James Holmes

Flashy Name, Old Idea: Anti-Access Strategy

While made popular by recent analysis of China’s military, anti-access has deep routes in history.

As the Bard noted, a rose by any other name smells as sweet. So it is with “anti-access.” While the catchy title is new, the methods are as old as naval warfare itself. Nor is anti-access peculiarly Chinese, even though the People’s Liberation Army is today’s foremost practitioner. Imperial Japan’s strategy against the U.S. Pacific Fleet warranted the name. Like the contemporary PLA, the interwar Imperial Japanese Navy envisioned scattering assets like submarines and tactical aircraft along the Pacific Fleet’s path from Hawaii and the West Coast to the Far East. Repeated aerial and subsurface attack would thin out the fleetwhile wearying American crews as a prelude to decisive battle. That’s anti-access by another name—“interceptive operations” being the moniker Japanese officers often affixed to their war plans.

But even the Japanese didn’t pioneer the concept. Heck, Alfred Thayer Mahan reproached ancient Syracuse for its neglect of anti-access measures. During the Peloponnesian War, classical Athens dispatched its expeditionary fleet and army to Sicily, hoping to wrest away a breadbasket for that decades-long struggle while outflanking rival Sparta. The invasion pitted the Athenian armada against that of Syracuse, a naval power on the rise. Mahan praised Syracusan strategist Hermocrates, whom he deemed a natural genius of strategy, for urging the Syracusan assembly to forward-deploy the city’s capable but inferior fleet to Tarentum—a city in the heel of the Italian boot—to harry the superior Athenian fleet along its journey from Greece to Sicily.

Distant defense would have opened up a wealth of operational and tactical options while imposing strategic dilemmas on the Athenians. Syracusan commanders could have threatened to cut the Athenians off from their source of supplies back home. They could have compelled Athenian commanders to leave behind slow-moving transports and supply vessels that would have made easy pickings for the Syracusan navy in combat. And so forth. Mahan upbraided the assembly for rebuffing Hermocrates’ counsel—and thus missing a major opportunity to avert invasion. The campaign ultimately had a happy ending for Syracuse, costing Athens its entire expeditionary force. For Mahan, though, the journey to that destination was needlessly hazardous and costly.

So anti-access is a time-tested strategy for using an inferior navy supplemented by shore-based weaponry to oppose a superior fleet that ventures onto your home ground. Next we’ll look at the Islamic Republic of Iran, another regional power striving to convert the sea and sky into a bulwark against U.S. military access—rather than a medium by which Washington projects power onto remote shores.