As the critical vote on the Iranian nuclear deal nears, politicians of all ilk keep calling for military action against Iran as the alternative. The necessity appears to be more driven by the need to curry favor with Israel, than any other reason. John McCain thought it was cute when he publicly used a parody of a 1965 Beach Boys release of Barbara Ann and sang "Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran."
There is no doubt that the current leadership of Iran poses a significant threat throughout the world. They have been a state sponsor of terrorism ever since Ayatollah Khomeini led a revolution that ousted Shah Pahlavi in 1979. Their reach has been far and wide including our southern hemisphere with a bombing attack against a Jewish target in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1994.
At times Iran's leaders have called for the destruction of Israel, a situation that will not be tolerated by the U.S. Past and current actions include support for Hamas and Hezbollah, both Palestinian terrorist organizations that periodically attack Israel from Gaza and Lebanon respectively. Regionally Iran has been actively assisting Houthi rebels in Yemen and fighting against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
And there is legitimate concern that Iran might develop a nuclear weapon, when is a matter of time. Proponents of the agreements state it will serve to defer that eventuality for several years. The political opponents see the agreement as enhancing the likelihood of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapons capability. Thanks in large part to Pakistani physicist, AQ Khan, the technological knowhow for such weapons has already proliferated in an undesirable way and we will not put that genie back in a bottle. That means at some point, should they so desire, Iran could obtain nuclear weapons capabilities. In addition they will have access to the means to deliver them over thousands of miles.
The question therefore becomes what to do about it and whether or not military strikes are the only viable option. The consequences of exercising that option must be very carefully considered. The issue is not whether it can be done. That answer is yes. But at what cost? Is America prepared to enter another protracted at a probable cost of trillions of dollars and substantial loss of life for all involved?
The major obstacle in bombing sites in Iran, is what follows the initial attacks. Many proponents of military action believe the nuclear critical infrastructure can be eliminated by air power. Indeed, significant damage can be done but that relies on near-perfect intelligence. Even if the sites are hit accurately, since several are deep underground bomb damage analysis from air and space platforms will be problematic.
All recent engagements have demonstrated that air power alone cannot do the job. As an example, even after a year of bombing ISIS, intelligence analysts believe they are as powerful as ever. Therefore the logical extrapolation is that what must follow in any Iranian strike by the US Air Force is boots on the ground. Of course the questions become what boots, where on the ground, how do they get there, and how are they sustained once inserted.
While President Obama described Iran as a "middling regional power," there are other considerations to be taken into account. For perspective Iran is more than three times the size of Iraq and has a population of 77 million people more than double that of the country we invaded. In 2003, at the start of the second war in Iraq we began with allied forces of about 380,000 troops of which 192,000 were Americans (and 45,000 British). At that time the Iraqi armed forces were estimated to be 375,000 strong.
While there were successful initial assaults in Iraq containing the conflict became far more difficult with years of insurgencies. Active combat by American forces lasted from 2003 until December 2011 and resulted in over 36,700 casualties including more than 32,000 wounded and nearly 4,500 KIA. Other coalition forces suffered 318 killed of which 179 were from the UK. In addition, nearly 1500 contractors were also killed and over 10,500 wounded.
By comparison Iran, has about twice as many troops counting reserves. In Operation Iraqi Freedom, the coalition forces had friendly bases on the Arabian Peninsula from which to stage and launch their attack. Even with limited U.S. troops stationed east and west of Iran, it is highly unlikely that either Iraq or Afghanistan would allow the necessary forces to stage attacks from their soil.
In the likely event that U.S. forces are not allowed to launch a large scale offensive from contiguous territory, the alternative would be forced entry from the Persian Gulf. Naval analysts know well the potential problems associated with over-the-shore entry. Beyond securing the beachhead, the logistical considerations are mind-bogglingly complex. Once ashore, it is more than a thousand kilometers from any place on the Persian Gulf to Tehran assuming that becomes one of the main objectives. An airborne assault could be an option, but may be "a bridge too far" putting large forces at risk.
In addition, attempts to build a coalition would probably be futile. The Europeans have been reluctant partners in creating and enforcing sanctions against Iran. Consider that just last month the U.K. reopened their embassy in Tehran and other European countries are exploring business options. To convince them into a coalition force that might actually invade Iran is highly unlikely. Even their regional adversaries, such as Saudi Arabia, would be very cautious before entering into a conflict that would have no end in sight. That suggests the military option is unilateral action.
The current status of American forces must be taken into consideration. Remember, elements of all components have been engaged in continuous armed conflict since 2001. A few members of that force have been at war more than three times as long as anyone in World War II. Since ending combat in Iraq, and drawing down in Afghanistan significant constraints have been placed on all services.
Worth noting is the current size and strength of the U.S. Army. In recent years they have deactivated 13 Brigade Combat Teams and three Combat Aviation Brigades. Retiring Army Chief of Staff, Ray Odierno, stated, "We have fewer soldiers, the majority of whom are in units that are not ready." Also noteworthy is that the Army must cut another 40,000 troops by 2018 and if the sequester holds additional 30,000 will be deleted.
Similarly the Navy is at its smallest level of ships since 1916, before World War I. While changing in orientation to the Pacific, they are now confronted by Chinese expansion such as island creation in the South China Sea. Already the U.S. Navy does not have a carrier in the Middle East and fixing the gap will further degrade readiness. A seaborne invasion would require more than one carrier group.
Elements of the U.S. Air Force have been deployed continuously and currently have been actively engaged in countering ISIS. Sequestration has had an impact on their readiness. The requirements to both strike Iran strategically, keep ISIS at bay, and support an invasion would seriously strain existing resources.
Persia/Iran has always been a complex area. Unfortunately our politicians tend to reduce the problem to sound bites and focus on the extreme leadership and their obnoxious rhetoric. The reality is far from simple. Demographically the population is quite young with over sixty percent being under thirty years of age. We have already seen unsuccessful attempts to overthrow the ayatollahs and their harsh practices. There are very substantial numbers of young Iranians who actually like the Western way of life and would prefer to get out from under the existing oppressive form of governance. There also exist efforts by Iranians in exile who would support a change of regime.
Left alone or actively supported these revolutionary activities will probably continue. However, in the event of a military strike against the country, the people would most assuredly come to the support of the existing government. As in Iraq, that would insure a protracted insurgency even if our forces were successful in taking territory. The best hope for the future is for internal reform.
The release of large amounts of money to the current regime is problematic and we will likely see some increase in terrorist activities. Those will be manageable. But a worse option would be to initiate unilateral military action. Any leader proposing such action should take due consideration of the consequences that would result. There question should be "would I be willing to send my son or daughter into the abyss?"