Maritime Access: Do Defenders Hold all the Cards?

By Arthur Barber III and Delwynn L. Gilmore Defense Horizons 4



National security strategy depends on sustaining access to world markets for American commerce in peacetime and for the Armed Forces to various parts of the globe in times of crisis or war. Potential nation-state adversaries understand the importance of this access and are devising strategies and investing in systems to delay, discredit, or deny U.S. entry to those regions of vital interest where they wish to become the dominant power. Most of these regions are adjacent to international waters where American naval forces freely operate today.

Naval forces provide a valuable degree of sovereign and secure access in a strategic environment in which overseas land bases are becoming increasingly restricted politically and vulnerable militarily. The mobility and layered defensive capabilities of American warships, particularly those operating in carrier battle groups, make them the hardest of all tactical forces for an adversary to find, target, and effectively strike with anti-access systems, such as cruise or ballistic missiles.

State-of-the-art long-range surveillance systems, such as satellites, are ineffective against moving targets at sea. Mobility also keeps ships from being vulnerable to ballistic missiles and makes accurate, long-range targeting of anti-ship cruise missiles a great operational challenge. Moreover, the latest generation of weapon systems for defense against submarines and cruise missiles is extremely effective against the current and projected systems of potential adversaries. These defensive systems are fielded on many, but not all, U.S. ships because of budget constraints and past estimates that likely adversaries had minimal naval capabilities. As national strategy changes to one that accounts for more demanding anti-access threats, the technology and operational skill will become available to sustain assured access for American naval forces.