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Anti-Access/Area Denial: Another Casualty in the Buzzword Wars

Anti-access/area denial, or A2/AD, is now deader than a dodo. The Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) announced today that the Navy had decided to drop it. These are some of the CNO's exact words on the subject:

To some, A2AD is a code-word, suggesting an impenetrable “keep-out zone” that forces can enter only at extreme peril to themselves. To others, A2AD refers to a family of technologies. To still others, a strategy. In sum, A2AD is a term bandied about freely, with no precise definition, that sends a variety of vague or conflicting signals, depending on the context in which it is either transmitted or received. ...To ensure clarity in our thinking and precision in our communications, the Navy will avoid using the term A2AD as a stand-alone acronym that can mean many things to different people or almost anything to anyone.

The CNO is right to note the conceptual disarray behind how A2/AD is currently understood and discussed. I will defer, however, to people like Bryan McGrath, BJ Armstrong, Nick Prime, Jerry Hendrix, Raymond Pritchett, Lucien Gauthier, Matt Hipple, and the mysterious amphibian strategist Commander Salamander about whether or not the term was beyond salvage. Was the CNO making a wise choice to junk the idea or a rash mistake? I'm not as well-equipped as those aforementioned folks to judge. Where I will get on a (virtual) soapbox: we need to learn from the recurring problems that led to how A2/AD became -- to the CNO -- "term bandied about freely, with no precise definition, that sends a variety of vague or conflicting signals, depending on the context in which it is either transmitted or received." More simply: a defense/national security buzzword. As the CNO has said in the past that innovation depends on learning, it is important to learn about how defense buzzwords emerge and how they fall.

I'll return to A2/AD in a bit. First, a digression about US defense analysis and policy planning. In a seemingly unrelated discussion, Conrad Crane argues that defense futurism can only be valid for a time limit of 20 years.

Earlier this summer, I wrote about an Army Unified Quest wargame that looked at the operating environment in 2050. Since then, I have noticed some additional speculation about how the Army should prepare for 2050 in outlets such as Small Wars Journal. After thinking some more about such prognostication and the risks of developing programs based on future visions, I propose a working hypothesis for others to consider: The maximum effective range of any future prediction is 20 years or less, and any viable warfighting concepts will be supported by developed or emerging technology rather than some figment of someone’s imagination.

Crane is really discussing the failed dominant style of American defense planning, of which A2/AD appears to be an exemplar. The origins of modern American defense programming and planning lie in the struggle to quash intra and inter-organizational politics that prevented a systemic approach to defense budgetary planning and programming. Intuitively, this approach would use functional outputs as a way of structuring budgets. Programs and program objectives would be designed in advance, and resources would be allocated to achieve programmatic goals. It is true that this style of defense analysis was necessary for the United States to afford the kind of military it has today. However, it is also true that the attempt to quantify what was often difficult to quantify and tame internal rivalries within America's gigantic military-industrial complex did not fully succeed at best and was an expensive boondoggle at worst. This is, however, a snapshot from a decades-old past.

The important part of this history lesson is the question of how desired functional outputs are determined. Ideally, US national security policies and strategies ought to determine this. But in all of the years in which I have been alive (I am in my late 20s) this common belief seems to be far more of a Platonic ideal than a real-world reality. In contrast, what often happens is some version of the following. (1): Copying perceived organizational and technological innovations in the private sector. Or, more specifically, whatever private sector innovations seem to be trendiest at a given time T. (2): Elaborate and expensive attempts at rebranding or the enforcement of a common organizational culture. These rebranding/culture engineering efforts, like the organizational management fad mimicry in (1), are often ways to enhance and protect the image, prestige, authorities and titles, and control of "management" and minimize the need for internal organizational conflicts and hard changes. But (1) and (2) are not as important as (3): the promulgation of an officially approved vision of the future -- which is itself a scheme for desired organizational control disseminated by management.

The old idea of corporate and governmental planning was of rational, top-down discovery of strategy by a team of bureaucrats. This strategy -- really not a strategy as much as a plan -- was imposed on both the organization and the external environment from the top-down. However, in reality high-level executives' ability to make their organization behave is limited, and their ability to impose their vision of change on an unwilling external environment is far more limited. A large portion of the management consulting industry is devoted to providing a psychological placebo for executives' feelings of powerlessness despite controlling such enormous organizations:

What most executives actually spend their days doing is sitting in meetings, filling in forms and communicating information. In other words, they are bureaucrats. But being a bureaucrat is not particularly exciting. It also doesn’t look very good on your business card. To make their roles seem more important and exciting than they actually are, corporate executives become leadership addicts. They read leadership books. They give lengthy talks to yawning subordinates about leadership. But most importantly they attend many courses, seminars and meetings with ‘leadership’ somewhere in the title. The content of many of these leadership-development courses would not be out of place in a kindergarten or a New Age commune. There are leadership-development courses where participants are asked to lead a horse around a yard, use colouring-in books, or build Lego – all in the name of developing them as leaders.

This is where defense buzzwordery comes in. Military analysts like William F. Owen and Colin S. Gray have often lambasted defense buzzwords and flashy new concepts as a form of humanities literary obscurantism that wears combat fatigues and totes a rifle and a rucksack. However, as Sean Lawson has argued in his excellent overview of the military co-option of complexity theory, defense buzzwords serve as both predictions of a prophesied future and a set of mechanisms for bringing about that future. If someone writes an editorial arguing that the future operational environment will be dominated by "tiny goats in sweaters warfare," it is not necessarily because some Hari Seldon-esque figure has gazed into a crystal ball and seen a future in which America's opponents will strike with enormous armies of tiny goats in adorable little goat-sweaters. Rather, as Crane suggests, it is because this tiny goat in sweaters warfare is a planned future that is expressive of the underlying tiny-goats-in-sweaters preference of the controlling organization predicting it:

The merging of the new warfighting concept with new training programs and new technology produced the powerful force that overwhelmed the perfect enemy, an inept Soviet clone, in Desert Storm in 1991. The whole world took notice, and discussions in defense circles pondered whether we had witnessed a true revolution in military affairs (RMA) or just a military technological revolution. .... After Desert Storm and the end of the Cold War, the Army abandoned AirLand battle to pursue the RMA with programs such as Force XXI and the Army After Next and mostly theoretical weapons like the Future Combat System. The 1993 Army operations manual was based upon a force with “near-perfect, near-real-time intelligence systems” and massed lethal effects with extremely deadly precision strike systems. Even the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency got alarmed about some future projections, and briefings in their files at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center highlight dangerous “tales from technology dreamland” and “tales from systems dreamland.”

This is not to argue that defense concepts are inherently, completely, and originally unmoored from reality. As Crane documents, there was a very real need for new warfighting concepts in the 70s-80s that the RMA and other similar ideas grew out of. But there was also a large aspect of 90s-early 2000s defense programs that stemmed simply from an approved political and organizational view of the future that would be realized come hell or high water. Which brings me back to A2/AD. A2/AD illustrates a common cycle of how promising defense concepts break down. First, some kind of real-world operational need is identified that is not receiving enough existing attention from a cumbersome and unresponsive national security bureaucracy. The problem, need, and solution concept is declared to be novel, both perhaps out of a lack of appreciation for history as well as the simple truth that cutting-edge sells better than "incremental, but necessary" and "military problems that aren't really that new: the hip hop remix." Advocates counter criticism by simultaneously arguing for the novelty or relative novelty of the concept, tarring critics as academic pedants, and justifying it because it is a useful concept even if it is not new.

However, the conceptual fragility of the new fad combined with the fad's newfound prestige becomes its undoing. The fad becomes everything to everyone, because everyone wants a piece of the action. Articles, conferences, books, PhD dissertations, contractor/vendor offerings, consulting gigs, new organizations and budgetary authorities, and other flotsam and jetsam of the extended military-industrial complex multiply faster than the number of Taylor Swift ex-boyfriends. The already tenuous real-world grounding of the fad becomes stretched beyond recognition as both new and old advocates and entrepreneurs respond to incentives to apply the fad to almost every imaginable situation or application. Eventually, discussion of the fad is severed from any connection to military knowledge or experience outside of the fad, as talking points about the fad can only be recursively constructed from previous talking points about the fad. Eventually the fad falls out of use because it becomes practically unworkable, destroying the cottage industry surrounding it as quickly as it was created.

As defense fads go, A2/AD was at least much more useful, bounded, and coherent than the "gray zone" concept. It had its uses in defense analysis and joint-service concept development and coordination, which was the original purpose of its closely related cousin AirSea Battle. But that still didn't save A2/AD from suffering the fate that I described in the previous paragraphs. It got sent to the section of Davy Jones' locker reserved for defense buzzwords. Perhaps it will be rediscovered in a different form (albeit with the existence of something called "A2/AD" forgotten in such a re-imagining). But either way it will likely be a (nonetheless important, given the context) historical footnote. Perhaps, if there are still books in the 22nd century, an enterprising young naval officer will write an "22nd Century ____" book about it.