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Analysis | US, Iranian Militaries' Growing Focus on the Persian Gulf

by PAUL MUTTER

28 Jul 2012 21:26Comments

Iran touts deterrent capability as America devotes new assets to waterway.

SnapshotStraightofHormuz.jpg
Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a fellow at Truthout, an independent online magazine.
[ analysis ] Like the 150 MPs in the Majles who just voted for a bill to close the Strait of Hormuz and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander who dismissed U.S. aircraft carriers in the region as "scrap metal," a Flash graphic (see below) distributed by a Hezbollah website this week boldly proclaims Iran's ability to fight a decisive battle in the Persian Gulf. The graphic's images of Iranian missiles (which fly into the aircraft carrier in the animated version) contrast with what the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence judged in 2005: that "Iran can briefly close the Strait of Hormuz, relying on a layered strategy using predominately naval, air, and some ground forces," but that it would have neither the capacity to maintain an offensive against U.S. military assets in the Gulf nor to continue fighting for an extended period of time without assuming major economic and military losses. Indeed, the Iranian military is now downplaying the bombast, as the United States is making a new show of force in the region ahead of a large U.S.-Israeli defense exercise set for October.

Tensions in the strategic chokepoint of the Strait of Hormuz have increased ahead of that and another U.S.-led military exercise in the region scheduled for the autumn. Earlier this week, the U.S. Navy confirmed the "early deployment" of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis to the Persian Gulf. The Stennis will replace one of the two carriers currently operating in the region, which along with their escorts are to be augmented by more minesweepers, ostensibly to participate in the "International Mine Countermeasures Exercise, 2012." The new deployments come just days after a tense moment when a U.S. Navy ship mistakenly shot up a fishing boat out of the UAE, killing one of the fishermen.

Iran's naval bases of Bandar Abbas, Bushehr, and Khark and the Indian Ocean port of Chah Bahar would all likely be first targets, along with the Iranian Air Force's coastal installations at Shiraz, Umidiyeh, Bushehr, Bandar Abbas, and Chabahar. Iran may also have missile batteries on multiple islands in the Persian Gulf, such as Abu Musa, Qesham, and the Tunbs, facing toward Omani and Emirati ports. Interestingly, in comparing locations of these Gulf shore facilities with inland ones from the New York Times and Jane's Defense Weekly, it is apparent that while the Israeli Air Force's fighter-bomber ranges might not be sufficient to carry sufficient bunker busters to hit Qom, Iran's forward airbases and oil refineries in Khuzestan (plus the nuclear power plant at Bushehr) would be within IAF range. If the Israelis were carrying out airstrikes alongside the United States, their joint forces would be able to deal a heavy blow to Iran's military and industrial infrastructure. Strikes on Iran's Gulf oil rigs and export terminals would be similarly damaging from an economic perspective, since at least two thirds of Iranian government revenues come from oil exports. Iran's inability to modernize and expand its nationwide radar chain despite acquiring top-end Russian systems greatly compromises the effectiveness of its large numbers of anti-air weapons. The Iranian military has tried to compensate for this by concentrating the best of them near Tehran and in sites along the Gulf coast.

It has been suggested that Iran is capable of launching a surprise attack in the Persian Gulf against the U.S. Navy. Given the weakness of its military position, though, it is difficult to conceive of a situation where Iran would undertake this short of perceiving that a U.S. attack was imminent.

SnapshotIranMilitary.jpgAnti-ship weapons would constitute the core of any Iranian effort, defensive or preemptive, and defeating them is a U.S. priority lest it suffer unacceptable losses (such as the crippling or sinking of a carrier) in fighting what most officials hope will be a "short" campaign. At least half of the missiles shown in the Hezbollah graphic are license-built copies of Chinese weapons. The most notable are perhaps the Kowsar and the Noor, both derived from newer Chinese export models, and the Khalije Fars (Persian Gulf), though as the newest domestic design of the bunch, it is thought to still suffer from design flaws.

The graphic -- like the Iranian military -- does not hint that Iran is in possession of Russian-made Moskit supersonic anti-ship missiles. Despite Iran's well-known interest in purchasing the system, the weapon has never officially been reported in its arsenal. However, a reverse-engineered variant of it would indeed pose a significant threat: given its speed, maneuverability, and integrated countermeasures, even U.S. Navy ships would not have enough time to intercept it. And it is understood that if Iran does have missiles something like the Moskit, it would deploy them from its heavily indented Persian Gulf coastline -- not unlike Iraq's, which the United States found difficult to sweep for anti-ship missile sites during the First Gulf War -- and among its surface fleet. Capable supersonic missiles (or even upgraded, older subsonic ones) deployed on Iran's dozen or so frigates and gunboats would pose a serious threat to both supertankers and U.S. capital ships. Iran's navy is expected to rely heavily on dozens of these craft in the event of any conflict, and has been working to mass-produce stealthier versions of them for the Revolutionary Guards. According to the Washington Post, this is what U.S. planners are expecting in the event of a war.

In addition to its anti-ship missile stocks, Iran's other main sea denial asset is its stockpile of naval mines, which can be deployed rapidly from small craft and submersibles. The Islamic Republic's minelaying capacity is not that well documented in the public domain, but it is thought that Iran has thousands of "smart" mines that would pose a significant threat to shipping in the Persian Gulf if activated.

The extensive deployment of U.S. aircraft in the region aboard carriers and in airbases from Bahrain to Diego Garcia is the greatest threat in the eyes of Iran's strategic planners. Given long-standing arms embargoes and the attrition of pre-1979 equipment, Iran's offensive air capabilities would be extremely limited; this fact would certainly prompt a greater focus on the use of "asymmetrical" Revolutionary Guard amphibious units and minelayers in the waterway.

Iran's air defenses, though often lacking in 21st-century information technology, represent another obstacle to U.S. (and Israeli) operations. This is mainly due to Tehran's modernization of certain parts of its air defense network using Chinese- and Russian-derived mobile air defense systems. But even the "inventive" use of some 40-plus F-14A Tomcats as both interceptors and "mini-airborne radars" again highlights a significant problem for Iran: slow progress on integrating the country's more advanced anti-air weapons with a nationwide radar chain.

Counterbalancing these naval and aerial weaknesses are Iran's mobile surface-to-surface missile systems. One of Iran's underreported deterrents against Israeli attacks, the mobile transport and erector units are much harder to detect than static launch sites. Israeli missile expert Uzi Rubin fears that Iran's growing number of mobile launcher systems will permit the regime to launch successful nonnuclear retaliatory strikes by overwhelming Israel's antiballistic missile defenses. The Center for Strategic and International Studies noted that a 2006 missile exercise, Great Prophet II, highlighted the possible advantages of the mobile launchers: "no failures, no problems, no delays, and no electronic signature that could have provided a forewarning" -- though it's also been shown that Iran has been doctoring information about these launches. Perhaps with this in mind, U.S. officials have revealed, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, that the military is setting up a new $12.2 million radar site in Qatar to complement sites in Israel and Turkey:

The radar installations in turn are being linked to missile-interceptor batteries throughout the region and to U.S. ships with high-altitude interceptor rockets. The X-Band radar provides images that can be used to pinpoint rockets in flight.

Officials said the U.S. military's Central Command, which is overseeing the buildup to counter Iran, also wants to deploy the Army's first Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile-interceptor system, known as a THAAD, to the region in the coming months, possibly in the United Arab Emirates.

It is not clear, though, exactly what these developments are supposed to signal to Iran. Joel Gozansky of the Institute for National Security Studies -- a think tank that is very close to the Israeli government and defense establishment -- wonders if "it is likely that Iran's violation of the freedom of navigation in Hormuz Strait will drive an American assault on most of Tehran's naval assets in the Gulf." And as analyst Raymond Pritchett recently asked at Information Dissemination, "What exactly is the [U.S.] Navy killing itself for? If these long deployments aren't a domestic political agenda to avoid a public spat between the President and General Mattis, then the answer must be these deployments are intended to prevent war with Iran. There really is no middle ground here, because there really can't be any other justification for this type of persistent operational tempo."

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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