By Elizabeth Braw

October 5, 2015
Last week, General Philip Breedlove—the supreme commander of Allied Forces in Europe, and thus NATO’s top military officer—warned that Russia is building up a defensive bubble in the Mediterranean. Breedlove’s statement got plenty of attention, but what’s more worrisome is news that has received close to no attention: Russia is building a defensive bubble in the Baltic Sea as well.

A defensive bubble—A2/AD in military speak, which stands for anti-access/area denial—is a combination of long-range missiles and sensors that makes it hard or even impossible for enemy airplanes and ships to approach their target. With the sensors and missiles having a range of up to 2,500 kilometers from the coast where they’re based, the equipment is very long-range indeed.

As the Swedish Defense Research Agency, FOI, points out in a new report, China is actively improving its A2/AD capabilities, which—considering the equipment’s long range—poses serious challenges for the United States in Southeast Asia, in addition to raising concerns about Chinese sales of bubble components to rogue nations. Even rudimentary bubbles would make a quick air war like the Gulf War much harder.

That’s the sort of defensive bubble that worries Breedlove in the Mediterranean, where, as he noted, Russia has installed sophisticated air defense. “I have not seen [the Islamic State] flying any airplanes that require sophisticated air-to-air capabilities,” he told an audience at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, in Washington. In the Baltic Sea region, earlier this year Russiastationed a new generation of its fearsome Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad. The missiles officially have a range of 400 kilometers but are thought to be capable of travelling farther. As the FOI report notes, Russia is also introducing new radar systems capable of seeing beyond the horizon.

To put it mildly, that puts NATO in a quandary. As E. John Teichert, a career US Air Force officer who currently serves as deputy director of special programs for the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, notes in a recent article, A2/AD means that aircraft coming to the aid of a friendly country can’t get through. “Absent a coherent U.S. response, A2/AD threats compromise the U.S. military’s ability to project power, strike globally, and maintain its overseas force posture,” writes Teichert. Were the Baltic states to need assistance, NATO airplanes may not be able to reach them.

The good news is that the Pentagon is working on a solution, which until this year was called AirSea Battle and is now known as Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons. The bad news is that the bubble-defeating technology, too, will cost money.