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Asymmetric Guerrilla Naval Warfare Comes to a Theater (of War) Near You!

(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.

five comments

I bring this up because you have mentioned it twice. The attack on the U.S.S. Liberty was NOT an accident. It was an intentional sustained attack upon a USN vessel the intention of which was to sink the ship. The only reason they didn’t is because the Israelis weren’t very good at attacking ships, we built ‘em good in WWII and there was a very good crew manning the Liberty. They saved the ship but lost dozens of shipmates doing so.

Maybe the IRGC small boat fleet will be effective. History has yet to demonstrate that but maybe. The land based missiles are another thing but they have to be cued and that requires a radar I imagine. Which means electronic warfare and all the complications that entails. Hopefully we are better at that than they are.

The Iranians have 3 Kilo class subs and numerous mini-subs. The last combat vessel to be sunk in the world (I think) was the South Korean ship that was sunk by a North Korean mini-sub in constricted waters. I don’t know all that much about anti-sub ops in shallow water and chasing mini-subs but those things may be a big problem…if they have determined and daring crews.

First, a disclaimer. I’m not a sailor, and I am not nearly as well read in naval war as land war. So when it comes to the USS Liberty incident, my knowledge comes from Wikipedia. Then I scrolled to the bottom and saw the controversy about whether or not Israel intended to attack the U.S. Actually, if Israel intended to, this only furthers my core point that any opponent would be foolish to attack America conventionally.

Now, as for small boats, I am not guaranteeing they will sink a U.S. ship. All I am saying is that Iran has several options in its asymmetric navy to attack America—shore launched cruise missiles, ship launched cruise missiles, suicide boats and mines. You bring up a point I had previously underestimated, mini-subs. Especially if used Asymmetrically, like a guided torpedo or to get close and “daring” as you said.

My chief worry is that the current narrative treats our Navy as near invincible. Literally, a Goliath about to crush a David. As if Iran’s navy lacks any recourse to cause any casualties. Tomorrow, I will try to describe some of the possible outcomes. They aren’t likely, but when you add up all of Iran’s options, something terrible could happen.

And I probably underestimated how well the Persian Gulf suits Iran’s navy as opposed to a deep-water Navy like the American navy. this severely limits the advantages of a conventional navy.

“My chief worry is that the current narrative treats our Navy as near invincible.”

That is a very good point. We seem to think they are so many biological pop-up targets.

Exactly. And if one of those pop up targets sinks an aircraft carrier (not likely but possible), the reckoning will be tremendous. Our military’s leaders and our political leaders should lead this discussion. To fill in the gap, I want to present real, possible outcomes for this war. And there are a lot.