A2/AD - How to Kill a Carrier Outside the Persian Gulf

Since the revolution, Iran's naval doctrine has largely focused on the Persian Gulf, exploiting the tight space to its advantage against a powerful symmetric foe.

But we cannot remain confined to the Persian Gulf. Modern naval aircraft like the F-35C will have a combat radius exceeding 1000 km, which means they can sit outside the range of our coastal anti-ship missile sites and launch hordes of standoff weapons. With the same principle, Tomahawk equipped destroyers can strike deep inside Iran. And let's face it, a handful of lightly armed frigates with no air cover are largely helpless in front of 2 Carrier Strike Groups.

P-270 Moskit aka Sunburn ASCM

How do you stop an adversary from sitting outside the range of your defences? Simple. Extend the reach of your defences.

This is where A2/AD comes in. A2/AD stands for Anti-Access/Area Denial. We want to keep the USN as far away from our shores as possible. We have to push out our defences, to deny the enemy that safety of operation.

This is not a new concept. It is, in fact, the strategy of both the Chinese and Russian navies.

Russian A2/AD

Russia was, and probably still is, the King of A2/AD. Russia's famous lack of access to warm waters means it is largely confined to areas with natural choke points - the Baltic, Black, and even the Barents/Norwegian sea in the arctic circle. Therefore, a defensive strategy like A2/AD is best for Russia. Russia has an outstanding collection of enormous supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, launched by equally massive cruisers and supersonic bombers.

Image result for kh-22

The 1962 Kh-22 weighs almost 6 tons, flies at Mach 4.6, and has a range of 600 km. A Tu-22M can carry 3 of these nuclear tipped skull crushers, then dash back to base at supersonic speed. Now that's what I call a carrier killer...

And that's not all. The Russians are developing some agent of hell called the Zircon, which can fly at up to Mach 8 and as far as 1000 km. Coming to a Tu-160 or Russian battlecruiser near you...

But enough Russian superweapons.

Chinese A2/AD

The Chinese are also basing their naval strategy around A2/AD. China has a huge coastline, with much of its major cities along it. It is therefore hard to implement A2/AD without a number of unique advantages, like raised islands built up with airbases and SAMs, as well as China's own trick up her sleeve - the DF-21D. Like our own Khalije Fars, the DF-21D is an anti-ship ballistic missile. Except the DF-21D has a range of 1500 km to our 300 km. With such a long ranged missile, China can threaten US carriers without having to invest in supersonic bombers.

Iranian A2/AD

In order to push Iranian A2/AD to cover the Arabian Sea, we have to implement a strong buildup of forces and assets that could challenge US presence in the area.

It goes without saying that Chabahar should be the centre of IRGC-ASF, IRIN and IRIAF operations in the Arabian Sea. It is well situated as the most south-easterly major port for the IRIN to base larger ships from. It also has an airport that can be expanded for a large number of IRIAF aircraft, and even enough infrastructure to build a dedicated airbase. There is a mountain range a short distance north of the port that could be used to hide or fortify IRGC-ASF ASBMs. As Chabahar would be the main base of Iran's A2/AD assets, it is imperative to protect Chabahar with not just multiple Strategic SAM batteries (like the Bavar-373), but also a large number of SHORADs which would prevent a mass Tomahawk missile strike from long range disabling the airbase and port, as well as stealth aircraft running wild weasel missions.

Possible Strategic SAM coverage of the Persian Gulf and Chabahar with Bavar-373 (purple) and S-300 (red) systems.

Naval component

A surface fleet would employ a combination of air defence destroyers with a similar role to the US Arleigh Burke class. These would be equipped with a large number of VLS cells (roughly equivalent to a US Arleigh Burke class) for navalised Bavar-373 systems, and a minimal, defensive armament of subsonic anti-ship missiles like the Qader. These destroyers should also be capable of carrying 1 or 2 helicopters for ASW or Search and Rescue operations. Considering these vessels would be very heavily armed, only a relatively small number would be required, about 5.

The real hitting power would come with what the destroyers would be escorting. Small, specialised corvettes/frigates armed with (ideally) 8 supersonic anti-ship missiles. In my opinion, it is imperative that these missiles are the hard hitting, supersonic type. In the open sea, where we must have a smaller number of longer endurance vessels, Iran can bring less missiles to bear than in the Persian Gulf, so each missile must be capable of bypassing US defences. The small ships carrying these missiles would carry little other weaponry apart from maybe a 76 mm gun and a few CIWS and short range SAM systems, purely for self defence. Building these small ships around the missiles would bring devastating firepower forward in a relatively cheap package, and wouldn't compromise the air defence capabilities of the larger destroyers. It would also enable Iran to build such ships in relatively large numbers, compared to the handful of air defence destroyers that would escort them.

Image result for bora class hovercraft
The Russian Bora class hovercraft displaces just 1000 tons but can carry 8 P-270 Moskit (aka the dreaded Sunburn) missiles

Destroyers armed with a navalised Bavar-373 (purple) would escort smaller missile carrying ships. The best case scenario would be an Oniks-like missile, which is the 600 km ranged, Russian non-export version of the Yakhont. This could block access to the Gulf of Oman, just by holding position.

Iran should aim to reverse engineer the Kilo class submarines, or at least build comparable vessels with modern capabilities. Diesel-electric attack submarines have enough range and endurance to cover the regional naval space Iran seeks to control. The 3 Kilo class subs Iran already has are a good start, but are still relatively old, and all may not be operational at the same time. 

Aerial component

While it may seem futile to try and contest airspace around 2 aircraft carriers, one must remember that each carrier air wing's fighter component consists of a maximum of 48 F/A-18C/E/F (sometimes less), and considering some aircraft may not be in the air for maintenance purposes, a modern and well organised IRIAF, supported by air defence destroyers, should be able to overpower the maximum of 96 fighter aircraft. There may even be a use for F-14AMs acting as interceptors of US ISR, AWACS and Aerial Refuelling aircraft - that is, if the Tomcats don't fall apart by that time.

The Su-30SM that Iran is trying to purchase from Russia would be perfect for this task. With an estimated unrefueled combat radius of 1200 km, a large number of these long range multirole aircraft have the legs to accompany and defend a naval flotilla out at sea from carrier fighter squadrons. Furthermore, the Su-30SM's Indian cousin, the Su-30MKI, is being fitted with the BrahMos (based on the Yakhont, reportedly obtained by both Syria and Hezbollah...). The latent capability of the Flanker airframe to carry large, supersonic ASCMs is therefore already proven, and an option should Iran decide to develop a missile using Ramjet technology learned from the Sunburn, rather than just outright copy the missile - the Sunburn was tested on the Su-33 but AFAIK, not made operational. Long range missions like this would require a lot of planning to ensure no aircraft run out of fuel. Though Iran has conducted large scale airstrikes before, the long ranges involved would likely require AWACS and Aerial Refuelling aircraft.

Su-30MKI carrying a BrahMos on the centreline pylon. The Kh-41 (air launched Sunburn) was also tested on the centreline pylon of the Su-33.

Estimated unrefueled combat radius (blue) of Su-30SM, and range of Oniks type missile launched from Flankers (red).

Missile Component

Possibly the most technically challenging part of this doctrine, one that even China with all its resources may not have yet made fully operational. Thankfully, Iran has a much smaller coastline than China and therefore doesn't need to cover as much of an area or invest as many resources. The actual missile part of the ASBM is easy for Iran, which already has the accurate Zolfaqar missile, and the rate of progress of Iran's precision missile technology indicates it could make a Sejjil-like missile as accurate. And it must be the Sejjil - Iran possesses no other MRBM that can be ready for launch at such short notice.

A Zolfaqar based ASBM, would cover 700 km (yellow). The Sejjil's range is estimated at between 2000 km and 2500 km; the light and dark green represent the upper and lower estimates respectively of the range of a Sejjil ASBM, reduced by 12% to reflect the addition of a manoeuvrable MRV. The adjustment is an approximation, based on the reduction in estimated range of the DF-21C (1700 km) to DF-21D (1500 km). 

The difficulty in making a long range ASBM is target acquisition and tracking. A US aircraft carrier is nuclear powered and thus can travel at over 30 knots sustained. Therefore, advanced, constant tracking is required. This would include maritime patrol aircraft (escorted by aforementioned fighters), and both Synthetic Aperture Radar and Optical satellites. Satellites may seem unattainable, but the Israelis have managed to put their Ofek series of SAR and Optical spy satellites into Low Earth Orbit. These satellites weight approximately 300-400 kg. Simorgh has an estimated payload to LEO of 350 kg, so refining Simorgh into a reliable launcher would mean Iran could have a sophisticated space-borne surveillance capability. Iran doesn't yet have the capability to use HALE UAVs for this task like the Chinese Soar Dragon, owing to Iran's lack of military SATCOM.

Addressing Criticisms


I know what you're thinking. What idiot would think that Iran could win a naval war against the US? Well, not me. This is just another layer to Iran's defences, another way Iran could try and take out a US aircraft carrier. The reason for this strategy is that Iran wants to make any US action against Iran as costly as possible - a sunk or mission killed supercarrier is hugely costly, both financially, and in terms of morale. A US aircraft carrier also holds 5000 crew - and we know how sensitive the US is to casualties. The US usually has the Fifth Fleet, which comprises of 2 Carrier Strike Groups, in the area. Each CSG has 1 carrier, at least 1 cruiser, at least 2 destroyers, and sometimes includes submarines. So it isn't like we are facing the entire US Navy.

There is also feasibility of development - how will Iran develop a supersonic ASCM? Well, Iran acquired some examples of the Sunburn missile after the collapse of the USSR. This missile has a range of up to 240 km (though Iran probably acquired the older version with 120-140 km range). Iran may choose to copy the Sunburn, and probably increase its range like it has done to numerous other missiles of all types, like the 120 km C-802 developed into the 300 km Qader, the 200 km Fateh-110 developed into the 700 km Zolfaqar, the 31-37 km RIM-66 eventually developed into the 120 km Sayyad-3 with almost quadruple the range and many other improvements. Or Iran may choose to learn from the Sunburn's Ramjet technology and use it in a heavily modified or new design. Funnily enough, Iran said it was developing a supersonic ASCM in 2016.


Another obvious criticism would be the cost - a large aerial component, multiple destroyers and even more missile launching corvette/frigates, submarines, supersonic ASCMs... To that I say that, A2/AD or not, Iran's air force is long due a major overhaul anyway. It is a matter of when, not if. As for the ships, Iran is already working on a destroyer design, so it may as well build it in numbers and assign them an effective doctrine. I doubt Iran would go to all the trouble of developing a destroyer and only build a single example. This is a long term plan, and so requires long term investment and doing away with short-sightedness. In fact - as I have argued before - Iran's entire military needs to be modernised, not just the air force and navy.

Besides, this naval doctrine is not a one trick pony. It could also be used to keep Israeli nuclear armed submarines further from Iranian shores, and could help us engage and destroy the Saudi Red Sea fleet should they choose to use it in a war. The large air force required for such a doctrine could also be used in a non-naval context, considering the Su-30SMs are multirole fighters, and the AWACS and Aerial Refuelling aircraft could be used in any large airborne operation. The development of the Simorgh SLV for spy satellites would also mean we could deploy spy satellites over other parts of the region.


All the various objectives and components would take a number of years to achieve. But we can have an "Initial Operating Capability" of sorts. For now, we could make all F-4s in the south capable of firing Qader anti-ship missiles. We could work on acquiring new Maritime Patrol Aircraft while we develop an ASBM based on the Zolfaqar. And we could put an emphasis on deploying the Mowj class frigates in the Arabian Sea. We can push the range out as we acquire new assets - modern fighter aircraft, destroyers, and eventually a Sejjil-based ASBM.

The full picture, using the upper estimate of Sejjil ASBM and the 600 km supersonic ASCMs launched from ships and aircraft. As you can see, there are a multitude of threats to any carrier group, and the naval flotilla is well protected by both destroyers and fighter aircraft. The flotilla would be able to move out further if aircraft are refuelled in the air.