Anti-Access and the 'Fortress-Fleet'
Image Credit: Wikicommons

Anti-Access and the 'Fortress-Fleet'


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.

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?

October 20, 2012 at 18:40

chinese people seem to think it is their right to control asia, americans see it as their right to dictate their will worldwide, this is going to end badly. 2 arrogant countries !

Errol T
September 19, 2012 at 01:30

Amen, brother.

September 16, 2012 at 05:49

It's not obvious at all that blinding satellites will be seen as total war.  Nor should you buy into the Hollywood-esque view that satellites are omniscient.  The oceans are very large, and ships (even NIMITZ class carriers) are very small.     

September 16, 2012 at 05:41

Subs, carrier launched aircraft, long range missiles, mines.  Did I say subs?  Certainly  not easy, but not impossible. 

September 14, 2012 at 02:04

China always tries to keep peace and economic developing in East Asia, but why there are always blaming and doubts focusing on us? Especially territory events. All treaties and declarations in WW2 have stated the territory of China clearly and exactly. However, India, Vietnam, Phillipine, Japan… and anyone we do not know in the future always try to get conflicts in Tibet, South China Sea, East China Sea in Territory rights. And US always gives a vague attitutde to all parts. If US want the benefits in West Pacific, they could just do that job please, and we always welcome commercial corporations, and always welcome and support any securtity works in West Pacific to keep this area peaceful. And if US could support China in its territory rights, everything will be finished easily. However, the sentence US support China in West Pacific, which must be the greatest joke in the world, will never happened, which has already a conclusion in every Chinese heart deeply. The real situation in Chinese eyes is US support countries around to confront with us potentially. Therefore, what can we do is just believe ourselves, dealing with our own style: China, a race after really long-time history invaded by other countries more than one hundred years, has the most powerful nationalism passion to protect our territory in the world and deeply knows the pains of countries being invaded, even that history has been away for tens of years and during 3 or 4 generations, which will make China always obey the peace treaties after WW2 and never do any initiative and active offensive movement to any countries around us.(Example must be our conflict with Japan: nowadays, Japan mainly has three conflicts with other countries, which are Russia, South Korea and China, and in these three, I believe China must be the most restrained and kind one. But what is the result? Facing our tolerance, what we get is not a friendly signal, but just more offensive feedback.) In the situation related to basic rights and benefits of our motherland, we all have no choice and the answer has already given. All Chinese descendants all over the world (what I mean is not only one fifth of the population on earth, Chinese own population, but whole world Chinese in Asia, Europe, America, Africa, Australia…) will support the movement of protection of Chinese territory. Only this point Chinese will never compromise with no hesitation. 

September 14, 2012 at 00:44

"Since I watched China invade and occupy Phillipine territory in the 90s, especially when it claimed the Mischief reef and subsequently built a military naval base on it, I have been sceptical."
Do you mean that Mischief reef is Phillipine territory? Oh, please go back home and read The Cairo Declaration and The Potsdam Declaration carefully, my friend. These two declariation that US convinced will tell who have the territory right of South China Sea.

September 13, 2012 at 13:42

Thank you for showing the true graciousness of the Chinese people. We know that you represent the true and honest face of China. 
Note, to the rest of the world. This is the face of China. This is what China thinks of everyone who is not Chinese. Be afraid.

Mark Thomason
September 12, 2012 at 15:59

As usual?  
You think we can imagine an engagement of China sinking our carriers and we shoot at their missile bases that is not "full scale war?"
I did not write that we could take out their missiles.  I wrote that we could do to them what they could do to us, which is sea denial.  They could not use it either.  That means they could not get at Taiwan and they could not get their imports.  

September 11, 2012 at 22:05

In the age of satellites hovering overhead and with more precise land-based missiles, big ships are "sitting ducks".  The cost of a missile against the cost of a warship shows the cost efficiency of land-based defense.  As targeting becomes more precise, a nation like China which is increasing its satellite coverage, can now effectively put American naval assets near its coastal lines at extreme risk.  It should be obvious that either nation will see an attack on its satellite system as "total war".

September 11, 2012 at 19:21

Tha Author seem to forget that their already an Air Component on this one and once the Air Component would be able to soften the defenses of the Enemy then Armies can land.

September 11, 2012 at 19:18

That is ideal Matt what we need are more defensive weapons to augment our Defense Capability. Sadly, I don't think we can afford the maintainance of having Land Base Missiles and Missile Defense.

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