Small Wars

This Week at War: Iran’s Learning Curve

Why we should take Tehran's threat to cut off the Strait of Hormuz seriously.


At a press conference this week, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was asked again about U.S. preparations to prevent Iran from closing the Strait of Hormuz. Panetta’s response was business-as-usual: "[W]e are not making any special steps at this point in order to deal with the situation. Why? Because, frankly, we are fully prepared to deal with that situation now." Even if Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, conceded last week that Iranian forces would be capable of closing the strait "for a period of time," U.S. policymakers seem comfortable assuming that they would be able to reverse an Iranian move without much trouble.

In a recent column, I explained that it wouldn’t make much sense for Iran to start a conventional conflict with the United States Such a conflict would play to the U.S. military’s strongest suit, blasting away at traditional military hardware such aircraft, ships, and tanks. Each step up the ladder of escalation would find Iran struggling with a greater mismatch against U.S. forces and suffering ever-increasing punishment. Best for Iran to not get on the ladder in the first place.

But that conclusion might not always be the case. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), a well-connected Washington defense think tank, just released a new analysis of future military trends around the Persian Gulf. Mark Gunzinger and Chris Dougherty, authors of "Outside-In: Operating from Range to Defeat Iran’s Anti-Access and Area-Denial Threats," assert that over the next decade, Iran could acquire military capabilities that would rip up the assumptions that the U.S. military has used for its Persian Gulf planning over the past three decades. The authors conclude that the Pentagon needs to adapt to changing military circumstances in the region by devising new plans and redirecting investments into new capabilities.

Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, when U.S. military planning for the region first accelerated, commanders have enjoyed easy access to large, modern air and naval bases in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and, for a time, Saudi Arabia. In the build-up to the first Gulf War, these modern bases allowed the United States to rapidly deploy over 500,000 soldiers and Marines to the Kuwait border, move thousands of strike and support aircraft to bases close to the front line, and sail six aircraft-carrier strike groups to the Persian Gulf and Red Sea. By failing to disrupt this build-up, Saddam Hussein condemned his army to a swift defeat.

Iran’s leaders have no doubt learned from Saddam’s mistakes. Rather than spend money on traditional tank, artillery, and infantry formations, Iran is focusing its military investment on missiles, including ballistic missiles that threaten cities and bases on the Arabian Peninsula. Gunzinger and Dougherty are concerned that Iran’s growing ability to strike Saudi Arabia, and other U.S. allies on the western side of the Persian Gulf could either shut down U.S. air and naval operations at these close-in bases or coerce these countries’ leaders to deny access to U.S. forces during a future crisis.

Iran’s leaders may be attracted to this strategy because they suffered from it during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. During the "War of the Cities" phase of that war, scores of missiles were fired into downtown Baghdad, Tehran and other cities. Iraqi missile superiority succeeded in disrupting and demoralizing Tehran and causing thousands to flee the city. Based on their experience, Iranian leaders may believe that others in the region are vulnerable to the same disruption and coercion they remember from the 1980s.

To supplement its missile forces, Iran also has the covert action capability it displayed in the 1996 truck bomb attack on the Khobar Towers housing complex inside Saudi Arabia, an attack that killed 19 U.S. airmen. Tehran may be hoping that the threat of missile and truck-bomb mayhem will be enough to dissuade Arab cooperation with the U.S. military during a future crisis.

Without the ability to operate from close-in bases in the Arabian Peninsula, the United States would find it much more difficult to respond to an Iranian closure of the Strait of Hormuz. The Pentagon has made a heavy bet on the stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. If restricted to flying from just Turkey and aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea, the short-range F-35 would be able to cover targets in just the northwest and southeast corners of Iran. For the rest of Iran, the United States has only 20 stealthy B-2 bombers (not all of which would be available) capable of avoiding high-end surface-to-air missile systems Iran may acquire over the next decade. The Navy’s land-attack cruise missiles would be helpful but also limited in number. If U.S. forces found themselves having to fight for the Strait of Hormuz from a distant starting line, it could take a long time to reverse an Iranian first move.

In addition to land-attack ballistic missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles are another Iranian priority. The presence of these missiles in quantity would greatly complicate a U.S. Navy effort to clear the Hormuz shipping channel of Iranian mines. The United States would first have to suppress and clear out Iranian shore positions, a task which might keep the strait closed for weeks or even months, with nasty consequences for the global economy.

Iran’s missile forces are likely too embryonic to pose such a threat today. And as I explained above, Iran would seem to have little incentive to initiate military escalation, since it would ultimately receive the greatest punishment for doing so.

However, Iran may one day soon see coercion as an effective lever to protect its interests. U.S. and European leaders are hoping that economic sanctions will persuade Tehran to make some compromises on its nuclear program. But Western leaders must also be prepared for the possibility that Iran’s leaders may instead opt to impose their own economic sanction on the global economy by closing the strait with mines and anti-ship missiles. If the West’s sanction regime becomes very effective, Tehran may conclude that it has little to lose from a closure and much to gain from the economic pain it could impose on everyone else.

Iran would increase the probability of this action succeeding if it improved missile capabilities to a point where it could deny U.S. forces the close-in access to bases in the Arabian Peninsula to which U.S. planners have long become accustomed. In this case, and without changes to current forces and plans, U.S. policymakers may find it surprisingly costly to retake the strait.

Gunzinger and Dougherty recommend that U.S. leaders rethink their assumptions about future operations in the Persian Gulf. They recommend rebalancing investments in new strike aircraft toward platforms with much longer ranges, in order to reduce dependence on close-in bases that may not be available. U.S. diplomats and the Air Force should negotiate air base access agreements in northeast Africa, Southeast Europe, and Central Asia that would support longer-range air operations into the Persian Gulf and diversify dependence away from the increasingly vulnerable existing bases. U.S. planners should reconsider the current location of Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain and a major Air Force operations center in Qatar, both within five minutes of Iranian missiles. If Iran closed the strait, it is highly likely that the Marine Corps would be needed in some fashion to assist with reopening the channel. The authors urge the Navy and Marine Corps to maintain adequate amphibious capabilities.

The Pentagon’s new strategic guidance attempts to address some of the shortcomings, for example in long-range strike capability, Gunzinger and Dougherty identify. However, it remains to seen whether the Pentagon and Congress will actually reallocate funding into the new areas that effective adaptation will require. Iran’s shift away from a traditional army to a strategy centered on missiles is evidence of an adaptive adversary. The lumbering U.S. government should try to be at least as nimble.

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