Asymmetry at Sea

What war with Iran in the Gulf could be like

The prospect of a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities has conjured up a variety of dire scenarios: a stratospheric rise in oil prices, further radicalization across Middle East, and the resumption of mass bloodshed in Iraq, as Teheran unleashes its terrorist agents there. But all this talk of catastrophe still gives short shrift to one of the gravest potential threats:  Iranian attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf.

Iran is bringing 21st century warfare to the seas by planning small-boat suicide attacks that would resemble in some ways the aerial and naval suicide missions launched by Imperial Japan during its last desperate days in the Second World War. At the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, the Japanese mixed unconventional and conventional tactics to kill 12,000 Americans and wound more than 33,000. Iran, by contrast, is threatening a purely unconventional naval war, including attacks on U.S. military targets and on international maritime traffic. Oil prices would spike, and Iran would enjoy a long-term profit, even if it temporarily could not export its own oil.

“Iran has developed a comprehensive doctrine of asymmetric warfare, based on its experience during the  Iran-Iraq War, as well as more recent conflicts,” writes Fariborz Haghshenass, a specialist on the Iranian military, in a superb monograph (“Iran’s Asymmetric Naval Warfare”) published recently by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Thanks to this doctrine, Iran holds the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz—the world’s energy lifeline—“in its grip.”

The Persian Gulf possesses 55 percent of the world’s crude oil reserves. Iran dominates the whole Gulf, from the Shatt al Arab on its Iraqi border to the Strait of Hormuz 615 miles away. Deployed from this immense seaboard are the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy, or IRGCN. U.S. Navy officers told me they have had civil encounters at sea with the regular Iranian navy, but not with the IRGCN. The IRGCN is a fully mechanized terrorist force. Although it is the unconventional offshoot of the regular navy, it is actually slightly larger than its parent, with 20,000 reportedly heavily-ideological sailors. It promises an unprecedented fusion of a modern military with sea-based asymmetric force.

The IRGCN was established in 1985 and made its reputation during the Iran-Iraq War with a daring assault led by young Basiji frogmen on Iraq's Faw peninsula. But most IRGCN attacks on Iraq focused on Iraqi ships, and were vulnerable to early detection by the Iraqis. The IRGCN learned from the experience and embarked on a modernization program that included the purchase of anti-ship missiles on portable platforms, small fast-attack craft heavily armed with rockets and anti-ship missiles, and mines and mine-laying platforms.

The IRGCN also learned to exploit Iran's coastline, which is rugged with bays, inlets, coves, and islands well suited to conceal small bases. Iran has three major navy bases on the mainland, and three on the strategically valuable islands of Abu Musa, Larak, and Siri, smack in the middle of the Gulf near the Strait of Hormuz. The Iranian navies maintain 60 other small ports, and Revolutionary Guard personnel have embedded among local inhabitants in many other easy-to-conceal staging areas in fishing villages along the Iranian shore.

As Haghshenass observes in his monograph, Iran’s heavily armed smaller speedboats “can be launched the back of a flatbed truck under cover of darkness, during high tide without any special accommodations,” and with low risk of detection. The IRGCN will use its knowledge of coastal terrain to the utmost, perhaps as effectively as guerrillas in Afghanistan used their terrain against the Soviets and NATO.

The heart of the IRGCN arsenal is its 200 small potential-suicide boats. They tend to be locally produced fiberglass motorboats with a heavy machine gun, a multiple rocket-launcher, or a mine. They may also carry heavy explosives, if rigged to ram and blow a hole in the hull of a larger ship. These boats will likely employ a strategy of “swarming”—coming out of nowhere to ambush merchant convoys and American warships in narrow shipping lanes. Iran’s three Kilo-class submarines and four smaller, locally made midget submarines will help out, the latter by mining channels and choke-points.  And the most potent weapon the IRGCN may possess is its religious zeal and culture of martyrdom. Thousands of religious commissars buttress its ranks, and the IRGCN has emphasized preparing spiritually for asymmetric combat.

The U.S. Navy is certainly not defenseless against kamikaze warfare. “We have been preparing for it for a number of years with changes in training and equipment,” said Vice Admiral (ret.) Kevin Cosgriff, former commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command. Cosgriff told me that the U.S. has put more machine guns and 25-millimeter gyro-stabilized guns on the decks of warships, modified the 5-inch gun to make it more capable of dealing with high-speed boats, and improved the sensor suit of the Aegis computer-integrated combat system aboard destroyers and cruisers. But Cosgriff cautions that the IRGCN represents an “evolving, thinking adversary” who may employ not only simple swarming tactics but also attacks by fewer platforms that come armed with more sophisticated weapons, like anti-ship missiles and long-range torpedoes.

In 2002, the U.S. military conducted a war game that revealed a critical vulnerability to swarming speedboats in shallow coastal waters like the Gulf. The war game led to “the worst [simulated] naval defeat since Pearl Harbor,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Stanley Weeks, a naval specialist at the Institute for Defense Analysis in Washington, told me that “swarming, together with mobile coastal missile batteries aimed at our ships, might overload our combat systems and is, therefore, a real concern and stress.” U.S. ships and helicopters with precision guided weapons might destroy most of these small boats, but if even a few boats and missiles get through, they could create psychological and financial havoc.

There is one nightmare scenario, however, that will not happen. A third Gulf war won't replicate many times what happened in 2000 in Aden, Yemen, when a suicide bomber rammed the USS Cole and killed 17 sailors. The Cole was at anchor and at a minimum state of readiness. In the next Gulf war, our ships will be moving and on high alert. And the Aegis system is designed to shoot over the horizon at multiple attackers. Swarming small boats might turn out to be an unnerving nuisance, rather than a pivotal threat, somewhat like the attacks from small trucks of the Fedayeen Saddam on U.S. ground forces en route to Baghdad in 2003.

We can’t be sure how a naval war will play out. We defeated Iran’s conventional navy in the Gulf in 1987-88, during the reflagging and escort of Kuwait tankers. The Iranians have, as the losing side, worked hard to find fixes to the problems that conflict revealed. Despite all our preparations, the Iranians have been faster and more aggressive in expanding their sea-based asymmetric warfare capability than we have been in countering it. The U.S. Navy has been working on the Littoral Combat Ship, which would provide added protection against swarm attacks. But it could be years before the required dozens of these ships are ready. The U.S. Navy is still, by and large, a conventional blue-water force designed to patrol vast oceans, win classic sea battles, and pound an enemy with overwhelming firepower from offshore positions. A close-in, dirty war in narrow coastal waters is not something we can’t do, but it is something we should try to avoid. It does not play to our strengths.

Some of the promoters of a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities have sold the strike as a high-tech, airborne surgical attack. But a look at the naval environment indicates that like the Iraq invasion, what starts surgically could end very messily indeed.