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How Iran could beat up on America's superior military

America's defense budget is roughly 90 times bigger than Iran's. But Iran has a well-honed strategy of asymmetric warfare.

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It would seem so, in light of a $250 million classified US war game called Millennium Challenge 2002. The gaming scenario hypothetically pitted the Blue Team (representing US warships) against a Red Team that launched a coordinated assault using swarming boats and missiles – the kind of tactics Iran might employ.

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In the game, 16 American ships, including an aircraft carrier and most of its strike group, were sunk before the exercise was suspended and the parameters controversially changed to ensure a US victory.

The Red Team commander, Lt. Gen. Paul K. Van Riper, told the New York Times in 2008, "The sheer numbers involved overloaded their ability, both mentally and electronically, to handle the attack.” He said he had been inspired by Marine Corps studies of the natural world, where everything from ant colonies to wolf packs took on larger prey.

"It is not a matter of size or of individual capability, but whether you have the numbers to come from multiple directions in a short period of time," said Van Riper.

Since then, American naval strategists have worked to overcome the vulnerabilities of conventional warships to swarm tactics. One solution has been a US Navy project to build a “littoral combat ship” (LCS), designed to operate at high speeds and close-to-shore, with shallow draft and capable of launching helicopters, assault boats and submarines. Only two have been built, the project plagued by delays and cost overruns.

The LCS fits Iran's coastal waters and its methods, and is designed "to counter growing potential 'asymmetric' threat of coastal mines, quiet diesel submarines, and the potential to carry explosives and terrorists on small, fast, armed boats," according to the website www.naval-technology.com.

Iranian units given great independence

Iran also appears to have learned from the 2002 US exercise, just as it learned from a 1988 incident during the Tanker War in the Persian Gulf, when US forces sunk or damaged three Iranian warships in a single day, to retaliate for an American ship hitting a mine.

Part of Iran's strategy includes decentralized decisionmaking.

"The entire [IRGC] structure – if you look at how air defense is organized, the land forces, the combination of the Basij [militia] and the [IRGC] – this is all geared toward what they call the Mosaic Strategy, where you have individual military units who have a great deal of independence to decide what they can do without referring back to the center," says the former European diplomat.

Haghshenass explains one way this could play out in the Gulf.

"In the naval arena, speedboats will be taken out of camouflaged coastal or inland hide sites and bunkers, hauled on trailers to coastal release points, and given mission-type orders that will not require them to remain in contact with their chain of command," he writes.

But Iran's retaliation would not likely be limited to the strait.

"This is only one aspect of their deterrent strategy. Threats about Iraq and Afghanistan ... there is Hezbollah and Hamas they could activate," says the diplomat, referring to the militant groups active on Israel's borders. "There is a whole array of deterrent strategies they have put into place, and the Strait of Hormuz is just one aspect. [T]hey have made it very clear the last few years that they have this whole portfolio, and will use it all in case of a military attack."

Labyrinth of ports and 'spiritual' superiority

Historically, the fleets of ancient Persia sailed far afield, and in the Mediterranean used "spy ships, disguised as foreign merchantmen and small warships for clandestine operations," notes Haghshenass's analysis. Ancient Persians, during the reign of Xerxes, "invented the concept of naval infantry."

The geography of Iran's southern coastline hasn't changed, and with 10 large ports and 60 small ones – and an endless labyrinth of fishing villages, inlets, and coves – it is ideal for staging the kind of hit-and-run and stealth operations envisioned by the Iranian strategy.

With a daily transit rate of 3,000 boats and ships in the strait, US forces could have trouble differentiating friend from foe, providing Iran with an upper hand.

And Iranian commanders believe they have another advantage, if the rhetoric about the Strait of Hormuz ever turns into a real conflict.

"The IRGC places religious belief at the core of the Iranian concept of asymmetric warfare," writes Haghshenass. "In Iran's concept of asymmetric warfare, the ideological or 'spiritual' superiority of the community of believers is considered as important as any other factor."

That means, he adds, that Iran's Revolutionary Guard believes that "its chain of command extends through Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to God, thereby investing military orders with transcendent moral authority..."

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