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Dangerous Waters: The Situation in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait

By James Pothecary


On 25 October 2016, the Spanish-flagged merchant tanker Galicia Spirit came under fire when a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) was fired at it from a small speedboat that had interdicted the vessel. The tanker was then attacked with small arms fire. The merchant vessel escaped catastrophic damage, and was able to continue its journey onward. However, only two days later, the liquefied natural gas (LNG) tanker Melati Satu was attacked in the same area, also with RPGs. The Tuvalu-flagged Melati Satu’s crew sent out a distress call, were rescued by a Saudi Arabian naval vessel, and were subsequently escorted to safety. Both ships had been traversing the Bab el-Mandeb strait between south-western Yemen and north-eastern Djibouti. This small waterway must be negotiated to access or egress the Egyptian-controlled Suez Canal, which sits at the northern end of the Red Sea.

In a related development, throughout October this year there were several attacks on U.S. warships in or near the Bab el-Mandeb from sites along the Yemeni coastline. The USS Mason and USS Ponce both came under attack by assailants of unconfirmed origin, forcing the warships to deploy anti-missile countermeasures and prompting U.S. forces to launch cruise missile strikes against targets in Yemen.

The Question of Responsibility

The most prominent non-state armed group (NSAG) operating in Yemeni territory contiguous to the Bab el-Mandeb is the Houthi rebel movement, which is opposed to the internationally recognized government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur. It is not definitively known whether the speedboats that attacked merchant shipping were rebel forces or pirates. Furthermore, although the attacks on U.S. warships came from rebel-held territory and the U.S. responded by attacking rebel installations, Houthi officials denied involvement. However, Houthi forces had previously claimed responsibility for a 1 October 2016 missile attack on HSV-2 Swift, a United Arab Emirates (UAE)-flagged vessel, which was extensively damaged in the incident, and rendered inoperable. Due to the similarity of the tactics involved, as well as the fact these attacks occurred off the Yemeni coast, Allan & Associates (A2) assesses that Houthi forces were likely responsible for the attacks on vessels in the Bab el-Mandeb strait.

Footage of attack on HSV-2 Swift

Security Risks: The Threat to Shipping

The attackers’ identities are of secondary importance, however, compared to the risk that the attacks themselves represent. The implications of a declining security environment in the Bab el-Mandeb are substantial. The strait is one of a few strategic maritime choke points worldwide, a narrow but vital waterway that sea traffic must be able to navigate for maritime trade to function effectively. The Bab el-Mandeb is, at its narrowest point, only 29km across, and therefore even small craft launched from the Yemeni coast will be able to interdict all traffic passing through it. Almost all maritime trade between Europe and Asia, approximately USD700 billion annually, passes through this narrow waterway. Any security threats in this location would disproportionally affect global maritime trade routes and the security of sea lines of communication. As maritime shipping is approximately 90 percent of how the world’s goods are transported, interference at these choke points is a serious threat to international business.

The Bab el-Mandeb Strait (Google Earth)

In April 2015, the United States Energy Information Administration estimated that 4.7 million barrels of crude oil and petroleum passed through the strait daily in the previous year. All traffic through the Suez Canal, the quickest route for European shipping to reach Asia, must pass through Bab el-Mandeb to reach the Gulf of Aden, and subsequently the Indian Ocean. In March of this year alone, 1,454,000 metric tons of shipping, carried on 80,495 vessels, transited the Suez Canal. A security threat in the Bab el-Mandeb, therefore, will have serious economic consequences for global trade, and could pose significant problems both for merchant fleets and for the companies that rely on their goods and commodities. Shipping lines must either re-route away from the Red Sea for Europe-Asia routes, or continue to use the strait at increased cost and risk. 

Business Risks: The Dilemma of Re-Routing

The quickest alternative route for European-Asian traffic, circumnavigating Africa via the Cape of Good Hope, would add at least 3,000 nautical miles to shipping. The additional time it will take to cover this route means vessels can fit in fewer trips, and therefore earn less revenue than they could otherwise in the one-year outlook. Although this cost is somewhat offset by the currently low price of crude oil, this still represents a substantial business risk to shipping companies, which could see their revenues and profits decline. Even with low oil prices, additional costs will have to be borne by maritime companies due to wage payments for at-sea staff, and increased distances will increase the amount of shipboard and dockyard maintenance required to keep vessels seaworthy.

However, even if merchant vessels brave the strait, they will still face substantial additional costs. These range from higher insurance premiums, to the cost of close-protection deployments on-board, and possibly additional payments to employees to compensate for the heightened levels of risk. Furthermore, if future attacks manage to cause substantial damage or loss of life on a civilian vessel, maritime logistics operators will be at risk of legal consequences on the grounds of failure to ensure adequate duty-of-care for their crews. Until the situation in the strait normalizes, merchant shipping must cover increased costs regardless of whether they choose to traverse the Bab el-Mandeb.

Ancillary Risks: The Limits of a Naval Response

The economic and security risks to shipping companies are compounded by the difficulty naval forces will have in neutralizing the threat in the Bab el-Mandeb. That said, major naval powers have seriously responded to the escalating threat in the strait. The U.S. Navy has already reinforced its presence in the surrounding area, and it is likely that the U.K. Maritime Component Command, which controls operations in Middle Eastern waters, will deploy additional assets to the region imminently.

The use of speedboats, which are quick, difficult to detect, and hard to interdict, presents challenges to even major naval powers operating in the region. Furthermore, the use of coastal sites to launch attacks on U.S. warships complicates military responses as the extremely poor security environment in southwest Yemen means that small teams could easily strike shipping and disappear before naval units can respond. 

If it is confirmed that Houthi rebel forces are behind the incidents, any concerted naval action in the area will face determined resistance. Unlike the Somali pirates of the late 2000s, Houthi fighters are ideologically motivated, trained, battle-hardened, and well-armed. Moreover, they have freedom of movement in areas of south-western Yemen under their control. While international naval power, supported by air power and special forces, will likely be able to contain the threat, full elimination of Houthi capability is an unrealistic objective without substantially more committed resourcing

Therefore, the difficulties of a naval response preclude an easy solution to the crisis and therefore increase the risk facing civilian merchant shipping operators. This is because it is unlikely a military solution will be sufficient in itself to quickly neutralize the attackers and restore security.

Security Recommendations for Merchant Shipping

A2 recommends that maritime logistics and security managers consider the southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden a high-threat area until the situation stabilizes, and this should be immediately communicated to relevant bridge officers. Shipping that continues to ply this route in the interim should undertake mitigatory strategies.

This includes increasing ship speed, when possible traversing only during daylight hours, enhancing all watchkeeping procedures, and ensuring damage-control crews are kept on stand-by. Contact with international naval forces in the area should be maintained at all times. Maritime security officers should be considered while close to Yemeni waters. Security officers could be taken on-board at Egypt, Madagascar, the Maldives, or Oman depending on shipping route, to keep costs minimal. Maritime operators should also ensure ship crews are trained on actions to take in the event of coming under RPG or small-arms fire.

Mohamed Dahir/AFP/Getty Images
A militant stands by on a beach as a commercial vessel transits nearby. (Mohamed Dahir/AFP/Getty Images)

Slow vessels with low freeboards which lack the ability to evade potential attack should consider re-routing. This will include small pleasure craft as private individuals are very unlikely to have the training or resources to mitigate the potential threat. Due to the additional transportation time involved with this approach,render re-routing a last-resort measure, however.

A2 reminds managers considering deploying armed security personnel to obey all relevant national legislation pertaining to the ownership and use of weapons by civilians in order to avoid potential legal reprisals from national coastguard and law enforcement agencies.


The situation in the strait is likely to escalate, leaving both naval and civilian vessels at risk. The seriousness of this is compounded by the trouble naval forces will have in effectively responding to the asymmetric threat. Shipping companies therefore must make a cost-benefit analysis between continuing to use the strait or re-routing around the African coastline and consider the risks of each approach. A2 recommends maritime logistics entities consider the above security advice, and prepare for  further deterioration in the security environment of the Bab el-Mandeb. 

James Pothecary is a Political Risk Analyst specializing in the Middle East with Allan & Associates, an international security consultancy which provides a range of protective services including political and security risk assessments, security policy design and crisis management response.

Feature Image: HSV-2 Swift exhibiting damage after being struck by an anti-ship missile launched from the Yemeni coast. (PLG WAM)

Fast Followers, Learning Machines, and the Third Offset Strategy

The following article originally featured in National Defense University’s Joint Force Quarterly and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Brent Sadler

It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be. . . . This, in turn, means that our statesmen, our businessmen, our everyman must take on a science fictional way of thinking.

—Isaac Asimov

Today, the Department of Defense (DOD) is coming to terms with trends forcing a rethinking of how it fights wars. One trend is proliferation of and parity by competitors in precision munitions. Most notable are China’s antiship ballistic missiles and the proliferation of cruise missiles, such as those the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant claimed to use to attack an Egyptian ship off the Sinai in 2014. Another trend is the rapid technological advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics that are enabling the creation of learning machines.

Failure to adapt and lead in this new reality risks U.S. ability to effectively respond and control the future battlefield. However, budget realities make it unlikely that today’s DOD could spend its way ahead of these challenges or field new systems fast enough. Consider that F-35 fighter development is 7 years behind schedule and, at $1.3 trillion, is $163 billion over budget.1 On the other hand, China produced and test-flew its first fifth-generation fighter (J-20) within 2 years. These pressures create urgency to find a cost-effective response through emergent and disruptive technologies that could ensure U.S. conventional deterrent advantage—in other words, the so-called Third Offset Strategy.

Unmanned Combat Air System X-47B demonstrator flies near aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, first aircraft carrier to successfully catapult launch unmanned aircraft from its flight deck, May 14, 2013 (U.S. Navy/Erik Hildebrandt)

Narrowing Conventional Deterrence

In 1993, Andrew Marshall, Director of Net Assessment, stated, “I project a day when our adversaries will have guided munitions parity with us and it will change the game.”2 On December 14, 2015, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work announced that day’s arrival when arguing for a Third Offset during comments at the Center for a New American Security.3

An offset seeks to leverage emerging and disruptive technologies in innovative ways in order to prevail in Great Power competition. A Great Power is understood to be a rational state seeking survival through regional hegemony with global offensive capabilities.4 The First Offset Strategy in the 1950s relied on tactical nuclear superiority to counter Soviet numerical conventional superiority. As the Soviets gained nuclear parity in the 1960s, a Second Offset in the 1970s centered on precision-guided munitions and stealth technologies to sustain technical overmatch, conventional deterrence, and containment for another quarter century. The Third Offset, like previous ones, seeks to deliberately change an unattractive Great Power competition, this time with China and Russia, to one more advantageous. This requires addressing the following challenges.

Fast Followers. Russia and China have been able to rapidly gain and sustain near-parity by stealing and copying others’ technologies for their own long-range precision capabilities, while largely pocketing developmental costs. Lateral thinking5 is required to confound these Fast Followers, as Apple used with Microsoft when it regained tech-sector leadership in the early 2000s.6

Hybrid Warfare. Russia’s actions in Crimea and ongoing activities in Eastern Ukraine indicate both that Russia is undeterred and that it was successful in coordinating asymmetric and unconventional tactics across multiple domains.

Narrowing Conventional Advantage. The loss of the precision-munitions advantage increases cost for U.S. intervention, thus reducing deterrence and inviting adventurism. Recent examples include Russian interventions (Georgia, Ukraine, Syria) and increasingly coercive Chinese activities in the East and South China seas, especially massive island-building in the South China Sea since 2014.

Persistent Global Risks from Violent Extremists. While not an existential threat, left unchecked, violent extremism is inimical to U.S. interests as it corrodes inclusive, open economies and societies. As a long-term ideological competition, a global presence able to monitor, attack, and attrite violent extremist networks is required.

In response to these challenges, two 2015 studies are informing DOD leadership on the need for a new offset: the Defense Science Board summer study on autonomy and the Long-Range Research and Development Planning Program. From these studies, Deputy Secretary Work has articulated five building blocks of a new offset:

  • autonomous deep-learning systems
  • human-machine collaboration
  • assisted human operations
  • advanced human-machine combat teaming
  • network-enabled semi-autonomous weapons.

Central to all are learning machines that, when teamed with a person, provide a potential prompt jump in capability. Technological advantages alone, however, could prove chimerical as Russia and China are also investing in autonomous weapons, making any U.S. advantage gained a temporary one. In fact, Russia’s Chief of the General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, predicts a future battlefield populated with learning machines.7

A Third Offset Strategy could achieve a qualitative edge and ensure conventional deterrence relative to Fast Followers in four ways: One, it could provide U.S. leaders more options along the escalation ladder. Two, a Third Offset could flip the cost advantage to defenders in a ballistic and cruise missile exchange; in East Asia this would make continuation of China’s decades-long investment in these weapons cost prohibitive. Three, it could have a multiplicative effect on presence, sensing, and combat effectiveness of each manned platform. Four, such a strategy could nullify the advantages afforded by geographic proximity and being the first to attack.

Robot Renaissance

In 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue beat chess champion Garry Kasparov, marking an inflection point in the development of learning machines. Since then, development of learning machines has accelerated, as illustrated by Giraffe, which taught itself how to play chess at a master’s level in 72 hours.8 Driving this rapid development have been accelerating computer-processing speeds and miniaturization. In 2011, at the size of 10 refrigerators, the super-computer Watson beat two champions of the game show Jeopardy. Within 3 years, Watson was shrunk to the size of three stacked pizza boxes—a 90-percent reduction in size along with a 2,700-percent improvement in processing speed.9 Within a decade, computers likely will match the massive parallel processing capacity of the human brain, and these machines will increasingly augment and expand human memory and thinking much like cloud computing for computers today, leading to accelerating returns in anything that can be digitized.10 This teaming of man and machine will set the stage for a new renaissance of human consciousness as augmented by learning machines—a Robot Renaissance.11 But man is not destined for extinction and will remain part of the equation; as “freestyle chess” demonstrates, man paired with computers utilizing superior processes can prevail over any competitor.12

Augmenting human consciousness with learning machines will usher in an explosion in creativity, engineering innovation, and societal change. This will in turn greatly impact the way we conceptualize and conduct warfare, just as the Renaissance spurred mathematical solutions to ballistic trajectories, metallurgy, and engineering for mobile cannons. Such a future is already being embraced. For example, Bank of America and Merrill Lynch recently concluded that robotics and AI—learning machines—will define the next industrial revolution and that the adoption of this technology is a foregone conclusion. Their report concludes that by 2025 learning machines will be performing 45 percent of all manufacturing versus 10 percent today.13 It would be a future of profound change and peril and was the focus of the 2016 Davos Summit whose founder, Klaus Schwab, calls the period the Fourth Industrial Revolution.14 As the Industrial Revolution demonstrated, the advantage will be to the early adopter, leaving the United States little choice but to pursue an offset strategy that leverages learning machines.

Garry Kasparov, chess grandmaster and former world champion, speaking at Turing centennial conference at Manchester, June 25, 2012 (Courtesy David Monniaux)
Garry Kasparov, chess grandmaster and former world champion, speaking at Turing centennial conference at Manchester, June 25, 2012 (Courtesy David Monniaux)

Advantages of Man-Machine Teaming

Learning machines teamed with manned platforms enabled by concepts of operations will be a key element of the Third Offset Strategy. Advantages of this approach include:

  • Speed Faster than Adversaries. Staying inside an adversary’s OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) loop necessitates learning machines that are able to engage targets at increasing speed, which diminishes direct human control.15
  • Greater Combat Effect per Person. As extensions of manned platforms, teaming increases the combat effect per person through swarm tactics as well as big data management. Moreover, augmenting the manned force with autonomous systems could mitigate deployment costs, which have increased 31 percent since 2000 and are likely unsustainable under current constructs.16
  • Less Human Risk. Reduced risk to manned platforms provides more options along the escalation ladder to commanders and allows a more forward and pervasive presence. Moreover, autonomous systems deployed in large numbers will have the long-term effect of mitigating relative troop strengths.
  • High-Precision, Emotionless Warfare. Learning machines provide an opportunity for battlefield civility by lessening death and destruction with improved precision and accuracy. Moreover, being non-ethical and unemotional, they are not susceptible to revenge killings and atrocities.
  • Hard to Target. Learning machines enable disaggregated combat networks to be both more difficult to target and more fluid in attack. Some capabilities (for example, cyber) could reside during all phases of a conflict well within a competitor’s physical borders, collecting intelligence while also ready to act like a “zero-day bomb.”17
  • Faster Acquisition and Improvement. Incorporation of learning machines in design, production, and instantaneous sharing of learning across machines would have a multiplicative effect. However, achieving such benefits requires overcoming proprietary constraints such as those encountered with the Scan Eagle unmanned vehicle if better intra-DOD innovation and interoperability are to be achieved.

Realizing these potential benefits requires institutional change in acquisition and a dedicated cadre of roboticists. However, pursuing a Third Offset Strategy is not without risks.

Third Offset Risks

Fielding learning machines presents several risks, and several technical and institutional barriers. The risks include the following challenges.

Cyber Intrusion and Programming Brittleness. DOD relies on commercial industry to develop and provide it with critical capabilities. This situation provides some cost savings, while presenting an Achilles’ heel for cyber exploitation during fabrication and in the field. One avenue for attack is through the complexity of programming, which leads to programming brittleness, or seams and back rooms causing system vulnerabilities.18 Another is through communications vital to proper human control. Additionally, swarm tactics involving teams of machines networking independently of human control on a near-continuous basis could further expose them to attack and manipulation.19 Mitigating such threats and staying inside an adversary’s accelerating OODA loop would drive increasing autonomy and decreasing reliance on communications.20

Proliferation and Intellectual Insecurity. The risk of proliferation and Fast Followers to close technological advantage makes protecting the most sensitive elements of learning machines an imperative. Doing so requires addressing industrial espionage and cyber vulnerabilities in the commercial defense industry, which will require concerted congressional and DOD action.

Unlawful Use. As competitors develop learning machines, they may be less constrained and ethical in their employment. Nonetheless, the international Law of Armed Conflict applies, and does not preclude employing learning machines on the battlefield in accordance with jus in bello—the legal conduct of war. Legally, learning machines would have to pass the same tests as any other weapons; their use must be necessary, discriminate, and proportional against a military objective.21 A key test for learning machines is discrimination; that is, the ability to discern noncombatants from targeted combatants while limiting collateral damage.22

Unethical War. When fielded in significant numbers, learning machines could challenge traditions of jus ad bellum—criteria regarding decisions to engage in war. That is, by significantly reducing the cost in human life to wage war, the decision to wage it becomes less restrictive. Such a future is debatable, but as General Paul J. Selva (Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) suggested at the Brookings Institution on January 21, 2016, there should be an international debate on the role of autonomous weapons systems and jus ad bellum implications.

A New Fog of War. Lastly, the advent of learning machines will give rise to a new fog of war emerging from uncertainty in a learning machine’s AI programming. It is a little unsettling that a branch of AI popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s was called “fuzzy logic,” due to an ability to alter its programming that represents a potential loss of control and weakening of liability.

Seven teams from DARPA’s Virtual Robotics Challenge continue to develop and refine ATLAS robot, developed by Boston Dynamics (DARPA)
Seven teams from DARPA’s Virtual Robotics Challenge continue to develop and refine ATLAS robot, developed by Boston Dynamics (DARPA)

Third Offset Barriers

Overcoming the barriers to a Third Offset Strategy requires advancing key foundational technologies, adjustments in acquisition, and training for man–learning machine interaction.

Man-Machine Interaction. Ensuring proper human interface with and the proper setting of parameters for a given mission employing learning machines requires a professional cadre of roboticists. As with human communication, failure to appropriately command and control learning machines could be disastrous. This potential was illustrated in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssesy when the HAL 9000 computer resolved a dilemma of conflicting orders by killing its human crew. Ensuring an adequately trained cadre is in place as new systems come online requires building the institutional bedrock on which these specialists are trained. Because it will take several years to build such a cadre, it is perhaps the most pressing Third Offset investment.

Trinity of Robotic Capability. Gaining a sustainable and significant conventional advantage through learning machines requires advances in three key areas. This trinity includes high-density energy sources, sensors, and massive parallel processing capacity. Several promising systems have failed because of weakness in one or all of these core capabilities. Fire Scout, a Navy autonomous helicopter, failed largely due to limited endurance. The Army and Marine Corps Big Dog was terminated because its noisy gasoline engine gave troop positions away. Sensor limitations undid Boomerang, a counter-sniper robot with limited ability to discern hostiles in complex urban settings.23

Agile Acquisition Enterprise. As technological challenges are overcome, any advantage earned would be transitory unless acquisition processes adapt in several key ways. One way is to implement continuous testing and evaluation to monitor the evolving programming of learning machines and ensure the rapid dissemination of learning across the machine fleet. A second way is to broaden the number of promising new capabilities tested while more quickly determining which ones move to prototype. A third way is to more rapidly move prototypes into the field. Such changes would be essential to stay ahead of Fast Followers.

While acquisition reforms are being debated in Congress, fielding emerging and disruptive technologies would need to progress regardless.24 However, doing both provides a game-changing technological leap at a pace that can break today’s closely run technological race—a prompt jump in capability.

Chasing a Capability Prompt Jump

Actualizing a nascent Third Offset Strategy in a large organization such as DOD requires unity of effort. One approach would be to establish a central office empowered to ensure coherency in guidance and oversight of resource decisions so that investments remain complementary. Such an office would build on the legacy of the Air Sea Battle Office, Joint Staff’s Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons, and Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO). Therefore, a central office would need to be resourced and given authority to direct acquisition related to the Third Offset, develop doctrine, standardize training, and conduct exercises to refine concepts of operation. First steps could include:

  • Limit or curtail proprietary use in Third Offset systems while standardizing protocols and systems for maximum cross-Service interoperability.
  • Leverage legacy systems initially by filling existing capacity gaps. SCO work has been notable in pursuing rapid development and integration of advanced low-cost capabilities into legacy systems. This approach results in extension of legacy systems lethality while complicating competitors’ countermeasures. Examples include shooting hypersonic rounds from legacy Army artillery and the use of digital cameras to improve accuracy of small-diameter bombs.25 The Navy could do this by leveraging existing fleet test and evaluation efforts, such as those by Seventh Fleet, and expanding collaboration with SCO. An early effort could be maturing Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike, which is currently being developed for aerial refueling, into the full spectrum of operations.26
  • Standardize training and concepts of operations for learning machines and their teaming with manned platforms. Early efforts should include formally establishing a new subspecialty of roboticist and joint exercises dedicated to developing operational concepts of man-machine teaming. Promising work is being done at the Naval Postgraduate School, which in the summer of 2015 demonstrated the ability to swarm up to 50 unmanned systems at its Advanced Robotic Systems Engineering Laboratory and should inform future efforts.
  • Direct expanded investment in the trinity of capabilities—high-density energy sources, sensors, and next-generation processors. The DOD Defense Innovation Initiative is building mechanisms to identify those in industry advancing key technologies, and will need to be sustained as private industry is more deeply engaged.

DOD is already moving ahead on a Third Offset Strategy, and it is not breaking the bank. The budget proposal for fiscal year 2017 seeks a significant but manageable $18 billion toward the Third Offset, with $3 billion devoted to man-machine teaming, over the next 5 years; the $3.6 billion committed in 2017 equates to less than 1 percent of the annual $582.7 billion defense budget.27 As a first step, this funds initial analytical efforts in wargaming and modeling and begins modest investments in promising new technologies.

Conclusion fireshot-capture-1-fast-followers-learning-machines-and_-http___ndupress-ndu-edu_jfq_joint-f

Because continued U.S. advantage in conventional deterrence is at stake, resources and senior leader involvement must grow to ensure the success of a Third Offset Strategy. It will be critical to develop operational learning machines, associated concepts of operations for their teaming with people, adjustments in the industrial base to allow for more secure and rapid procurement of advanced autonomous systems, and lastly, investment in the trinity of advanced base capabilities—sensors, processors, and energy.

For the Navy and Marine Corps, the foundation for such an endeavor resides in the future design section of A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower supported by the four lines of effort in the current Chief of Naval Operations’ Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority. A promising development has been the establishment of OpNav N99, the unmanned warfare systems directorate recently established by the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations on the Navy staff and the naming of a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Navy for Unmanned Systems, both dedicated to developing capabilities key to a Third Offset Strategy. This should be broadened to include similar efforts in all the Services.

However, pursuit of game-changing technologies is only sustainable by breaking out of the increasingly exponential pace of technological competition with Fast Followers. A Third Offset Strategy could do this and could provide the first to adopt outsized advantages. Realistically, to achieve this requires integrating increasing layers of autonomy into legacy force structure as budgets align to new requirements and personnel adapt to increasing degrees of learning machine teaming. The additive effect of increasing autonomy could fundamentally change warfare and provide significant advantage to whoever successfully teams learning machines with manned systems. This is not a race we are necessarily predestined to win, but it is a race that has already begun with strategic implications for the United States. JFQ

Captain Brent D. Sadler, USN, is a Special Assistant to the Navy Asia-Pacific Advisory Group.


1 CBS News, 60 Minutes, “The F-35,” February 16, 2014.

2 Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work, speech delivered to a Center for a New American Security Defense Forum, Washington, DC, December 14, 2015, available at <>.

3 Ibid.

4 John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: Norton, 2014).

5 Lateral thinking, a term coined by Edward de Bono in 1967, means indirect and creative approaches using reasoning not immediately obvious and involving ideas not obtainable by traditional step-by-step logic.

6 Shane Snow, Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 6, 116.

7 Russia’s Chief of the General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, stated in a February 27, 2013, article: “Another factor influencing the essence of modern means of armed conflict is the use of modern automated complexes of military equipment and research in the area of artificial intelligence. While today we have flying drones, tomorrow’s battlefields will be filled with walking, crawling, jumping, and flying robots. In the near future it is possible a fully robotized unit will be created, capable of independently conducting military operations.” See Mark Galeotti, “The ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ and Russian Non-Linear War,” In Moscow’s Shadows blog, available at <>. For Gerasimov’s original article (in Russian), see Military-Industrial Kurier 8, no. 476 (February 27–March 5, 2013), available at <>.

8 “Deep Learning Machine Teaches Itself Chess in 72 Hours, Plays at International Master Level,” MIT Technology Review, September 14, 2015, available at <>.

9 “IBM Watson Group Unveils Cloud-Delivered Watson Services to Transform Industrial R&D, Visualize Big Data Insights and Fuel Analytics Exploration,” IBM News, January 9, 2014, available at <>.

10 Ray Kurzweil, How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed (New York: Penguin Books, 2012), 4, 8, 125, 255, 280–281.

11 A learning machine, according to Arthur Samuel’s 1959 definition of machine learning, is the ability of computers to learn without being explicitly programmed.

12 Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (New York: W.W. Norton, 2014), 188.

13 Michael Hartnett et al., Creative Disruption (New York: Bank of America and Merrill Lynch, April 2015), available at <>.

14 Klaus Schwab, The Fourth Industrial Revolution (Geneva: World Economic Forum, 2016).

15 Michael N. Schmitt, “War, Technology and the Law of Armed Conflict,” International Law Studies, vol. 82 (2006), 137–182.

16 Growth in DOD’s Budget from 2000 to 2014 (Washington, DC: Congressional Budget Office, November 2014).

17 Richard Clarke, Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 163–166.

18 Ibid., 81–83.

19 Katherine D. Mullens et al., An Automated UAV Mission System (San Diego, CA: SPAWAR Systems Center, September 2003), available at <>.

20 Armin Krishnan, Killer Robots: Legality and Ethicality of Autonomous Weapons (Farnham, United Kingdom: Ashgate, 2009).

21 James E. Baker, In the Common Defense: National Security Law for Perilous Times (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 215–216.

22 “Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977,” Article 48, 57.4 and 51.4; Yoram Dinstein, The Conduct of Hostilities under the Law of International Armed Conflict, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 62–63.

23 Schmitt.

24 House Armed Services Committee, Acquisition Reform: Experimentation and Agility, Hon. Sean J. Stackley, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition, 114th Cong., January 7, 2016, available at <>.

25 Sam LaGrone, “Little Known Pentagon Office Key to U.S. Military Competition with China, Russia,” U.S. Naval Institute News, February 2, 2016.

26 Christopher P. Cavas, “U.S. Navy’s Unmanned Jet Could Be a Tanker,” Defense News, February 1, 2016, available at <>.

27 Aaron Mehta, “Defense Department Budget: $18B Over FYDP for Third Offset,” Defense News, February 9, 2016, available at <>.

Featured Image: Boston Dynamics’ Atlas  robot. (Boston Dynamics)

Is A2/AD Still Useful As Doctrinal Language? A CIMSEC Debate

CNO Admiral John Richardson recently struck the term A2/AD from Navy lexicon. The debate that follows aims to ascertain the value of the term and understand the context of the CNO’s decision. Bob Poling takes the affirmative position that A2/AD is still a relevant term while Jon Askonas takes the negative. 

Affirmative: Dear CNO, A2/AD Still Matters…   

By Bob Poling

CNO Richardson speaks at CSIS (CSIS)

On October 3, 2016, while participating in a Maritime Security Dialogue at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson announced that the Navy would strike A2/AD from its vocabulary. Admiral Richardson stated, “To some, A2/AD is a code-word, suggesting an impenetrable ‘keep-out zone’ that forces can enter only at extreme peril to themselves. To others, A2/AD refers to a family of technologies. To still others, a strategy. In sum, A2/AD 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.” Richardson went on to say, “To ensure clarity in our thinking and precision in our communications, the Navy will avoid using the term A2/AD as a stand-alone acronym that can mean many things to different people or almost anything to anyone.”

But A2/AD is not just Navy terminology. The acronym is used in any number of joint publications and is recognized as a part of joint doctrine. After all, there is perhaps no topic more “joint” than the study of countering A2/AD, and as such, the Navy should continue to use the same terminology being used by the rest of the services instead of abandoning doctrine.

In Line with Naval Tradition

With his prohibition on A2/AD, CNO has upheld the Navy’s reputation for ignoring doctrine. It is no secret that naval officers rail against doctrine and adhere to it grudgingly. Corbett warned naval strategists to not become enamored with maxims when studying war as it stifles good judgment. Roger W. Barnett in his book on the Navy’s strategic culture provides an accurate description of this anathema noting, “Navy strategists look upon written doctrine as maxims and are wholly uncomfortable with it. To the naval strategist, the combination of definitions and doctrine becomes rather toxic.” Admiral Richardson exemplifies Barnett’s views and if one watches the video of his remarks at CSIS, his disdain for A2/AD is clear. But A2/AD is not just jargon. It is a viable term that if used in the proper context can convey the fidelity CNO is looking for. Moreover, it is a term that the joint force is familiar with and continues to use. Admiral Richardson’s ban on A2/AD has in essence forced the Navy to turn its back on prescribed joint doctrine and terminology

Granted, blind adherence to doctrine is not necessarily a good thing. However, in this case adherence to the terminology laid forth in doctrine is useful, especially since all of the services are so vested in counter A2/AD. In Chapter One of Joint Publication One (JP-1), former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, General George H. Decker’s stated, “Doctrine provides a military organization with a common philosophy, a common language, a common purpose and a utility of effort.” The Department of Defense’s position on doctrine is clearly articulated in subsequent paragraphs declaring, “the use of joint doctrine standardizes terminology, training, relationships, responsibilities and processes among all of the U.S. forces to free the joint force commanders (JFCs) and their staffs to focus on solving strategic, operational, and tactical problems.” Finally, Naval Doctrine Publication 1, Naval Warfare defines doctrine thus, “Doctrine is not an impediment to a commander’s exercise of imagination; rather, it is a framework of fundamental principles, practices, techniques, procedures, and terms that guides a commander, commanding officer, or officer-in-charge in employing force(s) to accomplish the mission. Doctrine provides the basis for mutual understanding within and among the Services and national policy makers. It ensures familiarity and efficiency in the execution of procedures and tactics.” Based on these definitions alone, including the Navy’s cut on doctrine, Admiral Richardson’s comments clearly contradict the expectations articulated for the joint force. Instead of fostering unity of effort and a common approach to A2/AD, CNO’s edict has the potential to drive a wedge between the Navy and the other services. 

Need for Inter-Forces Cooperation

Another problem with CNO Richardson’s proclamation is it contradicts the Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC), 1.0 which guides the joint force on how to approach A2/AD. “The JOAC describes in broad terms how joint forces will operate in response to emerging anti-access and area-denial security challenges” and,  “… envisions a greater degree of integration across domains and at lower echelons than ever before.” Likewise, the JOAC defines anti-access (A2) and area-denial (AD) for the joint force as follows, “Anti-access refers to those actions and capabilities, usually long-range, designed to prevent an opposing force from entering an operational area. Anti-access actions tend to target forces approaching by air and sea predominantly, but also can target the cyber, space, and other forces that support them. Area-denial refers to those actions and capabilities, usually of shorter range, designed not to keep an opposing force out, but to limit its freedom of action within the operational area. Area-denial capabilities target forces in all domains, including land forces.”

Granted these definitions may not be as concise as CNO may like, but they are the accepted joint definitions, and they do cover the spectrum of potential threats. As these definitions are not suitable for CNO then why not approach the A2/AD conundrum in the same fashion as the Navy approaches warfare? For example, the Navy’s approach to Air Defense is just as convoluted as CNO suggests A2/AD is. The Air and Missile Defense Commander (AMDC) is responsible for defending the force against air threats. But air threats can be a variety of things like ballistic missiles, aircraft and anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM); all of which must be dealt with in a different fashion based on each one’s ranges and capabilities. To manage the variety of threats the AMDC publishes an OPTASK Air Defense plan which provides specific guidance that has been tailored based on the area of operations and the threats that are present, thus leveling the playing field and ensuring all the players are on the same page. The point is, this methodology represents how the Navy has successfully operated for decades. The inherent flexibility of this approach to warfare allows the Navy to adapt to ever changing environments and threats, regardless of the region. It should be no different where A2/AD is concerned.


Admiral Richardson’s decision to strike A2/AD from the Navy’s lexicon only sends conflicting signals to the rest of the Joint Force, our allies, and partners. On the surface, it looks as if the Navy is no longer a team player where A2/AD is concerned. Still, others are no doubt wondering why CNO has done this when none of the other services have gone this route. Arguably, the elimination of A2/AD from the Navy’s vocabulary is more likely to undermine the clarity of thinking and precise communication CNO desires. If I could whisper in CNO’s ear, I would recommend he demand more rigorous thinking and adherence to the JOAC’s vision of A2/AD instead of throwing out the term.

Negative: A2/AD is an Unoriginal and Unhelpful Term In Understanding Threats

By Jonathan D. Askonas

A2/AD, for the uninitiated, stands for “Anti-Access/Area Denial,” shorthand for a variety of technological and tactical changes supposedly creating new and unique military challenges for the United States to confront. What makes doctrinal language useful? It provides a name and set of concepts that help us think about a phenomenon in order to improve military performance. My contention is that A2/AD conceals and obscures more than it clarifies and is thus not useful doctrinal language.

What is an “Anti-Access/Area Denial” military system? In normal use, A2/AD refers to technologies and tactics which, through precision guidance, communications, and firepower, make the deployment and use of American forces riskier and more expensive. Which is to say, they are military systems. One of the beauties of A2/AD is that anything short of tactical scenarios the U.S. military is itching to engage (like a rerun of the 1991 Iraqi Turkey Shoot) becomes “A2/AD.” Anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs)? A2/AD. Small, swarm-tactic Iranian littoral boats? A2/AD. Integrated air defense systems (IADSs)? A2/AD. Diesel attack subs? A2/AD. Any modern military technology that enables a great power to project force past its own borders in ways which even marginally threaten the West’s ability to conduct combined arms operations can be subsumed in a sexy operational concept. But this overbroad idea has at least three fatal problems which doom it to the conceptual dustbin.

A2/AD Deceives Us Into Confusing the Tactical, Operational, and Strategic Levels of Warfare 

While their role in an A2/AD strategy is up for a debate, substantial Chinese investment in new technologies, like this Type 039 Song Class diesel-electric submarine, is undeniable. (PRC Stock Photo)

The biggest problem with A2/AD is that it carelessly elides the distinguishing levels of war, smuggling all kinds of assumptions and non sequiturs into our thinking. When most people talk about A2/AD, they refer to technological capabilities which are capable of attacking/hampering Western capabilities (tactical) in ways which increase the risk of the West acting in specific areas (operational), to the end of limiting Western influence (strategic). But reality almost never lines up with this picture, even in the canonical examples of A2/AD. Take the South China Sea, where Chinese investment in ASBMs, diesel attack subs, and other hardware are supposedly part of a strategy of A2/AD designed to minimize American ability to intervene in the region. And yet, this picture falls apart on closer inspection. At the technological level, complex kill-chains create all kinds of vulnerabilities in China’s new (and relatively untested) weapons systems which, when it comes to operational considerations, render them unreliable, particularly as American forces adapt to them (the traditional response to operating in “denied” territory). And at the strategic level, A2/AD as a strategy is absurd. War is politics by other means – how are extra missiles by themselves supposed to force American carrier battle groups not to enforce freedom of the seas? China has not attempted to sink them in the past not because it lacked the capability but because it lacked the will. The ultimate anti-missile defense system is threat of unstoppable violence should the American people be attacked. A2/AD’s conceptual confusion about how technologies, tactics, operations and strategy interrelate undermines any utility the idea might have.

A2/AD Lends Itself To An Overly Cautious, Defensive, and Unhistorical Mindset

As the CNO himself pointed out, A2/AD encourages a cautious, defensive, and unhistorical mindset. To the first point, A2/AD, with its language of “area denial” lends itself to being construed as defensive in nature. For example, “A2AD capability is not offensive or aggressive in nature,”French General Denis Mercier and NATO supreme allied commander for transformation said last October. “It’s principally a defensive measure. So we have to consider it, we have to be aware of it, we have to include it in our planning but it’s not the threat as such.” Because it elides the levels of warfare, A2/AD transforms the defensive capabilities of the weapon (tactical) into a defensive intent on behalf of the enemy (strategic). And yet, as even the most greenhorn strategist knows, because warfare is a competitive activity, changes in relative advantage determine outcomes and shape the overall operational picture, regardless of whether the weapons themselves are offensive or defensive in nature. Moreover, in many cases, the weapon systems in question are not obviously solely defensive in nature, nor only capable of targeting American forces.

To the second point, that A2/AD is anachronistic, it seems peculiar that a concept as old as warfare has been highlighted as the next big new defense threat. The ability to make certain areas of the battlespace difficult or impossible for the enemy to access, thus shaping his choices, is one of the foundational mechanics of warfare. Conceptually, minefields, coastal defense guns, and U-Boats had (or sometimes had) identical functions to contemporary “A2/AD” weaponry. Because it highlights new technologies of area denial, A2/AD hampers rather than helps our ability to use military history and analogical thinking to come up with creative solutions to contemporary military challenges.

A2/AD traps Us Into a Rigid Conception of the Enemy and the Enemy’s Strategy

By fogging up the distinguishing levels of war and highlighting the ways great power rivals are working to defend against U.S. intervention, A2/AD lulls us into projecting our operational challenges onto the intentions of our enemies. In other words, A2/AD tricks us into thinking that, because it is the case that widespread ASBM deployment in the East China Sea or IADSs over Syria increase the relative risk of an American intervention, those actions were taken for that purpose. By tying an operational fact (ASBMs are a threat to American ships) to a strategic assumption (therefore, ASBMs are primarily intended to deny access to American ships), A2/AD hurts our ability to imagine what else the enemy might be up to. The same missiles which can sink an American carrier can also hold Taiwanese naval forces at risk; the same IADS that limits American intervention in Crimea can also target actively target Lithuanian or Estonian fastmovers. I don’t mean to suggest that these are likely possibilities, but they are possibilities, and ones which A2/AD belays. The problem is that the enemy gets a say, too. Just because we have an operational concept which says that Chinese investment in a blue water navy or Russian research into advanced air-to-air missiles are primarily aimed at limiting U.S. influence does not make it so. And, even if this is true today, there is nothing to suggest that the enemy might change his mind. By incorporating assumptions about enemy intent into its model, A2/AD lulls us into thinking we understand the enemy.


At the end of the day, A2/AD furthers a strategic culture that obsesses over the “next big thing” and neglects the fundamentals. To the extent that A2/AD is correct about the need to incorporate standoff weaponry into our tactical calculations, it is trivial; that is a well-understood part of operational art. And to the extent that A2/AD makes non-trivial claims about the enemy’s strategy or intent (or the nature of warfare), it is dangerously blithe, imprecise, and blinkered. Like the Revolution in Military Affairs, Full Spectrum Warfare, and NetWar before it, A2/AD will soon join the graveyard of Pentagon intellectual fads that preceded it. And well it should.

Bob Poling is a retired Surface Warfare Officer who spent 24 years on active duty including tours in cruisers, destroyers and as commanding officer of Maritime Expeditionary Security Squadron TWO and Mission Commander of Southern Partnership Station 2013. From May 2011 to May 2015 Bob served on the faculty of the Air War College teaching in the Departments of Strategy and Warfighting. He was the Naval History and Heritage Command 2014-2015 Samuel Eliot Morison scholar and is pursuing his Ph.D. with the Department of Defence Studies, King’s College London where he is researching Air-Sea Battle concepts used to combat A2/AD challenges encountered during the Solomon Islands Campaign.

Jon Askonas is a 2nd year DPhil candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford, where he is a Beinecke Scholar and a Healy Scholar. He is interested in the relationship between knowledge production/transmission and decision-making in large organizations. He has a BS in International Politics (summa cum laude) from Georgetown University and a MPhil(Merit) from Oxford. He has worked at the Council on Foreign Relations and the US Embassy in Moscow.

The opinions and assertions contained herein are the private opinions of the authors and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Department of Defense, the United States Government, or the United States Navy, or any organization – they are the authors’ personal opinions.

Featured Image: U.S. Navy guided missile cruiser USS Princeton. U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Jake Berenguer (Released)

Trident: Industry, Scotland, and Long-Range Bomber and Land-Based Missile Alternatives

By Alex Calvo


The third installment in our four-part series begins with Trident’s impact on British industry and the Scottish factor, very much in evidence in the run up to the 2014 referendum. We then move to examine British nuclear doctrine, asking ourselves whether a minimal posture is tenable, and looking in this connection at potential cyber and undersea unmanned threats to submarines, both of which have attracted public attention over the last few months. While in July this year the UK Parliament voted to renew the Trident fleet with the building of four new submarines, it is still interesting to discuss whether Trident’s cost may have been cut by reducing the number of boats. We then move to consider potential nuclear alternatives to the program, starting with long-range bombers and land-based missiles, leaving submarine and air-launched cruise missiles for the fourth and final installment in our series. Read Part One, Part Two

Trident and British Industry

Any decisions on defense have an industrial component, leading to an uneasy conundrum. On the one hand, the acquisition of assets should be at least primarily motivated by the needs and priorities laid down in defense planning. On the other, because of the sums involved and the strong link between military and civilian research and development, it is impossible to view defense procurement separately from industrial and scientific policy. Thus, while the decision on the continuity of Trident taken in July this year by the UK Parliament should ideally not rest on the interests of the industrial actors involved, we cannot simply dismiss them when analyzing it. In particular, when pondering both nuclear and non-nuclear alternatives to Trident, it is likely that British authorities examined the resulting net effect on British defense and dual-use industries as a whole and on those companies involved in Trident.

We could say something similar when it comes to jobs, which should not have been the primary consideration, but are likely to have featured in this political decision. Some estimates say up to 15,000 jobs may have been lost had Trident not been renewed, but the net impact both in terms of figures and human capital depends on the alternatives should Trident been discontinued. BASIC notes how Trident’s base “supports some 6,700 jobs, expected to rise to 8,200 by 2022,” adding that “the UK submarine industry accounts for 3% of employment in the UK’s scientific and defense industrial base,” and that a “replacement as currently planned could employ up to 26,000 people at some point in the process.” This could at least partly explain the huge majority of 355 in a 650-strong chamber that voted for the program’s renewal with more than half of opposition Labour MPs voting aye in direct contradiction with their leader’s stance, and this after PM Theresa May had publicly made it clear she was ready to press the nuclear button if necessary. Furthemore, while Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was later reelected by an increased majority of 62 percent, his shadow defense minister, Clive Lewis, stated that his party would remain committed to an independent, sea-based, British nuclear deterrent.

The Scottish Factor: Trident and the Union

The SNP and, more widely, Scottish Nationalists, have traditionally been hostile to Trident for a number of reasons. Among them we may note the party’s weak commitment to security and defense, little regard for collective security, hostility to the notion of the UK as a major world power, and willingness to outsource key policy areas to the European Union. At the tactical level, as seen in the 2014 referendum campaign, opposing Trident may enable the Nationalist camp to attract voters not strongly for or even opposed to independence but who fiercely reject nuclear weapons. Some of these voters may see a non-nuclear independent Scotland as a lesser evil. Others in this category may have seen a vote for independence or a vote for the SNP in future elections as a tactical move to force an end to the British nuclear deterrent. The July 2016 parliamentary vote on Trident was yet another opportunity for the SNP to underline its opposition to Trident, made even more visible by the vote in favor of a majority of opposition Labour MPs. Its 54 members of parliament voted against, and the party warned it would prompt a further push for independence, although opinion polls suggest a majority of Scots favor retaining the deterrent.

In connection to this matter, in the run-up to the referendum, there was speculation that the UK may relocate Trident to Devonport (Plymouth), with a report by RUSI estimating the additional cost at £3.5bn. The report concluded that “while the technical and financial challenges presented by Scottish independence would influence this discussion, they would not be severe enough to dictate it.”

British Nuclear Doctrine: Is a Minimal Posture Tenable?

If the UK’s move to a minimal deterrence posture had been followed by other nuclear states, or at least by negotiations with that purpose in mind, the country may have gone down in the annals of history as a pioneer in the noble pursuit of nuclear disarmament. Although the concept, also referred to as “deterrence lite,” has been extensively discussed in academic and government fora, such a move does not appear likely right now. Rather the contrary, with just to mention a few examples including worsening relations between Washington and Moscow, Pakistan developing a sea-based deterrent, and Japan increasingly pondering the convenience of at the very least retaining a powerful “latent” capability on the face of a resurgent China.

The Pacific Egret docked in Tokai (Ibaraki Prefecture) in March 2016, waiting to depart to the US with a cargo of Japanese plutonium. Tokyo's large stockpiles are one of the reasons why the country is considered to be a 'latent nuclear power. (Kyodo)
The Pacific Egret docked in Tokai (Ibaraki Prefecture) in March 2016, waiting to depart to the U.S. with a cargo of Japanese plutonium. Tokyo’s large stockpiles are one of the reasons why the country is considered to be a ‘latent nuclear power. (Kyodo)

The UK is experiencing growing tensions with an established nuclear power, Russia, which shows no intention of relying on non-conventional weapons to a lesser extent in the near future. More precisely, Russian sources note how not until current military reforms reach a successful conclusion will the country be able to lessen her dependence on tactical nuclear weapons (seen as essential not only in a Euro-Atlantic context, but also in a Chinese one, although the latter is seldom publicly discussed). Even without taking into account other potential conflict scenarios, this provides a powerful incentive to retain Trident or some other form of nuclear deterrent, since otherwise the UK would not only be open to nuclear blackmail but the decision to forego the country’s nuclear status may be seen as a sign of weakness and lack of resolve.

Cyber and Undersea Unmanned Threats to the UK’s Minimal Posture

As already explained, the decision to build a sea-based deterrent rested on the assumption that it would be very difficult for a hostile power to detect and destroy submarines, thus ensuring a second-strike capability. This also allowed London to move to a minimal posture, with just one such submarine on patrol at any given time. Of course, it was noted that while “No sector of a superpower’s defense system is quite so invulnerable against a preemptive attack as its fleet of highly mobile, deep-diving, long-ranging missile-bearing submarines. These make possible a second-strike capability that acts as a forceful deterrent against aggression,” and, “this situation could become unbalanced through the development of effective techniques of strategic antisubmarine warfare (ASW).” In recent months, a public debate has emerged concerning two possible threats against British strategic nuclear submarines: cyber warfare and the advent of unmanned undersea systems (submarine drones).

In November 2015, Lord Browne of Ladyton, former British Defence Secretary from 2006 to 2008 and now vice-chair of pro-disarmament group Nuclear Threat Initiative, said: “The government … have an obligation to assure parliament that all of the systems of the nuclear deterrent have been assessed end-to-end against cyber attacks to understand possible weak spots and that those weak spots are protected against a high-tier cyber threat. If they are unable to do that then there is no guarantee that we will have a reliable deterrent or the prime minister will be able to use this system when he needs to reach for it.” Browne cited a January 2013 report by the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board to support his views. Just one week earlier, Chancellor George Osborne had announced an additional investment of £ 3.2 billion in cybersecurity over a five-year period, an amount coming “nowhere near the scale of the cyber-threat challenge” according to Browne.

Franklin Miller, a former U.S. defense official involved in nuclear policy between 1981 and 2001, refuted Browne’s arguments, saying that “If our nuclear command and control system depended upon the internet or went through the internet then the report by the defense science board would be quite an important warning. However, for those reasons it is a standalone system. It is air-gapped. It does not go through the internet.” Miller added that the 2013 report cited by Browne had been written in 2013 as a “shot across the bow” to members of the U.S. defense community thinking of having some elements of the next generation command and control system for the U.S. nuclear deterrent connected to the internet. He said “I am very comfortable saying that right now our command and control system is insulated from cyber-attack because it doesn’t go into any place that cyber would intrude.”

Concerning swarms of undersea drones, the concept is gaining traction as a possible threat to strategic submarines, even though the technology is still in its early stages. The U.S. Navy is already moving forward in this arena with plans to deploy unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) from Virginia-class attack submarines. In December 2015, Paul Ingram, BASIC’s chief executive, warned that progress in underwater drone technology threatened to make Trident submarines vulnerable, in line with other experts who have cautioned about “a revolution in underwater drones, as well as advances in sonar, satellite and other anti-submarine warfare systems” making “even totally silent submarines … likely to become detectable.” Ingram said that “There is a major transition taking place in the underwater battle space and it is far from clear how the new submarine will be able to evade detection from emerging sophisticated anti-submarine warfare capabilities.” Adding that this “raises serious questions about the wisdom of putting all your nuclear weapons on board a submarine,” Ingram called for a public debate on this impending vulnerability.

Despite much interest among major navies, underwater drones are being developed at a much slower pace than their aerial counterparts, an often cited reason being water’s much greater opacity to radio waves. According to Frank Herr, head of the Office of Naval Research’s ocean battlespace sensing department, “Underwater vehicles are much harder to do because of this inability for us to communicate robustly with the vehicles the way you can in the air. That means they are way behind in the development.” Chris Rawley, a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, believes that “the premise that UUVs will make Tridents more detectable glosses over of the complexities of ASW. The physics of underwater sound propagation don’t change just because we take the man out of the loop. Unmanned systems can potentially put more persistent sensors in the water column, but I’d guess we’re at least two decades out from them making a significant impact on ASW.” Rawley discusses this in more detail in a 2015 interview with CIMSEC.

Could Trident’s Cost be Cut by Reducing the Number of Submarines?

In the run-up to the July 2016 parliamentary vote to renew Trident, some voices, including the Liberal Democrats (the Conservatives’ junior coalition partner in the previous administration) and Labour, the main opposition party, suggested or at least speculated on the possibility of reducing the cost of Trident by cutting down the number of boats from the current four. The Liberal Democrats, which open the section in their website on Trident with harsh words, calling it “out-dated and expensive. It is a relic of the Cold War and not up-to-date in 21st century Britain,” while arguing that “It would be extremely expensive and unnecessary to replace all four submarines, so we propose to replace some of the submarines instead. They would not be on constant patrol but could be deployed if the threat from a nuclear-armed country increased.” BASIC included the option of “irregular undisclosed patrolling patterns” in its 2015 “A Memo to the Next Prime Minister: Options Surrounding the Replacement of Trident,” estimating the potential yearly savings at up to 1 billion. Right now, as emphasized by the Royal Navy itself “One of the Navy’s four strategic submarines is always on patrol, ensuring a continuous at sea deterrent, 24/7/365, carrying the nation’s ultimate weapon somewhere in the Seven Seas.” It is very doubtful whether fewer than four submarines could achieve this objective. The need to keep four submarines has been emphasized by many observers, with for example Simon Michell writing for RUSI that “if the United Kingdom is to have a credible and assured nuclear deterrent based on the submarine-launched Trident missile, then four boats are required, not three.” Therefore, it is plausible, should the cost of Trident be considered to be excessive, to move to another kind of deterrent, for example air-based, rather than relying exclusively on a number of boats too small to ensure a consistent deterrent.

Having fewer than four nuclear boats may not only deliver smaller savings than straight arithmetic may suggest given factors such as economies of scale, but would result in gaps in the deterrent with no submarine patrolling at certain given times. This may be seen by a would-be aggressor as providing a window of opportunity. Furthermore, it could be destabilizing in many ways. For example, during a crisis at a time with no boats on patrol, the knowledge that one was soon to sail may be seen by the other side as providing an incentive to strike first. It may also be interpreted as a hostile move, a step in escalation designed to increase pressure. The Trident Alternatives Review, as an exercise in coalition politics, did not rule out this possibility, while failing to discuss in depth the possibility of a sudden unannounced nuclear attack, but nevertheless gave some clues as to why three boats, as opposed to four, would mean accepting a higher degree of risk that such an attack may take place. Where the Review was crystal clear was in explaining that “Over a 20 year period, a 3-boat fleet would risk multiple unplanned breaks in continuous covert patrolling as well as requiring regular planned breaks for maintenance and/or training. Experience to date with the Resolution-class and Vanguard-class SSBNs is that no such breaks have occurred or been required with a 4-boat fleet.” Thus, we can see how lacking the capacity for continuous patrols not only means the deterrent is not always available but also introduces a new factor in an adversary’s calculus during crisis, opening up different venues of speculation concerning the possible motivations for the start and end of deterrence patrols.

Nuclear Alternatives to Trident: Long-Range Bombers

The UK may remain a nuclear power while shifting to other vectors for the country’s warheads. This may result from different motivations, such as cost calculations, a changed perspective on submarine survivability, or the desire for greater strategic autonomy vis a vis the United States, among other few possibilities. Shifting to another delivery method would have a wide range of implications, not only in terms of range, survivability, domestic politics, credibility just to name a few, but for example, inter-service considerations. Trident underscores the Royal Navy’s status as the senior service, which any non-naval alternative would not support in the same way.

Air delivery systems may consist of either missiles launched by aircraft, or gravity bombs dropped by them. An air-dropped alternative to Trident was suggested last year by think-tank Centre Forum. In its report, this organization argues that a minimum nuclear deterrent should be able to destroy “ten or more … major urban areas” of a nuclear adversary (it should be noted that British nuclear doctrine does not provide any explicit assurance to non-nuclear weapons states) and that the UK should therefore be able of delivering 30 warheads.” It goes on to say that “This requires a considerably lower level of capability than” that provided by Trident, meaning that “the UK can achieve deterrence with a considerably less capable nuclear weapons system, saving money and contributing to long-term multilateral nuclear disarmament.” Based on this and other considerations, the report suggests that the UK “move to a free-fall nuclear capability based on Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II / Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) that the UK is currently procuring and the forthcoming U.S. B61 Mod 12 (B61-12) bombs that will arm NATO nuclear Dual-Capable Aircraft (DCA) from 2020.” It estimates the capital cost of “100 anglicised B61-12s” at “approximately £16.7bn,” a figure that would include a number of additions to current planned capabilities, among them enabling the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers to operate catapult-launched, arrested-landing aircraft (with a wider range than the vertical takeoff variant currently planned) and extra naval assets such as five attack submarines and four type 26 frigates. The text presents this alternative as a compromise bringing about costs savings while enhancing conventional capabilities, preserving the submarine industrial base, and “a concrete step down the nuclear ladder and towards future nuclear disarmament as the international situation allows in accordance with the UK’s nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations.”

Given the UK’s global role and the duty to protect British Overseas Territories, any nuclear alternative to Trident should have an equivalent range. This may be a challenge for nuclear bombers, less so for submarine-launched cruise missiles, and would not apply to land-based ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles). The travails of strategic bombers when targets are far from bases were already illustrated in the Falklands War, where the strike against Port Stanley’s airport required the complex coordination of a very large number of aircraft operating from Asuncion Island. The Centre Forum document argues that a combination of existing overseas bases and “Air-to-Air Refueling (AAR) support from RAF Voyager KC2/KC3 tankers covers all of Africa, Europe, the Middle East and South America, along with the Indian subcontinent and most of former Soviet Central Asia.” Leaving aside the fact that this would not cover all existing nuclear weapons states, the sheer complexity of the necessary AAR operations to reach some corners of the world may put a dent on the deterrent’s credibility, tempting a would-be aggressor into thinking it may not ensure a British response. This was noted by a commentator, who wrote “Where the credibility gets shaky is in the delivery. A Voyager tanker can trail 4 fighter jets for 2800 miles in a transfer flight, but an actual strike mission, especially if a return to base is at least envisaged, is a whole different matter. Even bringing all 14 tankers in service (instead of just 8 + 1 transport only and 5 tankers “on demand” at 90 days notice) and fitting them with booms and receptacles so they can juggle fuel between themselves and work cooperatively, it remains dubious that it would be possible to trail a real strike package over the great distances likely to be involved. Particularly because, in order to deliver the strike with gravity-fall bombs with a stand-off reach of 40 kilometers in the very, very best case, you need a large attack squadron, knowing that many aircraft are likely not to make it to the target, even with the F-35’s stealth.”

Date:- 02 July 2011 WAD-11-0463 Background: Every year in July, RAF Waddington opens it's doors to the general public in staging the Royal Air Force's premier airshow event. In 2011, the undoubted stars of the show are the United States Air Force aerobatic display team 'The Thunderbirds'. Along with the welcome return of crowd favourites- the Vulcan and the Red Arrows, are the Battle of Britain Memorial flight and the classic B-17 bomber 'Sally B' from WW2. Image details: The Vulcan aircraft landing at Waddington. Photo By:- SAC Andy Stevens (RAF) For further information contact: Royal Air Force Waddington Media Communications Officer, RAF Waddington MCO Waddington Lincolnshire LN5 9NB Tel 01522 726804
The long-range nuclear bomber Avro Vulcan was employed in a conventional role in the 1982 Falklands War and later decommissioned. ( RAF photo by SAC Andy Stevens)

This text also questions whether it is realistic to expect the UK to sport 72 ready-to-strike nuclear bombers at any one time, as the Centre Forum defends when it states that “Using the 18 airfields shown in Figure 5 today, this would translate into 72 nuclear-armed F-35Cs and their accompanying Airbus Voyager KC2 / KC3 tankers safely airborne before a surprise attack could destroy them on the ground.” Furthermore, it argues that if that number was indeed available it would put such a dent on conventional capabilities as to make the whole exercise self-defeating. These unrealistic assumptions cast a shadow of doubt over the Centre Forum’s proposal, and prompt suspicions that it may have been designed, or at least have been liable to being employed, to underpin a tactical deal between those opposed to British national sovereignty and the country’s independent deterrent on the one hand, and those concerned about continued conventional defense cuts, on the other. By offering the acquisition of additional conventional assets as part of a package deal involving the replacement of Trident by a less able system, the former may have hoped to achieve the necessary political momentum against Trident, assembling a coalition with the latter and perhaps also other actors like the SNP. At a later stage, with Trident out of the way, the door would have been open to further conventional cuts degrading an already less than credible deterrent, thus achieving unilateral nuclear disarmament through the back door.   

Other disadvantages of a naval aircraft-based deterrent are, in the words of an undisclosed naval analyst, that “a ship is ALWAYS more vulnerable than a submarine” and a “plane can also be downed,” plus the fact that adding a further role to a carrier means an additional concentration of risk and incentives for the enemy to try to sink her. Operations by HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible off the Falklands, at a time when anti-access weapons were much more primitive (Argentine forces improvised a shore-launched Exocet missile, hitting HMS Glamorgan, but it was not available until very late in the war), illustrate the complications of sailing near a hostile shore, which would have been even greater had the British deterrent been based on those same two light carriers. At the end of the day, considering all these aspects, it is difficult not to see that moving from submarines to carrier-based planes would mean a significant downsizing of the British deterrent, with the corresponding negative impact on national security. In the words of another author, “A nuclear deterrent based on the B61-12 would be much less capable than Trident, this is definite. The key issue is not the power of the warhead, but the certainty that an enemy anywhere in the world can be reliably hit. Any possible existential enemy of the UK must be keenly aware that there is a credible deterrent which is unquestionably able to strike back and make him pay a price which cannot be possibly accepted.”

As noted later when discussing air-launched cruise missiles but equally applicable here, “The UK would be faced with the choice of having to keep nuclear-armed aircraft permanently in the air (where they would still be visible) or risk having the air base – and its neighbouring community – as the target for a nuclear strike by a potential adversary.”

Things may be different if a long-range bomber powered by Reaction Engines’ SABRE (Synthetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine) is developed in the future, since such aircraft would be able to strike at any target without aerial refueling. It must be noted, though, that any such dual-capable (nuclear and conventional) bomber may prompt the same concerns over strategic instability which have pushed Washington to withdraw nuclear Tomahawk cruise missiles from service, which we discuss in this series’ final part.   

150317-N-MF696-071 INDIAN HEAD, Md. (March 17, 2015) Members of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technology Division team at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Indian Head prepare a Tomahawk missile for a functional ground test at the Large Motor Test Facility in Indian Head, Md. The event marks the 84th functional ground test the Division has conducted since the program began 25 years ago. (U.S. Navy photo by Monica McCoy/Released)
INDIAN HEAD, Md. (March 17, 2015) Members of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technology Division team at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Indian Head prepare a Tomahawk missile for a functional ground test at the Large Motor Test Facility in Indian Head, Md.  (U.S. Navy photo by Monica McCoy/Released)

Nuclear Alternatives to Trident: Land-Based Missiles

The deployment of land-based missiles involves at least two problems. First, they are considered to be the most vulnerable asset in the nuclear triad, given their fixed location. To overcome this vulnerability, an alternative may be to deploy missiles on either trucks or trains, ideally camouflaged as ordinary vehicles, but since this alternative has not featured in the debate on the replacement of Trident (in contrast with Russian work in this area) we shall not examine it in detail here.

Second, the construction of the necessary infrastructure may pose legal (land planning) and political complications. As noted in the 2015 RUSI conference on missile defense, it is precisely these legal and political difficulties involved in deploying certain land-based assets that make a naval missile shield the most realistic alternative for British plans on national BMD (ballistic missile defense). Additionally, as discussed when dealing with cruise missiles, developing a new vector would involve significant time and treasure.

In our next and final installment in this series, we will look at other possible alternatives to trident, including both air and submarine-launched cruise missiles. This will include an examination of their technical aspects, as well as wider economic and policy issues. In the case of submarine-launched nuclear missiles, this includes the risk of confusion with their conventional brethen. Last, we will examine a very different scenario, namely the UK as a Japanese-syle ‘latent’ nuclear power. Stay tuned!

Alex Calvo, a former guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan), focuses on security and defence policy, international law, and military history, in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. He tweets at Alex__Calvo and his papers can be found at Previous work on British nuclear policy includes A. Calvo and O. Olsen, “Defending the Falklands: A role for nuclear weapons?” Strife Blog, 29 July 2014.

Featured Image: The Trident nuclear submarine HMS Victorious is pictured near Faslane in Scotland. (UK Ministry of Defence)