Embrace Life in the (Weapons Engagement) Zone!

By Captain Greg Parker, U.S. Navy

The military metaphors for the fists of an opposing boxer are an adversary’s weapons; his long arms translate to the weapons’ range. Together, the two comprise a weapons engagement zone (WEZ, or “wehz”) that portrays the area in which weapons can hit their targets. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has entered the adversary’s WEZ selectively, but that era is coming to an end. As adversaries’ weapons envelopes expand, the U.S. military, like Pacquiao, needs a good game plan. It needs to embrace life within the WEZ.

A Familiar Problem

Living within the WEZ is daunting, but it is not entirely new. The Department of Defense’s insatiable desire for fresh labels just makes it seem so. For their part, A2/AD capabilities are portrayed as bristling networks of weapons and systems layered like barbed wire around a nation or region to deny freedom of action to U.S. forces. Upon closer examination, however, the associated weapons are almost boringly familiar: cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, submarines, aircraft, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), and even mines. The observer who wants to call such weapons new has not been paying much attention to warfare in the past 50 years—or even longer. Such a threat laydown would have looked familiar to analysts decades ago.

What is new, of course, is the inexorable march of both quantity and quality in adversary portfolios. Improved SAMs are deployed in greater density on foreign shores. Aircraft and missiles are produced with assembly-line fervor. Space and cyberspace are contested fields of battle. Perhaps most disconcerting, the declining Western monopoly on precision-guided munitions is almost certainly in its final throes. A theater-range ballistic missile in today’s world is almost banal. A similar missile that can hit a pinpoint target or a moving ship at sea is chilling. Coupled with advanced command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance networks, these weapons represent a significant challenge, though one that is not—or at least should not be—unexpected.

If the A2/AD threat represents an exacerbation of a familiar historical problem, the U.S. military—and the Navy especially—represents a force that has grown accustomed to fighting from sanctuary. Modern analysts tend to imply this is a post–Cold War phenomenon created by the lack of a serious peer adversary and the post 9/11 focus on counterinsurgency campaigns. 2 But in the Navy especially, the sanctuary mindset has even deeper roots. Aircraft carriers provided considerable capacity from the sanctuary of the sea during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, of course, but they also did so in Vietnam and Korea, where there was never a serious threat to the battle group. For the Air Force, Diego Garcia, Guam, and even Japan have long represented sanctuaries from which to launch sorties. For both services, creeping weapons envelopes have overtaken these previous havens. Sanctuary does not exist when you live within the WEZ.

There is plenty of historical precedent for life within the WEZ, however, and these instances should provide some reassurance and guidance. Operationally, NATO forces in Europe during the Cold War largely lived within—or at least dangerously near—the WEZ of the very considerable Soviet forces arrayed within Warsaw Pact countries just across the border. Forced to address the threat of a violent WEZ-on-WEZ clash, Army planners inaugurated a period of intellectual creativity in the 1970s and ’80s that culminated in the AirLand Battle Concept, reinvigorating land-warfare doctrine with the budding potential of Air Force deep strikes and precision-guided munitions. Sometimes the hardest problems yield the most profound solutions.

On a national scale, Israel has spent much of its existence living within the WEZ of hostile neighbors’ rockets and missiles situated practically on all sides. Such threats continue to proliferate, but Israel has continuously exceeded its adversaries’ capabilities with weapons and tactics of its own (though not without accumulating some scar tissue). South Korea’s capital city of Seoul lies firmly within the WEZ of its paranoid, Marxist neighbor to the north, but it meanwhile has thrived on capitalism and democracy. And even the United States learned to live within the WEZ of Soviet ICBMs as early as the 1950s. This is not exactly new stuff.

Even if the U.S. military were inclined to withdraw from the WEZ and choose a “rollback” strategy from the continental United States—the ultimate, unsinkable aircraft carrier—foreign policy makes it virtually impossible. Forward presence is the foundation of modern Western alliances and has been since the end of World War II. Minimizing the current model of forward-stationing and rotational deployments in favor exclusively of a long-range, deep-strike capability would be equivalent to withdrawing to Fortress America during the Cold War, which strategists rejected then (as now) for all the attendant, dilatory effects on alliances and coalitions. In short, the age of sanctuary—whether real or imagined—is over. It is time to adapt to life within the WEZ.

No Glass Jaws

The first principle of life in the WEZ is to avoid the knockout punch. This is not something that should be taken lightly: Warfare has long favored the side with the initiative, and living in or near adversary weapons envelopes affords U.S. forces precious little time to react. Indeed, in his seminal treatise Fleet Tactics , the iconic retired Navy Captain Wayne P. Hughes Jr. argued convincingly that victory in sea combat has virtually always resided with that force that can “attack effectively first.” 3 The term “effectively” is the qualifier that provides some breathing room here. If U.S. forces can deny an effective attack, then a first attack conceivably is less decisive.

The importance of a first attack, however, is not lost on other militaries. Chinese warfare doctrine has long emphasized the “assassin’s mace,” a surprise, overwhelming offensive that capitalizes on an adversary’s complacency. 4 Articles in China’s considerable open press underscore this approach, highlighting the vulnerabilities of forward U.S. bases and logistics facilities. 5 Farther west, Iran’s experience in naval warfare has led its leaders to favor surprise attacks via layered missiles, submarines, and surface threats lurking within the narrow confines of the Persian Gulf. Non-state actors certainly have proven the effectiveness of surprise as well: Witness the attack on the USS Cole (DDG-67) and the events of 9/11. State actors are unlikely to miss such lessons; they should not be expected to telegraph their first punch.

In defending against an enemy attack, U.S. investment has focused on high-end “active defenses” such as ballistic-missile defense and even terminal cruise-missile defenses. But passive defenses will be just as important. Jamming, decoys, chaff, flares, and other such soft-kill measures have long constituted part of the Navy’s defensive portfolio, yet they receive a mere fraction of the money allotted to active defenses. Defense also will include the time-honored traditions of mobility and maneuver: Regardless of the era, hitting a moving target is almost always harder than hitting a stationary one. None of these solutions by itself is a panacea. Together, they are formidable.

Other defensive measures rely more on psychology and technique than systems. In 1973, for example, the Israeli navy defeated its Egyptian counterpart by inducing the latter to fire its own, superior missiles well outside the range of any Israeli targets. 6 In a strikingly similar fashion, Muhammad Ali used a protective “rope-a-dope” strategy the following year to exhaust George Foreman and win 1974’s “Rumble in the Jungle.” Making an opponent waste his best punches is as good a tactic as any.

Ultimately, however, all defensive measures can be viewed cumulatively as a single, layered filter against adversary weapons—another fundamental clearly explained by Hughes. 7 Unfortunately, no filter is perfect; eventually something gets through. Like the Soviets of yore, America’s future adversaries can be expected to rely on saturation to attempt to overwhelm U.S. military defenses. No boxer ever won a match by just standing still and taking it on the chin. He has to be able to hit back.

‘Shoot the Archer’

The second principle of life in the WEZ is to carry a powerful counterpunch. To its credit, the U.S. military has led the way in this arena, combining precision-guided munitions and information technology in the late 20th century to develop a powerful and integrated strike force that has dominated two decades of conventional conflict. From the televised precision strikes in the opening salvos of Operation Desert Storm to the largely covert Predator strikes in today’s ongoing war in Afghanistan, the U.S. ability to hit pinpoint targets while minimizing collateral damage has set the standard for global militaries.

But these successes must be viewed in context. Many of America’s recent adversaries have had soft defenses and weak punches themselves, allowing U.S. forces to throw a long, slow haymaker. In 1991 the comedian Dennis Miller mocked Iraq’s performance in the First Gulf War by comparing Saddam Hussein to “Wile E. Coyote with a red beret,” and America’s conventional adversaries have not improved on their performance much since then. Desert Storm and the opening salvos of Operation Iraqi Freedom were one-way pummelings. The conventional phase of Operation Enduring Freedom lasted only days. The downing of an occasional fighter—or even an F-117 during Operation Allied Force—did not warrant a significant shift in joint tactics. The curtain surely is closing on this leisurely era.

Unlike in previous conflicts, the most pressing requirement for the modern strike force will be one of reactive speed. America’s response to previous attacks has been to build forces in a geographic area and launch coordinated, retaliatory strikes well after the initial attack; this was the model from Pearl Harbor to the USS Cole to Operation Enduring Freedom. Life in the WEZ, however, doesn’t afford time to slowly build forces; it requires an immediate counterpunch. Or, as is said in Pentagon vernacular, it requires you to “shoot the archer” while he’s still shooting at you. If the United States prior to Pearl Harbor was a sleeping giant, it needs now to be a coiled snake.

This is a new style of fighting for which the methodical, phase-oriented joint force is ill-prepared. In this new era, platforms, weapons, and supporting information systems will need to be on constant alert and ready at a moment’s notice. The detect-to-engage sequence will be dangerously compressed. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once admonished Parliament to remember that a battle between two modern ironclad battleships was like “a battle between two egg-shells striking each other with hammers.” 8 In an era with supersonic cruise and ballistic missiles, Churchill’s advice takes on added urgency. It will be essential to hit the adversary’s egg shell first.

The combination of speed and lethality in modern weaponry heralds a sobering future in which armed combatants will coexist on a razor’s edge. A commander who lives within adversary missile envelopes and understands the advantage of attacking effectively first will be perpetually uneasy and possess an itchy trigger finger. The Vincennes (CG-49) learned this lesson when it tragically downed an Iranian airliner in 1988; erroneously believing it had to choose instantly between offense and defense, it chose the former—with devastating results. With multiple, opposing weapon systems pointed threateningly at each other, a regional misunderstanding could quickly deteriorate into a paroxysm of violence. Such warfare, to borrow from English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, portends to be nasty, brutish, and short.

Clear the Benches

The last principle of life in the WEZ is to invite some friends to the fight. This is where the boxing analogy breaks down, and thankfully so. A modern A2/AD battle is not a clean platform-versus-platform slugfest. It is more akin to a barroom brawl. In such an environment, every friendly platform and weapon must be exploited. The traditional boundaries between the services are no longer relevant.

Despite a quarter-century of integrated, joint operations mandated by Goldwater-Nichols, the U.S. Navy—and the U.S. military in general—still largely views the world through parochial lenses. The Navy frets about sea control, the Air Force obsesses over air superiority, and the Army and Marine Corps oscillate between maneuver warfare and inkblot counterinsurgency doctrine in cyclical, historical style. All of this is as familiar as it is obsolete.

Modern weaponry blurs such lines. Whereas blue, green, and brown water had clear connotations a few decades ago, the increasing range of land-based aircraft and cruise missiles has largely shrunk blue water—if it even exists at all. 9 Similarly, the range of carrier-based aircraft (when coupled with adequate tanking) and sea-launched missiles has allowed the Navy to play a significant role in predominantly land-based conflicts, epitomized by F/A-18s and EA-6Bs flying missions deep within Afghanistan after launching from the Northern Arabian Sea. The Army’s own Patriot and THAAD missile systems reach far beyond ground garrisons. If the notion of sanctuary has become obsolete, traditional limits to service roles and responsibilities are fading as well.

The most difficult question, then, is how all of this works together—if it does at all. Starting more than a decade ago, the Navy began a long-term love affair with network-centric warfare, an intoxicating vision that aspired to near-perfect situational awareness for commanders and their subordinate units alike. A decade of counterinsurgency and messy land conflicts has tempered that grandiose vision, but the undeniable trend is still to link sensors with shooters via a command-and-control net, only this time across the joint force. Reduced to its essence, the resultant, comprehensive interservice machine pairs weapons with targets in the most efficient manner possible. It is also clinical and unemotional.

This machine, or “Total Force Battle Network,” as it is often described, is the modern incarnation of the Reconnaissance Strike Complex Soviet military planners theorized in the 1980s. 10 It senses, decides, and acts. The Navy’s role in the machine is primarily to provide nodes for the cumulative battle network—specifically, nodes that float. Such seaborne nodes are advantageous because they are mobile, can travel long distances, and have relatively large weapon capacities. But in the modern era, they will be judged more by their ability to merge seamlessly with the larger battle network than by the ability to fight a pitched battle alone. Plug-and-play networks have little room for parochialism.

To survive life within the WEZ, this emerging machine must assume a decidedly impersonal character. The idealized situational awareness pursued by net-centric visionaries a decade ago will be supplanted by the resilience and redundancy sought by the original creators of the Internet: When a node fails or is destroyed, another will immediately take its place. Attrition is expected and budgeted. It’s not personal, it’s business. This darker, bleaker vision of net-centric operations is as inevitable as it is disconcerting, and it will form the intellectual underpinning of the battle network of the 21st century.

Creating the Next Prize Fighter

The principles that dictate life within the WEZ are not entirely new, they have just assumed renewed urgency. A robust defense, a lightning-quick offense, and seamless integration with the comprehensive fighting machine will be as essential in the future as overwhelming firepower has been in the past. These principles must guide force structure, doctrine, and tactics in the coming era—across the joint force. They are the defining characteristics of the modern prize fighter.

No one really wants a fight, of course. Ideally, preparations for life within the WEZ will prevent a conflict from occurring in the first place—the traditional assumption that is the backbone of deterrence theory. An adversary unsure of winning via a preemptive attack is less likely to engage in such an attack. Certainly there is ample room as well for diplomacy to address the risk of an arms race and the possibility of rapid escalation following an initial, accidental weapons release. 11 If concerns about escalation kept the lid on a superpower clash in the Cold War, it stands to reason that a similar logic may apply to the A2/AD environment. Climbing in the ring, after all, should not lead to mutual annihilation. Often the best strategy is to avoid an unnecessary fight altogether.

For those in uniform, however, lamenting the nature of modern warfare is of little help. The new reality is already upon us and, as every commander knows, bad news does not get better with time. The first casualty of this new era must be complacency. Whether the nation’s leaders realize it or not, the United States—like Manny Pacquiao—is already in the ring, and some very capable adversaries are eyeing U.S. forces warily. It would be disastrous to wait for the first punch. It is time to acknowledge the new reality and make the appropriate preparations. It is time to embrace life in the WEZ.

1. “Manny Pacquiao vs. Antonio Margarito results, highlights and analysis,” The Washington Post, 14 November 2010.

2. Jan van Tol et al., AirSea Battle: A Point of Departure (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2010), p. xii.

3. Wayne P. Hughes Jr., Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, 2nd Edition (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000), p. 40.

4. Andrew F. Krepinevich, Why AirSea Battle? (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2010), p. 13.

5. See especially Toshi Yoshihara, “Chinese Missile Strategy and the U.S. Naval Presence in Japan: The Operational View from Bejing,” Naval War College Review , vol. 63, no. 3 (Summer 2010), pp. 39–62.

6. Hughes, Fleet Tactics , p. 262.

7. Ibid., p. 293.

8. Adam Gopnik, “Finest Hours: The Making of Winston Churchill,” The New Yorker , 30 August 2010, www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2010/08/30/100830crat_atlarge_gopnik .

9. For a superb discussion, see Robert C. Rubel, “Talking about Sea Control,” Naval War College Review , vol. 63, No. 4 (Autumn 2010), p. 44.

10. Robert O. Work, The U.S. Navy: Charting a Course for Tomorrow’s Fleet (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2008), p. 15.

11. See, for example, Mark Stokes and Dan Blumenthal, “Why China’s Missiles should be our focus,” The Washington Post , 2 January 2011.

Captain Parker is a career naval aviator who commanded Electronic Attack Squadron 134 (VAQ-134) during an expeditionary combat deployment to Bagram, Afghanistan. He now works on the OPNAV staff for the Director of Strategy and Policy.


Conferences and Events

2014 U.S. Naval Institute Annual Meeting

Wed, 2014-04-16

U.S. Naval Institute members and supporters are cordially invited to attend the 2014 U.S. Naval Institute Annual Meeting...

View All

From the Press

Guest Lecturer

Sat, 2014-04-19

Guest Lecturer

Sat, 2014-04-19

Captain Bernard Cole

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership