Well, in an earlier piece, I tried to tell you that open war with Iran is a really, really remote possibility. Now we’ll flip-flop it a bit (that’s the beauty of the internet) and assume that war between the United States and Iran isn’t only possible, but we will attempt to outline how it might play out on the ground, in the air, and on the oceans.
The Air War
The Iranian Air Force (IAF) is mostly operating an ancient fleet of American aircraft. In a shotting war with the U.S., Iran’s once powerful and proud Air Force would no doubt be swept from the sky rather easily by a modern U.S. Air Force that has a distinct numerical and technological edge.
Iran received from Russia 20 of their SU-24 strike aircraft as well as 30 of the MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters, but that was in 1990. More recently the Iranians purchased 25 of the Chinese Chengdu F-7 fighters which are a copy of the MiG-21. The backbone of their air force are the purchases made when the Shah was still sitting on the throne — which was more than 40 years ago. These are 24 F-5s, 42 F-4 Phantoms, and 60 F-14 Tomcats. The Iranians also tried to push a fake “Stealth” aircraft on the internet in 2013 and an “updated” version in 2017.
While F-14s flew escort for Russian bombers flying missions against ISIS, how long would this ancient fleet of aircraft last against the U.S. in a no-holds-barred shooting war? Not very long at all. In a matter of days, their air arm would be swept from the sky.
The Naval War
The Iranian navy operates much the same way it did in the late 1980s — and then it took a beating from the U.S. Navy when Iran tried to flex its muscles in the Persian Gulf. Iran operates three frigates of the “Moudge” class, one of which operates on the land-locked Caspian Sea and would serve no use in the Gulf. They also have a slightly larger frigate (Sahand). Their frigates are copies of the 1970s era British frigates.
It also operates small, fast patrol boats that belong to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy. Those speedboats — using guns, small missiles, and larger anti-ship missiles — can raise hell with commercial shipping and Navy ships in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran’s land-based missiles can do the same.
While the Iranians can be a literal pain-in-the-ass with shipping in the Strait, too much sniping on commercial shipping could ultimately lead other countries to join the U.S. The same applies to their mining the Gulf. Iran has the capability to plant hundreds of mines in the waters of the Gulf, and demining is one area that the U.S. Navy has been weak in maintaining. Iran has three former Russian Kilo-class submarines as well as about 35 diesel-electric subs in her fleet. The Iranian plan would be to tie down as large a force as it can with the least amount of means.
Land warfare between the forces of Iran and the U.S. would probably see very few regular Iranian troops. Like the invasion of Iraq, most likely, there will be no big battles between heavily armored forces. The fight, rather, will be conducted by proxies. The Iranian Army has about 350,000 regular troops that are equipped with outmoded and outdated gear. They aren’t an offensive threat outside of their borders but would present a large force to quell for an invading enemy.
The main foe would be the 150,000-man strong Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Included in that would the Quds Force that, the now-deceased, General Qassem Soleimani commanded. One could expect guerrilla/asymmetric warfare by proxy forces and terrorist organizations against a host of U.S. bases in the Middle East. Of course the most logical of targets would be the 5,000 troops currently stationed in Iraq.
Soleimani spent the better part of two decades building Hezbollah and courting other terror organizations such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Quds troops would conduct training, arming, equipping and advising to other terrorist groups and try to unite them in a common jihad against the Americans.
Iran has a slew of ballistic missiles that are mainly of the short-range variety; they also have others that reach up to 2,000 km. But most of their missiles lack sufficient targeting technology. Iran has also developed its own drone technology.
Another weapon the Iranians are sure to use are cyberattacks against U.S. infrastructure inside the United States, which they have already done. They’ll target industrial businesses such as electric, water, natural gas, manufacturing, or oil industries. It wouldn’t be surprising to see them activate some sleeper cell, homegrown terror networks inside the U.S. to target civilian soft targets such as shopping malls and bus or train stations.
The conventional Iranian military is weak, but it is quite proficient and has a wealth of experience in asymmetric warfare.
War with Iran won’t be much in the open but in the shadows. It will get bloody, but it is a campaign that the U.S. can easily be successful in.
Let’s all hope, though, that it doesn’t come to that.