Yesterday, Iran’s minister of defense fired a verbal shot across the bow of the United States, warning that his country could attack our warships in the Persian Gulf in the event of any attack upon Teheran’s nuclear facilities. The chance of such a confrontation rose rather sharply recently with reports that the intelligence community is doing an about face on its 2007 conclusions that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program. Although Washington will now try to get agreement on tough sanctions against Iran, the chance of that is at best 50-50. Hence the Iranian defense minister’s concerns about a strike on his country and the threat to the U.S. Navy.
In recent years, Iran has been increasing its capabilities to conduct just such attacks on U.S. forces. It has acquired and deployed fast attack boats, sea-skimming, anti-shipping cruise missiles and advanced sea mines. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard has increased the number and scale of its exercises in the Persian Gulf. In addition Iran continues to develop the ability to strike at targets in the region with its growing arsenal of ballistic missiles.
Taking on the U.S. Navy would be a mistake of monumental proportions for the hard-line regime in Teheran. The combination of carrier-based naval aviation, powerful surface combatants and nuclear submarines would make short work of Iran’s naval forces. In addition, through air and missile strikes, the use of unmanned aerial systems and electronic warfare, the Navy would readily neutralize Iran’s shore-based anti-shipping capabilities.
The military balance in the Persian Gulf is likely to only turn even more decisively against Iran with the passage of time. The Navy is building or deploying a range of advanced sea and air systems including the F-35, DDG-1000, Littoral Combat Ship, P-8 anti-submarine warfare aircraft and the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense Systems Standard Missile 3. These new capabilities will enhance the Navy’s already impressive power to dominate the Persian Gulf.
One of the few areas in which Iran could successfully challenge the U.S. Navy is mine warfare. Iran has a large stockpile of mines including some very sophisticated types provided by Russia and western countries. So concerned is the Navy about the sea mine threat that it has forward deployed to Bahrain a large fraction of its relatively small fleet of mine countermeasure ships. There is a program to develop a more advanced follow-on organic mine countermeasure capability. Intended to be deployed on the Littoral Combat Ship, the mine countermeasure capability has not been pursued with sufficient aggressiveness to provide a near-term solution to the threat.
Iran’s defense minister might be hoping that his threat will prompt the United States to put pressure on Israel to reconsider any plans that country has to strike his country. The opposite may be the case. Israel knows that even under the best of circumstances air strikes could only hope to do limited damage to Iran’s nuclear program. The real purpose of an Israeli attack on Iran would be to goad that country into attacking the U.S. Navy. The result would be a military disaster for Teheran, the closing of the Gulf to Iranian-bound shipping and the — likely — collapse of the Iranian regime.
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