If there’s one set of foreign military capabilities that has garnered U.S. attention in recent years, it’s those related to anti-access and area denial. Even the most acronym-constrained policymakers regularly cite A2/AD and its challenge to American power projection in the western Pacific. And with good reason: China’s investments in ballistic and cruise missiles, submarines, air defenses and counter-maritime forces have focused military minds on the East Asian littoral’s increasingly contested nature, and on ways in which the United States and its allies might overcome the growing challenges.
Anti-access is, however, not merely an Asian affair. While Washington continues its rebalance to the Pacific, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has dragged the U.S. back to Europe and to a renewed focus on the continent’s attendant security threats. As NATO and Pentagon planners begin to envision the previously unimaginable – conflict with Russia in Europe’s east – they must focus on Moscow’s growing A2/AD capabilities and strategies and move quickly to apply the lessons from Asia. Russia’s ability to contest the landmass in Europe’s east may actually exceed China’s capacity to keep American forces away from thousands of miles of coastline.
Russia is currently probing all over the north Atlantic region, testing defenses at sea, in the air, and on land. NATO has reported more than 100 Russian intrusions into European airspace over the past year, sometimes by planes that turn off their transponders as they fly dangerously close to commercial aircraft. Near-misses have occurred at sea as well. Earlier this month, Russian fighter-bombers practiced attack scenarios against NATO warships in the Black Sea; last fall, a suspected Russian submarine violated Sweden’s territorial sovereignty. On land, Russia is conducting snap exercises on its Baltic frontier and has announced that it will send Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad, which borders Poland and Lithuania.
Reason dictates that such probing will remain just that; it would be folly for Russia to pursue aggression against a NATO member. Yet Moscow’s embrace of hybrid warfare in eastern Ukraine has shown how a brazen, revanchist nationalism rules Russian foreign policy. As a result, it’s worth thinking hard about what a contingency in Europe might comprise.
Specifically, the West needs to prepare for a scenario in which it is denied access to the countries on NATO’s eastern flank long enough to establish facts on the ground that would be hard, and perhaps impossible, to reverse. If the fighting in Ukraine is any example, we could expect Russia to move quickly to seize railheads, as it has done in Debaltseve, and to contest airspace, as separatists have done in downing Ukrainian aircraft. It would take control of key transportation routes and airports, like it did in Donetsk, and attack ports, as it has done in Mariupol. Russia would also move aggressively to dominate the cyber domain and prevent communications among opposing forces while conducting information operations and covert activities to harden local populations against a western force and incite Russian minorities.
With the relative paucity of American forces and materiel prepositioned in the east, in a contingency the United States would need to surge quickly into the region. American and allied forces would depend on ports, roads, railways and airspace in which Russia would deploy its large and growing A2/AD capabilities. To cite just one example, the general commanding U.S. air forces in Europe recently said that one-third of Poland is covered by Russia’s integrated air defense system. Other NATO members, such as the Baltic nations, likely sit within range of Russian anti-aircraft missiles.
U.S. policymakers have largely focused on deterring further aggression, reassuring NATO allies, and imposing costs, especially diplomatic and economic penalties, on Russia for its actions in Ukraine. Some of these efforts are helpful in confronting the A2/AD challenge, including increasing NATO air-policing patrols over the Baltics, rotating ground troops in the east, prepositioning military equipment, and planning to counter Russia’s sophisticated electronic warfare capabilities. But much more is needed. One answer to the anti-access challenge in Asia has been the vaunted Air-Sea Battle concept (now awkwardly rechristened the “Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons”), which would harness cutting-edge technologies to overwhelm and overcome enemy efforts to contest domains. In Europe, if anything, the problem may be more profound, with any NATO effort to project power likely to confront challenges in the air, land, sea, space, and cyber domains.
Washington and its allies should start with a complete review of U.S. force posture in Europe. That doesn’t necessarily mean the United States should return two heavy brigades to Europe, but it should determine whether its forward presence on the continent is sufficient to prevent Russia from denying the U.S. access in a crisis. In addition, the transatlantic allies should begin exercises that focus specifically on the A2/AD challenge. The recent “Dragoon Ride,” which had U.S. Strykers traveling 1,100 miles across Europe, was a good start. NATO should also mine American efforts in Asia for lessons that apply in Europe; increase prepositioning; and exploit technologies including longer-range aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, and stealthy platforms. And Washington should lock in the rotational forces that are currently in the region, ensure continued funding to support U.S. training and exercises in Europe and avoid any near-term withdrawals of U.S. forces from the European continent.
During the Cold War, the United States spent an enormous amount of time and resources preparing for what it hoped would never materialize: a military confrontation with the Soviets on European soil. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, many of those efforts have languished as the United States and its allies have turned to an array of expeditionary challenges in faraway places. In the face of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and its near-constant probing in, above and around European borders, it is high time for the United States and Europe to renew critical muscle movements after years of atrophy. Russia will no doubt call such efforts escalatory. Yet the United States and its allies cannot afford to assume that we have the seen the end of Russia’s ambitions for the region. They should hope for the best, but plan for otherwise.