Friday, April 07, 2006

Thracymachus: More on Iran

I wanted to return to your April 5th posts that credited Iran's boasts of new weapons that would enable it to shut down Gulf oil traffic, "notwithstanding the US Navy." The Iranian military exercises certainly had the desired effect of heightening Western and Gulf Arab anxieties – not to mention yours – about Iran's military prowess and shoring up morale on the home front, but this really is all just propaganda. (I write this not as an argument to support a US attack on Iran, which I very much doubt will be necessary or will happen, but simply to put the record strait about Iran's capabilities.)

The fact is that Iran has been cut off from US military technology and chose to cut itself off from Soviet advances, as well, since 1979. Acting on Iran's own resources, Iran's military has done what it can and the result is not bad at all for a third-world power.

Of course, it would be absurd to claim that Iran could not close the Strait of Hormuz at all, even for a short time, since the two mile-wide shipping channels in the Strait could be blocked temporarily by scuttled vessels, mines, artillery fire from the Iranian shore or attacks on merchant vessel by fast wooden or fiberglass (and thus radar evading) speedboats of the type used by Iran during its war with Iraq. And any interference with oil traffic would impact the always jumpy international oil markets, although the biggest impact in such a situation would surely come from an inevitable blockade of Iran's oil exports, which would plunge the Iranian economy into a deep depression.

As for the supposedly new weapons, the fact is that the Gulf Arab states – Oman the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia – all have naval and air forces that are greatly superior to Iran's in every respect. Even if those states stood idle, the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, with land-based tactical air support, would make short work of any Iranian attempt to block the Strait. More likely than not, these US forces would destroy Iranian forces and weapons that might threaten the Strait at the outset of any conflict. Still, let's look at each of the weapons Iran is now rattling:

First, Iran reportedly has about 200 guided surface-to-surface Shahab-2 missiles, a version of an early Soviet-era Scud. What was supposedly new about some of these in the recent exercise was the claimed ability to evade radar. This is transparently a reference to having added a chaff dispenser that would confuse, not avoid, radar.

Iran also claims to have tested a new "high-speed, rocket-propelled torpedo." This is almost certainly a variant on a Russian weapon developed to defend submarines against attack by other submarines. The rocket-powered torpedo zooms underwater at 200 mph or more, giving the attacking sub no time to maneuver away. However, the technology that makes this fast torpedo possible also limits its range to about four miles – great for a Russian sub-to-sub battle but useless for any vessel up aGAINST any US Navy warship.

Next, Iran claims to have tested an anti-ship missile – not unlike the French Exocet missile – that can't be jammed electronically. This seems highly unlikely and in any case underestimates the jamming tricks available to the US military. That said, water-skimming ship-to-ship missiles are difficult to defend against – except that the 5th Fleet would never permit any Iranian vessel to get close enough to a target to fire one. This all goes back to the clear ability of the US to keep all Iranian vessels (except for small boats attempting fast sallies from nearby shores0 in port.

Iran also trotted out what it called a "flying boat not picked up by radar." As fascinating as this seems, it's not much of novelty (long part of many arsenals) and even less of a threat. Basically, this is a small boat that flies a bit above the surface of the water, sort of like a hydroplane. It can go a lot faster than a boat since it's "flying" but has the radar-evading qualities of a small, wooden or fiberglass boat. Like any other patrol boat, it could be armed with torpedoes, short-range missiles or rockets, cannon, or machine guns. This would represent something of an improvement over ordinary boats, but not much against the 5th Fleet and the Gulf states.

Finally, Iran claims some fancy capabilities for its Noor air-to-surface missile, namely, an improved ability to foil anti-missile systems and the ability to retarget itself after being launched from over the horizon (i.e., you can shoot the thing from somewhere in the mountains in the direction of the Strait and count on it to acquire a target in the Strait when it gets within the horizon. If true, this would represent an improvement in Iran's technical capabilities but it's still old technology in the West.

If it came to it, Iran might well use all these weapons in the Gulf and then some, and who knows, they might get a lucky shot – although the best shot would probably come from a good old-fashioned suicidal assault by multiple torpedo boats. Which brings me around to what is Iran's far more menacing "weapons system," one it is not likely to crow about in public: its network or terrorists agents and allies. The retort to an attack on Iran is likely to be a series of terrorist attacks on US and/or European interests abroad and on Gulf Arab allies of the West.

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