If there is a war at sea in the near future, it will likely be in the Persian Gulf. It is the nexus of the geo-strategic, ideological and religious struggle between Iran on one side and the United States, the West and the non-Shia Muslim world on the other. It is also the one place where Iran can attempt to exercise influence over its enemies disproportionate to its real power. Thirty percent of the world’s supply of oil is produced in or passes through this body of water. According to a senior Iranian official, “the Persian Gulf is the center and most sensitive point of the world. . . . At any time, we can exert as much pressure in this strait as we may wish to.”
Iran is preparing to block the flow of oil out of the Persian Gulf. It is creating a capability to practice hybrid warfare at sea. The Iranian plan is to use a combination of conventional and unconventional or asymmetric systems in large numbers to overwhelm their adversary, particularly the U.S. Navy. In addition to the Iranian Navy’s mix of corvettes, patrol boats and Russian-built conventional submarines, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) is deploying a large array of missile and torpedo armed patrol boats, armed speed boats and mine laying vessels. Both the Navy and IRGC have deployed land-based fixed and mobile anti-ship cruise missile launchers as well as obsolescing U.S. and Russian aircraft. The IRGC also possesses and has exercises with a number of innovative platforms including semi-submersible vessels, unmanned boats and even midget submarines similar to the North Korean ship thought to have sunk a South Korean patrol craft. U.S. intelligence sources have suggested that Iran might even use a combination of manned and unmanned aircraft in suicide attacks on high value U.S. naval platforms in a tactic reminiscent of the kamikaze attacks of World War Two.
In the confined waters of the Persian Gulf, Iran stands a significant chance of being able to inflict serious casualties on the U.S. Navy. In 2005, the U.S. Navy conducted a war game focused on a U.S.-Iranian confrontation in the Persian Gulf. According to reports, that war game alarmed commanders at the Pentagon by showing that it would be relatively easy for the Iranians to neutralize the Fifth Fleet through the use of a combination of high-speed gunboats and airborne suicide attacks. While the U.S. Navy is likely eventually to gain control of the Persian Gulf, Iran could win a significant victory, politically and psychologically just by holding off the U.S. for some period of time and inflicting significant casualties.
Since that time the U.S. Navy has taken steps to counter the growing Iranian threat. With the deployment of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) the Navy will have a platform designed precisely to address the threat posed by small boats, submarines and mines. Armed unmanned aerial systems such as the Fire Scout and Predator would also be useful against Iranian swarm boat tactics.
The future of the U.S. Navy as a strategic instrument of U.S. power may well rest on its ability to enforce access to foreign littoral waters and to overseas friends and allies in the face of resistance. Adversaries will have the advantage of proximity, knowledge of the environment, the ability to deploy masses of low-cost platforms and weapons systems, support from shore-based systems and the use of asymmetric tactics and capabilities. The question is whether the U.S. Navy can adapt a force structure and doctrine designed for a different era to meet the challenge posed by Iran today or China tomorrow.
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