U.S. says ready to keep Strait of Hormuz open in face of Iranian threat. It would be a different fight this time


Oil tanker traffic jam in the Strait of Hormuz. YouTube video

Time and the march of technology have done their work.  As Iran issues a new threat to shipping in the Persian Gulf, the U.S. military issues its recurring assurances that the Gulf will be kept open for business.  But the landscape – and seascape – of warfare are changing, and in the unlikely event of a confrontation, keeping the Strait of Hormuz open and safe for commercial passage won’t look the way it would have 20 years ago, or even 10.

A report by Fox News on 5 July previewed that reality in a barely-noticeable passage deep in the article.

The Fox report took note of the elliptical threat from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Tuesday, 3 July: an implied threat that if the U.S. shut down Iranian oil exports, Iran would see to it that the other oil producers in the Gulf were unable to export their oil.

“It really is an unfounded and unfair thing to suggest that one day all oil-producing countries will be able to export oil, while Iran won’t be able to do so,” Rouhani added.

Rouhani’s threat was promptly clarified by a senior Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) officer:

Esmail Kowsari, deputy commander of the Sarollah Revolutionary Guards base in Tehran, said: “Any hostile attempt by the U.S. will be followed by an exorbitant cost for them,” according to Bloomberg.

“If Iran’s oil exports are to be prevented, we will not give permission for oil to be exported to the world through the Strait of Hormuz,” Kowsari said.

Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani came forward to endorse these sentiments in his own special way:

The head of Iran’s Quds Force, the special operations wing of its Revolutionary Guard, said his forces in Iraq and Syria would be ready to respond if ordered.

“I kiss your (Rouhani’s) hand for expressing such wise and timely comments, and I am at your service to implement any policy that serves the Islamic Republic,” Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani said Wednesday.

The U.S. Central Command spokesman, characteristically, made a more laconic response:

When asked to comment on Iran’s recent threat, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command responsible for American forces in the Middle East, said the U.S. is ready to respond in kind.

“The U.S. and its partners provide and promote security and stability in the region. Together, we stand ready to ensure the freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce wherever international law allows,” said Navy Captain Bill Urban.

These niceties being observed, the pundits were off to the races.  The bulk of the commentary has been fine – but it has also been conventional.  And the nugget in the Fox report is the key to understanding that it is outdated.

It’s outdated, in fact, in a way to which there is no turning back from here.  It’s time to adjust our thinking about how to “fight” the Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf.

The nugget is very brief.

While the U.S. Navy has warships in the Red Sea and in the Persian Gulf, no American aircraft carrier is nearby.

That’s it.  That’s the change.  But it has profound implications, and a surprisingly extensive slate of new realities to go with it.

Same problem, different era

Because when Captain Urban says we stand ready to ensure the freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce in the Strait of Hormuz (which is one of the places international law allows), he means we stand ready.

Daunting threat to Strait of Hormuz chokepoint from Iran. (Google map; author annotation)

He doesn’t mean we’ll be ready starting, say, 48 hours from when USS Harry S Truman (CVN-75), currently over in the North Atlantic, could get to the Gulf with her air wing at a dead sprint.  The interval on that would be several days.  But he’s not signaling that there would be such a delay, if Iran tried something.  He means we’re ready now.

The Fox report acknowledges that Truman is some distance away, not even in the CENTCOM theater.  It also indicates correctly that USS Iwo Jima (LHD-7), a “big deck,” AV-8B Harrier-carrying amphibious command ship, is in the CENTCOM theater, but isn’t necessarily in the Gulf.  (The latest on Iwo Jima was entry into Aqaba, Jordan on 5 July for a port visit.)

Iwo Jima’s capabilities are impressive, but by no means a duplication of Truman’s.  Embarked in Iwo are elements of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (26 MEU), including the Marine air element and some (but not all) of the infantry and other units of the 2,200-Marine MEU.  The air element with the MEU is smaller than the Truman air wing – including MV-22 Ospreys, AH-1W Super Cobras, and CH-53 Sea Stallions for heavy lift, along with the Harriers – and performs a different set of missions in support of Marine Corps operations.

The Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) is operating in three different places, in fact, with the Marines split among Iwo, USS New York (LPD-21) in the Mediterranean Sea, and USS Oak Hill (LSD-51), in the Baltic Sea in the past week for NATO operations.  It would take days to assemble the combined combat power of the ARG for a major amphibious mission in the Gulf.

Such an amphibious mission might or might not suit the requirements of the task at issue: to keep the strait open and shipping safe.  Iwo by herself would bring capabilities useful to that task, deploying MEU assets on a smaller scale.  But then, it would also take time for her to get to the SOH, at least from her last known location, up north in the Red Sea.

We have been accustomed for 30 years to marking where the carriers and the ARG “big decks” are when threats erupt to the Strait of Hormuz.  And right now, they look out of position for a quick response.

Where the conventionally packaged Navy/Marine Corps assets are in theater.  No CVN carrier at all. USS Arleigh Burke’s current location is not clear. (Google map; author annotation)

But Captain Urban is not just whistling Dixie when he says we stand ready to get the job done.  Because to the eyes of technology and tactics, the prospective “battlespace” of the Persian Gulf and its iconic outlet – the SOH – no longer looks the way it did 20 years ago: like a lot of water with some land around it.

Today, in 2018, it looks more like a lot of land with a little water in between.

If I had my druthers, I’d rather have a carrier to take on the task with.  But Iran should understand that capabilities adequate to the task are present even without the carrier.  The capabilities the Navy most especially needs to bring are mostly in the Gulf, and are there most or all of the time.

Those capabilities are mine warfare, to hunt and sweep the shipping lanes and oil platforms; maritime escort and ship defense; maritime reconnaissance; maritime airspace control; and air targeting and special forces operations to degrade or destroy – if necessary – some of Iran’s key assets.

A Gulf we can “fight” – but not the conventional way. (Google map; author annotation)

If there is an uncomfortable shortage in the available assets, the one I perceive would be surface escort ships: destroyers and allied frigates.  That may or may not be a concern.  There are quite a few U.S. and maritime coalition ships in the CENTCOM theater; it’s just that most of the frigates and destroyers are elsewhere (the Gulf of Aden, Red Sea, and Indian Ocean).  They could be moved to the Persian Gulf relatively quickly.

These are the ships needed to defend high-value commercial shipping and most effectively suppress Iranian anti-ship activities – assuming, that is, a situation in which Iranian warships have come short of provoking us to simply take them out.

One thing we can’t be certain of is how many other warships would be made available by the coalition nations for this particular mission.  We can probably count on the British and Australians; I would hope we could count on France and Spain.  But political differences with France and the UK over the Iran “deal” might affect their willingness to join in an operation they might see as necessary only because the U.S. pulled out of the “deal.”

That said, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.  The U.S. assets are present, even without a carrier air wing, to simply eliminate the major Iranian forces that would harass or seek to attack commercial ships in the Gulf or the SOH.  Between the U.S. Air Force, and Marines and special operations units (i.e., SEALs) with a full slate of our best equipment (including those aggregated in USS Lewis B. Puller (ESB-3), the expeditionary mobile base stationed in the Gulf), the best remedy for an Iran trying to make the SOH impassable and shut down Gulf shipping might indeed be to just destroy Iran’s relatively few capital ships and fleet of mini-subs and be done with it.

Iran’s coastal anti-ship missile units would also need to be taken out.  Being old-fashioned and hidebound, I would feel more confident planning such a targeting package with a carrier air wing in my pocket.  But I wouldn’t bet against the formidable array of alternatives we have in the Gulf now, whether Air Force strikers, missile-equipped Marine Corps or shore-based helicopters, or even missions of more exotic origin.

Nor would there be an issue with controlling the airspace, assuming at least one Aegis platform in the Gulf, and the air base at Al Dhafra in the UAE available to the Air Force.  (Given Qatar’s relations with Iran, we may not have the use of Al Udeid.  Back-up facilities might be available in Kuwait, Bahrain, or even Saudi Arabia or Oman.  And that said: although we use air facilities in Oman routinely, it is not certain that the friendly politics of that would carry over to using them for attacks on Iran.)

There appear to be at least three Aegis destroyers in the CENTCOM theater, with one probably in the Gulf at the moment (although that can’t be confirmed).*

And whatever air and air defense assets the Iranians might seek to fight with, the Air Force doesn’t need my advice to handle.

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