December 03, 2020

Moving Beyond A2/AD

By Chris Dougherty

The Bottom Line

The next National Defense Strategy should reconceptualize the military challenges China and Russia pose by moving beyond “anti-access/area-denial” or A2/AD. Instead, it should adopt the concept of exploiting temporal advantage, or ETA, as a framework for understanding these challenges. This would:

  • Improve understanding and representation of Chinese and Russian operational challenges and subsequent diagnoses of their impacts on U.S. strategy and operations;
  • Sharpen development of U.S. concepts for confronting, deterring and, if necessary, defeating Chinese and Russian coercion and aggression;
  • Clarify the relationship between “peacetime” competition and conflict in U.S. strategic and operational thinking; and
  • Guide critical force-planning decisions, particularly in modernization and overseas posture.

Introduction

Barring a shocking strategic shift, China and, to a lesser extent, Russia will likely continue to be the focus of the next National Defense Strategy (NDS). The previous NDS and prior strategic reviews have used the term anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) to describe Chinese and Russian approaches that seek to prevent U.S. forces from gaining or using access to overseas bases or critical locations, such as ports and airfields, while denying U.S. forces the ability to maneuver within striking distance of their territory. Collectively, these actions could significantly constrain U.S. military interventions or raise their costs.

For at least a decade, A2/AD has helped focus the Department of Defense (DoD) on critical Chinese and Russian threats to U.S. military operations in East Asia and eastern Europe. Today, however, it has outlived its usefulness as a diagnosis of Chinese and Russian approaches to warfare and as a framework for guiding subsequent operational and force-planning decisions based on the challenges they pose. Terminology and words matter, most acutely in problem diagnosis. If the DoD cannot move beyond A2/AD, it risks wasting billions of taxpayer dollars building a future force based on a flawed premise. More worryingly, it puts the United States at greater risk of losing a future war against China or Russia.

An Intellectual Junk Drawer

“To some, A2AD is a code-word, suggesting an impenetrable ‘keep-out zone’ that forces can enter only at extreme peril to themselves. To others, A2AD refers to a family of technologies. To still others, a strategy. In sum, A2AD is a term bandied about freely, with no precise definition, that sends a variety of vague or conflicting signals, depending on the context in which it is either transmitted or received.”

This quote, by then–Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson, aptly sums up A2/AD’s major flaws. It has become an intellectual “junk drawer,” into which U.S. defense analysts have thrown virtually every Chinese and Russian challenge to U.S. military operations in Asia and Europe. Rather than providing a coherent, shared understanding of a serious problem facing the DoD, A2/AD has become a jumbled and misleading mess. At the same time, just as every house has a junk drawer, so too does the Pentagon require simplifications of complex ideas. Eliminating buzzwords and jargon, as Admiral Richardson suggested, is a quixotic task. As if to illustrate this point, he wrote his critique of A2/AD in 2016, but the term is alive and well four years later.

If the DoD cannot move beyond A2/AD, it risks wasting billions of taxpayer dollars building a future force based on a flawed premise.

Instead, Pentagon planners need an alternative framework that creates a coherent, shared understanding of the interaction among Chinese, Russian, and U.S. approaches to warfare. The framework should be broad enough to capture the myriad ways in which China and Russia approach competition and conflict with the United States, without being so broad that it loses coherence. It must also contain more nuanced language regarding the risks that Chinese and Russian methods pose to U.S., allied, and partner maneuver forces. Finally, the concept should focus U.S. planners on the right set of problems and regain a semblance of intellectual initiative.

Exploiting Temporal Advantage

For the foreseeable future, China and Russia will be at a disadvantage against the United States in global military capability, and this disadvantage only grows as allies and partners join U.S.-led coalitions. Chinese and Russian military thinking about fighting the United States therefore centers on upending this shortcoming in the correlation of forces in a given theater, maintaining their advantage for long enough to seize their objectives, then terminating the conflict on favorable terms. By exploiting temporal advantage (ETA) in this way, China and Russia can plausibly seize their objectives while avoiding a fight or, if necessary, by fighting at a distinct advantage in the correlation of forces. Rather than thinking about countering specific systems or behaviors, the DoD should instead focus on a comprehensive set of actions to prevent China or Russia from gaining and exploiting a temporal advantage—or perceiving such an advantage—in which they could seize their objectives.

The central aspect of time, and how to manipulate it to their benefit, is critical to the Chinese and Russian ways of war. However, with some exceptions, it remains relatively underappreciated in U.S. discourse. Both China and Russia believe that the “initial period of war” likely determines the outcome, and therefore place a great deal of emphasis on preparatory, preemptive, or rapid actions to create a favorable correlation of forces in the combat theater. In competition (or confrontation, in their vernacular), they manipulate time, either by moving slowly or deniably to avoid provoking a response (e.g., Chinese island building in the South China Sea), or by moving quickly in areas where policies are unclear and potential responses are too slow or ineffectual (e.g., Russia’s seizure of Crimea).

Time provides the conceptual connective tissue between Chinese and Russian actions in competition on the one hand, and deterrence and military conflict on the other. There are innumerable ways in which China and Russia are acting against U.S., allied, and partner interests in “peacetime” competition. The DoD should focus its competitive efforts on thwarting China and Russia from buying themselves time in the initial period of war, or, conversely, taking time away from the United States and its allies and partners during that same period. To accomplish this, the DoD should not try to counter all Russian or Chinese disinformation, but should actively shape the information environment in ways that provide timely and accurate indications and warning of Chinese and Russian coercion or aggression, and that ensure rapid and coherent coalition responses to these actions.

Time provides the conceptual connective tissue between Chinese and Russian actions in competition on the one hand, and deterrence and military conflict on the other.

By itself, ETA is an extremely broad concept, but its object is to shift the DoD’s thinking away from a symmetrical comparison of systems and toward time as the critical variable impacted by the interaction of those systems and associated activities. To further specify this concept and prevent it from becoming another unruly junk drawer, it can be subdivided into four distinct, but interrelated bins.

Information Degradation and Command (or Cognitive) Disruption

Information degradation and command (or cognitive) disruption (ID/CD) describes Chinese and Russian approaches toward gaining an advantage in the ability to gather, transmit, process, understand, and act on information in a timely and accurate manner. They achieve this goal largely by attacking critical systems in space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum. The object of such attacks is twofold: (1) degrading the systems themselves, and (2) disrupting the command and cognitive processes that rely on them. By prevailing in this “techno-cognitive confrontation,” China and Russia hope to render U.S., allied, and partner forces less able to respond quickly or coherently to coercion or aggression.

Contesting Theater Access and Maneuver

Should the United States and its allies and partners choose to intervene in a potential conflict, China and Russia would seek to slow their response by contesting theater access and maneuver (CTAM). This is perhaps the line of effort most closely aligned with traditional conceptions of A2/AD, with the critical difference that CTAM makes clear that access and maneuver are contested on a spectrum of risk, rather than denied, thereby creating no-go zones, or “angry red bubbles,” on a map. The idea behind CTAM is not to deny access or maneuver space to the United States or its allies and partners (which is not possible), but rather to limit, delay, and raise the risks and costs of any potential response. Moving beyond the bifurcation of areas into denied/permissive toward a spectrum of contestation and risk permits a far more nuanced conceptual discussion. This shift can also privilege development of weapons systems that are effective enough to operate at acceptable levels of risk in less contested environments, but cheap and plentiful enough to operate in more contested areas (where the risks and rewards are both higher), without undue concern about attrition.

Degrading Sustainment, Logistics, and Mobility

U.S. forces operating in Asia or Europe depend heavily on an enormous and vulnerable web of sustainment, logistics, and mobility assets to maintain their operational tempo and shift the correlation of forces to their advantage. Therefore, degrading sustainment, logistics, and mobility (DSLAM) is the third critical aspect of Chinese and Russian ETA approaches. The more successful they can be at limiting forward maintenance and sustainment, choking off supplies of key materiel such as fuel and munitions, and slowing the flow of forces into the theater, the longer they can hold open their window of temporal advantage.

Strategic Actions to Deter, Coerce, and Terminate

Finally, China and Russia need a means to impose boundaries on a conflict or terminate it before they lose their temporal overmatch. To do this, they will use strategic actions to deter, coerce, and terminate (SADCAT). Such actions can take a wide variety of forms, including attacks on critical infrastructure, commercial assets, and employment of nuclear weapons or other forms of strategic attack. All these actions are intended to prevent the United States and its allies and partners from using escalation or their waxing temporal advantage to reverse Chinese or Russian gains. ID/CD pries the window open, CTAM and DSLAM open it further and hold it open, and then SADCAT slams it shut when China and Russia perceive that their advantage is waning. In some cases, SADCAT could take place in a crisis to forestall U.S., allied, or partner intervention.

These four bins within ETA are mutually supporting. ID/CD attacks, for example, could interfere with the ability of U.S. forces to coordinate offensive strikes in the theater (CTAM), or the ability of the U.S. Transportation Command to build a tanker bridge to ferry aircraft to the theater (DSLAM). Or they could reversibly attack critical command and control assets as a signal of willingness and intent to escalate (SADCAT). Each bin reinforces the other, synergistically maximizing the size and duration of China or Russia’s temporal advantage in the correlation of forces.

While this concept covers both China and Russia, they would not necessarily apply ETA and its subordinate concepts symmetrically. The additional gradations provided by the bins enables greater differentiation between their approaches. In ID/CD operations, for example, China might aim to sabotage or destroy critical systems, whereas Russia might leave them functioning as a conduit for deception and “reflexive control.” Russia might leverage SADCAT approaches more quickly than China, and these activities—consistent with Russia’s concept of strategic operations to destroy critically important targets—might include key logistics nodes such as ports, airfields, and railroads.

China and Russia need a means to impose boundaries on a conflict or terminate it before they lose their temporal overmatch. To do this, they will use strategic actions to deter, coerce, and terminate.

Collectively, the aim of ETA and the subordinate concepts is to focus the DoD on developing concepts and capabilities for the most pressing challenges that China and Russia pose, and doing so in ways that thwart their strategies rather than play into their hands. Preparatory actions in the information environment and through combined exercises and persistent forward engagement can ensure a rapid and coherent coalition response to coercion and aggression. Resilient command, control, and communications systems paired with increasing use of mission command and devolved peer-to-peer control methods will enable U.S. forces to degrade gracefully under ID/CD attacks and limit Chinese and Russian advantages in the initial period of war. A combat-credible forward posture backed by responsive global strike options can blunt aggression in the face of Chinese and Russian attempts to contest theater access and maneuver. Reducing the logistics demands of forward forces and developing resilient and defensible sustainment, logistics, and mobility networks can enable sustained high-tempo operations in contested theaters, inexorably shift the correlation of forces toward the United States, and present China and Russia with the possibility of a protracted conflict. Developing new methods and means to manage escalation—particularly in the increasingly muddled space between conventional, nuclear, and unconventional strategic escalation—can foil Chinese and Russian attempts to force conflict termination on their timelines.

Recommendations

Meeting the military challenges that China and Russia pose requires describing these challenges clearly and accurately diagnosing their impact on U.S. defense strategy and military operations. To improve its diagnosis of these challenges, the DoD should:

  • Abandon A2/AD as its framework for the military challenges China and Russia pose, and replace it with ETA, along with the subordinate concepts ID/CD, CTAM, DSLAM, and SADCAT.
  • Concurrently, the DoD should put temporal considerations at the center of the next NDS and its thinking on competing with, deterring, and, if necessary, defeating Chinese or Russian aggression.

Conclusion

A2/AD has outlived its usefulness as a galvanizing concept. Chinese, Russian, and U.S. military forces and thinking have shifted substantially since the term entered the vernacular in the 1990s. Threats to U.S. forward bases and freedom of maneuver still exist, but they have evolved to include new systems, stratagems, and a host of other issues such as disinformation spread through social media. The military challenges China and Russia pose are much more subtle and varied than can be conveyed by A2/AD’s “angry red bubbles.”

Changing this framework will not alter the correlation of forces in key theaters. It will not prevent the United States from getting stuck in another Middle East tarpit. It will not cause Chinese and Russian military and political leaders to wake up every day and think, “Today is not the day we test the United States.” It will not even change the way the Pentagon thinks overnight.

But words and ideas matter. Otherwise, defense strategists would not debate them with such vigor. Changing how the DoD frames challenges is like shifting the course of a glacier: it is slow, but it has a profound and inescapable impact on how the organization perceives problems and develops solutions to address them. Just as A2/AD changed how the DoD thought about challenges to U.S. defense strategy and military operations during the past two decades, adopting ETA, along with its subordinate concepts ID/CD, CTAM, DSLAM, and SADCAT, could foster renewed intellectual fervor and innovation.

Increasing attention for the broader temporal aspects of Chinese and Russian military strategy could help address persistent gaps in DoD thinking around information warfare, economic coercion, and strategic escalation. Improving the sophistication of U.S. discussion about Chinese and Russian concepts and capabilities to contest, rather than deny, basing access and freedom of maneuver could help the DoD, the armed services, and Congress make smarter investments to improve U.S. overseas posture and better leverage existing force structure.

Change is difficult and not without risk. However, the current state of the debate over U.S. defense strategies, operational concepts, and capability investments to deal with the challenges posed by China and Russia suggests that there is greater risk in resisting change. Ironically, the moment that A2/AD achieved its greatest salience in the last NDS appears to be the moment that it reached obsolescence.

About the Author

Chris Dougherty is a Senior Fellow in the Defense Program and co-lead of the Gaming Lab at the Center for a New American Security. Prior to joining CNAS, Mr. Dougherty served as Senior Advisor to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development at the Department of Defense. During this time, he led a handful of major initiatives, including the development and writing of major sections of the 2018 National Defense Strategy.

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  1. John Richardson, “Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson: Deconstructing A2AD,” The National Interest, October 3, 2016, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/chief-naval-operations-adm-john-richardson-deconstructing-17918.
  2. Admiral Richardson is not the only critic of A2/AD as an organizing construct. See Mike Pietrucha, “Avoiding the Charge of the Light Brigade Against China,” War on the Rocks, June 15, 2016, https://warontherocks.com/2016/06/avoiding-the-charge-of-the-light-brigade-against-china/; M. Taylor Fravel and Christopher P. Twomey, “Projecting Strategy: The Myth of Chinese Counter-Intervention,” The Washington Quarterly, 37 no. 4 (winter 2015), 171–87; Michael Kofman, “Russian Maritime ‘A2/AD’: Strengths and Weaknesses,” Russia Military Analysis, January 29, 2020, https://russianmilitaryanalysis.wordpress.com/2020/01/29/russian-maritime-a2-ad-strengths-and-weaknesses/; Timothy Heath and Andrew S. Erickson, “Is China Pursuing Counter-Intervention?” The Washington Quarterly, 38 no. 3 (fall 2015), 143–56; Michael Kofman, “It’s Time to Talk About A2/AD: Rethinking the Russian Military Challenge,” War on the Rocks, September 5, 2019, https://warontherocks.com/2019/09/its-time-to-talk-about-a2-ad-rethinking-the-russian-military-challenge/; and Robert Dalsjö, Christofer Berglund, and Michael Jonsson, “Bursting the Bubble: Russian A2/AD in the Baltic Sea Region: Capabilities, Countermeasures, and Implications,” Report No. FOI-R—4651—SE (FOI, March 2019), 16, https://www.foi.se/rest-api/report/FOI-R--4651--SE.
  3. For a good synopsis of Chinese and Russian thinking, see Timothy Thomas, “The Chinese Way of War: How Has It Changed?” Contract No. W56KGU-19-F0004 (MITRE Corporation, June 2020), https://community.apan.org/wg/tradoc-g2/fmso/m/fmso-books/332777; and Timothy Thomas, “The Evolving Nature of Russia’s Way of War,” The Military Review (July–August 2017), https://www.armyupress.army.mil/Journals/Military-Review/English-Edition-Archives/July-August-2017/Thomas-Russias-Way-of-War/. For U.S. discussion, see Billy Fabian, “Overcoming the Tyranny of Time: The Role of U.S. Forward Posture in Deterrence and Defense,” The Next Defense Strategy (Center for a New American Security, September 21, 2020), https://www.cnas.org/publications/commentary/overcoming-the-tyranny-of-time-the-role-of-u-s-forward-posture-in-deterrence-and-defense.
  4. See, Timothy Thomas, “Russian Military Thought: Concepts and Elements,” Contract No. W56KGU-18-D-0004-S120 (MITRE Corporation, August 2019), 1–3, https://www.mitre.org/sites/default/files/publications/pr-19-1004-russian-military-thought-concepts-elements.pdf.
  5. Jeffrey Engstrom, “Systems Confrontation and System Destruction Warfare: How the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Seeks to Wage Modern Warfare,” Document No. RR-1708-OSD (RAND Corporation, 2018), https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1708.html.
  6. For China, See Burgess Laird, “War Control: Chinese Writings on the Control of Escalation in Crisis and Conflict” (Center for a New American Security, March 2017), https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/war-control; and Alison A. Kaufman and Daniel M. Hartnett, “Managing Conflict: Examining Recent PLA Writings on Escalation Control” (Center for Naval Analyses, February 2016), https://www.cna.org/cna_files/pdf/DRM-2015-U-009963-Final3.pdf. For Russia, see Thomas, “Russian Military Thought,” 5–8; and Dmitry (Dima) Adamsky, “Cross-Domain Coercion: The Current Russian Art of Strategy” (Institut Français des Relations Internationales, November 2015), https://www.ifri.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/pp54adamsky.pdf.
  7. For a similar discussion of windows of opportunity, albeit using the A2/AD construct, see David Ochmanek, “Recommendations for a Future National Defense Strategy,” Document No. CT-484 (RAND Corporation, November 2017), 3, https://www.rand.org/pubs/testimonies/CT484.html.
  8. See Thomas, “Russian Military Thought,” 4–1 through 4–12. See also Keir Giles, Handbook of Russian Information Warfare Fellowship Monograph No. 9 (Rome: NATO Defense College, November 2016), 19–21, https://www.ndc.nato.int/news/news.php?icode=995.
  9. Dave Johnson, “Russia’s Conventional Precision Strike Capabilities, Regional Crises, and Nuclear Thresholds” Livermore Papers on Global Security No. 3 (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Center for Global Security Research, February 2018), 48–50.

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