Breaching Fortress Russia: The Uncertain Future of U.S. Expeditionary Warfare

Russian soldiers marching in Red Square. Photo Credit: The Kremlin.

Pivot to Near-Peer Competition

Currently, the United States possesses unmatched military power projection capabilities, spending almost as much on its military as the next eight highest-spending countries combined, as well as possessing the greatest number of forward-deployed forces in the world.[I] However, as the U.S. pivots toward near-peer competition, its expeditionary capabilities are coming increasingly into doubt. Expeditionary warfare has been one of the defining characteristics of the U.S. military for the last 25 years when it enjoyed significant qualitative and quantitative advantages over regional aggressors. These assumptions no longer hold when facing future conflict with Russia, a markedly different challenge from the demands of fighting global terrorism, and one that requires a reevaluation of US policy. The costs and risks of defending allies in Eastern Europe have increased, with the U.S. now facing advanced anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) capabilities. These include long-range precision strike missiles (PrSM), sophisticated integrated air defense systems (IADS), an aggressive undersea domain, and a contested information environment all designed to push American forces outside of their effective combat ranges.[II]

Unlike in the past, if a conflict were to break out in Eastern Europe today, the U.S. can no longer expect to successfully surge from the continental U.S. over several weeks, insert itself into a theater of operation (TO), and then conduct counter-offensive maneuvers without great risk.[III] As Russian expert Michael Kofman observed, “The Russian military is configured very differently from the expeditionary powers like the United States. It’s not meant to mirror powers like the United States, it’s meant to counter them.”[IV] While the U.S. continues to possess widespread global power projection capability, the viability of U.S. expeditionary warfare has been called into question.

Greatest Challenges to U.S. Superiority: Impeding Combat Range Effectiveness

Imagine this: a saturation of ballistic and cruise missile attacks that deny or delay US forces from accessing overseas bases, airfields, and ports during a crisis in Eastern Europe; IADS that prevent all but high-end stealth aircraft from entering the airspace around the conflict; anti-ship cruise missiles, advanced diesel submarines, and well-placed mines that threaten the ability of US naval and amphibious forces operating in littoral waters. These are exactly the components undergirding Russia’s formidable A2/AD capabilities today, and they are only getting better.

Of great concern in US expeditionary warfare are the impediments that restrict American forces’ ability to get close enough to assist allies in Eastern Europe. A crucial layer to Russia’s A2/AD capabilities that augments this dilemma is the formidable S-400 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system. The S-400 is optimized for the interception of ballistic missiles and large, high-value aircraft, possessing a maximum effective range of 400 km.[V] Russia supposedly has more than 300 S-400 batteries across the country, according to its defense ministry.[VI] These systems greatly threaten previously unchallenged US air superiority. In Syria, the Pentagon has acknowledged that the presence of the S-400 has required adjustments to coalition air operations, posing a particularly acute threat to non-stealthy aircraft (4th-generation and lower).[VII] Yet, to date the S-400 has yet to be tested in combat.[VIII] However, this has not stopped the S-400 from becoming one of Russia’s most sought-after weapon systems.[IX] Furthermore, while next-generation stealth platforms may help avoid detection from these SAMs, such as the F-35 joint strike fighter jet and the B-21 bomber, the much-vaunted next-generation of Russian missile defense–the S-500–boasts a range of 600 km and an alleged ability to target and neutralize even fifth-generation stealth fighters.[X]

The Russian Threat in Littoral Waters

While Russian SAM systems threaten US air superiority, Russia’s submarines similarly threaten US naval entry into littoral combat zones. Nuclear-powered subs have traditionally held a decisive edge in underwater warfare, leading the U.S. to phase out diesel-electric attack subs altogether.[XI] However, countries such as Russia have retained these platforms, which now appears to be a decision that is paying off. Despite developmental delays due to Western sanctions, Russia has been investing in new Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) technology for its diesel-electric subs, a technology that may soon dull the edge nuclear subs once possessed.[XII] The AIP system vastly improves the underwater endurance of diesel-electric subs, allowing them to recharge their batteries without having to snorkel as frequently, greatly reducing their noise signature.[XIII] These subs are also able to switch off their engines and lie in wait, unlike nuclear subs, whose reactors cannot be switched off at will.[XIV] Worryingly, during simulated war games, diesel-electric and AIP-powered subs have been able to slip through anti-submarine defenses and sink US aircraft carriers.[XV] These quiet, relatively inexpensive, and highly capable diesel-electric subs are becoming increasingly difficult to detect in noisy, shallow waters near coastal areas: the exact area the U.S. will need to enter if it hopes to breach Eastern Europe. By implementing AIP to augment its current submarine fleet, the Russian Navy has acquired more submarines at a more affordable price tag while gaining a greater range of capabilities.[XVI]

Long-Range PrSMs

Long-range precision strike missiles (PrSMs) remain a high priority for the Russian military, as they allow a country to threaten an adversary’s command and control (C2) networks, as well as an adversary’s ability to operate within effective combat ranges.[XVII] While the US Tomahawk cruise missile still reigns supreme, Russia is quickly closing this capability gap.[XVIII] The Russian Kalibr sea-launched strategic and tactical land-attack cruise missile possesses the ability to hold distant targets at risk, evaluated to have a range between 1,500 and 2,500 km.[XIX] US naval experts have assessed that US aircraft carriers must now operate at least 1,000 nautical miles (nm) from the Russian mainland to keep out of range of these anti-ship missiles.[XX] An additional challenge for US expeditionary forces is the Russian Kh-101 long-range air-launched cruise missile, designed specifically to defeat air defense systems by flying low to avoid radar systems.[XXI] Though these missiles are daunting challenges in and of themselves, soon-to-come hypersonic missiles, as well as systems like the Kalibr-M (boasted to have a range of 4,500 km), will only further push back American forces’ effective combat range.[XXII]

Electronic and Cyber Warfare: A Contested Information Environment

While American supremacy in conventional warfare is well-known, US dominance in other domains is less clear. The nature of warfare is changing, and the information-permissive environment the U.S. once enjoyed in past expeditionary missions will no longer be present against adversaries such as Russia. This is a position the U.S. cannot afford to be in if it truly hopes to compete with powers such as Russia, where it will face an increasingly aggressive electronic and cyber warfare (EW and CW) environment. In the age of information, Russia has chosen to incorporate these capabilities to add additional layers to its own A2/AD network, further hindering US freedom of maneuver in future operations. Russia’s growing advancement in these fields allow it to jam, disrupt, distort, and interfere with US communications, radar, sensor systems, and database information.[XXIII] Russia has become so adept at employing EW that US forces must now reduce their electromagnetic footprint or risk enemies using this information to geolocate, jam, and then fire upon them.[XXIV] As told by Laurie Buckhour, a retired Army colonel, “All of a sudden your communications won’t work, or you can’t call for fire, or you can’t warn of incoming fires [sic] because your radars have been jammed and they can’t detect anything.”[XXV]

Russia’s CW capabilities also play a central role in degrading an adversary’s information assets and ability to communicate through shutting down communication nodes and spreading inaccurate information throughout an adversary’s systems.[XXVI] US forces will have to increasingly expect C2 networks and command databases to be subjected to intense cyberattacks. Constant EW and CW attacks on an adversary’s communication nodes during military operations, as well as disinformation campaigns that seek to disrupt and degrade an adversary from within, have become Russia’s new norm. Taken together, these capabilities present serious challenges for future US capacity to maintain communication and coordination during high-intensity conflicts while trying to overcome and defeat Russian A2/AD.

Looking to the Future: Prioritizing Investments and Facing Reality

As the U.S. looks toward a future where operating in a contested environment may become the norm, there is a big-ticket item the US military may no longer want to risk. Although still an important vehicle of US power projection today, the decisiveness and survivability of aircraft carriers is being called into question. Some may argue that the carrier and carrier strike group (CSG) are a viable option of “gunboat diplomacy,” as was attempted when the U.S. sent the USS Lincoln to the Mediterranean in April 2019. The US Ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman, stated that “Each of the carriers operating in the Mediterranean at this time represent 100,000 tons of international diplomacy.”[XXVII] However, Russia did not get the message, or at least did not care. Mikhail Barabanov, a naval analyst at the Centre for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, stated “I do not believe it is a ‘signal to Moscow,’ if only because no one in Russia seriously believes in the possibility of a conventional military conflict with the United States.”[XXVIII] Today, using the aircraft carrier may still be a feasible option for gunboat diplomacy, so long as there is little risk that the waters will be contested.

However, the U.S. will operate in contested waters as it turns toward near-peer competition. Given the size and electronic emissions of most US aircraft carriers, they are increasingly vulnerable to detection and attack by long-range anti-ship missiles, and hence are becoming restricted to operating in an excess of 1,000 nm from an adversary’s shores.[XXIX]  As the carrier faces progressively deadlier threats, the US must consider its willingness to lose the platform in future near-peer conflicts. The Ford-class carrier comes in at a unit cost of roughly $13 billion, with the average aircraft carrier transporting approximately 5,000 lives.[XXX] Not only would the U.S. lose blood and treasure in a sunk aircraft carrier but also its cargo of expensive aircraft (including the new F-35Cs). A loss of this scale could be too great for the US military to bear.

Another consideration the U.S. must bear in mind as it faces an advanced A2/AD environment is the range of its tactical fighter aircraft. Although fifth-generation jets possess stealth features that can make them near-invisible on enemy radar, they first must possess the range to make it to the enemy.[XXXI] US fighter jets are heavily weighted towards an inventory of short-range tactical aircraft. Consequently, American forces lack a stable of longer-range fighter jets that will be needed if aircraft carriers cannot get within 1,000 nm during the early stages of a major conflict.[XXXII] The F-35C has an unrefueled combat radius of roughly 630 nm and thus does not possess the range necessary to make it from the aircraft carrier to the Eastern European TO without in-flight refueling – and the Navy’s tankers are not exactly “stealth.”[XXXIII] This greatly limits US power projection capabilities, requiring it to progressively depend on allies’ forward-bases to maneuver within the TO. However, US military bases scattered across Europe do not have the anti-air and missile-defense capabilities required to deal with the volume of fire they may encounter in a high-end conflict.[XXXIV]

As the U.S. looks to the future of expeditionary warfare, it will need to re-learn how to operate in a contested environment where it may not be able to gain local air, ground, and sea superiority at the onset of a conflict without great risk. If the U.S. does not evolve with the changing times, it will be left behind. Retired General M.A. Gareyev, one of Russia’s greatest military theoreticians, once stated that the greatest enemy for the art of war is a “stereotyped and schematic approach.”[XXXV] Currently, the US response to near-peer competition has been to build more conventional arms: procure more Ford-class super aircraft carriers, F-35s, Zumwalt-class destroyers, rail guns, and so forth. This way of thinking will not serve U.S. expeditionary warfare in the years to come.


[I] “World Military Expenditure Grows to $1.8 Trillion in 2018,” SIPRI, April 2019, Thomas Grove, 2019.; “The New Iron Curtain: Russian Missile Defense Challenges U.S. Air Power,” The Wall Street Journal, January 2019.

[II] Jerry Hendrix, 2018, “Filling the Seams in U.S. Long-Range Penetrating Strike,” Center for a New American Strategy, September 2018.

[III] David Ochmanek, 2018, “Restoring U.S. Power Projection Capabilities: Responding to the 2018 National Defense Strategy,” RAND Corporation, July 2018., p. 4.

[IV] Grove, 2019, “The New Iron Curtain.”

[V] Robert Dalsjo, Christofer Berglund, and Michael Jonsson. 2019. “Bursting the Bubble: Russian A2/AD in the Baltic Sea Region: Capabilities, Countermeasures, and Implications.” FOI, March 2019.–4651–SE, p. 27.

[VI] Grove, 2019, “The New Iron Curtain.”

[VII] Ibid; Ochmanek, 2018, “Restoring U.S. Power Projection Capabilities,” p. 5.

[VIII] Adam Cabot, 2019, “The Real Reason NATO Should Fear Russia’s S-400 Air Force Killer,” The National Interest, June 2019.

[IX] Mark Episkopos, 2019, “Stealth Hunter: Russia’s Deadly S-400 is Getting Much Closer to NATO’s Doorstep,” The National Interest, March 2019.

[X] Mark Episkopos, 2019, “Introducing Russia’s S-500: Can it Take Out an F-33 or F-35?” The National Interest, May 2019.

[XI] Sebastien Roblin, 2018, “Meet the 1 Submarine That Terrifies the U.S. Navy More Than Any Other,” The National Interest, December 2018.

[XII] Sebastien Roblin, 2018, “Forget About Chinese or Russian Submarines: The Navy Fears this Swedish Stealth Sub the Most,” The National Interest, November 2018.; Tomas Malmlof, “The Russian Defense Industry,” in “Russian Military Capability in a Ten-Year Perspective – 2016,” ed. Gudrun Persson, Swedish Defense Research Agency (FOI), December 2016, p. 153.

[XIII] Ibid; Mark Episkopos, 2019, “Meet Russia’s New Lada-Class Submarine: The Next ‘Stealth’ Threat to the U.S. Navy?” The National Interest, February 2019.

[XIV] Michael Walker and Austin Krusz, 2018, “There’s a Case for Diesels,” U.S. Naval Institute, June 2018.

[XV] Roblin, 2018, “Meet the 1 Submarine That Terrifies the U.S. Navy.”

[XVI] Ibid.

[XVII] Hendrix, 2018, “Filling the Seams.”

[XVIII] “Game Changer: Russian Sub-Launched Cruise Missiles Bring Strategic Effect,” Jane’s 360, 2017.

[XIX] Ibid.

[XX] Ryan Pickrell, 2019, “The US Had Been Getting ‘Its Ass Handed to It’ In Simulated War Games Against Russia and China, Analysts Say,” Task & Purpose, March 2019.

[XXI] “Kh-101/Kh-102,” CSIS Missile Defense Project, June 2018.

[XXII] Ankit Panda, 2019, “Report: Russia Developing 4,500 Kilometer Kalibr-M Range Land-Attack Cruise Missile,” The Diplomat, January 2019.

[XXIII] Roger N. McDermott, 2017, “Russia’s Electronic Warfare Capabilities to 2025: Challenges to NATO in the Electromagnetic Spectrum,” International Center for Defense and Security, September 2017., p. iv.

[XXIV] Mark Pomerleau. 2019. “Here’s How Other Nations Measure Up in Electronic Warfare.”

C4ISRnet, March 2019.

[XXV] Ibid.

[XXVI] Ochmanek, 2018, “Restoring U.S. Power Projection Capabilities,” p. 5.

[XXVII] Matthew Bodner, 2019, “US Rolls ‘100K tons of international diplomacy’ into the Med. Will Russia Get the Message?” Defense News, April 2019.

[XXVIII] Ibid.

[XXIX] Hendrix, 2018, “Filling the Seams.”

[XXX] Steven Stashwick, 2019, “US Navy’s 2020 Budget Opens Debate on Future of the Aircraft Carrier,” The Diplomat, March 2019.

[XXXI] Loren Thompson, 2016, “The Evolution of Jet Fighters Takes a Giant Leap with ‘Fifth-Generation’ Planes,” Forbes, June 2016.

[XXXII] United States. Cong. House. Committee on the Armed Services. Hearing on Readying the U.S. Military for Future Warfare. January 30, 2018. 115th Cong. 2nd sess. Washington, GPO, 2018 (statement of Jim Thomas, Principal and Co-Founder of the Telemus Group.), p. 7.

[XXXIII] Ibid; Jerry Hendrix, 2015, “Retreat from Range: The Rise and Fall of Carrier Aviation,” Center for a New American Security, October 2015.

[XXXIV] Pickrell, 2019, “The US Had Been Getting ‘Its Ass Handed to It.’”

[XXXV] Lt. Col. Timothy L. Thomas (ret.), 2019, “Russian Forecasts of Future War,” Military Review, May-June 2019.

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