Friday, January 27, 2006

A Strategy For Disarming Iran

Invest now for expensive 'coup de main'
By Robert H. Scales
Washington Times
January 27, 2006

Talking heads are having a field day discussing creative alternatives for extending our global war on terror from Iraq to Iran. Those who know something about war realize that Iran is not Iraq. Two successful invasions of Iraq reinforce the truism that Iraq can be overrun fairly easily. Iran cannot. In fact, the strategic circumstances are so dramatically different that even a metaphorical comparison between the two is vacuous, to say the least.

Iraq is a fractured, artificial state created by Europeans who did not understand the difficulties inherent in building a state from three cultural entities that hate each other. Iran has been a homogenous cultural whole for almost three millennia. Iranians are Persians, not Arabs, enormously proud of their long and rich history and culture. There are a lot of Iranians, three times the population of Iraq with a disproportionate number of military-age men. For thousands of years, Iranians have shown the will to fight off invasions ferociously. They will do so again.

The Iranian armed forces are relatively small, about the same size as Saddam Hussein's during the Gulf war. A decade of horribly destructive war against Iraq accompanied by decades of embargo by the United States has left them with few modern battle-worthy weapons. Their air force is particularly weak. They would lose to ours in less than a day of serious aerial combat.

But American airpower can't win this one. The Iranian army is immune to shock and awe. While it doesn't look like much on paper, the Iranian army will make up for poor equipment with adaptability, energy, mass, knowledge of terrain, support of the population and the willingness to die. In war, geography counts. Iran has avoided hundreds of years of colonial regime change because of its formidable natural defenses. The country is enormous, perhaps three times larger than Iraq. Vast deserts shield the interior. A thousand-mile chain of the Alp-like Zagros Mountains effectively blocks any easy landward advance from Arab counties toward Tehran.

Surely if the finger of an Islamic fascist is placed on the nuclear button some military action must be taken. But any thought of conquering Iran in a conventional war is simply ridiculous.

A ground invasion into oil-rich Shat al Arab region of southern Iran would be painfully pyrrhic. An American presence on Iranian soil would induce a massive national uprising by hordes of irregulars that would dwarf today's war against Iraqi insurgents. Saddam knows this well. He spent 10 years and hundreds of thousands of lives to gain only a few square miles of Iranian swampland during his war against Iran during the 1980s.

Any campaign would have to be limited in scope with an objective no more ambitious than the elimination of Iranian nuclear weapons without any hope of regime change. The Iranians have dispersed and buried their nuclear facilities deep underground and are thus immune from an American bombing campaign. Another popular idea is the "Desert One on Steroids" approach that proposes using large numbers of special operating forces to conduct clandestine raids against hidden and dispersed nuclear facilities. Without a significant presence on the ground in Iran, such a strategy would only create a serious prisoner of war problem for the United States.

That leaves only the airborne "coup de main" option, doable with help from a robust international coalition and only remotely possible if we have reliable intelligence about the location of Iranian nuclear warheads, missiles and launchers. A takedown of Iranian nuclear capabilities would begin with special operations, light infantry and air transported light armored units arriving by an aerial bridge to establish forward operating bases, essentially secure but temporary enclaves, deep inside Iran near known nuclear facilities.

A sustained presence on the ground would buy time for ground units to fight their way into nuclear sites, positively identify exact locations of all nuclear capabilities and destroy them by direct attack or indirectly using precision munitions delivered by air. The key commodity would be time, sufficient to allow a careful search and complete eradication of Iran's nuclear arsenal. Once the mission is complete the force would withdraw by air back to secure bases outside Iran.

The bad news is that we cannot do this now. We lack sufficient transport aircraft and light ground maneuver vehicles to establish and maintain these enclaves inside Iranian territory. But we could build such a force perhaps before the Iranians detonate their first bomb. Such a capability would be expensive and would involve an extraordinary investment in land forces rather than air forces.

But if we are serious about preventing the Iranians from getting and using the bomb, we should begin building it now before we have no other option than a catastrophic nuclear exchange with a diabolical enemy.

Retired Maj. Gen Robert H. Scales is a former commander of the Army War College.

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