Iran acts like a Persian Gulf hegemon because it can. Tehran’s military, while capable of making a less-than-concerted attack costly, would be overmatched by the armed forces of the United States and those of the Persian Gulf states and crumble quickly along with its regime. The window of opportunity is closing with Russia’s announced intention to deploy S-300 anti-aircraft, anti-ballistic missiles. Furthermore, if Tehran bamboozles Washington into a nuclear arms deal involving the lifting of economic sanctions look for Russia, China, and some European defense companies to provide a cornucopia of modern arms. Nevertheless, it takes time to develop a defense system capable of thwarting U.S. “hyper war” capabilities.
Hyper war builds on the synthesis between technology and strategy behind “Blitzkrieg” as practiced by German and Soviet forces in World War II. Today’s more advanced hyper war employs a two-fold strategy. In the opening salvo hyper war obliterates the enemy’s command, control, communications and information (C3-I) targets rendering politico-military decapitation. With Iran’s political and military leaders unable to communicate and coordinate defenses, the next set of targets diminishes every facet of the enemy’s military supporting infrastructure to include its ability to move and resupply forces.
While Iran’s armed forces, especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), look impressive and its support for Hezbollah, Hamas, and Shiite factions in Iraq and Yemen contribute to the IRGC’s touted (and deserved reputation) as a major exporter of terrorism and mischief, in reality Iran’s armed forces are no match for a concerted hyper-war attack led by U.S. military forces and supported by the modern and well-trained militaries of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Even so, Iran might use conventional missiles, some tipped with chemical/biological weapons, to terrorize the region. While Iran can mobilize a force of nearly a million ground troops, half are poorly trained reserves. It cannot thwart a robust U.S. led hyper-war assault.
Saudi and UAE defense budgets are nearly three times Tehran’s. Over the past decade, both nations purchased the latest weapons to include modern fighter-bombers and armored vehicles. Their pilots and ground-force commanders are trained in U.S. military tactics and their generals were educated at American war colleges. While Saudi Arabia and the UAE could take down Iran alone, they are more likely to support a concerted U.S.-led campaign. American leadership is critical.
The Iranian Air Force, while roughly the size of Israel’s, is largely composed of American aircraft delivered under the Shah in the mid-to-late 1970s. These include F-4 Phantoms, F-5 light fighters, and a handful of obsolescing F-14s without the sophisticated avionics of later models. The remaining 40 percent of its air force consists of a hodgepodge of early models of Russian MiG-29s, along with a smattering of Russian and French planes handed over by Iraqi pilots who fled before the first hyper-war assault in January 1991 during Operation Desert Storm. Rapid and relentless hyper-war attacks would obliterate Iran’s air defenses almost immediately.
Iran can use anti-shipping missiles and its small navy’s well-practiced mine-laying capabilities to block the Straits of Hormuz. But according to defense expert Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the United States could reopen the waterway within 10 days to two weeks. Swarm attacks by small boats and light aircraft, a kind of modern kamikaze effort, are possible but the chances for mobilizing and coordinating such a response decrease with a successful initial hyper-war attack.
The IRGC has a reputation for exporting terrorism. Indeed, it was behind much of the pain and suffering inflicted on U.S. troops during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Hezbollah, trained and supported by the IRGC, also gave the vaunted Israeli Defense Forces all it could handle during Operation Change of Direction, Israel’s 2006 campaign in southern Lebanon. Nevertheless, initial decapitation of IRGC leadership in the initial stage of a hyper-war attack would diminish its capabilities. The rest of the Iranian ground forces are relatively poorly equipped with obsolete weapons like towed artillery and rocket launchers. Basically, this provides hyper-war planners a “target rich environment.”
If the Iranian bully isn’t thwarted, and if Tehran obtains nuclear weapons along with advanced Russian and Chinese weapons that will come with lifted economic sanctions, the Persian Gulf region, the Middle East, Europe, and the United States will pay a much higher price. Timing is critical.
Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.
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