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Bad Intervention Ideas: Iran Edition

March 13, 2012

Recently, a reporter on C-SPAN’s Newsmakers asked Senator Carl Levin if supposedly limited military actions, such as a naval blockade or no-fly zone would be effective U.S. policy options for dealing with – wait for it – Iran. The reporter asking the question described these as “military options that don’t immediately require the use of force,” and Levin replied that they could be effective measures for the U.S., Israel, and other countries to explore, although he claimed that sanctions might have a similar effect.

Now, this may be blowing a throwaway question on a C-SPAN program out of proportion, but the ease and casual assumptions behind the exchange were disturbing. To run things down quickly, both a naval blockade and imposition of a no-fly zone over a country’s sovereign airspace are acts of war. Trying to distinguish these military actions from the employment of force is worse than hair-splitting, it avoids the fact that these actions will invite serious risk to American soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen (as well as civilians, intelligence personnel and diplomats) and U.S. national interests.

A naval blockade against Iran would be an act of war. Furthermore, it would invite a major conflict in the Strait of Hormuz. One of the primary incentives for Iran not to attempt to close the Straits is that Iran needs to export and acquire revenue too. However, if Iran’s ports are being rendered inaccessible under the guns of the USN and partner forces, Iran will have little to lose by conducting retaliatory attacks against the blockading fleets with its various regular and irregular area-denial assets, or conducting attacks on Arab ports and U.S. military facilities in the region. Naval warfare is still war, and Iran already demonstrated during the late-’80s Tanker War that it is willing to defend the Gulf from a U.S. naval force. Iranian naval capabilities had to be fought and defeated, their government did not simply capitulate at the sight of the U.S. Navy, even as the country was facing a massive and frustrating land war with Iraq.

Quarantine had a positive effect during the Cuban Missile Crisis because it threatened the logistical lifeline between the Soviet Union and its actual deployed nuclear delivery systems in Cuba, not because it was a mere show of strength. The aim of a military action cannot be mere toughness, and if strategic sell of a naval blockade is that it weakens the Iranian economy, it is hard to see blockade as anything but a more dangerous and costly variation on sanctions.

As for a no-fly zone, has such a term really become such a buzzword that functions as a cure all even for Iran, a major regional power? Let’s be clear – an attempt to impose a no-fly zone against Iran involves achieving air superiority over a country the size of Alaska. This means an enormous number of combat aircraft to achieve satisfactory sortie generation ratios, and even more when one considers Iran has massive and widely dispersed networks of air defense that the U.S. would need to neutralize before it could seriously entertain a solid system of combat air patrol over the country. As with naval blockades, trying to deny a country the use of its own sovereign airspace is absolutely an act of war, and it would require force. The actual strategic logic of such a campaign in Iran is even less logical than that of a naval blockade. A no-fly zone would start a war for the sake of acting tough, without seriously undermining the Iranian regime’s option for broadening the conflict or employing alternative means of coercion.

One of the unfortunate consequences of the policy debate surrounding the way of warfare has been a bizarre fixation on military options, involving employing force to overthrow an enemy’s will, that are some how not war. Dissatisfied – rightfully so – with the outcomes of U.S. wars involving the overthrow of regimes and the occupation of their territories, the shift to a more maritime and aerial approach has somehow given rise to the idea that since these wars don’t involve U.S. personnel on the ground, they’re not really war. When you stop calling things what they are, you impede the ability to have informed and meaningful discussions about them. The consequences of the “time-limited, scope-limited military action” euphemisms is that policymakers have all sorts of new options but a distorted and understated appreciation of the consequences of these options. Libya was an affordable mistake which stemmed from this thinking. Going onto Iran with the same sort of mindset would almost certainly not be.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. March 13, 2012 6:50 pm

    well done. kind of silly you should have to take a prominent senator to school like this but he kind of had it coming. feel free to do one of these on either or both of my iran posts (it’s usually easier for either side to make a coherent point in more than 140 characters). again, i’d welcome the criticism.

  2. March 13, 2012 6:51 pm

    also, feel free to add a G+ share button on the bottom of these, i tend to share more blog posts on there rather than twitter and don’t have a fb

  3. March 13, 2012 9:46 pm

    “…if strategic sell of a naval blockade is that it weakens the Iranian economy, it is hard to see blockade as anything but a more dangerous and costly variation on sanctions.”

    Yeah, more dangerous by a factor of 1000. : )

  4. March 14, 2012 6:59 am

    Great post! But,not only is war not being considered war because American boots aren’t being placed on the ground, there is also the issue, such as in the recent Libyan intervention, where what is in reality war is considered something far more ambiguous on the basis of the fact that human soldiers and airmen have been replaced by drones.

    http://utopiaordystopia.com/2012/01/25/of-drones-and-democracy/

  5. TheRagingTory permalink
    March 14, 2012 9:10 am

    Would a No Fly Zone really require such massive assets?
    What does NFZ “really” mean?

    I’m not saying its a good idea, but the US could launch something like Operation Focus against Iran with the assets it already has in the region.
    The US would struggle to intercept a fighter transiting between two bases in the North, but it wouldnt struggle to attack one or both of those bases within 24 hours.

    Not a conventional no fly zone, but the difference is superficial at best.
    Irans right to flight is effectivly denied, and the more it resists, the more damage its airforce suffers in the struggle.

    Would Iran escalate into a full scale war?
    Why?
    How?

    It could increase its arms shipments to Afghan militias, a worrying prospect, but one that pales into insignificance if the US counters by systematicaly leveling AGIR infrastructure with heavy bombers and killing Iranian Politicians.

    97% of Iraqs electricity infrastructure was disabled in the first gulf war, before ground troops went in.
    I cant think what demands the US is making of Iran that are worse than a pre electrical economy.

    • March 14, 2012 1:34 pm

      Yes. A No-Fly Zone over Iran requires suppressing all air defense assets in the area, which would mean weeks of bombing to destroy SAM sites, radars and other sensors, and communications infrastructure, as well as airfields. Then it would need to be patrolled indefinitely. This would likely involve dozens of aircraft, dozens of naval vessels, and thus thousands of U.S. personnel and billions of dollars just to impose a no-fly zone over *part* of Iran. The whole country would require even more time, equipment, and money.

      • TheRagingTory permalink
        March 15, 2012 5:37 am

        “A No-Fly Zone over Iran requires suppressing all air defense assets in the area, which would mean weeks of bombing to destroy SAM sites, radars and other sensors, and communications infrastructure, as well as airfields.”

        Does it though?

        Runways are fixed and can be targetted by anything from unguided bombs to cruise missiles.
        SAM systems *only* need to be supressed when friendly aircraft are over head.

        “Then it would need to be patrolled indefinitely.”
        Why?

        Its certainly one way of enforcing a “No Fly Zone”, but I’d question it being the only way.

        A cheaper, and in the long run, no less effective method could be to use airborne radar to track Irans airforce, and attack its functional airbases at random intervals.
        Possibly with a mass wave of bombers, or maybe with cruise missiles.

        Argueing that the only way of imposing a no fly zone, is dog fighting fighter pairs with cannons isnt really realistic.
        Its ‘a’ way

  6. March 15, 2012 6:18 am

    I’m sorry, but what you’re describing isn’t a no-fly zone, it’s an indefinite war with Iran, and actually requires far more resources. Yes, it would require suppression of enemy air defenses because you would need friendly aircraft in the air to destroy enough of the airfields and aircraft on the ground. Iran is too large to achieve rapid surprise and destroy all the aircraft at once. They would never all be in the air, so there would need to be constant sortie generation until its air power was completely reduced. I never said anything about dog-fighting, but you can’t ensure a no-fly zone (or, for that matter, effective air strikes) without combat air patrols, and a bombing campaign that would destroy all of Iran’s air force on the ground would last months because not all of the Iranian air force could be simultaneously targeted.

    Furthermore you are absolutely wrong that Iran would not escalate. Iran would launch a full-scale naval war to destroy or disrupt U.S. carrier groups in the Gulf which would render the necessary SEAD capabilities severely limited. Yes, Iran could have the capability to inflict thousands of deaths through an asymmetric naval campaign using missiles, fast boats, mines, and submarines if faced with a prolonged war – see Millenium Challenge 2002. Iran would also escalate by using IRGC/QF assets to launch terrorist campaigns in the Gulf and throughout Europe and possibly even the continental United States.

    Even if the U.S. launched a bombing campaign with necessary SOF and naval support long enough to 1) suppress enemy air defense long enough to permit the bombing of Iranian airfields at will 2) the destruction of Iranian economic infrastructure and 3) limit Iranian overt and covert retaliatory options regionally and extra-regionally, it would drive energy prices to such a high level that Western economies would be crippled. And it wouldn’t even succeed at all three of those goals anyway.

    There’s no scenario I can think of under which such risks would be even remotely justified except in the case of an ongoing, not potential, overt Iranian attack on the United States or one of its Gulf allies.

  7. TheRagingTory permalink
    March 15, 2012 10:40 am

    “there would need to be constant sortie generation until its air power was completely reduced.”

    Why?

    “but you can’t ensure a no-fly zone (or, for that matter, effective air strikes) without combat air patrols”
    Of course you can.
    Your setting an impossible target, “no Iranian aircraft may take off without being turned into a fireball”.
    A far more realistic target would be that Iran grounds its airforce to protect it from losses.

    “Furthermore you are absolutely wrong that Iran would not escalate. Iran would launch a full-scale naval war to destroy or disrupt U.S. carrier groups in the Gulf which would render the necessary SEAD capabilities severely limited”

    What would Iran gain by sinking a Carrier and killing 5000 Americans?
    Beyond a signed death warrant?
    Turning a minor skirmish into a total war it cannot possibly win doesnt seem like a sound move.

    “There’s no scenario I can think of under which such risks would be even remotely justified except in the case of an ongoing, not potential, overt Iranian attack on the United States or one of its Gulf allies.”
    As I said, I dont get what a “no fly zone” achieves, beyond degrading the already woeful skills of Irans aviation arms, as a plan, it makes little sense.

    But the idea that Iran can inflcit massive losses on the US in open war makes even less sense.

    • March 15, 2012 5:55 pm

      If the point is to just temporarily ground Iran’s air force… Then there isn’t a point. They would disperse it and hide it, and then reactivate it after the bombing campaign was over (classic 3rd world tactics).

      Your plan involves bombing all over Iran indefinitely and destroying their civilian infrastructure. What would they have to lose? The notion that bombing Iran’s air defenses, airfields, and electrical infrastructure among other targets is a “minor skirmish” that Iran wouldn’t want to escalate is a total fantasy. Imposing a no-fly zone across all of Iran would involve bombing targets all over the country, it would be hard to see why Iran wouldn’t want to retaliate with at least terrorist attacks on U.S. interests in the Gulf.

      And yes, Iran can inflict massive losses on the U.S. in open war if it chooses to. Again, familiarize yourself with Millenium Challenge 2002.

      • TheRagingTory permalink
        March 16, 2012 9:39 am

        “If the point is to just temporarily ground Iran’s air force… Then there isn’t a point.”
        As I said, I dont see the point of a NFZ…

        “Your plan involves bombing all over Iran indefinitely and destroying their civilian infrastructure.”
        No it doesnt.
        My “Plan”, such as it is, could be over in a day.

        Firstly, of course, someone would have to provide a reason to attack Iran in the first place.

        That could then be turned into a demand of some sort “Do / Stop Doing X or we’ll beat you until you comply”

        If Iran fails to comply, a carrier or three based in the Indian Ocean speeds into the Arabian Sea and launches mass raids against the Iranian Coastal Defences.
        If such defences are overly worrying, use those rather funky SSGN’s to deliver the opening salvo.
        Or wait 67 hours after the deadline has passed, and the enemy has assumed it was all a bluff

        Resubmit the demand, and if compliance isnt achieved, move further inland against airfields and defences, and repeat.

        “And yes, Iran can inflict massive losses on the U.S. in open war if it chooses to. Again, familiarize yourself with Millenium Challenge 2002.”

        Out of curiosity, how many missiles were in the Red barrage? And how many 500km ranged missiles does Iran have?

        The purpose of a NFZ against Iran wouldnt be a No Fly Zone.
        The purpose would be to pressure Iran to do something.
        That “thing” is unlikely to be preferable to a full scale war, and if it is, well, then, wars the only option.

        The current front page post on taming intervention has a bit on “punishment” that probably expalins my point better than I could.

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