In War Against Iran, U.S. Firepower Would Vie With Guerrilla Tactics (WSJ) WALL STREET JOURNAL) By NATHAN HODGE 04/14/12)
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Adm. Jonathan Greenert made an important observation last fall from
the tower of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis while in the
Strait of Hormuz on the southern coast of Iran, the world´s busiest
The chief of naval operations was sailing in a flotilla that showed
off the Navy´s overwhelming power to strike at long distances: F-18
fighter jets, Tomahawk cruise missiles and deck guns able to fire a
shell 15 miles.
Yet in the claustrophobic waters of the strait, which narrows to just
24 miles, Adm. Greenert noted that all that long-range firepower
could potentially be countered by the Iranian patrol boats that came
out to track the U.S. warships. Faced with a fight in close quarters,
Adm. Greenert told a Senate panel recently, "You also may need a
As the U.S. and other Western powers prepare to meet Saturday in
Istanbul with Iran to resume negotiations over its nuclear program,
the U.S. military is sharpening its contingency planning. Advocates
of peaceful engagement say economic sanctions against the Islamic
regime are starting to bite, and are hopeful that Tehran will give up
its uranium-enrichment program. Iran says the program is for use in
electricity generation, but intelligence services say the regime is
close to developing the capability of building a nuclear weapon. The
Obama administration plays down the chances of a breakthrough at this
meeting, the first face-to-face encounter between US. and Iranian
diplomats in more than a year, saying the best outcome may be
agreement for a second round.
Should all else fail and the U.S. or Israel decide to attack Iran,
say analysts, they would face a miniature version of the U.S.
military, circa 1975—sustained, barely, by a world-wide spare-parts
bazaar. Experts say the Islamic Republic´s claims of advanced
weaponry—such as armed, Predator-style drones—are mere boasts.
Military officers and defense analysts say the U.S. could quickly
overwhelm Iran´s air defenses, leaving evenly spaced bomb craters,
for example, on runways to disable Iranian air bases. Pinpoint
airstrikes would attempt to destroy all Iran´s known nuclear
facilities—a goal complicated by the fact that the regime has buried
some of its production sites. The Pentagon is rushing to upgrade its
largest conventional bomb to better penetrate fortified underground
Naval officers believe Iran would retaliate by waging the naval
equivalent of guerrilla warfare in the Persian Gulf by mining the
Strait of Hormuz or swarming U.S. naval vessels with small boats.
Such threats, so-called asymmetric warfare, could prove as dangerous
and unpredictable as roadside bombs in Afghanistan or Iraq, with an
low-cost mine potentially crippling or sinking a billion-dollar
In such a scenario, the U.S. military would face a time-consuming and
often perilous effort to reopen shipping lanes to international oil
"They have stayed true to their stripes," said a senior military
officer in the Middle East. "They have always taken an asymmetric
approach, going back to the ´80s."
Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran had among the most
formidable conventional arsenals in the region, equipped with modern
weaponry sold to the Shah by U.S. defense firms.
Iran´s military was later battered during eight years of war with
Iraq in the 1980s. Iran has since cobbled together an array of
weapons—some homegrown but much acquired from China, North Korea and
the former Soviet Union.
Iran has already threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz in response
to tighter international sanctions. Military analysts now estimate
Iran has amassed as many as 5,000 naval mines, ranging from
rudimentary devices that explode on contact, to high-tech mines that,
tethered to the sea floor, can identify the acoustic signature of
specific types of ships and explode only under the richest targets.
Scott Truver, a mine warfare analyst, said finding and clearing
Iranian mines would be a cat-and-mouse game for the Navy. Mine
warfare, he said "is as tough and dangerous as the IEDs on land were.
Mines are equally hard to detect, if not harder."
The U.S. Navy knows firsthand. In April 1988, the frigate USS Samuel
B. Roberts struck an Iranian mine, which blew a hole the size of a
pickup truck in the hull, and nearly sank the ship. The U.S.
retaliated by attacking two Iranian oil platforms and sinking several
Among the newest threats are sophisticated torpedoes Iran acquired
from Russia that can home in on the turbulence of a ship´s wake and
aren´t easily fooled by the decoys commonly used by warships.
Military planners worry about torpedoes launched from Iran´s three
Russian-built Kilo submarines, as well as approximately four North
Korean Yono-class mini-submarines, the class of vessel that sank a
South Korean warship in 2010, killing 46 sailors.
Iran´s mini-subs cannot range far or stay long under water. But in
the close quarters of the Strait of Hormuz, they could be easily
positioned for attacks.
Iran also is known for its fleet of hundreds of small speedboats that
can carry everything from machine guns to large antiship missiles.
While a single speedboat may not imperil a warship, a swarm of small
boats could overwhelm a larger ship´s defenses. In early 2008, a
cluster of Iranian patrol boats sailed close to a convoy of U.S.
warships. No shots were fired, but the provocation underscored
Conventional naval vessels aren´t the only concern. Iran can deploy
mines or even missiles from merchant vessels, or dhows. Such threats
would be nearly impossible to spot in the crowded shipping lanes of
the Persian Gulf.
Ten years ago, the Rumsfeld-era Pentagon held a top-secret war game
to test a Persian Gulf scenario. A maverick Marine Corps general, Lt.
Gen. Paul Van Riper, led the "Red Team," the fictional Iranian
adversary. Gen. Van Riper relayed orders to his front-line troops by
motorcycle messenger, so the U.S. could not hack into his networks;
he sent out speedboats armed with missiles and explosives to swarm
U.S. warships. After the fictional smoke cleared, more than a dozen
U.S. warships were at the bottom of the Persian Gulf.
That exercise, known as Millennium Challenge, was a wake-up call
about the potential of asymmetric warfare. The Navy has since
unveiled plans to boost the defenses of its ships in the Gulf.
Adm. Greenert said the Navy is interested in new robotic underwater
vehicles that can search for mines and submarines and improved
Gatling guns to counter Iranian small-boat attacks. The Navy has
rushed to test and field a new anti-torpedo torpedo—a weapon that
would potentially counter Iran´s more sophisticated torpedoes.
The Navy recently announced plans to double its fleet of Avenger-
class minesweeping ships in the Persian Gulf.
The U.S. military is taking other steps. Earlier this year, the
Pentagon unveiled plans to refit a transport ship as a staging
platform for different kinds of missions, from countering mines to
launching remotely piloted aircraft. It also could be used as a
platform for launching commando operations with small patrol boats to
intercept Iranian vessels, escort ships or protect oil platforms.
Beyond the waters of the Persian Gulf, military planners worry about
Iran´s expanding arsenal of ballistic missiles, built with North
Korean cooperation and know-how. The Defense Department estimates
Iran has around 1,000 short- and long-range missiles that can travel
from 90 to 1,200 miles, the largest inventory in the Middle East.
The longer-range Shahab-3, which could reach Israel, has received the
most attention. But Iran´s shorter-range Scuds are on mobile
platforms, allowing them to more easily evade detection.
Within striking distance of Iranian missiles are U.S. Army
installations in Kuwait, a command post in Qatar, and the U.S. Fifth
Fleet in Bahrain.
While relatively inaccurate, those missiles may have the potential to
strike panic or provoke a wider war if they hit U.S. allies in the
region. A retired Navy officer said the missiles don´t have
sophisticated targeting but could score a blind hit on a Saudi oil
field, a Qatari gas production facility or a city in the United Arab
Emirates. "Face it, how accurate does it need to be?" he said.
Officials with Iran´s elite Revolutionary Guards threaten reprisals
against any country used as a launch pad for strikes against Iran. A
conflict with Iran, then, could be a real-world test for U.S. missile-
defense plans. As part of a shift from Bush-era missile defense,
which focused on defending U.S. territory from a long-range missile
attack, the Obama administration has sought defenses against shorter-
range Iranian missiles targeting U.S. troops overseas, as well as
There is also a presumed terror threat. Iran´s Ministry of
Intelligence and Security could activate so-called sleeper agents for
acts of sabotage or terror attacks, according to U.S. officials.
Militants sponsored or trained by Iran might attack U.S. diplomatic
facilities in Iraq or bases in the Middle East.
"The assumption is that there are sleeper cells all around that would
be activated in some way," said retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony
Zinni, the former head of U.S. Central Command, the U.S. military
headquarters that oversees the region.
Military professionals generally agree that U.S. forces would quickly
overwhelm Iran´s air defenses. Former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen.
T. Michael Moseley, an architect of the shock-and-awe air campaign
against Saddam Hussein in 2003, said a U.S. air campaign could
inflict "a sense of strategic paralysis" on Iran´s air defenses by
targeting command-and-control facilities, early warning radars and
But, Gen. Moseley said, Iran´s air-defense system—comprised of mostly
older U.S. Hawk missiles and some surface-to-air missiles of Soviet
design—was "not a trivial" threat to U.S. aircraft. "Anything that
shoots at you merits some respect," he said.
Military officials said Iran´s forces shouldn´t be entirely
discounted. In the late 1970s, the Iranians "had all the latest and
greatest stuff" from the U.S., said Richard Brown, a Navy fighter
pilot who helped train Iranian aviators in Isfahan.
Iran maintains a fleet of Vietnam-era F-4 and F-5 jets, according to
defense analysts; its helicopter fleet, which includes versions of
the Chinook, the Cobra and the Huey, would look familiar to a U.S.
It still flies the F-14 Tomcat, made popular in the movie "Top Gun."
Iran was the only foreign military customer for the F-14, once a high-
end U.S. fighter.
Today, many of these aircraft are close to the end of their service
life. Aviation experts say Iran keeps them airworthy by cannibalizing
and reverse-engineering spare parts. Iran bought nearly 80 of the F-
14s. Analysts believe around 25 can still fly. By comparison, Saudi
Arabia´s fleet of U.S.-made F-15 fighters outnumbers Iran´s F-14s by
about six to one.
Veterans of the 1970s training programs in Iran doubt the Iranians
have maintained enough parts to keep its U.S.-made aircraft in flying
condition. Ric Morrow, a naval aviator who worked on the Iranian F-14
training program, said what remained of the Iranian air force would
be "no contest" for the U.S.
The air-to-air weapons built for Iran´s aircraft also may have
outlived their shelf life. Steve Zaloga, a missile expert at the Teal
Group, a defense consultancy, said the solid rocket motors and
batteries go bad over time.
Some evidence suggests, however, that Iran operates a global
procurement network to buy spare U.S. military parts. Since 2007, the
U.S. Justice Department has handled more than two dozen export and
embargo-related criminal prosecutions related to military spare parts
destined for Iran.
Clif Burns, an export attorney at the law firm Bryan Cave in
Washington, D.C., tracks such cases. He said Iran appeared to give
shopping lists to independent contractors who buy parts in the
world´s aviation market. "The procurement effort is pretty large and
enforcement alone isn´t able to stop the flow of aircraft parts into
Iran," he said.
—Jay Solomon contributed to this article. (Copyright © Dow Jones &
Company, Inc.) 04/14/12)
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