We Must Own Access

By Captain Arthur H. Barber III, U.S. Navy (Retired)

The overall budget available for the U.S. military is likely to be flat or declining for years to come. Even if the funding for the naval capabilities critical to sustaining access is given a high priority within the Department of Defense—which is by no means assured in the ongoing budget debates—the total amount available will be limited. Cost-effectiveness must be a foremost consideration in the Navy’s decisions on what capabilities can sustain access. The number of forward-deployed units and their payload volume will be at a premium; kinetic capabilities that provide symmetric responses to threats are likely to be unaffordable. The Navy must identify and field capabilities that are economical, impose great costs on adversaries, and use forward-deployed payload volume efficiently. This has not been our path for the last decade-and-a-half when our access was less challenged and our funding was increasing. Sustaining access in the face of modern A2/AD technologies will require new priorities among Navy investments in the period of relative austerity before us.

Two nations in areas of strategic importance to the United States have put significant military effort into building an A2/AD capability, using a technological and operational approach shaped appropriately to their resources and region. Others are likely to follow. Iran has focused its efforts on the constrained region of the Persian Gulf and the narrow Strait of Hormuz, its key access choke point. China is concentrating on the much wider region of the Western Pacific out to well beyond a thousand miles from its coast, a far more resource-intensive challenge than Iran’s. Both understand our military capabilities very well and have clearly tailored their efforts to neutralize our strengths and challenge our vulnerabilities. And of course both are playing a “home game” where they have the advantage of geographic proximity that makes nearly all of their forces available, while we are deploying and sustaining a fraction of our total force at a great distance from our own home bases and surging reinforcements forward over time.

Four Key Battles

The details of any specific threat and our counter to it in the battle for access are usually classified and theater-unique, but common patterns define a set of design principles for future U.S. naval forces even in regions beyond those of interest today. The overall contest for access between the regional power and the United States can be reduced to four battles: information dominance, bases, undersea dominance, and precision strikes. The local team only needs to win one of the four to succeed in A2/AD, while the United States must win all of them.

Adversaries playing a home game against an expeditionary U.S. military force would first and foremost deny us access to bases in their theater from which we can operate aircraft and into which we can project air-delivered reinforcements. They would do this either by direct attack on these bases with precision missiles or by coercion of host nations through threat of missile attack. The adversary would then delay and slow the rate of arrival of the forces that we planned to project from the sea by using mines and submarines. As U.S. forces enter combat and employ precision-strike systems, the adversary would then defeat or survive these strikes through a combination of air defenses, mobility and deception, and target hardening. The adversary would seek to use his own precision strikes to impose sufficient casualties on U.S. forces so that we would either slow our actions or lose our will.

The technique of choice against naval forces would be a large volume of precision-guided antiship weapons, either sophisticated missiles or small lethal swarming threats such as attack boats or drones. And from the beginning, the adversary would attack vulnerabilities in the information systems that underpinned our strengths. They would do this through media operations that mischaracterize our actions to the world, attacks on our command and control (C2) using non-kinetic electronic and cyber-warfare capabilities, and perhaps even counter-space capabilities. Our force and operations must be designed to survive or defeat all of these effects and win all these battles.

Battle for Information Dominance

The “battle for information dominance” is the non-kinetic element of the battle for access. It was recently characterized as “electromagnetic maneuver warfare” by the U.S. Navy and “warfare under informationized conditions” by the Chinese. Sustained success in this battle or dimension of warfare is prerequisite to kinetic success. This element is likely to be the first to occur as both sides engage in the shadowy world of cyber warfare and the public world of media operations as conflict approaches. Without C2, the netting of sensors, and the sharing of operational data, our units cannot fight as the cohesive networked force they were designed to be. When these units are beyond line-of-sight from each other, or when they need to reach back ashore for intelligence, targeting, or logistics support, they depend on cyber networks connected by satellite communication links that must be resilient in the face of attack.

The key elements of our networks and links must be defended against penetration and be survivable against kinetic or non-kinetic attack and without single-point vulnerabilities. Our command protocols need to be far more economical in their use of bandwidth than has become common practice in the last two decades, and our ability to detect and our discipline to control our own electromagnetic signatures must return to the standards of the Cold War years when we last faced a significant A2/AD threat. We must have command modes that permit continued combat operations when beyond-horizon bandwidth or the cyber networks riding on it are temporarily disrupted by attacks, as well as operators trained in identifying and adapting to such attacks. Unmanned systems will require control modes that support effective operation without the satellite links that most rely on today and can operate under line-of-sight control from a manned air or surface platform until we are prepared to trust autonomous unmanned systems to do target recognition and kill without a human in the loop. Electromagnetic maneuver warfare will be difficult because it demands skills that differ from the trends of modern technology and society with its unbounded appetite for connectedness and mass movement of data. It will require investments beyond those we are currently making. In many ways, it is the most important of the four battles for access.

Battle of Bases

The “battle of bases” is the second element of a battle for access. Even U.S. naval forces, despite having a combat logistic force with great capability for at-sea resupply, would require some degree of in-theater land-base access in order to succeed. The Navy maritime-patrol aircraft that are key to antisubmarine warfare would fly from land, and the Air Force component of a joint force fighting under the concept of AirSea Battle would provide a critical fraction of the overall joint tactical aviation, surveillance, and aerial refueling capacity from in-theater air bases. Even Navy combat-logistic forces would need in-theater ports from which to pick up the fuel and supplies they bring to the Fleet.

Navy missile and air defense must be able to provide the initial covering fires that permit the Air Force and its supporting Army base defense assets to flow by air into any theater bases where they are not prepositioned before the conflict. Any base where the United States has long-term prewar access must be defended by deep-magazine land-based systems rather than permanently dedicated Navy afloat missile defenses, a mission that ties down many of our naval forces today. Ship-missile magazine capacity is a precious commodity, so this base-defense mission cannot be one that Navy forces have to sustain through the duration of a campaign.

Battle for Undersea Dominance

The vast majority of U.S. forces and their logistic support would arrive at an area of conflict on the surface of the sea. No ship would move above an uncontrolled undersea threat from mines or submarines. Nothing seems likely to “make the oceans transparent,” and mines and submarines increasingly employ techniques to reduce their detectable signatures, so the rate at which we can detect and defeat this type of threat will be limited by sensor capability.

We currently employ mine-countermeasure systems that sequentially search for mines and then return later to relocate and destroy them. We need new capabilities that provide in-stride simultaneous detection and neutralization, using unmanned or airborne systems that do not require putting manned ships into the water space of a minefield. Our antisubmarine warfare (ASW) capabilities use a combination of platform types (subsurface, surface, and air) and techniques (active and passive) to detect submarines, and we have invested in modernizing all of them. While all have utility under some conditions, because of the decreasing passive detectability of modern submarines, we will need to place increased reliance on active techniques.

Since a search system is detectable by a submarine far beyond the range at which it can itself make a detection, this means that we will need to focus our ASW priority on the platform types that have the greatest area coverage rate and least vulnerability to counter-fire from the submarine while conducting active operations: aircraft, particularly maritime-patrol aircraft. This also means that effective ASW will require air superiority, making this a key enduring mission for sea-based aviation and surface combatants. Our surface ships will need to emphasize local self-defense and defeat of torpedoes above searching for submarines.

Battle of Precision Strikes

The battle of precision strikes, the final element of the battle for access, would pit U.S. precision-strike capabilities against those of the adversary. We would work to destroy threats to our access, both on and above the surface of the sea and ashore, while the adversary attempted to inflict sufficient losses on our aviation and surface maritime forces to dissuade us from continuing the contest. The nature of this battle would depend on the threat and geography of the region; a Persian Gulf conflict would be mostly a close-range fight, while a Western Pacific conflict would be fought at longer ranges. Each side would attempt to defeat the targeting of the other and provide lethal defenses of valuable assets to defeat the employment of precision weapons. In either case, the Fleet would be constrained by the limited capacity of its missile magazines and flight decks relative to the number of adversary threats that must be defeated, particularly if this can only be done kinetically. We will need increased emphasis on reloading combatant missile magazines at sea or supplementing their capacity with missile magazines on logistic ships that can be fired remotely.

U.S. naval forces cannot fight the battle of precision strikes symmetrically against a well-prepared adversary who has modern weapons and is fighting in his own backyard. The long-ago adage of Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson that “a ship’s a fool to fight a fort” remains true—if the fight is conducted symmetrically. Surface ships and aircraft, even when made “low observable,” are simply too visible to modern networked sensors to survive for long in a toe-to-toe kinetic fight. We must be able to defeat adversary targeting systems and most of their weapons non-kinetically and focus our kinetic effects on the launch platforms in order to win defensively. Deception and soft-kill electronic-warfare systems—and weapon systems that employ directed energy to fire large numbers of inexpensive defensive rounds from near-inexhaustible magazines—will become our key to achieving success in defense.

We must also make our offensive systems long-range, unmanned, and survivable, and support them with survivable and effective targeting that lets our offensive weapons be applied to precisely the right targets. Long-range weapons will become more valuable than recoverable platforms (manned or unmanned) with shorter-range weapons, at least in the early days of a conflict. Weapons fired from beneath the sea, either at ships or at targets ashore, will be our most effective as they exploit our irreplaceable advantage in submarine technology to provide our best launch-platform survivability from locations close to an adversary’s anti-access systems. Our submarines will need to increasingly emphasize payload volume while continuing to sustain their stealth advantage.

The days of unimpeded maritime access and unchallenged military dominance the U.S. Navy enjoyed at the end of the Cold War are gone. Technology and politics have created challenges in multiple regions where sustained access is of great strategic significance to the nation’s security. The capability and capacity of our naval forces to deliver sustained access and freedom of maneuver in these regions despite the best efforts of rivals to challenge both is a linchpin of U.S. security strategy. We must win the four battles of access control any and every time. Technology works both ways, and the A2/AD capabilities that most threaten us all have counters to mitigate the threat and sustain the mission. To guarantee access, we must focus our limited funding on the most critical of these capabilities. Then we must employ them with appropriate new operational concepts—and operate them with sailors and Marines whose initiative and rigorous training will continue to be our best asymmetric advantage.

Captain Barber was the Navy’s chief capability analyst as the deputy director of the Chief of Naval Operations’ Assessment Division (N81) from 2002 through June 2014. He has 25 years of experience leading Navy budget, capability, and force-structure analysis in the Pentagon. He is a retired Navy Senior Executive Service civilian and surface warfare captain, and is an engineering graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Naval Postgraduate School.


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