By Joseph Singh, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Joseph Singh is a research assistant at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) North America. The views expressed are his own.
Amid emerging chaos in Egypt, daily bloodshed in Syria and uncertainty over how Iran’s new president will handle nuclear negotiations with the West, the increasingly complex security environment in the Middle East has complicated U.S. efforts to undertake the fabled pivot to Asia. At the same time, fiscal woes dictate that the Pentagon prepare to do more with less, even in an environment where U.S. adversaries are finding increasingly cheap means of challenging the conventional instruments of American power projection.
These realities make it all the more perplexing that many defense analysts have dubbed the Pentagon’s new operational concept – called “AirSea Battle” – a plan to fight a war with China. In fact, AirSea Battle may very well be more about the Middle East than the Pacific.
According to the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, a publicly released report by the U.S. Defense Department analyzing military objectives and potential threats, AirSea Battle seeks to “address how air and naval forces will integrate capabilities across all operational domains – air, sea, land, space, and cyberspace – to counter growing challenges to U.S. freedom of action.” To be sure, these challenges to U.S. freedom of action are certainly most pronounced in China. But they’re present in the Middle East, too.
And ultimately, the proliferation of analyses associating AirSea Battle with a China contingency obfuscates the prime relevance of this operational concept to the Middle East, a region in which the U.S. is surely most likely to actually fight a war in the coming years.
Challenges to U.S. freedom of action abroad stem in large part from the proliferation of extended range weaponry and surveillance systems – primarily in the form of surface-to-air and land-attack cruise and ballistic missiles – which enable countries to hold at risk forward-deployed U.S. land bases and naval assets and push U.S. forces further and further from their borders.
These capabilities – what military analysts called “anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD)” techniques – reflect attempts to use increasingly cheap and readily-available military technology to decrease the freedom of maneuver of U.S. forces in theaters around the world, and in turn, compel the U.S. to further retrench from adversaries’ backyards. With U.S. forces held at bay, adversaries can credibly demonstrate their ability to prohibit, or make very costly, U.S. military intervention and thus increase their coercive leverage over their neighbors. Syria and Iran are two countries that field formidable A2/AD capabilities, and in which U.S. forces may find themselves intervening in the coming years.
Indeed, Syria boasts one of the densest air defense networks in the world. With more than 130 SAM batteries concentrated near its coast, Syria’s SAM network provides robust, redundant coverage of its largest cities and important military sites. The missiles on its most advanced SAM system – the S-200 – have an effective range of 300 kilometers. Syria also possesses an arsenal of anti-ship missiles recently delivered from Russia, which recent reports indicate Israel’s air strike last month was unable to fully destroy. In the event of conflict, these systems could enable Syrian forces to hold at risk some of America’s air and naval assets. Non-stealthy fighters like the F-15E, whose deployment would enable the United States to quickly generate high numbers of sorties, would be particularly vulnerable at the outset of conflict. Likewise, naval vessels operating in the Mediterranean Sea would face difficulty penetrating Syria’s littoral region to support air strike operations.
Similarly, Iran also has a robust air defense network, composed of Russian-made and indigenous SAM systems, which could threaten nearby U.S. naval and air forces. Its arsenal of anti-ship missiles – which cover much of its southern coast – along with a stockpile of thousands of naval mines could deny access to U.S. naval forces in the narrow Persian Gulf. Similarly, its conventionally-tipped ballistic missiles enable it to threaten nearby U.S. bases, home to short-range fighter aircraft in neighboring Gulf countries. Both A2/AD tactics serve to push U.S. forces further from Iran’s neighborhood, and would complicate U.S. efforts to amass forces on its border before a strike, a strategy which has informed most U.S. interventions of the past two decades.
Neither the Syrian nor Iranian A2/AD threat poses insurmountable challenges for U.S. forces. But AirSea Battle provides a general framework for planning operations in situations where U.S. forces must operate at long distances from their targets. It involves rapid, long-range stealth strikes on command and control, communication and air defense assets deep in the adversary's territory to disorient, blind and prevent it from effectively mobilizing its forces. And it emphasizes tight integration between the Air Force and Navy, with operations by one protecting or permitting the freedom of maneuver for the other. Combined, both principles build on U.S. technological superiority in surveillance, targeting and stealth strike capabilities to overcome the anti-access/area-denial challenges posed by U.S. adversaries.
A strike on both Iran or Syria would demand tight coordination between the Navy and Air Force, where one service’s operations would facilitate the others. For instance, Air Force strikes against mobile anti-ship cruise missile batteries on Iran’s coast would prove crucial in allowing naval vessels to engage Iran’s fleet of fast-attack craft and conduct anti-mining operations in the Strait of Hormuz. Similarly, in Syria, Tomahawk missiles launched from Sixth Fleet vessels in the Mediterranean could conduct suppression of enemy air defense operations and precision strikes against high-value targets, which would enable fighter aircraft to more safely conduct operations in Syrian airspace.
Ultimately, AirSea Battle appears to reflect an understanding that current and future threats will not necessitate the large-scale interventions that have characterized the past decade. Potential military contingencies of the future – as in Iran and Syria – will involve precision strikes in pursuit of limited military goals: stopping the transfer of chemical weapons, disrupting a nuclear weapon program or imposing a no-fly zone.
None of this is to say that military interventions represent, or are likely to represent, prudent courses of action in either Iran or Syria. But prudency also dictates that defense planners prepare for possible contingencies in both cases. AirSea Battle is almost certainly more than simply a backroom strategist’s blueprint for winning a highly improbable war between the U.S. and China. It appears to be a concerted attempt by the Pentagon to prepare for the real and near-term security threats U.S. forces could confront in the coming years, most of which emanate from the Middle East.
Of course, relatively little has been said on record about AirSea Battle, and clarifying what the concept is really about would no doubt bolster stability in the Middle East. It will deter Iran, whose leaders may currently overestimate the strength of their A2/AD strategy, and it will re-assure America’s allies in the region, many of who see the Asia pivot (and associated discussion around AirSea Battle), as problematic for their long-term security.
In an attempt to assuage allies and deter adversaries in the region, Pentagon officials have made few changes to the U.S. force posture in the Middle East, and much of the promised military re-balancing towards Asia has yet to take place. Paradoxically, a more transparent acknowledgement of AirSea Battle’s applicability to the Middle East could free up forces needed to undertake the pivot. And it would make conflict less likely, too.