Horatio Nelson was a man for all seasons, with something meaningful to say about almost anything relating to naval warfare. Including anti-access: Lord Nelson once joked that “a ship’s a fool to fight a fort.” He knew this from hard experience enforcing a blockade on Napoleonic France. Forts were bigger than ships, meaning they mounted heavier guns and stockpiled more ammunition. They often sat on heights from which they could rain down shot on men-of-war below. In such cases shipboard gunners couldn’t elevate their rudimentary cannon high enough to return fire.
That’s what seamen call being in the hurt locker.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Now assume the fort’s guns can pour accurate fire onto targets hundreds of miles, not hundreds of yards, away. And suppose these highfalutin’ guns can be easily repositioned anywhere along the coast, not just at seaports and other key points. In effect such a revolution in anti-access technology would convert the entire coastline into a fort bristling with more striking power than Nelson could’ve imagined. Rather than the confined waters dominated by the crude guns of his age, a broad belt of sea would verge on no-go territory for hostile warships. At the very least, commanders would have to accept heavy costs for entering the anti-access zone.
That’s the logic of access denial. And while access denial is a strategically defensive scheme designed to prevent enemies from doing or taking something, it also opens new vistas for offensive fleet operations.
This wasn’t always true. One of Nelson’s biographers, Alfred Thayer Mahan, decried what he called the “fortress-fleet,” the fleet that sheltered under the fort’s big guns for protection. This practice limited a navy’s freedom of maneuver to tiny sea areas. Worse, it neutered commanders, rendering them timid and defensive-minded. The Russian Navy sunkbyJapan in 1904-1905 was the fortress fleet par excellence.
But like Nelson, Mahan could never have foreseen today’s long-range precision-guided weaponry. If Fortress China or Fortress Iran could use inexpensive shore-based weapons to clear adversaries from a massive offshore zone, think about what that would mean for its navy. Simple. It would render Mahan’s critique moot. It would mean abundant liberty of action. No more playing defense underneath that protective shield.
Beijing and Tehran, furthermore, would no longer need to go to the expense and bother of building against stronger adversaries like the U.S. Navy. If a ship’s still a fool to fight a fort, then the navy that stays within range of land-based fire support probably will never have to face the U.S. Navy in a head-on fleet engagement. It can design a fleet around less taxing missions than an East or South Asian Trafalgar. That’s a far easier standard to meet, and the coastal state could meet it at its leisure. Why construct a fleet for a battle you never expect to fight?
This logic may explain why China’s navy has apparently alighted on a destroyer design, the Type 052D, that carries only two-thirds the missile firepower of America’s top-of-the-line DDGs, and whose combat-systems suite in all likelihood cannot match the latest version of the Aegis system. So long as Beijing confines its political ambitions to places within reach of systems like anti-ship ballistic missiles—namely the China seas, a sizable swath of the Western Pacific, and parts of the Indian Ocean—it can content itself with a navy of second rank. Good enough to accomplish its goals is, well, good enough.
The fortress-fleet—a concept whose time has come?