The Implications of a War with Iran
The war drums are beating ever louder in prelude to a possible war with Iran. What will this mean for us back in the US?
Although it might seem at odds with our current President’s world-view and values, it is hard to overlook the increasing amount of news stories that are being released or strategically leaked, all of which seem to indicate that we may be initiating war with Iran shortly.
For our part, we don’t understand how it is for year after year after year Iran has so successfully played us for the fools that, alas, our State Department so often truly is on the world stage, while at the same time, inexorably getting closer and closer to having a credible arsenal of nuclear weapons, and research facilities so hardened and so far underground as to be impregnable to anything we might bring to bear.
It is a bit like blackberry bushes in spring. You can cut them back when they first start to spring up, this being an easy simple process that takes but a few minutes. But if you delay, each extra day you do nothing makes the eventual task so much harder when you subsequently reach your wife finally insists you attempt to recover your yard and garden from now dense infestations of blackberry bushes. Iran is getting stronger and more resilient with every passing day.
It is hard to know what Iran’s capabilities are at present. They’ve been lying to everyone for years, and most countries (many of which would prefer to see Iran succeed than the US) and UN organizations have been happy to accept the lies at face value rather than to confront the ugly and deepening reality of Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
Just because we’re being told various stories, some contradictory, about the lack of threat Iran currently poses does not mean this is so. It is interesting to contrast all the publicity surrounding Iran’s nuclear program with the silence with which other countries have developed nuclear weapons. It seems other countries successfully completed nuclear weapons programs in less time and with less fuss or commitment (for example South Africa, India, Pakistan, North Korea, even Israel). If these other countries can make nuclear weapons, and can secure support from more advanced nations in their efforts, why not Iran, too?
Until now, our various misadventures in the Middle East have been against countries with no nuclear weaponry, and no ability to project power much beyond their own borders. And so while we’ve been able to swamp them with our high-tech weaponry and resources, they’ve not been able to fight back, and most of all, they’ve not been able to bring the battle back home to us.
A Quick Backgrounder on Iran
Those issues do not apply quite so directly with Iran. Iran is the 18th largest country in the world (in terms of its landmass size – slightly smaller than Alaska), and is overwhelmingly Muslim (89% Shia, 9% Sunni).
Iran – formerly known as Persia until 1935, has a population of 79 million. Since its revolution in 1979, it has a complicated government – think of it perhaps as having way too many checks and balances. It has a steadily growing albeit somewhat troubled economy – largely oil based – but not much wealth, and an official unemployment rate of at least 15%.
Iran produces 4.3 million barrels of oil a day. Iraq, in comparison, produces 2.6 million and Kuwait produces 2.5 million. It is the fourth largest oil producer in the world – Saudi Arabia produces 10.5 million, Russia 10.3 million and the US 9.7 million.
Iran has the world’s second largest proven natural gas reserves, and the world’s fourth largest proven oil reserves.
In part because of its oil production and exports, Iran has a massive positive balance of payments and steadily increasing reserves of gold and foreign exchange – $79 billion in 2010, rising to $110 billion in 2011.
The Iranian Military
Iran has a strong military, with 20 million males 18 – 49 fit for military service (and, theoretically, another 19 million women). Men are required to spend 18 months of military service, and each year, another 715,000 males reach the age of military service.
Leading US generals have described the Iranian military as the strongest in the Middle East. However, they probably were not talking about its Air Force, which is made up largely of older planes (many of them from the US) and only a few of which seem to be airworthy.
But Iran does have a moderately capable navy, and indeed, in the confined waters of the Persian Gulf, and the Straits of Hormuz in particular, their ships could fire their anti-ship missiles at US naval targets without leaving port. The ability of US aircraft carriers to withstand any type of missile attack has never been tested in real life, and there have to be real concerns about their survivability in the event of a massed attack of multiple missiles launched for a simultaneous time on target strike.
As well as surface ships, Iran also has three Russian Kilo class submarines. These are diesel-powered, but are typically quieter than most nuclear powered submarines when operating on their batteries.
One wonders if the US military command are willing to risk the loss of one, two, or more of their 11 aircraft carriers, particularly when you consider that each aircraft carrier has almost 6,000 personnel on board. While aircraft carriers are great for effective force projection, their vulnerability is a matter of concerned debate, and the US has been fortunate not to have deployed them – so far – against an enemy with credible anti-ship missile capabilities.
If the US can not use its carriers, and with difficult relations with countries that border Iran (ie Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq – not even Iraq seems to like us much even more) and an always complex relationship between Saudi Arabia and both Iran and the US, the US would not have a lot of places for forward bases to support any operation. Turkey is another uncertain ally, and Israel – the country with apparently the greatest vested interest – is too far away for practical support purposes, and would require over-flight permission from Jordan and Iraq or Saudi Arabia.
That’s not to say the US couldn’t prevail. It would almost certainly follow the standard pattern of an initial high intensity surprise attack with cruise missiles to disable as much of Iran’s air defenses as possible, supplemented in this case by an attack on naval targets too. Once it had control of the skies, it could have ground attack aircraft patrolling the country with impunity, and taking out targets as and when they wished.
But how it could move from there to a ground war is less clear. Where would it pre-stage 100,000 or more troops, and all the tanks, trucks, and other equipment needed to occupy the ground?
It is helpful to keep in mind that in the war with Iraq, the US was facing a country with less than half as many people and only one quarter the land mass. In the war with Afghanistan, the US was (is?) facing a country with one third the land mass and 40% the population. Iran is very much larger in every respect.
On the other hand, the chances are that the Iranian army would be no more effective than the Iraqi army was when faced with the modern capabilities of US forces.
We’re not saying a war with Iran is not winnable at all. It almost certainly would be, inasmuch as you can consider our war with Iraq was a ‘success’ and the same with our war against Afghanistan. We could overwhelm the country’s armed forces, for sure, but what about the peace that follows? That is the bit we’re not quite so good at optimizing!
While there are some opposition elements in Iran, it is hard to see any truly pro-western factions rather than merely different elements but still Muslim oriented and primarily anti-western. It is appropriate to remember that the 1979 revolution was a very popular uprising by the country as a whole against the US supported previous regime; there is little evidence of any broad base of opposition to the present regime and even less evidence of any pro-western sentiment among the opposition forces that might be present.
Although we probably could win a war with Iran, we do make the point that there may be more damage inflicted on US forces than we’ve experienced in other recent conflicts, and the logistics of supporting an Iranian conflict look to be more complex than supporting the wars with Iraq and Afghanistan. (The US has lost 2000 people in the Afghan conflict so far, and 4500 in Iraq).
Anyway, these issues are secondary to the main topic of this article. The implications of a war with Iran for us, hopefully safely located back in the Continental US.
Other than a possible increase in ‘one off’ type terrorist attacks that might be regrettable but hardly life changing for most of us, we see three areas of risk to LAWKI.
Risk 1 : Nuclear Attack
We’re going to go out on a limb here and say that we’d be totally unsurprised to learn that Iran already has nuclear weapons. It probably hasn’t tested them yet, but we’re going to say that, other than tightening down the last few screws in the cover and charging up the batteries, Iran is probably in possession of 98% completed nuclear weapons.
This report suggests Iran sort of has enough materials for five weapons already. Let’s take that number and instead of ‘could build five weapons in the future’ change it to ‘has five weapons now’, just for the sake of this discussion.
The bigger issue, as we see it, is one of delivery. How would Iran get nuclear weapons to the US?
It seems that its longest range missiles currently can reach no further than 2,000 miles. So we’re safe, right? The shortest distance from Iran to the US is 6,000 miles.
Wrong. Go play on Google Earth and see what places are within 2000 miles of the US. For example, Washington DC is less than 2,000 miles from the closest parts of Venezuela, and with a dying President there who hates the US, is it impossible to foresee a situation where he agrees to go out in a splash of shared glory with Iran? The two countries are becoming increasingly friendly and cooperating on a range of different projects.
Alternatively, what’s to stop Iran from forward positioning missiles on freighters and simply sailing the ship to within 2,000 miles of a US coast. There’s no shortage of tempting targets on either coast.
One other possibility is to smuggle the weapons into the country in shipping containers, or, for that matter, as airfreight cargo in an airfreight LD-3 container. Isn’t this the ultimate ‘cruise missile’ – a civilian passenger or freight jet, flying on a regular approved flight plan.
So maybe Iran couldn’t conveniently use traditional intercontinental ballistic missiles to deliver its warheads. But it has plenty of other choices.
How/Where to Target Five Missiles/Bombs
What would a country do as part of a ‘suicide’ mission to detonate five nuclear weapons on US soil? Where would it send the missiles?
A good answer to that question can be seen from the actions of the 9/11 attackers. While we don’t know if the urgent landing of all airborne planes forestalled other pending attacks (probably not, but who knows for sure) what we do know is that with four ‘weapons’ (ie planes) the terrorists decided to send two to New York and two to Washington DC.
It is almost certain that these two cities would be the prime targets of a nuclear attack, too. And while one nuclear explosion above DC and Manhattan would be more than sufficient, we’d expect that due to the unreliability of both the weapons and the missiles taking them to their targets, the attacking force would at least ‘double up’ and send two to each target, which would leave a single ‘bonus’ fifth weapon. That too could be sent to NY or DC, but it might perhaps instead be sent as a ‘bonus’ to a third target; most likely to be another major US city chosen for its iconic status and economic impact rather than for any strategic/military value.
An attack on the US would not be designed to win the war. It would be designed to inflict maximum civilian and economic damage in relation.
Risk 2 : EMP
This is the risk that really has us worried. Instead of sending five bombs to DC and NY, which while having a devastating impact on these two population centers, would have little impact on the rest of the country; why not just send one for a high altitude airburst with an EMP that will destroy much of the entire nation’s electronic and electrical infrastructure.
Indeed, with five weapons, why not detonate one, then a second one two days later so as to take out much of the backup systems that may be held in protective storage, then a third one two weeks later to zero out any remaining backed up backups, leaving two more for ‘bonus’ attacks in the future. Or perhaps, the two spares to Europe to take out the rest of the western world at the same time. Imagine that : No US and no EU – two continents instantly reduced to a non-mechanized farming level of subsistence.
With all due respect to New York and DC, and the people living there, the country would survive their loss. But a staged series of EMP attacks? That would plunge all of us back to the near-stone age.
Many of us have prepared for some degree of EMP response, although none of us really know how protective our ‘do it yourself’ Faraday cages may be, and even if we did survive the first round and start deploying our backed up equipment, what happens when the second EMP takes out our backups?
This, we feel, is the greatest vulnerability of all – a second EMP strike several days after the first. It is hardly an innovative idea. World War 2 saw the use of delayed fuse bombs, with the concept being that the first wave of explosions would destroy buildings, and the delayed explosions would then take out the responders, leaving the area vulnerable to a future bombing attack, due to having killed the firemen, paramedics, etc, and having destroyed their vehicles. There is every reason to believe that any nation planning to launch one EMP device would choose to launch others subsequently to take out whatever level of backup equipment was being taken out of protective storage and deployed.
We can not overstate the danger of EMP attacks. They are ‘low tech’ and easy for an attacking nation to stage (assuming it is nuclear capable), and at present our country is massively vulnerable to such an attack. Using nuclear weapons merely as high explosive devices these days is old-fashioned and no longer the best use of the weapons. Much better to reprogram their missile delivery systems to activate them at high altitude for maximum EMP effect with a 1,000 mile or greater radius, rather than at relatively low altitude for a blast with a lethality radius of ‘only’ five or so miles.
Risk 3 : Cyber Attack
Iran is one of five nations known to be developing a ‘cyber army’ – soldiers who do battle not with a gun and bullets, but with a computer mouse and datalink.
This is perhaps only fair, being as how Iran has been on the receiving end of a shadowy cyber-attack itself – the Stuxnet virus intended to destroy its centrifuges that are used to separate Uranium 235 from the regular mix of primarily Uranium 238.
Our nation’s increasingly fragile infrastructure is largely computer controlled. Real people aren’t standing watch in power stations, pumping stations, distribution points, and so on, with their eyes locked on a battery of gauges and dials, and their hands ready to spin control levers in response to changing indications on the readouts. Indeed, even if that were the case, the chances are the readouts are digital rather than analog – that is, they have gone through microprocessors prior to appearing on displays, and the controls too are probably ‘fly by wire’ type controls that would just control a computer rather than be physically linked to huge big valves and switches and things.
Anything that harms the control computers can destroy the structures that are being controlled. It is all too easy to mis-direct control system computers so that they send the wrong instructions to the equipment they are controlling, destroying the equipment in the process (this is, simplistically, one of the things the Stuxnet virus did to Iran). It is possible to reprogram the logic of the controllers, causing nuclear power stations to melt down, for example. To overload transformers in the national grid. To allow turbines to overspeed and break in our hydro-electric power stations. To over-pressure and rupture our gas and oil pumping lines (or just to open the wrong valves and pump oil or gas into sensitive areas). To open up floodgates on dams, sending tidal waves of water downstream (and also then emptying the dams of the water needed for regions and their agriculture and people to survive).
Truly, there is no limit to the mischief one can create.
Furthermore, our infrastructure is also increasingly networked and linked up through public internet channels. Anyone who believes that utility companies and government departments have adequately secured their computer systems to make them invulnerable to cyber-attack needs to do some internet surfing to disabuse themselves of such notions.
For example, look at the case of Gary McKinnon, the eccentric English guy and Asperger’s victim who allegedly penetrated to the highest level of NASA and DOD computer networks. If one single amateur UFOlogist (ie McKinnon) can gain access to the tightest security computer networks and do damage to them inadvertently, what can military teams of dedicated opponents do?
A cyber attack could be almost as damaging as an EMP in terms of massive widespread disruption to our support systems and infrastructure. It could not just knock out our power grid and our oil and gas pipelines, but it could also damage their physical structures such as to take years to repair.
Best of all (from Iran’s perspective) the attacking nation doesn’t need any nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles. It just needs a regular computer and a connection to the internet. Indeed, it is possible to disguise the location where the attack originated from – Iran (or any other country with national hacking capabilities) could destroy our nation’s economy and we might never even know for sure it was Iran who did it.
Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan had nuclear weapons, and neither did they have much in the way of cyber capabilities.
On the other hand, Iran may already have nuclear weapons, and definitely has cyber warfare capabilities. It also has an extremist leadership who views not just our armed forces and our politicians as their enemies, but who views the entire American value system and way of life as an evil to be exterminated and replaced by their Muslim ideologies. We are all the enemies of these people, whether we are soldiers or not.
It seems likely that if Iran’s leadership felt its future was being credibly threatened, they’d have no hesitation at all in inflicting the maximum amount of damage on the US civilian population and economy. They wouldn’t even care if this resulted in us abandoning our attack on Iran or not; all that would matter is that they managed to inflict maximum damage on the US.
In our long time stand-off with Russia/the former Soviet Union, the doctrine of ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ worked, because neither we nor the Soviets wanted to risk the certain destruction of our own world as a cost of destroying the other country. We both feared MAD.
But Iran shows no fear of the concept of MAD. It almost seems to welcome it.
Iran may or may not be able to mount a nuclear attack or to detonate an EMP device in the US, but it does seem to already have capacity to bring cyber-attacks against who knows what broad range of vulnerable computer control systems across the nation, disabling our supply lines and support systems as a result.
A war with Iran is a high-risk venture, accordingly – not just to our military, but to ourselves back home, too.