With tensions between the US and Iran growing in the Persian Gulf, a conflict seems likely. What would it take to win control of the region, and does Tehran stand a chance?
Recent news reports suggest that Iranian mines were responsible for the damage caused to two tankers in the Gulf of Oman last week. These actions have radically increased tensions across the Persian Gulf, and an armed conflict between the US and Iran seems to grow ever more likely.
The emergency deployment of the Abraham Lincoln and her battle group to reinforce the existing American presence in the region has also given the US Navy additional major assets with which to secure shipping from future attacks. However, with all these assets deployed in the region there is the significant threat of escalation. If that powder keg explodes, it could have significant repercussions the region and the world.
But what would a war between Iran and the US look like? What would it take for the United States to win, and does Tehran even have a chance?
What a US War With Iran Won't Be
Before we go any further, I have to first dismiss one popular but incorrect vision of a war with Iran. It will certainly not look like the wars against Iraq or Afghanistan in that there would not be wheeling tank battles through the desert or large infantry formations stomping around in the mountains.
A 2011 Stratfor paper goes into detail, but to summarize the problem, Iran has a population the size of Germany but its capital and major population centers all sit along a fertile and temperate belt in the north. This region is surrounded by some of the most rugged mountains east of the Himalayas and three of the harshest deserts in the world. Even almost two decades of war in Afghanistan, the US military would struggle to fight effectively under these conditions.
Even if a ground invasion were militarily possible, a drawn-out land campaign would be political suicide for the Trump administration. The president would likely see his approval numbers plummet amid another Middle Eastern quagmire when confronted an already war-weary American population. This crisis, unlike many others, would probably stick with the president, who promised to keep the US out of more military adventures.
For many of the same political reasons, America's European allies likely will stay out of any conflict in the Persian Gulf. Most of the establishment parties of NATO members were attacked for supporting the US in its war in Afghanistan, as were those who participated in the Iraq war. This participation has been a strong source of discontent among European voters, which has been amplified by the unpopularity of American foreign policy.
This isn’t a huge loss, as most of NATO's naval forces are aimed at the defense of the North Sea and Mediterranean regions with little capacity to project power elsewhere.
The sole exception to this would be the Royal Navy and the new HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier. But given Britain's unique domestic political challenges, it seems unlikely that a new PM would be quick to take the plunge with the US again. America's Asian allies have largely avoided the challenges posed by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. These countries are in a bind because the majority of Asia's petroleum comes from the Persian Gulf. A war that disrupts this trade could potentially destroy their economies overnight. Instead, countries like Japan would likely be mediators and intermediaries whose goals are to deescalate the conflict. So, in my mind, I don’t see much of a role for American allies in this conflict.
Precedent for Armageddon
After we've eliminated the possibility of a ground offensive, what is left? Well, we already have good precedent for what a war with Iran would look like, as the US fought the Islamic Republic in the 1980s. This engagement, called Operation Praying Mantis, was almost exclusively a naval affair and was the largest surface engagement the US Navy fought since World War II.
Over a period of less than twenty-four hours, American carrier aviation attacked and decimated the Iranian navy, damaging or destroying most of the country's heavy warships and completely stripping the country of control over the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, the US Navy lost a single AH-1 helicopter and its two pilots. Praying Mantis was a smashing success, and the operation would probably provide the template for any future conflict with Iran.
The simple fact of the matter is that the Persian Gulf is one of the most highly trafficked waterways in the world. An entire US surface fleet (the 5th) is tasked with patrolling its waters. This gives the US Navy considerable resources when it comes to conducting anti-mine, anti-missile, and anti-submarine operations.
Unless the Iranians stayed ashore lobbing missiles at merchant shipping in the Gulf, they must sail their ships out to contest the Navy's control over the waterway.
But Iran has a serious problem, and that is that the majority of its surface fleet dates back to the 1980s. Some go further back to the 1970s and the Shah's last great expansion program before the Revolution. In short, most of its hardware is woefully obsolete. Iran has been trying to modernize its fleet in recent years by building domestic copies of the ships it already operates, but these copies likely lack the quality of their western produced originals. Plus, this program is only half finished.
The Iranian Airforce, which would play a critical role in screening this fleet as it conducted operations, is in a similar situation. Simply put, the Iranians are still tied down by the same 1970s tech that got creamed in the late 80s. If they stood their forces up now, they would quickly get smashed by the American Navy.
The Real Challenges in a War with Iran
Is the Iranian navy simply doomed to defeat and destruction? Not quite. Iran's navy and air force are in pretty bad shape, but the one place Iran invested most of its defense spending into – besides an incomplete nuclear program – is its missile programs.
Iran has purchased or built some seriously advanced missile systems, including the advanced Russian S-300 anti-air missiles, the equivalent to the US Patriot system. Iran has also developed a range of surface-to-surface and anti-ship missiles which give them formidable capabilities. Most importantly, Iran made sure to design the missiles so that they’re compatible with its aging launch platforms. This means that, while vulnerable, the Iranian military is still quite potent.
Video game players might refer to this problem as a “glass cannon.” To make matters worse, Iran has been exploring the purchase or production of hypersonic missiles. These cruise missiles can be launched from ship or shore and use advanced jet engines to propel them to speeds between Mach 5 and 10. In a space the size of the Persian Gulf, that would reduce interception time down to a matter of seconds, an impossibility for any current anti-missile system.
However, as far as is publically known Iran has not yet acquired these missiles. Hypersonic weapons are still under development in Russia, China, India, and the US, with only China and perhaps India currently even remotely capable of deploying one. But this will probably change drastically over the next five years.
Iran's strategy in the event of war should be pretty obvious. Utilizing its missiles as an equalizer, the navy and air force would sail out and strike as many American warships as possible with their ordnance. The goal with this attack would be to overwhelm American missile defense systems.
For this reason, Iran probably won’t waste too many of its missiles destroying tankers or other civilian traffic. They're far more useful in saturating American air defenses. If this strategy is successful, it could inflict serious damage to US naval assets in the region, causing thousands of casualties.
Examples like the HMS Hood, which quickly sank after engaging with the Germans in World War II, and USS Juneau (sunk in 1942) teach us valuable lessons. At sea, the combat loss of a warship usually means the death of her crew. This could have serious repercussions throughout the Persian Gulf, as Iran gains new stature. American allies would be forced to either side with the vengeful United States in launching renewed sanctions and strikes against Iran, or to side with their main energy supplier against the US.
It’s a hard choice, and one that would ultimately probably benefit Iran. In the meantime, the Iranian Navy would be in control over the most important waterway in the world. But this outcome is contingent on the success of the first overwhelming missile attack. If it fails and the US Navy remains intact, there will not be enough left of Iranian forces to launch a second strike.