Small Wars

This Week at War: The Gathering Storm in the Gulf

What Iran should learn from Japan's pre-World War II mistakes.

The Iranian Navy is playing with oil prices

A recent 10-day training exercise conducted by Iran's Navy included a test of an upgraded anti-ship cruise missile, presumably designed to counter the regular presence of U.S. 5th Fleet warships nearby. Before the Iranian exercise began, the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier strike group sailed from the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea. The carrier received some parting advice from Gen. Ataollah Salehi, the commander of Iran's armed forces. "We warn this ship, which is considered a threat to us, not to come back, and we do not repeat our words twice," Salehi said.

It would be difficult to find a credible naval analyst who thought that a clash between the Iranian Navy and the U.S. 5th Fleet would turn out well for Iran. But Tehran has apparently doubled down on Salehi's warning; the Iranian parliament is now considering a bill that would prohibit foreign warships from entering the Persian Gulf without prior permission from the Iranian government. This would violate long-standing international maritime law.

In contrast to its occasional all-thumbs response to irregular warfare situations, a conventional naval battle around the Strait of Hormuz would play to the U.S. military's strongest suit. American advantages in sensors, targeting, command and control, precision weapons, electronic warfare, training, and many other dimensions would quickly crush Iran's air and naval forces. Iran would also be unlikely to derive any political or diplomatic benefit from sparking a clash in the strait. Even competitors like China would expect the United States to fulfill its role as protector of the global commons (at least in the Strait of Hormuz). Iran would be seen as violating international maritime law. And the more the shooting accelerated, the more Iran would suffer. This is the definition of "escalation dominance," which would favor the United States as fighting intensified (and might therefore give the United States an incentive to escalate an outbreak of combat). Salehi and his officers must surely understand this.

So what is Iran up to? The looming imposition of U.S. sanctions on Iran's Central Bank and by Europe and perhaps Japan and South Korea on Iranian oil exports might force Iran to have to sell its oil to its few remaining customers at a discount from market prices. To make up for this lost revenue, Iran might find saber rattling a useful way of boosting crude oil prices. Whether Iran can sustain such a risk premium without actual shooting occurring at some point remains in doubt.

We might see Iran resorting to its own strong suit: covert action and irregular warfare. Tehran's goal would be to impose economic and political pain on the United States, Europe, China, and other oil importers and boost the oil-market risk premium to its own financial benefit. Iran might attempt to achieve this by clandestinely laying naval mines in tanker shipping lanes, as it did during the Tanker War of the 1980s. The result then was an escalating naval confrontation that culminated in the U.S. Navy's Operation Praying Mantis in 1988, a defeat for the Iranian Navy.

Alternatively, Iran might opt to disrupt the global oil market by sabotaging Iraqi, Kuwaiti, or Saudi oil fields. Such actions would be reckless and would be politically damaging to Iran if discovered.

The simmering standoff between Iran and the United States has some parallels with the origins of the Pacific war in 1941. To persuade Japan to withdraw its marauding army from China, the United States and other countries imposed ever-tightening sanctions, culminating with an oil embargo that put Japan's back to the wall. It was politically impossible for President Franklin D. Roosevelt to enter the war without a grave provocation, even if allies were urging him to do just that. But after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor and elsewhere, America's great industrial advantage became decisive. Similarly, it's politically untenable for President Barack Obama to fire the first shot at Iran. But Iranian military action that, say, closes the Strait of Hormuz for a time could result in the world's begging for U.S. military action.

Few doubt that Japan's policymakers blundered badly when they opted for war against the United States. Yet these leaders also thought it was impossible to abandon their China policy. Iranian leaders are caught between demands for full International Atomic Energy Agency inspections of its nuclear program and the U.S. 5th Fleet. Iran may have a card or two left to play, but it would be illogical for shooting to be one of them.

After a decade at war, foot soldiers get the pink slips

On the morning of Thursday, Jan. 5, President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and other defense officials unveiled the outline of the Pentagon's new defense strategy, which Panetta described as a "strategic shift" to the future. The presentation included only broad strategic guidance, and officials refused to discuss the new strategy's consequences for specific programs or budgets. The task for Obama, Panetta and others at the briefing was to reassure both allies and adversaries about the future of U.S. military power while simultaneously explaining how Pentagon planners were going to get by with $487 billion less than they recently expected. Panetta and others at the podium acknowledged some of the risks that would result. How potential adversaries will interpret the new strategy remains to be seen.

The new strategic guidance ignores the additional $600 billion defense-budget sequestration that was triggered in November by the failure of the deficit-reduction supercommittee and that is due to strike in 2013. At the briefing, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said the upcoming Pentagon budget, absorbing the $487 billion blow, will be stunning enough to many on Capitol Hill. Boeing's announcement on Thursday that it is closing a large aircraft plant in Kansas, with the possible loss of 2,160 jobs, may foreshadow some of the economic pain to come, even after the Congress presumably voids the impending sequester.

Without discussing numbers, Panetta and his colleagues warned of deep cuts to the Army and Marine Corps. The accompanying strategic guidance document plainly states that "U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations" [italics in original]. It will be difficult to find many observers agitating for more "large-scale, prolonged stability operations." The risk, however, is that the United States could find itself caught short by simultaneous crises that boil over before the Pentagon can mobilize, retrain, and deploy Army and Marine Corps reservists.

The ability to cope with two major regional crises nearly simultaneously is a long-standing assumption that the Pentagon has been edging away from for a decade. The Obama administration is now definitively abandoning it. In the case of multiple crises in the future, the United States may find itself using heavy air and naval firepower in scenarios that in the past might have been deterred by the timely deployment of ground troops, troops that in the future might not be available.

The administration's new strategy is also likely to take an ax to the forward presence of U.S. forces, especially outside the Asia-Pacific region. Panetta said that the U.S. presence in Europe will "adapt and evolve," which is a synonym for European base closures, troop withdrawals, and a downgraded relationship with NATO. Given the low external security threat to Europe (a sharp contrast with Asia), this makes some sense. Europe, however, remains an important transit hub for U.S. operations in the Middle East. The result will be one more strategic risk the Obama team apparently thinks it will be able to manage.

While ground-force staffing, personnel costs, and some weapon systems will be cut or delayed, there are winners in the strategic review. Special operations forces, cyberwarfare programs, unmanned systems, and intelligence gathering will get more funding. More broadly, the new strategy is counting on forces that will be, in Panetta's words, "more agile, more flexible, ready to deploy quickly, innovative, and technologically advanced" to make up for what these forces previously possessed in numbers. How those troops that survive the budget cuts will become more agile, flexible, and innovative remains to be explained.

Interestingly, it was the Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. Martin Dempsey, and vice chairman, Adm. James Winnefeld, who stressed the need to retain a capacity to regenerate forces and capabilities during future crises. Winnefeld described the need to be "humble" regarding this or any strategy and thus to make no irreversible decisions. Dempsey defended the strategy as being the right one for this moment in time, implying that as circumstances change, so will the strategy.

Dempsey and Winnefeld may be resigning themselves to a repeat of this budget-and-strategy drill in less than a year, under either a new Republican president or changed circumstances as Obama's second term begins. In the meantime, the reality of defense cuts will soon arrive on Capitol Hill, in constituencies in Kansas and elsewhere, and in the perceptions and calculations of Washington's friends and adversaries.

ALI MOHAMMADI/AFP/Getty Images

Small Wars

This Week at War: Preparing for the Next Korean War

Kim Jong Un's forces could test the South soon. But don't expect it to look like 1950.

South Korea needs to brace for asymmetric warfare

The sudden death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, and the presumptive elevation of his son Kim Jong Un, has cast a pall of uncertainty over the region and in Washington. Last year, two military incidents, the torpedoing of a South Korean navy corvette and North Korea's shelling of an island village in the south, killed 50 South Koreans. The concern in the south and in Washington is that Kim Jong Un -- or perhaps one of his rivals for the throne -- may see an advantage in more such incidents as a means of creating a crisis and rallying support. For decades, South Korea and the United States have prepared for a big war on the peninsula. Does Seoul need to do more to prepare for more exotic and asymmetric attacks like those that occurred last year?

Kim Duk-ki, a captain in South Korea's navy and previously an adviser to South Korea's president and chief of naval operations, believes the south needs to shift its focus away from preparing for the Big War and toward countering a variety of asymmetric attacks to which the south has become especially vulnerable. Kim's essay in the latest edition of Naval War College Review, published before Kim Jong Il's death, is not only timely but is also good advice for U.S. policymakers.

The 1950-53 war, which saw Seoul overrun twice by enemy armies, is the harsh historical memory which understandably forms the focus of war planning at the U.S.-South Korean military headquarters. Seoul remains in the center of the logical invasion route from the North and much of the city is exposed to artillery and rockets. It should thus be no surprise that preparing for a conventional 1950-style invasion has been the number one task for U.S. and South Korean planners. This imperative has also guided South Korea's heavy defense investment in conventional forces such as tanks, artillery, mechanized infantry, and attack aircraft.

Captain Kim believes that it is time for the south to steer a new course for its military investments anyway from preparing for conventional war and toward countering asymmetric and nonconventional threats. In his essay, Kim discusses the north's well-known interest in ballistic missiles, which, he asserts, the North could use in one-off raids, similar to last year's artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island. Kim mentions the north's interest in special operations raiding, a technique it has used against the South in the past, and its development of small coastal submarines, one of which very likely sank the Cheonan corvette last year.

South Korea's telecommunications and computer infrastructure is one of the most developed in the world, creating a vulnerability to the North's cyberwarfare capabilities. Perhaps most ominously, Kim notes that as a nuclear and ballistic missile state, the north has the capability of delivering an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack on the south.

Nuisance attacks on the south, like those inflicted last year, have been a part of Pyongyang's behavior for decades. Yet deterrence by retaliation has never been a page in the South Korean playbook; with a much more developed economy and thus much more to lose, the South has always been on the losing side of the "escalation dominance" calculation. The South is similarly disadvantaged concerning its vulnerability to cyber, EMP, missile, and special operations raiding.

Kim recommends rebalancing South Korean military investments away from conventional war and toward active defensive measures such as missile defense, improved coastal anti-submarine defense, and better cyber defenses. Reducing funding for the tanks, artillery, and infantry defending Seoul is a risk. But Kim observes that the North's interest in unconventional tactics is an adaptation to which the south should respond.

Kim's description of South Korea's changing defense problems resembles in many ways the changes to which the Pentagon must now adapt. Kim Jong Il's death may end up sharpening Washington's focus on these changes.

Has the Air Force already lost the battle for Taiwan?

In a recent town hall meeting at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told airmen to prepare for a shift toward the Pacific. That should hardly come as a surprise, given the Obama administration's repeated declarations of a "pivot" toward the region. But if it is Dempsey's task as the nation's top military officer to make sure that plans are in place to defend the United States and its allies in the region, the "pivot" may have come too late for Taiwan. A recent detailed study concludes that the Chinese air force will badly outgun the U.S. Air Force in the skies over Taiwan and that the only hope for preventing Chinese air superiority over the island during a conflict is through the threat of heavy bombardment of the mainland, with all of the danger that implies. The study also demonstrates that the Air Force and Navy lack some of the proper tools for fighting in the Pacific's vast expanses.

In a Ph.D. dissertation written for the Pardee RAND Graduate School, Eric Stephen Gons provides an exhaustive analysis of a simulated battle between the U.S. and Chinese air forces for the airspace over Taiwan. Gons's analysis takes into account the air bases available to both sides, their aircraft parking capacity, air base vulnerability and hardening, air defense systems, sortie generation rates, aircraft maintenance requirements, crew fatigue, probable weapons effectiveness, time and distance considerations, and other factors.

Even though the U.S. Air Force's F-22 Raptor is far superior to its Chinese opponents, Gons concludes that the "tyranny of distance" will prevent the U.S. Air Force from winning a shootout over Taiwan. The Air Force's base on Guam, a three-hour flight to Taiwan, is the only viable U.S. base for the island's air defense. Although the U.S. has high quality air bases on Okinawa and Japan's home islands, these bases are very close to China and are thus vulnerable to China's massive arsenal of land-attack cruise and ballistic missiles. In addition, Gons asserts the Air Force would not operate its expensive and limited tanker and early warning support aircraft from these Japanese bases since they would be highly vulnerable to Chinese attack. This would preclude F-22 operations to Taiwan from these bases.

That leaves Andersen Air Base on Guam, which even when stuffed to capacity with F-22s and required support aircraft could only provide a continuous combat air patrol over Taiwan of just six fighters. The Chinese attackers, by contrast, operating from at least a dozen hardened and heavily defended air bases in southeast China, could sorties dozens or even hundreds of fighters over Taiwan at will. Six F-22s simply do not carry enough missiles to prevent Chinese fighters from breaking through and shooting down the Air Force tanker and early-warning aircraft supporting the F-22s east of Taiwan. In this case, the F-22s would be lost to fuel exhaustion and the United States would be forced to retreat, at least for the moment. Nor does Gons expect much help from the Navy. He estimates that the relatively short range of the Navy's aircraft carrier-based fighters, combined with the growing Chinese anti-ship missile threat, would dissuade the admirals from risking air operations over Taiwan.

Gons's most effective suggestion for leveling the balance over Taiwan is to use the Air Force's bombers and the Navy's cruise missiles to attack China's air bases. Most of these bases have hardened aircraft shelters, a few have underground aircraft parking, and all are defended by surface-to-air missiles and cannons. A sustained and costly bombing campaign would be required to beat down the Chinese air threat to Taiwan. Whether this requirement to bomb mainland China could deter Chinese action or would instead be an escalator to a much more costly war is up for debate. If future Chinese leaders don't consider this bombing requirement to be either a credible deterrent or something the United States would carry out, the apparent ease with which China could establish air superiority over Taiwan may be an invitation for China to attempt to reunify Taiwan by force.

Gons's study shows how difficult it is to project air and naval power against a capable opponent operating from continental bases. It also shows that the Air Force's short-range fighters, conceived during the 1980s for the confined European theater during the Cold War, will struggle to be useful in the Pacific's vast spaces. The Obama administration has pivoted to the Asia-Pacific. The Air Force and Navy need to adapt if they are to effectively support the new strategy.

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images