increasingly apparent that future fights likely will become battles between heavily armed bastions. These bastions will come in various sizes, but the largest of them will be capable of delivering huge offensive punches while absorbing similar levels of punishment. As enemy bastions are likely to limit the U.S. fleet’s maneuver space to areas defended by America’s own bastions, it is difficult to see how any naval-oriented conflict can be decisively won before the opposing side’s bastions are beaten down.
Similarly, on land, the space between heavily defended bastions is likely to become a deadly no man’s land until the bastions of one side or another are hammered out of existence. One can clearly see the difficulties even the best commanders possessing overwhelming force will have defeating such bastions by examining General Patton’s problems in Lorraine and at Metz. Keep in mind that he was facing an army worn down by years of brutal attrition, bereft of air support, and possessing few weapons that could range farther than a dozen miles. If the past is prologue, it is time to give up on notions of brilliant war-winning maneuvers as no one is going to blitzkrieg through enemy bastions packed to the brim with long-range precision weapons and defended by 21st-century arsenals, at least until they have been ground down by weeks or months of attrition.
On the positive side, “bastion warfare” may have the unintended side effect of limiting the scope of a great-power conflict, as there is a chance neither side will see attacks aimed at degrading their bastions as existential threats. Moreover, until these bastions are reduced or eliminated, the possibility of attacks on a nation’s central provinces will be limited as militaries focus on winning the bastion fight, although that kind of thinking may be a forlorn wish. At the very least, the destruction of one or two major bastions can signal to all sides that it is time for the United States to negotiate its way back to competition, as when denied the protection of their bastions, a major state’s next logical step is nuclear release.
Dr. James Lacey is the professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College. He recently authored The Washington War, and his book Gods of War will be published in May 2020. The opinions in this article are entirely his own and do not represent those of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or the Department of Defense.