Wargame: Consequences Of Bombing Iran, Pt. I
Al C. wrote to remark on my last post, Iraq and How to Win The Mid-East, that he would rather hear about what might really happen than what could ideally under leaders with a lick of sense. Realistically, the Bush Administration has worked itself out of face-saving options in Iraq, and is running out of time before its humiliation is complete. They are entering into a period in which the logic for attacking Iran goes like this: "If not now, never."
This is the same logic the German High Command labored under in the years prior to declaring war in 1914, and as uttered by Helmuth von Moltke. The longer Germany waited, the thinking went, the stronger its enemies and the weaker its position, particularly relative to Russia, worsening with time until there was no prospect of a German victory. Ironically Germany knocked all its adversaries in the East out of the war, but lost in the West, which was not its preferred battleground. Next time, in WWII, the German High Command tried to knock the West out first, before turning to what it still saw as the true evolving threat in the East. However, they felt compelled to attack eastward before they had completed a defeat of England, once again out of fear Russia was too rapidly gaining in relative strength. (It was.) Faced with a Catch-22 they found unacceptable, the German wargamers decided to free themselves from a key constraint, believing a course of aggressive action to be their lowest risk. They were wrong, very wrong. Twice.
This fear of impending failure and associated desperate logic are well known in military affairs and labeled under the "Flucht nach Vorne" (flee forward) conundrum, and it'd be strange if the Bush Administration, the Pentagon, and especially Israel weren't feeling the teeth in this tendency gnaw on their brains day and night. I don't mean to compare the group individually or collectively to the German High Command, they do such a fine job themselves, but to spotlight a powerful planning dilemma. If Iran develops nuclear weapons capability, it at best means the end of American oligarchy in the region, via a Persian balance of power with Israel. Both Israel and Iran are widely seen as willing to use nuclear weapons against each other, so there is the Catch-22. (I don't agree with it, but there it is. I think it's more plausible that Israel finds the prospect of military parity unacceptable, and that BushCo finds the prospect of ceding energy control to market forces unacceptable.) The West's logic is that an Iran led by mullahs must either be stopped from developing any nuclear capacity at all or undergo regime change, and that if neither outcome can be achieved it must be struck first. Reality: there's not going to be a regime change, because Iran is expanding is influence, is not under immediate threat of domestic unrest, and is in an excellent defensive position militarily and politically. They're not going to stop enriching uranium for nuclear energy, at least not at an acceptable price, because it is their right to enrich uranium for nuclear energy as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
I believe the odds of a first strike on Iran during 2007 are greater than 50%. There are many consequences which can be easily projected from such an act, many of them far-reaching and some very dark. Let's for the sake of comfort assume a response would be escalated gradually and not careen immediately out of control into a global nuclear war. I'm fairly optimistic on this point because Russia, Iran, and China all would have a common tormenter conveniently within reach: the US troops, mercenaries, bureaucrats, and facilities in Iraq. Think the Iran Hostage Crisis, magnified a thousand times.
Our high-level planners have little idea how vulnerable Coalition ground forces are in Iraq. In the aftermath of an air assault on Iranian nuclear facilities, ground supply lines in the Shia rump of Iraq would be crimped shut, and the 400-mile supply line running from Kuwait would be immediately cut in numerous places, with columns attacked and plundered. All unarmored vehicles would require heavy escorts, and these would shoot anything which moved. Then bridges would be blown by guerillas, effectively limiting the armored columns to very limited local operation only. Obtaining fuel for vehicles would quickly become a major challenge. After one week, many garrisons would be unable to mount offensive operations, and most would desperately need re-supply even in the absence of any attack. They would need to obtain food from the local populace, another challenge it is hard to imagine would proceed without significant resistance.
Re-supply by air would commence fitfully, with helicopters eventually dispatched to remote bases. Iran can be expected to speedily supply the latest Russian-made MANPAD (shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles) weapons systems to Shia militias. There are already indications sophisticated portable air defense systems are in Sunni hands, as 1 F-16 and four helicopters went down in the Anbar Province during the week of November 27th. The presence of these SAMs in any numbers at all would make re-supply by helicopter no longer be feasible because of unacceptably high loss rates at low altitudes. Within two weeks' time this would force unit consolidation into the largest bases, particularly those bases with air strips allowing more efficient re-supply and with very long lines of sight for defensibility. Few other locations in the country would be safely tenable for long.
Even in the absence of any Iranian "freedom fighter" formations, which would probably be marched in from Iran as a response to a US or Israeli attack on its facilities, the problem for most of the coalition troops would be balancing the likelihood of prolonged supply interruption with the feasibility of breaking out by pulling a "Thunder Road" over to a larger fortified base. In many cases it would be against orders or infeasible, so some bases could be worn down by simple lack of supply and lack of access. In order to conserve supplies and defensive capacity, smaller garrisons would fortify their positions and cease patrols. For those which obeyed orders and didn't quickly break out, you would begin to see company-level guerilla actions against them. The smaller garrisons would be the first to be cut off, like those of the Danes, Poles, and Brits. Typical evacuation scenarios would probably be columns of humvees and trucks driving into unexpectedly heavy RPG ambushes, or helicopters being shot down while trying to land or take off from a base, with prolonged firefights as air assets are used to secure the area, and then having the process repeat. There are only so many helicopters available, and they are not easily replaced, so the threat of SAMs would result in widespread caution regardless of their actual presence. Many garrisons and columns between them would likely be captured. I can't see how there wouldn't be thousands of captured troops, and indeed that outcome would probably be the primary objective of Iraqi militia and Iranian political activity.
If an overall militia battle plan were decently timed and coordinated, there wouldn't be enough air cover to go around and bases could be directly assaulted and overwhelmed in force, probably at night. Atrocities could well be expected if significant numbers of Iranian civilians had been victims of US or Israeli air attacks, said to be a virtual certainty because of the urban locations of many of their hardened bunkers. However, captured troops are the best protection from retaliatory air attacks, and as hostages would provide very damaging ongoing political effects and a very strong negotiating position. Many Americans, unfortunately, would feel the effects of the Bush Administration's disavowals to honor Article Three of the Geneva Conventions (those pertaining to humane treatment of prisoners and non-combatants) and this would likely pose an immediate and significant threat of rapid escalation on the part of the United States.
In terms of effectiveness, the Iraqis have had a long time to observe coalition tactics, compare response levels and timing, and must be understood to have gained a working sense of how to exploit declining operational capabilities. Fortunately, the Shia militias who would form the backbone of an Iranian response are not as practiced as the Sunnis. Their level of preparation is unknown, but there is significant risk that it is much higher than expected, and levels of unit command and control discipline may be surprisingly high because of their now-routine civil war operations and the widespread Shia penetration of Iraqi Security and Police Forces. These forces were armed and trained by the United States. There is also ample evidence of highly sophisticated tactical thinking in the Iran-Hezbollah cooperation in constructing effective defensive positions in Lebanon; it is unknown if any similar cooperation, in terms of doctrine or tangible aid, has leeched over into Shia Iraq, but the possibility must be allowed for as not being remote. If any of these provisions are true, the above speculations on the speed, severity, and style of a Shia response on coalition forces may tend to be underestimated.
Given what we've seen from the US command structure, it seems likely garrisons would be ordered to remain in place and wait for re-supply, and also likely no Generals in the chain of command would disobey White House orders quickly enough to avoid serious losses and re-deploy vulnerable garrisons into protected and easily supplied positions. Depending on lack of responsiveness, 15-25% of coalition forces and mercenaries in Iraq could easily be lost, primarily through isolation, transportation vulnerability, and capture. This estimate depends far more on the level of preparation in Shia militias, than it does on US or Coalition responses, because of the overwhelming vulnerability of their largely unsecured supply network. Obviously it is my opinion that Iraqi Shia militia preparations and cooperation with Iran have been or will be fairly significant. Only intended as a "Part One," this section focuses solely on military conditions in Iraq following an attack on Iran, and as such ignores possible external effects of local oil facility attacks, military attacks on US Naval ships in the Persian Gulf, and wider escalation such as the closure of oil transportation infrastucture and the Straits of Hormuz, destruction of oil production facilities, and the activation of terrorist cells.