It appears increasingly likely that the United States and Iran are heading for a confrontation. The immediate cause is Teheran’s refusal to accept international limits on its allegedly peaceful nuclear program. The White House is moving to impose sanctions, an action which will probably only provoke greater Iranian defiance. This pattern of threat and defiance was clearly demonstrated by the Iranian government’s announcement that it was intending to build 10 new nuclear enrichment facilities (currently it only has 2). Sometime in the next two years the U.S. will be faced with the prospect of either taking military action against Iran (or more likely letting Israel do it for us) or letting it take a clear and unstoppable path to a nuclear weapon.
An equally likely cause for a confrontation is the growing threat Iran poses to shipping in the Persian Gulf. A new report by the Office of Naval Intelligence, made available by Steven Aftergood of Secrecy News, makes it clear that Iran is intent on acquiring the capabilities with which to control the Persian Gulf. The report describes Iran’s aggressive acquisition of advanced military capabilities including quiet submarines, fast patrol boats, sea-skimming anti-shipping cruise missiles and sophisticated torpedoes and sea mines. The report notes that “Iran uses its mining capability as a strong deterrent to attacks from western nations.” Iran plans to fight an asymmetric war designed both to threaten shipping in the Persian Gulf while using defensive means to counter U.S. air and naval power. Iran is proliferating, dispersing and hiding its naval warfare assets.
The U.S. Navy and our allies in the Persian Gulf need to pay close attention to Iran’s efforts to create a capability to hold at risk traffic in the Persian Gulf. The best deterrent to an Iranian-initiated military crisis, regardless of how it is triggered, is a clearly demonstrated U.S. capability to defeat rapidly the preferred Iranian strategy. The U.S. Navy must be able to defeat Iran’s asymmetric strategy and deter it from further escalation. This means, inter alia, the rapid neutralization of the sea mine threat, the detection, tracking and destruction of Iranian submarines, countering the threat from anti-ship cruise missiles and the defeat of the small-boat threat.
The one area that the U.S. and its allies may be least able to conduct a rapid and successful campaign to defeat the Iranian threat is in counter-mine warfare. The current U.S. mine warfare force is shrinking and aging. The U.S. Navy has deployed four of its dwindling number of dedicated mine hunting ships to the Persian Gulf precisely to address just such a contingency. But this is a limited capability that can operate only slowly, particularly if it is under fire. The program to develop and deploy an organic mine warfare capability, centered on a mission package for the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), is behind schedule. However, a basic capability has been delivered to the Navy for testing with the Fleet. Worse yet, as it waits for the LCS to be deployed, the U.S. Navy is missing an opportunity to get the initial mission package into the field on some other platform for testing. The sea mine problem is too serious not to take the opportunity to accelerate the development of an advanced capability to defeat this threat.
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