The Buzz

Why NATO Should Fear Russia's A2/AD Capabilities (And How to Respond)

Russia’s hybrid warfare and anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities have caused great concern among neighboring nations. Moscow’s aggressiveness is viewed as seeking to weaken the NATO alliance and European partnerships. As a result, many European countries view Russia as a threat, and have decided to boost their defenses to protect themselves.

Russia’s hybrid warfare is challenging the U.S. and allies in Ukraine and on NATO’s four flanks. This type of combat includes a combination of cyber activities of unclear origin, irregular forces, conventional weapons and traditional forces applied in coordinated fashion. Russia purposely holds these activities below the threshold that the U.S. would normally consider conflict to limit response options and to challenge the norms usually guiding regional security.

Moscow is also increasing its military cooperation with Beijing by conducting regular exercises. Last week Russia and China began an exercise in the South China Sea focused on marine corps units conducting live-fire practices, sea crossing and island landing operations, and island offensive and defensive drills with Chinese and Russian surface ships, submarines, planes, helicopters and amphibious armored equipment. This is not their first exercise — they held drills in the Sea of Japan and in the Mediterranean last year.

So many countries are concerned about the Russian threat that cuts in Western European defense spending that have continued for the past two decades have come to an end. Norway plans to purchase 52 F-35 fighters, replace its submarine fleet, purchase new surveillance aircraft, upgrade tank units, and acquire new anti-aircraft systems. The Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have also decided to increase their defense spending. Even neutral Sweden is planning for an additional $2 billion to purchase armored personnel carriers, artillery, anti-tank weapons and air defense systems.

Russian A2/AD capabilities have been implemented in Kaliningrad along the Baltic Sea and in the Black and eastern Mediterranean Seas. For example, Moscow placed an S-400 missile air defense system, with a range of up to 250 miles, in Crimea last month. This system potentially denies airspace to NATO aircraft over the Baltic States, Ukraine, the Black Sea, northern Poland, Syria and Turkey. F-35s and other fifth-generation aircraft are needed more than ever because Russian air defenses are challenging fourth-generation air forces. U.S. planners have also learned more about Russia’s tactics from training Ukrainian soldiers: Moscow employs unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that can jam communications, mark targets, and transmit coordinates to artillery pieces and rocket launchers.

By 2019, Moscow will likely deploy Iskander advanced nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad in response to the new Aegis Ashore Missile Defense System in Romania. Russia views this system, which is part of the European Phased Adaptive Approach, as a threat to its aircraft even though U.S. and NATO officials have repeatedly explained that it is to protect Europe from Iranian missiles. Russian Iskanders have a range of 500 kilometers, about 300 miles, and could hit Poland and Germany. Moscow has already deployed these missiles twice to Kaliningrad, but has removed them afterwards.

NATO nations are almost completely dependent on air forces to counter Russian A2/AD. The alliance should consider developing A2/AD capabilities of its own even though they are considered offensive in nature. General Philip Breedlove, former supreme allied commander for Europe, noted that NATO needs more long range, survivable precision strike capabilities on the ground such as the Army Tactical Missile System, Multiple Launch Rocket System or High Mobility Artillery Rocket System. Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, Commanding General, United States Army Europe, noted that a Stryker regiment could really help in the restrictive terrain in the Baltic region.

Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance have also become a higher priority when taking into account Russian A2/AD capabilities. NATO isn’t especially proficient sharing intelligence during peacetime, and this must be improved. Understanding the security landscape is crucial to developing indications and warnings, bringing concerns to decision-makers, and taking early action.