“There is, at all events, no perplexity exceeding that with which men of former times haven’t dealt successfully.”
– CAPT Alfred Thayer Mahan
Back in 2003 Dr. Andrew Krepinevich, Barry Watts and Bob Work (now the Under Secretary of the Navy) coined the term “A2AD,” for the growing Anti-Access, Area Denial threat posed by the proliferation of long range missiles systems, precision munitions, and satellite technology that will make operations in the littorals more challenging for 21st century naval forces. They were right when they wrote that ignoring the threat “appears to be a huge gamble and one that neither prudence nor history could recommend with much confidence.” The challenge of A2AD spreads from the shores of the Arabian Gulf to the South China Sea and beyond with players like Iran, China, and North Korea continuing to develop and spread the capabilities and technologies like the C-802 anti-ship missile and FAC’s like the Chinese Houbei that has come to symbolize part of the threat.
While it is cast as a threat based on rapidly modernizing, high technology weapons the A2AD threat is actually nothing new in the annals of naval history. Despite the description of certain technologies, like the Chinese DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, as “game changing” and “revolutionary” there are still basic principles of naval strategy and tactics that apply to these weapons. At the turn of the last century the United States and the naval powers of the world faced a similar challenge. Modern technology was advancing weapons systems and making it harder for naval forces to get close to the enemy’s shores. The eminent naval strategist and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan (ATM) wrote on the subject, and offered some thoughts that may be worth considering as the world once again faces A2AD challenges.
In 1911 ATM published the lectures he originally gave at the United States Naval War College in the decade leading up to the start of the 20th century as the book Naval Strategy: Compared and Contrasted with the Principles and Practice of Military Operations on Land. In it he discussed the A2AD threat which developed after he gave his original lectures. “It seems appropriate here to mention, if only incidentally, certain changes in the weapons with which war is waged,” he wrote, continuing “the progress of the submarine, the immensely increased range of the automobile torpedo, and the invention of wireless telegraphy,” were significant changes to the technology of naval warfare. According to ATM the introduction of these new weapons would have an important impact on the development of naval tactics, however, “these consequences will not change the principles of strategy,” which apply to naval warfare.
In his essay “Considerations Governing the Disposition of Navies,” published in May of 1902, ATM also discussed torpedo boats and “the added range of coast guns, which keeps scouts at a much greater distance than formerly, and the impossibility now of detecting intentions which once might be inferred from the conditions of masts and sails.” However, ATM’s continued discussion reminds us that the technologies which make A2AD a challenge are not exclusive of one side in the fight. He says that “on the other hand the sphere of effectiveness has been immensely increased for the scout by the power to move at will, and latterly by the wireless telegraph.” Today there are differences of distances, stand-off ranges, and communications and ISR, but these are the same issues faced over a century ago.
ATM made some suggestions on the tactical and operational level to approach the A2AD threats of his day. He suggested that by taking advantage of high speed and large numbers, “it should be possible to sweep the surroundings of any port so thoroughly as to make the chance of undetected escape very small, while the transmission of the essential facts – the enemy’s force and the direction taken – is even more certain than detection.” Today ATM might call for numerous and inexpensive unmanned systems to work the near shore and scout deep inside the enemy’s coastal WEZ.
Despite the fact many strategy and history students are taught ATM only cared about big guns and battleships, in his concept of the modern fleet which would face the early 20th century A2AD threat ATM wrote “the vessels nearest in are individually so small that the loss of one by torpedo is militarily immaterial; moreover, the chances will by no means all be with the torpedo boat.” After calling for small combatants which can take the fight in close in search of the torpedo boats, while assuming some individual risk, ATM suggested that a group of cruisers sail further out from the enemy’s A2AD threat range. The cruisers are able to sprint to the support of the smaller ships if needed but also able to discover other enemy concentrations, or fall back to support the main battle fleet. ATM pointed out that the main battle fleet has great freedom to maneuver. He said the main force of the fleet can be hundreds of miles away, connected to the scouts, small combatants, and cruisers by wireless and “in a different position every night, [it] is as safe from torpedo attack as ingenuity can place it.” The point is as valid today as it was at the dawn of the last century. The ocean is a large expanse and in order for the enemy to attack, he has to be able to find you. Even satellite surveillance and broad area ISR can only cover a portion of the maritime domain.
ATM believed there was nothing about the early 20th century A2AD threat that fundamentally changed the way naval strategy was developed, or how naval wars were led. There would be changes to tactics, and the requisite adjustments to operational planning that those changes required. He also made the point that a properly balanced Navy, with small combatants, cruisers, and the main battle fleet was required for success in any naval conflict. However, at its heart countering A2AD is more about applying the intellectual rigor to overcome the time, distance, speed differences than it is about fundamental changes to naval strategy; as ATM wrote “war is a business of positions.” In the end, naval commanders must also remember it takes two to have a fight, and the idea is to ensure the enemy is dealing with as many, or more challenges, than you are. You threaten him too and as ATM wrote, “These probabilities, known to the enemy, affect his actions just as one’s own risks move one’s self.”