US President Barack Obama’s new military strategy has focused new attention on an increasingly important threat: The use of inexpensive weapons like mines and cyberattacks that aim not to defeat the US military in battle, but to keep it at a distance.
The president and his national security team predict that the security challenges of the coming decade will be defined by this threat, just as the last one was defined by terrorism and insurgency.
A growing number of nations whose forces are overmatched by the US are fielding these weapons, which can slow, disrupt and perhaps even halt a US offensive. Modern war plans can become mired in a bog of air defenses, mines, missiles, electronic jamming and computer-network attacks meant to degrade US advantages in technology and hardware.
It is a lesson that potential enemies drew from the way US public support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan plummeted as armored vehicles — each costing millions of dollars — were broken and their troops killed and maimed by roadside bombs costing only a few hundred dollars apiece.
China and Iran were identified as the countries that were leading the pursuit of “asymmetric means” to counter US military force, according to the new strategy document, which cautioned that these relatively inexpensive measures were spreading to terrorist and guerrilla cells.
At his announcement at the Pentagon last week, Obama said the country should invest in “the ability to operate in environments where adversaries try to deny us access.”
The new strategy specifically orders that efforts to counter the threat, which the military calls “anti-access, area-denial,” become one of the 10 primary missions of the US military. That will help define how the armed services compete for shares of a shrinking Pentagon budget.
“The United States must maintain its ability to project power in areas in which our access and freedom to operate are challenged,” the strategy document said. “Sophisticated adversaries will use asymmetric capabilities, to include electronic and cyberwarfare, ballistic and cruise missiles, advanced air defenses, mining and other methods to complicate our operational calculus.”
For example, in recent exercises by the naval arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Iran has practiced “swarming” attacks by a number of small, fast boats that could be loaded with high explosives; if one such boat got through, it might blast a hole in the hull of a major US warship.
“Iran’s navy — especially the naval arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards — has invested in vessels and armaments that are well suited to asymmetric warfare, rather than the sort of ship-to-ship conflict that Iran would surely lose,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy managing director Michael Singh wrote in a recent essay for Foreign Policy.
With Chinese and Russian help, Singh added, Iran is also fielding sophisticated mines, midget submarines and mobile anti-ship cruise missiles.
“Iran’s capabilities are best suited for imposing high costs on those who might need to force their way through the Strait of Hormuz, and on those in the region whom the Iranians perceive as being complicit in enabling foreign access,” Center for Strategic and International Studies senior fellow Nathan Freier said.
The potential challenge from China is even more significant, military analysts say. China has a fleet of diesel-electric attack submarines, which can operate quietly and effectively in waters near China’s shore to threaten foreign warships.