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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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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.