A2/AD: Translating for the Warfighter Using Operational Art

By Maj. Mike “Pako” Benitez

If they [US military] want to guarantee their position in the field of military reforms that has already begun and will be completed right away, then the first thing that must be resolved is to eliminate the lag that exists between US military thinking and military technology.

— Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, China PLA, Unrestricted Warfare, 1999

In 1991, Operation Desert Storm showcased the modern US military for all to see—and the world was watching. Nations with growing military power have adapted accordingly, leveraging technology to grow increasingly capable threats to counter US force projection. The predominant phrase used to describe this growing threat environment—anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD)—is indiscriminate and problematic. Founded in concepts and strategy, conflict in an A2/AD environment has yet to bridge the gap to manifest itself in operational art, preventing the Joint Force from converting the idea into tactical tasks and stifling operational agility and coherence in future conflict. 

The Origins and Environment of A2/AD

Though the principle of A2/AD has been around for centuries, the phrase actually dates back to 2003 when the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment report stated, “anti-access (A2) strategies aim to prevent US forces entry into a theater of operations, then area-denial (AD) operations aim to prevent their freedom of action in the narrow confines of the area under an enemy’s direct control.”

That soon became truncated and proliferated, and the term is now ubiquitously used in defense industry to describe an opposition’s doctrine, strategy, operations, and even an individual weapon’s capabilities. Despite A2/AD having lived in the defense lexicon for 13 years, it is still largely absent from the doctrinal publications of all the armed services. Counter-A2/AD dialogue still largely remains in the conceptual domain, from the Joint Operational Access Concept to the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (JAM-GC, formerly Air-Sea Battle).

Even worse, over time “A2/AD” has become synonymous with modernization dialogue and therefore a relative term. One could argue that the Russian SA-2 surface-to-air missile system provided an A2/AD capability throughout the 1960s. It famously shot down Gary Power’s U-2 over Russia in 1960 and was attributed to 190 aircraft losses in the Vietnam War. Though the SA-2 is widely proliferated and still in service around the world today, it could not be further from modern A2/AD. Hypothetically, suppose the Joint Force was instantly transformed to counter all of the threats today, would the term “A2/AD” cease? Unlikely; instead the term would simply seek new systems to define its existence.

This conflation came to a head in October 2016, when Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson declared, “To ensure clarity in our thinking and precision… We’ll no longer use the term A2/AD as a stand-alone acronym that can mean all things to all people or anything to anyone – we have to be better than that.” To resolve this, we must increase the granularity of “A2/AD” to evoke operationally-grounded thought, to serve as the bedrock from which representative strategy can be built. This leads to viable planning to achieve the interoperability, interdependency, and integration that is required for domain synergy to achieve victory in future conflict. Anything else is simply defense rhetoric.

Concern Born From Stovepipes

Within the past 20 years, the services individually became concerned about A2/AD. The Army has generally been concerned with anti-access, having been well-aware since the Cold War that theater ballistic missiles threaten vital logistics and transportation ports of debarkation required to bring a meaningful number of forces into theater.

The Air Force has historically been more concerned with area denial. This mentality was originally grounded in the inherent distance aircraft can force-project, seemingly negating anti-access concerns. Consequently, the Air Force has historically placed emphasis on putting weapons on target. However, any target worth attacking is likewise worth defending. This is reflected in aircraft losses from surface fire in virtually all major (and some minor) conflicts throughout their history.

Unlike the Army or Air Force, the Navy takes a more holistic approach due to operational necessity. Threats by elusive enemy submarines or attack from the air have generally inhibited access, thus determining operating locations. This affects each ship’s purpose; the range a carrier must stand-off directly affects the power projection of its air wing. Additionally, the ship must also account for surface threats. Not to be overlooked, the Navy’s submarines must also contend with anti-access via mines and area denial from torpedoes—from the air, surface, and sub-surface.

Domain Mindedness

Though area denial was founded in counter-air evolution, technology is continuing to fuse the once stove-piped domains of all services. For example, the Chinese YJ-12 air-launched anti-ship cruise missile and the Iran land-based Zafar anti-ship cruise missile both affect surface area denial. The trend of proliferation coupled with rapid advancement makes this multi-domain equation difficult to negate. Unfortunately, doctrinal approaches and methodologies do not exist to solve this problem, and the problem will only continue to grow in complexity.

Area-denial operations describe an environment without any useful level of granularity. Intelligence preparation of this environment reveals the confines of the geographic area in question, which join range and territory to domain. For example, an SA-20 SAM system has an advertised range of over 200 miles, but is not a direct threat to the land or maritime domains. Even an enemy fighter carrying air-to-air missiles, bombs, and anti-ship cruise missiles together does not have the same threat range.

Forward Edge of Area Denial (FEAD): A Warfighter-Based Solution

Historically, air and naval forces have gone around or over problems, not through them. Accordingly, maneuver in these domains have not been bounded or defined by lines on a map as in land warfare. On the battlefield, there are geographic coordination lines that are well-understood by all. The forward edge of the battle area (FEBA) defines the point where friendly and enemy troops clash; the forward line of troops (FLOT) describes most forward positions of friendly forces in any kind of military operation at a specific time. These acronyms are defined in joint publications and are germane in the lexicon of military planning.

Leveraging both the connotation and context of these terms makes logical sense in progressing joint thought in near-peer conflict. In this sense, a new joint doctrinal term is proposed: Forward Edge of Area Denial (FEAD). Though it might sound similar to A2/AD, it carries some distinctions that synergizes multi-domain efforts.

Like FLOT and FEBA, FEAD is an acronym that is self-defined. FEAD also shares similarities with suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD). SEAD facilitates jointness through a common understanding across the services. SEAD is thought of as domain support (EMS) to another domain (air) that ultimately enables still other domains (maritime and land) to operate. FEAD would invoke the same multi-domain mindedness.

Using short-hand letters for the physical domains affected by area denial—A for air, SW for maritime surface warfare, SS for maritime subsurface warfare, SP for space (GPS Jamming), L for land, et cetera —and using them as prefixes provides applicable domain context that is easily translatable in text and charts. Most importantly, this provides the information on a single graphic—something that remarkably does not exist in any standard form. Having this in the planning process instantly invokes jointness and the elusive synergy of multiple domains.


FEAD provides a simple framework to create strategic clarity for some of the most difficult and complex operating environments imaginable. Applying FEAD in the planning process helps shape force application by providing an operational delineation to the environment. It instantly bounds the analysis of assessing the need to penetrate denied areas by clearly exposing complementing domain capabilities to provide an asymmetric advantage to offset risk.


In 1944, British strategist Sir B.H. Liddell Hart noted: “It is firepower, and firepower that arrives at the right time and place, that counts in modern war.” While talk of innovation is extensive today, the track record of action is one that reflects a reactive culture with an infatuation for lessons learned; fighting the last war. Unlike decades of low-intensity conflict where trial by fire and adaptation over time is permissible, in a near-peer military conflict there will be no second chances to garner and build on the mistakes of the past. A2/AD is a relative term and its definition is too fluid to be used in operational vernacular. If the US wishes to retain/regain its ability to penetrate a well-defended region with enough mass to achieve the effects it intends, operational art must be judiciously applied to convert the strategic problems into tactical solutions by seizing the initiative for the evolution of thought for future operations. The introduction of FEAD with associated domain designators begins this process by forming a baseline graphic from which to create strategic clarity for complex operating environments.

Maj. Mike “Pako” Benitez is an F-15E Strike Eagle Weapons Systems Officer with over 250 combat missions spanning multiple deployments in the Air Force and Marine Corps. He is a graduate of the US Air Force Weapons School and a former Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) fellow.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.


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9 thoughts on “A2/AD: Translating for the Warfighter Using Operational Art

  • January 20, 2017 at 5:47 am

    How would you define the FEAD-A? Seems like it would be very different for a B-2 and a B-52. I think the future battlespace will be complex enough to require a dedicated system of real-time, immersive information presentation to joint “coaches” who will be able to respond to pop-up and shut-down threats real-time to achieve an objective with a variety of tools. Anyone drawing circles on a map is going to be running his/her OODA loop far too slowly. We absolutely need some serious thought on HOW to present this information. I’ve spent hours designing and critiquing display formats for the F-16 and F-15E – hope someone is doing the same for the CAOC!

  • January 20, 2017 at 8:24 pm

    Good question, and a bit more tactical than the level I wrote at (an extended article version may publish at ASPJ in the future that addresses this a bit). Regarding your OODA loop comment, as Eisenhower once said, plans are worthless but planning is everything. We have to ingrain a multi-domain culture in everything we do, and it starts with our approach to deliberate planning.

    At my last unit I spent plenty of time breaking down what what a simple circle on a map is, as it means many things to many platforms (MRIR, KDR, TAR, etc.). At the tactical level, we are still years behind embracing “factor range”, which was intended to standardize some values based on assumptions that could be used across many platforms. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies.

    When it comes to LO, it gets a bit more complicated for a variety of reasons. The main one is that we have been hell-bent fighting wars at the SECRET level (from the operational-level perspective), then fairy-dusting more exquisite capabilities after the fact. I may be speaking out of turn here, but last I checked there isn’t a SAP-F mission planning area in any CAOC. Every brief I ever heard at a CAOC that had any of these ended with a “STO top-off” in a small closet-type office.

  • January 29, 2017 at 1:10 pm

    Pako, unless I’m missing something I still see vestiges of domain-specific thinking in your article, such as references to ballistics missiles as an anti-access threat and cruise missiles as more of a surface area denial threat. In reality, these classes of weapon also contribute heavily to airpower area denial in their ability to degrade or deny sortie generation when used in the offensive counter-air attack role. Area denial starts before you take off, not after you enter the range rings of SAMs or interceptors, and if you base outside the strike range of ballistic and cruise missiles, the enemy has still achieved a degree of area denial due to the time-distance problem. Hopefully I’m preaching to the choir here.

    • January 31, 2017 at 9:07 pm

      Lee, yes there is some baggage in the usage of the terms when tied to specific weapons systems and its inherently more complex than a short op-ed would lead one to believe. The bottom line is not everything is categorized as “A2” or “AD”, and we should be careful to avoid this constraint. In the commonly-accepted definition, I view the “anti-access” part as one that mainly deals with the strategic pieces on the board–i.e. denying basing/staging of forces. “Area denial” would involve the pieces on the board that prevent others from encroachment. But again, its not black and white. I don’t think everything that is not “A2” is suddenly “AD”.

      In this vein, using your comment examples, the cruise missiles used in an air field attack are a tad different than an ASCM. One seeks to attack a static airfield and is neither “A2” nor is it “AD” — its OCA-AO. An ASCM’s target is a moving airfield (carrier) and it’s presence can deny freedom of maneuver. Since the airfield was pre-existing, and not mobile, the pre-emptive move of an enemy be able to hold the field at risk prior to even setting up operations there makes it more akin to anti-access.

  • February 2, 2017 at 12:47 pm

    Copy all; thanks for the reply. In the last decade or so of my career, I often felt I and my analysts were fighting an uphill battle to get the CAF to understand that the fight didn’t start somewhere after takeoff and before reaching the target. It seemed to me that once the generation of leaders who served in Europe during the Cold War left the force, we kind of forgot about enemy OCA-AO as a threat, so it seems a drum worth continuing to beat.

    • February 2, 2017 at 7:16 pm

      100% concur. How many Air Force systems exist to support base defense from air attack? Zero. We’ve either ignored it or falsely thought the Army would support, but they haven’t had an air defense unit the bridges the gap between the Patriot and an Avenger in a decade or so. And those should be on the front lines and mobile, not in the rear with the gear to cover us.

  • February 2, 2017 at 8:17 pm

    Those systems are important, but are expensive and can be saturated. Lily pads help, too.

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  • April 8, 2021 at 3:52 am

    Must apologise in advance for fantastic Ingrish; got to abide by stereotype.

    Firstly, the claim “SA-20 SAM system has an advertised range of over 200 miles, but is not a direct threat to the land or maritime domains” has much less bearing in reality than is commonly believed, and it’s not limited to just SA-20.

    With exceedingly rare exceptions, all Soviet/Russian ground-based SAM systems are capable to engage ground(surface) targets, and did so effectively in virtually every conflict they participated at least once per particular war. It stands to mention that wasting the ready-to-fire missiles on frivolous pursuits like arranging a notional Mech Inf Company a sudden case of death before dismount is strongly discouraged. Less so when it comes to battlefield air defense missile & artillery systems like Tunguska, for which direct fire support is a standard part of mission portfolio.

    As a rule, the capability in question is getting excercised either in exceptional circumstances(like self-defense; even S-75/125 had such drills), or for special missions(like anti-amphibious defense).

    Some links:
    S-400 in anti-ship role: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9BIr6ncJDk
    S-125 in ground-to-ground role: https://twitter.com/gunner_schmulke/status/1380075753509904387

    Secondly, while tyranny of distance in the context of basing and sortie generation was covered, as usual for such publications, the author seem to have unusual degree of competence in the subject. Which begets offering a topic for hypothetical follow-up article, in which the tyranny of distance would be discussed in the context of ISR. If not to taste, the significance of depth in cruise missile defense is also a worthwhile topic. Hell, if author wants something spicies, there’s always the concept of Meet-up Counterair Battle. 🙂

    Thank you for the time and effort you invested into writing this. It was interesting.

    Your friendly REDFOR air defender.


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