Tag Archives: A2AD

Challenges to Access: Past, Present, and Future

By Bob Poling

Anyone who has followed the development of the Air-Sea Battle Concept (ASBC) turned Joint Access for Maneuver in the Global Commons (JAMGC) and the closely associated term, A2/AD, knows this amalgamation of terminologies, ideas, and concepts has generated a significant amount of confusion and discontent across the defense establishment. On October 3, while participating in a Maritime Security Dialogue at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John Richardson continued this trend when he voiced his displeasure with the term A2/AD. “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.”1 Admiral 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.”2 The author personally doesn’t agree with the decision to eliminate A2/AD from the Navy’s lexicon, and stated opposition in a CIMSEC debate post in November.

However, what was striking about CNO’s address were the four reasons he offered for banning A2/AD, three of those are particularly germane and will set the initial course for this column. In his remarks, Admiral Richardson stated the following:

“First, ‘A2AD’ is not a new phenomenon. The history of military contests is all about adversaries seeking to one-up each other by identifying their foes at longer ranges and attacking them with ever more destructive weapons. As technologies change, tactics change to react to and leverage them. It is only relatively recently in our conversation about warfighting that we have discussed these trends as something new.  But history has much to teach us about maintaining perspective on these developments and on charting the path forward to address them. Think Nelson at the Nile and at Copenhagen, Farragut at Mobile Bay, Nimitz, and Lockwood in the Pacific…this is nothing new. Indeed, controlling the seas and projecting power – even in contested areas – is why our nation invests in and relies upon a naval force in the first place.”

The second reason is that the term ‘denial,’ as in ‘anti-access/area denial’ is too often taken as a fait accompli, when it is, more accurately, an aspiration. Often, I get into A2AD discussions accompanied by maps with red arcs extending off the coastlines of countries like China or Iran. The images imply that any military force that enters the red area faces certain defeat – it’s a ‘no-go’ zone! But the reality is much more complex. Achieving a successful engagement requires completion of a complex chain of events, each link of which is vulnerable and can be interrupted. Those arcs represent danger, to be sure, and the Navy is going to be very thoughtful and well prepared as we address them, but the threats are not insurmountable.

Third and related, A2/AD is inherently oriented to the defense. It can contribute to a mindset that starts with how to operate from beyond the red arcs – an ‘outside-in’ approach. The reality is that we can fight from within these defended areas and if needed, we will. Inside-out, as well as outside-in, from above and from below – we will fight from every direction. The examples above show that this has been done before.”3

Admiral Richardson’s remarks are poignant and zero in on the complexities associated with this topic and are worthy of further analysis. 

First, CNO recognizes that history has much to teach the Navy about the A2/AD conundrum. However, Admiral Richardson assumes that those studying contemporary A2/AD issues are well-grounded in history. Nelson, Farragut, Nimitz and Lockwood all had to contend with A2/AD problems, but these references are perhaps not the best ones. The study of history doesn’t always yield viable solutions to contemporary problems, especially when the wrong examples are pulled from history. Moreover, it seems likely that only consummate navalists would truly appreciate CNO’s references to Nelson, Farragut, and Admiral Lockwood. There are better examples in history that are relevant to the study of A2/AD and this column will bring those to light. 

The sophistication and capabilities of A2/AD networks, at times, appear to intimidate those studying this topic, hence the fait accompli CNO mentioned. There is some legitimacy to this fait accompli mentality as the U.S. Navy hasn’t faced anything that looks likes these A2/AD networks since World War II. For instance, the Solomon Islands Campaign is a perfect example of the complexities CNO refers to in his second and third points. The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) employed a wide array of capabilities against the U.S. Navy, and at times, were very effective at restricting or reducing the Navy’s freedom of maneuver and access. In fact, within the first 24 hours of landing on Guadalcanal, the Navy faced IJN fighter aircraft, bombers, and ships, all of which were superior in some way to the aircraft and ships the USN brought to the fight. The U.S. Navy suffered one of its worst defeats at sea, where four cruisers were lost, one Australian and three U.S., in the early morning hours following the landing.  In the end, the U.S. Navy would take Guadalcanal after six months of heavy fighting and use the island as a base of operations for counterattacks on the IJN. Well within the range of the IJN’s ships and aircraft, the counterattacks staged from Guadalcanal offer several examples of how to conduct a successful campaign from within the defensive arcs of an adversary.

In the articles that follow in this column, these complexities will be explored as well the means developed to counter them. For the most part, the column will focus on historical cases that are relevant to the points raised by CNO. The column will also examine emerging issues and occasionally look towards the future. While there is no clear-cut solution to countering the proliferation of A2/AD capabilities, there is no shortage of historical examples that will be examined which are connected to this topic.

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.

1. John Richardson, “Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson: Deconstructing A2AD,” Text, The National Interest, accessed December 23, 2016, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/chief-naval-operations-adm-john-richardson-deconstructing-17918.

2. Ibid.

3. Richardson, Deconstructing A2/AD.

Featured Image: MEDITERRANEAN SEA (June 28, 2016) – An E2-C Hawkeye assigned to the Screwtops of Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW) 123 undergoes pre-flight checks on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) (Ike). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Bobby Baldock/Released)

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)

Entering the Bear’s Lair: Russia’s A2/AD Bubble in the Baltic Sea

The following article originally featured on The National Interest and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here

By Bret Perry

On the cold, cloudy afternoon of March 18th, 2018, the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) and its Amphibious Readiness Group steamed through the Baltic Sea about 100 miles south of the Swedish island of Gotland, just west of Lithuania and Latvia. With its full squadron of three amphibious assault ships, including the USS Bataan Landing Helicopter Dock, and three Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, this impressive US military presence in the Baltic Sea was unprecedented. In response to unusual Russian military activity near Estonia, including the presence of ‘little green men’ in the border town of Narva, the new White House administration was determined to send a message to Moscow.

Two US Marine Corps F-35Bs, flown by call sign Yukon and his wingman Zeus, surged off the deck of the USS Bataan to conduct a combat air patrol (CAP) to reinforce the NATO presence in the area. Banking south, Yukon heard the NATO E-3 Sentry Airborne Early Warning and Control (AWACS) operator Showboat say through his thick Dutch accent, “Yukon, Showboat, you have a pop-up group of two Bogeys, Bullseye 207 degrees for 150 kilometers, 1,300 meters.”

“Copy, Showboat. Intercepting,” Yukon responded as he throttled his jet up to Mach 1.6. Another aggressive Russian flyby, he thought.

About four minutes later, Yukon and Zeus had positioned their aircraft about 250 feet behind the two Su-30SM Flanker-C bandits. But unlike previous intercepts of Russian fighter over Baltic Sea, the Su-30s were clearly armed with more than the typical, short range Archer (R-73) air-to-air missiles.

“Zeus, any idea what they’re carrying?” Yukon asked his wingman.

“Negative, but they’re not playing around today,” she responded.

“Copy. Take a closer look for me.”

“Roger,” Zeus responded. She slowly began to creep her aircraft closer to the Su-30 on the left.

“Showboat, Yukon, tally-ho on two Flanker-Cs. We think…” Yukon’s voice trailed off as he watched a disaster unfold in an instant.

As Zeus approached the bandits, one of the Su-30s tried to barrel-roll over her F-35B. But as Zeus held steady 100 feet from the Flankers, the Su-30 pilot misjudged the maneuver, and slammed the Russian jet into the right wing of Zeus’ F-35B. The wing snapped off, sending Zeus spinning, while the Su-30 pitched over into a nosedive.

“Eject! Eject! Eject!” Zeus yelled into the radio.

In response to the chaos, the remaining Su-30 banked right, and bugged out. When Yukon looked to his left, he felt relief and horror at what he saw.

He could see Zeus’ parachute. But… there was no sign of the Russian pilot.

Although the aforementioned vignette is fictional, it captures the increasingly worrisome military implications of Russia’s posture in Kaliningrad. The presence of Russian ground, naval, and air forces in Kaliningrad is not new, but Russia has essentially transformed the tiny area into a major “pop-up” Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) zone from what had been a Cold War-era Soviet outpost. Despite traditionally being associated with the Asia-Pacific or even the Persian Gulf, Russia’s deployments in Kaliningrad reflect the potential for the emergence of localized A2/AD zones in Europe. Not only is A2/AD now a critical component in European security dynamics, but it is also a global phenomenon that has truly ‘broken out’ of the Pacific’s First Island Chain. With NATO’s eyes on the defense of its Baltic members and a growing view that Poland is NATO’s new center of gravity in the East, a Kaliningrad A2/AD zone projects advanced ground, naval, and air threats, creating significant security challenges.

Range rings of Russian missile systems in Kaliningrad. (Avascent)

Achieving Integrated Air and Missile Defense (IAMD) and air dominance is a critical component in countering A2/AD zones. Although Russia’s defense industry faces challenges with upgrading the state’s fighter fleet, both the Russian Aerospace Forces and Russian Naval Aviation possess formidable 4G and 4.5G tactical aircraft capable of executing advanced air-to-air combat and challenging NATO’s air dominance. In Kaliningrad, two Naval Aviation fighter regiments maintain several squadrons of Su-27 fighters and Su-24 bombers out of two separate air bases. As Russian Naval Aviation purchases at least 50 new Su-30SMs by 2020, the forward deployment of these units to Kaliningrad would significantly sharpen Russia’s sword in the Baltic airspace. Specifically, Kaliningrad’s position provides Russian forces with the ability to scramble their tactical aircraft within close proximity to NATO forces while under the protection of extensive Russian air-defense systems.

15 minutes later, Yukon continued circling, waiting for the other Su-30SM to return and hamper the USS Bataan’s search and rescue efforts. Suddenly, he heard Showboat shout over the radio.

“Unidentified track, Bullseye 163 degrees for 380 kilometers, 2,300 meters, hot!”

Yukon saw the new contact marked by Showboat on his Tactical Situation Display (TSD) located on the front left of his F-35B’s cockpit. It was tagged as unknown, but moving rapidly across the screen at 4,500 mph towards Showboat. Yukon’s gut told him something was wrong, so he quickly switched his APG-81 radar onto “active” mode.

In a second, the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar on Yukon’s F-35B scanned the object and autonomously identified it as a Russian 40N6 missile. As the F-35B’s datalink automatically transferred its identification to Showboat’s AWACS and other forces in the area, he said, “Showboat, Yukon, Bullseye, 230 degrees for 340 kilometers, 5,000 meters, SAM launch! Break left! Break left!”  

But the 40N6 surface-to-air missile (SAM), flying at over 4,500 mph, was too fast.

Within 10 seconds, Yukon heard Showboat shout “Break…Mayday! Mayday! May…!” All what was left was static. On his TSD, the icon denoting Showboat’s AWACS was gone from his display.

Launched from an S-400 “Growler” SAM launcher near the small coastal town of Yantarny in Kaliningrad, the 40N6 missile is a long-range weapon with an active- and semi-active seeker designed to destroy high-value targets, such as AWACS, electronic warfare, and other special mission aircraft. In 2012, Russia began outfitting at least two battalions in Kaliningrad with its new S-400 SAM system. The S-400s joined Kaliningrad’s S-300 SAMs, also an important threat.

Moscow’s deployment of S-400 missiles to Kaliningrad was key in transforming the outpost into an effective A2/AD zone. With a maximum range of 250 miles (although the system most likely can only detect advanced stealth aircraft with much smaller radar cross-sections, such as the F-22, at closer ranges), Kaliningrad’s S-400s are capable of turning the airspace over much of the Baltic Sea, Latvia, Lithuania, and half of Poland (including the capital, Warsaw), into a no-fly zone at the flip of a switch. General Frank Gorenc, the commander of US Air Forces in Europe, explained that Moscow’s SAMs and other systems “creates areas that are very tough to get into.” Although an assortment of stealth aircraft, electronic warfare capabilities, and long-range strike weapons can neutralize the S-400, strikes in Kaliningrad carry strategic consequences due to the risk of Russian escalation, ultimately making the suppression of enemy air defenses a complex challenge.

Without Showboat, Yukon and the naval forces accompanying the 22nd MEU were in the dark without any early warning capability. Yukon’s F-35B acted as the eyes and ears of the fleet with its AESA radar. But as he was miles south of the MEU and the closest AWACS replacement was in Germany, the decision was made to have one of the escort destroyers turn on its radar’s “active” mode. This decision would give away the MEU’s precise location, but was necessary to establish a 360-degree view of the deteriorating situation.

The USS Truxtun powered on its SPY-1D radar and Mk 99 fire control system to restore awareness. Although the Truxtun could now detect targets over 100 miles away, Yukon’s F-35B continued to play a role with its powerful AESA radar.

But within a minute of firing up its radar, “Overlord,” Truxtun’s operations specialist announced “10 unidentified tracks, Bullseye 187 degrees for 280 kilometers, and closing fast.”

Yukon looked down on his TSD and saw the unidentified tracks appear near the top edge of the screen. They were moving quickly down the display at an angle towards the MEU, but not as fast as the S-400 missile’s earlier observed path. At the current pace, they would reach the fleet in about 410 seconds. Yukon banked his plane and burned towards the unknown contacts.

About a minute later, Yukon’s AESA radar picked up all ten of the contacts, identifying them as P-800 Oniks anti-ship cruise missiles. The F-35B’s computer immediately transmitted the data to the Truxtun and other NATO forces in the immediate area. Within less than a second, the Truxton’s AEGIS Combat System processed the threat information and autonomously launched 20 SM-2 SAMs towards the incoming Oniks missiles, targeting each Oniks with two SM-2s.

Yukon burned towards the Oniks missiles, prepared to intercept. But Overlord was wary of Yukon going “winchester,” or running out of missiles, especially if additional Russian aircraft emerged.

About 150 seconds later, the Truxton’s SM-2s reached the incoming Oniks missiles. Four of the missiles struck their targets, but debris from their impact knocked the Truxton’s remaining SAMs off course. Detecting its error, the Truxton’s AEGIS system automatically launched 12 new SM-2s towards the remaining Oniks missiles.

“Overlord” ordered Yukon to engage one of the Oniks even though they were nearly out of range. The nervousness in Overlord’s voice was unmistakable. Yukon acknowledged the command, responding with “Fox Three” as one of his AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM) dropped out of the F-35B’s weapons bay, firing towards the Oniks.

90 seconds later, the Truxton’s second wave of SM-2s reached the remaining Oniks missiles. They knocked two Oniks missiles out of the sky, but four more remained. 10 seconds later, Yukon’s AMRAAM smashed into an Oniks, leaving three. The Truxton’s AEGIS Combat System immediately launched six of its RIM-162 Evolved SeaSparrow Missiles, which were tailored to counter supersonic maneuvering anti-ship missiles such as the Oniks.

Within 60 seconds, the RIM-162s found their targets. Two of the Oniks were hit, but a sudden last-minute maneuver by the last Russian missile kept it airborne.

10 seconds later, this final missile struck the Truxton’s bow at supersonic speeds, delivering a crippling blow to the American warship.

Responsible for launching the Oniks, the K-300P Bastion is one of the most advanced anti-ship cruise missile systems fielded. With a range of 186 miles, this system is capable of launching supersonic missiles that can fly as low as 15 feet and conduct evasive maneuvers to counter a target’s anti-missile defenses. Impressed by its capabilities, Russian and Indian engineers used the Bastion’s P-800 Oniks missiles to form the basis for the jointly-developed BrahMos, the world’s fastest anti-ship cruise missile in operation. Essentially, the Bastion not only lets its operators engage distant naval targets, but also allows them to launch advanced missiles capable of overwhelming sophisticated anti-air defenses systems.

Although Russia has not yet equipped its coastal missile regiment based in Kaliningrad with the advanced Bastion anti-ship missile system (the regiment in Kaliningrad is reportedly deployed with the less advanced SSC-1 ‘Sepal’ missiles), the aforementioned scenario is important as it still showcases how easily Russia can assemble the necessary elements in Kaliningrad to deny access to the Baltic Sea. Further, as Moscow already decided to deploy the Bastion to controversial areas, such as the Kuril Islands in the Pacific, and Crimea in the Black Sea, Kaliningrad forces could also soon be armed with the Bastion as Moscow continues to pursue A2/AD in Europe. Coastal missile forces aside, Kaliningrad’s three diesel-electric submarines, two destroyers, and assortment of smaller vessels provide Russian forces with enough maritime power to contest a NATO naval presence in the Baltic Sea. As commander of US Army Europe, Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, explained, Russia “could make it very difficult for any of us [US] to get up into the Baltic Sea if we needed to in a contingency.”

About 25 minutes later, Yukon was about 50 miles north of Kaliningrad, flying low. Miles behind him, five other F-35Bs had taken off from the Bataan and were en route to join him.

It was time to strike back.

But Yukon and his fellow Marine aviators would not be leading the strike. That was the job for the Polish Air Force.

Committed to NATO, Poland activated contingency plans to scramble a squadron of F-16s to conduct a Strike/CAP tasking soon after Showboat’s F-35B went down. In response to heavy usage, Poland had just upgraded its F-16s to be some of the most advanced aircraft of that type anywhere. Equipped with AESA radars, a next-gen datalink pod, and advanced strike munitions, the Polish F-16s would deliver the punch against Russian forces in Kaliningrad.

Specifically, the Polish F-16s were equipped with AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles (JASSM) that could strike targets as far as 230 miles away. The Polish squadron was split into two, flying “nap-of-the-earth” to avoid Kaliningrad’s Growler SAMs. In support were Bataan’s F-35Bs, which would engage any Russian air threats with their AMRAAM missiles and jam their sensors and communications with their electronic warfare systems. Since Yukon was closer to Kaliningrad, he would provide the Polish pilots with targeting information via a secure next-gen datalink that wouldn’t give away their positions, unlike legacy Link-16 systems. At this point, his AESA radar was switched to passive mode, allowing the stealthy F-35B to fly undetected towards Kaliningrad.

When Yukon was 45 miles from the shore, still unseen by Russian radar operators, he powered on his advanced Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS). Since the miniaturized EOTS sensor was built into the F-35’s nose, he didn’t have to worry about the sensor eroding his aircraft’s stealth profile. On the screen Yukon steered towards the target into a “bump-up” position.

Yukon’s display showed several Growler SAM’s in their “slanted-E” revetments. He was about to confirm the target when he noticed something else—a skinny object standing up.

It was an Iskander “Stone” transporter erector launcher (TEL) in firing position.

The Iskander, also referred to as the SS-26, is a modern short-range ballistic missile system capable of launching missiles with conventional high-explosive fragmentation warheads, fuel-air explosives, bunker buster, and electromagnetic pulse payloads. Additionally, the Iskander’s maximum range of 310 miles makes it a potent system. But the Iskander’s most lethal trait is its ability to launch nuclear warheads with as much power as 50,000 tons of TNT.

In 2015, Russia began rotating its newest Iskander-M systems in Kaliningrad in response to NATO’s renewed commitment to Eastern European defense. Moscow may permanently deploy the missiles to Kaliningrad by the end of the decade. Also troubling, some NATO partners believe that Moscow is secretly stockpiling tactical nuclear warheads in Kaliningrad for use atop the Iskanders. The Kaliningrad deployments were a surprise as Moscow previously used threats to position these missiles in Kaliningrad as a bargaining tool to reduce NATO’s European missile defense deployments. Even though the Iskander is just a tactical missile system, its deployment in Kaliningrad has strategic implications for NATO attempts to “deflate” an A2/AD bubble there. With or without nuclear warheads, Kaliningrad’s Iskanders have the ability to strike an array of key NATO positions in the Baltics. Morever, the confusion whether an Iskander system is armed with conventional or nuclear payloads by itself could foul NATO’s crisis decision making.

40 minutes later, Yukon was just a couple miles away from “Banker,” a Dutch KC-10 Extender aerial refueling tanker aircraft. The joint USMC-Polish retaliatory strike had been called off as pressure from several NATO partners and other states forced the US to step back and resolve the crisis diplomatically. The Russian propaganda machine was in full swing, asserting that its Kaliningrad forces acted entirely in self-defense. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Vorshevsky claimed that Zeus deliberately crashed her F-35B into the Russian Su-30 and that Kaliningrad’s military commanders had no choice but to launch “a couple” Oniks missiles when the “trespassing” US forces turned on their fire control systems. Vorshevsky’s comments were retweeted and broadcasted around the world.

Waiting to refuel from the Dutch tanker, Yukon reflected on how close he’d come to attacking Russian forces. All he could think about was that he’d back up flying a CAP the next day and who knew what the Russians had in store tomorrow.

Again, this scenario is fictional and some liberties were taken for narrative purposes. As well, the reality of such a scenario unfolding would be even more complex, especially in the political domain. But the point that US forces will struggle to maneuver in new European A2/AD bubbles is unquestionable.

“Popping” Russia’s European A2/AD bubbles wherever they may be established is ultimately a tough challenge without easy answers for NATO. Purely surging an overwhelming amount of force into the bubble is simply not feasible due to resource constraints and the risk that Russia would respond with tactical nuclear weapons. However, by making its forces more survivable, the US and NATO allies can naturally degrade the potential effectiveness of Russia’s A2/AD zones and establish some credible level of conventional deterrence.

There are examples worth considering for inspiration, such as the US Navy’s Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) capability. NIFC-CA is a US Navy concept using an array of advanced data links to transform a carrier air wing and carrier battle group into a larger network of distributed ‘sensors’ and ”shooters.” Created to counter the air-breathing threat elements of Chinese A2/AD in the Asia-Pacific, NIFCA-CA is a redundant, “networked-enhanced” system capable of functioning even if a handful of sensors are neutralized or jammed. Essentially in NIFC-CA, every aircraft and destroyer is linked directly to each other to make the force more survivable.

A NIFC-CA-like capability scaled for the European theater is a crucial step for defeating Russia’s European A2/AD bubbles through neutralizing air-breathers and broadly enabling more effective air operations. Simply, NATO cannot expect to conduct SEAD, CAS, or other types of air operations to ‘pop’ Russia’s A2/AD bubble without removing the air-breather threats. Although critics rightfully point to Russia’s advanced EW capabilities (as demonstrated in the Ukrainian conflict) as a key challenge, this only reinforces the need for NATO to invest in a more networked, resilient force.

The “NATO Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air” concept must be service agonistic (e.g., not just a Navy concept, but inclusive of Air Force assets as well) as conflict in the European theater will not solely revolve around the carrier air wing; the appropriate air, naval, and relevant ground platforms should be incorporated. Furthermore, this integrated fire control concept must include the systems of non-US NATO members. In Europe, the US has partners—some of which are positioned within Russia’s emerging A2/AD bubbles—with platforms already in place that can provide immediate support. Challenges associated with information assurance, interoperability, and 5G-to-4.5G communications make developing a ‘common datalink’ a difficult task, but one that is crucial to maximize the effectiveness of NATO’s air assets.

Whether it is turning an American US Air Force F-15C/D, USMC F-35B, or Polish F-16 C/D into sensors and shooters networked directly with each other, a ‘NATO IFC-CA’ would diminish the potency of Russia’s A2/AD zones. But ultimately, Russia’s new way of operating in Europe requires the US and NATO to increase their investments in the appropriate capabilities, hone joint multinational operations through regional exercises, and most importantly, assess how their current strategy, doctrine, and tactics match up against this evolving threat.

Bret Perry is an analyst at Avascent, an aerospace and defense consulting firm. The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily reflect those of any organization.

The author would like to thank August Cole, Dominik Kimla, Alex Chang, Steve Ganyard, Jacqueline Phan, and Cate Walsh for their advice and comments.

Featured Image: S-400 Triumf air defense systems from Russia (defencetalk.com)

Parrying the 21st Century First Salvo

The following article is part of our cross-posting partnership with Information Dissemination’s Jon Solomon. It is republished here with the author’s permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Jon Solomon

A first strike’s naval component is commonly referred to as the “first salvo.” A first salvo builds upon the maxim that the fleet attacking effectively first obtains a greater probability of victory in a given tactical action, with the understanding that superior maritime surveillance and reconnaissance is a prerequisite for being able to do so.[1] This situational awareness becomes far more complicated to achieve against a defender’s maneuvering naval forces, though, once the defender’s peacetime rules of engagement regarding what he can do to suppress or neutralize enemy wide-area sensors and their supporting data relay networks, interdict enemy scouts, and employ deception and concealment are relaxed following hostilities’ outbreak. Since an attacker has every reason to believe his maritime picture will never be as accurate and comprehensive at any later point in a conflict as it is during peacetime’s waning moments, and since naval warfare is inherently capital-intensive, the attacker’s best chance to maximally neutralize a defender’s higher campaign-value fleet assets is in a first salvo.[2] Accordingly, one of the defender’s most critical peacetime tasks is to mitigate the risk that any conceivable non-nuclear first salvo can attrite his naval forces below the minimum deemed necessary to prevent a potential adversary’s aggression from achieving some military-strategic fait accompli.

An aggressor’s maritime offensive, though, may not be aimed at seizing territory or resources, solidifying a blockade, or ‘violently adjusting’ a theater’s power balance. Coercing the defender or other international actors by creating a public perception that the defender is weak, that a geopolitical status quo is tenuous, or that rising tensions are becoming exceptionally dangerous may actually be more useful to an aggressor’s grand strategy. A first salvo in these cases might be an extremely limited, ‘one-time’ tactical action intended not to ignite a war or to pave the way for follow-on military operations, but rather to support subsequent diplomatic, economic, or propagandistic endeavors at the defender’s expense. An example of this would be the 2010 North Korean torpedoing of the South Korean corvette ROKS Cheonan.

Assuming an attacker can locate and target at least some of a defender’s in-theater naval forces as a crisis peaks, a contemporary first salvo may consist of minimal-warning saturation attacks using anti-ship missiles, torpedoes, or irregular ‘swarming’ small boats and aircraft. The attacker might also covertly lay minefields in shallow contested seas, inside maritime chokepoints, or near the defender’s naval bases and forward logistical support ports. These kinetic actions will likely be paired with cyber and electronic warfare attacks designed to conceal attacking forces’ movements, exacerbate the defender’s confusion and demoralization, and inflict physical damage as possible on the defender’s forces and Command, Control, and Communications (C3) network infrastructure. A first salvo will almost certainly be coordinated with a diplomatic and propaganda campaign that attempts to justify the attacker’s actions, assign blame to the defender for peace’s collapse, and blur what actually happened.

New systems and platforms can certainly be designed with capabilities that help mitigate the U.S. Navy’s first salvo vulnerability risks, but this offers only intermediate if not long-term solutions. Under the normal Department of Defense acquisition process, it generally takes a ten year minimum to mature a new system from prototype demonstration in a relevant environment to Initial Operational Capability (IOC). Transitioning emerging technologies from the applied research stage into an IOC system obviously takes even longer.[3] First salvo defense into the foreseeable future, therefore, will largely depend upon theater and tactical-level commanders’ successes in enhancing existing forces’ resiliency in the face of a surprise attack.

Resilient Doctrine and Plans

From a purely quantitative perspective and assuming flawless scouting, an attacker’s probability of neutralizing a certain number of defending units in a strike decreases as the defender’s number of kinetic and non-kinetic defensive layers, as well as degree of unit-level passive hardening, increase. These attributes drive up the number of weapons the attacker must employ against a given target in order to attain a desired probability of success. Scouting is never flawless and situational pictures can never be omniscient, though. The defender can capitalize on these realities by using deception and concealment where tactically viable to increase the probability that a ‘critical mass’ of his units will evade detection long enough to avoid being attacked before they can successfully execute their missions.[4]

In a first salvo scenario, however, the above attributes are critically affected by the defending force’s degree of mobilization. Defensive mobilization primarily relies upon timely detection and recognition of actionable intelligence, followed by political and theater-level military leaders’ rapid decisions to act upon those Indications and Warning (I&W). This sequence’s perfect execution rarely occurs in practice for a litany of political, operational, and psychological reasons. Even in the depths of a crisis in which war I&W are unmistakable, these factors may deter a defender from adequately increasing his forces’ readiness postures in a timely manner.[5]

Nevertheless, naval doctrine and standing operational plans can compensate for the mobilization problem if they are structured around an expectation that a given potential antagonist would seek to initiate a conventional war by unleashing a massive first salvo.[6] As exemplified by the Imperial Japanese Navy’s war-initiating raids on the Russian Pacific Fleet at Port Arthur in February 1904 and on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the simplest first salvo in terms of targeting is against a defender’s fleet in port. Considering mobilization-on-warning’s reliability challenges, a defender can best balance deployed warships’ need for periodic pierside maintenance and crew relaxation time on one hand against reducing overall force vulnerability on the other by adopting a posture that prevents a ‘critical mass’ of his fleet from ever being in his principal forward bases simultaneously. Routine forward peacetime operations can be built around always having a minimum contingent either underway or visiting countries that it is assessed the potential aggressor would prefer not to risk adding as parties to a conflict. Units’ positioning and portcalls could be managed based on their ability to quickly ‘become unlocated’ through use of speed, maneuvering space, Emission Control (EMCON), and other concealment tactics in the event of a sudden crisis.[7]

The combination of geography and political objectives, though, can constrain the defender’s fleet’s ability to sustainably remain unlocated throughout a protracted crisis. As was the case with the U.S. 6th Fleet’s operations in the highly-confined Eastern Mediterranean during the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, forward forces often must occupy a relatively fixed operating area when supporting an ally or deterring an antagonist’s intervention or escalation. Should this area lie within a small or significantly physically-enclosed marginal sea close to the potential adversary’s homeland, and especially if accessing the area requires transiting one or more chokepoints, the potential adversary’s surveillance and reconnaissance/targeting problems become vastly less difficult.[8]

Under these circumstances, a defender can orient his frontline peacetime conventional deterrent and initial wartime resistance around naval forces and weapons that are relatively invulnerable to a first salvo, such as submarines and offensive as well as defensive minelaying. These efforts can also employ numerous relatively low campaign-value maritime forces such as highly mobile land-based surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles, tactical aircraft operating from dispersed austere forward land bases, and under some circumstances missile-armed small warships logistically supported from forward austere ports or rearward seabases. Frontline forces can be supported by tactical and logistical aircraft from rearward land bases located in-theater, aircraft carriers operating from ‘over the horizon,’ and homeland-based trans-oceanic aircraft; all of these hinge on the availability of sufficient airborne refueling aircraft. Large surface combatants operating from ‘over the horizon’ can similarly provide cued land-attack and anti-ship missile fire support, extended-range air defense support, and Ballistic Missile Defense support.

The use of higher campaign-value naval units operating from ‘over the horizon’ as opposed to in a frontline capacity is only partially due to the first salvo threat. Sustained resistance to an adversary’s offensive will be impossible if the defender cannot achieve localized ‘moving bubble’ sea control in areas beyond the immediate contested zone’s periphery in order to support reliable logistical sustainment of frontline forces, mass movement of reinforcements and materiel into—and within—the theater, and the protection of theater allies’ primary economic lines of communication. These sea control tasks would almost certainly drive carrier, amphibious, and major surface action groups’ positioning as a crisis escalates or immediately following a war’s outbreak. Needless to say, higher campaign-value naval forces postured this way would also be better able to take advantage of space and maneuver for pre-first salvo defense-in-depth, concealment, and perhaps even deception.[9] The further offshore these naval forces were operating from the adversary’s homeland, the greater the adversary’s challenges would be in executing an effective first salvo due to the difficulties of timely detection, confident identification, and continuous targeting-quality tracking of uncooperative warships within the expansive, dynamic open-ocean environment.[10]

There is a major caveat to the above observations, however. A capable and audacious adversary might perceive his political objectives to be so important, the conflict’s ‘inevitability’ of escalation so great, or the defender’s leaders and citizens so feckless that kinetic first salvo attacks on the defender’s homeland-based naval forces become operationally attractive despite the high escalation precedent they would set. The Pearl Harbor case is instructive: although the pre-Second World War U.S. Navy’s Orange Plans fully expected Japan would open any war against America with a devastatingly effective surprise attack against the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s Philippines-based forces, U.S. Navy planners and leaders actively discounted the possibility Japan would risk galvanizing American popular passions by also attacking sovereign U.S. territory.[11] A future adversary might similarly not be satisfied with isolating his first salvo to forward areas, or otherwise limiting its extension against U.S. Navy homeland-based forces to cyber or electronic attacks that offer a thin modicum of escalation control. Mines and standoff-range cruise missiles employed by trans-oceanic submarines or ‘commercial’ vessels against American homeports would be ideal methods for maximizing surprise, confusion, and operationally-significant damage in support of the adversary’s in-theater offensive. Attacks using irregular forces might also be an option. Any warships laid up per a tiered-readiness approach would be particularly lucrative targets, and as such would greatly detract from force resilience.[12] As it seems unlikely the doctrinal approaches that forward forces can use to mitigate first salvo vulnerability will be fiscally extensible to homeland-based forces, greater attention will need to be paid to concepts for dispersing the fleet among homeland civilian ports in the event of elevated tensions, not to mention direct homeport defense. 

Anticipating ‘Defense in the Dark’

The preceding examination of kinetic attacks should not overshadow the fact that cyber-electromagnetic warfare will form a major part of any future first salvo. While much of cyber-electromagnetic defense is a technology development and acquisition matter, doctrine and operational planning also play key roles.[13] For instance, force-level commanders must not base their plans and operating concepts on the flimsy assumption that their situational pictures and C3 capabilities will enjoy relatively unimpeded confidentiality, integrity, and availability early in a war. As a crisis worsens, it may actually be better to decrease campaign-critical forces’ relative reliance on external networking with higher echelon commands or rear echelon support activities rather than double down upon it.[14]

A force is most resilient against C3 attack when all echelons from the theater-level down to the unit-level adhere to decentralized doctrine rooted in commanders’ pre-promulgated intentions messages, pre-planned initial immediate responses to foreseeable tactical situations, avoidance of overly-synchronized operations, and overall command by negation. This not only supports greater Operational and Communications Security through reduced need for frequent detailed communications, but also allows greater lower-echelon initiative and adaptability within a highly dynamic tactical environment.

It is also extraordinarily difficult for an adversary to detect—let alone exploit—a localized tactical data and communications network connecting a forward force’s units via highly-directional line-of-sight pathways that make use of maneuvering assets (ideally organic to the force) as ‘middleman’ relays. In comparison, an adversary’s cyber-electromagnetic warfare opportunities are expanded when the defender employs networks that connect fielded forces with higher command echelons and rearward ‘distance support’ services via predictably-located or fixed infrastructure (e.g., satellites and their ground stations). Cyber-electromagnetic first salvo defense means doctrine and operational plans should neither center on the defender’s higher echelon commanders’ direct real-time tactical control over lower echelons, nor offer the enemy an opportunity to exploit any informational and logistical support provided by the defender’s rear echelon ‘reachback’ activities.

Combat Conditioning: The Key to First Salvo Survival

The common denominator needed to make doctrine, plans, and even networking approaches truly resilient, however, is combat-ready personnel. This depends upon on tactically, technologically, and psychologically conditioning crews for battle’s fog and friction. Indeed, a 1975 U.S. Navy war game underscored that a first salvo’s degree of devastation would likely stem more from crews’ shock or disbelief upon detection of actual inbound weapons than from shipboard combat systems’ performance limitations.[15] Any decision to take self-defense actions in a fringe-of-war, tactically ambiguous situation would need to overcome enormous psychological inertia.[16]  

The tactical expertise needed to make such high-stakes, compressed-timeline decisions largely stems from an individual’s experience-shaped intuition. In peacetime, this experience is gained from training frequency and realism.[17] At-sea training remains vital because shipboard tactical, navigational, and engineering activity coordination cannot be realistically simulated pierside. Many Murphy’s Law-invoking maritime environmental idiosyncrasies such as disruptive weather, unanticipated anomalous radio frequency propagation, and ambient acoustic complexity are also difficult to realistically simulate. Additionally, much like man overboard recovery maneuvers, shiphandling proficiency in quick-reaction, precision-dependent defensive maneuvers relies upon routine, impromptu drills underway.[18] It is true that budget-driven underway training reductions, inability to simulate certain scenarios at sea due to severe operational risk or complexity, and the need to safeguard certain tactics and capabilities from intelligence exposure provide strong rationales for pierside unit and group-level synthetic training as possible and appropriate. Nevertheless, challenges remain in coordinating frequent pierside synthetic training events, or otherwise funding and scheduling frequent watchteam visits to high-fidelity simulators located ashore.

As a result, fleetwide first salvo resilience’s core arguably rests upon the individual unit-level Commanding Officer’s (CO) personal prioritization of tactical training. Quality onboard training systems are worthless if the CO does not mandate their regular use, demand that drills feature adversary tactics derived from the latest disseminated intelligence, and insist that no two drill scripts ever be alike in order to push watchstanders to continuously grow their experience bases, hone their instinctive responses, and become conditioned to cope with the unexpected. The CO must also ensure drills periodically include simulated cyber and electronic attacks as well as tactical deceptions to condition watchteams for operating amidst degraded or adversary-manipulated situational awareness. Most importantly, the CO must directly participate in drill debriefs to guarantee shortcomings are comprehensively and constructively identified for follow-on individual or team training—as well as to signal the training’s importance.  

Relatedly, considering the countless deckplate as well as external demands competing for a CO’s focused attention, Navy senior leadership must unambiguously communicate to the fleet that tactical training is indeed a paramount priority. Part of this will come from the seriousness of oversight posed when higher echelons examine unit and group-level tactical readiness during routine command assessments and pre-deployment workup exercises. This must be balanced with promotion board guidance that unfailingly rewards COs whose commands consistently demonstrate exceptional tactical proficiency and mature tactical risk-taking. Should Navy senior leadership do otherwise, they would gravely risk cultivating operational-tactical ineffectuality similar to what occurred in the U.S. Navy submarine force during 1941-42. Also, just as Navy senior leaders’ restrictions on submarine approach tactics during the 1920s and 1930s shortchanged early-Second World War fleet operations, restrictions on contemporary cyber defense training during battleforce exercises—though reportedly decreasing—may endanger first salvo resiliency.[19] Higher echelons must ensure similar mistakes are not being repeated regarding training for other resiliency-critical tasks such as operations during prolonged EMCON, self-defense while under intense electronic attack, or defensive anti-submarine warfare.

The Battle for the First Salvo’s Narrative

A successfully resilient tactical defense, however, may not be sufficient strategically. As alluded earlier, defeating a first salvo also means defeating the attacker’s inevitable diplomatic-propaganda campaign. Attackers within range of their homeland cellular networks, or otherwise using satellite uplinks, can quickly post audiovisual content recorded and edited on smartphones or similar devices to websites such as YouTube. From there, propaganda specialists can work to push the material via social networks to critical audiences; it may not take more than a few hours to become ‘viral’ and make the jump to traditional global media outlets. The side that gets seemingly-credible evidence of what happened out first seizes the initiative, perhaps decisively, in the diplomatically and politically-critical battle for the international and domestic public narratives regarding culpability and justification.[20]

In a first salvo’s immediate aftermath, the defender must be able to quickly collect, process, and disseminate unimpeachable audiovisual evidence of its victimization without harming Operational Security. This would be no small feat, especially aboard a warship that is severely damaged or steeling itself for follow-on attacks.[21] Even harder is developing continuously updated, interagency-coordinated, ‘stock’ narrative outlines in advance of any operation that might expose units to direct first salvo risk, not to mention the doctrine and training necessary to swiftly get an initial narrative out into the global media. Contrary to current public affairs practice, in some scenarios this might require evidence processing and public dissemination by lower echelons to be followed thereafter with amplification and context by executive Navy and national leadership. This will be a vitally important area for exploration through war gaming and fleet experiments.

The Strategic Criticality of First Salvo Resiliency

With its force structure in decline due to political and fiscal pressures on the Federal budget, and with vital U.S. interests and commitments in increasingly unstable East and Southwest Asia making forward naval presence reductions in those theaters grand strategically undesirable, the U.S. Navy will soon have to cope with a larger fleet proportion being exposed to ever-increasing first salvo risks at any one time. Should an especially crippling single-theater first salvo result in loss of several strategically-significant units or a sizable overall number of warships and aircraft, and even if naval reinforcements surged from other theaters and the homeland helped ensure the ensuing conflict ended in American victory, the U.S. Navy would be hard-pressed to restore its prewar global forward presence levels and crisis surge capacity until its losses were made good. This would almost certainly have grand strategy-shattering consequences. 

American conventional deterrence credibility in increasingly contested maritime theaters will depend in large part on whether the U.S. Navy is able to use the approaches outlined here in ways that visibly improve its first salvo resiliency within the near-term.[22] The Navy’s greatest weapon for parrying a first salvo, after all, is convincing a potential adversary of the probable futility of attempting such an attack in the first place.

Jon Solomon is a Senior Systems and Technology Analyst at Systems Planning and Analysis, Inc. in Alexandria, VA. He can be reached at jfsolo107@gmail.com. The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and are presented in his personal capacity on his own initiative. They do not reflect the official positions of Systems Planning and Analysis, Inc. and to the author’s knowledge do not reflect the policies or positions of the U.S. Department of Defense, any U.S. armed service, or any other U.S. Government agency. These views have not been coordinated with, and are not offered in the interest of, Systems Planning and Analysis, Inc. or any of its customers.

[1] CAPT Wayne P. Hughes Jr, USN (Ret). Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, 2nd ed. (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2000), 40-44. On an adversary’s difficulties in achieving effective wide-area surveillance and reconnaissance following his first salvo, see Jonathan F. Solomon. “Defending the Fleet from China’s Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile: Naval Deception’s Roles in Sea-Based Missile Defense.” (Master’s thesis, Georgetown University, 2011), 70-76, accessed 10/14/14, https://repository.library.georgetown.edu/bitstream/handle/10822/553587/solomonJonathan.pdf?sequence=1 

[2] For a definition of campaign-value, see Jonathan F. Solomon. “Maritime Deception and Concealment: Concepts for Defeating Wide-Area Oceanic Surveillance-Reconnaissance-Strike Networks.” Naval War College Review 66, No. 4 (Autumn 2013): 109.

[3] “Report on Technology Horizons: A Vision for Air Force Science & Technology During 2010-2030, Volume One.” (Washington D.C.: U.S. Air Force Chief Scientist, 15 May 2010), 7.

[4] Solomon, “Maritime Deception and Concealment,” 94-96, 99-103.

[5]For definitive explanation of and expansion upon this statement, see Richard K. Betts. Surprise Attack. (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1982), 87-141, 155-156. None of this means I&W collection and analysis efforts are pointless, but rather that strategy and operational plans must not wholly depend upon them.

[6] Ibid, 157, 311.

[7] However unintentionally, the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s aircraft carrier posture immediately prior to the Pearl Harbor raid met this criteria. Their survival was pivotal to U.S. maritime denial operations during the Pacific War’s first six months, especially at the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway. See “Pearl Harbor Attack, 7 December 1941 Carrier Locations.” U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command,  accessed 10/14/14, http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq66-9.htm  

[8] Solomon, “Maritime Deception and Concealment,” 96-97.

[9] Ibid, 88-99.

[10] Robert C. Rubel. “Talking About Sea Control.” Naval War College Review 63, No. 4 (Autumn 2010): 45.

[11] Edward S. Miller. War Plan Orange: The U.S. Strategy to Defeat Japan, 1897-1945. (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1991), 25, 27, 29, 354.

[12] For an example of a fleet tiered readiness approach, see RADM Robert O. Wray, USN. “The Utility of a Three-Tiered Navy.” Naval Institute Proceedings139, No. 6, (June 2013): 42-47.

[13] For a discussion of technical countermeasures and acquisition approaches that enhance a military system or network’s cyber-resilience, see Jonathan F. Solomon. “Cyberdeterrence between Nation-States: Plausible Strategy or a Pipe Dream?” Strategic Studies Quarterly 5, No. 1 (Spring 2011), Part II (online version): 20-22, accessed 10/14/14,  http://www.au.af.mil/au/ssq/2011/spring/solomon.pdf. For overviews of electronic protection measures for radars, see CPT Aytug Denk, Turkish Air Force. “Detection and Jamming Low Probability of Intercept (LPI) Radars.” (Masters Thesis, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, September 2006), 5-33; and Dave Adamy. “EW Against Modern Radars-Part 8: Side-lobe Cancellation and Blanking.” Journal of Electronic Defense 33, No. 6 (June 2010): 44-46.

[14] The operative phrase is relative reliance, as some forms of external networking will be necessary for integrating tactical capabilities and coordinating tactical actions across combat arms and services. See “Joint Operational Access Concept, Version 1.0.” (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, 17 January 2012), 36.

[15] Norman Friedman. Seapower and Space: From the Dawn of the Missile Age to Net-Centric Warfare. (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2000), 346.

[16] Barry D. Watts. “U.S. Combat Training, Operational Art, and Strategic Competence: Problems and Opportunities.” Washington, D.C., Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, August 2008, 36. The same is true for authorizing activation of a combat system’s mode that performs fully autonomous defensive engagements.

[17] Ibid, 17-22, 27-29.

[18] For example, consider the precision maneuvering needed for deploying and then maintaining position within chaff clouds. See ADM Sandy Woodward, RN. One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997), 12.

[19] See 1. LCDR Brian McGuirk, USN. “Rekindling the Killer Instinct.” Naval Institute Proceedings 138, No. 6 (June 2012): 41, 43-44; 2. “FY12 Annual Report: Information Assurance (IA) and Interoperability (IOP).” (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E), December 2012), 307-311; 3. “FY13 Annual Report: Information Assurance (IA) and Interoperability (IOP),” 330, 332-334.

[20] The 2010 Wikileaks “Collateral Murder” campaign is an archetypical example of how this might be done by an adversary following a first salvo. For a detailed critique of the Department of Defense’s public affairs response, see Matt Armstrong. “The True Fiasco Exposed by Wikileaks.” MountainRunner.us, 10 April 2010, accessed 10/14/14, http://mountainrunner.us/2010/04/wikileaks/.

[21] The 2010 ROKS Cheonan sinking exemplifies this point. There would have been no time for the Cheonan’s crew to directly perform this role before the ship was lost. This highlights the potential utility of a secure ‘black box’ tactical data recorder on a warship’s bridge can be quickly removed should a crew need to abandon ship.  For a summary of how the absence of such data in the sinking’s immediate aftermath affected South Korea’s narrative battle, see “ROKS Cheonan Sinking.” Wikipedia, 09 May 2013, accessed 10/14/14, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ROKS_Cheonan_sinking

[22] Solomon, “Defending the Fleet,” 127-137.

Featured Image: Pacific Ocean (June 28, 2004) – Operations Specialist 2nd Class Andres Yanez, of Houston, Texas, stands watch in the combat information center (CIC) aboard guided missile cruiser USS Cowpens (CG 63). U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Lowell Whitman (RELEASED)