China or Iran: Who Is the Bigger Threat to U.S. Airpower?

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China or Iran: Who Is the Bigger Threat to U.S. Airpower?

A new comparative analysis sheds light on the threat Tehran’s ballistic missile force poses to U.S. airbases.

China or Iran: Who Is the Bigger Threat to U.S. Airpower?
Credit: Flickr/Israel Project

China and Iran’s anti-access/anti-denial capabilities are often lumped together in public statements by senior U.S. defense officials and the American media. That frequently leads to a mischaracterization of Tehran’s A2/AD capabilities — particularly when discussing Iran’s conventional ballistic missile force.

A new operational analysis by Jacob L. Heim, an analyst at the RAND Corporation, published in the Air & Space Power Journal, offers a comparative perspective of the risk to U.S. air bases from Chinese and Iranian conventional theater ballistic missiles, key weapon systems in both countries’ A2/AD strategies.

Unsurprisingly, Heim concludes that the U.S. airpower faces a larger threat from China in East Asia than Iran in Southwest Asia. Indeed, he calls Iranian claims that its military has the ability to “obliterate all… (U.S.) bases” in Southwest Asia “bluster and bluff.”

“The accuracy, payloads, and ranges of the weapons in Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal are inadequate to seriously threaten U.S. air operations, in part because U.S. forces could operate from a large number of bases outside the worst threat ring (i.e., more than 500 km from Iran’s border),” Heim summarizes.

Although Iran — with over 1,000 ballistic missiles in its inventory — has the largest ballistic missile force in the Middle East, the majority of Tehran’s arsenal consists of variants of technologically outdated Soviet Scud missiles that could not significantly threaten U.S. operations outside a 500 km radius. Some of the more dangerous missiles in Iran’s inventory are the solid-fueled Fateh-110, the liquid-fueled BM-25 medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), and the still-under-development two-stage solid fueled Ashoura MRBM.

However, “military planners still have numerous options for basing fighters outside the effective TBM [theater ballistic missile] threat ring in SWA [Southwest Asia]—an option that they do not have in East Asia,” Heim emphasizes. “This fact also has implications for U.S. force structure because the basing options in SWA mean that legacy short-range fighters can still contribute a great deal of combat power from comparative sanctuary.”

Even within the 500 km range, there are multiple ways the U.S. military can counter the Iranian ballistic missile threat and continue to operate. “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,” according to Heim.

Heim’s overall conclusion: “Iran can still threaten TBM strikes on major cities as punishment for any country that does so, but it currently lacks a credible capability to deny U.S. air operations (…) [T]he Iranian ballistic missile threat to U.S. air bases is exaggerated by the Iranians and likely to remain modest, relative to the threat those bases face in East Asia.”

As a consequence he suggests that “scarce funds to harden air bases should be allocated first to the Western Pacific, where China’s growing TBM force presents a much greater concern.”