Offensive Content

Michael Kofman believes that US and NATO defence planners need to rethink their approach towards A2AD in light of Russia’s strategic posture and its belief in the importance of the offensive.

Michael Kofman, director of the Russia studies programme at the Centre for Naval Analysis, asks if we are posing the right questions regarding A2AD and Russia?

A2AD (Anti-Access/Area Denial)

The term A2AD (Anti-Access/Area Denial) is highly ‘on trend’ in Western defence circles. A 2016 conference at the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) Defence College in Rome defined the objective of A2AD as “to prevent the attacker from bringing its forces into the contested region (A2) or to prevent the attacker from freely operating within the region and maximising its combat power (AD).”

This followed an earlier definition published by the Centre for Strategic Budgetary Assessments, a Washington DC-based think tank, in 2003 which defined anti-access postures as “enemy actions which inhibit military movement into a theatre of operations,” with area denial being “operations that seek to deny freedom of action within areas under the enemy’s control.”

A2AD has been repeatedly applied over the past decade to the strategic and operational postures of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia. The argument being made in both cases that these nations wish to slow down, or preferably stop, US-led military action in their locale during any future confrontation. Defeating these supposed A2AD postures places a premium on air defence suppression, given the importance that both nations seemingly attach to advanced Ground-Based Air Defences (GBAD) such as Russia’s Almaz-Antey S-400 (NATO reporting name SA-21 Growler) high-altitude/long-range Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) system or the PRC’s China Precision Machinery Import-Export Corporation HQ-9 medium-range SAM system.

Mr. Kofman argues that one must approach the question of SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defence) vis-à-vis Russia with caution. The past thirty years of air operations involving US and allied forces has witnessed SEAD campaigns in Iraq (1991 and 2003), the Balkans (1995 and 1999) and more recently Libya (2011).

These conflicts have pitted the US and her allies against hostile Integrated Air Defence Systems (IADS) protecting the airspace of these nations and regions, and the GBAD protecting hostile deployed forces, the GBAD and IADS being neutralised at little cost to friendly airpower: “There is no evidence that a country like Russia would allow the US to progressively rip it apart in a way that other countries might, and have done in the past,” Mr. Kofman says.


Russia’s determination in this regard is reflected in the materiel which furnishes its IADS and GBAD.

Mr. Kofman recently published a paper entitled ‘Russian Anti-Access/Area Denial: It’s not overrated, just poorly understood’. The paper provides a comprehensive overview of how the Russian armed forces are thought to organise their IADS and GBAD.

At the strategic levels the Russian Aerospace Forces, known as the VKS, deploy the Almaz-Antey S-300PMU1/2 (NATO reporting name SA-10 Grumble) long-range SAM system, the S-400 and the S-350E medium-range SAM ensemble. Low altitude and point defence is provided by the KBP Pantsir-S1 (NATO reporting name SA-22 Greyhound) combined medium-range SAM and AAA (Anti-Aircraft Artillery) system. These assets are closely coordinated with the fighter force.

Mr. Kofman states that these air defences are deployed to protect critical civilian and military infrastructure, Russia’s nuclear forces and those forces considered ‘strategic’ by the Russian General Staff. Unsurprisingly they are deployed in such a fashion as to provide overlapping coverage. The Russian ground forces use similar systems to provide overlapping operational and tactical coverage of manoeuvre formations which are under the command of the Air Defence Forces of the Ground Forces, known by their Russian PVO-SV acronym.

In his paper, Mr. Kofman argues that the SEAD battle must form part of a wider offensive counter-air effort writ large, and must not be seen in a vacuum, during any future conflict: “Russian fighters will naturally fill the corridors or gaps between Russian air defences, and will be guided by radar systems that can see low (radar cross section) aircraft.” Moreover, US and NATO combat aircraft would eventually have to contend with emerging fifth-generation Russian fighters like the Sukhoi Su-57 (NATO reporting name Felon) and a Russian strategic offensive counter air operation to suppress NATO aircraft on the ground.

Simply attacking the IADS will leave Russian airpower threats untouched. He wryly notes the challenges this OCA requirement might bring: “All you have to do to achieve air dominance is eliminate the VKS radars, the low-frequency radars, and the Russian air force, then you’re largely ok right after dealing with the countless air defence systems. Assuming you don’t run out of munitions early on into this process, or aircraft, and all the high value enabling platforms do not get attrited, then it’s a manageable problem.”

Centres of Gravity

Mr. Kofman believes that there is a danger in simply seeing a SEAD effort against Russian forces by US/NATO airpower as an ends in itself: Sweep away the IADS and GBAD and you can then attack other non-air defence targets with a much lower risk. This may have been the lesson from previous air operations but he believes this is disingenuous: “The IADS is not a centre of gravity in its own right,” he warns.

It also risks ignoring how Russian doctrine perceives air attack. “A large part of Russian thinking regarding how to cope with massed air attack is offensive.” The IADS and GBAD are important but as part of an offensive, as opposed to a defensive, mindset. Mr. Kofman states that “Russia’s problem is that the US and NATO will fire thousand of stand-off weapons against key targets.”

Russia’s air defence posture thus plays a key role as the strategic pivot from an initially defensive to an offensive posture: “The job of the air defence is to attrit an incoming US strike and help deflect that, focus the US and NATO onto itself, and take that strike focus away from the vital centre of gravity targets.” Therefore, SEAD cannot be restricted to the IADS defending those key strategic centres of gravity.

As noted above, Russia’s ground forces maintain formidable GBAD: “If you were to take out the operational level GBAD owned by the VKS, you would still be left with the fact that there is an incredible amount of GBAD that the PVO-SV has.”

The Russian military expects that if it can inflict a heavy price on NATO airpower, and successfully deflect the strike in the initial period of war. Then the other side will have no choice but to negotiate. Much of that premise rests on offensive strategic operations, the disorganising effects of kinetic and non-kinetic strikes, and the destruction of high value platforms that help integrate NATO aerospace forces.

Mr. Kofman believes that it is time to revisit the application of A2AD concepts to Russia. The rationale that a nation develops doctrines and equipment solely to blunt or stop the pace of US-led combat operations by exacting an increasing fee in blood or treasure carries inherent risks: “A2AD was not a very smart way to have a sensible conversation” about Russia’s strategic thinking, Mr. Kofman posits.

For Russia “a large part of its thinking is offensive. It believes there is no other viable concept of operations which works.” Russia is not Iraq, Libya or Serbia. It has seen how the air defences and fighter forces of these countries were unable to realistically challenge US airpower.

In Russia “there is an understanding that NATO and the US has never faced an amalgamated air defence which includes the IADS, GBAD and fighter force” of that country’s size. What may seem like a defensive posture on the part of Moscow may be anything but.

by Dr. Thomas Withington