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Research Question

  1. Is the A2AD threat to U.S. force projection growing more severe in critical regions?

This volume describes nine warfighting scenarios, some set in 2015 and some set in 2025. The principal purpose of these scenarios is to test the hypothesis that the anti-access and area-denial (A2AD) threat to U.S. force projection is growing more severe in critical regions. The potential adversaries in the scenarios are China, long recognized for its A2AD capabilities, as well as Russia and Iran. Both the 2015 and 2025 scenarios describe plausible U.S. and adversary military actions based on common understanding of current operational capabilities and approaches.

The scenarios show that the A2AD capabilities of important potential adversaries are likely to increase in significant ways over time, threatening U.S. strategic interests. In particular, adversaries' ability to conduct A2AD at distance is likely to increase, to the detriment of U.S. force projection. Further, the U.S. response under current strategy and operational approaches to defeating A2AD could lead to conflict escalation and, in some cases, increased risk of nuclear war.

This volume is a companion to Smarter Power, Stronger Partners, Volume I: Exploiting U.S. Advantages to Prevent Aggression (by Terrence K. Kelly, David C. Gompert, and Duncan Long, Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, RR-1359-A, 2016).

Key Findings

The Adversaries Matter, and Their Improving A2AD Capabilities Make Them Significantly Harder to Defeat

  • The regions and stakes in these scenarios are strategically significant, and the opponents are plausible. The posited challenges would have far-reaching consequences for the United States. Even absent a war, a shift in the perceived military balance and the likely outcome of any conflict could be damaging.
  • Such a shift is exactly what the 2015 and 2025 scenarios illustrate. The degree and consequence differ from case to case, but, in each instance, the adversaries' A2AD capabilities increase relative to U.S. force projection.
  • Some of the major drivers of a degraded U.S. position are the same in each scenario. Paramount among these common elements are more and more-capable ballistic and cruise missiles. Telling improvements are also made by adversaries in each scenario in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and in air defenses.

Anti-Access and Area-Denial Effectiveness Declines over Distance and Increases over Time in Significant Ways

  • The adversary ability to threaten U.S. forces diminishes as distance increases from the adversary's homeland.
  • The greater the reach of an adversary's A2AD umbrella, the abler it is to project force locally in the face of U.S. opposition.

The U.S. Response to Anti-Access and Area Denial Leads to Escalation and Increased Strategic Risk

  • To overcome A2AD, the United States launches extensive conventional strikes against the adversary's homeland. In general terms, this is escalatory: Regional aggression against a U.S. ally or deployed U.S. forces is met with a broad U.S. attack.


  • The scenarios show that a change is needed in the United States' approach to A2AD. Volume I explores the underlying reasons for the current unfavorable trend and recommends a viable alternative strategy, one that exploits U.S. advantages to prevent international aggression.

Research conducted by

This research was sponsored by the U.S. Army Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, G-8, Army Quadrennial Defense Review Office, and conducted by the Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program within the RAND Arroyo Center.

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