Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Iran Hits the Fan Says Buchanan

You can rest easy. Political pundit and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan predicted on Sunday that there is a "fifty-fifty chance of U.S. air strikes on Iran by October." I just love the all out commitment involved in making a fifty-fifty prediction: there’s a hundred percent chance you’ll be right. Of course, the very fact that Pat Buchanan mentions something might happen means the odds are that it won’t.

Don’t get complacent, though. Just like the cataclysmic natural disaster that strikes every century or so, once in a blue moon it turns out that Pat Buchanan knew what the hell he was talking about.

Similarly, we might expect that the Bush administration knows that attacking Iran would be the worst imaginable thing they could do—for the Bush legacy, for U.S. foreign policy, and for stability in the Middle East. A strike on Iran would be an act of sheer lunacy; so the Bush administration might just try it.

Back to the Stone Age

Since World War I, airpower fanatics have claimed that their brand of armed force makes all other forms of warfare obsolete. The Kosovo conflict is the closest any nation has come to a pure airpower victory, but it didn’t really win us anything, and an Army guy—General Wes Clark—ran the show, and a Navy carrier strike group was involved, so it didn’t really count.

Now that our escapade in Iraq has demonstrated the obsolescence of land power as a means whereby a hegemon can subjugate a smaller state, the U.S. Air Force figures Iran is its big chance to get back in the game, to make itself the permanent darling of the neoconservative elite. In all probability, though, the only thing the USAF would do with an air operation against Iran is bomb itself in the foot.

It wouldn’t be terribly hard to bomb Iran back to the Stone Age. Aside from the capital city of Tehran, much of Iran is still in the Stone Age. Our air planners won’t have much trouble coming up with a way to level Tehran. They won’t even need to use nukes. They’ll wipe it out the old fashioned way, the way we wiped out Dresden in World War II, with incendiaries.

If we do a Dresden on Tehran, we’ll take out a sizable chunk of the Persian race. We might have trouble justifying that. We could say it was revenge for the holocaust, I guess. Except, yeah, that’s right, the Iranians weren’t responsible for the holocaust, were they? They just said stupid things about it. Darn. And if you’re going to split hairs, it wasn’t the Iranians who said stupid things about the holocaust per se; it was their goofy president, and if we’re going to hold a whole nation responsible for the stupid things its goofy president says, we’re drifting into pot-and-kettle territory.

We can probably get at most of Iran’s nuclear industry, but not the parts that matter most to us, which are the parts that are a) buried real deep underground and/or b) the parts we don’t know about. The parts we can get at the Russians can replace reasonably quickly, and Iran can afford to pay Russia to replace them because no matter how clever our air planners are, they can’t figure out a way to bomb Iran’s oil reserves to rubble.

Good News, Bad News, Ugly News

We can take out a huge chunk of Iran’s navy with air strikes, but as with the nuclear facilities, Iran can buy a new navy from Russia about as fast as Paris Hilton can buy a new wardrobe. That’s more or less what happened after we whapped their navy in the 80s during Operation Praying Mantis.

One thing the U.S. Air Force does right, it does air superiority. If shove comes to biff, Iran’s air force would be on the canvas before the bell stops ringing. Come to think of it, Iran’s air force is already on the canvas. The only places Iran can get spare parts for its F-14 air-to-air fighters are eBay and Craig’s List, and if by some miracle they manage to get one if their Tomcats airborne, we’ll likely shoot it down before its pilot can raise its landing gear.

Air superiority is only an enabling objective in warfare, though, never an operational aim. It does little good to own the skies over bad land if the bombs you drop on it accomplish nothing strategically or politically, and it doesn’t take a world-class air defense system to bring down our most sophisticated combat jets, as the February crash of a B-2 (Billion) bomber reminded us. For practical purposes, losing both engines over an enemy’s desert is the same as getting shot down by a camel.

Maritime superiority is another matter. It can get hard to sort the good guys from the bad guys from the bystanders in the air, but on water, especially in congested areas like the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, it can be impossible to tell Grandma Moses from Snow White’s evil stepmother. Iran crafted its naval force to have asymmetrical advantages in its home environment against sea control visitors like the United States Navy. Iran’s patrol boats, diesel subs, outboard craft, shore batteries, maritime aircraft and so on couldn’t hold a candle to our Navy in a toe-to-toe battle in the middle of the North Pacific. Moreover, Iran couldn’t put a multi-carrier strike group on the bottom of the Gulf, but it could cause us a heap of strategic embarrassment. Heaven help us if the USS Abraham Lincoln ever needs to limp through the Strait to safety because of damage done by an SSN-22 Sunburn missile.

My pretty good guess is Iran could close the Strait too, even if only for a little while. There’s no real telling what that might do to the price of oil, but regardless of crude cost, Dick and Dubya’s buds on the board of Exxon/Mobil and its major shareholders will make out like, uh, bandits.

Buchanan beat the war drum again on Wednesday, April 16, this time in the San Francisco Chronicle. Pat thinks General David Petraeus’s scapegoating of Iran at his recent congressional hearings indicated that, “The neoconservatives may yet get their war on Iran.”

I’d like to think the neocons understand what a bad idea it would be to start a hot war with Iran. I want to believe they’re diabolical enough to know that their first best destiny is to keep up the pretense of the Iraq war being a proxy war with Iran so they can cover their real objective of establishing a century long second Cold War with Iran serving as a proxy for Russia and China. That, of course, would create their ideal post-modern Orwellian (Rovewellian) world order: justification for U.S. military occupation of all parts of the world that aren’t parts of Russia or China, and for borrowing ever greater sums from the Chinese to spend on weapons to fight a war with them that they have no intention of fighting or even arming themselves for.

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. Anonymous10:10 AM

    Not to question your assessment of our air superiority, Commander.

    You certainly have more knowledge of these things than I.

    But..... has anybody yet determined why they couldn't scramble in time to stop some guys with box cutters from taking out the WTC, and part of the Pentagon?

  2. Jeff,

    That's about right. You're forgetting about our Iraq garrison, which is Iran's real ace in the hole. That LOC is as shaky as ever and the guts of our land component are still sucking on it for life support. Too bad for them, huh? Bill Lind has a great column up about this. Really great post you have up there. It's refreshing to see someone unafraid to call bull manure by its proper name.

  3. Anon,

    Funny you should mention that. I saw a piece some months back in which the F-22 defenders say its low fuel consumption afterburner makes it a superior airliner interceptor and thus worth keeping even though it costs too much. I'll have to track that article down again and do a whole column on it.


    That's a superb point and one that I didn't have time or space to address in this piece. Bill Lind wrote about this scenario some months back and compared it to a situation the ancient Greeks found themselves in. I'll come back and leave the link to the Lind piece if I come across it.

    Real quick, though, I don't see that happening. I don't think even Bush's yes generals could screw up enough things badly enough for our ground troops to have to escape the region through Turkey.



  4. POL for a Mech army is stockpiled in days of reserves. The troops might get out but the new Iraqi army might have a really bitchin' bunch of second-hand tracks when all is said and done. Generals are nice but fuel is better.

  5. Agree 100% John. Actually, I don't think anybody's expecting the trucks to ever come back whatever transpires. They'll want the taxpayers to buy new ones.


  6. Jeff,
    Without a sunburn event or two that resulted in mega losses, I'm agreeing with your outlook here. Proxy or not, I think we'll eventually answer most of the EFP/rocket/mortar strikes via a "quiet method", probably thru SOF.

    China on the other hand, while not an aggressor and probably won't be soon, IS building an awful lot of naval vessels. Do they have legs enough to be an issue for us? Probably not. For Taiwan? Oh yeah...fortunately, I think that keg is going to be opened.

  7. Anonymous4:26 PM

    I don't take Pat Buchanan's assessments to heart, either. My problem with your argument is that I don't think commonsense, even the diabolical commonsense practised by 'realists' such as Bismark and Kissinger and Schultz, is in the driver's seat, nationally or internationally.

    Sure, it's obvious enough that the military/industrial complex largely runs our foreign policy and that they can presumably make more money via a Cold War than via a Hot War. And they've got Cold War aplenty. Russia and China are BOTH building up now, and Terra is still 'out there' and Iran continues to be a "threat" - all this thanks to the three stooges, Bush, Cheney and Condi.

    The Oil Industry is also quite happy with the situation as it is, with record profits as far as the eye can see.

    Heck, there's no reason why the Five Giants (Europe, America, Russia, China and India) can't just sit down civilly at the global dinner table and tuck in.

    But there's a little problem with that 'happy' Machiavellian utopia scenario. The Oligarchy has never, ever, in the history of humankind, been able to control its own greed and hubris and sheer self-destructive madness. It's categorically impossible for it to do so. Such control is the stuff of sanity, not the stuff of greed, and Oligarchy is built out of greed, not sanity.

    Sooner or later, the global game of chess is thrown violently to the side by one of the players, usually the player with the weakest hand, which coincidentally, also invariably (I would argue), turns out to be the player with the hottest head.

    If an oligarchy could graciously accept change, they would never turn to tools such as George W. Bush or Adolf Hitler. But they can't accept progressive change, so they tell themselves that they can control these sociopaths; that they can be used to pull off stunning reversals of progressive change.

    Sometimes it works out, too. Nixon and Reagan both did wonders in turning back the clock, but only temporarily. As Martin Luther King said, the curve of history bends towards justice. Stronger measures were needed. A more drastic 'tool' was needed. Thus came about opportunity for W and his merry band of neocons.

    And W probably outperformed expectations as an Oligarchic tool. He turned the socio/economic clock in America back at least 70 years, perhaps more. He made return to progressive governance virtually impossible in the future by bankrupting the government permanently. He made more money for Wall Street and for the Oil Industry and for the Military Industrial Complex than they ever dreamed of. He expanded the US Military "footprint".

    But this is a man who compares himself to Lincoln, who sees himself as riding on the shoulders of destiny, or vice versa. In other words, he's got a monster of a father complex.

    Ask yourself, why does W, continue to dominate Washington even though he is not only the lamest duck in history, but possibly the dumbest president in history? I say it's because he has exactly what Rove said he has - tremendous charisma. And why does he have that? Because he is a sociopath, capable of anything.

    Most people have limits. They are awestruck, or terrified, by someone who seems to be capable of anything. Put differently, it might be too late to put the monster back in his cage.

    Bush is eager to leave his mark on history. He feels he hasn't done it yet. He has a pliant military (because of his bad leadership) and an eager Air Force. Pat Buchanan may be wrong, but I'll still be very surprised if Bush doesn't double his Middle East bet before the end of his term, if not before summer.

    When that happens, I see two possibilities. One is that the US and Israel utterly destroy Iranian military capability nearly instantly and win a stunning victory that fully establishes US hegemony in the region, and thus globally (assuming that the Middle East and Central Asia are the global linchpin).

    The other possibility is that all hell breaks loose. For Iran to win, all it has to do is survive the initial attack and inflict some damage on US and Israeli forces. And here's where I disagree with you, though I bow to your expertise, commander Huber. I see the US navy as very vulnerable in the Gulf, as possibly taking signifigant losses. I see Iran deploying a combination of asymmetric warfare (attack by totally outclassed but multitudinous), deployed primarily as a distraction, and symmetric warfare (anti-ship missles that ARE capable of penetrating naval defenses and doing major damage to unarmored vessels).

    If Iran's ballistic missles turn out to be signifigantly more effective than SCUDS and if the Russian anti-aircraft systems are effective at all, an attack on Iran could turn out to be a real mess, especially if US soldiers in Iraq find themselves fighting a signifigantly upgraded insurgency, sympathetic to Iran.

    And if the attack turns into a mess, and if W persists with it, as chances are he will (if he is true to his stubborn history), I see the chances of other major powers staying uninvolved decreasing fast.

    I hope you are right, as I think an attack on Iran would be an act of insanity EVEN IF it were successful. However, I fear that sanity is not the guiding light in international affairs these days.

    Again, I return to my original formulation: mix an international scene full of brinksmanship with a madman in the White House and a cowed Congress and what do you get? I say you get John Hagee's wet dream.

  8. WS,

    You offer much to think about here. I'll just touch on the naval piece of a hot op with Iran.

    I think we're actually more in agreement than we differ. I don't think they can actually drive the U.S. Navy out of the Gulf or put the entire fleet out of action. Nonetheless, as I said, one carrier limping out through the Strait with battle damage would be a strategic nightmare: perhaps even the end of the carrier-centric USN we know today.

    Let's look at it from another angle. The US lost (as in on-the-bottom lost) one carrier at the Battle of Midway, one third of its total carrier force, yet Midway was a major tactical, operational and strategic victory for us.

    In the Gulf today, one carrier on the bottom would be, and this is no overstatement, the end of the world as we know it.

  9. Yeah, I've been reading about this "Sunburn" missile business for several years now, and I wonder if your estimate of our potential losses in the Gulf might be understated.

    Most of the commentary on this originally came from dodgy websites (Rense, etc.), and from people who seemed to be looking forward to a U.S. defeat in the Gulf. As such, I didn't take it too seriously. (Add to that the fact that every time a new carrier was rotated through the Gulf, the conspiracy mavens would start the USS Maine/Pearl Harbor talk).

    I started to wonder, though, when I started reading stories in more mainstream outlets, specifically about the U.S. Navy's lack of countermeasures toward this threat. The "rolling action missile" was touted by a number of pro-war wingnut blogs as the definitive answer to the Sunburn, but it has never been tested in combat.

    The tipping point for me was hearing a radio interview with Wayne White, not exactly a neophyte in matters Middle Eastern. He sounded genuinely worried about the Iranians capacity to strike back ("they have a lot of these things," i.e. defensive missile batteries). I also remember the accounts of Exocet missile strikes during the Falklands war, and the contention by some observers that a slightly larger arsenal in the possession of the Argentines would have resulted in a British defeat.

    I think that if the missiles start flying in the Persian Gulf, we may be in for a big surprise. Sort of like the Italian fleet got at Taranto...

  10. One view says the best defense against the Sunburn is to never leave home port.

    I don't get too terrible tactical or technical here, especially when it comes to modern naval warfare and most especially when it comes to naval warfare our naval forces might be conducting any day now. Clausewitz's fog and friction apply to naval warfare as well as land warfare: even more so, really, since, as I said, in crowded waters you can't really tell who's who all the time.

    So it's entirely possible that Iran's maritime forces could a) surprise our guys and b) get very lucky and c) whack darn near everything we have in the Gulf. But I think the odds are against that.

    On the other hand, I think they would likely do enough harm to cause major strategic embarrassment, which would be the best victory they could hope for, actually.


  11. Anonymous9:30 AM


    Perhaps a close analogy would be with the IRA and the British and the Brighton Hotel bombing in 1984. The IRA released a statement, that said in part: "Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always."

  12. WK,

    That's not a close analogy, pal. It's a perfect one. ;-)


  13. Anonymous8:43 AM

    Bit OT, this is from a blather yesterday:

    "If there's a threat, you have a right to defend society," Gingrich said. "People will give up all their liberties to avoid that level of threat."

    I forget what country this is anymore...

  14. I wonder too, WK. Gingrich. Another of the undead: just when you think you've put a stake in his heart...

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