Saturday, January 12, 2008

Iranian games

The recent incident between Iran and the U.S. Navy is interesting on a few levels.
Politically the Bush administration didn't handle it all that well, which is no surprise. A lot of folks compared it to the Tonkin Gulf incident. Some wag in my newsroom posted a map of the Strait of Hormuz and labeled it the Gulf of Tonkin. It's a bad analogy, not the least because THIS incident really did happen, unlike the Tonkin incident.
Secondly, Johnson was looking for a reason to strike. While there are elements in the current administration that would like to strike, it's not at all clear that Bush, himself, does, and that's all the difference in the world. If this same incident had happened last summer it might have led to fighting, but the momentum for that has shifted against it for now and it appears something more overt will be required to ignite fighting.

Militarily, on the other hand, there's a lot to be noted. It's evidence that the Iranian plan is to use swarms of very small boats to attack U.S. Navy warships. This is most likely to work if the Iranians can surprise us. In Sunday's confrontation, for example, it appeared to me that the Navy warships would have been vulnerable if the Iranian boats had suddenly launched a coordinated attack,. They were very, very close.
On the other hand, an out-of-the-blue ambush of some U.S. Navy ships that provokes a massive counterstrike doesn't seem like something the Iranians would consider in their interests. The U.S. can afford to lose a destroyer more than the Iranians can afford to have the crap bombed out of them. An unprovoked surprise attack would throw away any political benefit the Iranians would hope to otherwise get.
On the other hand, if the U.S. were to launch airstrikes on the Iranians they may very well try to retaliate against U.S. Navy ships within reach.
The question is whether "swarm" tactics by light ships could work. There's some reason to think that there's a chance they can get through. Very small craft are very difficult targets. Too small to shoot at with missiles, hard to hit from jet aircraft, they're vulnerable to gunfire but if there were enough of them there may be too many to engage.
The swarm still has its work cut out for it, though, especially if it's expected. Coordinating a large number of small boats using nothing other than voice radio would be very difficult. Meanwhile the U.S. Navy ships can rely on a sophisticated network to coordinate their actions and call for help. The ships can be data-linked together so they can allocate fires efficiently. The U.S. Navy is very well-trained and professional and one must assume that they've considered this tactical challenge and come up with countermeasures.
Perhaps the biggest problem for the Iranians is targeting the swarm. The small boats have limited endurance, they can' just be sent out randomly to search for U.S. ships. Without good, real-time information the Iranian command won't know where to send the swarm.
It's the information battle that the Iranians are least equipped to win. The Americans will see the Iranians coming. Any ships endangered by the swarm will be able to dodge away while the U.S. uses its air power to chew chew them up.
The swarm tactic holds some danger for the U.S., but it would need all the cars to fall just right to actually work. On the other hand, it's really the only tactical option open to the Iranians, so they have to try it or give up.

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