Most discussions of possible United States military operations in the Persian Gulf, should Iran try to prevent maritime traffic from going through the Strait of Hormuz, generally say that while it would not be a cakewalk, it would not be an enormously difficult task either.
But that conventional wisdom is wrong, according to a recent report issued by an independent, non-profit public policy research institute in Washington DC. The report found that the traditional post-Cold War US military ability to project power overseas with few serious challenges to its freedom of action may be rapidly drawing to a close.
While such conclusions have been voiced before, most notably in regard to capabilities being developed by the People's Republic of China - which is developing an anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) battle network that could constrain the US military's ability to maneuver in the air, sea, undersea, space and cyber-space operating domains - China is hardly the only country that has developed such options.
According to the report published by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), "Iran, in particular, has been investing in new capabilities that could be used to deter, delay or prevent effective US military operations in the Persian Gulf. Iran's acquisitions of weapons that it could use to deny access to the Gulf, control the flow of oil and gas from the region, and conduct acts of aggression or coercion, are of grave concern to the United States and its security partners."
The report, "Outside-In: Operating from Range to Defeat Iran's Anti-Access and Area-Denial Threats"  notes that Iran has been preparing for a possible military confrontation with the United States for decades. Instead of engaging in a direct military competition, which would be pitting its weaknesses against US strengths, Iran has developed an asymmetric "hybrid" A2/AD strategy that mixes advanced technology with guerilla tactics to deny US forces basing access and maritime freedom of maneuver.
Even if Iran did not disrupt Gulf maritime traffic for long, it could still have a devastating impact. A recent report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) found that Iran's closure of the Strait of Hormuz would "neutralize a large part of current OPEC [Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries] spare capacity," saying "alternative routes exist, but only for a tiny fraction of the amounts shipped through the strait, and they may take some time to operationalize while transportation costs would rise significantly."
"A blockade of the Strait of Hormuz would constitute, and be perceived by markets to presage, sharply heightened global geopolitical tension involving a much larger and unprecedented disruption," it said.
The IMF said that "supply disruption would likely have a large effect on prices, not only reflecting relatively insensitive supply and demand in the short run but also the current state of oil market buffers".
"A halt of Iran's exports to OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] economies without offset from other sources would likely trigger an initial oil price increase of around 20-30% (about US$20-30 a barrel currently), with other producers or emergency stock releases likely providing some offset over time," the report showed.
It stressed that "a Strait of Hormuz closure could trigger a much larger price spike, including by limiting offsetting supplies from other producers in the region".
"If you could cut off oil flow for even several weeks the global economy would be in depression. That would be a serious price to pay; it is a sobering thought," according to Patrick Cronin, a senior advisor at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington DC think-tank.
Attacking ships is not the only option available to Iran to disrupt oil supplies, according to Cronin. In a phone interview with Asia Times Online he said, "Forget about shutting down the Strait of Hormuz, you could hit the oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia; that would have enormous impact."
Cronin, who was involved in the reflagging of oil tankers during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, agrees that the Iranian ability to disrupt maritime traffic is real. "Iran is acquiring greater capabilities and has geographical advantages. Even back in the 1980s, we were very worried."
Currently, aside from military factors, Iran can take advantage of a number of political and demographic realities.
For example, the populations, governments and much of the wealth of the region are concentrated in a handful of urban areas within range of Iran's ballistic missiles. While attacks against Gulf cities may have little direct military utility, their psychological and political impact on regional governments could be significant, especially if Iran demonstrated the capacity to arm its missiles with chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear warheads.
And, as most analysts recognize, Iran could also mobilize its network of predominately Shi'ite proxy groups located across Southwest Asia to conduct acts of terrorism and foment insurrection in states that remain aligned with the United States.
Iran's proxies could become far more dangerous should Iran arm them with guided rockets, artillery, mortars and missiles (G-RAMM). Other groups, like the Lebanese Hezbollah, could conduct a terrorism campaign designed to broaden the crisis and hold US rear areas - even the US homeland - at risk.
And while that indirect approach may not succeed, Iran could use its ballistic missiles and proxy forces to attack US bases and forces in the Persian Gulf directly.
Iran's hybrid strategy would continue at sea, where its naval forces would engage in swarming "hit-and-run" attacks using sophisticated guided munitions in the confined and crowded waters of the Strait of Hormuz and possibly out into the Gulf of Oman. Iran could coordinate these attacks with salvos of anti-ship cruise missiles and swarms of unmanned aircraft launched either from the Iranian shore or from the islands guarding the entrance to the Persian Gulf.
That last scenario is hardly theoretical. Lieutenant General Paul K Van Riper (US Marine Corps-retired) gained notoriety after the Millennium Challenge 2002 wargame, which was a major exercise conducted by the US armed forces in mid-2002, likely the largest such exercise in history.
It cost $250 million and involved both live exercises and computer simulations. The simulated combatants were the US, referred to as "Blue", and an unknown adversary in the Middle East, "Red", commanded by Lieutenant General Van Riper.
Red received an ultimatum from Blue, essentially a surrender document, demanding a response within 24 hours. Thus warned of Blue's approach, Red used a fleet of small boats to determine the position of Blue's fleet by the second day of the exercise. In a pre-emptive strike, Red launched a massive salvo of cruise missiles that overwhelmed the Blue forces' electronic sensors and destroyed 16 warships.
This included one aircraft carrier, 10 cruisers and five of six amphibious ships. An equivalent success in a real conflict would have resulted in the deaths of over 20,000 service personnel. Soon after the cruise missile offensive, another significant portion of Blue's navy was "sunk" by an armada of small Red boats, which carried out both conventional and suicide attacks that capitalized on Blue's inability to detect them as well as expected.
In the years since then, Iran has been investing in the capabilities necessary to carry out Van Riper's strategy. Looking at its maritime forces, in mid-2001 Iran launched the first of a new type of locally built craft equipped with rocket launchers.
In July 2002, a conventional arms sale triggered sanctions on several Chinese companies. Beijing had transferred high-speed catamaran missile patrol boats to Iran. The C-14 boats are outfitted with anti-ship cruise missiles. Short-range anti-ship missiles for the patrol boats also were sold from China to Iran in January 2002. The high-speed gunboat can carry up to eight C-701 anti-ship cruise missiles, and usually have one gun.
Between 2003 and 2005, authorities in the Iranian navy continued to talk about their pushes for greater self-sufficiency, including the continued development of domestically produced missile boats and frigates, as well as new details about submarine projects.
In 2006 and 2007, the Iranian navy accepted new missile boats and a frigate, as well as two types of submarines. The Sina class missile boats, introduced in 2006, were essentially Iranian copies of Kaman missile boats already in service. Also in 2006, the Iranians deployed the first of the Nahang class of midget submarines, described as the first Iranian submarine designed and produced without foreign assistance.
In 2007, the Iranian navy accepted the first of three planned Mowj-class frigates, again essentially copies of a ship already in the Iranian inventory, the Alvand class. Also in 2007, it deployed the Qadir midget submarine, sometimes referred to as the first of the Yono class.
As of 2008, the Iranian navy appeared poised to expand its fleet, most centered on stand-off anti-ship missile systems, mining operations and a wide range of smaller patrol and special operations craft. Iranian authorities have described the current mission as deterrence against aggression in their coastal waters and in prominent regional waterways.
Other analysts confirm some of CSBA's report's main points. In December, Anthony Cordesman, a well-respected expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, wrote:
Iran is reshaping its military forces to steadily increase the threat to Gulf shipping and shipping in the Gulf of Oman, It also is gradually increasing its ability to operate in the Indian Ocean.
This increase in Iranian capability is almost certainly not designed to take the form of a major war with the US and southern Gulf states, which could result from any Iranian effort to truly close the Gulf. It does, however, give Iran the ability to carry out a wide range of much lower level attacks which could sharply raise the risk to Gulf shipping, and either reduce tanker traffic and shipping or sharply raise the insurance cost of such ship movements and put a different kind of pressure on the other Gulf states and world oil prices.
A Center for Strategic and International Studies analysis released in January noted that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) had these assets at its disposal:
- 20,000 Naval Guards, including 5,000 marines.
- Armed with HY-3 CSS-C-3 Seersucker (6-12 launchers, 100 missiles, 95-100 km), and 10 Houdong missile patrol boats with C-802s (120 km), and 40+ Boghammers with ATGMs, recoilless rifles, machine guns.
- IRGC air branch reported to fly UAVs and UCAVs, and control Iran's strategic missile force.
- Land-based, long-range anti-ship missiles based on land, islands (Seersucker HY-2, CSS-C-3), and ships (CSS-N-4, and others).
- Based at Bandar e-Abbas, Khorramshar, Larak, Abu Musa, al-Farsiyah, Halul, Sirri.
- Attacks on tankers, shipping, offshore facilities by naval guards.
- Iranian navy and air force also have key assets:
- Large-scale mine warfare capability using small craft and commercial boats.
- Free-floating mines, smart and dumb mines, oil spills
- 3 Kilo (Type 877) and unknown number of midget (Qadr-SS-3) submarines; smart torpedoes, (anti-ship missiles) and smart mine capability.
- Use of five minelayers, amphibious ships, small craft, commercial boats.
- Raids with eight P-3MP/P-3F Orion MPA and combat aircraft with anti-ship missiles (C-801K (8-42 km), CSS-N-4, and others).
But according to the CSBA report, US forces are still operating in large part in accordance with the strategy developed back in the Jimmy Carter administration (1977-1981) , when the paramount concern was the threat of a Soviet invasion.
Subsequently, US policymakers were concerned with the fall of the Shah of Iran and the rise of Khomeinism; and concern over Iraq's hegemonic ambitions during the Saddam Hussein era, but preparing to do battle with Iran over access to the Gulf itself is a relatively recent concern for which US forces have not sufficiently prepared.
And given how heavily the US depends on various bases and facilities in nationals like Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) , the US military should diversify and harden its Persian Gulf bases to complicate Iran's ballistic missile targeting, while creating an expanded network of distant shared access locations to support initial US power-projection operations from beyond the reach of Iran's anti-access threats.
Many US forces in the region are supported by bases that are in close proximity to Iran. In addition to the port facilities in Manama, US Navy ships frequent ports at Jebel Ali near Dubai in the UAE.
Central Command air forces operate from a number of locations in the region, including al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, and al-Dhafra Air Base in the UAE. Al Udeid hosts the USCENTAF (US Air Forces Central Command) CAOC (Combined Air Operations Center), a critical command and control node for US air and space operations throughout Central Command. These and other US forward operating locations are well within the reach of numerous strike systems, including short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, that could be launched from Iran's coastal areas.
Proxy groups also could have a major impact on US forces and forward operating locations. Using commercially obtained overhead imagery, unconventional forces could fix the coordinates of Persian Gulf port facilities, airfields and fuel depots for guided mortar and rocket attacks.
Unconventional forces could also use advanced man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), such as the Russian-made SA-24 to attack US aircraft transiting supposedly "friendly" airspace, and use ASCMs, antiship mines, or maritime improvised explosive devices against ships in the Suez Canal, Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf sea ports of debarkation (SPODs).
Iran would also have benefit from being able to exploit its interior lines of operation to deploy and frequently move its mobile ballistic missiles batteries to complicate US counter-strikes, as well as create a distributed resupply network that would be resistant to attack.
While Iran's ballistic missiles are not without limitations, such as limited accuracy for some of them and lack of launchers, the report finds that they give it a strike capability that would be difficult and expensive for US forces to counter. Over the course of the next 20 years, it is possible that Iran will make progress toward addressing these shortfalls.
According to Cronin, "Iran has levers here and their anti-access and area denial capabilities are proven. We would have a difficult time."
The report notes that more than 70% of the US Air Force's budget for new aircraft over the next decade - including a new bomber - will go toward just two programs, the F-35A and a replacement aerial refueling tanker. Such systems will lead to a fighter force that, when airborne, is more survivable in non-permissive areas. But this force will still be highly dependent on close-in bases or aircraft carriers, as well as aerial refueling.
The problem for US forces is that any conflict in the Gulf is going to be extremely non-permissive. The environment will be filled with guided ballistic and cruise missiles, maritime swarming tactics, proxy forces equipped with G-RAMM, and the threat of chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) attacks.
The fact that other countries are deploying anti-access capabilities is not news to the Pentagon. This month, it released a Joint Operational Access Concept report and noted many of the same anti-access/area-denial capabilities mentioned in the CSBA report.
According to the CSBA report, if the US military is to successfully sustain access to the Persian Gulf against a determined effort by Iran to shut if off, it would need more than weapons. It would also need a new operational concept "that reduces its emphasis on capabilities that are over-optimized for permissive threat environments in order to prioritize capabilities needed for a range of operations in environments that will be increasingly non-permissive in nature" that it currently does not have.
Achieving this within an increasingly constrained budget would require defense planners to make difficult decisions; "the United States cannot meet the challenges that Iran could pose to its vital interests in the Gulf by simply spending more and adding new capabilities and capacity," according to the report.
Interestingly, in light of the latest US national security strategy report that emphasizes Asia as the strategic theater of concern, the report found that the capabilities needed to support such a concept for the Western Pacific and an outside-in enabling concept for the Persian Gulf have a "remarkable amount of overlap".
Both emphasize the need to develop new long-range systems such as penetrating bombers and carrier-based unmanned aircraft; increase the US Navy's undersea magazine of standoff munitions; improve air and missile defenses; and pursue forward posture initiatives that will complicate the operational planning of an enemy force.
Among the report's recommendations:
- An Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft that will extend the reach and persistence of the US Navy's carrier air wings. The US Navy should also integrate payload modules into future Virginia-class attack submarines to partially reverse planned reductions in its capacity to conduct standoff cruise missile attacks, and develop a Large Displacement Unmanned Undersea Vehicle that could extend its undersea surveillance network.
- A ship-based, solid-state laser for defending against swarming boats and salvos of anti-ship cruise missiles, and equip a new Long-Range Strike Bomber to carry anti-ship missiles and mines.
- To help fulfill future expeditionary requirements, the navy should field a new Amphibious Combat Vehicle that is optimized for ground combat missions, and sustain sufficient amphibious lift capacity to support a joint theater-entry operation.
- Development of air-launched missiles that can intercept ballistic missiles in their boost phase, as well as invest in promising directed energy technologies that could improve terminal defenses against cruise and ballistic missiles at a negligible cost-per shot compared to current kinetic interceptors.
- The Department of Defense should also pursue advanced mines and non-lethal capabilities that could create physical barriers to terrorist G-RAMM attacks against US forces and forward operating locations.