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China has historically maintained an air of mystery and the nation is a potential competitor to Western power in our day, resulting in many fearful speculations about Beijing’s strategies and capabilities. But a careful analysis of Chinese strategy and US counter responses suggests that US is fairly well-prepared in its defensive maneuvers.

What is A2AD?

Anti Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) is a strategy used to prevent or severely restrict, slow down, or endanger the opponent and prevent their ability to operate in each area. This strategy would include tactics like blacking out American satellites, disabling launch codes on destroyers using hacking, forcing Americans to steer their own ships through difficult straits and shallow shoals, and then sending massive amounts of newer, faster, and deadly missiles including one called the carrier killing missile (which was just tested in the South China Sea.)

In the case of conflict this would mean that US forces would be unable to enter the theater of operations until they degrade those massive numbers of missiles and weapon systems.

The theory then goes, that by the time the US fights its way through that A2AD bubble China would have already seized disputed territory with Japan, Taiwan, or in the South China Sea. They would essentially dare the US to liberate the territory in the face of what would likely be negative world opinion and dropping public support. Hearkening back to Chinese military theory, they use new and unexpected technology to achieve their goal to win without fighting, and maybe without a single death.

US Army Doctrine

But the US isn’t standing idly by as they let China (or Russia) dictate a strategy that gives them a free hand for their imperialist land grabs. The war could be over before the US takes months to build up its forces and is ready to response.  Moreover, adversaries like China would ostensibly seek to use that window to win a short, quick war or seizure of territory. In fact, a short, preemptive war to seize territory has been their strategic signature since 1949.

To counter this strategic blind spot and be able to operate in the A2AD environment the US wants to have forces ready to either survive in theater or be able to project force into the theater. In terms of doctrine, the US Army has called this “multi domain operations.” They emphasize using all assets-land, maritime, air, space, cyberspace- to become a “forward presence and expeditionary [force] to deny enemy objectives within days and achieve an operational position of relative advantage within weeks.”

There is concern about what these forces and the rest of the US military will do in the event a short war turns into a protracted conflict but it remains critical to meet the danger of a short, quick war.

US Navy Changes

In pursuit of this strategy the US Navy is looking to adopt a greater number of smaller and unmanned vehicles (UV). These UVs will present a swarm of low cost counter missile batteries. They could use rail guns which use high velocity projectiles instead of explosives to counter missiles. (They are shot so fast that they can explode the warhead.) Another alternative consists of lasers which new technology has made portable enough for deployment on a variety of air, land, and sea platforms.

The problem with US technology is that many of their missiles cost a million dollars, and their ships billions of dollars, while the swarms the Chinese will use, such as drones, cost as little as 50 dollars. Even if no missiles strike capital ships, the US would have spent billions of dollars in munitions to destroy plastic drones. But rail gun ammunition is extremely cheap, and lasers can fire all day if the power is running on the ships.

Having no (or in some cases limited) crew and a cheap design will make any potential engagement less costly. Some analysts claim this means the Navy is admitting the carrier is obsolete. But the unmanned vehicles will allow the carrier battle group to project power against more selective targets. As the doctrine stated, “to achieve advantage within a few weeks.”

Marine Corps Changes

Ships aren’t the only item to help. The US Marine Corps is also changing their force structure. They don’t want to be a second land army and thus are moving to eliminate tanks, helicopters and some MP battalions. They do want more and lighter amphibious ships that will better survive inside an A2AD environment, and as well as long range missiles that can project power into the A2AD theater. The Marines will also get unmanned air, land and sea platforms. In particular, the leaders envision a Marine force that can survive in a garrison that can headquarter in Okina, Japan but be stationed in small groups across the Pacific with enough weapons to form a bubble that can degrade enemy A2AD operations, or provide their own A2AD space.

This has the danger of them being overrun if the plan doesn’t work, but it could possibly stop the war by having an island of Marines with the tools to immediately stop enemy aggression.

The details are still being formed and they have their share of criticisms. But the new force structure and doctrine is encouraging news. The United States is taking concrete steps to adapt new technologies, like small unmanned vehicles, and integrate them with a force structure like missiles and existing carriers. They are doing this in order to defend allies against China’s strategic signature moves and any potential window of opportunity Beijing would have for a quick strike.

It's a tough moment