James Holmes

The U.S. Army’s Anti-Access Strategy

Recent Features

James Holmes

The U.S. Army’s Anti-Access Strategy

The Army does have a role in the pivot. Will bureaucratic inertia get in the way?

Maj. Robert M. Chamberlain avers in Armed Forces Journal that land power "trumps" air and sea power in the Obama administration's pivot — or rebalance, or whatever the term du jour is for this formidable yet soft and cuddly strategic venture — to Asia. Or rather, he suggests that it should win out. Having broached similar ideas (along with my doughty coauthor Toshi Yoshihara) a couple of years back, I violently agree!

Well, mostly. To claim categorically that one thing trumps another is generally to overpromise. That's an ill-starred choice of term. Although … let's bear in mind that editors, not authors, write the titles in many publications. Hype is commonplace when driving up circulation or web traffic is your goal. That may have been the case here.

Anyway. Maj. Chamberlin maintains, in effect, that air and sea power are intrinsically offensive and destabilizing in character, whereas the U.S. Army could anchor a defensive posture in places like Japan or the Philippines. By developing land-based weaponry, and by organizing to shape events on the high seas, the army could field its own, strategically defensive, relatively unprovocative anti-access capability.

And indeed, there is ample scope for quasi-static, land-based defenses in the Western Pacific. They could deter war. The United States and its allies must mount an anti-access strategy of their own.

How? Surface fleets are increasingly vulnerable to shore-launched weaponry. That idea constitutes the substructure on which China's anti-access strategy is built. But reciprocity is a good thing. Beijing hopes to deter U.S. forces from attempting forcible entry into the Western Pacific in wartime. The PLA will field strong anti-ship capabilities, and few doubt the political leadership would use them under certain circumstances. Beijing hopes Washington will balk at the heavy price of access. Ergo, deterrence.

The U.S. Army can repay the favor by plausibly threatening to deny access to its own offshore waters and skies. And the army can do so from dispersed, dug-in sites that are far less exposed than a ship or plane. Mobile missile batteries, moreover, are exceedingly hard to find, target, and dislodge — witness coalition air forces' fruitless Scud hunt in western Iraq in 1991. Hide-and-seek is a game U.S. and allied troops can play as well.

Deterrence is negotiation through credible threats. The PLA can threaten allied movement at sea; the allies can tacitly reply that Asian waters will become a no-man's land should war come. The prospect of mutual assured destruction of surface navies will make for sobriety. So by all means, let's harness the logic of anti-access for the defenders of truth, justice, and the American (and Japanese, and Australian, and …) way.

But let's not overstate the ease with which this metamorphosis will occur. A journal article is not enough. Operating from more or less fixed island sites on a more or less permanent basis would run counter to the U.S. Army's big-war tradition, whose proponents beseech the service to return to its roots as a conventional fighting force after a decade-plus of unconventional Middle Eastern conflicts. That's one influential group of opponents.

It would also run afoul of counterinsurgency and counterterror proponents, who see Iraq and Afghanistan not as wars that have come and gone but as harbingers of things to come. They too could find turning seaward a novel and unwelcome if not foolish prospect. In short, both major schools of thought within the ranks could align against the anti-access cause.

I wish advocates of land-based sea power well, then, but any serious effort along those lines is apt to encounter fierce bureaucratic headwinds. Finding a sponsor — say, a maritime-oriented four-star or civilian secretary — would be a good start as access deniers beat into those winds.

Army Strong!