America’s strategy community has a problem that it likes to call “A2/AD,” and while the symptoms are very real, in the case of Russia strategists and planners have largely misdiagnosed the nature of the challenge. Anti-access and area denial, commonly known as A2/AD, is more than another defense community buzzword: It has become a deeply rooted way of talking about the military capabilities of adversaries that the United States considers to be relative peers. The term has enjoyed great utility as short-hand for a select grouping of adversary capabilities that pose major problems to America’s preferred way of conducting combat operations (unrestricted and uncontested). But when applied to Russia, the “A2/AD” frame has become dangerously misleading. Over time, anti-access and area denial has evolved from a vehicle for useful conversations about Russian conventional capabilities to a vision of a Russian doctrine or strategy for warfighting that frankly does not exist. The result is a general misreading of the Russian military’s operational concepts and strategy for large scale combat operations.
Russia’s policies regarding the South China Sea (SCS) dispute are more complex than they might seem. Moscow’s official position presents Russia as an extra-regional actor with no stakes in the dispute. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, Russia “had never been a participant of the South China Sea disputes” and considers it “a matter of principle not to side with any party.” However, behind the façade of formal disengagement are Russia’s military build-up in the Asia-Pacific region, and the multi-billion dollar arms and energy deals with the rival claimants. These factors reveal that even though Moscow may not have direct territorial claims in the SCS, it has strategic goals, interests, and actions that have direct bearing on how the SCS dispute evolves.
One-fourth of Russia’s massive military modernization program through 2020 is designated for the Pacific Fleet, headquartered in Vladivostok, to make it better equipped for extended operations in distant seas. Russia’s military cooperation with China has progressed to the point that President Putin called China Russia’s “natural partner and natural ally.” The two countries’ most recent joint naval exercise – “Joint Sea 2016” – took place in the SCS, and became the first exercise of its kind involving China and a second country in the disputed SCS after the Hague-based tribunal ruling on China’s “nine-dash line” territorial claims. However, Russia’s relations with Vietnam are displaying a similar upward trend: Russia-Vietnam relations have been upgraded to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” comparable to the Russia-China relationship. Russia and Vietnam are developing joint gas projects in the SCS, and Moscow also is trying to return to the Cam Ranh naval base and selling Hanoi advanced weapon systems that enhance Vietnam’s defense capabilities.
Ahead of the Donald Trump-Xi Jinping summit this week at Mar-a-Lago, Taiwan is understandably anxious. Trump’s ascendance to the American presidency has injected uncertainty into the U.S. approach to China and Taiwan — an element of foreign policy that is traditionally carefully calibrated to avoid upsetting the precarious cross-strait arrangement. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s unprecedented phone call with then-President -elect Trump in early December seemed to herald a new, more muscularly pro-Taiwan approach. This impression was subsequently belied by Trump’s suggestion that Taiwan could be traded away as part of a grand bargain with China. Speculation about Trump’s interest in upending this long-standing U.S. policy died down after the president affirmed his support for the “one China policy” in his first conversation with Xi. The next month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson adopted China’s verbiage regarding a “new model of great power relations” during his trip to Beijing.
Whether and how Trump and Xi will address the one China policy remains to be seen. “We are preparing for every scenario,” one unnamed Taiwanese official told The Washington Post. Yet the underlying problem is clear. As Taiwan’s recently released Quadrennial Defense Review argues, Chinese military power is increasing at the same time as the new administration’s plans for “the United States’ Asia-Pacific strategic direction and troop deployment” remain uncertain. These shifting geopolitical currents come at the same time as growing strain between Taiwan and China. Beijing regards Tsai’s traditionally pro-independence political party as antagonistic to its interests and, since her inauguration last May, has undertaken a campaign of increased economic, political, and military pressure.
Wargaming is enjoying a renaissance within the Department of Defense, thanks to high-level interest in wargaming as a way to foster innovation. However, for this surge of wargaming to have a positive impact, these wargames must be designed well and used appropriately. For decision-makers with limited wargaming experience, this can be a daunting challenge. Wargames can be deceptively simple — many do not even use complicated computer models — so it is all too easy to assume that no specialized skills are needed for success. At the same time, wargames are hugely diverse: interagency decision-making seminars that involve conflict without fighting, crisis simulations adjudicated by subject matter experts, and operational warfare in which outcomes are determined by complex computer models. For sponsors who may have only seen one or two games, it can be hard to understand the full range of wargaming possibilities and the common approaches that underpin them all. How can a sponsor discern whether wargames and the resulting recommendations are actually worthwhile?
Writing aimed at the sponsors of wargames and the consumers of their results has been slow to appear and overly focused on specific historical wargames. For example, Micah Zenko, Gary Anderson, and Dave Dilegge wrote about the weaknesses of Millennium Challenge and offered some lessons to be learned from this famously failed wargame. In contrast, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Paul Selva illustrated the potential of wargames by highlighting the famous Naval War College wargames played in the interwar years.