Small Wars

This Week at War: Iran's Learning Curve

Why we should take Tehran's threat to cut off the Strait of Hormuz seriously.

At a press conference this week, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was asked again about U.S. preparations to prevent Iran from closing the Strait of Hormuz. Panetta's response was business-as-usual: "[W]e are not making any special steps at this point in order to deal with the situation. Why? Because, frankly, we are fully prepared to deal with that situation now." Even if Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, conceded last week that Iranian forces would be capable of closing the strait "for a period of time," U.S. policymakers seem comfortable assuming that they would be able to reverse an Iranian move without much trouble.

In a recent column, I explained that it wouldn't make much sense for Iran to start a conventional conflict with the United States Such a conflict would play to the U.S. military's strongest suit, blasting away at traditional military hardware such aircraft, ships, and tanks. Each step up the ladder of escalation would find Iran struggling with a greater mismatch against U.S. forces and suffering ever-increasing punishment. Best for Iran to not get on the ladder in the first place.

But that conclusion might not always be the case. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), a well-connected Washington defense think tank, just released a new analysis of future military trends around the Persian Gulf. Mark Gunzinger and Chris Dougherty, authors of "Outside-In: Operating from Range to Defeat Iran's Anti-Access and Area-Denial Threats," assert that over the next decade, Iran could acquire military capabilities that would rip up the assumptions that the U.S. military has used for its Persian Gulf planning over the past three decades. The authors conclude that the Pentagon needs to adapt to changing military circumstances in the region by devising new plans and redirecting investments into new capabilities.

Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, when U.S. military planning for the region first accelerated, commanders have enjoyed easy access to large, modern air and naval bases in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and, for a time, Saudi Arabia. In the build-up to the first Gulf War, these modern bases allowed the United States to rapidly deploy over 500,000 soldiers and Marines to the Kuwait border, move thousands of strike and support aircraft to bases close to the front line, and sail six aircraft-carrier strike groups to the Persian Gulf and Red Sea. By failing to disrupt this build-up, Saddam Hussein condemned his army to a swift defeat.

Iran's leaders have no doubt learned from Saddam's mistakes. Rather than spend money on traditional tank, artillery, and infantry formations, Iran is focusing its military investment on missiles, including ballistic missiles that threaten cities and bases on the Arabian Peninsula. Gunzinger and Dougherty are concerned that Iran's growing ability to strike Saudi Arabia, and other U.S. allies on the western side of the Persian Gulf could either shut down U.S. air and naval operations at these close-in bases or coerce these countries' leaders to deny access to U.S. forces during a future crisis.

Iran's leaders may be attracted to this strategy because they suffered from it during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. During the "War of the Cities" phase of that war, scores of missiles were fired into downtown Baghdad, Tehran and other cities. Iraqi missile superiority succeeded in disrupting and demoralizing Tehran and causing thousands to flee the city. Based on their experience, Iranian leaders may believe that others in the region are vulnerable to the same disruption and coercion they remember from the 1980s.

To supplement its missile forces, Iran also has the covert action capability it displayed in the 1996 truck bomb attack on the Khobar Towers housing complex inside Saudi Arabia, an attack that killed 19 U.S. airmen. Tehran may be hoping that the threat of missile and truck-bomb mayhem will be enough to dissuade Arab cooperation with the U.S. military during a future crisis.

Without the ability to operate from close-in bases in the Arabian Peninsula, the United States would find it much more difficult to respond to an Iranian closure of the Strait of Hormuz. The Pentagon has made a heavy bet on the stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. If restricted to flying from just Turkey and aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea, the short-range F-35 would be able to cover targets in just the northwest and southeast corners of Iran. For the rest of Iran, the United States has only 20 stealthy B-2 bombers (not all of which would be available) capable of avoiding high-end surface-to-air missile systems Iran may acquire over the next decade. The Navy's land-attack cruise missiles would be helpful but also limited in number. If U.S. forces found themselves having to fight for the Strait of Hormuz from a distant starting line, it could take a long time to reverse an Iranian first move.

In addition to land-attack ballistic missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles are another Iranian priority. The presence of these missiles in quantity would greatly complicate a U.S. Navy effort to clear the Hormuz shipping channel of Iranian mines. The United States would first have to suppress and clear out Iranian shore positions, a task which might keep the strait closed for weeks or even months, with nasty consequences for the global economy.

Iran's missile forces are likely too embryonic to pose such a threat today. And as I explained above, Iran would seem to have little incentive to initiate military escalation, since it would ultimately receive the greatest punishment for doing so.

However, Iran may one day soon see coercion as an effective lever to protect its interests. U.S. and European leaders are hoping that economic sanctions will persuade Tehran to make some compromises on its nuclear program. But Western leaders must also be prepared for the possibility that Iran's leaders may instead opt to impose their own economic sanction on the global economy by closing the strait with mines and anti-ship missiles. If the West's sanction regime becomes very effective, Tehran may conclude that it has little to lose from a closure and much to gain from the economic pain it could impose on everyone else.

Iran would increase the probability of this action succeeding if it improved missile capabilities to a point where it could deny U.S. forces the close-in access to bases in the Arabian Peninsula to which U.S. planners have long become accustomed. In this case, and without changes to current forces and plans, U.S. policymakers may find it surprisingly costly to retake the strait.

Gunzinger and Dougherty recommend that U.S. leaders rethink their assumptions about future operations in the Persian Gulf. They recommend rebalancing investments in new strike aircraft toward platforms with much longer ranges, in order to reduce dependence on close-in bases that may not be available. U.S. diplomats and the Air Force should negotiate air base access agreements in northeast Africa, Southeast Europe, and Central Asia that would support longer-range air operations into the Persian Gulf and diversify dependence away from the increasingly vulnerable existing bases. U.S. planners should reconsider the current location of Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain and a major Air Force operations center in Qatar, both within five minutes of Iranian missiles. If Iran closed the strait, it is highly likely that the Marine Corps would be needed in some fashion to assist with reopening the channel. The authors urge the Navy and Marine Corps to maintain adequate amphibious capabilities.

The Pentagon's new strategic guidance attempts to address some of the shortcomings, for example in long-range strike capability, Gunzinger and Dougherty identify. However, it remains to seen whether the Pentagon and Congress will actually reallocate funding into the new areas that effective adaptation will require. Iran's shift away from a traditional army to a strategy centered on missiles is evidence of an adaptive adversary. The lumbering U.S. government should try to be at least as nimble.

EBRAHIM NOROOZI/AFP/Getty Images

Small Wars

This Week at War: Playing Risk

America's new defense strategy makes some pretty bold assumptions about the future of warfare.

The Pentagon's risky new assumptions

Last week, I discussed the release of the Pentagon's new strategic guidance, the document that attempts to explain how the U.S. military services and field commanders plan to cope with a $487 billion cut from their previous 10-year budget plan. Defense analysts now await the White House's detailed defense budget request, a document that is bound to contain a lot of unhappy news for Congress members and defense contractors. I noted last week that the strategic guidance implied substantial cuts to the Army and Marine Corps, implicitly accepting that the United States will no longer be able to send major deployments to two simultaneous crises. But that is just one of many risks the new guidance will force Pentagon planners to cope with.

The cuts to U.S. ground forces will necessarily increase the responsibilities borne by U.S. allies. The strategic guidance discusses the Pentagon's "plan to operate whenever possible with allied and coalition forces." In addition, the document emphasizes the importance of providing security force assistance to build the capacity of partner forces. The authors of the new strategy are counting on this assistance to help fill in for reduced U.S. forces in the future. In reality, however, traditional allies in Europe and elsewhere continue to cut rather than increase their military capacities. Recent U.S. "coalitions of the willing" did produce contributions from many countries, but the majority of these contributions were militarily insignificant. Future U.S. security crises might matter even less to U.S. allies, which will be reluctant to provide significant troop contributions. Planning for allies to do the work previously done by now-furloughed U.S. soldiers is a risk.

In his rollout of the new strategy, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called for U.S. forces to be "more agile, flexible, [and] innovative" as a way of compensating for reduced numbers. But what does it mean precisely to be more agile, flexible, and innovative? Can Panetta and his staff point to specific indicators of agility or flexibility that his forces cannot achieve now but could under different conditions? What training, leadership, or equipment is required to achieve these undefined higher levels of agility and flexibility? Without a more detailed description, it sounds more like sloganeering than a strategy. Panetta and others may express a desire to more rapidly shift forces around the globe in response to crises, but U.S. forces face an increasing challenge of denied access from adversary missiles, a fundamental threat the new strategy is supposed to address. Until the Pentagon resolves the anti-access challenge, improved strategic mobility is itself another problem, rather than a solution to a problem of reduced troop numbers.

The strategic guidance discusses the idea of "reversibility," or retaining the military's ability to reconstitute forces in response to crises. The report describes plans to retain larger numbers of field-grade officers and sergeants in the Army and Marine Corps to accommodate rapid reconstitution of previously shuttered formations. The strategy also discusses an updated role for reserve forces to reconstitute needed combat units. Although these are sensible preparations, in the past it has usually taken two years or more for the U.S. military to fully adapt to major strategic shocks. This is the typical amount of time a large bureaucracy like the Pentagon needs to comprehend a new adversary and its tactics, accept that the new challenge differs significantly from those forecast in prewar plans, and then overcome the bureaucratic hurdles needed to design and implement effective responses. The new strategic guidance may hope to speed up this timeline, but simply assuming it will go faster next time is a risk.

The impending defense cuts increase stress for Pentagon planners because they reduce the margin of error they will have to work with. Possessing redundancy and safety margins of troops, equipment, and bases seems wasteful, even more so during a budget crisis. Getting the new strategic guidance to work during a future crisis will mean hoping that the new planning assumptions come true and that Murphy's Law doesn't strike too often. U.S. military history shows that "planning for perfection" rarely turns out well.

When it comes to Iran, the United States could use a little more help from its Arab friends.

In a Jan. 8 interview, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman, admitted that Iran did have the military capacity to block the Strait of Hormuz "for a period of time." Dempsey went on to reassure his questioner that U.S. military forces around the Persian Gulf region could eventually reopen the strait to maritime traffic. After just completing one round of naval maneuvers, Iran promised an even bigger naval exercise in February. Over at least the medium term, the United States will have to bear the primary responsibility for guaranteeing access to this critical portion of the global commons. Over the long run, the United States would like its Arab allies to pick up a bigger share of the burden. Unfortunately, a recent conference sponsored by U.S. Central Command and the Rand Corp. seemed to throw a barrel of cold water on this prospect.

A new publication from Rand discusses the results of this July 2011 conference, which was keynoted by Marine Gen. James Mattis, the head of Centcom, as well as Puneet Talwar, senior director for the Persian Gulf region for the National Security Council. Around 100 regional experts participated in various panel discussions under Chatham House rules, meaning their remarks were recorded but not attributed by name.

The United States has an interest in promoting a NATO-like political and military alliance among its Sunni Arab allies in the region as a balancing force to Iran. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), composed of Saudi Arabia and the other smaller Sunni countries on the western side of the Persian Gulf, would ideally be the basis of this balancing force. Regrettably, the conference participants concluded that the GCC remains bogged down by mistrust and a lack of coordination. Even worse, just when rising tensions with Iran should be increasing cooperation with the United States, Washington's relations with most GCC countries, most notably Saudi Arabia, are worsening.

Events in 2011 afforded several GCC countries a chance to flex their military muscles and to do so in cooperation with other GCC members and the United States. For example, GCC member Qatar was a major player in the Libyan rebellion, supplying both fighter aircraft and a large contingent of special-forces advisors to the rebels, an action that was supported by other GCC members. Yet the conference concluded that GCC support for the Libyan rebels was motivated by animus toward Muammar al-Qaddafi and was therefore not a precursor for better military cooperation among members in the future. Similarly, the Saudi-led GCC intervention to prop up Bahrain's royal family is expected to do little to improve GCC military coordination against the Iranian threat. In fact, the conference suggested that the internal crackdown in Bahrain may have damaged the Bahrain royal family's credibility and may eventually place U.S. military bases in the country in jeopardy.

According to the conference participants, the Arab Spring has created collateral damage to U.S. relations with key Gulf countries. Leaders in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere were not pleased with the Obama administration's abandonment of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. U.S. policymakers seem to make a clear distinction between external threats to the Sunni Arab countries, to which the United States has pledged to respond, and internal threats, which the United States sees as each country's responsibility. The Sunni monarchies, fearing Iran's covert and irregular-warfare capabilities, do not so neatly see the distinction between Iranian-sponsored external and internal threats. The conference reported that some GCC leaders, having lost some confidence in U.S. reliability, are now looking east to India and China to diversify their security relationships.

U.S. diplomats and regional commanders such as Mattis are caught in several dilemmas. Over the long run, U.S. officials want to encourage more self-reliance and cooperation among GCC states. Yet they also want these countries to have enough confidence in U.S. guarantees that they won't wander off to establish alliances with the likes of China. Similarly, the Arab Spring seemed to bring about the possibility of greater self-government in the Arab world. But U.S. officials have also discovered that pushing this fundamental value might put at risk U.S. security relationships in the region and thus increase the burden on U.S. forces responsible for global commons like the Strait of Hormuz. Mattis's conference showed that solutions to these dilemmas are as far away as ever.

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