Denying Access to the Enemy in Warfare

Sam J. Tangredi is the Director of San Diego Operations for the planning-consulting firm Strategic Insight. One of the US’s most prescient thinkers on modern warfare, he is the recipient of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Arleigh Burke Prize and the U.S. Navy League’s Alfred Thayer Mahan Award. His latest book is "Anti - Access Warfare: Countering A2/D2 Strategies," published by the Naval Institute Press. In it, he describes “anti-access and area denial warfare,” as the most likely strategy to be employed by the People's Republic of China or by the Islamic Republic of Iran in any future conflict with the United States. This important new study advances the understanding of sea power by identifying the naval roots of the development of the anti-access concept. Tangredi was interviewed by Victor Fic, a freelance journalist based in Canada.

Q: You creatively offer chess as an analogy...explain.

A: Chess is often a metaphor for military strategy. It is a slow, deliberate application of strategy versus quicker, easier games. Many claim that "America wins the war, but loses the peace" because Americans are impatient for quick results -- "X plays chess, the US checkers." I use the example of the anti-access defender knocking over the chess board and preventing the pieces from being replaced to illustrate my first principle that the anti-access defender loses if the game is actually played. If the Americans can "play chess"—by building up regional forces for local military superiority—the defeat of the anti-access defender is inevitable. So it must prevent the US from "playing chess." The former must use military, diplomatic or economic means to stop forces from entering and creating a regional lodgement. As I summarize it, the "operational objective of an anti-access strategy is the neutralization of the superior force until time, attrition and/or extrinsic events shake the determination of the attacker." Repeatedly knocking over a chessboard causes one's opponent to give up -- and leave.

Q: Let’s turn to Asian examples... why do you cite the Great Wall and Imperial Japan versus the US?

A: The Great Wall is a metaphor for how imperial powers use walls to consolidate power. When imperial China and Rome erected walls, the territory enclosed was in turmoil because the people resisted conquest. Yes, the walls blocked Mongols or Germans from attacking from outside, but that threat was particularly acute when there was also a struggle within the enclosed area. The walls permitted China and Rome to solidify power.

Q: More recently in history, imperial Japan essayed it, correct?

A: Tokyo did not want the US to interfere with conquests in China, the Dutch East Indies, Indochina, Philippines, Micronesia. It would rule as an empire and then fall back to an anti-access strategy to keep the US out of the Western Pacific. But some, such as Yamamoto, knew that if we continued to fight the Japanese anti-access defenses in the mid-Pacific, our great industrial might would grant victory. Pearl Harbor was an effort to knock the American pieces off the chessboard. We would therefore decide if putting them back – building new ships – was worthwhile.

Q: Apply that to China.

A: The PRC rejects a war with the US, but it doesn't want Washington to interfere in any "conquest" whether by bloodshed or pressure in the South China Sea or of Taiwan. So an anti-access strategy is what it is naturally building hoping to deter US interference rather than fighting a hot war.

Q: Beijing studied the 1991 war wherein the US beat Saddam Hussein. What lessons did it distill?

A: When the People's Liberation Army or PLA studied the 1991 Gulf War, its threat perception—its strategy is planned on that – changed from a potentially nuclear war against the Soviet Union to the threat of local, limited wars on the periphery of China. The Gulf War was the first local, limited war under high technology conditions. It was restricted to the independence of Kuwait, somewhat analogous to China restoring Taiwan. Without a Soviet threat, Beijing's primary cause for potential conflict would be Taiwan.

So the Gulf War was the perfect example to study. The PLA concluded that Hussein's strategy was completely flawed. He did not try to prevent the US from building up regional power – anti-access. It realized that that if he had mined the Strait of Hormuz and fired off saturation missile attacks against ports and airfields in Saudi Arabia, US and Coalition forces could not have massed.

Q: Summarize how anti-access figures into wars that could change the globe.

A: From my American-centric perspective, only four possible conflicts could change the world. First, Russia fights neighbors and involves NATO; Iran versus the Gulf Arab states and inevitably the US; a collapsing North Korean government determined to go down in flames and a PRC takeover of Taiwan or significant territory in Southeast Asia. All would have anti-access features because the protagonists don't want a war with the US perhaps excepting the Kim dynasty, but seek an aggressive goal. They want their slice of the Ukraine without outside or US interference.

The best way is to take advantage of a current confusing event, strike unexpectedly and swiftly, get the local fighting over and consolidate gains, and erect your already prepared anti-access network or wall. From behind it you can now ask, "do your really want a REAL war, Americans? What will you sacrifice in an anti-access battle of attrition to get back this small slice of East Ukrane, Taiwan, etc.?" Terrorism and insurgencies can hurt us, but those four big wars could kill us.

Q: You review how to break down a wall: brick by brick versus hit the center of gravity versus frost damage, i.e. internal upheaval cracks the bricks....fascinating....explain it.

A: Americans are impatient about war and expect it to be as quick as a video game. My discussion of brick-by-brick points out that defeating anti-access is a war of attrition that is never short. Some favor high-tech weapons striking the enemy's center of gravity such as in the US Air Force's concept of air power. It insists we only need the weapons and information.

I disagree.

Yes, if facing a weak opponent – Syria versus a determined US, for example – we might strike the center, meaning Assad, and have the enemy collapse. But you cannot do that to the PRC. Authoritarian governments love walls because they preserve internal control and power. To defeat them, weaken the walls during peace so that they collapse without war or tumble very quickly if it occurs. I cite the Iron Curtain/Berlin Wall as an example.

Q: So there is no silver bullet?

A: As Lao Tze said, water is soft but can break hard things. Breaking down an anti-access wall, whether military or political, is a drip-by-drip process. It involves more than military efforts. There is no wonder-strategy that that can wreck the wall with one punch. Unless the wall has been already broken internally. Think about it: if China were a democracy, would it ever go to war with the US or its neighbors? No. It would not need an anti-access wall.

Q: Sketch the two scenarios that could lead to fighting over Taiwan.

A: In a bolt-from-the blue situation, the PLA would strike unexpectedly and try to win quickly. Yes, some American forces in the Western Pacific would be destroyed, but the goal is to have the US face a fait accompli and face a question: "Would you destroy world prosperity to recover Taiwan?" But the bolt-from-the-blue strategy would likely destroy the PRC's prosperity since neighbors will see a permanent enemy. Instead of kowtowing to the PRC they might form a NATO-like Pacific alliance. The world would not support the party.

In the gradual escalation scenario, the PRC would sacrifice speed and military effectiveness and offer excuses that would not alarm as much: "Tensions are rising. Whose fault is it anyway? Isn't Taiwan a part of China? The US should be careful – but no one here wants war," etc.

If the US government handles the situation as the Obama Administration handled the Ukraine -- disbelief and confusion -- China can take Taiwan but the international environment hobbles on. The onus will be on the US to "start the real war."

Q: A2-D2 must be integrated into grand strategy and that includes "head games" such as feigning interest in negotiation to buy time...sneaky but smart – would China do that?

A:Beijing is great at agreeing to international rules and then it breaks them. It often does that with the Law of the Sea agreement. The ultimate is this recent "non-binding" Code for Unexpected Encounters at Sea or CUES psuedo-agreement. The document was even drafted at an international-Western Pacific conference in Qingdao, but on the very next day Beijing announced it may not adhere to it. It has learned the public relations game very well and can mimic talk of peace, outrage at a century of humiliation, etc.

Many in democracies will believe this noise. Instead of listening to this external noise, study the party's internal discussions and documentation. They lay out very clearly what the PRC's goals are, what it sees as threats, what its national and international objectives are, why it sees the US as a declining power. Why do some Western decision-makers refuse to believe what the party tells itself? The same reason Western leaders thought "Hitler really doesn't believe all that Mein Kampf stuff for internal consumption... he would never risk a war."

I'm not claiming that the same things are happening. But if they say that by law Taiwan is an integral part of China, they will -- if undeterred -- eventually enforce it. That will involve an anti-access strategy. This should be no surprise to anyone.

Q: What do you advise for Washington?

A: Strategically the US must be clear if it wants to avoid a conflict. Harsh words don't cause war... weak words that lead to miscalculation do. Afterward everyone will bemoan like with World War I that "no one wanted war." Well, the Serbian anarchists and the German military nobility did. The US must clearly state and repeat that a military occupation of Taiwan or the established territory of a Western Pacific state means a sundering of political and economic relations between the PRC and America and Washington will use its military power to contest such a development and protect the international community by isolating China. Beijing will throw the greatest fits imaginable, but know there is no easy day.