Apr 30

One quick note before today’s update. Next week, On Violence will celebrate its simultaneous third anniversary and 500th post, so yay us! On to the update:

Update to Drone Strikes

While the US continues to conduct drone in Pakistan--which we believe exacerbates the problem of extremism--the Wall Street Journal reports that new rules from the Obama administration restrict the CIA’s unilateral ability to launch strikes. Another AP story claims that the Taliban routinely exaggerates civilian casualties. This CNN article backs up that claim, while also arguing that the CIA might just be running out of targets. While I hope that is the case, when it comes to investigating or researching a topic shrouded in “Top Secrecy”, I have my doubts we will ever know the truth.

And as we were editing this post today, President Obama’s top counter-terrorism advisor, John Brennan, talked at length about drone strikes, officially acknowledging their existence. We have a lot more to say on his speech, Attorney General Holder’s speech and drone strikes in general in the coming year.

On the academic side of things, this article on Kings of War makes an excellent case that “signature strikes”--drone strikes conducted because a target acts like an militant--flies in the face of Just War theory. A great read, along with excellent insight into under-reported “signature targeting”. The key question we must ask is, if we conduct drone strikes of targets whose names we don’t even know, how can we really be sure they are terrorists? How is that “just war theory”?

Another article on the Small Wars Journal, “Why COIN Principles Don’t Fly With Drones”, explains the drawbacks of drone strikes in Pakistan. It got flack for using the acronym “COIN” in the title, but I enjoyed it.

As an added benefit, a commenter on “Why COIN Principles Don’t Fly With Drones” perfectly exemplified the old “war is war”-ior shoulder shrug when it comes to civilian casualties, writing:

“Civilian casualties will always be a part of war. A terrible part? Yes. A completely preventable part? No. Especially when we run into a conflict with a non-conventional enemy that uses civilians as camouflage.”

Updates on Iran

Overall the odds for war have dropped...slightly. According to the betting market Intrade, the odds of war with Iran have lowered to 5.5%, a drop of 2.5% since we started writing on Iran. On the Atlantic’s more academic (and renamed) Iran War Dial, the odds of war with Iran have dropped to 42%, primarily because of renewed diplomatic talks and the promise to hold more talks. Also, former Senator and current Nebraskan Democratic candidate for Senate Bob Kerrey (Medal of Honor winner as well) has come out vigorously against war with Iran, the most prominent candidate for elected office to oppose war with Iran (I believe).
The best article I have seen since our Iran articles is the Foreign Affairs article “Botching the Bomb” that says that Iran probably won’t ever be able to make a bomb or a whole set of bombs because... it’s Iran. To prove the article’s point, autocratic North Korea failed to launch another rocket. In short, democratic-capitalist states with well-developed political systems have a built in advantage when it comes to innovation. This clashes a bit with my perspective of the IRGC as an innovative force which embraces asymmetric and unconventional warfare, but it explains another reason why we don’t need a war with Iran.
Thomas J. Bounomo’s Small Wars Journal article “Changing Iran’s Cost-Benefit Analysis of its Nuclear Program” provides a unique solution to the crisis. He says the U.S. should offer Iran reduced-cost green technology. This would provide Iran with an alternative energy source instead of nuclear power and a sign of goodwill.

An Update to On V’s Lexicography

A long time back, I wrote a post encouraging myself and others to use the phrase “foreign policy” as opposed to “national security”. While debates over nomenclature can get tedious--especially when it comes to defining war--the terms do matter. International relations refers to states. Foreign policy differs from foreign affairs because one refers to policies/laws/regulations/decisions and the other to everything. Most importantly, not everything that occurs overseas falls in the category of “security”, especially when it comes to government agencies. The overuse of “security” has led to a Department of Defense budget of around 750 billion dollars, and a State Department budget of 50 billion. That’s unbalanced.

We haven’t been doing this, as we re-discovered recently. We’ll rededicate ourselves to using foreign policy and foreign affairs as much as possible, and avoiding national security when possible.

An Attack on Cultural Sensitivity

If our posts on Gratitude Theory and Cultural Sensitivity haven’t made the point clear enough, we believe too many of our soldiers still don’t get the need for cultural empathy and respect. To prove our point, two soldiers, both enraged by the Afghan response to the burning of Korans by American soldiers, spoke out on two blogs we regularly read. In the first, “Medium Rare: Some Thoughts From an Afghan War Vet on the Koran Burning Riots” the author argues for shooting into crowds of unarmed civilians. I cannot think of a better way to gain support. (Sarcasm.)

In the second, “The Downside of Cultural Sensitivity”, Tony Barrett claims that cultural sensitivity training denigrated the U.S. culture. I totally disagree, and this article testifies to a way of thinking most soldiers hold, “our way or the highway.”

From Russia with Love: Counter-Terrorism Blinds the U.S. in Intelligence

We’ve written before about the intelligence/espionage threat we face from China, but we neglected another global competitor. This conversation on The Economist’s website shows that we should worry about Russia just as much. Like China, Russia didn’t completely over-react to 9/11. And it could have. (Remember, Chechnya.) Instead, as it has since the 1950s, it continues to train spies and deploy them to the U.S. to steal state secrets. Man, counter-terrorism is such a waste of money.

President Obama Won’t Start an ICC for Terrorists

Plenty of ink was spilled over Attorney General Eric Holder’s (non) statement about the U.S. government targeting American civilians abroad. Our takeaway? Obama doesn’t plan to start a new ICC anytime soon.

Updates to the Hideous Monster I Call the Pentagon Budget
Around the business world last year, you couldn’t swing a dead wampa rat without hitting someone reading, reviewing or commenting on Steve Jobs’ biography by Walter Isaacs. Having left the military, I, Michael C, don’t know if the biography made the same impact on the Pentagon. I mean, if the Pentagon ran Apple, the iPad 1’s release date would be next year, would run around 2,000 dollars a unit, and probably would have every input cable imaginable--something Jobs specifically abhorred.

Yet the pearl of government efficiency, the largest section of the discretionary budget, is again begging for more money and more expensive weapons to win wars that aren’t/weren’t named Afghanistan or Iraq.

Here’s a rundown on the good articles:

The Supper House” from “Battleland” describes the Senate’s enabling of the Pentagon.

The F-35 Budget Disaster” updates us on the ongoing woes of the Air Forces’ premiere fighter.
The circle graph we showed on “What Do I Think of Iran’s Military?” was part of this graph released by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Will the 55 Billion Bomber Program Fly?” we mentioned a few weeks back describes the impending train wreck which will become the Air Force’s next long range bomber.

Finally, this F-22 update shows how we have to throw more money at this program. By our records, the Air Force has failed on three consecutive manned aircraft. 0 for 3 baby.

Apr 26

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

Reading Michael C’s follow-up posts on rationality, emotion and counter-insurgency this week, I thought of an excerpt from Stephen Vincent Benet's pulitzer prize winning poem, John Brown’s Body that perfectly describes the role emotion plays in war, and how tacticians do their best to ignore it:

If you take a flat map

And move wooden blocks upon it strategically,

The thing looks well, the blocks behave as they should.

The science of war is moving live men like blocks.

And getting the blocks into place at a fixed moment.

But it takes time to mold your men into blocks

And flat maps turn into country where creeks and gullies

Hamper your wooden squares. They stick in the brush,

They are tired and rest, they straggle after ripe blackberries,

And you cannot lift them up in your hand and move them.

It is all so clear in the maps, so clear in the mind,

But the orders are slow, the men in the blocks are slow

To move, when they start they take too long on the way -

The General loses his stars, and the block-men die

In unstrategic defiance of martial law

Because still used to just being men, not block parts,

In an ideal world, soldiers move as ordered; in the real world, the environment bogs them down, getting stuck in bushes or chasing after berries. In an ideal world, insurgents give up when faced with certain death; in reality, some insurgents will never submit to foreigners. Since most young men--and certainly every military strategist alive--played and loved "Risk" as a kid (and as adults), we naturally view men as blocks of wood.

But men are not blocks of wood.

This poem eloquently sums up what Michael C has been writing about all week: we can try to model rationality, but if we don’t model for emotion, we’re missing a piece of the equation. Men are men, and soldiers are soldiers, after all.

This poem also speaks to the pressures suffered by soldiers who have been fighting for too long. George Packer, in an excellent comment for The New Yorker about the alleged mass murder of innocent civilians in Afghanistan, eloquently sums it up:

Three deployments over six years in Iraq, including one during the “surge” with intense fighting. A wound that cost him part of his foot, then a head injury in a vehicle accident. Frustration at being unable to find and kill the enemy. Over the years, as the deployments pile up and the mission gets lost, he starts to sound jaded, coarsened. Ten years in, he misses out on being promoted to sergeant first class, and he doesn’t land the recruiting job he wanted, or the coveted posting to Germany or Italy. Instead, he’s sent back to the wars—this time to a remote combat outpost in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, where he sees a buddy lose a leg to a land mine.

As Packer makes clear, this doesn’t excuse Sergeant Bales, at all. But it does make you understand him, and our military. He wasn’t, after all, a block of wood.

(H/T to Manager Tools for finding and celebrating this quote. You’ve read about them here and here on the website before. I haven’t read the entire poem--I plan on it--but if the rest of it has as many good ideas as this one, it seems like a must-read.)

Apr 25

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

A few weeks back, to help decide between business schools, I sat in on a class at USC’s Marshall School of Business. I thought it was going to be on marketing. Instead, got a lesson on counter-insurgency warfare and Afghanistan. The class was “Brand Management”.

The professor started his lecture by describing the three principles that guide all human decision making (the realm of marketing). The third principle, the topic of that day’s class, was “emotional predisposition.” He described how brands use advertising to create an emotional predisposition towards their products, specifically how those products can “enrich, entertain, or enable” your life.

Later in the class, he repeated the three major principles of marketing: “All humans are motivated by utility maximization, the minimum effort principle and emotional predisposition, in some measure.”

He used different terms than I did in December, but made the same point: humans don’t measure everything by utility maximization--some emotions override any cost/benefit decision. For example, one of our grandfathers, who fought in the Pacific, refused to think about considering even contemplating buying a Japanese motor vehicle. They could have given them away for free, but he wouldn’t have budged.

In other words, the professor described the exact model of human behavior I believe we need in counter-insurgencies. We cannot kill our way to victory because inflicting widespread death will have severe emotional consequences. (Which I will discuss more.) At the same time, we cannot simply buy things for the population if we haven’t established security for the population (I’ll discuss this straw man soon, too.). Instead, we need a population-centric approach that secures the population, reconstructs and builds a functioning government, and hunts down, detains or kills those who inflict violence on the government or population.

The professor added a key component to human nature that we had neglected. One of his principles was “the minimum effort principle”. While I haven’t specifically related this idea to insurgencies, plenty of other writers have. (Our post on management “Improve the Fighting Position” is about combating “the minimum effort principle” as it relates to your desk at work.) For example, a national security academic we hold in the highest regard made this point in an op-ed for the Daily Beast:

Populations, in civil wars, make cold-blooded calculations about their self-interest. If forced to choose sides in a civil war—and they will resist making that choice for as long as possible, for understandable reasons—they will side with the faction they assess to be the one most likely to win.

Yep, that is Andrew Exum, who I cited in “Getting Rid of the Chicago School of Counter-Insurgency”. While I rebutted his statement about “cold-blooded calculations”, that part in the middle, between the dashes, precisely sums up the minimum effort principle. The other book I recommend on this topic is A People Numerous and Armed by John Shy, whose thesis is that the American Revolution forced Americans to choose a side; it politicized the people leading to universal male suffrage.

So a psychologist with a Noble prize for economics, a marketing professor and The Economist have all said that our models of human behavior should include rationality, utility maximization, the minimum effort principle and emotional predisposition. Thanks to being the world’s foremost economic power, we can model and predict human behavior. Our Army could--hypothetically--tap into these vast reserves of marketing knowledge.

The question is, will we update our models to reflect that humans are rational and emotional, or will we just believe we can kill our way to victory?

Apr 23

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

We’re taking a quick diversion from our series arguing against war with/in/around/about Iran to return to an old On V bailiwick, counter-insurgency theory. A few days after we published “Getting Rid of the Chicago School of Counter-Insurgency”, Gulliver of Ink Spots let loose a 6,000 word rebuttal of our post. An excerpt:

“The problem with On Violence's Gladwell-deep survey of behavioral economics is that bounded rationality cannot as yet meaningfully inform our models of human agency in conflict. We may recognize that rationality and utility maximization fail to perfectly explain all human behavior, but we have no better predictive model on which to base our efforts to influence the choices of others -- the most extreme of which is war....Until Kahnemann, Tversky, Thaler, Becker, et al can present a coherent, predictive theory of human choice that can be plausibly applied to economic and political behavior and which definitively falsifies the rational choice model...all this bleating about "humanity's underlying irrationality" is worse than useless...”

Then the Christmas double issue of the Economist arrived in the mail. I tore it open to read some of their special articles on “The East India Company”,“Religion in America: The faith and doubts of our fathers” and “The Amen break”, because who isn’t interested in 17th century international trading and Drum and Bass electronic music? I completely breezed past an article called, “Sex and advertising: Retail therapy”. Fortunately Eric C did not. He called and read me these two paragraphs:

“THESE are thrilling days for behavioural research. Every week seems to yield a new discovery about how bad people are at making decisions. Humans, it turns out, are impressionable, emotional and irrational. We buy things we don’t need, often at arbitrary prices and for silly reasons. Studies show that when a store plays soothing music, shoppers will linger for longer and often spend more. If customers are in a good mood, they are more susceptible to persuasion. We believe price tends to indicate the value of things, not the other way around. And many people will squander valuable time to get something free.

The sudden ubiquity of this research has rendered Homo economicus a straw man. Yet such observations are not new. Analysts have been studying modern man’s dumb instincts for ages. Sigmund Freud argued that people are governed by irrational, unconscious urges over a century ago. And in America in the 1930s another Viennese psychologist named Ernest Dichter spun this insight into a million-dollar business. His genius was in seeing the opportunity that irrational buying offered for smart selling.”

Homo economicus...a straw man?

A publication much more esteemed than us, the Economist--Michael C often calls the Economist the best weekly intelligence report, period--essentially doubled-down on our thesis. A new model of human behavior, one that embraces irrationality and emotion, may not explain everything, but the old, rational model explains less.

This Economist article single-handedly debunks the core argument of Gulliver’s 10,000 word rebuttal: he claims that we cannot model human’s emotionality. That’s wrong; American marketing executives do it every day. Gulliver thinks that, “Until Kahnemann, can present a coherent, predictive theory of human choice that can be plausibly applied to economic and political models...” his research is useless for the military. Well, since businesses use Kahnemann’s research everyday, couldn’t the military find something it could use too?

I could list all the possible advertisements and marketing ploys that play on our emotions every day--from luxury cars to trucks to clothes to fast food to beer--but one commercial captures the emotional pull of advertising better than any other, the iPod commercial.

This commercial used five words and a symbol (iTunes + iPod, Now for Windows) and sold millions of units, transforming the way Americans listen to music.

Does this emotional appeal apply to politics as well? Take a look at this Newt Gingrich advertisement and ask yourself, is this an appeal for “rational utility maximization”?

So we have increased the number of groups using Kahnemann’s (and many, many others) research from academics--as Gulliver would have it--to marketing executives (for every Fortune 500 company in America at least) and political operatives. We could also add in teachers (praising students for correct answers) and mass media (“Is something in the water going to kill you? Find out at 11.”).

In other words, all sorts of people use emotional persuasion in their modeling.

I am going to take Gulliver’s royal “we” from his quote more specifically than he intends it. I assume by “we” he means the U.S. military. (And the larger defense establishment. I have never met Gulliver, and his blog doesn’t list his name, current employer or biography. I assume he works somewhere in D.C. in some job  in national defense funded directly or indirectly by the taxpayer.) On that front, I agree with him: the Pentagon does not have a good grasp on modeling counter-insurgencies. He’s right, the U.S. Army needs more officers with MBAs, and when it gets them, it shouldn’t just send them to Human Resources or Operational Research/Systems Analysis.

Our whole series--and that post in particular--argued primarily one point: the very rational, very simplistic model of “kill enough bad guys, and the other side will give up” is just that: simplistic. Modeled using strict, utility maximization and survival-based rationality, it works. But humans don’t fit that model.

We need an approach to counter-insurgency that works off emotion and rationality simultaneously, providing security (feelings of safety), reconstruction (good will), good governance (respect), and kills the bad guy (survival and utility maximization).

You know, like population-centric counter-insurgency.

Apr 20

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

I generally agree with Michael Rienzi, who writes “If this war were to ever to take place, it would be conducted mostly from the air and sea, something the Iranians fully understand.”

That said, I’m going to devote fewer words to Iran’s response to our air campaign than any other domain. Having made that analysis themselves, the Iranians long ago chose to devote their resources to naval warfare, the domain with the biggest bang (dead U.S. sailors) for Iran’s buck (a rial). (I touched on my skepticism about air power’s ability to destroy Iran’s nuclear program here.)
Let’s start with air defense. Suffering from a broad arms embargo by Western nations, and since Russia doesn’t support proxies like it used to, Iran’s air defense weapons have withered. Anthony Cordesman, take it away:

“Iran has extensive surface-to-air missile assets, but most are obsolete or obsolescent. All of these systems are poorly netted, have significant gaps and problems in their radars and sensors, and are vulnerable to electronic warfare. Once again, Russia is Iran’s only current potential source of the modern weapons Iran needs, and it would take major deliveries of a new integrated air defense system based around the S-300 or S-400 surface-to-air missile to change this situation.”

Despite Anthony Cordesman’s doubts, the U.S. Air Force still worries about Iranian air defenses. In a post about the Air Force’s desire for a new long range bombers on Time's “Battleland”, General Norty Schwartz specifically mentioned Iran’s improvements to their anti-air weapons. This article by On V fav David Axe quotes Jamie Morin, an Air Force assistant secretary, saying that air defense technology is, “proliferating very rapidly” and “widely available and comparatively cheap.” On the one hand, defense experts doubt Iran’s abilities to down U.S. aircraft, and the Pentagon generally believes it would triumph easily in an Iranian campaign, but the U.S. Air Force still worries about the threat Iran poses. (Hmm. I smell weapons acquisitions...)

The bottom line on Iran’s air defenses: the U.S.S.R. at the height of the Cold War this is not. Iran has invested heavily in ground-based air defense, but not enough. The equipment it has, it cannot repair. Its long range surface-to-air missiles will remain a threat, and could down several aircraft, but can’t fundamentally defeat the U.S., or kill nearly as many people as a destroyed/sunk U.S. capitol ship. Iran will keep investing in air defense weapons, but will lag behind the U.S. for years/possibly forever.

(Iran could use Man Portable Air Defense (MANPAD) surface-to-air missiles (SAM)--think Stingers, but made in Russia--in a proxy fight against America as I addressed two weeks ago or in the case of a U.S. ground attack. Unfortunately, only an invasion could tell whether or not they have learned enough to really hamper an armed invasion.)

The Iranian Air Force fares even worse. Weapons embargoes have prevented it from modernizing, and Iran’s Air Force struggles to keep the planes it does have flying. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Air Force has scant support compared to the IRGC Navy, and focuses on unconventional capabilities like UAVs, not fighter planes.

While a war with Iran will start at sea and from the sky, I believe Iran cannot stop a U.S. aerial bombardment. With a thorough “wild weasel” or “suppression of enemy air defenses” mission, U.S. planes could fly with near immunity. So here are the possible courses of actions and outcomes:

Best Case: We don’t lose a single aircraft.

Worst Case: Iranian surface-to-air missiles and radar technology have increased considerably as Iran tries to build its own weapons. Iran successfully shoots down several American or Israeli aircraft. About a 2-5% possibility.

Most Possible Deadly Option: Iran shoots down a single aircraft, like an F-15 or F-16. (What about our F-22? Could it crash? In an ironic twist of Pentagon purchasing, the second most expensive plane in the Air Force arsenal, the F-22, hasn’t flown a combat mission in Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya, and it probably wouldn’t in Iran either. F-15s and F-16s cost less to fly, and they can hit ground targets the F-22 can’t. Why do we build planes we refuse to fly?)
Most Costly Option: Somehow a B2 bomber malfunctions over Iran and crashes. Iran inevitably gives credit to its air defenses. This scenario will remain shrouded in secrecy for decades.

Most Likely Option/The Fog of War: In all honesty, planes crash all the time. Combat jets even more often. With multiple sorties on many more targets than Iraq, the odds of a few planes critically malfunctioning could happen. This happened during Libya remember.

One final question, can the combined U.S. and Israeli mission wipe out the Iranian nuclear capability in a two week period? (My guess for the “over/under” Las Vegas would set for the campaign.) That I don’t know.

Bonus Thought:

While Iran cannot currently challenge U.S. hegemony in the air, I know how another super power could:

Build cheaper planes, and build a lot of them.

Much like the U.S. Army out-built the Germans during WWII--four or five Sherman tanks for every Tiger tank--if China wanted to defeat the U.S. it would do this. China would build twenty (or more) cheap airplanes for every U.S. F-22. Then, if it came to an air war China would simply outnumber America in the sky. But Iran cannot hope to employ this strategy, because it doesn’t have the money.

Apr 19

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

As Eric C read my research for this post, he had one chilling comment, “Does this mean Iran and Israel could get into a ballistic missile fight? That does frighten me.”

Welcome to the wicked problem of Iran.

Our position at On Violence is clear: America/Israel should not start a war with Iran. It could go very, very poorly, and it almost definitely won’t stop Iran’s nuclear program. At the same time, we don’t want a nuclear Iran. Unfortunately, we don’t have a simple solution to the Iranian nuclear problem.

We don’t have a simple solution to Iran’s ballistic missile inventory either. Iran’s missiles threaten countries from Pakistan to Greece, but sustained air strikes might, inversely, encourage Iran to use them. Jeffrey White explains their capability:

“Missile systems (principally the Shahab 3 variants and Sejjl types) allow Iran to strike targets throughout the Middle East, including population centers, military facilities, infrastructure and U.S. forces based in the region.”

And here’s more from Anthony Cordesman at the Centers for Strategic and International Studies:

“Iran has also created robust nuclear and ballistic missile programs, which have become a focal point of US-Iranian military competition. Iran’s missile program dates to the 1980s, and was fully underway during the Iran-Iraq War. While Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities were initially limited, the range and sophistication of the country’s missiles has increased greatly since its inception in the early days of the Iran-Iraq War. Iran has now created conventionally armed ballistic missile forces that can strike at US allies and US bases in the region with little warning, and could be configured to carry nuclear warheads if Iran can develop them.”

Iran has the largest ballistic missile inventory in the Middle East, most of which can travel 1,000-2,500 kilometers, including a limited store of medium range missiles that could strike southern Europe. More importantly, their missiles could hit Israel, the Green Zone in Iraq, U.S. bases in Afghanistan, and anywhere else in the Middle East.

Fortunately, at this time, Iran’s missiles cannot hit pinpoint targets. Iran is desperately working to change that. Some reports indicate that Iran could have an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (range greater than 4,000 kilometers) by 2015. (Though, with predictions, I advise our readers to read this post about other predictions of Iran’s capabilities.) Iran also claims to have supersonic, guided missiles to use against ships in the Persian Gulf, but the Iranian military tends to exaggerate its capabilities.
And those exaggerations lead to incredible uncertainty. Anthony Cordesman sums the confusion up in one concise paragraph:

“There is no agreement as to when Iran may acquire missiles with homing warheads and the kind of terminal guidance that can hit point targets effectively with conventional warheads. There is no agreement on the reliability and accuracy of Iran’s missiles under operational conditions, there is no agreement on Iran’s ability to deploy systems with countermeasures to missile defenses. There is no agreement on when Iran might deploy a fully functioning nuclear warhead. And, there is no agreement on the future size, character, and basing mode of Iran’s missile forces once its long-range systems are deployed in strength.”

Like all things with Iran, ballistic missiles remain shrouded in secrecy, making it difficult to predict how Iran will employ them if attacked. Two factors determine whether and how Iran will use its ballistic missile inventory. First, ballistic missiles are a “use it or lose it” capability. The moment war starts, U.S. bombers and cruise missile will attack those sites where they can find them. Second, unless Iran’s missiles have guided capabilities the intelligence community doesn’t know about, Iran will fire their missiles at civilian targets broadly, trying to kill civilians and frighten populations (including isolated military bases).

Here are the courses of action:

Fire Long Range Missiles at Israel - Possible (10%-40%), just shy of likely.

Fire Long Range Missiles at Gulf Cooperation Council Countries - Possible, especially if GCC countries support the U.S. military operation. Also possible if Iran tries to hit U.S. naval facilities in Bahrain, Kuwait or other GCC countries.

Fire Long Range Missiles at Europe - 1%. This risks bringing in a host of other countries to join the coalition, and risks a U.N. Security Council resolution.

Fire Missiles at the Green Zone - Less than 10%. If they miss, they threaten local populations and Iraqi support. So it’s a risky option, probably less blowback from other forms of terrorism.

Fire Missiles at Bases in Afghanistan - Most likely. If the IRGC chooses not to escalate, or even if it does, this could provide an excellent diversion. Iran is less worried about the population’s support, and the Taliban might actually support this too.

Apr 18

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

I don’t think Saddam Hussein figured out that America was actually going to invade Iraq until American tanks started streaming into Baghdad. Until that moment, I think he kept thinking, “These aren’t the first air strikes; they won’t be a the last.” Because of this, despite the imminent threat to his regime, Hussein never tried to launch a second 9/11 or cause any terrorism on American soil.

If his regime was so evil and so vile, why not attack America asymetrically? Probably because he never had the capability.

When it comes to Iran, I wonder, will the Ayatollahs consider such a drastic step? They have the capability. In the words of Jeffrey White, will America “find itself involved in a ‘secret war’ of terrorist attacks and special counter-terror operations outside the main theater of conflict?”
Unlike other options for war--such as a vicious naval war in the Persian Gulf or a proxy war in Afghanistan--when it comes to launching terror attacks, Iran has some time. While America could bomb ballistic missiles sites as soon as the war starts, it would have to run counter-terrorism operations around the world to eliminate suspected IRGC Quds Force members, Iranian intelligence operatives or proxies, a much harder task.

And I mean around the world. Iran could choose to attack Americans in America, Americans in Europe, Europeans in Europe, Americans and Europeans in the Middle East, Israelis in Israel, Israelis elsewhere in the Middle East, or any of its neighbors in their countries. Iran has many intelligence agents and sources in almost every Middle Eastern country.

In other words, Iran has plenty of options. And counter-terrorism forces will have a hell of a time trying to stop them.

In the last few weeks, NPR, The New York Times and others have started reporting on this possibility. Like all good reporting--and my own--each report comes with plenty of hedging. Terrorism requires an extraordinary amount of planning. The Mumbai attacks, for example, required dozens of visits by at least one operative, and countless hours of training for the attackers. The 9/11 attacks required flight school training for at least eight people. Even the well-funded IRGC Quds Force only has so many people it can spare for terrorism. (One estimate puts it between 5,000-15,000 people total in the organization. Like I said, not as much is known about this group.)
Iran has two primary options to kill a lot of Americans. In the first, Iran will use the sources and proxies it developed in Iraq to launch attacks against the Green Zone in Baghdad. While this requires planning and manpower, Iran could easily support very lethal operations against Americans there.

The second option--setting up sleeper cells in America--doesn't worry me, as I mentioned yesterday. Unlike the low hanging fruit the FBI Al Qaeda branch currently plucks--extremists who can't distinguish between legitimate Al Qaeda and a hole in the ground--if Iran had already set up Hezbollah members, they would have the training to avoid detection. If discovered, though, the presence of sleeper cells would give the administration/nation a reason to fight for regime change in Iran. That last fact is why I don’t see Iran investing heavily in setting up Iranian sleeper cells in America.

I won’t write up a “best case/worst case” option for today’s post. There are just too many variables. Instead, I am going to run down all the options that are possible for the IRGC in an “asymmetric: terrorism” response. If Iran decides to go terrorist, the options available are the usual--bombings (of car, suicide, and plane), hijackings, hostage takings and assassinations--and possibly unusual--the things like the 9/11 attacks no one had thought of before.

Conduct terror attacks on the Green Zone in Iraq - Very likely. Especially with mortars or IEDs targeting American convoys.

Conduct terror attacks on Gulf Cooperation Council countries - Possible. The Quds Force has intelligence operatives spread throughout the region and each GCC country has a sympathetic Shia population.

Conduct terror attacks in Europe - Unlikely for the same reasons Iran will avoid upsetting America. Plus, this would draw in European support for regime change.

Conduct terror attacks in America - This is an example of scenario that makes war so hard to predict. If Hezbollah already has cells in America, than this scenario becomes amazingly likely. Why not attack if America has attacked you already? I don’t think Iran has gone to these lengths, though. If discovered, the presence of terror cells in America would make war a foregone conclusion, something the Ayatollahs want to avoid. For a much better analysis of the threat of Hezbollah, read this Andrew Exum article in World Politics Review.

Conduct terror attacks on Israel - Possible, but I believe Iran will target Israel with ballistic missiles, which I will cover tomorrow.

Nothing - Self-explanatory. Means that Iranian leadership believes terror attacks would do more to enrage their enemy then sap their will.

Bottom Line: The IRGC Quds Force, Iranian intelligence and their proxies have a pupu platter of options to choose from, but only so many men to execute them. Further, many of these missions have a high risk factor, which means losing a lot of their force to only hurt, but not weaken, these countries. In some cases, say a terror attack on the U.S. home soil, it could backfire, encouraging an overwhelming counter-attack.

Apr 16

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

I could easily make a rule for On Violence that:

If the honorable Representative Peter King, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, worries about a national security threat, immediately dismiss it.

That’s extreme, I know. But I have to. Last year, Rep. King took on the threat of “Islamic Radicalization in America” with barely enough evidence to justify a hearing. More recently, he waded into the breach on the threat of Iran/Hezbollah using terrorists to attack America.

As evidence, his committee heard the testimony of the NYPD’s top cop for intelligence, Mitchell Silber, who testified that on six different occasions, the NYPD spotted Iranian embassy employees videotaping...places like the Brooklyn Bridge! And other “historical landmarks”!

To put this in perspective, imagine an American soldier stationed abroad at the 173rd Airborne Brigade in, let’s say, Vicenza, Italy. When he has days off from work, he travels to Rome, Florence, Milan, Venice and tons of other cities with his brother, taking pictures of the Duomo, the Coliseum, the Last Supper, and more. Oh, wait, that’s exactly what my brother and I did when we lived in Italy. (Full disclosure: we’re not terrorists.)

This is a shame because Representative King’s hearing distracts from Iran’s very real capability to attack civilian targets around the Middle East.

To kill civilians--in an effort to sap their opponents will to fight (the effectiveness of which we will address in a later post)--Iran has two options: “terrorism” and ballistic missiles, which will each get their own post. Both of these sections of the IPB will have significantly more hedging than the naval section or the proxy war section (or the upcoming Air IPB) because of their complexity.

Take, for instance, predicting where Iran could attack. They could attack America, Israel, allied nations in Europe, Gulf Cooperation Council nations (roughly allied with America), Pakistan and Iraq. They could attack Americans traveling or living abroad as well. Or take predicting how they could attack. They could bomb buildings, take hostages, or shoot down airliners. They could use chemical or biological weapons.

And good luck predicting the intentions/plans of an elite unit shrouded in secrecy, the IRGC Quds Force. The Quds Force trains and equips asymmetric fighters--terrorists and insurgents--like a bizarro U.S. Army Special Forces, if America’s Special Forces trained terrorists. Good luck finding concrete, open source information on Iran’s asymmetric unit.
So expect tomorrow’s post to hedge on any and all predictions. But this doesn’t change the fact: Iran’s capability for terror attacks on civilians is a very real threat.

But probably not in America. I can’t predict the likelihood of this happening (and anyone who claims they can is lying). But for Iran to try to kill Americans in America would require exceptional planning and run tremendous risks...so I don’t see them doing it.

I bring this up because the debating tactic of “all or nothing” wears at me. I think war with Iran could turn out very poorly, but I don’t want to exaggerate threats that I don’t think are likely. Domestic terrorism in the U.S. falls into that category, and I think Rep. King has exaggerated Hezbollah and the Quds Force presence in America. I think Iran will probably lash out asymmetrically if attacked, but I don’t see them doing it on American or European soil, which I will explain over the next two days.

Apr 13

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

To understand how war with Iran could play out, we need to understand risk. So let’s talk about football.

Every weekend in the fall, thousands (millions?) of Americans wager large sums of money on the outcomes of football games. In Europe, the same thing happens with soccer. Yet, despite the scores of experts and computers, only the bookies make any real money.

Now consider war. When it comes to war, it seems like just one leader or two leaders make all the decisions. Actually, each side has dozens of advisers, intelligence agencies, elected bodies, and thousands (millions?) of people in their respective armies making decisions, altering the outcome of war. Compared to warfare, football--Only 22 starters on each side, with a few key reserves plus their coaches. (I have no idea how many players take part in a soccer match.)--is easy to predict. 

So as proponents for war with Iran advise the American public that all will go smoothly, we should remember this: the most dangerous option for war with Iran isn’t a downed bomber, a sunk aircraft carrier or surface-to air-missiles targeting U.S. helicopters in Afghanistan; the biggest threat comes from a war which escalates and spirals out of control, something no one can predict ahead of time.

Though militaries (especially the United States) have invested billions of dollars trying to predict how countries will respond in war, they haven’t come that far. In spite of war games, intelligence analysts, security studies Ph.Ds, think tanks and computers, the U.S. still managed to screw up the Iraq war. As Colonel T.X. Hammes said about war with Iran, “There is no such thing as a quick, clean war...War will always take you in directions different from what you intended.”

And a war with Iran has plenty of directions to go in. As the Office of Naval Intelligence report described, Iran has studied Colonel Hammes’ “Fourth Generation of War”. Iran has prepared for political, economic and military war. As James Fallows tells it:   

“The "war game" that ‘The Atlantic’ ran back in 2004 reached the same conclusions the Pentagon's recent war game reportedly did: that a motivated Iran would have lots of ways to inflict retaliatory damage, directly on Israel and on U.S. troops and installations in the region, and indirectly on the world economy and American interests in general.”

Jeffrey White in The American Interest agrees:

“Given the political context in which military engagement would rest, even a minor attack would likely become a major test of strength involving not only the United States and Iran but also a host of allies and associates.”

Is Iran motivated, as I bolded above? If you buy Michael Rienzi’s argument in “Iran’s Response to a U.S. Attack”, the answer is, “They can be.” If Iran thinks America will wipe out their hundreds of fast attack seacraft, hundreds of ballistic missiles, and (maybe) surface-to-air missiles, why not use all those weapons to hurt as many Americans as quickly as possible to make the war unpalatable for American voters? Use it or lose it.

I see four major possibilities for this conflict spiraling out-of-control, two Iranian escalations and two American/Israeli escalations:

1. Iran mines the Strait of Hormuz. If Iran truly feels threatened, and if the American air campaign looks like it will destroy Iran’s economy anyways, it might as well take the world’s economy with it. When I mentioned ten dollar gas in “Is the juice worth the squeeze?”, this is what I had in mind. We plan to write more about this option after I finish my IPB.

2. A worst case scenario happens. If Iran sunk an American aircraft carrier, shot down over a dozen U.S. helicopters in Afghanistan, conducted a terrorist attack in America or Europe, used a ballistic missile to kill over a hundred people or some other worst case scenario I previously described, then world opinion could quickly turn against Iran. Then America/Israel will get permission from the U.N. Security Council for regime change.

3. America simply decides to invade Iran. I consider this very unlikely, but the logic makes sense. Everyone knows that a limited air strike on nuclear facilities will accomplish very little. American military commanders, Secretary Panetta, and most importantly, President Obama might very well decide, “If we are going to attack Iran, we need to go all the way.” We don’t plan on writing about this scenario until it seems more likely.

4. America has to rescue someone or something. Seymour Hersh's article in The New Yorker,The Iran Plans”, has a throwaway line that should give all Americans pause: “Some of the facilities may be too difficult to target even with penetrating weapons. The U.S. will have to use Special Operations units.” A mission like that gone bad by itself could escalate the conflict. (If we have enough time before war starts, I will definitely write about the incomprehensible terribleness of the idea of sending special operations troops into Iran during a bombing campaign. I cannot believe that is even considered as an option.)
I would add, what if America loses a fighter, bomber or transport plane? America would have to mount a rescue operation, which means sending in helicopters. Helicopters, as special operations troops learned in the Osama bin Laden raid, can crash. This could easily escalate the entire conflict, leading to America dropping in paratroopers and soon enough...
To conclude, I’ll quote Jeffrey White one more time.

“It seems fairly clear then that a conflict with Iran is unlikely to be an isolated event in which the U.S. strikes, Iran retaliates, and it’s over—with Iran either left with a viable nuclear program or not.”

A good reminder of the stakes of this war.

Apr 11

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

Continuing yesterday’s post, we finish with our summary of Iran’s proxy war options.

The Enemy Courses of Action, Afghanistan Proxy War Edition:

Best Case: Iran’s proxies focus elsewhere in the Middle East, and Afghanistan continues its slow slide into chaos without additional help.

Worst Case: Iran starts giving or firing surface-to-air missiles at American helicopters. Iran aids Afghan insurgents in launching a coordinated, lethal attack on American soldiers over a period of a few days, including surface-to-air missiles launched at helicopters, improved IEDs and anti-tank missiles fired at American troop carriers. Over a short period, it causes a significant number of casualties forcing the U.S. to curtail its air operations. The war in Afghanistan goes from bad to terrible.

Most Likely (my opinion): Iran continues its contact with the Taliban, and increases smuggling to support their operations. It supplies a handful of SAMs, IEDs or anti-tank missiles to insurgents.

The Iraq Option: Iran focuses only on Iraq, where it has more reach anyways. Technically, the U.S. doesn’t have troops in Iraq. Realistically, America has thousands of contractors and diplomats. I’ll discuss this more when I cover terrorism and ballistic missiles, but Iran could still target diplomats and contractors with IEDs, anti-tank missiles and SAMs.

Most Unique Option: Sniper operations. I lived in fear of these when I deployed to Afghanistan. Fortunately, the insurgents don’t have good marksmanship training, or access to top-of-the-line sniper rifles. The IRGC Quds Force doesn’t have these same limitations. And high-powered sniper rifles, and their bullets, cause much less of a scene than anti-air missiles.

Bottom line: Iran will do something in Afghanistan if only to divide America’s attention. Whether this means dozens of missiles and hundreds of IEDs or handfuls, only war will tell.

Apr 10

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

We continue the IPB for War with Iran today, laying out Iran’s options to fight a proxy war against the U.S. in Afghanistan. Of the options available to Iran, the threat of guided missiles worries me the most. (To understand my historical disinterest in this topic, read yesterday’s post.)

How Iran Could Support Afghan Insurgents

Iran could supply two types of guided missiles to the Taliban: surface-to-air (think Stingers) or anti-tank (think Javelins).

Fortunately, this hasn’t happened yet. Unlike the U.S.S.R., the U.S. hasn’t faced a rival superpower supplying insurgents with missiles; the U.S. hasn’t even lost an aircraft to a surface-to-air missile in Afghanistan. (In one incident, intelligence indicated an SA-7 may have been fired at a plane.) When missiles do show up from the 1980s or Pakistan or Libya, American intelligence operatives usually intercept them, because the U.S. pays more for guided missiles than anyone else, pricing them out of insurgent hands.

And the U.S. hasn’t seen any anti-tank missiles either. Also, Iran has only provided minimal support to the Taliban’s IED operations, nowhere close to the level of support they provided Shia in Iraq.

Why Iran Doesn’t Support Insurgents in Afghanistan

First, the Iranian regime risks America’s wrath if it supports insurgents too heavily. Second, Iran has a limited store of missiles, relying on Russian imports and its own military production system to create guided missiles. However, its young defense industry can only produce so many. Nevertheless, Iran does have a range of man-portable, aging, Russian-built SAMs it could send to Afghanistan. Supporting proxies with SAMs, though, means depleting its own stock, and having fewer missiles to use against an American invasion.
What Iranian Support Could Look Like

At the worst, Iran and the Taliban could launch a coordinated campaign against American aviation assets. To maintain surprise, Iranian agents would try to coordinate their attacks over a handful of days. They could also support a major Taliban offensive, and use SAMs to harass close air support and combat aviation, removing one of America’s biggest advantages from the fight.

If the IRGC Quds Force elements responsible for Afghanistan were smart--I cannot guarantee this--they would target U.S. helicopters. Helicopters--slower, flying at lower altitude, less maneuverable--would be sitting ducks. Without helicopters (or their use severely curtailed), special operations folks would have to limit their missions; U.S. forces would then travel the country by vehicle, dramatically increasing the targets for IEDs (a secondary Quds force target); U.S. forces would also lose close combat aviation and close air support, their single biggest advantage over insurgents.

Iran could complement this anti-air strategy with an influx of anti-tank guided missiles. Several articles in the Jerusalem Post describe Iranian support and training of Gazans in the use of their anti-tank missiles. While Iran hasn’t done this with the Taliban--for reasons I will explain below--Iran could; they make their own anti-tank missiles, which means, unlike surface-to-air missiles, it has plenty to give to insurgents.
Current Relationships in Afghanistan

Iran already has operatives on the ground in Afghanistan, but mostly in predominantly Shia areas, the Western part of the country. They also have strong inroads with Hezara groups, another Shia sect persecuted by the Taliban for years. While Iran has some contact with the Taliban, they don’t like working together; Shias and Sunnis go together like oil and water, bloods and crips, Sith Lords and Jedi Knights. So while Iran may have provided some support to the Taliban, the IRGC Quds Force just doesn’t trust the Taliban. Would you?

Despite news stories with anonymous government officials describing the vast influence of Iran in Afghanistan, Iran doesn’t support the Taliban nearly as much as our ally Pakistan’s ISI does.
How likely is this scenario?

Obviously, Iran has a history with proxies, particularly Hezbollah, which I will discuss in my posts on terrorism. But not that many in Afghanistan. Also, if Iran diverts resources to a proxy war in Afghanistan, it cannot use those resources to defend itself. And any Iranian mission will have to contend with U.S. forces trying to intercept anti-air and anti-tank weapons. Those three reasons provide good incentive for Iran to continue the course in Afghanistan.

I do think, though, that Iranian agents would try to do something if America invaded. Likely, though, it will be a small increase in supplying IEDs to insurgents or supplying a handful of SAMs or anti-tank missiles to insurgents. Not enough to change the war, but enough to kill some Americans, and raise the cost of war.

I’ll finish the IPB tomorrow.

Apr 09

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

The problem with starting a war with Iran is that America is already at war in a country on Iran’s border, Afghanistan. Which brings us to the next section of the War with Iran IPB: proxy warfare. But before I get to my IPB on a proxy war in Afghanistan I need to admit something:

I hate writing about Iran’s support for proxy fighters.
You wouldn’t think politics could infect intelligence at the tactical level, but it can. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, tactical units--battalions, brigades and divisions--spent an overwhelming amount of time on insurgent groups whose names frighten Americans. Ergo, “Al Qaeda in Iraq”--a term I loathe with a passion traditionally reserved for midi-chlorians--became the number one focus in Iraq while Shia politicians created a dictatorship. Awesome!

After AQI, came the Iranians. The U.S. government loved to talk about Iranian (”They were part of the Axis of Evil.”) and Syrian support for insurgents, but never mentioned a peep about Saudi involvement in Iraq. While Iran--specifically Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force members--did supply Shia insurgents with IEDs, specifically EFPs, it didn’t extend this hand to the Sunnis. The Sunni insurgents in Iraq--the so-called “al Qaeda in Iraq”--had to get money from somewhere, and it wasn’t Iran.

*cough* Saudi Arabia *cough*

Iran, meanwhile, supplied the majority of those EFPs to Shia extremists. And don’t get me wrong, plenty of U.S. units went around killing the Mahdi Army and Promised Day Brigade and Asaib ahl-Haq. But the amount of ink spilled to chase “al Qaeda in Iraq” always outweighed their political importance. I mean, the Shia took over, didn’t they?

Iran supported Shia insurgents, but not as much as the hype. This quote from The Atlantic sums up Iran’s actual actions versus what they could have done:

“The Iranians really have not made a major effort to thwart us...If they wanted to make our lives rough...they could make Iraq hell.”

Instead, Iraq generally descended into chaos on its own, and Iranian intelligence monitored the situation because, well, they fought a vicious war with their neighbor less than a generation before.
This Seymour Hersh article makes the case that Iran didn’t even supply the majority of weapons in Iraq. As Hersh writes, “David Kay, a former C.I.A. adviser and the chief weapons inspector in Iraq for the United Nations, told me that his inspection team was astonished, in the aftermath of both Iraq wars, by ‘the huge amounts of arms’ it found circulating among civilians and military personnel throughout the country.”  Same with Afghanistan; they just have tons of weapons from nearly thirty years of civil war. Sure Iranian Quds Force members had influence in Iraq, and still do in Afghanistan. They didn’t cause the insurgency though.
Worse, the administration exaggerated the threat posed by Iran. David Kay continues, “Iran is not giving the Iraqis the good stuff—the anti-aircraft missiles that can shoot down American planes and its advanced anti-tank weapons.” Which is the same point from The Atlantic wargame I mentioned above: Iran has held back on its support of proxies in Iraq and Afghanistan to avoid provoking an overwhelming American response.

But if America (or Israel) starts an extended bombing campaign against Iran...that restraint disappears.

If Iran really wanted to hamper American goals in Afghanistan, they would supply the Taliban with surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), like, ironically, America did to the Pashtun insurgents against the U.S.S.R. in Afghanistan. (I know thousands of Americans remain in Iraq as contractors or diplomats. I will address them in “Iran’s Asymmetric Options”.)

Thus far, the NATO mission in Afghanistan hasn’t lost a single plane or helicopter to a guided surface to air missile. Insurgents have shot down allied helicopters with rocket propelled grenades, but an RPG is not a guided missile. Guided missiles scare the bejeezus out of most Army aviators. Stinger missiles alone didn’t cause the Russians to lose in Afghanistan, but they certainly helped.
So can Iran turn the clock in Afghanistan back to the 1980s? I’ll address that possibility tomorrow.

Apr 06

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

Yesterday, I laid out a fairly complimentary description of one of Iran’s navies, the IRGC Navy. I made it clear, they cannot beat the U.S. Navy in a straight up fight, but they could possibly sink a ship.

I ignored one obvious component, has the U.S. Navy studied the IRGC Navy?

Of course they have. The Office of Naval Intelligence wrote the key paper used by almost every resource I read--and I used it too. When questioned before congress, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, the top Navy officer, specifically described the “counter-swarm” capabilities the Navy has deployed to the gulf to discourage an Iranian counter-attack.

So I didn’t write anything the U.S. Navy hasn’t studied. Of course, this same Navy designed the Littoral Combat Ship almost specifically for the Persian Gulf, and, well, instead of the dozens we should have, the U.S. Navy has two. Even though U.S. naval forces have patrolled the gulf since the Shah fell, multiple intelligence estimates have declared Iran one of the major U.S. threats, and President Bush put Iran and Iraq into the “axis of evil”, instead of getting lighter and smaller, the U.S. Navy has gotten bigger and heavier, unprepared for sea war in the Persian Gulf. That doesn’t sound like a navy prepared for “asymmetric naval guerrilla warfare”.
Some critics have also pointed out that Millennium Challenge 2002 showed the danger of allowing the enemy the element of surprise and that, now, the U.S. Navy will not let small boats approach it. Except, according to The Weekly Standard, they do:

"In the last few months, Iranian boats have retreated only when U.S. vessels have fired warning shots. While the Pentagon does not publicize such incidents, sailors say there are now near daily occurrences. The proximity of the Iranian boats means that, should any be intent on a suicide plot, American sailors would likely lose their lives."

Anthony Cordesman concurs, Iranian small boats, “give Iran the ability to strike at larger conventional forces with little, if any warning.” So the U.S. Navy knows its weaknesses, but it still might not be able to stop the IRGC Navy.

I want to end the IPB for each domain of warfare (sea, air, proxy war in Afghanistan, and asymmetric--terrorism and ballistic missiles), with a list of some of the possible courses of action available to Iran, and how they could play out. Today’s post lays out the naval war courses of actions available to the two Iranian navies, the IRGC Navy and the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy.

The Enemy Courses of Action, Naval Edition:

Best Case: Iran doesn’t attack back. Or the initial U.S. attack wipes out all hope of counter-attack. Unlikely.

Second Best Case: Iran learned nothing from 1998 and attacks America conventionally. The U.S. Navy defeats Iran conventionally again. Or its swarming attacks have no effect, either because of luck or the US Navy’s preparation. Iran loses thousands of sailors.

Worst Case: Millennium Challenge 2002 in real terms.

Most Likely (my opinion): The U.S. loses at least one capital ship--either through mines, torpedoes, mini-submarines, or anti-ship cruise missiles with damage to multiple other ships. The rescue mission would then become a target of increased Iranian aggression. (Technically, this is the same course of action as above, just differing in degrees of success.)

Suicide Attacks Option: The IRGC recruits fanatics or die-hards to drive multiple suicide ships into U.S. capital ships. The IRGC recently acquired speedboats which could work perfectly for this tactic, and could probably avoid U.S. Navy counter-fire, designed for missiles.

The Escalation Option: Iran chooses to mine the Straits of Hormuz, requiring a costly American-led mine clearing operation. Depending on the state of the war to this point, Iran could choose to re-engage with swarming tactics aimed at U.S. capital ships.

Most Surprising Option: The Islamic Republic of Iran Navy somehow uses a submarine or mini-submarine to attack a U.S. ship in the Gulf of Oman. Essentially, this means the Iranian Navy would score a conventional victory, which would stun me.

If Iran chooses the worst case or suicide attack options, and successfully sinks a large, U.S. capital ship, Iran could conceivably inflict as many casualties on the U.S. as it has suffered since 9/11 in a single day.

That’s why Iran’s naval options terrify me.

Apr 05

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

Since World War II, the US Navy has not lost a sea battle. We haven’t even lost a capital ship.
We also haven’t fought an even semi-competent opponent--North Korea/China, North Vietnam, Israel (accidentally), Iraq, and Iran. Yesterday, I asked, “Could Iran have learned it cannot fight the U.S. conventionally? Could the U.S. Navy suffer significant losses in an Iranian naval counter-attack?”

Today, I want to flesh out the scenario, as part of my Iran War IPB.

Islamic Republic of Iran Navy

First, Iran has two navies. The Islamic Republic of Iran Navy, or the Iranian Navy or IRIN, is the smallest branch of the entire military, the bastard child of armed forces. Don’t worry about them.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy

Iran’s other navy, the Iran Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy (or IRGC Navy), I’d worry about them. As I said in my last two posts, I expect Iran to fight the U.S. asymmetrically. The IRGC Navy has roughly 20,000 people spread over 150 boats. Why so many? Because the IRGC Navy specializes in small boats: patrol boats, commando boats, missile boats, torpedo boats and fast attack craft. The IRGC Navy has a plan too: guerrilla war at sea.

Guerrilla War at Sea

The blog Global Bearings describes “asymmetric naval guerrilla warfare” as using mines, torpedoes, and cruise missiles in hit and run attacks to avoid America’s conventional superiority. In other word, the IRGC Navy will repeat General Paul Van Riper’s strategy in Millennium Challenge 2002. This quote from the Small Wars Journal article, “Iran’s Response to a U.S. Attack” by Michael V. Rienzi sums up my worries:

“While Iran has added some of these [capital ships] recently, the majority of their buildup has constituted mostly of small boats that are fast and capable of firing lethal missiles, including cruise missiles. They have built up these forces partially through acquisitions of Chinese missile boats and Chinese C802 anti-ship cruise missiles and torpedoes. Iran’s use of fast attack crafts have a history of success; during the Tanker Wars in the 1980’s Iran used swarming techniques to overwhelm larger slower moving ships throughout the Gulf.”

Iran will combine swarming attacks of fast boats, mine laying operations and shore-launched missiles to try to damage or destroy as many U.S. ships as possible. Their strategy rests on guided anti-ship missiles. Some of these missiles have been mounted onto ships; some are dug into tunnels in islands in the Persian Gulf, hardened and hidden. All these missiles can fire well into the gulf.

This strategy, of course, would come at a high cost, sacrificing many Iranian sailors to sink one ship. But not too many. An aircraft carrier houses to over 5,000 people. If Iran sacrificed twenty small boats with twenty people per boat, it only risks 400 people to America’s 5,000, not to mention a multi-billion dollar ship. Further, the rescue operation would carry its own risks, and remain a possible target.

Finally, Iran could always complement its missiles and swarms and mines with suicide attacks. The most successful naval attack on the U.S. since 1987 was the USS Cole bombing. This thought should worry naval planners.

The Persian Gulf’s geography suits naval guerrilla warfare; both narrow (340 kilometers at its widest, 55 at its narrowest) and shallow (mostly less than 35 meters), and lined with a 1,000-mile coastline that can hide Iranian small boats and shore-based anti-ship missiles, Iran has tailored its naval strategy to maximize its advantages in this lake disguised as a gulf. Worse, pirates, smugglers and small boats fill the gulf, perfect for the IRGC Navy to hide its ships. The IRGC has a navy designed for the gulf, U.S. Navy has one designed for the open seas.

Decentralized Leadership

Why doesn’t the U.S. Navy simply bomb their communications to smithereens? Try coordinating swarming attacks after that! Well, according to the Office of Naval Intelligence, “Iran also began decentralizing its command structure in order to decrease its reliance on communications and enable continued resistance in the event of an attack.” They can fight without dependency on higher headquarters for decisions, something our own military can’t do.

Those are the capabilities and strategy Iran’s navies will try to employ against the U.S. Tomorrow, I will describe the U.S. counter-measures and the various courses of action for Iran’s naval responses.

Apr 04

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

My father often told me, “Generals always fight the last war.” And he’d give examples, from General Montgomery steadfastly avoiding frontal charges in World War II because of his experience with trench warfare in World War I to generals in the Civil War marching their troops in lines.

This aphorism doesn’t apply to every war. When it does, though, it applies in a big way.

Before I start my “Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield” with Iran’s naval options, I need to make a larger comment on disruptive technological change. So permit me a little license as I dive surface-deep into the history of American naval warfare as it relates to the saying that opened this post.

We start at the civil war, when the entire world learned that iron ships and heavy artillery would now rule the waters. Before that war, proponents of wooden ships controlled the world’s navies.
Through the next few wars, the Spanish-American and World War I, iron battleships dominated the seas, adapting technology as needed. This included rifled barrels on their guns, adding coal and then gasoline-fired engines. The Germans perfected the U-boat, or submarine, but it didn’t prove decisive in World War I.

The next change would. Prior to World War II, combatants on all sides generally considered battleships the key to victory at sea--as they had since the Civil War. As a result, with some simplification for readability, the Japanese attacked U.S. battleships during Pearl Harbor hoping to knock them out of the war in the Pacific, while leaving American aircraft carriers generally unharmed.

Aircraft carriers would go on to win the war. They constituted a paradigm shift in warfare; a disruptive technological change the U.S. ultimately used to overwhelm and crush Axis forces.

This brings us to the most stable period of U.S. naval operations of our history. Despite fielding the largest or second largest navy in the world since the Korean War, the U.S. has only fought a handful of major naval engagements. Each of these engagements pales in comparison to any battle during WWII. (To give you an idea, the Gulf of Tonkin crisis and an accidental attack by Israel’s navy qualify as major military engagements.)

Why did I just spend 300 words on naval history? To show that, despite some changes, America has a navy--an untested navy--based on naval principles from World War II. The idea of an aircraft carrier battle-group, with its gigantic aircraft carrier at center, came out of World War II.

Has the day of the aircraft carrier come and gone? And if it had, how would we know? Only the crucible of war can prove military technology is outdated, and the U.S. Navy hasn’t faced that test. At most, the American navy has swatted away all of the technologically-bereft up and comers who tried to fight us conventionally.

If one single invention, manned flight, transformed warfare at sea, what has the digital age done? Since World War II, the world went through its most creative and innovative technological period ever, inventing computers, missiles, guided missiles, the transistor, nuclear power, satellites and countless smaller innoventions, and drastically perfecting everything (radios and wireless communication especially) from before. (Yes, rockets existed in World War II, but the post-war arms race transformed them into something entirely different, like the difference between monkeys and humans.)

Can/Have those inventions transformed war at sea and the U.S. Navy doesn’t even know about it?

I can’t prove it has, but two wargames (H/T to On V fav Malcolm Gladwell.) should give all sailors and navy watchers at least a pinch of doubt about America’s purchasing decisions during the last fifty years.

In the first example, from the appropriately titled article, “How David Beats Goliath”, a computer scientist, Doug Lenat, competed in a simulated naval war game. Instead of designing his own fleet, though, he fed the rules of the competition to a computer program to see what type of fleet it recommended. Instead of big, traditional, slow, well defended ships, his navy had scores and scores of small, lightly defended ships with gigantic weapons. He won the simulated battles in a landslide. He did it again the next year too.
Yet that example has the rightful air of surreality about it compared to my next example: General Paul Van Riper’s legendary victory in Millennium Challenge 2002. I first read about it in Gladwell’s book, Blink, but multiple articles covered it. While Gladwell used Riper to discuss making split second decisions, I find it hard to look past how Riper’s small boats, cruise missiles and torpedoes swarmed and sank dozens of U.S. ships.
Reading these two simulations, I worry: have we missed any other disruptive technological changes?
Has the guided missile--whether sea launched, land launched, or torpedo--replaced aircraft carriers, battleships and missile frigates? Is smaller and more maneuverable better? Will swarms beat giants?

Most importantly, does Iran know any of this?

That brings me back to my naval history: the largest naval operation since World War II occurred in the Persian/Arabian Gulf in 1988, during the last year of the Iran and Iraq war. Called Operation Praying Mantis, I hadn’t even heard of it until I started researching war with Iran, and most Americans have forgotten it too. In this naval battle, U.S. military warships completely obliterated Iran’s conventional navy. If Iran paid attention, it would have learned a lesson: fight conventionally and you will lose, while inflicting hardly any casualties on the Americans.

I believe Iran learned the lesson of that battle, and this makes them very dangerous.

Tomorrow I will explain why.

Apr 03

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

Though I don’t like writing too slangily on a topic this serious, Iran’s military sucks. Take Stephen Walt’s description:

Iran is not a very powerful country at present, though it does have considerable potential...But its defense budget is perhaps 1/50th the size of U.S. defense spending, and it has no meaningful power-projection capabilities. It could not mount a serious invasion of any of its neighbors, and could not block the Strait of Hormuz for long, if at all....

It’s hard to disagree with that take, especially considering this chart making the rounds on Twitter/blogosphere

So on one hand, I agree with Stephen Walt: Iran does not have the capability to strike the U.S. or project power in the Middle East for long. It cannot deploy troops or control surrounding bodies of water with its navy. It also lacks an air force capable of defeating its neighbors in an extended campaign.

Western arms embargoes have atrophied Iran’s advanced weapons capabilities, especially in air defense, conventional ships and aircraft. It has tried to develop an internal defense industry, but it still has a long, long way to go before its domestic arms production even resembles anything close the Western arms manufacturing.

As I’ve told many people in my life, though, size isn’t everything. Iran makes up for its resource deficits through wit, cleverness and initiative. The Iraqi army never truly embraced irregular and asymmetric warfare, but the most well-funded and trusted branch of the Iranian military--the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC, one of the few acronyms Eric C will grant me because, damn, that name is long)--has. The Ayatollahs hold the IRGC in the highest esteem and shower them (relatively) with money, kind of like America’s special operations folks.

The IRGC’s most trusted unit, the Quds Force (The closest thing Iran has to JSOC or CIA Operations branch, if CIA/JSOC supported terrorism. It’s like a bizarro world JSOC.) has operated for the last 30 years, and continues to operate, in countless countries around the Middle East, gaining experience fighting insurgencies, waging asymmetrical war and studying the United States military.

While Iran’s military “sucks”, they might be the best opponent the U.S. has faced since 9/11. Afghanistan barely had a military. Saddam never trusted his military, viewing it more as a threat to his power than an ally. Al Qaeda hide in caves in Pakistan. The Ayatollahs, comparatively, love the IRGC--its name literally means “the guardians of the revolution”.

Does this mean Iran will “win” in a war against the U.S? No. They literally don’t have enough planes, boats, soldiers or tanks to invade America. Iran can defend itself, though. Like an animal backed into a corner, Iran can lash out. That worries me. In my opinion, Iran could inflict a level of casualties equal to what the U.S. military has already seen since 9/11, and it could do so in matter of weeks.

Over the next few posts, I hope to convince my readers that war with Iran will mean dead U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. Possibly thousands. And almost definitely thousands of civilians. And maybe the world economy. Will those costs outweigh the benefits? I doubt it.

We need to have this discussion in concrete terms before the U.S. or Israel goes to war. Let’s start it.

Apr 02

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

Let’s start this IPB with a core assumption: I don’t think Iran’s leaders will start a fight against Israel or America. As others have written, if the Iranian regime truly cares about their survival, they will avoid provoking an overwhelming U.S. response.

Therefore, unless congress approves war (or euphemistically “authorizes the use of military force”) with Iran, or the U.N. Security Council (miraculously) sanctions war (very unlikely), why would Iran risk the wrath of the American military?

Instead, war with Iran would likely begin with a limited series of air and naval strikes on Iranian nuclear sites or military targets by either Israel, the U.S. or both. According to this war game, leaked by The New York Times, if Israel attacks Iran, Iran will attack American targets in return. Iran sees the U.S. as complicit in any Israeli decisions or actions. And since the House Majority Leader, Rep. Eric Cantor said, “We need to make sure that this president is also going to stand by Israel and not allow his administration to somehow speak contrary to what our ally thinks is in its best interest”, this shouldn’t come as a shock.

Most pundits--specifically Jeremy White’s American Interest article, “What Would War with Iran Look Like?” and James Fallows’ article in The Atlantic, “Is Iran Next?”--say that the U.S. has three possible courses of actions to strike Iran. The first is a limited strike on Iranian nuclear targets. (Israel’s only option as well.) Second, America attacks the Iranian military and its IRGC components along with nuclear targets, but stopping short of regime change. In a more extensive campaign, the U.S. or Israel could also send in special operations troops to parts of Iran. The final option is the full monte, invasion. (At this point, the U.S. has not moved the pieces into place to invade Iran.)

Since I don’t see the final option happening, that leaves either a lengthy or abbreviated air and naval bombardment. Once this starts, Iran will now have to choose how to respond, which brings us to my Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield, Iran Edition. I see four major components of an Iranian response:

A. The naval war.

B. The air war.

C. The proxy war in Afghanistan.

D. The asymmetric component (terrorism and long-range missile attacks on civilian populations).

E. All of the above.

F. None of the above.

Proponents of war bank on (the properly titled) option F with unlimited optimism--everything goes smoothly, the Iranians overthrow the Ayatollahs, the nuclear reactors turn into rainbows--while opponents of war tend to bank on option E with globs of pessimism--the U.S. loses every single military battle, Iran wins, America sinks into the ocean.

Plus, we have another major factor: will Iran or America escalate the conflict into a larger war? I will address this issue in its own post a week from Friday.

A realistic Iranian response will probably fall somewhere in between. Iran could succeed in one domain (the sea for example) while failing to find good proxies to exploit in Afghanistan. Iran could fail at stopping American planes from blowing up every target they want, but successfully target the Green Zone in Iraq with ballistic missiles. Iran could shoot down a B-2, but its terrorist proxies in Hezbollah refuse to attack Israel.

Over the next few posts, I will flesh out these various options in my IPB, starting with, broadly speaking, “What do I think of Iran’s military?”