Recently, someone in a comment (I’ve misplaced the actual link) questioned just how much of a military threat Iran can be to the United States. The question was intended to be rhetorical — the short answer is “not much” — but it brought up some things I’ve been thinking about for some time.
I tend to collect aphorisms and observations and notions, keeping the ones that I find worthy and applicable to the world at large. A don’t have a definitive list of them written down or typed up anywhere, but they tend to bubble up as needed. And several come to mind that help capture the complexities of an open military confrontation between the US and Iran.
The first I stole from this book. It’s a satire about Vermont seceding from the Union. Their strategy for resistance is something they call “The Polecat Principle” — summed up as “we’re more trouble than we are worth.” It boils down to “yeah, we’re a pain in your butt, but we’d be an even bigger pain if you try to stop us, so you’d be better off leaving us alone.”
The second one that strikes me as especially apt is an aphorism that evolved in the US Navy during the Tanker War phase of the Iran-Iraq War. Iran started mining the Straits of Hormuz, threatening a full 40% of the world’s oil supply. The United States chose then to intervene, as a freedom-of-the-seas issue, and began reflagging and escorting oil tankers. Official estimates say 546 civilian ships were damaged or lost to Iranian mines, and the frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts was nearly sunk. The Navy — which had let its mine-sweeping capabilities slack a bit — revived an old phrase that had been around for decades, but fallen into disuse: “any ship can be a minesweeper — once.”
The Navy was reminded of this in 1991, during Desert Storm. The cruiser USS Princeton was badly damaged — nearly sunk, in fact — by two mines off the coast of Kuwait.
It is worth noting that the US Navy has only come close to losing a warship three times since Viet Nam. In addition to the Stark and the Roberts, the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. The weapon then was a boat loaded with a huge bomb underneath — in essence, a manned, self-propelled mine.
A third one I lifted from a Tom Clancy novel — I think “Executive Orders.” A naval officer is explaining to a government leader (I think an Indian officer and a Communist Chinese official) the difference between the United States Navy and pretty much every other navy in the world — mainly, aircraft carriers. “A frigate can protect, but a carrier can project.” The idea is that both types of vessels — regular combatants and carrier task forces — create a “bubble” around them where they hold control. But the area dominated by a carrier battle group is larger by several orders of magnitude.
How does all this tie together? Because yeah, Iran can’t defeat the United States Navy in any direct confrontation. But they don’t need to. They can’t take and hold the Straits of Hormuz, but they are more than capable of denying it to everyone.
The flashy way is anti-ship missiles, and they have plenty of those — mainly Chinese-made Silkworm missiles, a development of the Soviet-era Styx ship-killer. The Silkworm isn’t a huge threat to modern warships — we have developed some pretty good countermeasures against them — but against civilian targets (such as, say, great big tankers filled with highly flammable oil or highly explosive natural gas), they can cause a world of hurting.
But those, as I said, are flashy. They are instantly identifiable as a direct attack, and invite retaliation. I suspect the first salvo of Silkworms Iran fired into the Gulf would also be the last, as the US would flatten every known launch site within a few hours.
And then there are mines.
Mines are sneakier. You lay the mines quietly, then sit back and wait for them to start taking their toll. They are almost impossible to conclusively trace back to their source, and they can do a lot more damage than a missile — as the Navy also likes to say, “you sink a ship by making holes that let in water, not holes that let in air.”
And just how would Iran deploy those mines? Well, they have a lot of ships that go through the Straits already. It doesn’t take too much effort to modify a ship into an ad hoc minelayer.
Further, Iran possesses three Russian-built Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines, that can carry about two dozen mines. There’s little more sneakier than a sub when it comes to minelaying.
Let me repeat one very important point I said above: 40% of the world’s oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz. And Iran — if so inclined — can make that 21-mile-wide stretch of water a very, very dangerous place.
That’s the threat they pose, the stinky part of “the polecat principle:” if we push them too far, back them into a corner, they can throttle back — or even choke off — almost half the world’s oil supply. They can’t do it indefinitely, but they can wreak havoc with the world’s economy for some time.
And it’s something that is seldom talked about, but must always be kept in mind when dealing with Iran.
With the addition of the information on the USS Cole, I note that my posting now adds up to precisely 911 words. I could not have done that if I had intended to, and it strikes me as a very odd coincidence.