Put your J-20s and DF-21ds away and listen as I explain the mystery of “anti-access.” It’s actually simpler than it looks. The term anti-access, while also referring to state-sponsored proxy forces and middle powers using standoff weaponry, predominately is used in reference to Chinese shore-based anti-ship missiles, fighter craft, and submarines. Of course, the specific operational technique in question is nothing new: any visitor to San Francisco Bay can observe the antique shore batteries the US Army once constructed to dominate approaches to the Bay. The problem with anti-access, or at least the way it is discussed, is precisely in its predominately operational and technocratic character. If the problem is deadly weapons or an integrated operational approach incorporating a battle network, the answer can lie in a different operational approach or weapon system. This is broadly what commentators discussing Air-Sea Battle (ASB) have advocated–longer-range weapons, more coordination across the joint community, and a move away from large surface combatants. But anti-access is ultimately a strategic problem rather than a purely tactical or operational issue.
According to the Principles of War, the Principle of Mass exhorts the commander to “Concentrate combat power at the decisive place and time.” The Principle of Economy of Force, on the other hand, also recommends that the commander also “Allocate minimum essential combat power to secondary efforts.” The first brute truth here is for all of the talk about the Pivot, East Asia is an economy of force operation for the US. As Robert Kelly argued, the US is currently operating in a resource-constrained environment. There is little evidence that the United States is also investing in a buildup of the naval and air assets necessary to achieve local superiority in an environment characterized by long distances and logistical tails. As abhorrent and expensive as craft like the F-35 are, a platform-centric strategy that aims to substitute qualitative superiority for mass will inevitably be expensive in terms of per-unit costs. Why is Asia not a priority for the US militarily? Kelly has argued that the US does not culturally relate to Asia nor are there substantial political players or subgroups that focus on the region. Whatever the reason, the locus of US military effort, viewed in terms of sheer presence, remains the Persian Gulf and Central Asia. Asia today has more than a few passing similarities to the American presence pre-World War II in terms of the resources that the US is actually willing to devote to it.
While China certainly has its own substantial logistical difficulties in projecting force, it has the advantage of concentrating military power locally. When viewed in terms of a flat total balance, US military spending dwarfs that of China. But it is really the local military balance that counts. And in that, China is gaining the capability to simply swamp the United States in a cross-strait scenario. As Joseph Stalin noted, quantity has a quality all its own. Strategic distance also counts. As Bernard Finel has argued, a platform-centric strategy for staying ahead of near-peer competitors depends on staying 2-3 technological generations ahead, and due to Asia’s unique operating environment for the US this is even more so in terms of air and naval platforms. Eventually, no matter how advanced a plane can be, it will run out of missiles. Sortie generation matters too. Given the fiscal climate, there is a very real question whether the US is going to really be able to invest in platforms that realize long-range strike over longer and longer distances. Moreover, going after battle networks and anti-access platforms also implies targeting a range of civilian and military infrastructure (some of it spaceborne) and striking mainland targets–steps that may simply be politically untenable.
There are a number of other options–the US might invest in cheaper and simpler weapons or provide them to allies, or try to offload military commitments onto local allies. Additionally, US forces might also pursue a classical guerre de course rather than premise its responses on diving into the teeth of an A2/AD network on the coastline. Finally, as Toshihara and Holmes have suggested the US might implement its own “anti-access” network. All of these options are problematic. First, wishing for the US procurement system to suddenly reverse a decades-long trend in favor of more complex weapons systems is the strategic equivalent of a grossly obese man believing he can hop on the treadmill and realize his New Year’s fitness resolution. Absent a massive external shock or a genuine fiscal crisis (the current defense cuts are not actually cuts as much as a slowing of growth) there is no real incentive for the US to change its platform and procurement planning. Second, states in the region may not necessarily take well to the idea of being drawn into a potential great power war, although this may change if the latest Brookings Institution paper on the supposedly zero-sum worldview of the CCP is in fact correct. The guerre de course may be able to coerce behavior, but is also dependent on Beijing’s willingness (or lack theoreof) to be play along, which undoubtedly will depend on the circumstances of the conflict. Lastly, none of these military-strategic fixes are really a salve for the real problem at hand: the declining ability of the US to decisively concentrate combat power in a remote geographical theater of engagement.
In other words, anti-access is a subset of a strategy and policy issue. Strategically, the US faces a great challenge in actually realizing its existing strategic and operational concepts under new conditions. But this in and of itself is a subset of a larger policy debate about the US in Asia that simply cannot be sidestepped. Neither side, of course, wants war and it is unlikely either side would benefit from it in any tangible sense. Both are vulnerable to each other and are acutely aware of it. But this does not mean that boundaries will not be pushed or that either side will settle for peace if it means relinquishing what may be conceived as core strategic objectives. The term “anti-access” shifts the debate into something over platforms and tactics rather than strategy and policy.
Adam Elkus is an analyst specializing in strategic theory. His articles on subjects ranging from grand strategy to cartel tactics in the Mexican drug war have been published in The Atlantic, Small Wars Journal, Defense Concepts, and OpenDemocracy. He is currently pursuing graduate study in Georgetown and lives in Washington D.C, is an Associate Editor at Red Team Journal, an Associate at Small Wars Journal's El Centro, a Technology Research Analyst at CrucialPoint LLC. All opinions are his own.
Adam Elkus has 5 post(s) on Asia Security Watch