Tuesday, December 29, 2009

United States, Israel and Iran: The Military Realities

Current forward deployed U.S. military forces in the Persian Gulf region have limited strike power. The USAF currently has a composite tactical air wing based in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Each of these undersized wings has very limited sortie generation capability. They do not include leading edge air superiority aircraft or specialized SEAD aircraft. The USN deploys one CV battle group in the Arabia Sea, but, again, this can generate only a handful of long-range strike sorties. The B-2 strategic bomber could initially be used in areas defended by un-degraded Iranian air defenses. But, at most, 4 B-2 bombers could be committed to a conventional strike on Iran, delivering a total of 64 two thousand pound PGMs. Our most significant strike assets are forward deployed USN destroyers, cruisers and attack submarines which likely mount about 300 cruise missiles. Subsonic cruise missile warheads have limited penetrability and usefulness against buried targets like WMD bunkers. The U.S., therefore, has minimal bolt-from-the-blue strike capability against Iran.

An increase in U.S. attack capability would require the deployment of more air power. But, any build-up of U.S. regional air power would require basing rights, take several months and would necessarily be very public. Additional U.S. carriers could be shifted into the region. But, this, too, would be very public and the addition in strike power would be limited. Iran would, therefore, be give clear strategic warning of any U.S. intent to pre-empt its WMD program. Iran could easily disassemble and hide the key elements of its WMD program, and/or take the political/military initiative to pre-empt the U.S. build-up.

At present, U.S. naval surface forces in the Persian Gulf comprise about 5 surface combatants, 4 slow, poorly armed patrol boats, and 4 mine-sweeper/hunters. These limited naval units lack the capability to neutralize Iranian small boat swarms, mine laying craft, ASCM launchers, and long-range sure gun batteries. Iran very likely has the military capability to close the Straits of Hommuz through which a large portion of the world's oil passes, particularly if it does so before the U.S. initiates combat.

Current U.S. ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are undersized, relatively lightly armed and poorly trained for conventional warfare.

The hard reality is that the U.S. lacks a significant military capability to launch a surprise attack on Iran without providing Iran with clear strategic warning. But, surprise is absolutely necessary to ensure maximum disruption of existing Iranian WMD facilities and manufacturing sites. The slow and very public build-up of U.S. military power would also hand Iran the military initiative for many months.

If the U.S. were to initiate a massive build-up of conventional forces in the Persian Gulf region necessary to rapidly subdue Iran, and if Iran then illogically passively awaited the certain U.S. attack, it would still require the call up of several hundred thousand U.S. military reserves, massive retraining and the expenditure of over a hundred-fifty billion dollars, none of which seems politically feasible at this time.

Given these military realities, it is assessed that there is virtually no chance that the present U.S. government would employ force to pre-empt the Iranian WMD program.

By comparison, Israel has a surprise attack capability against Iran that the U.S. lacks. Within 72 to 96 hours, after mobilization of the IDF/SAF, it can generate over 700 combat sorties per day over Iran, delivering over 1,500 two thousand pound PGMs daily. Over a three day air campaign, the Israelis can deliver over 4 times the ordnance the U.S. could now generate. This capability is far greater than assumed by inside-the-beltway experts, all of whom have vastly underestimated Israeli air power. First, Israel has many more long-range multi-role strike aircraft than they generally assumed. Moreover, as compared to the USAF, it operationally employs a far higher percentage of serviceable aircraft, all of which are multi-role. It allocates virtually all its initial sorties to strike missions and it generated a far higher daily sortie rate. Consequently, the number of long-range Israeli strike aircraft is over 2 times higher than generally assumed and the daily strike capacity of each of these airframes is 7 times higher than that generated by the USAF. Moreover, as compared to the U.S., the Israeli target set would also be far narrower, as Israel could ignore the short-range ballistic missiles, ASCMs, naval craft, helicopters, and ground forces which do not threaten it, but which could be used against U.S. vital interests.

If Israel were to give the U.S. firm warning of an impending attack on Iran, the very public rush to reinforce and redeploy U.S. regional forces would compromise surprise. Therefore, Israel will likely provide the U.S. with only a clear warning of strategic intent, but it will use deception and secrecy to operationally surprise the U.S. in order to achieve strategic surprise against Iran.

Iran has huge multiple nuclear facilities, each comprising many separate aim points. The complete destruction of some individual buildings or bunkers would require many PGMs. To maximize the delays in reconstitution, Israel should not only target operational facilities, but the vital manufacturing plants where components are produced. In my view, Israel's strikes should not be limited to nuclear facilities, but also to difficult-to-replace missile production facilities. Nor does it make any sense for Israel to leave in tact the missiles, combat and transport refueling aircraft that Iran would likely use for retaliatory strikes. In order for its aircraft to conduct efficient and relatively safe PGM strikes from medium altitude, the IDF/SAF would also have to suppress Iran's air defenses, including its heavy SAMs, surveillance radars and interceptors. This could not be accomplished by a simple one-time raid, but rather would require the generation of several thousand sorties and the delivery of about 5,000 PGMs during a limited strategic air operation lasting several days. In so far as feasible, civilian non-military targets would not be hit. In fact, Iran's POL facilities and its electrical generating plants could and should be held hostage to deter Iranian terrorist attacks on innocent Israeli/Jewish international targets.

If Israel attacks, Iran will have to make a fateful decision: whether to retaliate against Israel alone or to also retaliate against the U.S.

If Iran decides to retaliate solely against Israel, it is virtually certain that it will activate Hamas and Hezbollah. Iran also has a mutual defense treaty with Syria. My assessment is that Syria will also attack Israel. If Israel does not first conduct counter-force targeting, Iran will also launch missiles and strike aircraft at Israel, and attempt to shift reinforcements westward by transport aircraft. Shia terror cells will likely be activated to strike Israeli and Jewish global targets.

Israel has underfunded its military for over a decade. Between 2001 and 2006, force-on-force training of conscripts was vastly reduced and many reserve units did not undergo annual refresher training. Since 2006, the IDF has considerable improved its training; but, it remains underfunded. Still, the Israeli military is capable of rapidly and decisively crushing Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria, if appropriately directed by the government. The amount of damage that Israeli cities and towns will incur will depend entirely on the rules of engagement the government directs the IDF to employ. If the IDF uses COIN ROEs in Gaza and Southern Lebanon, they will be hit by many thousands of rockets and have to endure barrages for a month or more. But, if the Israeli government considers attacks across international boundaries as acts of war, and then applied wartime ROEs, then the firing of rockets into Israel could be almost totally suppressed within only a few days. A Syrian-Israeli war will be as nearly one-sided as Operation Desert Storm. Unlike Iraqis, some Syrian units will valiantly stand and fight to the death. But the difference in unit quality is so vast, that, ultimately, it will become a live fire exercise with heavy return fire to keep Israelis on edge.

Israel is capable of intercepting most Iranian or Syrian ballistic missiles so long as they are not fired in short intense barrages. If Israel has the military initiative, it should be able to destroy many of these on the ground before they are deployed or launched. Iranian combat or military transport aircraft flying westward would likely be ruthlessly intercepted by Israeli fighters, with most downed hundreds of kilometers to the east of the Jordan Valley. The Syrian air force would likely cease to exist within hours, massacred in one-sided air-to-air dogfights or destroyed on the ground.

Iran has said that, if attacked, it will retaliate against the U.S. and Israel. Revolutionary governments generally act as they have promised. In addition to attacking Israel, as have been previously described, Iran has said that it would also:
  • close the Straits of Hommuz to shipping,
  • attack shipping in the Persian Gulf,
  • launch missiles and rockets at U.S. regional bases,
  • attack U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and
  • activate international terrorist cells against U.S. terrorist targets.

If Israel attacks Iran, Iran will have the military initiative against the U.S. Therefore, Iran will be able to coordinate the initiation of mining, ASCM and boat swarm attacks, missile/rocket launches, and cross-border attacks. It is assessed that it will be highly probable that Iran's mining of the Straits of Hommuz would succeed as the U.S. lacks the pre-deployed military forces necessary to prevent it.

The U.S. will face a come-as-you-are war with its vital sea born lines of communications totally cut. It will have to ask for basing rights in Turkey, Iraq, the Suni-Arab States, and the Gulf States as well as in the former Soviet Republics north of Iran. These diplomatic negotiations will take place against the backdrop of Arab television showing 24/7 live images of the Israelis pummeling Gaza, Lebanon and Syria. Turkey's first concern will be the Kurds. The only concern of Suni Arab kings and dictators is the survival of their regimes. Except for Kuwait and the UAE, the emirates will be intimidated by Iran and worried about their Shia populations. Russia will play big power politics in the former Soviet Republics. Getting basing and transit rights will not be simple.

There are numerous Iranian held fortified islands in the Straits of Hommuz. These have defensive garrisons, mobile ASCM launchers and long-range guns. These garrisons will have to be completely neutralized by the USN and the USMC before the Straits can be swept by U.S. and Allied mine hunters and mine sweepers. These fiberglass or wooden hull ships are virtually defenseless. They operate at exceedingly slow speed, often at only 1 to 2 knots. They are easy targets for ASCMs or long-range artillery. The heaviest gun in USN service fires a 127 mm seventy pound shell. A Burke Class destroyer has less than 20% of the shore bombardment capability of World War II destroyers, but over double the navigational draft. In many locations of the Persian Gulf, they can't get close enough to the shoreline to use their guns. The USMC has very little across-the-beach assault capability beyond a handful of thin-skinned, vulnerable air-cushioned vehicles. We used to have 1,100 LSTs. Now we have none. Getting armor ashore will be very difficult. Amphibious assaults in the Gulf are going to be painful and will take months to organize. Once the Straits are open, to keep the sea lines of communications safe, we will have to own the Iranian shoreline. That means the insertion of a very large U.S. Army force. Additional Army units will have to somehow get into Afghanistan and Iraq to overcome Iranian units. The Iranians will use light infantry in urban areas. To save Iraq, we may have to destroy many of their cities.

It's going to take at least five months for the U.S. to defeat Iran's asymmetrical threats and re-open the oil flow. We will have virtually the entire U.S. Army and Marine Corps deployed in the Persian Gulf region. There will be no was to sustain a garrison in the areas without re-imposition of the draft in the U.S.

What I have presented here will surprise many. The reality is that, in the Middle East today, we are not the dominant military power. Israel is. Israelis overestimate the U.S. They cannot fathom how a country that spends so much on defense can generate such small forces, so slowly. Conversely, American leaders universally underestimate Israeli military capability. Fifty plus years of Israeli disinformation and propaganda has turned illusion into reality. Policy based on illusion is catastrophic and today all policy on the Iranian WMD issue is based on totally false perceptions of the reality of power in the Middle East.

1 comment:

  1. Ken - awesome - and thanks. If you get a chance organize all the info on penetrator weapons, perhaps even a cut and paste. The reality of Israel's vast operational superiority with actual weaponry needs to be recognized. Yes they can make a dent in Iran, is there problems, sure, and I learned a lot during this past week. Ski