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The War with Iran IPB: The Naval War Summary

(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.

two comments

You don’t have to sink it to kill large numbers of people. A big fire does the trick as has been demonstrated numerous times. From what I read the Navy is extremely conscious of fire danger but people take short cuts and a lucky hit combined with an ill advised short cut can lead to a lot of dead sailors.

A large fire would require other ships to assist increasing the danger to all as you say. All this buttresses your main point, wars are unpredictable and the enemy can hurt you in ways you ain’t figured on. We have forgotten all of this and I hope we don’t learn it again the hard way.

@ Carl – Well put. Though Michael C’s done a good job on this IPB, in my opinion, it could never contain every option, which is a scary thought.