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Iran

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The Democratisation of Airpower

Big shifts in the military balance happen quietly over many years, and then leap suddenly into focus when the shooting starts.

It happened to classic blitzkrieg tactics in the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, when both sides lost half their tanks, mostly to cheap, infantry-fired anti-tank missiles, in just three weeks. And it happened to ‘air superiority’, in the sense that it has been understood for the past 75 years, in Saudi Arabia last week.

Tanks ruled the battlefield from the German blitzkrieg of 1940 until 1973. Only more or better tanks could stop them. Tanks have got a lot more sophisticated since 1973, but so have the anti-tank weapons, which are a lot cheaper and therefore a lot more plentiful. There is no longer a single, simple equation for battlefield success.

Air superiority, the other main component of blitzkrieg, had a much longer run of success. The powers that could afford to design and build the most advanced combat aircraft controlled not only the sky but the land beneath it, and could batter weaker states into submission (NATO against Serbia, the US twice against Iraq, NATO again in Libya, etc.) with few casualties of their own.

Fast forward to September 2019 in Saudi Arabia. The oil-rich kingdom should be among the privileged, invulnerable few, for it has a very high-tech air force and the best air defences money can buy. It can also call on the immense power of the United States, which maintains military bases in a number of Gulf states and has promised to protect it. What could possibly go wrong?

What went wrong was a swarm of cheap drones and cruise missiles that the Saudis didn’t even see coming. According to the Houthi rebels in Yemenis, who claim to have launched them, there were at least ten Samad 3 drones (the Saudis say eighteen drones hit the Abqaiq oil processing site) and an undisclosed number of Qasif K-2 cruise missiles (the Saudis say four cruise missiles struck the Khurais facility).

The Saudis didn’t see them because they flew nap of the earth, so low they were hidden from Saudi radars. They were launched from three different sites, but timed to reach their targets simultaneously from three different angles. They took out half the oil-processing capability of the world’s second-biggest producer for at least some weeks – and the whole swarm of them only cost one or two million dollars.

That’s assuming they were built in low-wage Yemen. They’d cost twice that to build in Iran, and at least ten times as much in the United States. But that’s still pretty cheap when you consider that a single F-35 fighter costs $122 million. You get a very capable airplane for your money, and a couple of them could do equal damage to those oil processing facilities – but they wouldn’t do a much better job.

They could also get shot down, which would be a very large amount of money (plus maybe the pilots’ lives) down the drain. The drones and cruise missiles can also be shot down, of course, but they’re cheap, they have no pilots, and if there are enough of them, some are likely to get through. If they don’t get through today, send more tomorrow.

The Saudis made it extra-easy for the Houthis (or the Iranians, if you believe the Saudi-American version of the story) by not having any short-range air defences for their most important economic assets, or at least none facing in the right direction. But this is because Saudi Arabia doesn’t plan to do its own fighting in any confrontation with Iran.

Saudi Arabia’s defence budget ($67.6 billion last year) goes mostly on buying very expensive military equipment from the United States, but what it is really buying is American military support. In return for all that money, the Kingdom expects Americans to do the actual fighting for it, just as it hires Sudanese and Pakistanis to do the ground combat in its war in Yemen.

The Saudis shouldn’t count on that. Donald Trump knows nothing about foreign affairs or military strategy, but this is the sort of deal he has spent a lifetime imposing on others. He’ll make the sales, but he won’t deliver the services.

The big question that is finally going to be asked, in countries rich and poor, is why the air forces insist on buying ultra-expensive manned aircraft instead of flocks, swarms and fleets of small, cheap, disposable unmanned vehicles. The truth is that air forces are run by pilots, and they like to fly planes, but what happened in Saudi Arabia last week will finally give the civilian authorities arguments that the aviators cannot resist or ignore.

So the shift to primary reliance on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for offensive action will get underway at last, and the result will be the democratisation of air power. Only rich countries with a mastery of high technology can own F-35s. Even the smallest, poorest country (and some non-state actors too) can afford to build or buy a few thousand drones and a couple of hundred basic cruise missiles.

Democratisation is a double-edged sword.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10, 11 and 12. (“The Saudis…services”)

Whodunnit?

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dismissed the Houthi claim that the Yemeni rebel group had carried out Saturday’s strike on two huge Saudi Arabian oil processing facilities. There was “no evidence” that the drones belonged to the Houthis, he said. Instead, he blamed Iran.

No surprise there. The way things are at the moment, if an incoming asteroid were about to strike the Earth, the United States would blame Iran. But there’s ‘no evidence’ that the drones came from Iran either. Pompeo is simply trading on the assumption that Yemenis are too ignorant to manage that sort of technology, so it must be Iran.

Saudi Arabia and the alliance of other autocratic Arab States that have been bombing Yemen since 2015 push the same line all the time. It goes down fairly well in the Kingdom, where most people look down on Yemenis for being poor and less well educated, but it isn’t actually true.

Within a year of the war’s start, the Yemenis began launching a few small ballistic missiles (with conventional warheads) back at Saudi Arabia, but the Saudis refused to believe they were doing it themselves. The Houthis, they implied, were too backward to upgrade the Yemeni air force’s old Soviet-made Scud missiles themselves. Iran must have helped them.

In fact, the Yemeni air force had Scud missiles for decades before the government collapsed in 2015, and technicians to service them. Some, maybe most of those technicians threw in their lot with the Houthis, and upgraded those Scuds by cutting them in half and inserting a larger fuel tank in the middle.

It changed their flight characteristic and made them very inaccurate, but it did extend their range enough to hit targets all over southern and eastern Saudi Arabia. And by mid-2017 the Houthis, who controlled most of Yemen, were making their own improved copies known as Burkan missiles.

The ‘Super-Scuds’ were more a morale booster than a war-winner for the Houthis, who live under a merciless daily bombardment from the air (7,290 documented civilian deaths so far). The current attacks on the Saudi oil facilities, if the Houthis’ claim is true, would just be another morale-booster, even though it has temporarily cut world oil production by around 5 percent.

But was it really the Houthis? At this point there is no clear evidence either way, but it could have been. They certainly have the motive, and they may have the technology. They have used small drones in previous air strikes, and there are bigger drones available commercially that could do the damage seen at the Saudi facilities.

The biggest currently available is the Guardian, a monster that can carry a payload of 200 kilos (more than 400 pounds). It’s made by Griff Aviation, a Norwegian company whose Lakeland factory in Florida is producing one Guardian a day and selling them to industrial, agricultural and military clients.

It would be quite a trick for the Houthis to acquire ten of them (which is how many drones they say they used in their attack), but stranger things have happened. Or maybe they did get their hands on some military drones, which would certainly be up to the job. Or maybe it was Iran, but nobody really knows yet.

One apparent flaw in the Houthi theory is that there are no civilian drones capable of flying the almost 800 km from Yemen to the Saudi targets, but that’s not really necessary. Most of the land around the Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities is open desert, and launching the drones for 25-50 km away would escape detection unless the Saudis were actively anticipating such an attack.

Who would launch them? There are a million Yemenis resident in Saudi Arabia, plus 2-3 million Saudi citizens who suffer severe discrimination because they follow the Shia version of Islam. There are even Sunni Saudi citizens (mostly Islamists) who are sufficiently disaffected to attack the regime directly.

That’s a pretty large pool to fish in if you’re looking for local collaborators to smuggle the drones in and launch them – which is what the Houthis themselves say happened. In their statement claiming credit for the attacks, they express thanks for “co-operation with the honourable people inside the kingdom.”

None of this proves that it was the Houthis, or that it wasn’t the Iranians. It does leave the identity of the attackers up in the air, where it will remain until conclusive proof emerges one way or another (if it ever does). Mike Pompeo’s confident attribution of blame to Iran, later echoed by Energy Secretary Rick Perry, is just politics, not proof.

As Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted on Sunday, “having failed at max pressure (anti-Iran trade sanctions), Sec Pompeo’s turning to max deceit.” Fair comment, really. And we should be grateful that Donald Trump, for all his faults, is the grown-up in the house this time.

On Sunday Trump tweeted: “There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of attack, and under what terms we would proceed!”

Trump doesn’t want a full-scale war with Iran, and neither does Saudi Arabia. It probably won’t happen.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 6 and 9. (“Within…them”; “It changed…missiles”; and “The biggest…clients”)

Iran’s Game

The evidence is far from conclusive, but on balance Iran probably is behind the attacks on four oil tankers in the Gulf last month and two more last Thursday. Those attacks carefully avoided human casualties, so if they were Iranian, what was their goal?

If it was Iran, the answer is obvious. Iran would be reminding the United States that it may be utterly out-matched militarily, but it can do great damage to the tankers that carry one-third of the world’s internationally traded oil through the Strait of Hormuz.

After the US tightened its sanctions last month in an attempt to destroy all of Iran’s foreign trade, including the oil exports which are its economy’s lifeblood, Iran declared that if it could not export its oil, no other country (in the Gulf) would be allowed to export theirs. Other economies would be hurt too.

There’s history here. Back in the mid-1980s, when the United States tried to strangle Iran’s Islamic Revolution in its cradle by encouraging Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to invade Iran, 543 ships were sunk or damaged in three years as each side tried to stop the other side’s oil exports. Another tanker war would be no fun at all.

But maybe the current pinprick attacks on tankers are just a general warning not to push Iran too hard. They would still dangerous, because people could get killed and the situation could easily spin out of control. But the opposite hypothesis – that the attacks are a ‘false flag’ operation – is much more frightening, because it would mean somebody is really trying to start a war.

Who would be flying the ‘false flag’? The leading candidates are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the two Arab countries that are doing their best to push the United States into a war against Iran on their behalf. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would also love to see the US attack Iran, but one doubts that Israel’s de facto Arab allies would want Israeli special forces operating on their territory.

Which brings us to the weirder part of the story. All six tankers that have been attacked sailed from ports in Saudi Arabia or the UAE. The attacks have all reportedly been carried out using limpet mines, which cling to ships’ hulls by magnetic force but have to be placed by hand. That means they were probably placed while the ships were in port.

It’s almost impossible to place a limpet mine once a ship is underway. Other boats cannot come close enough without being spotted, and swimmers (including scuba divers) cannot keep up. So is security in Saudi and UAE ports so lax, even after the first attacks in May, that foreign agents can plant limpet mines on tankers before they sail?

It’s very puzzling, and even the aerial video ‘evidence’ of a small Iranian boat allegedly removing an unexploded limpet mine from one of the tankers makes little sense. Limpet mines are generally fitted with ‘anti-handling devices’ (i.e. they explode when you try to remove them), and yet everybody on that boat crowded onto the bow as if to get as close to the explosion as possible.

But of course, if it’s an Iranian mine, maybe they knew that it had no anti-handling device. You can get dizzy trying to figure this stuff out, and be no closer to the truth at the end. But let us hope that Iran is the culprit, because we know that it, at least, does not want a war. It wouldn’t actually lose, but it would suffer grievous harm.

The United States is even harder to read. Donald Trump certainly doesn’t want a war. He just wanted to destroy the treaty, signed in 2016 by Iran, the US, the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China, that put Iran’s nuclear programs under strict international controls for the next fifteen years.

That’s only natural, because the treaty was Barack Obama’s greatest diplomatic achievement and Trump is dedicated to destroying his legacy. But beyond that, what did Trump want? Probably just a Kim-style ‘summit’ with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Having created the crisis, Trump could then triumphantly ‘resolve’ it and bask in what he imagines to be the world’s admiration and gratitude. He is a man of simple desires.

Unfortunately, his two chief representatives in the ground, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, probably do want a war with Iran. They would never say that, but they spin every bit of data in as anti-Iran a direction as possible. That includes, of course, their analysis of who is behind these attacks.

Nevertheless, we should hope that they are right and that Iran is behind the attacks, because that would be a stupid but quite genuine attempt to stave off a full-scale war. If it’s a Saudi and UAE false-flag operation, with or without the tacit collaboration of Bolton and Pompeo, then the region really is headed for war.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 10. (“There’s…all”; and “But of…harm”)

Iran: An Unwinnable War

“After a long debate, the highest levels of the military could not forecast a way in which things would end favourably for the United States,” said Richard Clarke, counter-terrorism adviser in the White House under three administrations. That was back in 2007, and he was talking about the Pentagon’s attempts to come up with a winning strategy for a US war with Iran. No matter how they gamed it, the US lost.

Two years later, in 2009, US Marine General Tony Zinni warned that any attack on Iran would lead inexorably to ‘boots on the ground’. “If you liked Iraq and Afghanistan,” he added drily, “ you’ll love Iran.” And in 2011 Meir Dagan, former head of Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, said that an attack on Iran was “the stupidest idea” he had ever heard.

This was all back in the days when various people in the West were talking far too loosely about war with Iran, because the Iranian president at the time was a loud-mouthed extremist named Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Then he lost the 2013 election and was replaced by a moderate reformer, Hassan Rouhani.

Rouhani stopped all the aggressive talk, and in 2015 he cut a deal with most of the world’s major powers to put Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, if any, on ice for at least fifteen years. Everything then went quiet until another loud-mouthed extremist, Donald Trump, tore up the 2015 agreement and began talking about war with Iran again.

He doesn’t necessarily mean it. What Trump says on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays he often recants on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. (To make matters even more inscrutable, his threat to bring about “the end of Iran” was made last Sunday, and there are no rules for Sundays.) But he is surrounded by people who sound like they really are looking for a fight with Iran.

To be fair, Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are probably telling themselves that plausibly terrifying US threats will suffice to make Iran crumble. Only National Security Adviser John Bolton understands that the threats will cause Iranian reactions that can then be used as an excuse for an actual attack (and he’s just fine with that).

So is the scenario of a US attack on Iran, with or without Saudi Arabian and Israeli help, still as hopeless a project as it was ten years ago?

It’s not hopeless at all if you just drop nuclear weapons on the twenty biggest Iranian cities. That’s not enough to cause a nuclear winter, but quite enough to kill between a quarter and a half of Iran’s 80 million people. If you do that (and either the United States or Israel could do it single-handed), the Iranians will never come back for a re-match.

But neither the United States or Israel is going to do that. It would make them literally the enemies of all mankind. And short of doing that, there are no good options for winning a war against Iran, because (as in all ‘asymmetric’ conflicts) the Iranians don’t need a winning strategy. All they have to do is not lose.

The United States could certainly bomb all of Iran’s military and industrial facilities to rubble. But this would not force the Iranians to surrender, nor would it prevent Iran’s sea-skimming missiles, fired from mobile launchers anywhere along 3,000 km of coastline, from stopping all the tankers going into and out of the Persian Gulf. (They carry about 20 percent of the world’s oil.)

So in the end it would have to be ‘boots on the ground’, just as Zinni said – but the ground war is unwinnable too. Iran’s army is about the same size as that of the United States, but it could quickly expand to ten times that size with volunteers, just as it did during the US-backed Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980-88.

The Iranian volunteers would be poorly armed and they would die in droves, but if only one American soldier died for every ten Iranians, the US public would quickly reach its maximum tolerance level for American casualties. It would be a high-speed replay of the Vietnam war, and the US would lose again.

On Tuesday they wheeled out Acting US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan to say it’s OK. Don’t panic. The grown-ups are still in charge. Our timely threats have deterred the Iranians from doing the evil things they were planning to do (or rather that we said they were planning to do), and so there’s no danger of a war.

I’d really like to believe him. But actually, nobody’s in charge.
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In the course of revising this article, I seem to have shortened it to 775 words. If you still need it shorter, you could omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“It’s not…lose”)