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.


  1. After any bombing campaign, the Iranians will still be sat on one side of the Straits of Hormuz and they are not going to forget who bombed them. So once the US Navy have re-opened the Straits of Hormuz, they are going to have to keep them open for ever (well almost) as the Iranians will keep going (vendetta-like) until they are all dead (they are happy to die as long as they kill a few of the enemy). So at some point, so many oil tankers will have been that the US will have to invade Iran and at that point, US casualties will rise.

  2. Anonymous6:56 AM

    After reading the Sunday NY Times article on tv military analysts/defense contractors, I am shocked, shocked, I tell you that these ex- military people were employed to go on television, to do any more than tell the American people the truth.

    Shocking. This administration has been feeding us propoganda for all this time. Pentagon talking points through "the military experts." Who would have thought?

    Wonder what took so long for somebody to put it in print in the mainstream media?


    Read all eleven pages, and you will know why we appreciate your blog Commander.

    Thanks for all you do.

  3. BB,

    Yeah, there will never be an end to it.


    Thanks for the nice words. Please believe me, I'll have a word or two on the NYT article next week. That gave me all the ammo I needed to say a thing or two I've been holding back on.


  4. We've touched on that psy-ops business before here, yes sir. I've made attempts to explain this to a few people in the past, but their eyes immediately glazed over. I feel zero satisfaction being proven right, though...

  5. You just have to keep plugging away, Jeff. I was struck by Rumsfeld's remark about "Don't you believe in the Constitution," as in the first amendment guarantees the government's right to deceive its people.

  6. Anonymous9:29 AM

    "Naturally the common people don't want war: Neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, IT IS THE LEADERS of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a facist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is TELL THEM THEY ARE BEING ATTACKED, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. IT WORKS THE SAME IN ANY COUNTRY.

    ---Goering at the Nuremberg Trials.

    (Boy does it ever.)

  7. wkmaier10:24 AM


    We watched the documentary "No End in Sight" last night. Highly recommended, though it will make any sentient being angry.

    I don't care about Godwin's Law, I sure see lots of similarities with a certain 1930s era government.

  8. Of course, Commander Huber, I continue to bow to your military expertise. However, I think you base your analysis on some questionable assumptions. First, I think American ships are lightly armored, if armored at all, and are full of internal vulnerabilities, many of them unknown. The point of the asymmetric naval warfare in the Gulf will be to keep the US ships busy defending themselves, which they will presumably easily do, while the anti-ship missles do the real dirty work.
    In other words, the strategy will be to combine asymmetric and symmetric warfare and I think this will be the general Iranian strategy.

    Granted, the US airplanes and naval guns may eliminate many or most of the Iranian anti-ship missles. That is why I say the first 45 minutes of the war will be decisive. If the US can do that, it can bomb Iran to hell within a day. It will thus attempt to play the old Israeli trick of presenting the World with a fait accomplis.

    But if the US doesn't get most of those anti-ship missles in the first 45 minutes, I think our Navy takes major losses. As the exocet showed Britain, contemporary ships are highly vulnerable. They are built on the conciet that no one will dare attack them. They are also built as financial boondoggles. The Gulf will be, as you say, the exact worst possible deployment for such a fleet and the best possible deployment for what Iran has to offer as a method of attack.

    A carrier hit by a missle won't just be an embarrassment. It will be a sitting duck for more missles and for more assymetric attacks, and it has potentially vulnerable internal systems. Also, it will draw the rest of the US deployed ships into defensive formations around the wounded but crucial vessel, which will make them more vulnerable.

    Yes, it's true that Iran couldn't defeat Iraq's army, but Iraq had one of the best armies at the time, and was using WMD, which I believe the Iranians were not using, and Iran had, I believe, a much weaker army at the time than it does now. I think you also forget that the US invasion into Iran will surely be harrassed from both sides . As you say, no one knows what will happen in the fog of war, but I think that with attenuated logistics under attack; facing an enemy that has some (though limited) ability to counteract total air supremacy and that has a proven willingness to defend its homeland, an enemy that surely will be provided with some surprising weapon systems by its allies, and that will fight with an approach intended to combine qualities of massed forces and dispersed forces: our soldiers could end up in a lot of trouble.

    Also, I think Iranian's Sahabs are superior to Iraq's Scuds. Nobody really knows for sure what Iran's capabilities are, in this and other areas, but I think it's far too much to believe that the Iranians are as much bluffers as Saddam was.

    Again, a lot depends on the first 45 minutes of the war. IF the US destroys Iran's missle capabilities quickly, especially its antiship missles, the US will succeed in presenting the world with a fait accomplis. If Iran succeeds in getting off enough missles successfully enough to inflict damage on US Naval forces in particular, a drawn out struggle ensues that is less asymmetric than at first might have been assumed, a struggle which could become increasingly asymmetric, as the US will NOT be able to claim UN cover for its actions and may even face tremendous UN hostility, which would provide cover for other interested parties who might want to support Iran.

    Either way, attacking Iran would be a disaster, if only because it would decisively destroy the already frayed and nearly destroyed international consensus against offensive war. IF Bunker Busters are used, it would probably also destroy the international consensus against nuclear weapons. It would also, no matter how quickly and effectively the US is able to destroy Iranian resistance, initiate a superpower showdown. I do not believe that Russia and China would allow the US to make such inroads in the petroleum heart of the world without demanding withdrawal from various strategic US bases.

    And then there is the possibility that US soldiers could be lost at a rate far beyond what we've seen in Iraq, and all for no real reason. Who would contemplate such madness?

    For the answer to that, let's talk about accountability. What if you had started a war that cost trillions; that cost many US lives and possibly a million lives overseas; that had no end in sight and that was based on lies? You'd be hauled before the Hague, right?

    What if what instead of being hauled before the Hague, you were hailed, promoted, and given even more power? Now lets look at W. He's been exhonerated by the press, the electorate and the Democrats. He's been offered every encouragement to attack Iran by the press and the Democrats. The electorate is clearly buying his lies about Iran (25% name Iran our greatest enemy, even though for a single Iranian missle to reach us, it would have to bounce repeatedly). There's very little doubt that he's a moron (in the colloquial sense), a conscience-less sociopath, and a man determined to leave an intelible mark on history. The air force seems to have his ear and it seems to be dominated by wildly narcissistic end-timers.

    What the hell are the chances that Bush WON'T attack Iran?

  9. Put differently, I think the real point is that necon/Bush/Cheney world is a world in which normal logic is turned upside down. What to most people would be reasons for doing something become reasons for not doing something, and vice versa.

    Carter has just given a demonstration of this. Carter is hardly a left wing tree hugger. His administration plagued Nicaragua with Samoza and started the war in Afganistan. Yet even he had the commonsense to do what Bush has refused to do for 8 years; he talked to Hamas.
    Because how the hell do you even get started on a peace agreement if you don't even talk to your opponents?

  10. wkmaier11:29 AM

    Workshop (and Jeff),

    The mention of China and Russia intrigues me, what are the chances that China would retaliate against the US in some economic fashion? We are a debtor nation to the Chinese, how can we afford to piss them off? I realize we buy all their (lead-based) products, so maybe there's "nothing to see here".

  11. WK,

    No End sounds too depressing/infuriating for me to watch. Regarding the Chinese, I'll just say for now that they're better off to have calling in our debt as a hole card than to actually play it.


    I don't believe you'll find a more honest, accurate or succinct description of US Navy ship vulnerabilities in the Gulf, but it's still a free country, believe what you like. ;-)


  12. Just found your blog linked from, and was pleased to find a level-headed, cogent discussion of real consequences regarding war on Iran. But, doesn't that mean you hate the troops? =) great piece. I wish more americans followed your words and not the words of the agitprop machine.

  13. LOL, Reflux. Yeah, I hate the troops to pieces. ;-)

  14. Anonymous9:26 AM

    Read your book yesterday, Commander.

    Once started, I couldn't put it down.

    It was just the diversion I needed, after the longest primary campaign in history, in which one candidate threatens nukes in the ME, the worst presidential debate on record, and the new "Pentagon Papers" in the NY Times, and all the other bad news that would take too much time and space to list.

    Made me laugh out loud. Thanks.

    It's a keeper.

  15. A,

    Thanks so much, I can tell you what it means to get feedback like that. I'm really glad you enjoyed it.

    If you're of a mind to, stop by the Amazon page (the BA sales link takes you there) and leave a few words by way of a reader review. That sort of thing really helps sales.



  16. Have you ever read A Canticle for Leibowitz? I've reread it every five years or so since I was a teenager, and something about the times we're living had me diving back in recently. This passage (among others) jumped out at me, especially as I have been pondering the question of our "leaders" intentions towards Iran.

    “Yes, just one thing,” said the abbot, approaching the lectern. “Brothers, let us not assume that there is going to be war. Let’s remind ourselves that Lucifer has been with us–this time–for nearly two centuries. And was dropped only twice, in sizes smaller than megaton. We all know what could happen, if there’s war. The genetic festering is still with us from the last time Man tried to eradicate himself. Back then, in the Saint Leibowitz’ time, maybe they didn’t know what would happen. Or perhaps they did know, but could not quite believe it until they tried it–like a child who knows what a loaded pistol is supposed to do, but who never pulled a trigger before. They had not yet seen a billion corpses. They had not seen the still-born, the monstrous, the dehumanized, the blind. They had not yet seen the madness and the murder and the blotting out of reason. Then they did it, and then they saw it.

    “Now–now the princes, the presidents, the praesidiums, now they know–with dead certainty. They can know it by the children they beget and send to asylums for the deformed; They know it, and they’ve kept the peace. Not Christ’s peace, certainly, but peace, until lately–with only two
    warlike incidents in as many centuries. Now they have the bitter certainty. My sons, they cannot do it again. Only a race of madmen could do it again–”

    He stopped speaking. Someone was smiling...

    I sort of inserted Dick Cheney into the story at that point. A rictus grin, no doubt. Like I said, well worth reading if you haven't, and quite appropriate to the times.

    Bathtub Admirals is now at the top of my pile. Unfortunately, it came in the same box as the new Kunstler opus (I flipped a coin, honest).

  17. Joint Chiefs Chair -- at NATO dinner -- says that NATO now faces a "great challenge" and NATO "will have to deal with Iran in the very near future."

    Full text here:

    Tony Blair was also at the NATO dinner:
    When asked by a reporter with London’s Times, what “the hard policy” meant, Mr Blair said, “We must be prepared to use military force.” In his address at the Dinner, he stressed that “the ideology of fanatics now has a nation, Iran, that seeks to put itself at the head of extreme Islam. [...] They need to know what we say, we mean and, if necessary, will do.”

  18. JP,

    It seems like I read Canticle in college. I'll need to revisit it. LOL about the coin. Hope you enjoy both books.


    Very interesting. Thanks. So now Iran is the latest phony baloney excuse to keep NATO together. It was just a matter of time, I guess.


  19. wkmaier9:31 AM


    Have you any gift-giving suggestions for next week's Loyalty Day celebration?

    Sarcasm most definitely NOT off! ;-)

  20. wkmaier11:21 AM

    How interesting, Petraeus to replace Fallon as head of CENTCOM.

  21. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  22. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  23. Thanks for showing us your manners and the extent of your vocabulary, Workshop. Don't go away mad.

  24. WK,

    Petraeus appointed Centcom as Loyalty Day approaches. Irony would love it.


  25. Anonymous4:07 PM

    A query, Commander.

    What changed from 2005 to last month? My curious mind found something in the way back, about Jimmy Carter and a visit to the Middle East. (Outlined in his book "Palestine - Peace Noth Apartheid) pp. 80-81. Seems he wanted to make a trip in 2005. As soon as he made his plans known to the White House, he was informed that he would not receive approval for a trip to Syria. Because of policy differences, on Iraq, which at that time caused us to withdraw our ambassador. "In a somewhat heated conversation, I also expressed my view that refusing to communicate with leaders with whom we disagreed was counterproductive." Later on, Assad was refused entry into the U.S. for a U.N. General Assembly meeting.

    So, my question is this: What changed?

    (Besides the announcement, today, that the chief boobie, is now in charge of all the U.S. nuke arsenal, now trolling about in the Persian Gulf?)

    Does this give you a headache, or what?

  26. I don't know, Anonymous. That one's got me stymied right now too. I'll see if I can sort it out in the next day or so.


  27. EdNSted9:19 PM

    "Where is everybody? For God’s sakes."
    -Helen Thomas

    After seeing the recent exchange between Helen Thomas and Dana Perino regarding Bush's conflicting statements on torture, I was once again reminded of my favorite Carl Sagan quote:

    "It's a foreboding I have, maybe ill-placed, of an America in my children's generation or my grand children's generation. When all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries. When we're a service and information processing economy. When awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues. When the people - the broad population in a democracy -- when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or even to knowledgeably question those who do set the agendas. When there is no practice in questioning those in authority. When, clutching our crystals and religiously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in steep decline, unable to distinguish between what's true and what feels good, we slide almost without noticing into superstition and darkness. That worries me."

    Indeed. Where IS everybody?

  28. "Our critical faculties in steep decline..."

    Thanks for posting this for us, Ed.


  29. Montag1:42 AM

    A good example of asymetrical naval warfare is the Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C. On paper the victory of the Persian Fleet was a no brainer. But sending them into the Salamis bottleneck with the smaller, more agile Greek fleet waiting for them kinda screwed the pooch. The Persian Great King Xerxes was simply too arrogant to refuse the gambit of the wiley Athenian Themistocles, who outsmarted not only Xerxes but his Spartan ally Eurybiades, who wanted to hightail his assets home to Sparta.

    If Xerxes had been smart he would have simply starved the Greeks out--but noooooooo, Great Kings prefer to sit on a throne while watching their warships getting run through a meatgrinder. Then they go home, leaving the no-win war to their generals. Fortunately back then retired generals were generally too dead to make the rounds of the media circus. And this was bad how?

  30. Excellent post, Montag, thanks. You've goaded me into reading more about Salamis.



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