Deny U.S. Access?

By Tomas G. Mahnken

Emerging Trends in Warfare

As an insular power, we rely upon a combination of homeland- and overseas-based forces to protect our interests. Indeed, the Joint Staff has argued that "power projection, enabled by overseas presence, will likely remain the fundamental strategic concept of our future force." The ability of the U.S. armed forces to project military power worldwide deters aggression, bolsters alliance commitments, ensures access to natural resources, and ultimately fosters regional stability. Without the capability to intervene at the times and places of our choosing, we will face a diminished capability to protect our interests, either unilaterally or in concert with friends and allies.

The Gulf War offers a vivid example of what the U.S. armed forces can do if given the opportunity to deploy and to operate with impunity. It is unlikely, however, that future foes will grant us uncontested access to their regions. Instead, they will have a strong incentive to interfere with our ability to operate within their spheres of influence. They may attempt to undermine U.S. presence in their region in peacetime, deter us from taking action in time of crisis, and if necessary wage military operations to raise the cost of intervention higher than which the U.S. government is willing to pay to achieve its objectives. The information revolution may offer them new means to contest U.S. power projection efforts.

The United States today possesses capabilities that neither friend nor foe can match. The U.S. armed forces have repeatedly demonstrated the ability to project power rapidly across the globe and to wage high-intensity military operations when they arrive, something no other state can match. Moreover, the services are acquiring a range of cutting-edge technologies, including precision weaponry, advanced sensors, low observables, and sophisticated information processing systems. They are also pursuing innovative approaches to combat. The Army's Experimental Force (ExFor) at Fort Hood, Texas, and the Marine Corps' Sea Dragon effort both are examining new organizations and operational concepts. The Navy is exploring new operational concepts as well. These efforts promise to increase further the effectiveness of U.S. military forces.

While the United States presently enjoys a commanding lead in advanced military capabilities, this situation is unlikely to last. Over time, the spread of sensor, precision-strike, and stealth technology will provide potential adversaries opportunities to undercut our ability to project power. Many of the same technologies that allow the United States to strike adversaries at a distance may permit future foes to deny our forces access to key regions. Advanced sensors will allow enemies to detect and identify our units more rapidly and reliably, and at greater distances than possible before, while precision-strike systems will allow them to attack us with increasing lethality. Potential adversaries may couple these technologies with innovative concepts and organizations to hinder U.S. power projection.

During the Cold War, the United States stationed large forces on the Soviet periphery to deter—and if necessary meet—a Warsaw Pact attack. With the demise of the Soviet Union, the rationale for such a strategy has evaporated. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has reduced its overseas presence considerably. The number of U.S. overseas bases has declined by 75%, from a high of 115 in 1956 to 27 in 1995. Moreover, since 1988 the United States has cut the number of active-duty military personnel stationed abroad by 56%.

The U.S. armed forces see power projection from the continental United States as their primary mode of operations in the future. The Navy has shifted its operational focus from the open ocean to the littorals. The Army envisions deploying units from the United States directly to the battlefield. The Air Force, for its part, has predicted that "in the future, capabilities based in the continental United States will likely become the primary means for crisis response and power projection."

The move toward a power-projection force posture is creating a number of vulnerabilities that a future adversary may exploit to deny us access to its area of interest. One is our growing reliance upon prepositioned equipment. As the U.S. overseas presence has decreased, the amount of forward-deployed military materiel has increased. The U.S. Army has positioned vehicles, ammunition, and supplies to outfit an armored brigade in Kuwait, and plans to do the same in Qatar. Equipment to outfit another armored brigade and other units is deployed on board 14 ships in the Indian and Pacific oceans. By 2002, equipment for five of the Army's ten divisions will be afloat on ships off Saipan, Guam, Diego Garcia, and in the Western Mediterranean. Nor is the Army alone in its reliance on prepositioned equipment: the U.S. Marine Corps maintains 13 prepositioning ships, while the U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, and Defense Logistics Agency operate seven ships containing equipment and war reserves. These ships offer lucrative targets for potential adversaries.

A second vulnerability arises from our reliance upon in-theater ports, airfields, depots, and command and control facilities for power projection operations. Any number of developments could deny us the use of overseas bases. We may have to project power into a region where few or no facilities exist. Similarly, allies and coalition partners may deny access to their territory for political reasons. The Gulf states, for example, were reluctant to allow U.S. forces to use their territory to strike Iraq during the February 1998 confrontation with Baghdad. Future adversaries may threaten U.S. allies and coalition partners in an attempt to deny us access to their territory. An adversary who is able to deny the United States a regional foothold through persuasion or coercion would be at a significant advantage. Had North Korea managed to overrun the Pusan perimeter in July 1950, or had it possessed the ability to bombard the Japanese ports and airfields used to supply United Nations forces throughout the conflict, the Korean War might have taken on a radically different complexion.

In the near term, regional powers possess a growing range of technologies that they could employ against U.S. power-projection forces. A number of states will have nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons as well as the ability to deliver them by ballistic or cruise missile. In addition, they will have access to information from a wide variety of space systems, allowing them to locate targets with increasing accuracy. These capabilities will enhance their ability to disrupt U.S. efforts to project military power overseas and limit the effectiveness of forces after they have arrived in theater.

Ballistic and cruise missiles—even crude ones—could pose a threat to fixed targets such as large personnel and equipment concentrations, airfields, ports, ships at pier or anchor, command and control facilities, and logistics depots. During the Gulf War, for example, an Iraqi Scud came close to hitting a pier at the Saudi port of Jubayl that was stacked high with 5,000 tons of 155-mm artillery shells. Moreover, eight vessels were docked at the pier that day, including two containing materiel for U.S. Marine Corps air wings, several carrying ammunition, the USS Tarawa (LHA-1), and a Polish hospital ship." As former Air Force Chief of Staff General Ronald Fogelman put it, "Saturation ballistic missile attacks against littoral forces, ports, airfields, storage facilities, and staging areas could make it extremely costly to project U.S. forces into a disputed theater, much less carry out operations to defeat a well armed aggressor. Simply the threat of such enemy missile attacks might deter the U.S. and coalition partners from responding to aggression in the first place. Increasingly capable antiship cruise missiles, such as the Russian SS-N-22 Sunburn, will magnify the threat to U.S. surface combatants and merchant shipping.

The U.S. power projection infrastructure is highly susceptible to nuclear, biological, and chemical attack. Nuclear weapons could destroy the ports and airfields supporting power projection operations. Moreover, sensors, weapons, and communication systems that make extensive use of electronic components are highly susceptible to nuclear effects such as electromagnetic pulse. Chemical weapons not only could inflict casualties upon U.S. forces, but also contaminate aircraft bringing men and materiel into and out of the theater. Indeed, most ports and airfields are manned by civilians who are even more vulnerable to attack than U.S. military personnel. Affected personnel, vehicles, and equipment could, in turn, clog logistical channels, slowing the pace of deployment and reinforcement. The flow of contaminated equipment could spread the effects of a chemical attack beyond the immediate theater of operations, potentially eroding allied support for U.S. operations.

Adversaries may combine advanced technologies with innovative operational concepts and organizations in an effort to deny the United States not only the use of bases on their periphery, but also access to their spheres of influence. One manifestation of this trend is the development of increasingly capable coastal defense systems composed of sensors, weapons, and command-and-control systems. This may increase the threat to U.S. naval forces considerably, especially in choke points and littoral areas. Potential adversaries could, for example, establish sensor and mine barriers covered by land-based precision-strike systems to exclude U.S. forces from the maritime approaches to their territory. They may employ space systems and unmanned air vehicles to locate and identify targets at sea and long-range land- and sea-based systems to engage them.

China is one state that may already be contemplating an area-denial strategy. As one recent intelligence community report put it, "China probably will accord the highest military priority to developing the advanced air, air defense, and sea forces needed to defend the maritime approaches to China." Moreover, Chinese strategic analysts have speculated that advanced technology may increase the capability of coastal defense systems. In one recent article, three analysts predicted that "land-based arms will be sharply improved in reaction capacity, strike precision, and range. [As a result], they will be able to powerfully strike formations at sea, and even individual warships and cruise missiles." Indeed, in one much-publicized war game conducted by the Department of Defense, Chinese forces equipped with long-range cruise missiles and satellite reconnaissance and surveillance inflicted heavy damage on U.S. carrier battle groups.

An adversary's area-denial capability will pose a different challenge to each service. The danger for the Army is that it will be unable to conduct sustained land operations because it will lack use of the ports and airfields needed to deploy forces into the theater. Similarly, an Air Force dominated by short-range aircraft may be capable of little in a world in which forward bases are vulnerable. It will instead have to make do with the small fraction of the force that can operate—at substantially reduced sortie rates—from bases outside the range of an adversary's strike systems.

Even though the spread of sensor and precision-strike systems will affect the Army and Air Force first, its impact will not be confined to them. The prospect of facing an adversary armed with antiship cruise missiles combined with effective over-the-horizon targeting could, for example, raise the perceived risk to U.S. Navy forces high enough to deter the United States from sending high-value combatants into harm's way. If an adversary is able to hold our naval forces at arm's length, the Navy will become increasingly irrelevant to the deep battle. The diffusion of advanced weapon systems also will increase the cost to the Marine Corps of conducting a forcible entry into hostile territory. Historically, states have been unable to defend against amphibious landings because they have lacked the ability to concentrate effectively at the point of attack before a landing could be consolidated. Sensor and precision-strike systems may allow future defenders to remedy this situation by massing fires rapidly.

Implications for the United States

From today's perspective, it would be foolish to predict how the competition between power projection and area denial capabilities will turn out. In the end, the effectiveness of an adversary's area-denial capability will be a function of its ability to acquire technology and develop concepts and organizations to collect, fuse, assess, distribute, and act upon information in a timely manner. At a minimum, the diffusion of sensor and precision-strike capabilities will raise the cost the United States will have to pay to intervene overseas. Worse still is the prospect that potential adversaries may be able to deny us access to key regions. In either event, we will face a diminished capability to deter aggression and protect our interests.

The spread of sensor and precision-strike systems will pose a fundamental challenge to U.S. power projection operations. The United States should thus continue to explore the balance between U.S. power projection and foreign area-denial efforts. We should pay particular attention to attempts to acquire technology and develop doctrine and organizations to contest U.S. power-projection forces. During the Cold War, for example, the Soviet Union developed a dedicated ocean surveillance network to monitor U.S. naval combatants in the open ocean. Attempts by future competitors to develop an ocean surveillance capability could be a key indicator of their interest in an area-denial strategy.

In the near term, the continued viability of U.S. bases will depend upon the effectiveness of theater missile defense (TMD) systems. As a result, a second area to examine is the balance between precision-strike systems and passive and active defenses. While the United States envisions deploying a series of TMD systems, adversaries will likely respond by developing countermeasures to ensure the continued utility of their missile forces. The number and accuracy of an adversary's ballistic and cruise missile arsenals, the quality and timeliness of targeting data, and the sophistication of its command and control capabilities will all shape his ability to employ missiles.

The emerging area-denial problem offers an organizing principle for U.S. force development efforts, much as the need to project power across the Pacific focused the Navy's creative energies during the period between the two world wars. Moreover, it is a problem that no single service can solve on its own; only joint approaches hold the promise of success. In order for power projection to remain viable, the services should study ways to reduce their dependence upon vulnerable fixed infrastructure such as ports and airfields. Rather than closing with an adversary, they could explore options to allow them to strike an adversary from a distance. Similarly, U.S. forces should develop concepts to reduce their vulnerability to weapons of mass destruction through dispersion and mobility. The Marine Corps' Sea Dragon initiative has begun to address some of these issues, but more such efforts are needed.

The U.S. armed forces also should consider establishing a joint training center devoted to forcible entry operations. Recent years have witnessed a proliferation of organizations dedicated to developing innovative concepts. The Army, for example, has opened seven battle labs; the Air Force six; and the Marine Corps one. While these centers may spur innovation, their activity to date has focused upon examining tactical issues from a single-service perspective. The problems outlined in this article, in contrast, demand a joint, operational perspective.

The diffusion of stealth, precision, and information technology will pose a considerable threat to U.S. power-projection operations, and ultimately U.S. national security. It will hamper our ability to deter aggressors and reassure friends and allies. Indeed, the forces most useful for projecting a tangible U.S. presence within a region, such as aircraft carriers and air wings, will be highly vulnerable to an adversary's long-range precision strike systems. What is at stake is nothing short of our ability to protect our interests across the globe. Failure to address this threat in the near term will only multiply the problems we will face in the future.

Professor Mahnken teaches in the Department of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College. He also is an officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve.

 

 
 

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