Access Denial Strategy – the Indian Variant

To Shield the Shalmali Tree

In its life and death struggle with the divine wind, the fabled Shalmali tree severs its lush branches to leave itself skeletal, much like the Indian tree of State that has persistently denied itself a strategy whose purpose is to shield the State, while defining a willingness to confront and contend with the growing Chinese designs in the Eastern Oceanic spaces. [i]


Vice Admiral (Retd.) Vijay Shankar

Keywords: Access Denial Strategy, China’s Security Narrative, Assassin’s Mace, Third Island Chain, Force Planning and Structures, Globalization and Nationalism, Phased implementation of the Access Denial Strategy

Download full article here: Shankar, Anti Access Denial


 ‘They Have Broken, Over and Over Again, the First Principles of Strategy’ [ii]

 On 01 November 1914, in the early stages of the First World War, a strange engagement occurred off the west coast of Chile. The battle of Coronel was destined to be lost before the first salvo was fired on account of blundering and amateurish operational planning on the part of the British Admiralty. The plan was  in discord with their larger maritime strategy.

The British Empire for its war effort depended largely on the unimpeded flow of resources, man and material across the oceans from and to its near and far flung outposts of empire. Accordingly, the fundamentals of its global maritime strategy lay in ensuring that its Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) were always under its control, giving it freedom of manoeuvre to strike at a challenging imperial power at points of its choice, endowing it with domination over the geography of conflict. To this end a vast support network of bases stretching from Hong Kong to Singapore to Aden and the British Indian Ocean Territories to the Falklands and to their Pacific possessions had been established; this was backed by a web of radio stations, coaling posts and transoceanic telegraph cables. All this was in addition to the primary colonial continental holdings. Implementation of this strategy demanded superior fire power, mobility, surveillance, intelligence and an omnipresence that permitted rapid concentration and decisive action; all of which was woefully lacking in-theatre and, in my analysis, actually precipitated the events.

At the outbreak of the War in August 1914, Admiral Graf von Spee, Commander of the German naval squadron in the Far East, found his command in a very tenuous position. Germany exerted very little power in Asia and the Pacific, precariously holding on to a naval station at Tsingtao, China, with no guarantee of logistic support from the Fatherland. Spee’s ships required large quantities of coal to operate, supply of which could not come from either German possessions or allies in the region. Due to the demands of re-coaling Spee felt compelled to either order his ships to operate individually as privateers or to stay together and attempt to disrupt and sever British sea lines of communications. Spee decided keeping his forces together could best achieve his mission to strike at British trade and bases in the vast area of the Pacific and the South Atlantic. His forces comprised of two modern and fast armoured cruisers, the Scharnhorst and the Gueisenau, along with three light cruisers. The British Commander in the South Atlantic in 1914, Rear Admiral Christopher Cradock was, reportedly, a fine seaman and an effective leader of men; but in contrast to Von Spee’s  squadron, Cradock’s two armoured cruisers and its consorts were old, slow, gunnery-wise inefficient and totally inadequate for the larger control assignment in the Pacific and South Atlantic Oceans or even for the engagement that awaited in the wings. To put matters in perspective the total weight of the British broadsides was 2,400 pounds – merely half that of von Spee’s ships.

On the afternoon of November 1, around 100 miles offshore of Coronel, Chile, the two squadrons sighted each other, closed and engaged. In the event the British were handed a crushing and humiliating defeat losing their Admiral and his flagship, the Good Hope and the Monmouth the two armoured cruisers and the remaining consorts in rout. In the final analysis it was hollowness of the strategic posture its worthlessness in terms of the forces allocated and the poor leadership at the highest level which failed to perceive the chasm between strategic intent and operational plans that obtained [iii]. Troop convoys and war material from Australia and New Zealand were held up until appropriate protection and escort could be guaranteed and the in theatre threat from von Spee’s surface raiding force neutralized. This was clearly a paradox since the strategic balance of maritime power remained heavily weighted in favour of the British both before and after the engagement. To some extent in the early stages of the war it may be said that German access denial strategy had worked; for in time the Royal Navy were able to bring to bear their superiority and in the absence of a network of support infrastructure the German squadron was hunted down and neutralized in the battle of the Falklands.

If at all there is a strategic lesson to be learned, then it is that, for an  Access Denial Strategy to prevail, not only must in-theatre superiority be maintained; but also the means and routes to buttress and support in-theatre forces must be denied for the duration for which the strategy is in play. To this end the role of cross spectrum surveillance, ability to disrupt command and control networks and the presence and vigorous deployment of decisive denial forces will be critical for the success of such a strategy.


The development of ‘Access Denial’ capabilities has shown impressive growth over the last decade and a half, not just in terms of material progress but also in terms of doctrinal foundations and operational precepts. China’s three modernizations, as mentioned earlier, along with their investments in cyber warfare, anti air, anti ship weaponry and anti carrier hardware in addition to the thrust on nuclear submarine, both strategic and nuclear powered attack submarines, a carrier group centered on the Liaoning (ex Varyag) aircraft carrier with its suite of SU30s all make for a force that is increasingly lethal in effectiveness and enhanced in reach. Operating from infrastucture that they have cultivated from Sittwe and Aan in Myanmar to Hambantotta in Sri Lanka, Maroa in the Maldives and Gwadar in Pakistan (collectively the so called string of pearls) would gives teeth to the long range access denial within the coming Third Island Chain.

Specific operational deployments may include one carrier group operating in the Eastern Ocean; a Jin class Ballistic Missile Nuclear Submarine (SSBN) on deterrent patrol; two Nuclear powered Submarines (SSN) on SLOC patrol with cooperating surface group and maritime patrol aircrafts; long range maritime strike air crafts operating from Aan or Gwadar; one amphibious brigade standby with transports on hand at one of the ‘string of pearls.’ Also one regiment of ASAT missiles along with cyber warfare teams to manipulate, black out, control and wage information warfare that will seek to paralyze operations in the Indian Ocean or Eastern Ocean.

In the absence of a security oriented cooperative impulse, the problem with such sweeping strategies (specifically the coming ‘Third Island Chain’ superimposed on a long range Access Denial Strategy), is its blindness to recognize that, as historically never before, we are in fact dealing with a sea space that, in Mahan’s words, is the busiest of all the “vast commons.”



While India may, with some justification, celebrate the ‘Gandhian Moment’ that Anna Hazare recently ushered in; the ultimate reality of the international system is the place that power, in all its dimensions, enjoys in the scheme of assuring stability in relations between nations. The strategy of Access Denial is one such defensive power tool which is available to a nation provided it nurtures and develops capabilities that serve to ‘contest and deny’ adversarial power projection. History has suggested that for the strategy to have impact not only must in-theatre force balance be tilted towards the rebuffer through asymmetricity, but also, the first salvo must be his. After all during the first Iraq war the die was cast when US forces began to build up in the Arabian Peninsula, it was also the time when they were most vulnerable and if at all access was to be denied, that was the moment.  The instant having been lost Iraq’s fate was a foregone conclusion unless it had chosen to sue for peace under any terms.

China takes the comprehensive national power approach; where it sees the effect of an event on its own endowment and its ability to control the occasion and its outcome as a primary virtue. In articulating its strategic objectives it has unambiguously identified three canons the first of which is internal and external stability; the second is to sustain the current levels of economic growth and lastly to achieve regional preeminence.  Gone is the ‘power bashfulness’ that marked the Deng era, in its place is a cockiness that is discernible.’ In the absence of a security oriented cooperative impulse, the problem with such sweeping strategies specifically the coming ‘Third Island Chain’ superimposed on a long range power projection strategy is its blindness to recognize that, we are in fact dealing with a sea space that is the busiest of all the “vast commons.” The reluctance for collaboration makes the potential for friction high.

Contemporary challenges in the Indian Ocean and Eastern Ocean (IOEO)  region are dominated by three currents. What direction China’s rise will take is a matter of conjecture, of significance is that the potential for a collision is a reality and the only consideration that could deter it, is the ability of India to attain a strategic posture in the IOEO that serves to stabilize. On the globalization-nationalism-non state actor conundrum, clearly plural societies with decentralized control are more likely to transform, adjust, adapt and tweak their systems than monolithic centrally controlled States such as China which are intrinsically brittle in form, the fallout on the region caused by a transformation inconsistency can only be traumatic. The third current is India’s relationship with the USA; it is here that some control exists in the hands of our policy makers. India has shown itself; through restraint, pluralistic and popular form of governance to be a responsible State that upholds the status quo yet invites change through democratic forces. Its rise, in the main, is not only welcomed but is seen as a harmonizing happening that could counterpoise China.  The next step would logically be to establish an Indo-US strategic framework in the maritime domain, if we are to resourcefully contend with the challenges that the IOEO presents.

Phased implementation of the Access Denial Strategy, from deployment through demonstration prior to a hot exchange is intrinsic to the scheme and essential to its mechanics if the interests of deterrence are to be served. The question of when or under what conditions the plan is to be brought to bear is a dodgy call for if PhaseIII is arrived at; it may well signify a point of no return. The paper has suggested four ‘red lines’ which when breached may enable our Access Denial strategy; it is the second of these which will challenge decision makers to the extreme for if a military build up at Hambantota, Gwadar or Sittwe is threatening then at what stage of the mobilization should the strategy be called into play? The obvious answer is “at an early stage” at which time we must find the will and resolve to translate rapidly from Phase I to Phase II. A focused 50 year technology and infrastructure plan in support of and in harmony with our Access Denial Strategy must be placed on the anvil and resolutely hammered out.

In the ultimate analysis it is about national will and determination. Much like the Shalmali tree (referred to earlier) India has all the trappings of potential power with a benevolent approach; what it must not lack is the wisdom and strategy to shield and protect this growing Shalmali.

[i] In the Mahabharata, Bhishma tutoring Yudhishtra explains to him that in this world for he who is endowed with the intelligence and strength nothing is impossible to achieve. The good and powerful do not show enemity to those who wish them ill, but quietly expose and demonstrate their capacity and power. To bring home this lesson Bhishma narrates the story of the magnificent but not very wise Shalmali tree and the Divine Wind. The ensuing contest is marked by a lack of intelligent preparation by Shalmali. As a result in a last minute knee jerk act of resistance and self protection he hacked away at his limbs, branches and struck off his vast trunk and now stood diminutive and shorn of all his glory. The Wind saw him now small and pathetic, amused he tells him you have inflicted upon yourself what I had intended to do to you, had your intelligence only matched your size! (Shanti Parva, Chap. 150)

[ii] Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty is said to have bitterly reflected on where the blame lay for the debacle in the battle of Coronel and the loss of Admiral Christopher Cradock, his ships and his men in the engagement “Poor old Kit Cradock has gone at Coronel. His death and the loss of the ships and the gallant lives in them can be laid to the door of the incompetency of the Admiralty. They have broken over and over again the first principles of strategy.”

[iii] Regan, Geoffery. “Book of Naval Blunders” Carlton Publishing Group, 2001 London., p 163-165. Much of the blame for this blinkered policy rested with the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. Not content with his political role, Churchill constantly interfered with the working of naval planners often using his forceful personality to bulldoze professional opinion.

Download full article here: Shankar, Anti Access Denial

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