Cover: The Army's Role in Overcoming Anti-Access and Area Denial Challenges

The Army's Role in Overcoming Anti-Access and Area Denial Challenges

Published Jun 17, 2013

by John Gordon IV, John Matsumura


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Research Questions

  1. What types of adversaries are U.S. military forces likely to confront in future operations?
  2. Which adversary anti-access and area denial capabilities pose the most serious threat to U.S. forces?
  3. How can the services leverage the interdependencies and synergies that facilitate combat support operations to counter these anti-access and area denial threats?
  4. What technological developments are in play on both sides of the combat equation (U.S./coalition and adversary), and how might they be adapted for different scenarios?

The U.S. armed forces must be prepared to deploy to a wide range of locations and confront adversaries that span the threat spectrum from poorly armed bands to peer-level foes. In future operations, the United States is also likely to face a range of anti-access and area denial threats that require a joint or combined response. Anti-access challenges prevent or degrade a force's ability to enter an operational area and can be geographic, military, or diplomatic. Area denial challenges are threats to forces within the operational area. As they relate to U.S. ground forces, these latter threats are characterized by the opponent's ability to obstruct the actions of U.S. forces once they have deployed. This report reviews selected findings from a study of Army and joint anti-access and area denial challenges. It also proposes a joint approach to countering these threats in future operations. There are important interdependencies and synergies between the services in terms of their ability to overcome these types of challenges. For example, some threats to the Army's ability to deploy to an operational area must be addressed primarily by the other services. Likewise, the Army could provide considerable assistance to the Air Force and Navy in suppressing or destroying air defenses that challenge joint air operations. For this reason, the services will need to work together to develop operational concepts and systems that will be effective in countering emerging and growing threats in future operations.

Key Findings

The Types of Anti-Access/Area Denial Threats That the U.S. Military Could Encounter in Future Operations Will Vary Considerably

  • At the low end of the conflict spectrum are guerrilla-type forces with very limited anti-access capabilities and a small number of modern weapons. These forces could still pose a considerable area denial challenge, however: They can operate among the local population and employ irregular tactics.
  • In the middle are so-called "hybrid" opponents, which can employ irregular or guerrilla-type tactics but are reasonably well armed with modern weapons and can therefore simultaneously fight in a conventional manner.
  • At the high end are the armed forces of nation-states that tend to employ conventional tactics and weapons. Even at this end of the spectrum, the level of anti-access/area denial capability can vary considerably.

Certain Key Adversary Capabilities Are Likely to Pose the Greatest Threat to Joint Forces in Future Operations

  • Long-range precision-strike systems: Technological advances have increased the accuracy of both cruise and ballistic missiles and profoundly changed the nature of the threat posed by long-range non-nuclear weapons, particularly against fixed targets (such as ports and airfields).
  • Littoral anti-ship capabilities: These capabilities include high-quality non-nuclear submarines, fast missile-armed surface craft, and smart coastal and shallow-water mines.
  • High-quality air defenses: The state-of-the-art defense system in 1973 was the Soviet-made SA-6 mobile surface-to-air missile system, with a range of approximately 25 km. Today, the state of the art in air defense has a maximum effective range against non-stealthy aircraft of approximately 400 km. U.S. forces will also need to consider the low-altitude threat of improved anti-aircraft guns and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons.
  • Long-range artillery and rocket systems: The proliferation of mobile rocket launchers with ranges of more than 50 km can pose a major threat to Army or Marine Corps lodgment areas, such as ports and airfields.


  • Many advanced U.S. weapon and modernization programs were designed to defeat a much larger adversary (such as the Soviet Union) and are now considered obsolete. However, some of these key capabilities have lived on and, collectively with new technologies, hold promise for future operations. The Army and the other services should pay close attention to how these systems can be used against anti-access and area denial threats.
  • In the modern operating environment, it appears that the total force size matters less than force capability, at least initially. U.S. forces may be outnumbered by a much great margin as they attempt to gain and maintain access to an area of operations. For this reason, there is a high premium on advanced force protection capabilities. U.S. combatantcommanders should establish a sufficiently high level of force capability early on — and provide a means to protect that force.
  • The Air Force and Navy should consider how the Army can help them surpass or defeat adversary air defenses. Likewise, the Army should examine how the Air Force and Navy can facilitate its deployment to operationsl areas where its forces are likely to be challenged by adversary anti-acess or area denial capabilities.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was sponsored by the United States Army and conducted by the RAND Arroyo Center.

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