By Jyri Raitasalo
This article appeared in the March-April 2019 issue of ADBR
IT IS TIME TO BURST THE A2AD BUBBLE
Quite a lot of the discussion about Air and Missile Defences (AMD) in Europe – and elsewhere – has revolved around the concept of Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2AD).
Supposedly Russia has implemented a successful A2AD-strategy in Europe in order to get an advantage over NATO in a potential future war. A significant part of this strategy – so the A2AD narrative goes – has been related to Russia’s new long-range air and missile defence systems. In particular, the S-400 Triumf has become a symbol of this A2AD threat.
Maps containing circles with a 400km radius (the proclaimed maximum range of one missile variant of the S-400 system) are commonplace in newsfeed and analysis about military affairs in Europe. Allegedly, and based on ‘evidence’ presented in maps with A2AD circles, Russia can prevent or seriously hamper potential Western air operations due to the advanced characteristics of its S-400 AMD systems.
There is one problem with this Russian A2AD strategy – It does not exist. A2AD is a Western concept, one that is focused on contemporary and projected future vulnerabilities of Western militaries that, for more than 20 years, have focused on military crisis management, counter-terrorism operations and counter-insurgency warfare.
This has taken place in the absence of any meaningful air or missile defence threats to intervening Western air forces. Thus, during the post-Cold War era many Western states have shed much of their own air defence capabilities and the associated expertise related to air warfare in contested environments.
In short, much of the Western discourse on A2AD is based on Western shortcomings and is directed to Western audiences. Russia does not have an A2AD strategy, nor does it use the word to describe its policies or strategy related to the modernisation of its aid and missile defence capabilities.
And force modernisation is the key explanatory factor for Russia’s advances in the field of air and missile defences. When it comes to warfighting, Russia is first and foremost a land power, and its military is an Army-heavy fighting organisation. For Russia, the so-called A2AD ‘bastions’ in the Kola Peninsula, Saint Petersburg area and in Kaliningrad are defensive formations which are needed to protect its critical infrastructure and fighting forces, ie the Army, in the case of war.
It is worth remembering that the Kola Peninsula hosts a significant portion of Russia’s nuclear deterrence and warfighting capability. Similarly, the Saint Petersburg area has military significance in addition to its administrative and economic importance. Finally, Kaliningrad is an exclave between two NATO member-states, Poland and Lithuania.
Defending Kaliningrad in wartime without nuclear weapons is almost impossible, and conceptualising Russia’s military capabilities and actions within a framework of A2AD leads to a distorted view of its strategy or operational concepts. This will lead to wrong policy recommendations within the West if military leaders and policymakers over-emphasise the Russian A2AD strategy.
The introduction of the S-400 air and missile defence system originated from the need to replace older Soviet S-300 capabilities that have been designed and produced since the 1970s. The S-300 family comprises several major variants with various modifications like the S-300V, S-300P, S-300 PMU, and a dozen different other sub-variants.
Some versions of the S-300 family such as the S-300PMU-1 and S-300PMU-2 were manufactured in Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Looking at this lineage, the S-400 is the newest answer of the Russian defence industry to the decades-old problem of defending the territory and fighting forces in a potential war against a developed adversary.
It was introduced in the late 1990s and started to be deployed to the Russian Armed Forces during the first decade of the new millennium. In addition, China has already bought the system, while Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, India and Iraq have also expressed a desire to do so.
From a Western perspective, the concept of A2AD makes sense. After all, before 2014 the Western European military perspective had developed and matured for more than 20 years based on the lessons of post-Cold War conflicts. These include the 1991 Gulf War, the air wars over Bosnia (1995) and Kosovo (1999), the first phases of air operations in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, and also the air war against Gaddafi’s Libya in 2011.
All of these operations showcased the prowess of Western (mostly American) military superiority and airpower in the contemporary international system. But suddenly, in 2014 and the following years, relations between Russia and the West soured, and the possibility of a military confrontation in Europe between NATO and Russia returned to the scene. For the first time in decades, Western European states needed to think about a potential adversary that has good air and missile defence systems in its inventory.
It is worth noting that the very concept of A2AD was first developed to address the military challenge that China poses for the United States. In 2010 the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) report described the challenge that China posed, noting: “The Air Force and Navy together are developing a new joint air-sea battle concept for defeating adversaries across the range of military operations, including adversaries equipped with sophisticated anti-access and area denial capabilities.”
Thus, When Russia made its move against Ukraine in 2014 – first in the Crimean Peninsula and later in Eastern Ukraine – the concept of A2AD had already made its debut. The concept was ‘hijacked’ from the Pacific theatre and transferred to Europe. It seemed to provide some guidance on how to assess Russia’s actions in a situation where Western military concepts and doctrines had neglected great power competition and state-on-state warfare for more than two decades.
A2AD has become a buzzword that is rapidly losing its analytical utility. For several years it represented the Western need to (re)focus on air and missile defences, either developing one’s own AMD capabilities that had been neglected for years or developing needed suppression or destruction of enemy air defence capabilities (SEAD/DEAD) in order to facilitate air operations in contested environments.
It is no wonder that the US Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Richardson banned the use of “A2AD” in the Navy as jargon two and half years ago. Unfortunately getting rid of buzzwords is not easy. Easy or not, now is the time to get rid of the concept that distorts reality. It is time to burst the Western narrative of Russia’s impenetrable A2AD bubbles.
Lt. Col. Jyri Raitasalo is a military professor of war studies at the Finnish National Defence University. The views expressed here are his own.