Monday, 19 December 2011

Iran's real nuclear option

Closing the Strait of Hormuz is one of Iran’s options to defend its territory and the waterway will be closed if Iran is attacked, Parviz Sorouri, a member of the parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, said Dec. 14. 

In fact, this isn’t the only time in the recent past the increasingly assertive Islamic Republic has made this, and other, threats to its near abroad. Iran also warned, perhaps more worryingly, that the Strait would be blocked during a military drill scheduled for Dec 12. 

With the last of U.S. combat forces officially returned from Iraq, Tehran has an unprecedented opportunity to establish its influence in the Mesopotamian region. The sudden vacuum of active U.S. military power is being felt by governments all across the area.
Israel has been especially vocal against Iran’s ambitions for nuclear technology which it sees as a direct threat to its survival as a country, due in no small part to fiery rhetoric emanating from Tehran. The recent IAEA report pointing the finger of suspicion at a ‘peaceful’ nuclear project in Iran has only exacerbated Israeli fears.

In response, Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Yaalon said Iran’s nuclear weapons program must be stopped one way or another, but any military strike should be a last resort.

This is both calming and worrying news. While the world press focuses on Iran’s nuclear program, the actual threat lies in its sizable (and increasingly capable) conventional forces. Even if Iran had the ability to detonate a nuclear device today significant barriers must be overcome to militarise it. Simply exploding such a device, while frightening, is a far cry from delivering the device strategically onto a battlefield.

Iran recently experienced a dramatic setback in its ballistic missile research as suspected Israeli intelligence sabotaged a missile facility near the city of Bid Kaneh on Nov 12. Whether or not this explosion is the result of an accident as Tehran maintains or something more deliberate, Iran will struggle to continue the development of a competent missile delivery program for any nuclear devices it builds in the future.

And unfortunately for the Islamic Republic, any nuclear weapon must have the capability to leave Iranian territory to be intimidating, and be able to survive atmospheric re-entry; something which the most advanced countries struggled with decades ago and Iran is unlikely to be capable of today. Without a ballistic missile to mount such a device upon, a nuclear weapon would be as militarily useless as hiring a flatbed truck to drive it over the border.  

A second problem is Iran’s current inability to miniaturise a nuclear device. Miniaturisation is very difficult and simply having the raw fissionable material, or even a viable device, does not mean it can be delivered.  According to the IAEA itself and U.S. officials, Iran currently does not own any indigenous capability to miniaturise a nuclear device even if it had one.

So while taking these limitations into account, the spectre of a nuclear Iran is not the prospect most disturbing to U.S. and NATO policy makers.

Such a device would certainly blackmail nearby Middle-Eastern countries into submission, it would hesitate any Western military strike for fear of devastating retaliation and ultimately ensure an Iranian sphere of influence stretching from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean to the Hindu Kush. But Iran already possesses the ability to do these things without atomic weaponry.

This is why the threat on December 14 to tighten or deny access to the Strait of Hormuz is Iran’s real nuclear option. One so unthinkable that it’s surely making leaders around the globe very wary about what they say in conference rooms with Iranian officials. Because 40% of the world’s crude transits that narrow corridor and with such a jittery market, no one can predict what would happen to the faltering world economy if it becomes threatened.

Iran knows this very well. It also knows that, save a comprehensive air-campaign by the United States, the world could do very little to stop it.

Take for example if Iran were to threaten to mine the constricted Strait, let alone actually sowing those mines; the markets would react strongly and tankers would likely halt. Or if Iranian anti-ship missiles were set up on the Strait, the insurance for a tanker passing through would be so astronomical to effectively cease all shipping. The last thing the Eurozone markets need is Youtube videos of burning oil tankers in the Gulf.

These are by no means the full extent of the Iranian conventional threat to the world system, but the U.S. is the only country with the ability to bring the necessary military strike capacity against Iran, and the Americans probably don’t have the stomach for that kind of fight right now. 

And while Israeli officials in speeches talk of their own pre-emptive strikes, the element of surprise would be so crucial to military success that Iran can feel the safest when Israel threatens the loudest.


Luka said...

The first thing that needs to be examined is Iran’s methods of closing the strait and the advantages and disadvantages of each. This discussion will become quite technology heavy. This cannot be avoided as a military’s maritime and especially air capabilities are much more dependant on technology than in the land domain. However there is still a lot of scope for other factors to determine the effectiveness of maritime and air forces.

Iran has three broad methods for closing the Strait of Hormuz.

• Naval: -Mining the strait or approaches to the strait
-Direct threats from major surface combatants and submarines.
-Direct threats from small surface craft.

• Air: -Anti-ship strikes by aircraft

• Land Based: -Land based anti-ship missiles and artillery, most of which would be on mobile launchers.

It’s likely that all of these methods would be used to some degree, all of which have advantages and disadvantages.

So let’s assume that Iran decided to close the strait with all of the assets at its disposal, would a comprehensive air campaign by the US be required to open it again?

I think not, the air forces of the of the Arab gulf states have the technology required to gain air superiority over the gulf itself and strike at Iranian ships and land targets.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the big players and both have built up impressive air forces over the last decade.

Saudi Arabia possesses 280 combat capable air craft, roughly split half and half between air-superiority fighters and strike aircraft. Some of these aircraft are among the world best, such as 24 Eurofighter Typhoons and over 130 F-15s in both fighter and fighter bomber versions.
The RSAF also possesses five E-3 sentry AWACS aircraft.

The UAE has 184 combat aircraft including 70 F-16Es with excellent ASEA radars, as well as still effective older generations of F-16s and Mirage 2000s.

Contrast this with the Iranian air force with its 130 fighters, most of which are either 1960-70s vintage or Russian export models and it becomes obvious that the either the UAE or Saudi Arabia would be able to gain air superiority over the gulf individually, and almost total air dominance together.

This would mean that the Iranian air force could not effectively or safely strike targets on Arab soil and would have difficulty hitting ships in the gulf especially closer to the Arab coast. Also Iranian ships in the Gulf would be vulnerable to air attack, with the threat only being diminished very close to the Iranian coast under a land based SAM umbrella.

Arab air superiority would neutralise the Iranian navy and the Iranian air force ability to threaten Arab bases and ships in the gulf directly, the major air only threat would be long range anti-ship missiles launched from inside Iranian territory.

Luka said...

This leaves the Iranian coastal anti-ship missiles and artillery as the major threat to shipping in the gulf and transiting the strait. These missiles are deadly because they have a long range, mobile launchers and they would undoubtedly be well defended by area and point defence SAMs.

The Iranian air defence forces are equipped with a very wide range of SAMs and anti aircraft artillery, ranging from 60s-70s era western and Russian systems to more modern Russian and supposedly local systems. The only very long range system in use is the Russian S-200. This 1960s era system uses a very large missile and radar that would have been in the western threat library for a long time due to its age, and potentially easy to jam. As this is the only long range system Iran’s ability to create an effective area defence SAM umbrella is very questionable.

The most dangerous systems are the short range point defence systems of Russian origins. These systems such as the Tor and SA-22 have very effective missiles and radars, able to track and engage anything from high speed fighters to cruise missiles. Additionally their radar signatures and capabilities may not be fully mapped for jamming in western threat libraries.
Being mobile they are ideal for following and guarding mobile anti ship launchers all along the Iranian coast. The problem however is their short maximum range usually between 15-25 km. This makes them vulnerable to air launched anti radar missiles which have ranges up to 100 km.

The Saudi Air Force possesses the British ALARM anti radar missile; the UAE also probably has the US HARM which has similar capabilities. Both air forces also have the very capable 250km ranged European Storm shadow cruise missile, with Saudi reportedly having more than 300 units. Based on this there is no reason why the Arab air forces, particularly Saudi cannot suppress Iranian air defences and then to ‘leisurely’ destroy the coastal anti-ship missile launchers. The only area in which the Arab air forces lack is in standoff jamming capability such as is provided by US navy EF-18s or European Tornado ECRs, although the UAE F-16Es supposedly have some electronic warfare capabilities with their AESA radars.

So based on this I believe that even without US help the Arab air forces, particularly that of Saudi Arabia would be able to re-open the Strait of Hormuz or at least make it very costly for Iran to continue to credibly threaten sea traffic transiting through it.

Sources: IISS Military Balance 2010