Anti-Access and Power Projection

When it comes to military doctrine and strategic thinking, the high-profile debate getting all the attention these days is COIN vs. conventional. But if you want to get a head start on the next big brouhaha, start paying attention to the conversation currently picking up steam around the strategic implications of anti-access and area denial (A2AD) capabilities.

Simply put, they refer to conventional and/or asymmetric tactics meant to prevent or deter a superior force from deploying into a theater of operations. The “usual suspects” are Iran in the Persian Gulf, with its swarming naval tactics, Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, with its hybrid force, and China with regard to Taiwan and the South China Sea, with its theater missile and anti-satellite capabilities, as well as long-rumored anti-ship, over-the-horizon ballistic missiles that could target U.S. carrier groups.

The proliferation of A2AD responses to U.S. military superiority has some people, including former Pentagon policy official Jim Thomas, talking about a post-power projection era. (War is Boring has video.)

Thomas P.M. Barnett does a good job, as usual, of pouring cold water on some of the alarmism, especially with regard to the likely impact of anti-ship ballistic missiles.

Nevertheless, I think it’s a mistake to consider this from a strictly military or technological perspective, as the political component can serve as an equally challenging barrier to area access. Corentin Brustlein makes that point well in this French-language monograph, titled, “Toward the End of Force Projection?” While conceding that for now, there is no clearly alarming stand-alone military transformation, Brustlein concludes:

Nevertheless, in the longer term, we cannot exclude the possibility that the combination of limited Western interests, growing naval, air and space anti-access capacities, and the cost of force projection capacities lead to a growing selectivity in expeditionary operations, and even to the West being fenced in, which would constitute a historic rupture of the first order. (p. 37, translated from the French)

This is where the post-power projection debate overlaps with the COIN vs. conventional debate. Access to Afghanistan comes at huge political, financial and military cost, whether it be securing logistical supply lines in Pakistan and Central Asia, the strain and constraints it puts on the U.S. military, and the domestic political impact of the war. And COIN operations must manage to resolve these access costs for much longer periods of time.

Finally, the Afghanistan war also clearly illustrates the challenges of political legitimacy that the U.S. will increasingly face as its preferred coalition partners become increasingly unavailable, whether for political or economic reasons, to further expeditionary operations. For Europe, this could very well result in the end of any credible global security role whatsoever, at the very least for the duration of the economic downturn currently constraining military budgets.

For the U.S., accustomed to thinking in terms of willing coalitions and overwhelming force, the implications could be similarly bracing. I imagine Barnett would say that’s a logic that argues for new partners. I suspect, though, that political constraints will more likely channel American foreign and defense policy into a more-modest period of restraint.