Russian Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) in the Mediterranean Arena: Implications of the Israeli Navy
Updated: Feb 11
Area denial or sea denial is a naval concept, which describes military efforts that aim to prevent an adversary’s maneuvers and control in a defined area.
An extension of this definition can be found in a US Central Command document published in 2012. According to this definition, sea-denial involves a series of actions that prevent an adversary from acting, maneuvering, and projecting his power against the defender.
Already in this definition, it is stated that the activities that make it possible to deny naval access also enable the defender’s forces (both military and civilian) to operate freely while protecting shipping lanes and maritime resources (such as offshore oil and gas facilities). This is essentially a modern concept that relates to warfare strategy and which focuses on preventing an adversary from operating his forces or his weaponry near or within a defined area. The denial of access involves a series of efforts invested by the defender as part of his warfare strategy.
A study carried out at the US Naval War College states that naval access denial efforts constitute one of the characteristics of modern naval warfare, with emphasis on the fact that naval access denial is a strategy adopted by inferior navies in general and navies in East Asia (those of China and Iran) in particular to defeat more advanced navies (such as those of the US and its allies).
It is possible to distinguish between two types of access denial: The first is anti-access, which involves a series of actions by the defender in order to prevent his adversary from entering his area of activity.
The second is area denial which involves a series of actions and means to be used by the defender at relatively short ranges in order to prevent an adversary from activating his weaponry.
This essay will examine the implementation of the A2/AD strategy in the Mediterranean theater by the Russian navy and its effect on the Israeli navy.
Russian A2/AD Strategy
Since the early days of the Cold War, and in response to NATO’s unmatched ability to conduct large-scale air and naval operations and the ability of NATO to block Russia from entering the Atlantic Ocean by controlling the Bosporus straits and the Baltic sea, Russia established large anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) exclusion zones or “bubbles” around the Baltic states, the Black Sea, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Arctic. These A2/AD bubbles, which still exist, allow Russia to deny the use of the air and maritime spaces in these regions and will dramatically constrain the movement of ships and land forces in a time of crisis.
In recent years, and especially since the Syrian uprising (2011), the Russian navy’s presence in the Eastern Mediterranean arena has expanded significantly and in Syria. The expansion of the Russian presence in Syria is part of Russia’s new naval doctrine which was first published in 2012, and revised in July 2016, called the Revised Russian Naval Doctrine up to 2030.
As in the case of previous strategic documents, it defines the role of the navy as part of Russia’s security policy, its targets, its main directions for the buildup of naval force, and the geographic areas of its naval operations. The document also includes an assessment of threats up to 2030.
The document states that the main threat in the maritime domain originates from the forces of the US and NATO, which are endeavoring to achieve a dominant position in the ocean and absolute superiority in the sea. It also states that the Russian navy must be ready to deal with technologically advanced adversarial navies, which are equipped with high-precision weaponry, and that Russia must strive for a situation in which its navy remains in second place regarding warfare capability.
This aspiration expresses the Russian understanding that the US navy is the most advanced in the world and that Russia does not intend to build a navy similar in size or quality.
The new document relates in a general way to the need for operational capability in all regions and in ensuring the ability to maintain the long-term presence of Russian naval forces in strategically important maritime regions, and specifically emphasizes the strategic importance, from the perspective of the Russian regime, of Russian naval presence in the Black Sea, the Mediterranean and the Arctic. The rest of the arenas are defined as other directions that have less strategic importance.
The Russian strategy becomes even more important in view of the weakening of the US presence in the Mediterranean arena, which began under President Obama and is continuing with even greater intensity under President Trump. The weakening of the US presence in the region is the result of a strategic decision made by two US presidents to transfer the bulk of its naval forces to Asia, in view of the growing threat from China and North Korea.
The primary objective of the increased involvement of Russia in the region is to reposition itself as a world power. Through its focused and determined intervention in Syria, Russia demonstrated that it is a key player whose involvement is essential to the resolution of international issues. The West, which for more than four years had failed to resolve a steadily exacerbating problem in Syria, was now forced to consider the Russian positions even more carefully, and to involve Moscow in resolving the crisis.
The second objective of Russia’s involvement was to leverage the Syrian issue in order to resolve problems in other arenas important to it, mainly Europe in general and Ukraine in particular. Russian involvement in Syria was intended to apply pressure on the West to remove the sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe following the Russian operations in Ukraine.
The Russian maritime presence in Syria is one of the most important ways in which Russia implements its strategy.
In practice, the implementation of the Russian maritime strategy in the Mediterranean is basically manifested in the expansion and upgrade of the Russian naval port at Tartus, the deployment of strategic weapons along the Syrian coast (such as the advanced S-300 and PANTSIR (SA-22) air defense systems, the Yakhont land-to-sea anti-ship missile systems, Iskander short-range ballistic missile, long-range detection systems, and electronic warfare systems), and the reinforced presences of Russian corvettes, submarines (with Caliber cruise missiles) and aircraft (fighter airplanes and helicopters) in the Mediterranean and particularly in Cyprus and Syria.
The Russian aircraft, which are deployed at the Khmeimim base near the port of Tartus, is apparently intended to provide air “umbrella” to the Russian navy operating in the Mediterranean.
In January 2017, Russia signed with the Syrian regime an agreement to lease a naval base within the Tartus port and the Khmeimim airport for a period of 49 years with automatic renewal for another 25 years. Russia began the construction of the port and its expansion with the intention of stationing about 10 to 20 ships there, as well as to provide maintenance capability. As part of the agreement, the defense of the base from sea and air attack is under Russian responsibility while its physical defense on land is the responsibility of Syria.
The implementation of the Russian maritime strategy can be seen in the prolonged warfare in Syria, during which the Russian Black Sea navy demonstrated intensive presence in the arena in the form of maritime patrols and was also responsible for the supply of weapons systems and munitions from Russia to Syria by means of supply ships, which brought cargo from its base in the Black Sea to Tartus.
Furthermore, during 2016-17 the Russian navy carried out several attacks on high-quality ground targets in Syria by means of cruise missiles from submarines and from surface vessels in the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, and the Caspian Sea.
In this context, it is worth mentioning the demonstration of power by a Russian aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean and in particular opposite the Syrian coast from November 2016 until late January 2017. The aircraft carrier, which was accompanied by a large task force (and perhaps even a submarine), was the platform from which attack aircraft took off for missions in Syria.
Despite the fact that that two aircraft that took off from its deck crashed and its exit from the Mediterranean was accompanied by technical breakdowns (black smoke could be seen coming out of the ship’s funnels), the presence of the aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean and primarily off the Syrian coast had major significance, from the perspective of Russia’s ability to project power and its desire to be an influential and dominant player in the Mediterranean arena.
The Russian navy presence in Syria enables Russia’s strategic and critical capabilities such as power projection with air-defense umbrella, logistics base for operations in the region, and oil transportation from Iraq or Syria to Russia.
The Russian activity in the Mediterranean has an impact on the Israeli navy which operates in this arena.
Implications for the Israeli Navy
For many years, the Israeli navy operated in the Mediterranean arena freely and secretly as maybe as the strongest navy in the arena and performed its missions during peace and war times.
The Israeli navy is affected by the presence and operations of the Russian navy in the arena on several operational levels.
First, the gathering of Russian intelligence on the Israeli navy activity affects the implementation of its routine operations and will also affect them in times of crisis. The intelligence that is gathered enables the Russians to build a maritime picture and to evaluate the routine activity of the Israeli navy (from this it can also identify any non-routine activity it carries out).
It can be assumed with a high probability that this intelligence is also conveyed to Syrian and Iranian forces and indirectly also to Hezbollah.
Second, the presence of Russian vessels in the region hinders the activity of the Israeli navy, both by threatening the secrecy of its operations and by the exposure of its vessels by Russian forces and because of its inability to maneuver in regions where Russian vessels are present without previous coordination (Deconfliction).
The threat to the secrecy of the Israeli navy’s operations will make it difficult to carry out intelligence missions and special operations both in peace and in war. In addition, it is reasonable to assume that in the case of war the Israeli navy will not be able to attack the enemy’s ships and coastal targets (both in Lebanon and in Syria).
The presence of the Russian navy in the region and its control of the domain, by means of ships and weaponry that threaten Israel’s vessels and aircraft, therefore essentially constitute access denial operations carried out by the Russian navy in the Mediterranean arena.
I recommend that Israel navy will develop means to overcome the Russian A2/AD, such as stealth capabilities to its ship and to develop more commando capabilities that will be able to act, maneuver and attack without detected by the Russian forces. Furthermore, I recommend establishing a deconfliction mechanism between the Israeli navy and the Russian navy, which allows the Israeli navy to operate freely.
For Israel and for the Israeli navy, it is important to operate through diplomatic channels with Russia to block Iranian navy presence at the Syrian ports and at the Mediterranean Sea.
It is also essential that the US navy will return to operate in the region more extensively and present its power, especially in case of emerging and unexpected crisis between Syria or Hezbollah and Israel.
 Harmer Christopher, “Iranian Naval and Maritime Strategy“, Institute for the Study of War, Middle East Security Report I2 (6/2013):6-7.
 Abisellan Eduardo A., “CENTCOM’s China Challenges: Anti-Access and Area Denial in the Middle East“, 21st Century Defense Initiative Policy Paper, Brookings (6/2012): 5-10.
 Tangredi S.J, “Anti-Access Warfare Countering A2/AD Strategies“, Naval Institute Press (2013):1-2.
 Malandrino Greg, “Tactical Success and Operational Failure in the Anti-Access Area-Denial Environment: A Historical Operational Art Analysis of Operation”, Naval War College New Port (5/2012): 1-5.
 DoD, “Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC) Version 1“, U.S Department of Defense (1/2012): i-ii.
 Burton Loic, Bubble Trouble: Russia’s A2/AD Capabilities, Foreign Policy Association (25/10/16), retrieved from https://foreignpolicyblogs.com/2016/10/25/bubble-trouble-russia-a2-ad/, accessed 11/2017.
 Ibid. Chapter 5, paragraph 39.
 Ibid., Chapter 3, Paragraph 30d.
 Ibid., Chapter 4, Paragraph 37f.
 Ibid., Chapter 4, Paragraph 37g.
 Yadlin Amos, Russia in Syria, and the Implications for Israel, Strategic Assessment Volume 19 No. 2 (7/2016): 9.
 Sputnik, Russia to Expand Capabilities of Naval Base in Syrian Tartus (20/1/2017(, retrieved from https://sputniknews.com/military/201701201049836303-base-naval-russia-syria/