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The nettlesome anti-access threat

With all the modesty and understatement the world has come to expect from an Iranian leader, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced a batch of new weapons in Tehran on Tuesday, according to official reports. In rolling out a new anti-ship cruise missile and new heavyweight torpedo, Ahmadinejad vowed Iran would answer any potential attack with a "crushing" response, and be able to" cripple" an enemy "on his own ground," preventing conflict  above or near Iran itself.

So what can Iran's new weapons actually do? There's no way to know for sure -- and no reason to take the government's boasts seriously -- but American commanders must assume they can more or less perform as advertised. That compounds the growing problem of "anti-access" and "area denial," which the lesser-known, non-COIN neighborhoods in the Building have been worrying about for years. Iran -- or North Korea, or China, depending on the scenario you pick -- probably would not fare very well in a stand-up fight against the U.S. military. But if those militaries can keep American ships and aircraft out of the areas they want to monopolize, including the Persian Gulf and the Western Pacific, it could give them an edge.

Tuesday's Iranian announcement, along with this week's expected -- delayed -- official DoD report on China's military capabilities, brings the anti-access/area denial problem back to the fore. How can American ships and aircraft keep their ability to maneuver and fight inside the range of modern standoff weapons? In the case of the Western Pacific, they probably can't -- yet. China's much-discussed, much-feared anti-ship ballistic missile means American carrier strike groups would probably have to keep well away for now, although that does not go for the U.S. Navy's attack and guided missile submarines. China was humiliated and enraged when the carrier USS Nimitz cruised down the Taiwan Strait in 1996, and it vowed never to let something like that happen again.

Even before Tuesday's announcement, Iran had a cheap, deadly and effective weapon to keep out U.S. forces: Mines. If it wanted to, Iran could theoretically flood the Straits of Hormuz with sea mines, closing a key transit point for oil tankers and wreaking havoc on the world's energy markets. An Iranian sneak attack could sink or disable the American minesweepers forward deployed to Bahrain -- which are not the Navy's readiest or best-maintained ships at the best of times -- and force U.S. or allied ships to fight their way toward the straits before they could begin to even try to clear a channel. It's a nightmare before you even get to the point of asking whether the Navy has the ships, equipment and expertise to deal with a major minefield in a wartime scenario like this.

The Navy and Air Force hoped to make progress with these and other challenges by developing their "Air-Sea Battle" concept, although it's difficult to tell how much a new strategy could actually help and how much is standard Pentagon Review Messianism.  Defense officials have said the document itself is more or less done and now in Secretary Panetta's chop chain; it's possible we could see an open-source version of it later this year. The hope for Air-Sea Battle was that the services could use it to collaborate on the strategic problems of anti-access and area denial.

For example: Could Air Force bombers lay their own offensive mines at sea? Could Navy Aegis warships defend American air bases in Asia from missile attacks? How can the services work together to quickly stop an enemy from executing an anti-access strategy -- could stealthy Air Force bombers and Navy SSGNs blind the Chinese sensors that would target an American carrier to obviate the threat of the infamous death-missile?

These are the kinds of questions that Air-Sea Battle could try to answer, although ultimately, it'll just be a piece of paper -- it won't buy the Air Force new sea mines it could drop from the next generation bomber; or a new missile for an SSGN to take out satellite communications links; or reliable Navy mine countermeasures. All that stuff would have to come through the slow, normal, flawed acquisitions process.

It's possible this year's "comprehensive strategic review" will endorse which direction the Pentagon should take on the anti-access and area denial questions, and this could bring a ray of hope for the services and Hill defense advocates: Although almost every other part of the defense budget will be shrinking, this might be one area that actually grows.

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