Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Yeehad's World Tour

The BBC has finally leaked some knowledge of the battle plans against Iran. Contrary to positioning of "we have no plans" or "we would only strike to deter a nuclear threat," here's the skinny: a bombing campaign against Iran would be of greater intensity and duration than the ones undertaken against Iraq in Gulf Wars One and Two. The plan isn't to go in and destroy a few uranium enrichment facilities. The plan is to plaster it for weeks, to completely eliminate Iran's air defenses, ability to project force, and its directly supporting infrastructure.

For comparison, it might be helpful to examine operations against another WMD-bearing foe. On January 17th, 1991, the Gulf War One air campaign started with over 1,000 sorties flown in the first 24 hours, a pace which didn't slacken for at least ten days. Helicopters first took down outlying radar, then stealth bombers went through the gaps to destroy anti-aircraft defenses, then the airforce was eliminated, much of it unexpectedly fleeing to Iran. Thereafter, in preparation for the ground campaign, every target of any conceivable military value was destroyed: every power plant, bridge, supply depot, communications center, truck, and dummy SCUD site. That's right. The SCUD missiles and their launchers were never found, and they continued to launch through much of the conflict. (Mental note.)

Gulf War One was called a war, but it really doesn't fit the definition of one, in that Iraq was almost utterly helpless to fight back against overwhelming firepower. Lest anyone thinks that statement simply reflects my opinion, let's look at numbers. Total Coalition deaths were 382. Of those, at least 319 were due to accident, were from friendly fire, or from non-battle causes. And "friendly" fire incidents, for reasons which should be obvious, tend to be covered up. But let's say 63 Coalition troops died as the result of enemy fire. How did the Iraqis fare? Well, estimates vary...but most range from 80,000 to 200,000. The lethality of coalition firepower was so high that more of its soldiers were killed from friendly fire than by the enemy, a landmark in the history of warfare. 28 of those deaths were caused when a Patriot missile battery shot down a SCUD in the middle of the night, and its wreckage landed on a tent full of sleeping Pennsylvanian reservists. The sheer asymmetry of advantage was poorly comprehended even by those who possessed it: the Pentagon itself had expected to lose 30-40,000 casualites.

Since Vietnam, the United States military has followed a policy of only attacking when possessing an Overkill advantage. They didn't fight countries which could inflict heavy casualties, and didn't want to. The trauma Vietnam inflicted on the collective psyche was so severe that, for example, the island of Grenada was treated as a serious military threat and was invaded with more care than US planners used when landing Marines on Guadalcanal. It was believed (wrongly) that the US public ended the Vietnam War because of its distaste for war dead, so the doctrine was to avoid casualties. The Pentagon imagined Gulf War One would be an exception to the Overkill policy, but experience proved otherwise, in fact demonstrating America's Jupiter-like military prowess. This in turn gave birth to the "sole superpower" myth. The victories in Iraq have served to remove the last restraints of Vietnam Syndrome from the planners, and now Jupiter has trained its mighty gaze on Iran. The US leadership, and enough of its military, believes it can carry out a Yeehad.

There is a big problem with this overconfidence. No army is invincible, and each conflict is inherently situational, an outcome unto itself. Iran is probably being underestimated by both the US and Israeli command structures. First off, Iran presents greater logistical problems. It's is a lot bigger than Iraq in terms of population, geography, and capability. Another basic factor is that the technology gap between air defenses and bomber capabilities has had time to greatly narrow since Gulf War One. Iran has far better knowledge of US capabilities and tactics than Iraq ever did, and it has been given ample time to prepare. Finally, US intelligence on Iran is generally quite poor, and the country's characteristically rugged, mountainous terrain naturally favors concealment and dispersion. Coalition forces couldn't find Saddam's Scuds in the deserts of Iraq.
Completely eliminating Iran's military capability probably isn't possible through an air campaign, and crippling it might well require more than the 42,600 successful strike sorties flown in Gulf War One. Most such strike sorties will expose a plane to fire over urban areas possessing new anti-aircraft weapons, a formula for higher-than-expected air losses. US leadership decidedly does not want to hear of this is a real possibility, and they can point at recent experiences which refute the warnings. Wise generalship exploits complacency.

In 2002, the former commandant of the National War College, retired Marine Lt. General Paul Van Riper, was picked to lead the Red Force (the bad guys) in a thinly veiled wargame attacking Iran. In the computer-controlled game, he sunk 16 US ships in the Persian Gulf, and the exercise was stopped (i.e., he had won). Normally, Blue Team would devise a different, hopefully better strategy and re-play the game. But this time the Pentagon gave Van Riper a script and told him steps to follow so he would lose. He refused, walked off the exercise, and wrote a 21-page report criticizing its conduct. The Pentagon has classified his report, or I would publish it here. He was one of the generals who called for Rumsfeld's resignation in 2006.

More games were played. The referee and designer of the Iran wargames, Colonel Sam Gardiner, has been angrily warning that a confrontation with Iran can't be won, as I surfaced in "Teenage Mutant Special Forces" last September. He wrote a paper in 2006. Here's how he closed it:
When I finished the 2004 Iran war game exercise, I summarized what I had learned in the process. After all the effort, I am left with two simple sentences for policymakers. "You have no military solutions for the issues of Iran. You have to make diplomacy work." I have not changed my mind. That conclusion made sense then. It still makes sense today.
Oh, and the plans for which there are no plans? According to Sam Gardiner, "they're on the Vice President's desk."

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