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.