Time and the march of technology have done their work. As Iran issues a new threat to shipping in the Persian Gulf, the U.S. military issues its recurring assurances that the Gulf will be kept open for business. But the landscape – and seascape – of warfare are changing, and in the unlikely event of a confrontation, keeping the Strait of Hormuz open and safe for commercial passage won’t look the way it would have 20 years ago, or even 10.
A report by Fox News on 5 July previewed that reality in a barely-noticeable passage deep in the article.
The Fox report took note of the elliptical threat from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Tuesday, 3 July: an implied threat that if the U.S. shut down Iranian oil exports, Iran would see to it that the other oil producers in the Gulf were unable to export their oil.
“It really is an unfounded and unfair thing to suggest that one day all oil-producing countries will be able to export oil, while Iran won’t be able to do so,” Rouhani added.
Rouhani’s threat was promptly clarified by a senior Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) officer:
Esmail Kowsari, deputy commander of the Sarollah Revolutionary Guards base in Tehran, said: “Any hostile attempt by the U.S. will be followed by an exorbitant cost for them,” according to Bloomberg.
“If Iran’s oil exports are to be prevented, we will not give permission for oil to be exported to the world through the Strait of Hormuz,” Kowsari said.
Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani came forward to endorse these sentiments in his own special way:
The head of Iran’s Quds Force, the special operations wing of its Revolutionary Guard, said his forces in Iraq and Syria would be ready to respond if ordered.
“I kiss your (Rouhani’s) hand for expressing such wise and timely comments, and I am at your service to implement any policy that serves the Islamic Republic,” Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani said Wednesday.
The U.S. Central Command spokesman, characteristically, made a more laconic response:
When asked to comment on Iran’s recent threat, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command responsible for American forces in the Middle East, said the U.S. is ready to respond in kind.
“The U.S. and its partners provide and promote security and stability in the region. Together, we stand ready to ensure the freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce wherever international law allows,” said Navy Captain Bill Urban.
These niceties being observed, the pundits were off to the races. The bulk of the commentary has been fine – but it has also been conventional. And the nugget in the Fox report is the key to understanding that it is outdated.
It’s outdated, in fact, in a way to which there is no turning back from here. It’s time to adjust our thinking about how to “fight” the Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf.
The nugget is very brief.
While the U.S. Navy has warships in the Red Sea and in the Persian Gulf, no American aircraft carrier is nearby.
That’s it. That’s the change. But it has profound implications, and a surprisingly extensive slate of new realities to go with it.
Same problem, different era
Because when Captain Urban says we stand ready to ensure the freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce in the Strait of Hormuz (which is one of the places international law allows), he means we stand ready.
He doesn’t mean we’ll be ready starting, say, 48 hours from when USS Harry S Truman (CVN-75), currently over in the North Atlantic, could get to the Gulf with her air wing at a dead sprint. The interval on that would be several days. But he’s not signaling that there would be such a delay, if Iran tried something. He means we’re ready now.
The Fox report acknowledges that Truman is some distance away, not even in the CENTCOM theater. It also indicates correctly that USS Iwo Jima (LHD-7), a “big deck,” AV-8B Harrier-carrying amphibious command ship, is in the CENTCOM theater, but isn’t necessarily in the Gulf. (The latest on Iwo Jima was entry into Aqaba, Jordan on 5 July for a port visit.)
Iwo Jima’s capabilities are impressive, but by no means a duplication of Truman’s. Embarked in Iwo are elements of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (26 MEU), including the Marine air element and some (but not all) of the infantry and other units of the 2,200-Marine MEU. The air element with the MEU is smaller than the Truman air wing – including MV-22 Ospreys, AH-1W Super Cobras, and CH-53 Sea Stallions for heavy lift, along with the Harriers – and performs a different set of missions in support of Marine Corps operations.
The Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) is operating in three different places, in fact, with the Marines split among Iwo, USS New York (LPD-21) in the Mediterranean Sea, and USS Oak Hill (LSD-51), in the Baltic Sea in the past week for NATO operations. It would take days to assemble the combined combat power of the ARG for a major amphibious mission in the Gulf.
Such an amphibious mission might or might not suit the requirements of the task at issue: to keep the strait open and shipping safe. Iwo by herself would bring capabilities useful to that task, deploying MEU assets on a smaller scale. But then, it would also take time for her to get to the SOH, at least from her last known location, up north in the Red Sea.
We have been accustomed for 30 years to marking where the carriers and the ARG “big decks” are when threats erupt to the Strait of Hormuz. And right now, they look out of position for a quick response.
But Captain Urban is not just whistling Dixie when he says we stand ready to get the job done. Because to the eyes of technology and tactics, the prospective “battlespace” of the Persian Gulf and its iconic outlet – the SOH – no longer looks the way it did 20 years ago: like a lot of water with some land around it.
Today, in 2018, it looks more like a lot of land with a little water in between.
If I had my druthers, I’d rather have a carrier to take on the task with. But Iran should understand that capabilities adequate to the task are present even without the carrier. The capabilities the Navy most especially needs to bring are mostly in the Gulf, and are there most or all of the time.
Those capabilities are mine warfare, to hunt and sweep the shipping lanes and oil platforms; maritime escort and ship defense; maritime reconnaissance; maritime airspace control; and air targeting and special forces operations to degrade or destroy – if necessary – some of Iran’s key assets.
If there is an uncomfortable shortage in the available assets, the one I perceive would be surface escort ships: destroyers and allied frigates. That may or may not be a concern. There are quite a few U.S. and maritime coalition ships in the CENTCOM theater; it’s just that most of the frigates and destroyers are elsewhere (the Gulf of Aden, Red Sea, and Indian Ocean). They could be moved to the Persian Gulf relatively quickly.
These are the ships needed to defend high-value commercial shipping and most effectively suppress Iranian anti-ship activities – assuming, that is, a situation in which Iranian warships have come short of provoking us to simply take them out.
One thing we can’t be certain of is how many other warships would be made available by the coalition nations for this particular mission. We can probably count on the British and Australians; I would hope we could count on France and Spain. But political differences with France and the UK over the Iran “deal” might affect their willingness to join in an operation they might see as necessary only because the U.S. pulled out of the “deal.”
That said, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. The U.S. assets are present, even without a carrier air wing, to simply eliminate the major Iranian forces that would harass or seek to attack commercial ships in the Gulf or the SOH. Between the U.S. Air Force, and Marines and special operations units (i.e., SEALs) with a full slate of our best equipment (including those aggregated in USS Lewis B. Puller (ESB-3), the expeditionary mobile base stationed in the Gulf), the best remedy for an Iran trying to make the SOH impassable and shut down Gulf shipping might indeed be to just destroy Iran’s relatively few capital ships and fleet of mini-subs and be done with it.
Iran’s coastal anti-ship missile units would also need to be taken out. Being old-fashioned and hidebound, I would feel more confident planning such a targeting package with a carrier air wing in my pocket. But I wouldn’t bet against the formidable array of alternatives we have in the Gulf now, whether Air Force strikers, missile-equipped Marine Corps or shore-based helicopters, or even missions of more exotic origin.
Nor would there be an issue with controlling the airspace, assuming at least one Aegis platform in the Gulf, and the air base at Al Dhafra in the UAE available to the Air Force. (Given Qatar’s relations with Iran, we may not have the use of Al Udeid. Back-up facilities might be available in Kuwait, Bahrain, or even Saudi Arabia or Oman. And that said: although we use air facilities in Oman routinely, it is not certain that the friendly politics of that would carry over to using them for attacks on Iran.)
There appear to be at least three Aegis destroyers in the CENTCOM theater, with one probably in the Gulf at the moment (although that can’t be confirmed).*
And whatever air and air defense assets the Iranians might seek to fight with, the Air Force doesn’t need my advice to handle.
For aficionados of naval warfare, there is a whole lot more to say. But in the interest of keeping this tight, I will make just a few more points.
Big picture considerations
One relates to the principal fear attendant on the Iranian threat: that Iran may mine the SOH and its adjacent waters. Tom Rogan, in the Washington Examiner last week, had a good top-level summary of the strides we have made since 2010 in preparing for that threat. It is realistic to assert that we have gotten ahead of the problem after lagging behind it for more than 20 years.
Mine warfare assets don’t travel well, and in general need to be prepositioned. In the Persian Gulf, they now are. There are not only plans in place, but we practice them regularly. Here is Rogan:
Developed by now-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis when he was commanding CENTCOM between 2010 and 2013, the plan involves employing a rapid multinational effort to prevent Iranian mine-laying and systematically clear any mines already deployed. And it’s a very good plan. The multinational focus is designed to deter Iranian escalation against marginal adversaries like France and utilize boutique capabilities such as those of Britain’s Royal Navy mine hunters.
As Rogan implies, the mine threat could be dealt with to a standard of rapidity unthinkable in the 1980s, or even the mid-2000s. Acknowledging the difficulty and ongoing challenges of mine warfare, this is still not an overoptimistic assessment. The approach to the overall problem will not be purely defensive; i.e., waiting on Iran’s initiative to ramp up the threat, and merely reacting to it. Once Iran lays the first mine, she will unleash preemptive destruction on the other national military forces she would use to menace the Gulf.
That latter point – that certain of Iran’s military assets would be attacked and destroyed – is worth a brief comment. Even with the improvements Iran has made in her own inventory, her forces are no match for ours. That doesn’t mean Iran could get no licks in against U.S. forces, but it does mean every attack would be a suicide mission for Iran.
This is so even without a carrier present, and even if there are fewer Arleigh Burke destroyers than we old-school types might want to have on-hand. The “reach” of less-conventional assets has been lengthening over the last quarter century. And when it comes to special forces, stealthy approach platforms, drones, helicopters, and integrated command and control, lighter arms packages can span greater distances overwater and be remarkably effective.
They still require specialization to be maritime assets. But in terms of the mental concept of the fight, they increasingly bear more resemblance than ever before to fighting as if from land: in raids, in constantly evanescing units of operation, and from “bases” the opponent can’t neutralize by mounting a conventional, symmetrical effort.
This is a signal advantage against a military like Iran’s, and it has made the Persian Gulf a smaller, more landlocked battlespace. Iran can snipe at shipping, but cannot prevail against our non-traditional options for counterattacking in every other way. Those options don’t bring the perfectly optimized reach or firepower of an aircraft carrier and air wing. But they nevertheless turn the entire Gulf into a “brown water” problem. They are, effectively, enough.
Two additional points should be made. One concerns the possibility that Iran might try to escalate the situation by using ballistic missiles to attack the other Gulf nations. Likely targets would include U.S. bases as well as the national-force bases of the hosts. The U.S. has Patriot batteries deployed in the Gulf nations (except Oman), and Saudi Arabia and Kuwait operate their own Patriots as well. We would certainly want to keep an Aegis ship in the missile defense loop for this problem. Multitasking in that regard is what the Aegis fleet does for a living.
But wait – Hormuz is one strait. There’s more
The other point is that the “shrinking battlespace” concept – the mental adjustment to the new way of seeing a fight in the Persian Gulf – isn’t confined to the Gulf. When Iraqi Freedom was launched 15 years ago, we didn’t have to give that much thought to Iranian forces outside the Gulf. Just sending naval platforms outside the Gulf was a big deal for Iran back then.
Today, that’s no longer the case. Iran has been busy improving a naval base complex outside the Gulf, in and around Chahbahar (Bandar-e-Beheshti), and has fortified it in recent years with patrol boats, mini-subs, UAVs, an air base, and weapons storage facilities. The whole eastern approach to the Strait of Hormuz will have to be “fought” and subdued.
But the mental adjustment is bigger even than that. Iran’s reach is not limited to the SOH approaches. When the Iranians began backing the Houthis in Yemen, and sponsoring the proxy pairing of the Houthis with Hezbollah trainers, they were launching a process of power projection. Their long-term goal was and is to gain the use of Yemeni territory, and ultimately exercise the same armed veto over the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and its adjacent waters that they seek to wield over the SOH.
There has already been quite a bit of kinetic, incendiary activity by the Houthi rebels off the Red Sea coast of Yemen (see map near top), just north of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. Like the SOH, the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait is narrow, and easily threatened from positions ashore. And although it is not quite as important to the worldwide oil and gas trade as the SOH itself, it is still one of the most significant chokepoints for maritime commerce in general.
The challenge for U.S. forces would be having to replicate the effort from the Persian Gulf and SOH in the area of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. The same package of unconventional forces would be effective in both areas; the issue would be having enough of them.
But the good news is that we are already deployed, with the unconventional force footprint needed for this very task, in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait area. While USS Lewis B. Puller can’t be in both places at once, much of the basing capability of ESB-3 can be replicated ashore with the joint base at Djibouti.
Iran’s ability to create havoc in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait is still comparatively limited, however. The priority of the Houthis has to be their fight inside Yemen, and in fact, they would spike their own wheels by enlarging the conflict to threaten innocent commercial shipping offshore. Iran would be on her own on that one.
In 2003, it was unthinkable to react to a confrontation with Iran over the Strait of Hormuz and not have at least one aircraft carrier, or better two or three.
But in 2018, the capabilities of the U.S. and Iran have evolved along different paths, and the advantage in outcome goes to the U.S. today. Iran has concentrated on supplying and managing proxy wars, and building up an arsenal of narrowly specialized assets: ballistic missiles, mines, mini-subs, fast boats. Iran is good at a few things, but can’t fight effectively across a full-scope, multidimensional battlespace.
With the unconventional force packages we have been putting together and improving during the same period, on the other hand, the U.S. now can do exactly that. The warning I would issue to Iran is this. Without the carrier there, and a nice round number of Aegis escorts, it will be necessary to blow more holes in Iranian metal to make sure the world’s shipping remains safe. If a carrier strike group were there, more could probably be left to chance and tactical defense from day to day.
But if there won’t be a carrier strike group, we can’t afford to not sink Iranian ships at the pier – or wherever we find them – and ask questions later.
* The destroyers are USS Arleigh Burke (DDG-51), USS The Sullivans (DDG-68), and USS Jason Dunham (DDG-109). They are part of the Truman Strike Group, but at least two, and probably all three, appear to be in CENTCOM at the moment. In general, the Navy has been maintaining better operational security since Secretary Mattis took over at the Pentagon last year, and it takes longer to be certain where military units have recently made movements.