War with Iran
WARFARE EVOLUTION BLOG: Previously, we looked at the military capabilities of our primary conventional enemies: Russia, China, and North Korea. Now, let’s take a look at our final conventional enemy, Iran. Iran stands accused of being the state sponsor of terrorism in the Middle East, through their support of terrorist groups in Iraq (Taliban), Afghanistan (al Qaeda), Yemen (Houthis), Lebanon (Hezbollah), and the Palestinians (Hamas).
Iran is a country of about 75 to 80 million people, with more than half under the age of 35. Their population was growing by 30 percent in the 1990s, but birth rates and immigration have slowed considerably in the past decade. Life expectancy is 76.2 for females, 72.5 for males, and 74.3 overall. About 90-95 percent of Iranians are Shia, with 5-10 percent Sunni. The country is ruled by the cleric supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, the guy who proclaims “death to America” and the total destruction of Israel on a regular basis. Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, is the titular leader of the country.
Land area in Iran is 636,400 square miles, slightly smaller than Alaska. To the east, they are bordered by the overwhelmingly Sunni nations of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan. To the west, they are bordered by 72 percent Sunni Turkey, and Iraq with 70 percent Shia. Iran has 1,520 miles of coastline, to the north on the Caspian Sea, and to the south on the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman. The outstanding feature on their southern coast is the two-mile-wide Strait of Hormuz, where 20 percent of the world’s oil shipments pass. Whenever things don’t go their way, Iran threatens to sink tankers in the strait with their submarines, and block the world’s oil supply. Every time they make that threat, you can walk across the Persian Gulf, by stepping on the numerous American nuclear submarines, smart torpedoes, sonobuoys, and armed unmanned underwater vehicles, without getting your feet wet.
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Iran has three major seaports on the Caspian Sea, four on the Persian Gulf, and one on the Gulf of Oman. Even with all these deep water ports, they have no blue water warships.
Iran has the second largest Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the Middle East, $395 billion, ranking just after Saudi Arabia at $750 billion. The U.S. and European Union (E.U.) sanctions reduced their GDP substantially over the past few years, down from over $500 billion. Iran’s main export is oil, and their primary trading partner was the E.U. before the sanctions. Today, they export oil to Turkey and China. With the sanctions lifted, it will be tough for their GDP to grow substantially due to the glut of oil on the market and the low prices.
More than 525,000 military personnel are on active duty in Iran’s military. About 350,000 are in their army, and 220,000 of those are poorly trained conscripts. Reserves number about 1.8 million, also poorly trained and ill-equipped. Their navy has 18,000 sailors, and their air force has about 37,000 personnel. The rest are border guards or elite military groups like the 15,000 well-trained soldiers in the special Quds force.
In spite of the sanctions, Iran is spending more than $10 billion on their defense budget per year, or 3 percent of their GDP according to the latest numbers. This includes weapons and supplies for terrorist organizations.
The Iranian navy consists of about 400 vessels. More than 250 are shallow water patrol boats, like the ones they used to capture the U.S. Navy Riverine boat in January 2016. And, they have 33 submarines, the fifth largest sub fleet in the world. Three of those are 4,000 ton Kilo-class diesel-electric subs made in Russia in the 1990s. The rest are small diesel subs, under 600 tons, used for coastal defense and laying mines to protect their coastline and harbors. The rumor is that their mini-subs were built by the North Koreans. None of their submarines have missile launch capabilities. While the mini-subs stay close to shore, two of their big Russian subs patrol the Strait of Hormuz, in deep water, while the third is held in reserve in port. Their navy’s mission is purely coastal defense, much like North Korea’s navy.
Iran’s air force has more than 300 planes. More than half of those are fighter jets, a mix of Russian SU-24, SU-25, and MIG-29s; French Dassault Mirage F-1s; Chinese Changdu F-7s; about 40 US-made F-14 Tomcats, 60 old F-4 Phantoms, and some F-5 Tigers left from the Shah’s time. Some of these aircraft were taken from Iraq during the war in the 1980’s. The rest are helicopters, transports, and trainers. Most of their planes are old and many are being cannibalized for spare parts. Today, Iran is trying to buy new Russian Su-30 advanced fighters, if they can sell enough oil to get the money.
The Iranian army has 1,500 to 1,600 tanks, older Russian-made T-54/55 and newer T-62/72 models, and a few Chinese-made T-59/69 versions. Additionally, they have some U.S.-made M-48 and M-60 tanks sold to them when the Shah ran the country. They are cannibalizing parts from the M-48/60s and T-62s to build a small number of their own tanks, the Zulfiqar. Iran also has 1,400 multiple-launch rocket systems and over 2,000 artillery cannons.
For air defense, they have 150 U.S.-made Hawk missile systems (again, left over from the Shah’s days), about 50 Russian SA-2 and Chinese HQ-2 batteries, 30 Rapier, and 15 Tigercat launchers (British-made), and a few newer SA-5 and SA-15 Russian SAMs. In April 2016, Iran showed-off their first S-300 advanced air defense missiles recently bought from Russia. They claim they are developing their own surface-to-air missiles systems now, the Bavar.
In late 2015, the U.S. and five other world powers signed the nuclear arms agreement with Iran. This agreement supposedly keeps Iran from developing nuclear weapons and changing the balance of power across the majority Sunni Middle East. In March of 2016, Iran test-launched two medium-range ballistic missiles, capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The missiles allegedly had “Israel Must Be Wiped Off The Earth” written on them in Hebrew. Iran claims that the missile launches do not violate the nuclear agreement or the United Nations (U.N) resolutions barring their development of ballistic missiles.
Iran has the eighth largest army in the world right now. Before the Gulf Wars, Iraq had the 4th largest army, and we saw what fifth-generation warfare (5GW) weapons and tactics did to them. Like Iraq, Iran is a third-generation warfare (3GW) enemy. They are equally untrained and ill-equipped with older weapons, as Iraq was in 1990, except for their newer SAM missiles. As you can see, Iran’s capabilities and weapons are defensive in nature, with the additional exception of their work on ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads. Iran’s involvement in Syria is to learn asymmetrical warfare tactics and strategies. The U.S. victory in Iraq taught them not to engage in a 3GW war against a 5GW enemy.
Could the U.S. defeat Iran as decisively as it did Iraq? Yes, but Iran’s relationship with Russia precludes any direct invasion by U.S. forces. Iraq didn’t have those close relations. Since Iran’s principal goal is the annihilation of Israel, we may not need to attack them. Remember “Operation Opera” in June 1981, when the Israeli air force destroyed the nuclear reactor in Iraq? And “Operation Orchard” in September 2007, when Israel destroyed the nuclear reactor in Syria? If Iran is violating the nuclear treaty and the U.S. does nothing, then Israel will act to eliminate a clear nuclear threat to their nation. That will provoke Russia against Israel, and in turn, involve the U.S. Even though Pakistan and Saudi Arabia count Iran as a primary enemy, Khamenei has not made outrageous threats against them like he has against Israel.
Therein lies the quandary with Iraq: if they develop nuclear warheads and perfect their medium-range missiles, the best outcome is another nuclear-armed rogue nation like North Korea. At the worst, Iran will attack Israel with those nuclear weapons. My bet is that Israel will be forced to attack Iran at some point, and then Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, a few other smaller Sunni nations, and maybe Turkey, will pile-on. That alliance would give the Russians second thoughts about coming to Iran’s aid. If it happens that way, the U.S. could provide intelligence, targeting data, coordination, and support to the Sunni alliance, rather than a direct combat role. My theory is based on missile and aircraft purchases, from the U.S. defense contractors, made by the nations in the hypothetical Sunni alliance. And, don’t forget that Turkey shot-down a Russian warplane in late 2015.
Next time, we will take a look at our unconventional enemies: ISIS, al Qaeda, Taliban, and the rest of the terrorist bunch.