Academic journal article Air & Space Power Journal

The Iranian Missile Threat to Air Bases: A Distant Second to China's Conventional Deterrent

Academic journal article Air & Space Power Journal

The Iranian Missile Threat to Air Bases: A Distant Second to China's Conventional Deterrent

Article excerpt

The Department of Defense faces a time of transition as it works to address today's crises while preparing for tomorrow's threats.1 One of the future concerns for US forces comes from antiaccess/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities, defined broadly as "the ability to blunt or deny U.S. power projection-across all domains.''2 Within this broad definition, A2 capabilities compromise the ability of US forces to get to the fight whereas AD capabilities inhibit their ability to fight effectively once they arrive.3 Some capabilities can be employed in both an A2 and an AD role. For instance, submarines could interdict forces as they attempt to deploy into a theater and could then shift to coastal choke points to deny US naval operations inside a theater. Discussions of A2/AD highlight a set of capabilities that could be emplctyed in this manner, including cruise and ballistic missiles, quiet submarines, sea mines, modern fighter aircraft, space and cyberspace assets, and surface-to-air missiles.4 Discussions of this threat generally cite multiple countries as potential A2/AD challenges, especially China and Iran.5

Grouping Chinese and Iranian capabilities within the same A2/AD rubric can obscure important variation in the possible threat to US forces in different theaters unless accompanying analysis highlights those differences. This article uses an operational analysis of the risk to air bases from conventional theater ballistic missiles (TBM) to illustrate how one critical component of the broader A2/AD threat can vary across theaters.6 This comparative analysis indicates that the threat to US operating bases in Southwest Asia (SWA) is significantly lower than the one they face in East Asia. The geography of SWA lessens the impact of the airead}^ weaker Iranian TBM capabilities. Iran could not significantly hold US air operations at risk outside 500 kilometers (km); therefore, it poses a more modest threat to those operations in the Persian Gulf than do Chinese TBMs in East Asia.7 The accuracy, payloads, and ranges of the weapons in Iran's ballistic missile arsenal are inadequate to seriousty threaten US air operations, in part because US forces could operate from a large number of bases outside the worst threat ring (i.e., more than 500 km from Iran's border).8 Even within 500 km, the threat posed by Iranian TBMs to air bases could be mitigated in a number of ways. For example, a prudent planner could avoid parking significant numbers of aircraft in the open, distribute parked aircraft across a wide area, and operate fighters from hardened air bases. In short, the Iranian ballistic missile threat to US air bases is exaggerated by the Iranians and likely to remain modest, relative to the threat those bases face in East Asia.9

This conclusion is reinforced by a secondary analysis that examines a worst-case future scenario. Even if Iran had China's existing TBM capabilities, the geography of SWA gives the United States basing options that still would entail a significantly lower threat than the one from East Asia. Prudence requires that American defense analysts closely monitor Iran's ballistic missile developments, but the superficial similarities between Iranian and Chinese capabilities should not blind them to the fact that the TBM threats in SWA and East Asia differ dramatically in both scope and quality. As a result of the more favorable geography and the potential adversary's less advanced capabilities, the United States is and should remain capable of conducting air operations in SWA. These differences indicate that substantial regional variation can exist in the nature of A2/AD threats and that overuse of the A2/AD label can obscure as much as enlighten if it is not accompanied by an appropriate analytical effort.

Overlooking regional variations in threats can cause a multitude of problems for American defense planners. First, they may overlook opportunities that exist in SWA. Basing fighters outside effective Iranian TBM attack could be a powerful component of an American war plan, but one would first have to recognize it and then act upon it to create any benefit. …

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