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U.S. Navy v. Iran

The return of sea control?

11:00 PM, Dec 16, 2009 • By MICHAEL AUSLIN
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A small splash is being made by accounts of a recent Office of Naval Intelligence report claiming that Iran has achieved the capability of "easily" closing off the Straits of Hormuz in wartime. Supposedly, the Iranian navy has sufficient surface and subsurface vessels, along with advanced missile torpedoes, that can hold enemy naval ships at risk. This matters now because of concerns that an Israeli (or U.S.) attack on Iran's nuclear program could result in Tehran's retaliation, including choking off 40 percent of the world's oil supply.

Whether or not Iran truly maintains this capability--and it is hard to believe that even if Iran succeeded in closing off the Straits the U.S. Navy and Air Force would not be able to re-open them easily--any conflict in the Straits would prove to be the first test of the joint "Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower." Issued in October 2007, the Cooperative Strategy sought to provide an overall rationale for the use of U.S. naval assets, superseding the 1986 Maritime Strategy. The new strategy states that the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard will (among other goals) "secure strategic access and retain global freedom of action." This will be achieved through "regionally concentrated, forward-deployed task forces...continually postured in...the Arabian Gulf/Indian Ocean...." Among the rungs of operationalizing the maritime strategy is to maintain forward presence, to deter, and to achieve sea control. Each of these would come into play in a conflict in the Straits of Hormuz.

Given the emphasis the U.S. Navy puts on partnerships, goodwill missions, and the like--all of which are important--the ONI report on Iran's navy is notable for bringing back to the fore the traditional rationale for naval power: sea control. The Cooperative Strategy does not spend much time defining sea control, reducing it to "the ability to operate freely at sea," but it does explicitly state that "we will [not] permit an adversary to disrupt the global supply chain by attempting to block vital sea-lines of communication and commerce." Sea control would, in this rationale, be the prerequisite of "command of the sea," for that is what would ultimately keep the Straits open, while "sea control" would be the operational condition allowing U.S. naval forces to defeat the Iranians.

This task would largely fall to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, within Central Command's area of responsibility. The Fifth Fleet has already been heavily involved in both Iraqi and Afghan operations, as well as anti-piracy missions off Somalia. In addition, any action against Iran in the Staits would also likely involve the Ninth Air Force as the headquarters for Air Forces Central (AFCENT). Indeed, some Air Force thinkers, looking at contingencies in the Pacific, might claim that the job could be done largely with land-based air attack forces alone, but dealing with mines, submarines, and escort for tankers will require sea-based activity within the Straits and Gulf of Hormuz.

Thus, the test for the Navy, which has not conducted such operations since the "Tanker War" in 1987-88, in which U.S. Navy ships escorted U.S.-flagged vessels in the Gulf of Hormuz, targeted Iranian oil platforms used as bases for attacks, and cleared mines from the contested waters. Indeed, senior Navy leadership routinely point out that over 30,000 sailors have served ashore in Iraq and Afghanistan for the past eight years, doing everything from fighting to provincial reconstruction. On the other hand, retired admirals at maritime conferences in Washington have lamented what they consider to be the loss of sea fighting capabilities of the U.S. Navy since the end of the Cold War, and the concurrent lack of strategic thinking over the past generation. Any Iranian attempts to close the Straits, then, would highlight the Navy's core competencies in maritime battle.

Such an operation would certainly clarify the Navy's ability to achieve key elements of its maritime strategy. Yet there are numerous pertinent questions about its warfighting plans since the Sea Services have failed to follow up their strategy with a current doctrinal document. The long awaited doctrine, the Naval Operating Concept, was drafted but shelved last year, leaving observers with no idea of how the Sea Services would actually go about fighting. Would warplanners take the fight to the enemy, surging forces into the Straits and Gulf, or would they wait to defeat attacks as they materialized, slowly reducing threats? Right now, there is no way to know what doctrine will guide naval strategy.

The Sea Services repeatedly refers to deterrence, but how would it seek to deter Iran? Would the mere positioning of Fifth Fleet naval assets near the Straits in the aftermath of an Israeli attack be enough to deter any attempt to close the waterways? Would senior U.S. leadership make clear to the Iranians that such an aggressive action would open the door to further U.S. sea- and land-based air attacks on Iranian military installations? In other words, is our deterrent force credibly expressed?

Secondly, how skillfully would the U.S. Navy achieve sea control? Iran obviously could not prevail by going toe-to-toe with the Navy; it has only seven destroyers and frigates. However, anti-access strategies, based on submarine attack, mines, and its twenty-four fast attack torpedo boats would be the likely tactics. How good will U.S. maritime domain awareness be to track the Iranian forces? Chief of Naval Operations Gary Roughead lately has pushed the concept of "decision superiority" based on intelligence and tactical planning. How well will warplanning, intelligence gathering, and tactical execution respond to unseen challenges and setbacks?

Once the fight was evident, would the Navy be able to track Iran's three Kilo-class and dozen domestically produced light subs and preposition U.S. attack submarines to take them out? How quickly could our destroyers reduce Iranian threats to the U.S. mine sweepers that would re-open sea lanes? Even a small disruption in the flow of oil supplies would shake global markets and quickly raise questions about U.S. capabilities to maintain global order. Naval warplanners would certainly want to get the new Littoral Combat Ship into the fight to buttress their arguments that that class of warship is perfectly suited for achieving sea control in such relatively shallow battlespaces. On the other hand, would the Navy feel confident that its carrier strike group screens would protect aircraft carriers in waters covered by mines, new torpedoes, and anti-ship missiles? U.S. Navy training, readiness, planning, and operational execution would be tested for all to see.

Few can doubt that the U.S. would prevail, and probably quickly, in any naval clash with the Iranians. Nonetheless, it would be the first real maritime challenge to the U.S. Navy in a generation. It might also be a test of how well the military can adapt to new assymetric tactics. Equally importantly, it would highlight how successfully the new joint Cooperative Strategy has positioned the Navy to respond to global threats in an increasingly unstable world.

Michael Auslin is a resident scholar in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.