Russia’s anti-access/area denial systems are less of an impenetrable barrier than is commonly assumed. It would be a mistake for NATO to limit its military options out of an erroneous fear of Russian capabilities.
What is the myth?
Russian long-range weapons systems in the air, sea and, to a lesser extent, the ground domains have been the topic of significant debate since the seizure of Crimea in 2014. One of the concepts that has received much attention in the West concerns Russian anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) ‘bubbles’ – regions in which Russia could station long-range surface-to-air missile and anti-ship systems, or the infamous Iskander ballistic missiles.
While initial concerns have somewhat subsided since the immediate post-Crimea period, in particular following the poor showing of some of the systems in combat in Ukraine during 2022, the notion of such bubbles providing a near-impenetrable barrier to opposing forces – in effect the mistaken perception that A2/AD-protected areas cannot be breached without catastrophic combat losses – lingers on among the general public and may well constitute a basis for poor policy decisions.
Who advocates or subscribes to it?
The concept of A2/AD originated in US naval circles as an attempt at describing the possibility of China implementing a classic sea (and by extension air) denial strategy using long-range fires. The US Department of Defense in 2012 included one of the earliest definitions of A2/AD in its Joint Operational Access Concept:
In his piece ‘Maritime Security Issues in the Baltic Sea Region’ for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Matthew Thomas gives a good example of how Russian A2/AD and its impact on NATO planning and wartime options have often been described. For Thomas, the strategic calculus for NATO in the Baltic theatre is ‘extraordinarily difficult’, and A2/AD would prove ‘a major challenge to military logistics’ in the event of war, as Russia could close the Baltic Sea ‘to surface and air traffic’. Writing for the International Centre for Defence and Security, Vaidas Saldžiūnas describes the Kaliningrad exclave functioning as a base for A2/AD weapons as having ‘become quite a headache for NATO military planners’. The Center for Strategic and International Studies also describes the issue thus:
For NATO, the main issues are often identified as bubbles based around Kaliningrad, Crimea and, to a lesser extent, the High North around Murmansk. Outside of Europe, it has also been stated that Russian forces in Syria have created an A2/AD bubble, though it has proved to be a rather porous one.
A more maximalist view of the A2/AD concept can also be identified, in which Russia’s A2/AD strategy entails quickly seizing an area of land and planting long-range systems there to establish an A2/AD bubble to defend it, creating a fait accompli of territorial expansion. However, this approach runs counter to how the term A2/AD is understood and applied by many experts, in particular within a European context, and as such care should be taken not to confuse the two.
Why is it wrong?
There are two strands of criticism of the A2/AD bubble concept. On the one hand, there is sometimes a lack of technical understanding when gauging A2/AD’s real tactical effectiveness against officially claimed theoretical ranges and its effectiveness in individual ranges. On the other hand, there are higher-level questions relating to doctrine and strategy.
The doctrinal criticism is admittedly somewhat misguided, as while it is true that Russia does not appear specifically to plan operations around how to establish the bubbles as efficiently as possible, that does not mean that the Russian Armed Forces wouldn’t use available weapons to intercept targets of opportunity within range. As such, the weapon systems available would indeed have an effect on the battlefield and any NATO operations conducted there.
However, the more serious issue with A2/AD bubbles is the lack of popular understanding about how to interpret the familiar perfect circles (indicating the notional reach of these weapons) that appear on media maps and infographics. To begin with, practical engagement ranges are more or less always significantly shorter than theoretical maximum ranges – especially when only based on numbers reported in Russian sources, which are themselves prone to exaggeration.
This stems from several factors. First, targets can manoeuvre in the face of incoming missile fire, which forces missiles to bleed energy. Second, target acquisition is affected by a variety of factors that have implications for range. Sensor ranges for air-defence and anti-ship missiles are limited by natural features like terrain and the curvature of the earth. For ground targets, Russia’s limited number of reconnaissance satellites and its apparent problems with processing, exploiting and disseminating acquired intelligence on time-critical and mobile targets mean that A2/AD bubbles are far from the solid domes of destruction which some articles and think-tank pieces have made them out to be.
A further issue that seldom gets the attention it deserves is the cost of the high-end systems and their munitions. This has led to their procurement in relatively limited numbers. In a high-intensity conflict, there are serious questions regarding how long Russia could maintain a significant number of systems operational and rearmed.
Manoeuvre and combat operations within the bubbles are thus evidently possible, as has both been argued by some analysts all along and demonstrated in practice more recently on battlefields in the Middle East and Ukraine.
What is its impact on policy?
The fact that Russian A2/AD bubbles against most targets are both significantly smaller than advertised, and of a significantly lower lethality, has serious impacts on policy. If the West, based on a false view of Russian capabilities, signals that it would have to accept a fait accompli in the case of a swift Russian advance because fighting within the bubble would be prohibitively costly or even impossible, this would make such an option more tempting for Russia (regardless of whether that was the original doctrine or not).
At the same time, the tools perceived as necessary to counter an A2/AD-supported Russian operation become more limited and expensive – in budgetary terms, as well as in terms of the resources available to the armed forces of the NATO countries. One of the few options remaining would be to heavily reinforce front-line states with ground forces, as any potential invader would need to be swiftly stopped in their tracks.
With this being seen as politically difficult and as having a prohibitive cost, the alternative has been to deploy so-called ‘tripwire’ forces at flashpoints. These are combat units that, while doubtless capable, are generally regarded as too light to actually stop an offensive. Yet the idea is that attacking these would ensure a serious political cost for a Russian aggressor thanks to their multinational nature.
The obvious issue here is that this might easily lead to a scenario in which there is no Plan B for NATO forces. Put simply, if the deterrence value of the forces available is not enough to stop Russian aggression, traditional large-scale combat operations to retake ground would still not be on the table due to the fear of Russian A2/AD capabilities.
What would good policy look like?
It is vital that policy and planning responses to Russian military capabilities be grounded in reality. In the case of A2/AD, this means overcoming both the technical and doctrinal misconceptions outlined above. Decision-makers at the political level must not be allowed to conclude that the range circles shown on so many 2D maps are no-go areas that cannot be entered without suffering near-total rates of casualties and equipment losses. And cases for the forward deployment of troops from NATO allies should be assessed on their strategic merits without being influenced by assumptions about Russian plans that have no grounding in Russian doctrine or practice.
This is not to say that the impact of Russian weapons, and their capability to interdict movement on land, in the air and at sea, should be discounted altogether. Russia may not have an A2/AD strategy, but it does have A2/AD capabilities. The artillery firepower demonstrated by Russia in Ukraine confirms the continuing need for force protection measures. But many of these measures can be achieved through fundamental military good practice, such as protective earthworks (from foxholes for individual soldiers to berms to protect vehicles and encampments), dispersed logistics, and heavily escorted maritime convoys (including combined air and sea operations).
The key to overcoming misconceptions about Russian A2/AD is to plan to move and fight within the reach of Russian long-range fires in a manner that is appropriate and proportionate, rather than allowing self-deterrence through public or political perceptions that the costs of doing so will be prohibitively high.
Publication date: 14 July 2022