Saturday, April 19, 2008
Running a Risk with Iran
Predicting what might happen in a shooting match with Iran is a perilous errand. The Clausewitzean concepts of fog and friction apply to modern war every bit as much as they do to the conflicts of bygone eras. For all our fantastical weaponry and information gizmology, stuff still breaks at the worst possible time and the information is often as not wrong.
Nonetheless, we can do a back-of-the-envelope operational analysis to estimate whether any conceivable benefit of attacking Iran can justify the risks involved.
Wild Purple Yonder
I noted last week that it would be difficult to bomb Iran back to the Stone Age because so little of it has evolved even that far. That remark has nothing to do with the people or culture of Iran; Persian civilization dates back to 4000 B.C. Geographically, however, the vast majority of Iran is as it was before monkeys learned how to use sticks and bones to kill each other. Iran is slightly larger than Alaska, but less than 10 percent of it is arable. The other 90 plus percent is mountain and desert. I don’t know of a smart weapon that can turn sand back into rubble, and doubt whether they’re working to develop one. They are designing something to make molehills out of mountains, but they’re having trouble getting permission to test it on a major population center in Nevada.
Roughly a third of Iran’s population of 66 million lives in eight cities. We could put a serious dent in the Persian race by doing a Dresden number on Tehran, but Iran hasn’t done anything to warrant a measure that extreme, and regardless of what Dick Cheney’s Likudnik pals say, it isn’t likely to.
Whatever parts of Iran’s nuclear industry we can take out from the air the Russians can rebuild in a timely manner, and Iran can afford to pay them to do it because another thing we can’t bomb back to the Stone Age is Iran’s oil reserves.
Our land and carrier based air forces can rapidly establish air supremacy over Iran, but air supremacy is meaningless unless your bombers can use the freedom of action it provides to accomplish something operationally significant, and as we just discussed, our bomber crews can’t do much over Iran besides rack up Air Medal points. Plus, all the air supremacy in the world won’t keep your engines from flaming out just when you’d rather they didn’t, and bad guy’s rocks can kill you just as dead as his fighters or surface-to-air missiles can. My mission calculus says that bombing sand doesn’t justify the risk of getting a B-$2 Billion shot down by a mountain.
20,000 Pogues Under the Sea?
A matchup between the navies of America and Iran would be asymmetric warfare exemplified: a global reach power projection navy versus a sea denial force optimized to fight in its backyard pool. If you put the battle space in the middle of the North Pacific the Americans have the overwhelming advantage, in no small part because Iran’s fleet will run out of gas or sink from natural causes before it gets there. Unfortunately for the U.S. Navy, tables turn in the confined waters of the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.
The Navy’s tasks in an operation against Iran would include projecting air power ashore (from the carriers and cruise missile shooters), keeping the Strait open, and deterring or stopping another tanker war like the one that broke out in the 80s during the conflict between Iran and Iraq. To do all those things, the Navy pretty much has to go into the Gulf, and it has to go through the Strait to get there.
In the bathtub, defense in depth becomes nearly impossible to conduct. The state of the art anti-ship weapons Iran recently bought from the Russians—the SSN-22 Sunburn missile and the rocket torpedo—are bad news. One school of thought says the only way to defend against them is to stay tied to the pier stateside, but it’s not just the latest generation of ship-killers we need to worry about. Any time you find yourself in a point defense situation against a homing weapon designed any time after 1970 or so your whole day just became irretrievable.
I rather doubt that anything short of extra terrestrial intervention could actually sink a 100,000-ton Nimitz class carrier, but a rocket torpedo up its stern could send it out the Strait under tow. That would be an unmitigated nightmare. Even if not a single member of the ship’s crew were killed or injured, for a minor power like Iran to have knocked one of America’s preeminent instruments of military might out of action would be a strategic catastrophe for the U.S.
Committing two carrier strike groups to a combat operation in the Gulf would place about 20,000 American sailors at risk. I can’t imagine a scenario that takes the lives of every one of them, or even a large portion of them. Six or eight Sunburns in the side of an Arleigh Burke class destroyer, though, could kill almost 400 of them in the blink of an eye. Given that the air power naval forces would contribute wouldn’t accomplish much, and that the Iranians won’t have a reason to close the Strait or start a tanker war if we don’t bomb them, putting a single one of our sailors at risk in a hot war with Iran doesn’t seem to make a molecule of sense.
Hills, Dales and Halls of Montezuma
In its only armed conflict, Iran’s land force waged trench warfare along the Iran-Iraq border. It was unable to score a decisive victory against Saddam Hussein’s army, and we all saw, not once but twice, how good Hussein’s army was against a real army. Iran’s army presents no danger to U.S. ground forces in Iraq.
The threat that Iran’s ballistic missiles pose to our troops Iraq is negligible; it is even less than the threat Hussein’s missiles presented in both Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom.
The Bush administration might justify an Iran strike based on its accusations that Iran is behind Iraqi militant attacks on American troops, even though it has shown no conclusive evidence to date that verifies those accusations. On the other hand, fairly ironclad data and analysis indicate that General David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, has been directly responsible for arming and aiding both the Shiite and Sunni factions in Iraq’s Hobbesian civil war.
Our Israeli friends like to remind us of the danger Iran presents to them, but between the two nations, which one is the more dangerous? Iran is too far from Israel to bring its air, sea or land forces to bear against it. Iran might be able to lob ballistic missiles at Israeli cities, but any warhead it throws at Israel would pale in comparison to what Israel throws back (remember, Israel’s the nation with nukes, not Iran). Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said something or other in Persian about how “Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time” which some have translated as "Israel must be wiped off the face of the map." Whatever he actually said was pretty stupid, but as I also said last week, if we’re going to start blaming a whole nation for the stupid things its goofy president says, we’re drifting into pot-and-kettle territory.
From an analytic perspective, attacking Iran would be such an irrational course of action that only a hatch full of boobies would contemplate taking it.
Sadly, "a hatch full of boobies" precisely describes the people in charge of the United States just now.
Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes at Pen and Sword .
"So we can play war…"
"Populated by outrageous characters and fueled with pompous outrage, Huber’s irreverent broadside will pummel the funny bone of anyone who’s served." — Publishers Weekly
"A remarkably accomplished book, striking just the right balance between ridicule and insight." — Booklist
View the trailer here.
at 1:10 PM