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Expanding the Anti-Access Problem Set

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Expanding the Anti-Access Problem Set

Daniel Sukman

Over the past decade, it has been wildly accepted that adversaries of the United States will adapt and develop Anti-Access and Area Denial (A2/AD) systems to keep the United States from projecting military power.  Although recent U.S. military concepts have addressed the A2/AD threat, they have focused on what opposing military forces will bring to the fight.  In turn, U.S. military concept writers have focused on systems that can defeat adversary A2/AD or operate outside the range of A2/AD.  This is all well and good, but ignores how our adversaries have adapted to keep the U.S. from projecting military power. 

In early 2012, the Joint Staff J7 published the first in a series of concepts designed to examine how the United States military can overcome the A2AD challenge.  The Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC) dealt with the problem of adversary anti-access.  It defined anti-access as “Those actions and capabilities, usually long range, designed to prevent an opposing force from entering an operational area."[i]  The shortfall in the JOAC is that it focuses on adversary lethal capabilities and not on all the other actions and coercive attempts to keep hostile from entering an operational area.  This is where the concept of Non-Lethal Anti-Access fills the gap.  Non-Lethal Anti-Access is the use of a nation’s “soft power” (as defined by Joseph Nye[ii]) in conjunction with non-lethal elements of hard power to prevent an adversary from projecting military power.

Today, and in the decades to follow, the United States possesses an overwhelming advantage in technology and military might over all other nations on the planet.  In the foreseeable future, one or two nations (China or Iran) may develop some near-peer capabilities or challenge our dominance in their respected regions, but most nations will not be able to challenge the U.S. military and the power it brings to bear.  America stands as the Goliath, and the Davids of the world will find alternate ways to keep the American Military out of their neighborhood.  Overcoming non-lethal anti-access will be a decisive factor for America’s Combatant Commands in the years ahead.   

Not only does non-lethal anti-access represent an option for America’s potential adversaries, in some cases it is the only option, and may be the option of last resort.  History is replete with examples that display that once the United States chooses to employ its military arm of national power, especially land power, the opposing regimes days in power are limited. Saddam Hussein learned this lesson, as did Slobodan Milosevic but only too late.  Adversaries of the United States now understand that if the U.S. can sustain over 150,000 Soldiers in central Asia for over a decade, actively opposing U.S. military power projection is a recipe for disaster.  For all the talk of anti-access being the application of lethal fires, you must consider what the U.S. response would be if we lost an Aircraft Carrier, or other strategic power projection platforms.  Bashir Assad learned this lesson and applied it to remain in power.

Changing the Rules of the Game

In a world defined by intergovernmental relations, not all nations are equal in their ability to influence the outcome of world events.  When it comes to warfare, one side will always desire to set the conditions for an uneven playing field. 

A general given in the world of sports is that a high school football team cannot defeat a NFL or Division I football team, with the possible exception of the 2013 Jacksonville Jaguars and any West Point football team over the past decade.  The only way to do so would be to change the rules such as not allowing the NFL team the use of a forward pass (The Black Knights have already given this advantage to opposing Division I teams) or the NFL team only allowed one down to get a first down instead of the usual four.  In the same respect, both adversaries and to an extent U.S. partners as well as non-governmental organizations who do not want U.S. military power projected will seek to change the rules of the game.

Changing the rules of the game has several aspects, the first of which is legal challenges to the deployment and employment of military force.  Those that do not want U.S. military power projected will challenge the legality of deployments and operations in venues such as the United Nations and the international courts.  Although rulings in these courts will not force the U.S. hand, it may sway politicians of our partners in the decision to deny basing and over flight rights, thus limiting the options of force projection.

Legal challenges are not always limited to our adversaries.  Legal constraints of contributing partners in an operation can limit third-party interests. A modern example of this occurred in Operation ALLIED FORCE where some NATO members limited the types of force and targets considered for action.  Careful consideration must be made to ensure the right allies and partners are included in U.S. military operations.  Strategic inclusion will always suppress tactical difficulties, but that balance must be made clear to decision makers.

In the Court of Law

According to Steven Metz of the U.S. Army War College, “many consider international law to be a form of asymmetric warfare, limiting our choices, tying us down.[iii]”Legal challenges will not be limited to power projection, but will include challenges to the types of technology and weapons systems the Unites States employs that maintain technological overmatch.  Similar to efforts to ban mines around the world, we can expect to see efforts to ban the use of drones, robotics and other unmanned and autonomous platforms. 

In September of 2013, the United Nations issued a report challenging the legality of the use of targeted killings through the use of drones and other unmanned systems.  The report declared that an individual whose “mere past involvement in planning attacks is sufficient to render an individual targetable even where there is no evidence of a specific and immediate attack distorts the requirements established in international human rights law.”[iv]  This essentially makes the accusation that targeted killings are a near criminal act in the international community.  Today, while the United States possesses an unmatched ability to strike an adversary at any distance, legal challenges like this are an attempt to counter U.S. power.  When organizations issue reports such as these, the United States should have an immediate, clear, and well thought out legal response.

In some ways, legal challenges, or lawfare can be advantageous to both sides in battle.  If those that hate us and want to kill us seek to deny us access legally through lawfare that may not be a bad thing.  It sure costs a lot more money and lives to fight.   Finding unique and creative ways to overcome our adversaries through means other than the use of lethal force would most certainly be viewed as advancement in human evolution. 

Other Historical Examples

The Soviet blockade of Berlin is the first post World War Two example of non-lethal anti access.  The Soviets declared a blockade of the city of Berlin, specifically the land and water routes into Berlin.  The United States and the United Kingdom were able to effectively counter this action through the use of a sustained airlift of the city that lasted over a year. 

In 1986, the United States failed to achieve its objective and strike all of its desired targets in Libya.  French denial of over flight rights directly affected the outcome of the raids in EL DORADO CANYON[v].  The denial of over flight rights directed a longer flight path of the F-111 aircraft which in turn pushed pilots and aircraft to their physical limits.  In addition, the longer flight path required additional tankers to support the mission which resulted in fewer aircraft flying over their targets, and fewer bombs dropped for direct hits.[vi]

Most recently, the Chinese declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the South China Sea represents another example of coercion through non-lethal anti-access.  This scenario presents the clear possibility for progression.  Acquiescence to such actions, whether in the diplomatic or military arenas, could quickly result in a claim to control access to an area becoming de facto control of the area.  That is to say that non lethal anti-access can precede lethal anti-access.  Of course, overcoming anti-access strategies in the South China Sea is as simple as going around or avoiding the area all together.  There is no need to fight an anti-access fight on the high sea when the access is not necessary to begin with, and advantage in an ocean as large as the pacific.    

Information and Persuasion

In 2012, Syria conducted chemical weapons attacks on its own citizens.  The United States was prepared to conduct air and naval strikes on the Syrian regime in response and to prevent further WMD type attacks.  Executing a full court press of non-lethal power and influence, Syria, in conjunction with major powers such as Russia, prevented the United States from executing kinetic strikes on Syrian territory.  The information campaign included an op-ed in the NY Times by Russian President Putin[vii], in which he cited opposition from the world community and a possible conflagration of the Middle East if the United States were to intervene.  Notably absent from his dire warnings were the financial risks posed to his nation due to their economic ties to Syria.  In this case, coercive diplomacy translated into successful anti-access.

Sometimes anti-access occurs on land, requiring something other than Air-Sea Battle to overcome the obstacle.  Throughout the past five years, Pakistan has threatened and even taken action against the United States in response to drone attacks on its territory.  It did this by shutting down overland access from its territory into Afghanistan.  The State Department, through tireless efforts was able to open up alternate supply routes to U.S. forces in Afghanistan by way of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN).  Each time that Pakistan denied access through their territory, the damage was mitigated by overland transit of nonlethal goods through Russian territory and on to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and on into Afghanistan.  The establishment of the NDN was a signature achievement (albeit lesser known) of the Obama Administration in its dealings with Russia.   If the United States  can support a war in a land-locked backwater like Afghanistan for a decade with Iran and Pakistan on either side of it, then there are very few if any places where, with the continued engagement and use of soft power that the U.S. cannot project military power.  We can even do this without the employment of a Carrier Strike Group.

The discussion of Anti Access of land routes in Pakistan is further complicated by the necessity of the Pakistani government to do so.  The Pakistani government had to close access or the country would have revolted, throwing more support to the different Violent Extremist Organizations throughout the country, threatening the regime in power.   This points to another aspect of nontraditional anti access, countries that don’t visibly support us, but do behind the scenes.  Access via silent partners (or Non-traditional partners) may be more important to cope with the A2AD challenges.  This access is based upon mutual rapport and shared interests, something that takes time (years and decades not months and weeks) to attain.  


As the joint force looks to the future in force design, it should consider how other nations will look to counter or slow the pace of military action and the projection of force from the United States.  Humanitarian Assistance and Consequence Management type missions will always be welcome in the international community.  The equipment and personnel needed to accomplish these types of missions which enhance the prestige of the United States should be capable of rapid deployment.  Forces needed for Non-Combatant Evacuation type missions should also be capable of rapid deployment, as typically national level decision makers will employ those capabilities no matter what the international feel is at the moment.  In addition, typically there is international cooperation in NEO missions.

In the development of contingency plans and the execution of Phase 0 and Combatant Command Campaign Plans, a whole of government planning approach should be applied.  In a hypothetical world, plans for the invasion of Switzerland (a dream scenario that would probably validate the necessity for large amounts of airborne forces) would have a long term phase zero approach that includes the securing of strategic access through diplomatic, economic and other soft ways and means.  To achieve desired end-states, the United States should not rely on last second diplomacy to gain access as we witnessed with Turkey in the lead up to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

When it comes to major combat forces, the joint force should recognize that the whole of government will be needed to overcome obstacles in the way of force projection.  This means that the timeframe to deploy heavy forces meant for forcible entry and takedown of hostile regime forces or leadership will have time to mobilize, deploy and conduct the mission.  The international community does not now, or will they for the foreseeable future take lightly the United States entering another country with military force without permission from either the host nation or from other international organizations.   Even the friendliest democracies are led by those in power who would not stand a chance for reelection if the give the United States carte’ blanch access to its sea, air and land areas.  Silvio Berlusconi can win reelection after sleeping with hookers, and evading his tax payments, but allowing the U.S. to attack another nation from Italy’s territory would be political suicide.

Geographic Combatant Commands should have available a series of non-lethal, albeit hard, military actions to take in the event the United States is faced with non-lethal A2/AD threats.  The flight of unarmed B-52 bombers through the Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone was a terrific example of this type of action.  Other actions can include movement of forces that demonstrate freedom of movement in the global commons, or the build up or basing of forces along with exercises in countries adjacent to nations that seek to counter U.S. access. In a sense, on the shelf Flexible Deterrent Options (FDOs) fill this need, but should be more formalized as requirements for each of the services to be prepared to fill.

“If you can’t beat em, join em.”  The United States should take advantage of these non-lethal anti access strategies and adopt some of them as our own.  Although the United States has not signed the Ottawa Treaty banning the use of land mines, we should do so immediately and expand the treaty to include sea mines.  This would assist in countering A2/AD strategies of our adversaries such as Iran who have in the past threatened to mine the Straits of Hormuz. 

Overcoming Anti-Access is not simply a military problem; it is a whole of government problem.  Anti-Access strategies must be solved by not just the Joint Force, but include the Department of State with diplomatic efforts, Treasury through monetary policy, intelligence agencies, and any other departments that can influence the policy of foreign governments.


As the British can attest to, access to the global commons is fleeting.  There is no “permanent” access, either politically or militarily; it can only be temporary, and if not nurtured will be lost. Relationships and “handshake con” is the key.  Global access is dependent on more than just military might and the ability to project military power, but on capital built between diplomats, business and world leaders.  Nations will continue to act in their own interests, and in the political interests of those elected to power, the United States must ensure that it remains in the interests of our allies and partners to grant us access when and where we desire it. 

Understanding the time it takes to build and maintain the relationships desired for access around the globe demands patience.  It is an element of “Strategic Speed[viii]” that takes time, but is essential for ensuring the objectives and interests of the United States are met, without having to resort to using the military element of national power.

This article represents the author’s views and not necessarily the views of the U.S. Army or Department of Defense.

End Notes

[i]  Joint Operational Access Concept. Version 1.0  January 2012 p6.

[ii] Joseph Nye, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics

[iii] Singer, P.W. Wired for War, The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.  The Penguin Press, 2009. (p 412)

[iv] United Nations Report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions13 September 2013 (para 37)

[v] Stanik, Joseph T.  El Dorado Canyon Naval Institute Press, 2003. p208.

[vi] ibid

[vii] Putin, Vladimir. A Plea for Caution from Russia. NY Times Op-Ed.  11 September 2013.

[viii] Strategic Speed defined as “the speed at which the military and other elements of national power (Diplomatic, Economic, and Informational) achieve its desired end states and war termination criteria” from Strategic Speed by Major Dan Sukman in Small Wars Journal 16 September 2013.


About the Author(s)

Major Daniel Sukman, U.S. Army, is a strategist at the Army Capabilities Integration Center, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command at Fort Eustis, Virginia. He holds a B.A. from Norwich University and an M.A. from Webster University.  During his career, MAJ Sukman served with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and United States European Command. His combat experience includes three tours in Iraq.