Horses and bayonets, indeed. One of the memorable moments of the most recent presidential campaign was during one of the debates in which Republican candidate Mitt Romney warned that the U.S. Navy was being weakened because fewer and fewer ships being built as a result of budget cuts. President Barack Obama offered an insightful response, stating, “We also have fewer horses and bayonets today . . . the question is not about a game of battleships where we are counting ships, it is, what are our capabilities?” We historically fixate on numbers of ships when assessing and discussing the strength and power of the Navy. But the President and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert are both on record emphasizing, “It is about the capability, not the platform.” Are resource sponsors and procurement officers applying the President’s and the CNO’s guidance to the platforms we procure? Or are we still “counting battleships” as a measure of naval strength?
By focusing on numbers rather than capability, we likely will fail to procure platforms at the right cost, and worse, we might end up procuring the wrong platforms altogether. Sometimes the Navy can also misread the future operating environment. For the past ten years, the service has been obsessed with so-called anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) weapon systems, despite the fact that the Navy has no near-peer competitor. This may actually have little to do with the future security environment in which the Navy could find itself. A2/AD does not focus on the incredible, peerless U.S. naval capabilities; instead, it makes our potential adversaries out to be ten-foot giants when they really may just be three-foot munchkins. A better approach—more appropriate for a naval power with unprecedented dominance—is assured access, anytime, anywhere (A4). This more accurately reflects the capabilities of the Navy, which in turn will free procurement and policy advocates to more accurately focus on future programs and employment options.
Broken down into its two parts, anti-access refers to long-range-weapon capabilities designed to prevent a force from entering an operational area. Area denial refers to shorter-range systems designed to limit the freedom of action of forces if or when they do enter an operational area. The Navy uses A2/AD almost exclusively in referring to an enemy capability. In fact, the Navy and Air Force are both using A2/AD as the foundation of their joint Air-Sea Battle (ASB) concept designed to address A2/AD.1 In almost all discussions centered around the latter, one would think much of U.S. military capability has now been rendered irrelevant. Aircraft carriers cannot approach within striking distance of land targets; destroyers have to stay way outside the threat rings of the latest Chinese surface-to-surface missiles; and forget about amphibious forcible entry. The laments go on. So why is the U.S. Navy, the most powerful one in the world, so focused on an enemy capability rather than its own, unmatched, capacity? Good question. Perhaps the answer is that we are focusing too much on A2/AD and not enough on A4.
The Myth of A2/AD
The A2/AD concept was first coined in 2003 by Dr. Andrew Krepinevich, Barry Watts, and former Under Secretary of the Navy Bob Work.2 Like many acronyms and military concepts, the term has since taken on a life of its own and is virtually accepted as the prohibitive operational environment that will face U.S. military forces, in particular the Navy, in any high-intensity conflict. The problem with A2/AD is that if a country faces a foe of greater military capability, it is advisable that said country focus on said foe’s military strengths.
We need only observe how al Qaeda operated in its struggle against the powerful U.S. military to understand why A2/AD is a much more relevant term for a force that is faced with a more capable foe rather than a force that enjoys supremacy in almost every military functional area. Before the smoke had settled over Ground Zero, the Pentagon, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, al Qaeda found itself very quickly in the worst A2/AD environment. Its operating areas in Afghanistan evaporated, and soon U.S. forces were in full conflict with their elements in Iraq. Perhaps more important, the U.S. military began covert and clandestine operations with the use of special forces and drones to hunt down al Qaeda leadership around the world, eventually resulting in the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 with a spectacular and daring raid across another country’s sovereign territory.
Al Qaeda knew and knows that it cannot face the United States in a conventional, open conflict. And it is not alone. Even our closest near-peer competitor could never hope to match us in a conventional war—not yet, anyway. No other country has the ability to project power either by air or by sea, at least not in a sufficient manner to even come close to matching the U.S. military. Conversely, the United States has the most sophisticated strategic lift, strike, and intelligence infrastructure in the world. Not a single foreign naval vessel or aircraft can move without the U.S. intelligence community knowing about it. The United States can fly a bomber or drone into any foreign capital and no one would know it was there.
Despite all the hand-wringing over recent bold cyber-attack/espionage efforts that appear to be carried out by foreign entities against U.S. civilian and military targets, our cyber capability sits quietly, a sleeping giant that once aroused would probably wreak havoc throughout a foreign government’s military and civilian infrastructure. The dirty little secret about cyber attacks is that to conduct one, an attacker releases a signature and the techniques, tactics, and procedures that go along with it.3 This means that in every instance of a foreign cyber attack, the United States is able to collect intelligence on its nature and structure. The amount of intelligence the U.S. Cyber Command is collecting from the relentless barrage of foreign hacking must be exponential.
The point here is this: Who do you think is more subject to A2/AD, the U.S. military or America’s nearest potential adversary? The answer is obvious. Our adversaries can’t walk down the street to buy a gallon of milk without U.S. intelligence knowing the color of their shoes, their cell phone number, and what they ate for breakfast. Want to know what it’s like to operate in an A2/AD environment? Don’t ask the U.S. military, ask those unfortunate souls in the crosshairs of U.S. intelligence.
The Truth about A2/AD
This characterization of A2/AD is not intended to gloss over the very real threats that now face the U.S. Navy in increased capability in surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missile technology. The DF-21D antiship ballistic missile poses a serious threat to the U.S. Navy and will force a carrier strike group and/or an amphibious ready group to remain far out at sea until conditions become permissive. No doubt, real potential enemy capability exists that affects tactics in how we will fight future wars. However, by focusing on A2/AD, the U.S. military is obsessing about a prospective enemy’s capability and not its own. Concentrating on what one cannot do instead of what one can do is dangerous and can have detrimental effects on military hardware procurement and operational strategy.
The mistake military planners and strategists could begin to make is building up enemy capability by using the A2/AD catchphrase to emasculate real, unmatched U.S. military capability. It is almost like being preoccupied with enemy air defenses when one is employing stealth bombers and fighters. Yes, the enemy’s air defenses may be quite good, but the threat is mitigated. With stealth technology, planners can now focus more on our capability with the understanding that our capability makes their capability much less relevant or dangerous. Fears of an A2/AD environment implies that we are afraid their capability might beat ours. This is an unreasonable perspective coming from a country that is a world superpower without equal.
Instead of A2/AD, U.S. military strategists and policy makers should instead focus on A4. It’s all about the capability, not the platform. A4 describes much better the operational parameters of the U.S. Navy (and for that matter the rest of the U.S. military) today. By applying A4, strategists and policy makers will focus on our national security from a capabilities-based approach rather than a constrained approach that focuses on an enemy’s capabilities. A4 does not mean we ignore enemy capabilities. Threat rings and templates must still be applied to all contingency planning; however, with A4, the focus is on our capability, not the perceived capabilities of the enemy. So, how might this work?
Transformation of Naval Aviation
Naval aviation is experiencing perhaps its most historic moment since 1912 when Commander Charles Samson of the British Royal Navy took off in an airplane for the first time from a moving naval vessel. The X-47B drone made its inaugural flight from a U.S. aircraft carrier on 14 May 2013.4 The transformation from carrier-based manned to unmanned aircraft could mark one of the most dramatic advances in naval warfare since the introduction of the carrier itself. As the Chinese celebrate the first landing and takeoff of a “manned” aircraft from their new carrier, the U.S. Navy again raises the bar with the introduction of autonomous unmanned carrier aircraft. When unmanned systems are able to operate from U.S. carriers, the capabilities of the Navy will grow proportionally. The combination of stealth and unmanned allows for much greater risk-taking and dramatically increases access and reach, capabilities that diminish A2/AD constraints.
The future Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) system will not be subject to flight-hour and other limitations that come with manned aircraft. Although there might not be a significant cost savings from manned aircraft, the UCLASS’ capability will place any would-be competitor at a severe disadvantage. With stealth technology, fleets of UCLASS will be able to penetrate deep into enemy airspace, with no risk of losing human life. While the nearest U.S. competitor is just learning to fly, the United States is going to Mars.
The Missile Sea Base
While naval aviation moves into the stratosphere, the surface fleet could maximize its advantage with a little innovation. Cruisers and destroyers, with their Aegis SPY radar and standard and cruise missiles, are a formidable force to be reckoned with and a significant strategic arm of U.S. precision-strike capability. They are expensive, however, and with a payload of around 90 missiles, it doesn’t take long for one ship to fire all rounds and sit on empty. Destroyers are hardened vessels, designed to sustain significant damage and still be able to fight, or if unable to fight, to at least be able to return to home port if damaged. This is how the USS Cole (DDG-67) was able to remain afloat after sustaining tremendous damage when a suicide bomber struck her while in port in Yemen in 2000.
Compartmentalized and shock-hardened construction is expensive, and again, it is based on focusing on a potential enemy capability, the capability of an enemy to hit our ships. However, if we take an A4 approach, the U.S. Navy could acknowledge that there is no peer competitor on the open seas, and won’t be for probably decades to come. So, can the U.S. Navy take some risk in perhaps using commercial ship standards for some of the Navy precision-strike and ballistic-missile defense capability?
The Navy is currently building the first Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB). The base is an in-stream modification of the Mobile Loading Platform (MLP) designed to support logistics for the now-defunct Maritime Prepositioning Force of the Future. The Navy recognized a recurring need by combatant commanders for afloat forward staging bases for mine countermeasure and special operations missions and so redirected the MLP into an AFSB configuration. The beauty of the AFSB is that it is based on a British Petroleum tanker design and built to commercial standards. This means it is fairly affordable compared to ships constructed to Navy standards. It costs about $2 billion to build an Arleigh Burke–class destroyer and about $500 million for an AFSB—a quarter of the cost. So what does an AFSB have to do with an Arleigh Burke? The destroyer is built with the enemy’s capabilities in mind. It is hardened, fast, and designed to take punishment. However, because of that, it has limited capacity; it can only hold 90 missiles, and it is expensive.
If we apply A4, we can achieve dramatically greater capacity in a more cost-effective manner. What if the Navy built an AFSB and deployed vertical-launch systems on board? The deck space of a massive AFSB could probably hold about 2,000 missiles. How many Arleigh Burke equivalents is that? Of course, this is just a concept, but industry is already thinking about it and has done preliminary analysis anticipating such capability. The Navy needs to ask some tough questions. Why must all missiles be employed from a cruiser or destroyer? Precision-strike missiles are the weapons of choice and provide the U.S. military a decisive strategic advantage over adversaries. Yes, the missiles are expensive, but why waste resources by insisting that they all be deployed from the cruiser/destroyer fleet? The Navy owns the seas. No one can seriously debate this reality of A4. If this is the case, why not deploy missiles from a cheap platform, or dozens of cheap platforms? The Fleet must be protected, but just like the amphibious fleet prior to conducting an assault, one destroyer can provide protection for three or four commercial missile platforms based on the AFSB model and serve as the handling platform for missile launch. Dwelling on A2/AD does not allow us to think outside the box. A4 does.
Streamlining the Landing Force
Precision and revolutionary intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) technologies are also changing how Marines can and should operate. The tactical organization of the Marine Corps has changed very little since World War II despite sweeping changes in military technology and capability. The Marine Corps has lagged behind the Navy and Air Force in equipping and changing how it fights. Much of this again stems from fixating on perceived enemy capabilities as opposed to focusing on the incredible capabilities that are already available but are not applied because of difficulties in recognizing what the battlefield of the future will look like and the inertia that plagues institutional change. With an A4 perspective, the Marine Corps could dramatically change the way it is organized and how it would fight future wars.
An amphibious landing with an A4 perspective might require very few Marines or landing craft. Armed drones and pervasive ISR could decimate any enemy attempt to defend coastal landing sites and/or ports. With U.S. precision munitions, any amphibious landing would probably be administrative in nature rather than opposed. Planners and policy makers will not need to consider the option of throwing human lives against a defended beach. A potential adversary who is foolish enough to try to oppose an amphibious assault by the U.S. Navy will be devastated by precision bunker-busting bombs and unable to move anywhere without being destroyed instantly in the face of persistent ISR. With our capabilities in mind, the Marine Corps should now focus on how it would be employed in light of the diminished requirement of conventional missions. There will probably never be another Tarawa or Iwo Jima.
Just the Beginning
Focusing on A4 (our capabilities) allows for radical innovative approaches to strategic, operational, and tactical challenges. The United States is the world’s only superpower; military planners and policy makers would do better to concentrate on current and future military technological supremacy rather than wringing their hands over potential adversaries who are still junior varsity. The U.S. defense budget, even after reductions over the past two years, stands at just over $500 billion. China’s defense budget is barely a fifth of that. It is difficult to imagine a scenario where China could hope to match U.S. military superiority anytime soon. Not only is our defense budget miles ahead of the Chinese, our military technological spread is growing, not shrinking.
The UCLASS is a great example of the Navy blazing ahead and breaking new ground that will serve to again change how we fight and win battles. However, we are only at the beginning of a technological revolution. More out-of-the-box thinking regarding employment of AFSBs, maximizing our maritime dominance, and changing the organization and employment of landing forces will go even further to maximize resources and enhance already superior capabilities.
What we must never lose sight of is the decisive advantage the Navy currently has over any potential adversary. There are some dangerous weapons out there that can do grave damage. However, the U.S. Navy is the most technologically advanced in the world, by a long margin. Even with constrained budgets and sequestration, while we fret about A2/AD, our potential adversaries are wringing their hands about their own A2/AD problems, knowing that only a short distance off their coastline sits a U.S. Navy submarine, with her full complement of torpedoes and cruise missiles, undetectable, with assured access, anytime, anywhere, ready to unleash its wrath.
2. LCDR Benjamin Armstrong, USN, “Guest Post by Benjamin ‘BJ’ Armstrong, A2AD, WWATMD?” 2012, http://blog.usni.org.
3. Mark Clayton, “Obama Ordered Stuxnet Cyberattack, Reports Say. Does it Leave U.S. Vulnerable?” Christian Science Monitor, June 2012, www.csmonitor.com.
4. Mark D. Faram, “U.S. Navy Year in Review,” Defense 2012 Review, 59–63.