That is me making the emphasis in the last sentence.Iran is bringing 21st century warfare to the seas by planning small-boat suicide attacks that would resemble in some ways the aerial and naval suicide missions launched by Imperial Japan during its last desperate days in the Second World War. At the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, the Japanese mixed unconventional and conventional tactics to kill 12,000 Americans and wound more than 33,000. Iran, by contrast, is threatening a purely unconventional naval war, including attacks on U.S. military targets and on international maritime traffic. Oil prices would spike, and Iran would enjoy a long-term profit, even if it temporarily could not export its own oil.
Then there is this to think about:
In 2002, the U.S. military conducted a war game that revealed a critical vulnerability to swarming speedboats in shallow coastal waters like the Gulf. The war game led to “the worst [simulated] naval defeat since Pearl Harbor,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Stanley Weeks, a naval specialist at the Institute for Defense Analysis in Washington, told me that “swarming, together with mobile coastal missile batteries aimed at our ships, might overload our combat systems and is, therefore, a real concern and stress.” U.S. ships and helicopters with precision guided weapons might destroy most of these small boats, but if even a few boats and missiles get through, they could create psychological and financial havoc.
There is one nightmare scenario, however, that will not happen. A third Gulf war won't replicate many times what happened in 2000 in Aden, Yemen, when a suicide bomber rammed the USS Cole and killed 17 sailors. The Cole was at anchor and at a minimum state of readiness. In the next Gulf war, our ships will be moving and on high alert. And the Aegis system is designed to shoot over the horizon at multiple attackers. Swarming small boats might turn out to be an unnerving nuisance, rather than a pivotal threat, somewhat like the attacks from small trucks of the Fedayeen Saddam on U.S. ground forces en route to Baghdad in 2003.
We can’t be sure how a naval war will play out. We defeated Iran’s conventional navy in the Gulf in 1987-88, during the reflagging and escort of Kuwait tankers. The Iranians have, as the losing side, worked hard to find fixes to the problems that conflict revealed. Despite all our preparations, the Iranians have been faster and more aggressive in expanding their sea-based asymmetric warfare capability than we have been in countering it. The U.S. Navy has been working on the Littoral Combat Ship, which would provide added protection against swarm attacks. But it could be years before the required dozens of these ships are ready. The U.S. Navy is still, by and large, a conventional blue-water force designed to patrol vast oceans, win classic sea battles, and pound an enemy with overwhelming firepower from offshore positions. A close-in, dirty war in narrow coastal waters is not something we can’t do, but it is something we should try to avoid. It does not play to our strengths.
Some of the promoters of a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities have sold the strike as a high-tech, airborne surgical attack. But a look at the naval environment indicates that like the Iraq invasion, what starts surgically could end very messily indeed.