My colleague Timothy Whiteman highlighted last Thursday the number of Air Force squadrons that will have to cease training later this year because the Air Force doesn’t have funds for the flying hours. This is real, and it is astounding. It will mean that, at a certain point in the near future – as early as this fall, if no additional funds become available – the cost of mounting an operation big enough to eliminate Iran’s nuclear weapons-related installations is likely to be too high.
This is because there will be no force depth to either sustain follow-on operations or overcome the geographic constraints U.S. forces are increasingly likely to face. Assuming all of the Air Force’s stand-downs and readiness losses do occur, the available front-line forces would be maxed out with a moderately scoped strike package. To meet the task, they would require the most favorable basing options that could be available in the Persian Gulf under today’s conditions – but which may not be. If we don’t have those favorable basing options, and the Air Force squadron groundings remain on track, the Iran strike goes from all-but-under-resourced to impossible.
There will not, after all, be two aircraft carriers on station near Iran, with their combined eight squadrons of Navy strike-fighters (more on that below). It will in theory be possible to deploy a second carrier, but doing so is pretty much certain to require more money from Congress. (Doing so would also enlarge and accelerate the readiness snowball for the Navy’s carrier force, a snowball that will inevitably become an avalanche of carrier unreadiness in the next three years, if world problems require unplanned operations during this period.)
The Air Force will have to carry the load of a strike on Iran, if there is to be one in the foreseeable future. The Air Force’s forward-deployed squadrons will continue to train and conduct operational flights. The B-2s and some of the B-52s, which can deploy immediately and/or operate globally from their bases stateside, will remain combat ready. But the strike-fighter squadrons at their home bases in the States, which would be called on if a major operation had to be ordered, will be in an impaired state of readiness. The aircrews will fall out of combat qualification when they haven’t been able to get their training hours in (and some aircraft maintenance will be deferred as well). If the president wanted to order a new operation, beyond our current military commitments, it is not clear what would happen.
This is a good time to briefly review the features of the hole we are backing into, with respect to an Iran strike. (I wrote more about some of them in February.) The features of this hole can be grouped geographically and in terms of military resources.
Geographically, the potential axes of approach to Iran for a nuclear-facilities strike have been whittled down significantly, through political attrition and strategic disuse. Five years ago, U.S. forces might have approached from multiple axes, including possibilities like operating intelligence or refueling aircraft out of Turkey, or inserting special forces from Iraq. These were at least political possibilities at that time; today, they fall between Unlikely and Not Happening on the possibility continuum.
Moreover, as mentioned in my February piece (and I as discussed in 2010), it is no longer guaranteed that we would be able to launch the Air Force’s strike-fighter aircraft from Qatar or Kuwait, still less from a base in UAE or Oman. We don’t normally operate Air Force aircraft from Bahrain, but even Bahrain – long our closest partner in the Gulf – may not be a fallback option. Iraq will not be an option at all, and Afghanistan would object to being used as a base for launching attacks on Iran. The same can be said of Pakistan.
If the Air Force has to launch most of the aircraft for this operation, we have a serious problem. B-2s and B-52s launch from elsewhere, of course, but for certain types of bombing, they will require fighter escort protection while over Iran. Refueling tankers orbiting over the Gulf will require fighter protection as well, as will the EA-3 Sentry airborne command and control platform.
We may or may not have the use of other nations’ air space to approach Iran (e.g., Kuwait’s, Jordan’s, Saudi Arabia’s, or Oman’s); if we don’t, there will be one way in and out of the Persian Gulf air space through which manned bombers will have to transit. That in itself is a significant vulnerability. Geographically, there is a real possibility that the U.S. would be limited to bringing aircraft in through the air space over the Strait of Hormuz. If there is nowhere local for aircraft to recover – e.g., Oman – that limitation would effectively knock the Air Force strike-fighters out of a small operation.
It is conceivable for U.S. forces to secure a base in southeastern Iran for launching and recovering strike sorties on the nuclear-related facilities. But that would entail an operation of significantly larger scope – one with boots on the ground – since the airfield would have to be secured and defended. Besides the problem of paying for such an operation, which would require more forces than we have deployed to the Gulf today, the American public is not likely to support it. But if we don’t have the use of an airfield in the Gulf, we need territory for the Air Force somewhere within a feasible radius of the targets in Iran. (We can be certain Russia will not allow us to use bases in Georgia or Turkmenistan. The threats Russia would issue, and the movement of forces she would undertake, would presumably cause us to draw back from such a plan.)
Yet conducting a strike on Iran’s nuclear-related installations is hardly conceivable without the use of strike-fighters for bombing as well as for escort operations. Preparing the environment for successful strikes on the nuclear-related facilities requires neutralizing Iran’s early-warning and counter-air systems. Such requirements, which entail bombing and electronic suppression as well as escort functions, are roles filled by the strike-fighters, and by special-purpose electronic warfare assets on strike-fighter airframes: that is, the Navy’s EA-18G Growler, on an F/A-18 Super Hornet airframe. (The Growler, new to the fleet in the last three years, is the follow-on to the older EA-6B Prowler, which uses an A-6 Intruder airframe).
The strike-fighters are also very powerful bombing platforms in their own right, and are better suited than the strategic bombers for some applications – even some that are integral to taking out the nuclear-related installations.
But the geographic constraint has a larger, “one-sided” aspect to it as well, in that the combat support and logistic chain will be all on the Pacific side.
Long-range refueling tankers, command and control, intelligence and surveillance aircraft: all would have to operate out of Diego Garcia, if the operation had to be mounted in the most basing-limited conditions. The option of putting logistics and other support in the Eastern Mediterranean – or at bases in Europe – belongs to another time. We still had some capabilities in this regard four years ago, but with the political uncertainty created by the Arab Spring, along with the other political shifts which have ensued on the Obama presidency, we can’t be sure we will have it today.
There may even be a question whether it would be feasible, given European politics, for U.S. forces to operate out of Europe to support an attack on Iran. Certainly, we will not have Turkey, and we might not have Jordan, as approach corridors for combat support.
Tomahawks and drones are not a magic pill
Conducting stand-off strikes with Tomahawk missiles would be a feature of any attack plan, but Tomahawks cannot do sufficient damage by themselves to the Iranian nuclear-facility targets. They cannot guarantee, either, that the Iranian fighter-aircraft forces will be paralyzed.
There is also a very real possibility that the Iranians will be able to shoot some of them down. The Tomahawk is a subsonic cruise missile; it is only a matter of time before someone shoots one down. Iran would be the best-equipped target nation the Tomahawk has gone up against, far outstripping Afghanistan and Sudan, and even better armed than Iraq and Serbia. A Tomahawk launched from the Persian Gulf would spend more than an hour over Iranian air space en route a target in central Iran; its vulnerability would increase with each mile covered. If the U.S. attack force did not come in, blitzkrieg-style, and render the entire air defense network non-functional in the first 24-48 hours – as we did in the attack on Iraq in 2003 – Iran would retain a credible capability to shoot down slow-moving missiles.
The same is true for armed drones. We cannot count on them to take the place of manned attack aircraft in a non-quiescent air combat environment. It is hard to shoot down an F-22, but it isn’t that hard to shoot down a Predator. We haven’t used the Predator against modern, organized anti-air capabilities, and Iran would not be the place to start doing so.
Iran is bigger than “Osirak”
These things matter, because the Iran nuclear problem is not one that can be dealt with via a small, pinpoint strike, in a matter of only minutes on target. There are too many targets, requiring our aircraft to range over most of the Western half of Iran. Some of the targets are hardened (e.g., Fordo), meaning that we have no standoff weapon that will destroy them. We have to get manned bombers in to the targets.
Some of the facilities, like Natanz, Esfahan, and Parchin, are big industrial installations, with lots of buildings and underground or partially-underground target elements, and would require dozens of precision bombs per installation – with restrikes likely to be necessary – to have a useful destructive effect. All of the high-value installations are protected by anti-air missile batteries and anti-air artillery.
And, of course, much depends in general on how hard Iran fights back. If the U.S. can come in with a high margin of overwhelming force, that doesn’t matter nearly so much. But any strike we conduct now will lack that high margin of overwhelming force. We will have to care how hard Iran fights, and every step-down in our relative advantage means putting more into our own force protection, and less into destroying targets.
An option Israel has always had, and one we are now more likely to select ourselves, is to go after only one or two target installations, hoping to set Iran back but not destroy her nuclear-weapons program to the extent that the whole thing must be reconstituted. Choosing such a limited objective, however, would mean less support for a U.S. operation from our regional partners. We can’t rely on them to let us expose them to Iran’s wrath for operations that aren’t worthwhile. We will not get to decide how worthwhile the operation must be, if we seek to calibrate it at a level too low for our partners’ confidence.
Where the squeeze hits
It would be challenging but well within our capabilities to launch a comprehensive strike, and complete it in 96 hours or less, if we had – at the ready – a deep Air Force roster and at least two carrier strike groups, with the air wings and Tomahawks they bring, in or close to the Persian Gulf. But in 2013, we no longer do. The prospect we face is of being squeezed out of strike-option feasibility by a combination of resource attrition – driven by the sequester – and the geographic constraints that are closing in due to political shifts in the region.
With enough combat-ready forces, we could overcome the geographic constraints, at least to a large extent. If we didn’t face the geographic constraints, the forces we will have available would be enough for a limited strike package, if not necessarily for the full scope of what needs to be done, or for containing Iran in the aftermath of the strike. But we face both limiting factors now. We have gone about 80 percent of the way from being the “United States” to being “Israel,” in terms of the capability we could actually bring to bear, right now, on the Iranian nuclear problem. There is no prospect of this changing.
And it’s a problem, because, unfortunately, our current president will not have the credibility Netanyahu would have, regarding his determination to neutralize Iran’s most threatening assets. We are not Israel today, in terms of will. We are Obama’s America. Regional nations have real reason to worry that a basing concession to Obama would increase their vulnerability without taking care of the threat. We can hope that Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman would allow us to use their airfields and air space, but it’s not a given anymore.
It isn’t a given that the United States will step up to the plate when the perceived, near-term threat from Iran is not to us directly, but to our regional partners. There is no question that the threat to Israel from a nuclear-armed Iran would be direct and existential. Few would doubt that a Netanyahu would have meaningful strike intentions and would follow through on them. But with our particular president’s history of national-security decisions, it is reasonable, even prudent, to doubt his rhetoric about Iran.
Navy, off the pace
Meanwhile, the Navy’s carrier profile in the Middle East has become permanently overstretched and tentative, at least for the foreseeable future. USS Harry S Truman (CVN-75), whose strike group deployment was “delayed” in February because of the looming sequestration cuts, has in fact never deployed to the Middle East. Truman remains in a ready but non-deployed status on the U.S. East coast, a costly but cheaper option than spending money to deploy her when future funding is uncertain. (The cost comes from keeping her combat ready while she remains at home.)
At a penny-pinching transit pace, it would take her and an Aegis escort 12-14 days to get to the Persian Gulf. (If money is no object, it could be done in less than 10.) It is not clear whether the Navy has enough funds for fiscal year 2013 to deploy Truman while keeping another carrier in the Gulf region.
USS Dwight D Eisenhower (CVN-69) has gone back to the Middle East to essentially resume a deployment that started in June of 2012. At the six-month point, Ike went home to Norfolk for Christmas – getting her flight deck resurfaced while she was at it – and has been sent back out to resume an extended deployment. Ike relieved USS John C Stennis (CVN-74), a West-coast carrier that had to deploy four months early last year because of readiness problems elsewhere in the carrier fleet. Ike will remain on station until USS Nimitz (CVN-68) arrives later this month. Nimitz was supposed to deploy from Bremerton, Washington in January, but her departure was delayed due to a broken cooling pump.
Perhaps you have to be a Navy sailor to understand how unsettling these developments are. It hasn’t been normal in the last 30 years for the Navy to have to turn around an already tired carrier strike group in order to keep ONE carrier on station in a high-priority region. The deployment struggle today is not for the purpose of augmenting the carrier presence so we can conduct offensive operations like Desert Storm or Iraqi Freedom. The struggle is to keep a single-carrier presence in the theater at all.
Even during the penurious Carter years, things weren’t this bad. It really isn’t possible to overstate the seriousness of it. Air Force Lt. Gen. Mark Ramsay of the Joint Staff in the Pentagon put it this way on Wednesday, 10 April:
“What we’ve had to do, beginning a few months ago, is to start to burn readiness,” Ramsay said. “We’re not adding readiness or maintaining readiness. We’re burning readiness.”
Burned readiness for the Air Force and Navy – the services that would execute a strike on the Iranian nuclear program – means forces that can’t be called on when they are needed. Think of “burning readiness” as driving until your gas is gone without a means of refilling the tank. That’s what America is doing right now with our armed forces.
If a strike is necessary, we’d better hope it gets ordered in the next 3-4 months. It would be dicey to try one with the comparatively shallow force profile available right now. But after that, Obama can’t just order it. It will have to be prepared for first, at additional expense – if, that is, the president intends for the strike to be effective, for the U.S. to minimize combat losses, and for his administration to have discretion over when and how the strike happens.
Perhaps Obama doesn’t intend to have that discretion. He was willing to deal it away in Libya, and has shown no disposition to secure it in Syria. Unfortunately, you cannot compile Obama’s national-security record and keep respectful assumptions alive in the minds of your allies and opponents.
The president may order an operation anyway, and override any military objections about feasibility. We can hope not, but foreign troublemakers may force his hand. Obama will care about appearances at least until the 2014 election. Our military can get any job done if it has the resources it needs, and a feasible and well-defined objective. But the prospect of our forces being asked to do what they do not have the resources for – with, quite possibly, a poorly-defined objective, as in the Libya operation – is now very real.