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The third US offset strategy and Europe’s ‘anti-access’ challenge

Image credit: Umberto Salvagnin

Image credit: Umberto Salvagnin

In recent months, there has been a growing discussion on the so-called ‘third’ United States (US) offset strategy and its potential implications for Europeans. The underlying driver behind offset is to overcome or mitigate current challenges to US power projection – and global military-technological supremacy. As argued by former US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, the global proliferation of precision-guided, network-centric systems is challenging the very foundations of that supremacy. Precision-guided systems have allowed other countries to build up their Anti-Access Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities, i.e. by way of ballistic and cruise missiles, offensive cyber weapons, electronic warfare, etc.

China is a case in point. Beijing’s A2/AD capabilities can alreadyhold at risk most US naval and air assets, satellites and forward operating bases in the Western Pacific, thus leading to serious questions about Washington’s ability to project power into the region, especially within the so-called first island chain. Overcoming China’s A2/AD challenge has become one of the most pressing strategic questions for the US, and shall inform most future discussions on offset. This is a critical point – and is likely to have important implications for the transatlantic relationship.

Previous waves of US-led military innovation were largely informed by developments in the European theatre of operations. During the Cold War, the so-called first and second US offset strategies were followed by sustained US efforts to channel new capabilities and technologies onto the armed forces and defence companies of its main European allies. This process was facilitated by the fact that Americans and Europeans held similar perceptions about the nature of the Soviet threat – and about the need to use military power to counter such threats. In other words, the political-strategic and military-technological foundations of transatlantic cohesion went hand in glove.

However, the Asia-Pacific is likely to set the ‘gold standard’ of future global military-technological innovation. As such, developments in the Asia-Pacific are likely to continue to inform most US thinking on military innovation for years – and perhaps even decades – to come. Europe’s lack of interest (let alone engagement) in strategic developments in the Asia-Pacific may pose a systemic challenge to transatlantic cohesion. Thus, Europeans should think harder about their potential security contribution in and around Asia, especially in the context of A2/AD and offset. This will require a more structured global strategic dialogue with the US, but also greater ‘mil-to-mil’ and defense-industrial ties to those countries that are likely to play a key role in US efforts to offset the A2/AD challenge in the Western Pacific, notably Japan and Australia. The ability of Europeans to ride the next wave of global military-technological innovation may well depend on it.

But Europeans need not look that far in their quest for A2/AD challenges. Precision-guided systems are spreading globally – and so are the A2/AD capabilities that emanate from them. In fact, the need to devise strategies to offset the anti-access threat is most relevant for Europeans both in the context of defence and deterrence in NATO’s Eastern Flank, as well as when it comes to projecting power in their extended southern neighbourhood.

A2/AD in NATO’s Eastern Flank

Russia’s inroads into precision-guided, network-centric warfare have led to serious improvements in A2/AD in recent years. Moscow’s integrated air-defence system and short range, land-attack missiles already cover the Baltic States and large swathes of Poland. This problem is further compounded by the alleged presence of Russian S400 missiles in Kaliningrad, which could endanger NATO operations deeper into Europe. In turn, the impending militarisation of the Crimea is leading to the emergence of a Russian A2/AD bubble in the Black Sea area, one that extends as far as the Levant.

The build up of Russia’s A2/AD capabilities poses a very concrete operational problem for NATO because, in the case of a conflict or crisis, it might be risky for the Alliance to try to move aircraft and ships into the frontline states; whether in north-eastern or south-eastern Europe. These aircraft and vessels would be highly vulnerable to Russian surface-to-air, anti-ship and land-attack missiles.

The European allies should think harder about the need to offset the A2/AD challenge in NATO’s Eastern Flank. Some of the concepts and technologies the US is experimenting with in the context of its third offset strategy are most relevant in that context. In particular, in order to restore conventional deterrence in Eastern Europe, NATO should focus on strike capabilities that can cut through Russia’s A2/AD layer. That means stealthy air-to-air and air-to-ground systems, submarines (which are becoming increasingly important in the context of land-strike missions), offensive cyber-weapons and short-range missiles.

Europeans should also advance towards Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities that are ‘A2/AD proof’. This means that they should reduce their dependence on space-based assets, given their high vulnerability in mature A2/AD contexts. In this sense, Europeans should look into alternative ISR systems, by accelerating Research and Development on alternatives to space for precision navigation and timing, fielding a ‘high-low’ mix of ISR Unmanned Aerial Vehicles with long mission endurance, and developing an ‘aerial layer’ alternative to space for communications. Relatedly, Europeans should also think harder about capabilities and technologies that can defeat A2/AD. This underscores the potential of advanced missile defense systems, and the promise of directed-energy and electromagnetic rail guns, as well as anti-submarine warfare and counter-space capabilities. These are all key elements in the Third Offset Strategy.

A2/AD in Europe’s ‘southern neighbourhood’

A2/AD capabilities are also finding their way into Europe’s extended southern neighbourhood, a geographical space running from the Gulf of Guinea, through the Sahel, the Mediterranean and Red Seas onto the Western Indian Ocean – as far as the Persian Gulf. Arguably, the A2/AD challenge looming over Europe’s south is still relatively immature, certainly in terms of technological sophistication. However, several actors are exploiting the advantages offered by precision-guided systems to progressively build up their own A2/AD capabilities.

Iran’s A2/AD strategy combines technologically sophisticated elements – such as advanced air defences, cruise missiles, and even attack submarines – with the application of precision-guided systems to more ‘rudimentary’ munitions, such as rockets or mortars. Thanks to its advances in the realm of A2/AD, Tehran is already in a position to block the Strait of Hormuz and directly threaten US and European bases (and allies) in the southern Persian Gulf.

In Syria, Russian-made, precision-guided surface to air missiles and thousands of anti-aircraft guns make up an advanced air defense network that makes it increasingly difficult for Europeans to project power there. Other countries, like Egypt, Libya or Nigeria are also likely to take advantage of precision-guided systems to ramp up their A2/AD capabilities in coming years. Even terrorist groups are making forays into precision weaponry. For instance, Hezbollah already used anti-tank guided missiles against Israel in the 2006 Lebanon war; whilst Hamas has often used guided-missiles against civilian targets in Israel.

The proliferation of A2/AD bubbles in Europe’s southern neighbourhood challenges the assumption that Europeans can safely access most operational theatres in Africa and the broader Middle East, and move freely within those theatres. This assumption has guided most European thinking on expeditionary concepts and capabilities since the end of the Cold War, having led to much emphasis on capabilities such as military transport aircraft, air-to-air refuelling, satellite communications and helicopters. All of these capabilities are distinctively non-stealthy, and thus increasingly vulnerable in maturing A2/AD environments. Thus, Europeans should think harder about power projection capabilities and technologies that are ‘A2/AD proof’, such as long-range strike, stealthy air-to-ground aircraft; the potential of submarines to project power onshore (both through land attack missiles and for the projection of special operations forces); electronic warfare; offensive cyber-weapons, etc. Once again, the Third US Offset Strategy can offer a way forward here.

Vol. 7, No. 62 (2015)

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