The United States has the most powerful conventional military in the world by a factor of three; measured in terms of effectiveness, five. We have state-of-the-art aircraft carriers, missile platforms, AEGIS anti-missile systems, and the M1 Abrams main line battle tank. We’ve got stealth fighters, Hellfire-equipped drones, and some of the best-trained and best-equipped ground troops in the business.
So why exactly would we be worried about taking on Iran, a nation whose navy consists of speedboats with machine guns, whose air force dates from the 1970s, and whose top-performing battle tank is a slightly up-armored Russian T-72? Their infrastructure is sub-par; their command-and-control systems have little to no redundancy, and their government is wildly unpopular with their own people.
And, more to the point: Why would any self-respecting warmongering Commander In Chief ever back down from a fight with these third world poseurs, particularly with an election in the offing?
Let’s start with the obvious: Our government too is wildly unpopular. For those of you who jumped to the conclusion that I’m talking about Trump, think again: He’s got an approval rating of around 40% most days. Congress runs a piddling 21.5%. These are not numbers that should inspire confidence. Add to this that the idea of getting into yet another war in the Middle East is an idea that most Americans find abhorrent and you’re looking at a damned good reason for us to stay clear if we can.
One of the causes for American disenchantment with the idea of war with Iran is war fatigue; as a nation, we’ve been in a state of constant conflict for decades, and we’re finding it inimical to our chosen way of life. (War is expensive, both in lives and taxes.) But it’s also worthy of mention that foreign propaganda, based in this instance largely in Russia, China, Qatar, and Iranian-dominated Palestine, has been steadily targeting the American online citizenry for a dozen years and more. It’s commonly accepted, for instance, that U.S. forces have deployed chemical weapons and white phosphorus incendiaries against civilians even though the only source for these stories is propaganda.
It never happened, but they’ve convinced us it has. They’re very good at what they do.
A second reason we really don’t want to invade Iran is the fanatical nature of their fighting force. There are some 140,000 members of the religious and political Republican Guard, plus another 90,000 in the affiliated militias; these are the equivalents of the German SS and SA, respectively. These form military units with near-unbreakable morale and fanatic fervor. Even were the rest of the country to be overrun, these forces would continue to resist indefinitely, and they’re trained in what the Pentagon euphemistically terms “unconventional warfare” — fading into the populace, striking from the shadows, and vanishing again.
It would become a quagmire from which we’d never emerge; see the present conditions in Afghanistan and Iraq for further details, or Vietnam if you can remember that far back. And then add poison gas and multiply by ten.
Rather more compelling, however, is Iran’s massive inventory of missiles, rockets, and artillery. This is a government that has known for decades that it cannot possibly outfight the military-industrial complex of the United States on even terms but has continued nevertheless to shout “Death To America!” all the while. The only way they can do that with impunity is to be prepared to fight any war on uneven terms — which they most certainly are.
There are three major threat axes from the curious missile-centric Iranian armed forces: against cities, bases and troop formations, and naval platforms.
During the Iran-Iraq War, there was a period known as the “War of the Cities” during which civilian populations were deliberately targeted in order to hurt morale. Some population centers were all but wiped out while others remained virtually unscathed. Since that time, Iran has made tremendous advances in their missile technology, and they’ve announced targets including Dubai, Riyadh, and Tel Aviv. Nearly thirty thousand Iranian missiles are presently deployed in Palestine and Lebanon, aimed at Israeli targets a very few miles away; most of these would be fired in the first few days of any shooting war against the United States. (Some are fired every few days right now, which goes a long way toward explaining some excesses by Israeli military — not excusing them, mind, but certainly explaining.)
Much was made of the light damage inflicted by the Iranian missile attack on the Ayn al-Asad airbase on 08 January. It should be clarified that the types of missile fired were low-yield precision ammunition; they were chosen because (1) they’re insanely difficult to intercept and (2) they have no fixed launch base. If the Iranian launch forces were seriously engaged, anti-missile defenses would be easily overwhelmed, and the majority of American airbases in the region could be shut down for an indefinite period. (This includes drone bases, by the way.)
As a result of the type of attack we’d be likely to face during a shooting war, our vaunted air superiority would be largely neutralized during the opening volleys — not for the long term, but for the first few hours or days of any conflict. One might offer that we could make up for this disadvantage with carrier-based aircraft and naval missile batteries. One would be wrong.
Back in 1986, Tom Clancy released a novel entitled “Red Storm Rising”, about a true-to-life conventional war between a desperate Soviet Union and an unprepared NATO. In the course of this, he described in clinical detail the strategic weakness of American naval doctrine of the time: our reliance on massive centralized aircraft carrier groups. By using only published unclassified data, he concluded that our anti-missile defenses, based on AEGIS destroyers and cruisers, could only handle a few hundred incoming missiles, and that any serious multi-wave attack force would be likely to overwhelm them. The Navy was embarrassed to report to President Reagan that the analysis was largely correct.
In the intervening thirty years, anti-missile defense for our carrier groups has been expanded by a factor of three to ten, depending on how one counts (and of course presuming that we know about every defense, which we likely don’t). Unfortunately, the Iranian anti-naval missile program is sufficiently massive that even this would likely not be enough to protect a single carrier group. It’s overwhelmingly likely that no Iranian firing platform would long survive that opening volley, but the first carrier group in the area would likewise suffer a great deal.
Bottom line? The first couple of hours of any shooting war with Iran would be deadly.
Because of the nature of Iranian forces and the types of defense available to their likely targets, there would be massive civilian casualties in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Israel, and anywhere else friendly to the United States. American counterfire capability would be drastically reduced during the opening hours and days of conflict, and any carrier fleet deployed near or in the Persian Gulf would be in severe danger of annihilation.
However, it must be remembered that the United States runs not one but eleven carrier groups. The loss of one would be huge, but it wouldn’t cripple our ability to wage war. Likewise, American and allied ground forces outnumber, out-tech, and outgun similar Iranian forces by a massive factor. So, while the first day would be very bad for the U.S., the second would be less so, and the second week would likely see Greater Tehran, with its population of fifteen million, converted to the largest parking lot in the known world.
Which brings me to my last and most telling point: What purpose would be achieved by the slaughter of fifteen million Iranians? Yes, it would be an inevitable victory by the United States, but the cost to our own forces and our friends in the region would be horrific — and we’d end up killing millions of civilians and displacing tens of millions more. None of this would improve our popularity in the region, and the removal of Iran as a world power would create a vacuum between the spheres of influence of Pakistan, Russia, China, India, and Saudi Arabia, setting the stage for a global conflict unprecedented in scale. Even worse, if we conquer and remain, we’d have a quagmire the likes of which we’ve never seen — not in Iraq or Afghanistan, not even in Vietnam.
We would be right to fear war with Iran.
Having said that: Iran evicted the U.N. nuclear inspectors in late October of 2019, and most estimates suggest that they will have sufficient material for a crude nuclear warhead in as little as two months from today, and three by mid-May. Given the nature of the Iranian government, it is not unlikely that such a weapon could be deployed in a first-strike capacity against Israel, which would inevitably respond in kind… leaving us with exactly the same results we’d see if we went to war in the first place, except there will now be a substantial amount of radioactive fallout in the area.
Here’s where I’d give you the good news, but for once I’m afraid I don’t have any. Soleimani and his friends are dead, but there’s still some hothead radicals in charge of that part of the Iranian military. It’s a good beginning, but it’s not nearly enough. Our only hope is that cooler and wiser heads will continue to prevail throughout the region.
Note: Leading image unashamedly stolen from the magazine “The National Interest”, which has some interesting articles on this and other topics.