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Source: The Hill

Dec 4, 2023

Despite Washington’s confidence, US war with Iran would be disastrous 


President Joe Biden’s administration is publicly attempting to avoid a war with Iran, but American officials continue to fan the flames of war with incendiary rhetoric as the war in Gaza risks expanding into a broader regional conflict.

For instance, on Nov. 26, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said the Biden administration needs to take a “massive retaliation” against Iran to end attacks on U.S. assets. Ultimately, congressmembers, the Biden administration, and former defense officials are all sharing sentiments that Washington could escalate its move toward armed conflict in the face of Iranian aggression.

But despite the confidence of hawks, a war with Iran would be disastrous for the United States and the broader Middle East.

Regardless of the goals of the mission — from destroying Iran’s nuclear capabilities to regime change — there are only two real paths for Washington to directly attack Iran: an air and naval campaign designed to impose significant costs on the regime; or a ground invasion dependent on establishing air and naval superiority. Both options, however, are more untenable than policymakers suggest, and reflect a fundamental miscalculation of Iran’s military strength.

A campaign that relies on air and naval power to rapidly beat Iran into submission will meet significant challenges. Iran’s military is designed to prevent such an invasion and impose significant costs on any potential attack by air or sea. They have 600-mile range cruise missilesadvanced long-range air defense systemsshort-range air defense systemsanti-aircraft missiles3,000 ballistic missiles, 6,000 naval mines, and the most capable unmanned aerial vehicles in the region.

In essence, any combined operation involving air and naval war not only faces the traditional limits that make these campaigns rarely successful, but landing individual attacks on Iranian territory will likely come with high costs to expensive U.S. aircraft and ballistic missile defense systems.

Previous analysts have weighed the chances of success for a campaign reliant on U.S. air and naval power. A 2002 war game that required U.S. planners to change the rules mid-conflict showed that Iran could easily sink U.S. ships, and in 2012, Pentagon officials estimated that such a strategy would require a minimum of 100,000 troops.

Following escalations with Iran in 2019, Pentagon officials estimated that a version of this strategy that sought to destroy Iranian nuclear weapons facilities would require a minimum of 120,000 troops deployed throughout the Middle East.

In the present (and despite no more recent estimates), even more troops would likely be required, given Iran’s increased military spending. As a result, the U.S. will be unable to engage in a strategy relying on air and naval power to overwhelm Iranian military capacity.

If the intention is to use air and naval power to allow for ground operations, Iran is equally prepared. Such an assault would require absorbing massive costs to gain access into the country. Analysts estimate that any ground invasion would require 1.6 million U.S. troops, almost ten times what the U.S. committed to Iraq at any given time. 

Upon arrival in Iran, Washington will face the 13th largest fit-for-service population in the world, the 13th most armored vehicles and self-propelled artillery in the world, the 9th most towed artillery in the world, and the 8th most mobile rocket projectors in the world. The human and material costs would be immense.

Iran’s strategy to combat the U.S. would center around making any naval and air assault costly, slow, and predicated on an assumption that eventually Americans will lose their willingness to continue fighting a war. Iran is surrounded by water and will use their anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles to cover their 2,400 kilometer southern coastline as well as exploiting the lack of U.S. minesweepers to slow down the pace of a naval assault.

By slowing the pace of war, Iran will attack the political will of U.S. policymakers and the American public, while also giving themselves time to make decisions and potentially even blockade the Straits of Hormuz to the Gulf of Oman.

Expecting an easy win against Iran is not any more of a strategy than waiting for humans to learn to fly. The means simply do not exist. Thus, one hopes that mutual deterrence continues to succeed and neither Washington nor Tehran decide to escalate.

Jordan Cohen is a policy analyst in Defense and Foreign Policy at the Cato Institute and holds a PhD in political science from George Mason University. 

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