Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Iran War: On Again?

From Google Maps
The on-again, off-again Iran war seems to be on again, for the moment. I've argued in earlier posts that the US will not attack Iran before George Bush's term ends. Since that argument was explicitly based on speculation, it could easily be incorrect. However, despite the build-up I will describe below, my feeling is still that it won't happen.
Multiple sources indicate a major Middle-East naval build-up by the US, France and the UK. This, in itself, is nothing new. Every few months, the US rotates aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf. That inevitably leads to cries of immanent attack based on the presence of two carrier task groups in the Gulf area. Every time, there has been an overlap of several days, and then the old task force sails home. In truth, an attack, if it were to be mounted, would take place during such an overlap. But it hasn't happened yet. In addition, every few months, the US Marines do a similar hand-over for their Marine Expeditionary Forces (MEF). These hand-overs are less routine. Sometimes there are two MEFs around for weeks. They follow an entirely different schedule than the carriers, so the rotations take place at different intervals.
What's different now is that there are not one, but two carrier task forces on their way. In addition, the Marines are also sending a second MEF. There are also assorted British and French naval assets over and above their normal deployments. All this is important because there are two very visible things required for a major US attack on Iran: 1) a new moon - the Americans like to attack in the dark until they acquire air superiority, 2) at least two, and better three, aircraft carriers. With a new moon on August 30, both conditions will be satisfied.
A proper analysis of the strategic positions of the players and possible outcomes will be a separate article. This article will lay out the military options and their operational requirements. A nuts and bolts analysis. We will leave out the political complexities and as far as possible Israel. Just to keep things simple.
In terms of an attack on Iran, the US has five separate operational goals. They could mix and match a bit, but some are required if you want the others.

Disrupt Iranian training of Iraqi militias

This is easy. A few cruise missiles launched from destroyers in the Persian Gulf would do the job. Little chance of a miss, little chance of civilian casualties, low likelihood of significant retaliation. The last is especially true because the Iranians cleared out the camps in the spring when the Americans were making a lot of noise over them. The camps named by the US currently sport no more than a skeleton crew of extremely nervous sentries who probably spend most of their time in the bomb shelters. Such an attack would be mostly symbolic. That's why Bill Clinton loved them so much. No downside, lots of flag waving and message sending potential. George Bush expressed contempt for such exercises early in his first term, but the option remains on the table. This option could be pursued independent of the others and could include airstrikes as well as cruise missiles.

Gain control of Iranian airspace - attack Iranian air force & SAM sites

This option comes in two flavors. First is a local superiority over the Straits. This would require at the least destruction of Surface To Air (SAM) missile sites in the area. The Iranian Air Force is not strong and could be interdicted rather than destroyed in this scenario. For anything more ambitious than local control of the Straits, a full air-superiority operation would be required. US war doctrine requires total control of the air. In any widespread attack against Iran, air-superiority missions would comprise the bulk of operations. The aim would be to destroy the Iranian Air Force on the ground or in the air, destruction of Iranian Air Defense networks and command, and destruction of regional and key local SAM assets. The operation might include attacks on air defense batteries (guns rather than missiles) at key locations as well. For the most part, batteries are useless against US strategic bombers, but could be a problem for low-level strike aircraft. These attacks would be carried out by US Air Force and Navy planes, cruise missiles and possibly UK planes as well. As mentioned, darkness is preferable for air superiority operations because the US has an enormous technological advantage in the dark. Expect an attack to begin on or just before a new moon. The new moons for the remainder of 2008 occur on August 30, September 29, October 28, November 27 & December 27.
A related, but separate operation would also be required to prevent Iranian retaliation against the US Navy. Iran is thought to have a large stockpile of anti-ship missiles. It would be logical to expect air and cruise missile strikes against all Iranian military installations along the entire Gulf and Arabian Sea coasts. Some landing raids might also be necessary to eliminate any chance of a successful Iranian attack against the carriers. In the event of hostilities, the carrier task groups become a liability in one sense, they have to be defended at all costs, pushing the US into attacks unrelated to their strategic objectives. One of many hidden costs and escalations built in to any US offensive operations.

Destroy Iranian government and military command and control assets

This operation is flexible and could range from small local strikes to a complete decapitation like the 2003 attack on Iraq. The aim there was to completely eliminate the ability for the Iraqi government to function. The operation included air strikes on telephone exchanges, government office buildings, military communications facilities, TV & Radio stations, power plants, and key road & rail bridges. In addition, there were electronic attacks aimed at disrupting electronic communications that eluded airstrikes. Obviously, these attacks would primarily target Tehran and important regional capitals. During the 2003 war, there were also airstrikes aimed at killing important government and military leaders. Such personalized attacks don't seem useful against Iran. Its a fully developed modern state and you can't paralyze the entire government by killing a few key individuals.
Depending upon US plans for use of ground forces, or fears of Iranian retaliation, attacks might also be carried out against a wider range of transportation targets across the country. For example, any plan to land Marines in the Straits area would call for destruction of all road and rail links to the area to prevent Iranian reinforcement. There could also be actions against Iranian military and transportation targets near the Iraqi border. However, any movement of Iranian troops towards or across the Iraqi border would represent a huge escalation. It would turn an air war into a ground war. Neither the US, the Iraqis or the assorted allies have enough troops on hand to fight a ground war. If the US felt it needed to neutralize such a threat, it would be another hidden escalation.

Gain strategic control over the Strait of Hormuz (or at least deny Iranian control)

University of Texas - Perry-CastaƱeda Library Map Collection
In any armed conflict between Iran and the West, control of the Strait of Hormuz will become critical. Almost 40% of the world’s seabourne traded oil transits the Strait. That’s 16.5 million barrels or $1.9 billion (@$115/bl) per day on 15 or 16 tankers, plus ships for other petroleum products and liquefied natural gas. Or 25 – 30 ships traveling each way. Most of the oil and natural gas is on its way to Asia, particularly China and Japan. The prestige of the US Navy and the credibility of US power rests on guaranteeing the free flow of tankers through the Straits. The Iranians have threatened to close the Straits in the event of hostilities with the US.
How a struggle for control would unfold is difficult to predict. The Iranians have shore and air anti-ship missiles, mines and patrol boats that could make hay of unarmed tankers. The US would have the entire Fifth Fleet plus whatever Air Force, Marines and Special Forces assets required. The Americans have more than enough force to eliminate any Iranian threat, but the Iranians have speed, surprise and flexibility. The conservative thing to do for the US is assume the Iranians will attempt to close the Straits, and preempt them. I’d imagine airstrikes against any building, boat, vehicle or donkey cart that looked capable of launching a missile. In addition, the maximum scenario would include Marine landings on the Tunb and Abu Musa Islands and possibly in the region around Bandar Abbas. The Islands provide strategic control of the Gulf entrance to the Straits. They belong to the UAE, but have been illegally occupied by Iran since 1971. Their liberation by US Marines would be most welcome by the UAE. Any landings on the Iranian mainland would be short-term, there’s no reason for the Marines to stay once the conflict ends. The Islands, on the other hand, would be a strategic prize the US would hold on to (with UAE permission, of course) forever. Besides the military equation, there are political dimensions to a struggle over the Straits. Iranian action to close the Straits would be extremely unpopular with everyone (except Russia who would still pretend to be outraged). Pressure for them to back-off would be intense and wide-ranging. On the other hand, Iran has one great advantage. Both the tankers and the oil they contain are valuable. Their owners cannot risk loss by sailing into a war zone. Iran need do very little to achieve a de-facto closing. Or put another way, the US Navy needs to defend everywhere and everything to be successful. The Iranians only need to hit one tanker to be successful. This reality would tend to make a US preemption more desirable, from the US point of view. Yet another built-in escalation.

Destroy Iranian nuclear development capabilities

After all the destruction and death discussed, we finally get to the supposed point. The Israelis might be able to successfully hit several Iranian nuclear facilities with a one-off surprise attack, but they probably can’t do sufficient damage to justify the risk. For the US, such an attack is out of the question. They need to prevent retaliation in the Straits and Iraq. That means all the operations discussed above must be carried out before, or along with, operations against Iranian nuclear facilities. There is no gain in half-measures. The risk and preconditions are the same. The logical thing to do would be to wipe out the Iranian program entirely. One would expect multiple strikes against dozens of targets, mainly delivered by B1, B2 & B52 bombers. Combinations of bunker-buster and conventional munitions would be required. Problems with limited intelligence and the strength of key sites might yield unsatisfactory results. Lastly, the key to the program is not the infrastructure. Equipment can be replaced. To destroy the program, you need to kill the people with the expertise. Iran is a very large country with almost 70 million citizens. How do you find the key personel? At the first sign of trouble, they will scatter from the facilities and disapear into the general population. The only effective way to do the job is with nuclear weapons delivered by ballistic missiles. Cruise missiles or B2 bombers could also do the job if they were launched in such a way as to synchronize their arrival at all the targets. Besides the obvious crime of using nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear country that has not attacked the US, there are other risks. Cruise missiles and bombers can be shot down, or crash for mechanical reasons. They are reliable, but not 100% reliable. Ballistic missiles are a nightmare. If Russia, or China, or India, or Pakistan thought the missiles were headed towards them, they would have to respond instantly. Nobody wants to head down that path. You can't warn them first, because the Russians, and probably the Indians and Chinese, would tell the Iranians. I don't believe an American President would order first use of nuclear weapons, and I don't believe the US military would carry out such an order.
Given the effort required and the uncertainty of the results, the operation is far from a slam-dunk.

The Means

A full-on attack by the US would be delivered by aircraft operating from Air Force bases and Aircraft Carriers. The Air Force would probably use bases in Iraq, Qatar, and Afghanistan for F-15, F-16, and other assorted strike aircraft. The new F-22s would probably not be used because US Defense Secretary Robert Gates nixed their deployment to Iraq a few months ago. However, they could be ferried in quickly if required. Heavier aircraft like the B1, B2 and B52 would have to fly in from the US, Britain, Guam and Diego Garcia (assuming UK permission). Its possible re-fueling and rearming might be done at bases in Iraq or Afghanistan, but that is not the usual procedure. Also, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has publicly stated Iraqi bases cannot be used to attack Iran. When push comes to shove, it might not matter much what al-Maliki says. By design, the Iraqis have no means to prevent the US from doing what it wants.
Naval air support would come from the carriers USS Theodore Roosevelt, USS Ronald Reagan are said to be on their way to the area, joining the USS Abraham Lincoln which is already in the Arabian Sea. Depending on the plan, one would probably park near the head of the Gulf opposite Bushehr, another near Qatar and the last outside the Straits in the Gulf of Oman. Right now, the Lincoln is in the Arabian Sea. A passage of two carriers through the Strait, especially if one is the Lincoln, would be an indicator of imminent action. The Navy doesn't like having carriers in the Persian Gulf because they feel vulnerable. The admirals would need a good reason to send two in there. The Lincoln is due to go home, and doesn't need to enter the Gulf to do so.
The Marines have an MEF on the USS Peleliu in the Gulf of Aden, keeping an eye on Somalia. They are also sending another on the USS Iwo Jima to the area. The passage of one or both into the Persian Gulf would be another possible tip-off of imminent action. Each is a self-contained landing force with combat troops, transport and air-support.
In the next post, I'll discuss the possible Iranian response, and the overall strategic situation.