Security analysts the world over have detailed China’s efforts to develop weapons systems that can slow or stop a potential enemy entering a conflict zone. Dubbed “anti-access,” “access-denial,” or “A2/AD,” the goal of such a strategy is to use weapons that, as Andrew Erickson of the U.S. Naval War College explains it, “put U.S. forces on the wrong side of physics”.
The backbone of any A2/AD strategy is an anti-ship missile. Such a missile, fired from land, sea or air can cause tremendous damage to an enemy surface vessel. Yet while such technology isn’t new, the effective ranges of such weapons have increased tremendously, along with their accuracy, speed of delivery and availability. Defending against such systems is therefore a major headache for military planners.
While U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific are retooling to confront the challenge from China, though, it seems they have another problem – other nations have taken notice, and are adopting A2/AD strategies.
This week,Ryo Hinata-Yamaguchi wrote in The Diplomat on North Korea’s asymmetric strategy for confronting U.S. and South Korean forces if conflict were to occur. Such a strategy, he says, would include submarines, special operations forces and anti-ship missiles.
North Korea’s anti-ship missile technology, which came presumably from converted Soviet weaponry, presents little threat to U.S. or South Korean forces in its present form. But tests last month showed a North Korean anti-ship missile being fired from an older Soviet style bomber. Such missiles could pose problems for smaller patrol boats or merchant vessels attempting to ship supplies to South Korea in time of war.
Iran has also jumped on the anti-ship missile bandwagon. In July, Iran tested a 186 mile range anti-ship missile with a 1,433 pound warhead. The missile is supposedly capable of reaching speeds up to Mach 3. At such speeds, vessels would have little time to deploy any defensive measures. If such a weapon were deployed in the narrow Strait of Hormuz, for example, Iran would have a viable method of shutting down most shipments of oil out of the Persian Gulf, as well as slowing the movement of an enemy surface fleet.
Syria, meanwhile, even with its current domestic issues, has recently taken delivery of new anti-ship missiles. A contract worth $300 million dollars was signed with Russia well before current hostilities in Syria began. But many analysts believe the delivery was timed by Russia to punish the West for its reluctance to alter its ballistic missile defense system strategy in Europe.
Israel, for its part, has expressed concern over the sale of the missiles as they place its surface fleet in serious danger. The missiles have a range similar to Iran’s anti-ship system, of about 190 miles. It should also be noted that Hizbollah used a surface-to-air missile in the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War to hit the INS Hanit warship; four sailors were killed in the attack.
In response, many argue that surface vessels can simply be taken out of range of anti-ship missiles, thus denying them the ability to strike. But there are problems with this argument. For a start, China currently has an anti-ship missile with an estimated range of anywhere from 1,500 to 2,700 kilometers.
But even countries with access to shorter-range anti-ship missiles could pose a challenge to the U.S or other navies if they are able to close within striking range. After all, several years back, a Chinese submarine appears to have taken a U.S. aircraft carrier by surprise, surfacing within striking range. In addition, during war games simulations in 2005, an electric-diesel submarine leased from the Swedish navy was able to “sink” the USS Ronald Reagan, a Nimitz class aircraft carrier. With diesel submarine technology becoming ever more advanced and difficult to detect, even with the best U.S. technology, surface fleets will have to be wary. Indeed, even nations without advanced submarines need only be able to load missiles onto a smaller patrol vessel to be able to strike unexpectedly.
With military planners understandably wary about placing their multi-billion dollar surface vessels and crews in harm’s way, the relative affordability and utility of asymmetric A2/AD weapons means they are almost certainly here to stay.
Harry Kazianis is assistant editor of The Diplomat.