Reconsidering war with Iran

Short and long term human, political and economic consequences of any war require innovative approaches to prevent the crisis becoming war: such a case clearly exists with Iran and her nuclear ambitions.  

There is considerable international discussion about a potential confrontation between Iran and the international community over its nuclear programme.  Conventional wisdom is that the US is unable to, or unwilling to risk, a pre-emptive attack and that Tehran is calling all the shots.  The US military, and likely political, readiness for a war using minimum ground forces indicates that the current seeming inaction surrounding Iran is misleading. The United States retains the ability – despite commitments to Afghanistan – to undertake no notice major military operations against Iran that could remove Iran’s ability to retaliate and remove the regime’s ability to function at all. This article (drawing on open source material) will challenge the notion that America will not attack first, and demonstrate that the US has the wherewithal to destroy the Iranian military capability.  It will detail the capability of the forces within the US services concluding that the most likely attack option (air power) would be highly successful, and then examine the political repercussions of mounting such an attack – and those of not doing so – before arguing in the conclusion that such an attack is more likely than the majority of commentators suggest, and that attack plans are highly likely to be ready to implement on the orders of the President.  While we are assuming that the primary, twin military objectives of the attack would be to remove the Iranian nuclear potential and to downgrade Iranian wider military capabilities to limit their counter-attack options this would, almost inevitably, lead to regime change.

Before examining in detail the options that the US has at its disposal, why have most commentators appeared so reluctant to suggest that America has the ability to launch a debilitating attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, and could do so at any moment?  It strikes us that the concentration over the last decade on counter-terrorism, small-wars and asymmetric combat has blunted the appreciation that America remains the world’s only global, military superpower and retains more than sufficient ability to remove the Iranian nuclear research and production capabilities. 

This conventional thinking that the US would not attack is based primarily on assumptions - that we believe are flawed – surrounding the Iranian counter-attack options.  Standard responses include that Iran will be able to (among many other options): seriously interfere with the Straits of Hormuz and oil flows; destroy Gulf oil industry infrastructure; fire missiles at Gulf States, Iraq and Israel; induce insurrection in Iraq; order attacks by Hizbollah and Hamas on Israel; sponsor an uprising in Afghanistan; carry out attacks in the Gulf, Europe and the US by the use of sleeper cells; and destabilise the Gulf states with large Shi’a populations.  But this analysis is not convincing for two reasons.  First, elementary military strategy requires the prevention of anticipated enemy counter-attacks. Iranian Air Force, Navy, Surface to Surface Missile and Air Defence systems would not be left intact nor it seems to us would the regime itself through to the paramilitary political structures and key infrastructure including transport and communications links.  Second, t he attack plan we outline here would not be limited to a single option and any counter-attack by conventional, or unconventional, Iranian (or Iranian-backed) forces would be met by the unleashing of a second, third and if necessary further, wave of overwhelming aerial firepower.  After the charge against Republican President George W Bush that not enough force was used in Afghanistan and Iraq, which President would countenance an attack on nuclear facilities that left retaliatory capabilities intact?  And what ally of Iran would sacrifice itself once its sponsor is in ruins?  But what are these capabilities, and how might they be employed?

First, let us say from the outset that we do not believe that the US would employ its own vast nuclear strike capability to achieve this limited goal.  The resultant numbers of deaths and nuclear contamination, even from a series of carefully targeted, small (less than Hiroshima) warheads would be unacceptable.  Drawing on readily available work from the Federation of American Scientists[1], Global Security[2] and the Monterey Institute for International Studies[3], we have calculated that striking 11 key Iranian nuclear facilities with 3 x 10kt-yield, ground-bust warheads each (and there are far more than 11 key facilities) would result in a death-toll approaching 3,000,000 due to fall-out and the proximity of major centres of population.

But such a strike option is not necessary.  The Americans can launch an attack using forces that are largely conventional, and certainly non-nuclear, from their vast armoury.  We will now examine in turn the role that the US Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Special Forces, and Air Force might play in reducing both the Iranian nuclear and counter-attack capabilities, before a short word about some unconventional capabilities.  For we believe that the overall war plan would be to avoid a prolonged and costly land incursion into Iran, for the following three reasons: first, the aims of the mission would be limited to removing the nuclear threat and reducing to the point of inability any counter-attack capability – such an option can be achieved without a land option.  Second, the Americans would, with justification, be wary of becoming involved in a third prolonged, costly, deadly and unpopular land campaign: they have learnt from previous mistakes.  Third, the Americans will seek to court, not antagonise, world opinion.  By sticking rigidly to their two-fold military mission aims and denying that regime change is an overt priority, they can claim with far greater moral certainty that they are acting for the global good rather than out of any imperial motive; although they would no doubt attract criticism from the expected quarters, by staying largely off of Iranian territory, they would attract far less opposition in the aftermath.

Given the suggestion that this would primarily be a campaign avoiding large-scale troop deployments, what role for the US Army?  We envisage two roles.  First, the Army would be able to contribute to the broader air campaign through their highly capable Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATacMS) such as the MGM-140 family, with a range in excess of 100 miles. This usually unreported capability can be used at very short notice without giving any tactical warning to an adversary local observers and contribute to a surprise attack. Launched from bases in Afghanistan and Kuwait, for example, these missiles could play a significant role in degrading large manoeuvre units of both the Republican Guard and the regular Iranian Army, as well as rendering forward-air Bases unusable.  But the larger role for the US Army would be that of deterrence.  The threat of a large-scale incursion by the US Army air-mobile and armoured forces from Kuwait or Afghanistan would not only tie-down large numbers of Iranian troops, but would act as a deterrent to other, peripheral nations to become involved  - were they tempted to do so.  Here, the very deployment of significant US land forces to Afghanistan acts in favour of the US acting sooner rather than later, for far from representing an over-stretch, this represents a forward-basing, thereby increasing the threat and offering a further option should it be required.

Meanwhile, not all the US Marine Corps is tied-down fighting in Afghanistan.  Uncounted by media and analysts alike Marine Corps aircraft carriers – or assault vessels - are larger than the air craft carriers of any nation other than the US.  Several Marine forces could assemble in the Gulf, each with its own aircraft carrier that includes one or two squadrons of AV8-B attack aircraft. These carrier forces can each conduct a version of the D-Day landings with their landing craft, tanks, jump-jets, thousands of troops and hundreds more cruise missiles. Their task would be to seize the numerous off-shore islands and oil installations that could be used as jumping-off points for counter attacks.  The USMC has trained for such missions ever since the Iranian revolution of 1979, and would play a vital role in negating any counter-attack capability.

The US Navy would, we suggest, be even more directly engaged. Countering threats from Iranian surface vessels (both conventional and unconventional – such as an attack by a swarm of suicide boats) would be high on their agenda.  This, combined with counter-mine warfare and neutralising the fairly sophisticated submarine threat from the Iranian Navy (not an easy task in the shallow and warm waters of the Gulf where sonar conditions are, at best, challenging) to enable both freedom of manoeuvre for US forces and denying the Iranian Navy that same luxury would represent the core naval task.  But the US Navy also has a very considerable air ability that would be central to the campaign.  The presence of a carrier group in the Gulf is well-known, not least since it receives widespread publicity whenever it changes over or passages the Straights of Hormuz.  But that is only one such group: with around a month’s notice the US Navy can deploy six carriers with all their associated support; carriers in the Gulf region could quickly be joined by others on standby in the Atlantic and Pacific and not noticed by the media. Not only does each carrier force offer several dozen advanced fighter and ground attack aircraft, electronic warfare and aerial taker capabilities, but also thousands of US Navy Tomahawk cruise missiles on board surface ships and submarines.  The Tomahawks are now programmable with multiple targets and the ability to be retargeted in flight up to the last moment. This greatly increases their flexibility and, with immediate bomb damage assessment now available due to satellite and drone coverage, is likely to increase substantially the number of targets that can be hit by the Navy.

As well as the Marines, there is one other element of the US military machine that would also be on Iranian territory: the Special Forces (or SOF to use the American designation).  It is likely that the SOF would have three missions.  First, would be countering medium- and long-range missiles.  Shore-based, medium-range anti-ship missiles (such as the Chinese Silkworm) would represent a significant threat to the US Navy and UMC in the narrow and crowded waters of the Gulf, and while on-board anti-missile defences are highly capable, attacks on the ground installations from the air and from the ground by both the USMC and SOF would be a better defence.  The SOF would also be committed to playing their part in a “Scud Hunt” style mission, reminiscent of the First Gulf War both to negate the threat to neighbouring countries (and especially Israel) but also to protect the American sea-based assets; while such a mission is not the sole preserve of the SOF their role would be pivotal.  Second, there is a need for more than aerial attack to destroy some targets, such as command and control bunkers, communication nodes and even – possibly – some deeply-buried nuclear research facilities.  SOF would be employed against such target sets not only on their own, but also to designate targets for aerial attack, and to follow-up deep-earth penetrating attacks to ensure target destruction or intelligence exploitation.  And, indeed, intelligence gathering would, as ever, be the third core role for the SOF.  It is highly conceivable that SOF are already employed in Iran to undertake intelligence missions, and would, on the opening of hostilities, be used to attack facilities around the country.

And so to the US Air Force.  Awaiting his attack orders, the President has more than 200 strategic bombers such as the venerable B52, the B1 and the B2.  Capable of launching yet more cruise missiles, or delivering precision-guided munitions (guided by both laser designation and by GPS) with the accuracy to fly through a designated window in a building, the USAF’s capability is most impressive.  But it is the advent of a new generation of weapons since the Second Gulf War – weapons that have not attracted widespread attention since they are tailored to the type of campaign that we envisage against Iran rather than supporting counter-insurgency campaigns (that have dominated media and commentator coverage over the last decade) – that represent a quantum increase in capability.  The US B-2A, for example, now carries an earth-penetrating conventional weapon, the Massive Ordnance penetrator. The MOP is a 30,000lb bomb carrying 6.000lbs of explosives and capable of penetrating up to 60 meters [200 feet] through 5,000 psi reinforced concrete; this puts at risk even the most hardened facilities.  Meanwhile, military technology has taken "smart bombs" to a new level, offering ever greater accuracy, while the advent of small-diameter bombs (such as the GBU-59), weighing only 250lbs each, quadruples the firepower of US warplanes, compared to those in use in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. A single B-52 bomber can now attack between 150 and 300 individual points to within a metre of accuracy using the global positioning system.  One B2 bomber dropped 80, 500lb bombs on separate targets in 22 seconds in a test flight. Using just half the available force, 10,000 targets could be attacked almost simultaneously. This strike power alone is sufficient to damage Iranian political, military, economic and transport capabilities.  Such a strike would take "Shock and Awe" to a new level and leave Iran with few if any conventional military capabilities to block the Straits of Hormuz or provide conventional military support to insurgents beyond Iran’s borders.  After Iraq and Afghanistan, air capability has been largely forgotten: this mission would remind the world of the American capability.

Finally, a brief word about non-nuclear but non-conventional forces.  Other than drones, which we can anticipate being very widely used in reconnaissance, post-attack damage assessment and attack missions, the US would likely exploit its capabilities in two other areas to great effect.  Although open-source reporting is limited, it is clear that the US enjoys an overwhelming advantage in space-based capability over Iran.  While kinetic attack against those few Iranian satellites is highly unlikely (the resultant debris representing a far greater hazard to the many US satellites) some method of negating their output is a probability – and no doubt there are other space-based capabilities that have not even made it to open-source reporting as rumours.  Even more shrouded in secrecy is the US offensive cyber-attack capability.  The traditional start to an air campaign is to gain control of the air by negating the ground-based air defence threat and destroying either enemy fighters, or damaging their bases so that they are unable to operate.  Key to a modern, integrated air defence system is Command and Control – and in particular those communication links that enable information and control messages to be transmitted.  How much easier for an attacker to disable the system through attacking the computers and communication systems at the heart of a contemporary system than traditional hard-kill approaches; it is inconceivable that part of the American armoury does not contain such a capability.

It is clear to us that an overwhelming air attack would be the main assault tool: Shock and Awe writ large.  Once such an air assault on Iran began, it would include a huge range of targets from the outset under a policy known as Escalation Dominance. This would include a target set, moving from nuclear and other WMD facilities, through strikes on conventional military targets to reduce threats to US forces in theatre, to the destruction of leadership targets in order to degrade the government’s ability to strike back at the US forces – or elsewhere.

It must, however, also be acknowledged that this option contains the risk of increased global tension and hatred of the United States. The US would have few, if any allies for such a mission beyond Israel (and possibly the UK). Once undertaken, the imperatives for success would be enormous and, given that air power alone has rarely achieved total success, cannot be guaranteed, but as long as the stated mission aims were limited to and focused on the twin objectives of destroying both Iran’s nuclear and counter-attack capabilities and the temptations for mission creep were avoided, the authors of this review are highly persuaded of the prospects for American success.  However, the US would also be mindful of its legal position and would likely point to the air war against Serbia during the Kosovo conflict as justification: the use of air power was deemed technically illegal but justified and this may be the basis of an American legal defence.

American military operations for a major conventional war with Iran are, then, not only feasible but have a high probability of success.  They would extend far beyond targeting suspect WMD facilities and would see the destruction of Iran's military infrastructure overnight using conventional weapons, removing any counter-attack capability.  Iran has a weak air force and anti-aircraft capability, almost all of it is 20-30 years old and it lacks modern integrated communications. Not only will these forces be rapidly destroyed by US air power, but Iranian ground and air forces will be subject to attack with almost total freedom of the skies for the attackers.  And when might such an attack take place?  We suggest that there is a significant window of opportunity at present.

Conventional military planning would normally demand a significant lead-in time for an undertaking of such an operation as has been envisaged here, time to assemble forces and logistics, and to gain the necessary access, basing and over-flight rights.  To assemble additional carrier strike groups would take, as suggested above, around a month.  But not only would such preparations give notice of intent, thereby partly blunting the Shock and Awe doctrine, they are quite probably unnecessary: the US has sufficient forces in the region plus enough firepower available to launch a devastating air attack that would achieve its military objectives from a standing start.  Moreover, there are enough contingency plans in place under the umbrella of US Global Strike.  An attack with as little as half a day’s notice is entirely feasible.  Furthermore, the US has largely completed its withdrawal from Iraq and completed its post-deployment force recuperation.  It has sufficient forces – land, air and maritime spread across the region in the Gulf, in some of the Gulf States and in Afghanistan.  Its long-range bombers can operate from bases such as Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean or RAF Fairford in the UK without seeking additional clearances, or can (as they have demonstrated in both the Iraq Wars) come direct from the continental US.  Moreover, the Gulf nations are hardly likely to complain about the US military action against Iran, even if that required some forward-basing or over-flight.  

The US has the military capability, with sufficient in-place, trained, equipped and ready to fulfil such a mission, and there is a window of opportunity; there is perhaps also a strong political driver for action sooner rather than later.  But what of the aftermath?

The scenario envisaged here does not require direct involvement of Allies: a calculated political move.  To assemble a military coalition would be lengthy and fraught with difficulties over command and control, target selection and mission definition.  On this occasion it is very much to America’s advantage to go it alone.  Not only would this enable the attack to be placed at a timing solely chosen by the US, but would ensure that the political credit would accrue to America, and do much to restore her standing if not globally certainly in large areas of the world; certainly her military prestige would be markedly raised, re-gaining some of the respect that she has lost over the past decade.  It is most unlikely that the international order would be undermined to any significant extent while the UN, already concerned over Iranian nuclear posturing is not going to object too loudly.  Meanwhile, the inevitable accusations of illegality would do little to deter the US and, in any event, they can point at the air campaign against Serbia during the Kosovo crisis for precedence: while lawyers specialising in International Constitutional Law have largely agreed that the act was technically illegal, they have also concluded that it was justified.  The US – as long as she was successful – would be unlikely to face a legal challenge of any significance.  Indeed, an analysis of recent US rhetoric and seeming inaction over Iran may serve a dual purpose: to add to the surprise element of the Shock and Awe campaign, but also a subtle softening-up of the geo-political situation in order to avoid a priori legal moves.

Across the Gulf region, across Arabia, the removal of the Iranian threat – nuclear, conventional and state-sponsored terrorism - would only be welcomed, especially in Saudi Arabia who would be relieved of having to consider a rival for power, and one nuclear armed, in the Gulf.  Oil prices might rise in the very short term, but a clinical and short Shock and Awe campaign would soon see the oil-producing Gulf region safer than before: neither oil prices nor the wider global economy are likely to be adversely impacted by the envisaged campaign.

And where would this leave Iran?  Regime change may not be an explicitly stated aim, but clearly the loss of prestige, inevitable loss of Iranian life and ability to project power and influence beyond her borders would present a significant challenge for the Tehran regime.  While one outcome for Iran might be a weak and fractured, inward-looking and militarily neutered state, regime change would be a near certainty.  In either case, though, the existential threat that Iran represents would have been removed and nobody in the White House would be dismayed at either prospect.

To conclude: is this scenario so far-fetched?  A low intensity war of sorts already exists between Iran and the US and her regional allies, and the spectre of a nuclear-armed Iran grows daily. The US has the power, and undoubtedly the plans to counter this threat: the use of Full Spectrum Dominance to conduct Shock and Awe and Escalation Dominance, destroying Tehran’s nuclear capability and minimising Iranian retaliatory capability.  We believe that the US will have made the necessary military calculations and plans – and perhaps even preparations - to destroy Iran’s WMD, nuclear energy and armed forces, and so undermine the ability for Iran to conduct state-sponsored terrorism abroad as to make it negligible - within days if not hours of a Presidential order. The US is not publicising the scale of these preparations to deter Iran, tending to make confrontation more likely; for the same reasons the US is likely to operate alone.   Any attack is likely to be on a massive multi-front scale but avoiding a ground invasion. Attacks focused solely on WMD facilities would leave Iran too many retaliatory options, and leave America open to the charge of using too little force: this reinforces the suggestion of an overwhelming, air-led attack.

US bombers and long range missiles are ready today to destroy 10,000 targets in Iran in a few hours, while US ground, air and marine forces already in the Gulf, Afghanistan and even on the continental US can devastate Iranian nuclear facilities and armed forces at short notice.  Such a strike would take "Shock and Awe" to a new level and leave Iran with few if any conventional military capabilities to block the Straits of Hormuz or to provide conventional military support to insurgents beyond her borders. If this was not enough, the latest generation of smart bombs, the Small Diameter Bomb, now in the US Air Force arsenal quadruples the number of weapons all US warplanes can carry.  Nuclear weapons are most unlikely to be used by the US: the human, political and environmental effects would be devastating, while their military value is limited.

In the end, there is both a political and a military judgement whenever force is employed for political ends.  The threat is growing, and there appears to be a window of opportunity to launch an attack in the very near future.  Short and long term human, political and economic consequences of any war require innovative approaches to prevent the crisis becoming war: such a case clearly exists with Iran and her nuclear ambitions.  America certainly has the firepower to undertake such a mission, and could do so with little or no warning or additional build-up: this would be Shock and Awe on a new scale, while the advantages of a successful campaign - which we believe to be very highly likely – outweigh the potential disadvantages of either doing nothing or prevaricating.

Too many contemporary commentators are, in our view, reading the present American military capability and intent wrongly.  They look at Iraq but particularly Afghanistan where the might of the US is tied down by fighting a “war among the people”, where they are too often reactive and options are constrained.  The US military machine, particularly for high-technology, full-spectrum conflict – as epitomised by air power – offers a President the option of an overwhelming advantage through the use of military force: this remains a viable option that should not be disregarded.


[1] www.fas.org

[2] www.globalsecurity.org

[3] www.miis.edu

About the authors

Ian Shields, a retired RAF officer, commentates on international security.

Martin Butcher is an international consultant on security politics.

Dan Plesch is the author of America, Hitler and the UN (I.B.Tauris 2011) and The Beauty Queen's Guide to World Peace, (Politico's 2004) and Director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS, University of London.