Demystifying the Anti Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) Threat

Army Modernisation

ANTI-Access/ Area- Denial (A2/AD), Why does it matter?: Like many of the metaphorical phrases emanating from the Western alliances, A2/AD —or anti-access and area denial — is primarily a new characterisation for an old way of war! From the invention of the English longbow to the development of the German Fritz-X guided anti-ship bomb, nations have mostly sought cost-effective means to deny access and inflict heavy losses on their foes.

Military thinkers have long cautioned that air forces and navies would encounter increasing difficulties in conducting operations in congested air defence setups and bathymetrically challenging littoral waters. During the Cold War, the United States understood any attempt to project its massive naval superiority in high seas against the Soviet coastal bastions might result in nightmarish levels of attrition.

Similarly, the Soviets devised armaments like the Tu-26 bombers with long range AS-6 ‘Kingfish’ supersonic Anti-Ship missiles (ASM) and Kirov class Battlecruisers, dubbed arsenal ships, to take the sheen off the USN Carrier Battle Groups at high seas. The potentially devastating effect of Russian surface to air (SAM) missiles was made painfully apparent to the Israeli air force as early as 1973. And then came Operation Desert Storm (OSD) in 1991, which was a game-changing military action in the annals of warfare.

While the world watched on television, coalition forces led by the United States defeated what was then the world’s fourth-largest standing army with surprising ease. Large-scale, multi-layered air attacks led by the United States, which Iraqi defences were unable to stop, dislocated large numbers of Iraqi ground forces and other targets from their sanctuary bases. It appeared to be a swansong of the much-vaunted Soviet-era weaponries, which the non-western world had taken for granted to assure balance of power across the world.

The nations across the world ‘learned’ from this conflict that there was a need to prepare for the next level of imminent warfare, that would take place under what some military strategists began to describe as “high-technology conditions.” To mitigate the primarily United States’ airpower advantage in future conflicts, many countries began to invest in means of keeping enemy fighters and bombers from enjoying the same freedom of movement as seen over the skies of Iraq in ODS.

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The concepts of operation that emerged from this desire came to be collectively known as Anti Access – Area Denial, with Russia and China emerging as two geographical pivots – establishing offensive, multi-layered, cross networked, electromagnetic interference resistant, Integrated Air Defence (IAD) zones in their quest to project resurgent power within and outside their borders by early 2000s.

A2/AD – DEFINING THE PHILOSOPHY

ANTI-ACCESS: “Action intended to slow deployment of friendly forces into a theatre or cause forces to operate from distances farther from the locus of conflict than they would otherwise prefer. A2 affects movement to a theatre.”
AREA DENIAL: “Action intended to impede friendly operations within areas where an adversary cannot or will not prevent access. AD affects maneuver within a theatre.”

The A2/AD projection is not limited to a single weapon system or tactics, but instead are “a series of overlapping capabilities across multiple domains like Air, Land, Sea, EW, Ai, Cyber and Space, with the sole aim of imposing maximum attrition on the adversaries’ war fighting capability in all spectrums.

Hence, as a concept, A2/AD encompasses two separate but related categories of investment. A2 measures are designed to render opposing forces unable to make an initial entry into a theatre of operations. The People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) development of its arsenal of theatre ballistic and long-range cruise missiles is a recent, well-publicized example of an A2 measure. By maintaining a large store of accurate, very long-range missiles, delivered through air and land-based launchers, the PLA has significantly raised the potential cost of any hostile operation in the Asia-Pacific and Tibet regions.

Existing layered, ultra-long range A2/AD arrangements with integrated terrestrial, air and space sensors, capable of detecting and intercepting a wide variety of aircraft, including stealth, ballistic and cruise missiles, which are highly resistant to jamming and spoofing; supplemented by hypersonic ballistic missiles like the Chinese DF-21A ASBM, the Russian Iskandar-M land attack system and the MiG-31 launched KH-47M2 Kinzhal 2000 km range hypersonic ASBM, have shaken the roots of the superiority which NATO enjoyed post the fall of the Soviet Union.

These have imposed a serious degree of caution on any misadventures on part of the US and its NATO allies, especially seen when Russia annexed Crimea and blatantly supported the formation of an independent state in eastern Ukraine much to the chagrin of the west in 2014; and recently in Syria, where the Russian IADs has stabilised its presence, intimidating the western allies to no end.

Russian A2/AD protected zones matter to the extent, that it contributes to fostering the perception within NATO that Russia might enjoy local escalation dominance in parts of NATO’s eastern flank, whether in the Baltics or the Black Sea Basin. China on its part is fortifying the island chain within the so-called nine dashed line in the South China Sea with a heady A2/AD arsenal, which protects nearly 80-90 per cent of the contested waters in the region. The nine-dash line runs as far as 2,000km from the Chinese mainland to within a few hundred kilometers of the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, who are but mute spectators in this blatant territorial grab.

Similar systems have also been deployed by China on the Fujian coast near Taiwan, and in the Tibet, where the PLA recognises the quick reaction ability of the Indian Air Force (IAF) well and expects the IAF to deploy rapidly to conflict zones. It realises a gap in functional capability, choosing to ingest the A2/AD environment with modern S-300, HQ-9 and HQ-12 SAMs, all of which pose grave danger to the IAF. Major A2/AD SAM complexes have been identified in Xinjian and TAR, which guard the likely ingress routes of the Indian Air Force.

In 2017, India halted China’s efforts to extend a road in territory disputed with Bhutan near the Indian border at Doklam, resulting in a protracted standoff lasting more than 70 days. The Chinese brazenly deployed the potent HQ-9 SAM during this standoff to deter the IAF from undertaking any CAS missions had any military skirmish taken place.

However, much of the China’s rapidly maturing reconnaissance-strike complex and bristling array of missiles, especially the potent DF-21D and DF-26 ASBM, are aimed at intercepting the United States Navy’s renowned Carrier Battle Groups (CBGs), thousands of kilometres away from the Chinese mainland, as well as threatening the US forces in Guam.

Though A2/AD’s popularity may well be justified, it also has its critics all over the strategy think tanks. However, for all its possible criticisms and shortcomings, the concept can help us better understand the unfolding global competition for military access and movement in an increasingly mature precision-strike context. Hence, the growing availability of increasingly potent A2/AD capabilities poses a serious threat to the ability to deploy and employ forces into many theaters around the world.

A2/AD – MUTATION & REGIONAL ADOPTION

The link between the development of these military systems by revisionist powers and their adoption of several destabilising security policies to further their national aims, now appears increasingly self-evident. What is less frequently discussed, however, is how this century’s two major challengers to the Western dominated 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 Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad behind a dense umbrella of advanced, integrated air defense systems (IADS). In others, forming a material sub-component of a wider regional strategy, like when China supplies Pakistan with large numbers of HQ-16 and possibly the HQ-9 SAMs (HQ-9/ FD-2000 talks are underway), to take on the potential of the Indian Air Force, WS-2 technology to develop the Nasr battlefield missiles with tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) to take on India’s Cold Start doctrine (CSD), mobile batteries of C-802 anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) or the CM-400AKG supersonic air-launched cruise missiles designed to cripple Indian aircraft carriers and naval assets.

Similarly, China’s sale of a broad gamut of weaponry to Iran and Saudi Arabia, ranging from naval mines, fast-attack craft, cruise missiles, SAMs and Ballistic missiles, may go beyond simple commercial imperatives and possess a diversionary strategic rationale. In addition, the recent emergence of North Korea as a rogue, ballistic missile armed muscle flexing policy disruptor in Asia Pacific, has been possible with decades of Chinese technical and military investments.

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 aggressive regional actors, while significantly raising the risks and costs of military intervention. Broadly, these direct measures also benefit from ongoing economic doctrines like the Chinese ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) initiative, which aims to have a widespread Chinese socio-economic dominance across the globe.

A2/ AD – UPSETTING THE WORLD ORDER

For decades, global stability and prosperity have 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 the west refers to as “A2/AD bubbles” — risks upsetting the foundations of the open-minded international order by expanding spaces of enclosure or instability.

Powers like the United States can no longer rely on their ability to project power with impunity or harness their military superiority to impose their will or ensure deterrence, with the United States and its allies, finding themselves outmaneuvered or outbid in ongoing battles for regional influence. Similarly, the military prowess of regional powers like India and Japan have taken a widespread hit, with traditional foes complementing their warfare doctrines with layered defences and counter attack capability.

Across the world, despite the fact that aggression into other countries’ sovereign territory is not acceptable in international law, ‘fait accompli’ conditions such as the Crimean Peninsula and the Middle East, could bring the various alliance into situations where A2/AD bubbles need to be offensively and defensively dealt during the early phases of intervention.
A2/AD – Countering the threat

Fundamentally, there are two main options for countering A2/AD. These are the Inside-Out and the Outside-In approach. Inside-Out is based on a technological advantage which strives for a short, high-intensity conflict, hitting the A2/AD system’s centre of gravity with the factor of surprise and breaking open the obstacles hindering the advance of friendly forces.

In contrast, Outside-In chooses the potentially lengthy approach of dismantling the adversary’s capabilities layer by layer. This bears the obvious risk of higher attrition and mission fatigue, which generally may not be politically acceptable and difficult to sustain. Hence, Inside-Out may be the most logical and feasible method of countering A2/AD. To be successful with this approach, the necessary military effectors must penetrate the A2/AD bubble to get within their weapon engagement range.

However, this is exactly what modern, highly-sophisticated A2/AD capabilities are designed to prevent. It has to be recognised these significant capabilities have most probably reduced the previous technological advantage of Western arsenals, especially challenging the US resources for global force projection and precision strike. Consequently, the A2/AD threat requires the following new capabilities to be developed and adopted:

• Standoff strike capabilities with the range to engage from outside, or from the edge of, A2/AD zone in combination with A2/AD-resistant C4ISR means

• Technology that can successfully penetrate an A2/AD zone and create a desired effect

• New concepts for using existing technology

• Counter A2/AD Capability Employment

Countries like the US, UK, France, Germany and Japan have laid out possible solutions to rebalance conventional deterrence in light of the A2/AD capabilities of potential adversaries. They are addressing the multi-domain strike needs with accelerated research induction of standoff stealthy manned and unmanned strike platforms, hypersonic attack systems, multi-spectrum cyber and electromagnetic attack missions, swarming and collaborative technologies, increased BMD effort, LR missile attack systems, next generation C4ISTAR and tanker capability; and boost to the land and naval platforms.

Herein, new standoff munitions particularly are being described which could defeat A2/AD strategies. For example, advanced tactical cruise missiles with a range around 500 NM or hypersonic missiles with a range of up to 1000 NM could overcome the time / distance limitation of existing subsonic weapons. This new arms race will change the nature of warfare as will be seen in the 2030s, with most nations in the world forced to upgrade towards the next generation of military offensive and defensive technologies.

What will be worthwhile to note is that airborne vehicles of all manner, will contribute most towards successful penetration of the next generation of A2/AD zones, with deception, speed and stealth playing the most prominent role.

A2/ AD – AN INDIAN PERSPECTIVE

India is preparing to fight a two front war in future, with the Indian Air Force as the primary mobile spearhead to counter the threat posed by the offensive capabilities of China’s Western Theatre Command (WTC) in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR); and Pakistan with its developing IADS supported by China.

Post the Doklam crisis, the Chinese are putting in place a robust A2/AD environment in Tibet, consisting of layered S-300/ HQ-9/ HQ-16 Surface to Air Missile defences and offensive Intermediate/ Short Range Ballistic Missiles like the DF-11/15/16 under the PLARF to strike in depth of the Indian mainland. Concurrently, Pakistan which is rapidly upgrading its IADS capability with modern SAMs (with likely induction of the HQ-9 and HQ-16 in the near future) and LR detection assets, as well as offensive attack capability in form of Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNW) like the Nasr and Ra’ad to counter the Indian Army’s offensive doctrine; is well placed to negate India’s advantage in numbers and offensive firepower.

The evolution of defensive capabilities into protracted offensive A2/AD capability in the neighbourhood will be a reason for concern to the IAF, especially given its depleted aircraft squadron strength, which is likely to fall to 26 combat aircraft squadrons in the coming decade. Chinese footprints around the Indian periphery and the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) with the OBOR and military aid to nations will empower even smaller nations to project offensive power in the form of miniature A2/AD bubbles.

Towards countering this clear and present danger and maintaining command of air in the coming decades, the Indian Air Force will urgently need to induct the next generation stand-off strike capability in form of missiles and unmanned platforms. Given the massive shortfall of combat aircraft, newer doctrines featuring innovative usage of Low Observable UCAVs with manned aircraft need to be adopted urgently.

This will also mitigate the expected attrition manned platforms are likely to face while countering well defended IAD complexes. Stealth, Stand Off precision strike, Manned Unmanned Teaming (MUT), Swarming technologies and development of a robust C4ISR & EW potential, will ensure the IAF retaining a measure of success in penetrating the existing and next generation A2/AD zones in contested airspace.

CONCLUSION

Despite A2/AD being prevalent in current warfare doctrines, it is principally not a new threat. It is a mere logical consequence of the conventional arms and technology race which has been ongoing since the end of WWII. Simply put, A2/AD is the response to western force projection, precision strike, and highly-networked C2 capabilities over a period of time, which due regional adoption, possess a threat to a fragmented world order, where geopolitical economic measures need to be supported by a strong military presence. Enhanced capability, such as extended detection and engagement ranges in combination with high mobility, low detection probability, and networked redundancy, have created new defensive capabilities, that will govern the way war is fought in the coming decades.

Since attrition warfare will not be the first option for most nations, technical solutions and creative concepts will need to be found to assure future mission success. Specific counter A2/AD capability gaps need to be clearly identified and filled by robust and appropriate means to maintain an acceptable level of conventional deterrence.

This will need to take into account the immense technological innovation speed of next generation A2/AD systems like the S-500, HQ-19 and integrated anti-stealth detection capability into account, demanding faster and more adaptive solutions. In addition, warfare doctrine should be reviewed in order to reflect the highly integrated joint and combined processes needed in countering A2/AD.

– The author is the CEO of NewSpace Research & Technologies Pvt Ltd

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