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What a Hypothetical War with Iran Might Look Like

By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor, Veteran U.S. Army & U.S. Air Force.

In 2002, the U.S. military conducted a simulated war with Iran.

Iran won.

Called Millennium Challenge 2002, the exercise involved 14,000 personnel and numerous live-fire sites. U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper with troops, ships and planes similar in makeup to Iran’s forces, fought against the U.S. military.

Van Riper’s 41 years in the Marine Corps served him well. According to David Axe at National Interest, as soon as the Navy was beyond the point of no return, he hit them hard. Missiles from land-based units, civilian boats, and low-flying planes tore through the fleet as explosive-laden speedboats decimated the Navy using suicide tactics. His call to initiate the attack was a coded message sent from minarets at the call to prayer. In less than 10 minutes, the whole battle was over and Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper was victorious.

The loss was so shocking that the wargame planners rigged the rest of the exercise to favor U.S. forces.

How Did We Get Here?

Since its 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been labeled a threat to the United States and its Western and regional allies. There’s a good reason for this: Iran is the state sponsor of numerous terrorist groups whose mission is to thwart American interests through asymmetric warfare.

Let’s not kid ourselves… Iran has a bad regime.

President George H.W. Bush, using language from the 20th century and addressing the nation in January of 2002, named Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea, as his Axis of Evil. This trio would go on to inform much of Bush’s foreign policy.

As he put in his 3900-word address: “States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger,” Bush said.

He wasn’t wrong. Even though U.S. invasion of Iraq was built on faulty intelligence and no weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) were found, there was a history of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussain using chemical weapons against 40 Kurdish villages and thousands of innocent civilians in 1987-88. The photos are horrifying.

Still, the selfless analysts of America’s intelligence community had ample evidence that both North Korea and Iran were intent on acquiring nuclear weapons. As of this writing, it is feared that North Korea has achieved some level of success with its nuclear weapons program and has also stockpiled a significant quantity of chemical and biological weapons.

INDIAN OCEAN (Sept. 24, 2019) Culinary Specialist Seaman Salem Adely, from Melbourne, Fla., assigned to the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4), stands phone talker watch for the low visibility team on the ship’s starboard bow. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jessica Ann Hattell)

It’s because of this fear that former President Obama, in partnership with some of America’s oldest European allies (and even some adversaries), signed the Iran Nuclear Deal in 2015. This deal, which was by no means perfect, stated that Iran would shut down thousands of centrifuges and export almost all of its bomb-making material.

In return, the United Nations lifted Security Council sanctions, including in areas covering trade, technology, finance, and energy, and Tehran received billions of dollars in sanctions relief; money that was being held by the United States and returned to Tehran.

Perhaps most important, Iran agreed to a strict monitoring program, permitting international inspectors to gain access to sites suspected of nuclear weapons-related activities.

Iranian citizens started to feel some economic relief for the first time in decades.

In his ongoing effort to erase President Obama’s legacy, or believing that he could craft a better deal, President Trump ripped up the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018.

In addition, old geopolitical fault lines between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Muslim Iran have been shifting under the weight of Saudi Arabia’s perplexing war of choice in Yemen.

But the first real shots may have just been fired. Recently, oil facilities in Saudi Arabia were attacked by a number of drones that U.S. intelligence asserts came from Iran. If proven to be true, the Saudi oil fields attack would be the first non-proxy attack between the old adversaries in recent times.

President Trump responded, not in a televised statement to the American people, but on his medium of choice, Twitter: “[We] are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] as to who they believe was the cause of this attack and under what terms we would proceed!”

The U.S. Would be a Formidable Foe

But would the United States win if it came to war with Iran?

Leveraging centuries of accumulated knowledge and pushing technology to its limits, the U.S. military is arguably the most lethal fighting force in the world.

In the years since 9/11, the Department of Defense has perfected inter-agency and inter-branch combined arms operations. After fighting asymmetric warfare and counterinsurgencies for the past two decades, the United States is pivoting back to its familiar Cold War-era stance to face nations like Russia and China, countries that have a familiar command and control structure.

ATLANTIC OCEAN (Sept. 23, 2019) Sailors prepare to launch an F/A-18E Super Hornet, assigned to the “Gunslingers” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 105, off the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Tatyana Freeman)

In fact, overconfidence might be the only U.S. weakness. That’s what got us into trouble in Millennium Challenge 2002.

For its part, Iran is not nearly as powerful as some policy-makers in Washington would have us believe. Speaking to moderator Margaret Brennan on CBS’ Face the Nation last Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo remarked that Iran was “operating in five countries.” The implication was Iran is some reincarnated version of Alexander the Great’s Macedonian Empire, prepared to sweep through Asia Minor if given the chance.

The reality is much less frightening. The 125,000-member Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is certainly dangerous, but Iran’s conventional forces are a shell. Its air force is nearly 50 or more years behind NATO forces. According to Daniel R. DePetris, Iran’s rollout last year of a so-called fourth-generation aircraft was likely a 1970s version of the American F-5.

Iran’s navy is made up of small boats. Its greatest strength would be sending hundreds of mixed military and civilian boats on suicide runs toward larger U.S. ships of war.

The United States has also demonstrated numerous times its cyber-dominance over Iran, from Stuxnet to a recent cyberattack in June that wiped out a critical database used by Iran’s paramilitary arm to plot attacks against oil tankers.

There are, however, two serious advantages that Iran possesses that U.S. military planners need to consider.

First, thanks to Russia, Iran has somewhat of a modern air defense network. Writer and Marine veteran Todd South states that “Iran’s advanced surface-to-air missile defenses would be a significant threat to U.S. pilots. And Iran’s arsenal of ballistic missiles and cruise missiles put U.S military installations across the U.S. Central Command region at risk. The cost in U.S. casualties could be high.”

It’s likely the U.S. would have to rely on its stealth fleet to clear a path for more conventional attacks on Iran’s command and control in Tehran and elsewhere.

Second, Iran has a network of proxies scattered around the Middle East. No doubt, these proxies would increase their attack tempo, potentially engaging soft U.S. targets across the region. These proxies could strike key transit points such as the Suez Canal and the Straits of Hormuz, choking off commercial shipping and sending the cost of oil skyrocketing.

Lessons Learned from the Iraq War

The United States would undoubtedly win a war against the Iranian regime. The real question is what happens afterward?

The American public won’t likely tolerate the occupation of yet another Middle Eastern country. Any military action that the DoD might be considering should have a well-thought-out exit strategy when a limited, punitive U.S. airstrike results in a massive retaliation by the Iranian government.

And how do you prevent other nations in the region from being dragged into the conflict? The Iraqis likely would want to sit this one out, (who can blame them?). But a shooting war with Iran would probably bring in Saudi Arabia and Israel, two extremely unlikely allies against Iran. Russia, protecting its interests and influence in the region, might get involved as well on the side of the Iranians.

The dangers of a regional conflict expanding into a multi-nation melee are too great to not give diplomacy a chance. Nobody wants another Syria.

The U.S. military is powerful beyond measure. Americans have yet to see the full might of the modernized U.S. armed forces working in unison; the last time was in 1945. But with great destructive power must come great restraint.

Diplomacy should always be exhausted before war and the American people and Congress need to be on board for any military action.

As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said, “No foreign policy — no matter how ingenious — has any chance of success if it is born in the minds of a few and carried in the hearts of none.”

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The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

Wes O'Donnell

Wes O’Donnell is an Army and Air Force veteran and writer covering military and tech topics. As a sought-after professional speaker, Wes has presented at U.S. Air Force Academy, Fortune 500 companies, and TEDx, covering trending topics from data visualization to leadership and veterans’ advocacy. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning short film, “Memorial Day.”

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