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Persian Gulf Lessons in 1980s for Pentagon Planners Today

August 3rd 2009

Iran - Iranian Warships

While Iran studied the lessons of its conflict with the United States, the Pentagon arguably paid far less attention than it should have. The “Tanker War” of the 1980s had never been popular with an “open ocean” U.S. Navy. The tactical innovations of waging counterinsurgency operations at sea were not incorporated into U.S. naval doctrine or training, except by individual participants who taught at the Naval War College according to their own experiences in the Gulf.

The service branch that did take some interest was the U.S. Army: Operation Earnest Will was used as a case study at its Combined Arms Center, when interest in low-intensity conflict heightened during the 1990s. To save money, U.S. combatant vessels were withdrawn from the Gulf as quickly as possible following the July 1988 ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq War, over the objections of the new CENTCOM commander, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf. He argued that too rapid or dramatic a drawdown in U.S. naval forces would send a message to the region of decreased U.S. commitment and may invite aggression from Iran or other regional adversaries.

By 1989, the Joint Staff and the navy advocated a force level of only five combatants in the Gulf, the same number as before the conflict. Over CENTCOM objections, just two months before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the last of the deployed minesweepers departed Bahrain—only to return a few months later to address a much more serious Iraqi mine threat. It would take Operation Desert Storm and a decades-long naval embargo against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq for the U.S. Navy to begin to address the command-and-control and force-structure requirements needed for the Persian Gulf.

Similarities and differences, then and now

Although political and military conditions have changed considerably in the Persian Gulf since Operation Earnest Will, the operation continues to offer valuable lessons for a future conflict with Iran. The operational environment in the Gulf remains the same. Tanker traffic flows through the same shipping routes in the Gulf and the same channel in the Strait. The deep water is still on the Iranian side, and ships will still be forced to navigate the shallower shoals of the southern Gulf to avoid Iran, making tanker traffic vulnerable to mining and small-boat attacks. As a military force, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) remains anemic and equally vulnerable to Iranian interdiction of its oil exports. Much of the key leadership in Iran is unchanged, and the government operates under the same decision making processes.

Nevertheless, there are a number of key differences between the 1980s and today in the Persian Gulf, generally favoring the United States. U.S. military power in the Gulf far exceeds that deployed twenty years ago. Whereas the United States could not get combat aircraft into Saudi Arabia or Bahrain to support Operation Earnest Will, today U.S. Air Force combat aircraft are positioned in five GCC countries plus Iraq. Multiple U.S. Navy carriers are now a fixture in Gulf waters. Today, the logistical infrastructure to support U.S. forces is extensive. The U.S. Fifth Fleet controls more warships today than at the height of Operation Earnest Will. Even in countermine operations the United States is better positioned today; the U.S. Navy learned its lesson in this instance and maintains four countermine ships in Bahrain.

The most dramatic difference is in coalition support. During the 1980s, the United States acted unilaterally. Although European nations did dispatch seven countermine vessels to the Gulf, they operated independently of CENTCOM. Coalition command arrangements were ad hoc with respect to U.S. participation. Since the September 11, 2001, attacks, coalition naval forces have been fully integrated into U.S. operations. The U.S. Navy Central Command commander is dual-hatted as is the Combined Forces Maritime Component Command (CFMCC) commander, who has a British deputy commander. Coalition officers routinely command Task Force 150, which conducts interdiction operations in the Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. As many as twenty-three ships from Europe, Canada, Australia, and the United States operate in the task force and a similar one operating off the Bab el Mandab, the strait connecting the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, British and Australian forces were fully integrated into the mine-clearing operations off the Iraqi coast. Most important, this command arrangement proved flexible enough to allow U.S. Naval Forces Central Command to execute operations for Operation Iraqi Freedom, in which only two coalition navies agreed to participate, while still simultaneously conducting the larger counterterrorist interdiction operations, often in the same battle space.

The political realities are different, too. The end of the Iran-Iraq War means that Tehran is not operating against the United States while fighting a major land war. The U.S. military has nearly 200,000 troops deployed in two of Iran’s neighbors. Potential military confrontations are complicated by current efforts to reengage Iran to both halt its nuclear program and enlist it in efforts to help undermine insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Despite improvements in hardware within the Iranian military and a changing political reality, Tehran’s strategy for the Persian Gulf and for confronting the United States rests upon the same operational premises that applied twenty years ago: Iranian islands and oil platforms still serve as the key links in the Islamic Republic’s ability to project power into the Gulf. Its ability to close the Strait of Hormuz still rests on land-based surface-to-surface missiles, backed by IRGCN mining and limited air cover. Small boats remain the backbone of the IRGCN, which remains the force of choice for senior Iranian officials.

Relevant lessons from the U.S.-Iranian clashes in the 1980s

Taking into account the political-military and military-technical changes over the years, history imparts a number of lessons that remain valid.

1. Coercive deterrence works.

Iran has usually modified its clandestine attacks when confronted by a U.S. military response. Although some U.S. officials feared military action would bring about Iranian escalation or terrorist attacks, the Islamic Republic typically demonstrated greater restraint when faced with U.S. resolve. Although an attack on its nuclear program would most likely result in more overt aggression, Iran continues to view conflicts with the West in terms of a limited war. Based on the historical record and continuity in decision making among many of the key Iranian political and military leaders, Iran would probably restrain its behavior if the cost of aggressive action becomes too high and the threat does not put at risk the regime’s survival.

2. CENTCOM must anticipate the unconventional threat.

Mining and insurgent tactics have been used successfully by Iran in Lebanon, Iraq, and during Operation Earnest Will. Iran’s improved mine capability allows for mining throughout the Persian Gulf. The United States needs a surveillance plan designed for the entire Gulf— and not just in a few shallow as during Operation Earnest Will—for possible Iranian minelayers or clandestine frogmen. With a large number of unmanned aerial vehicles and much more expansive tactical intelligence capabilities, the United States should adapt its surveillance regime to contain an enhanced Iranian threat.

3. The IRGCN small-boat threat is largely un-changed and can be successfully countered.

The IRGCN tactics and command-and-control abilities to execute small-boat attacks have not changed significantly. Iran has not displayed credible command-and-control to employ swarms of small boats effectively, other than in staged exercises, and the IRGCN does not usually deploy more than three to five boats together. The machine guns and rocket launchers deployed on its small-boat fleet remain highly inaccurate to hit anything but a lumbering, unmaneuverable supertanker. In previous engagements, the U.S. military has dominated Iranian small boats. Even conventional combatants such as the cruiser Vincennes, in its firefight with Iranian small boats in July 1988, showed that the five-inch guns could strike IRGCN boats before they could get close enough to fire their rockets and machine guns. Naval Special Warfare Mark V and Special Operations Craft–Riverine (SOC–R) patrol boats, along with armed Coast Guard vessels, are more than a match for the IRGCN small boats. U.S. Special Warfare sailors are better trained and disciplined than IRGCN personnel. A firefight between small boats of these opposing forces would be a one sided engagement.

4. Floating patrol bases have ongoing utility.

Floating patrol bases, which are currently used to safeguard Iraqi offshore oil platforms, would provide a cost effective system by which to monitor IRGCN activity. Manned by Marines and SEALs, and equipped with helicopters, they could provide the needed presence and deterrence to thwart Iranian small-boat or mining operations. Three Mobile Sea Bases could be deployed opposite the major bases of the IRGCN: one in the northern Gulf, another near Farsi Island, and a third close to Abu Musa Island in the southern Gulf. Similar U.S. forces, especially helicopters, could be staged out of Oman to safeguard the Strait of Hormuz.

5. Iranian-held offshore facilities are useful targets for signaling strikes.

The Iranian-held Abu Musa Island, near the Strait of Hormuz, and Farsi Island, near Kuwait, remain important targets for a measured U.S. military response. All are IRGC bases and key cogs in the Iranian military machine in the Persian Gulf. (And in the case of Abu Musa, Iran’s sovereignty claims are disputed by the United Arab Emirates.)

6. Strong countermine capabilities need to be maintained in the Gulf.

The United States and its allies in Europe need to maintain robust countermine capabilities within the Gulf, positioned to respond quickly to any attempt to disrupt oil exports by Iranian mining. The United States currently has four countermine vessels stationed in the Gulf. This is enough to address any initial contingency, but during Operation Earnest Will, seventeen coalition countermine vessels were required to maintain the safety of the tanker routes. Getting these assets to the Persian Gulf takes time: Piggybacking on super transport ships would take thirty days. If the countermine vessels were to go by their own power, it would take at least sixty days.

7. Coalition support to counter Iran is critical.

Two years of Operation Earnest Will convoys strained the U.S. Navy twenty years ago. Today, the United States has only about two-thirds the number of ships it had during the 1980s. Smaller ships, including European and Australian frigates, would be needed for any prolonged convoy operations. The command relationship under CFMCC exists to conduct these operations, much in the same way operations have recently been expanded for antipiracy operations off Somalia. The United States needs to make the case with its naval allies that any Iranian attempt to mine international waters or threaten oil shipments will be viewed in the same vein as piracy or terrorism. Recently, France has undertaken unilateral actions for its own defense arrangements in the Gulf. Under President Nicolas Sarkozy, France has updated contingency planning with the UAE and Qatar based on mutual defense agreements signed in 1994 and 1995. CENTCOM plans should dovetail with France’s efforts.

8. The issue of mainland attacks on Iran needs to be very carefully considered.

The United States must be prepared for robust retaliation should an asymmetrical attack in a future regional conflict escalate (or if the IRGCN decides to employ its missile boats) and a larger response becomes necessary. Such a response should come in the form of a series of targeting packages based upon graduated response options, ranging from IRGC targets only to more expansive attacks on Iran’s military infrastructure.

A key question with no historical precedent is how Iran would respond to an attack on its mainland, either in response to a provocation or to destroy its nuclear weapons capability. During Operation Earnest Will, CENTCOM developed a series of scaled military options. The commander, Gen. George Crist, recommended as a first option attacking targets that facilitated Iran’s ability to sustain its operations in the Gulf. He proposed seizing one or all of the islands of Farsi, Sirri, or Abu Musa, as well as destroying the oil platforms Iran used to collect intelligence and command the IRGCN. In a memo for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the CENTCOM commander said he wanted to “deny their eyes and forward staging bases within the Gulf.”

Iran would then be forced to sortie from its mainland and “would be more susceptible to detection and interdiction than is now the situation where Gulf havens afford cover, concealment, and support.” In keeping with this strategy, U.S. Army and Marines planned to seize the Iranian offshore oil platforms and the larger islands, Abu Musa and Farsi Island in particular, during Operation Earnest Will.

If such a plan failed to deter Iran, CENTCOM planned to escalate and strike Iranian air and naval targets on the mainland. First on the target list were the Silkworm missile storage sites and Iranian intelligence sites. Other strike packages included Bandar Abbas (to destroy IRIN and IRGC forces). Fourteen B-52s with a mixed load, including precision-guided cruise missiles, would knock out the hard-to-reach targets, such as the Bandar Abbas air defense headquarters and the First Naval District Headquarters building, while others would attack the Bandar Abbas Naval Base. Simultaneously, U.S. Navy aircraft and F-16s based in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia would strike the air defense headquarters and destroy Iranian surface-to-air Hawk missiles that ring Bandar Abbas airport, which, in addition to being a commercial airport, was the main southern airfield for IRIAF and its complement of F-4 fighters.

The validity of this concept was never tested, but based upon historical patterns of Iranian behavior, it was a sound approach to moderate Iranian actions while avoiding a wider war.

9. Explore asymmetric options.

The United States needs to be prepared to use its own asymmetrical operations against Iran. During 1987, CENTCOM and U.S. Special Operations Command developed a number of clandestine operations against the IRGCN. CENTCOM planners referred to such operations as “the invisible hand in reverse.” One of the more popular ideas was to use SEALs to plant explosives on the hulls of the suspected minelayers. There would be no evidence of U.S. culpability, and Washington could attribute their sinking to divine intervention. It was a high-risk venture, which then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger did not authorize.

Yet the concept still holds promise.

David B. Crist, a senior historian in the Joint History Office, Joint Chiefs of Staff, has written and spoken extensively about contemporary military history, especially on operations in the Middle East. He is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve and has served tours in both Afghanistan and Iraq with Coalition Joint Special Operations Task Forces. The views expressed are his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense. This article is an outgrowth of his dissertation research, and is adapted from his larger work Gulf of Conflict: A History of U.S.-Iranian Confrontation at Sea, a Policy Focus published by the Washington Institute for Near East Studies.

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