U.S./Iran Posturing Indicates More Severe Combat to Come:
Who Will Throw the War-Launch Punch?
Above the Waters (Part 2 of 2)
Incidences of American and Iranian bravado persist in the Persian Gulf and with each one, responsibility is never taken and the rivalry grows stronger. It is clear that testing the water of both countries’ self control is reaching a boiling point. Although Iran and the US clearly disagree about their position in territorial and international water when naval countering occurs, the exact measurement of 12 miles in water is much easier to delineate. What happens then, when the water is no longer the center of contention and airspace confounds the opposition further? Territorial airspace is demarcated using international water borders as well as a country’s borders. Technology is changing all aspects of modern air warfare. As with the numerous naval provocations between Iran and the US, the countries’ position of where the fault lies in airspace incidents and the legitimacy regarding to whom the space belongs is even more conflicting.
The Strait of Hormuz is a strategic chokepoint between the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman through which 20% of the world’s petroleum passes; its territorial waters and airspace shared with Iran and Oman. Iran has threatened to close the Strait numerous times as different disputes arise between the US and US allies. In June 2008, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Mohammad Ali Jafari stated Iran would seal off the Strait if the US or Israel attacked. The US countered with a statement that the closure would be considered an act of war. Other threats of closure were made because of increased sanctions on Iranian oil exports. In 2012, the US deployed significant military reinforcements into the Persian Gulf as a move to preempt the closure of the Strait.
The 2012 military buildup included Navy ships to better patrol the Strait, aircraft carriers, and F-15C warplanes and stealthy F-22 moved into two separate bases in the Persian Gulf. A 2012 Aljazeera report stated that the US, with an encirclement of military bases in the region, has three main interests in keeping a presence in the Middle East: securing oil, guaranteeing the security of Israel, and combating any threat to US interests. The Defense Department's 2011 report cited 45 bases around Iran, but omitted espionage bases, facilities located in warzones, and Special Operations Command (SOCOM) commandos deployed throughout the region as well. Iran has been and continues to be considered a threat to the US and its allies, justifying any military reinforcement in the area.
Again, every encounter reported by either country has different stances in regard to where the incident took place and why. In September 2016, Iran reportedly threatened to shoot down two US military planes. Surveillance P-8 Poseidon and the 24-member crew EP-3 Aries reconnaissance flown by members of the US Navy were in the Strait of Hormuz, 13 miles off of Iran's coast. US officials claim that Iran military warned the American planes if they did not change course, they posed the risk of getting shot down. The officials stated the US aircraft ignored the Iranian order and continued their flights. When asked why the US aircraft were operating near Iran, one US official told Fox News, "We wanted to test the Iranian reaction." US military officials have coined the words “unprofessional” and “unsafe” to describe all military encounters with Iran. However if the US continues to scrape territorial borders and admittedly flies missions as reaction “tests,” these coined words should be used interchangeably with regard to either country’s actions.
Iran recounts that the threat was made to the aircraft members with a preface that the planes were not to enter Iranian airspace. Fox news cited that the latest intelligence assessment reported that there were no Iranian missile launchers in the area. Brigadier General Abdollah Reshadi told reporters that Iran’s Air Defense Force constantly monitors the skies nationwide in preparation for possible hostile activity. “[Our] radar coverage of the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman detects aerial traverse by [reconnaissance] aircraft,” Reshadi said. “We detect any flying activity in time and deliver tactical response in less than two minutes.” Deputy Chief of Staff of Iran's Armed Forces, Brigadier General Massoud Jazayeri reiterated that all vessels belonging to the Islamic Republic of Iran are fully aware of international laws and regulations. He stated Iran military forces have always acted based on stipulated standards and refuted all American claims of Iranian misconduct.
The expansion of the role of technology, specifically unmanned aerial vehicles, (UAVs), makes the future for peace between these two countries appear bleaker. In December 2011, a US RQ-170 Sentinel drone crashed deep in Iranian territory; a top-secret surveillance mission had been underway to keep close tabs on Iranian nuclear activity. Again, the countries disputed the cause of the crash: Iran reported it was shot down or crashed due to Iranian military control system hacking, American officials stated that the drone was lost due to a malfunction. In the days ahead, through a press report, President Obama requested Iran give the drone back. Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast responded in a news conference, “It seems that (Obama) has forgotten that our air space was violated, a spying operation conducted and international law trampled.” Requesting an apology from the President, Mehmanparast added that the violation of Iranian airspace can “endanger world peace and security.”
In November 2012, two attack planes operated by the IRGC attempted to shoot down an unmanned American MQ-1 on a routine surveillance flight in international airspace, 16 miles off Iran, but failed. An alternate report cites a Pentagon spokesman stating the drone was 14 miles from Iran’s coast. Iranian officials stated that the drone was operating over territorial waters. After the interception attempt, the Pentagon decided to escort intelligence surveillance reconnaissance (ISR) drones with mission fighter jets. The next month, the IRGC captured a US ScanEagle drone over the Persian Gulf waters after it crossed into Iranian airspace. The Pentagon reported US efforts were those of continuing surveillance using a fleet of drones in the Persian Gulf for any evidence of Iranian nuclear proliferation. In regard to the drone capture, Iranian authorities reasserted that the IRGC monitored all movements of foreign forces in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz for its own national security.
In September 2013, the IRGC announced the mass production of the “Shahed 129” drone; said to have a range of 1,700 kilometres, capability of carrying eight missiles and an ability to fly for up to 24 hours. Based on the model of the US ScanEagle drone captured in December 2012, Iran unveiled a reconnaissance drone named “Yasseer.” By November, Iran’s gains on drone technology had reached new heights. Iran unveiled the missile-equipped Fotros drone with a range of 2,000 kilometres, capability to fly at an altitude of 25,000 feet, and maintain a flight time between 16-30 hours. Defense Minister Mohammad Dehgan stated the drone was successfully tested and could carry out reconnaissance missions or launch air-to-surface missile strikes. Using reverse engineering and advanced data decoding, Iran unveiled its production of a drone similar to the US RQ-170 Sentinel, captured in 2011. The Iranian drone was said to be enhanced as well: “the version's weight has remarkably become less, it consumes less fuel, its speed has been increased and the duration that it can fly has improved a lot because of its enhanced body. The Americans had used metal in building the body but we did not use metal at all. It helps to reduce its detectability by radars," Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of the aerospace division of the elite Revolutionary Guard, stated publically. This long-range drone can carry four precision-guided bombs.
The return of diplomatic relations between Iran and the US following the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) Iran nuclear agreement in 2015 brought hope that the contention between the countries would lessen. As Iran continued its ambitious drone program, the government persistently publicized its ability and validity for strengthening its defense systems. In January 2016, Iran flew a surveillance drone over French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle and the nuclear powered USS Harry S Truman. Both vessels were operating in international water; the USS Truman stationed in the Persian Gulf region for the purpose of launching airstrikes and supporting operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The US did not open fire on the drone because it was unarmed and was not considered a threat and the carrier was not conducting flight operations at the time. However, had there had been active takeoffs and landings on the carrier at that time, US handling of the drone may have been quite different. Officials continue to make statements to the public assuring that the US takes all threats seriously, and the military is ready to use force if necessary.
Iran’s drone program was founded on the captures of downed US drones. Iran now has the advanced radar Nazir. Situated in the desert, the radar is used for detecting small targets at long distances. No stealth aircraft can intrude into Iran’s airspace without coming into service of Nazir. As recently as March 2017, Iran has also produced and deployed a counter-drone weapon: a rifle-shaped jamming device. The Iranian regime says the device can “electronically separate a remotely piloted aircraft from its command pilot and even reprogram it to turn on its owner.” The counter-drone device is said to have the capability to hack the UAV, allowing the device user to reroute the drone, land it safely, or use it against its original operator.
Military drills occur continuously in the Persian Gulf, staged by many different actors. These drills complicate the logistics of the use of the Strait of Hormuz as well as the safety of all vessels in the water. Iran conducts naval drills annually in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz and often carries out ballistic missile tests throughout the year as well. In a resolution written in April 2016 by US Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., who is chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, Forbes wrote that Iran “failed to ‘adhere to international maritime law’ and by conducting military drills has ‘undermined stability’ in the Persian Gulf.” Forbes was referring to Iran’s naval drills in the Sea of Oman and the Indian Ocean in January as well as a joint naval drill with Oman in December 2015. This resolution made front-page headlines in Iran and again created antagonism, specifically in Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who condemned the US military presence in the Persian Gulf. In a speech on May 2, 2016, Khamenei lambasted the US stating, "Today, the enemy makes statements that are bigger than their mouths. They sit and scheme that Iran must not have military drills in the Persian Gulf. What a strange thing to say. They come from that side of the world and conduct drills. What are you guys doing here?"
In December, Iran was criticized for testing rockets near US warships and commercial traffic near the Strait of Hormuz. Though Iran denied the rocket launches, the US later released video footage showing the rocket fire. During drills in January 2016, Iran’s navy successfully fired surface-to-surface Noor cruise missiles at mock targets. The drill took place over a three-million-square-kilometer area that included parts of the Strait of Hormuz, the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean. The drills are conducted to show Iran’s defensive strength and assert its power within the region, reinforcing its stance that countries within the region should be responsible for the area’s security. In October 2016, the US and UK conducted a bilateral exercise focusing on mine countermeasures (MCMs) with the aim of securing operational readiness in the Persian Gulf area. Both countries continue to practice security measures against the possibility of the other making a move: the concept of diplomatic talks seems to have disappeared.
As if on stage, both Iran and the US with its allies have already launched flashy military drills in the region by the end of February 2017. American, British, and French naval units created the Unified Trident, involving British Royal Navy flagship HMS Ocean and Type-45 destroyer HMS Daring, US warships USS Hopper and USS Mahan as well as French anti-aircraft frigate FS Forbin. The trilateral exercise was reported to have simulated targeting Iranian combat jets, ships, and coastal missile launching facilities. A US Navy press release reported the 3-day exercise was designed to “enhance mutual capabilities, improve tactical proficiency and strengthen partnerships.” The final drill featured 13 ships from the allied navies sailing in formation, with helicopters flying overhead.
Within weeks of the Unified Trident exercise, the IRGC launched a large-scale 3-day ground force exercise in an eastern desert area of the country. The military drills included artillery, air defense, drone, infantry and air force units. Later that week, the Iranian navy executed a massive military drill in the Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Oman and the Strait of Hormuz covering an area of 2 million square kilometers. Anti-ship ‘Dehlaviyeh’ missiles and Iran’s homemade coast-to-sea cruise missile, Nasir, were test-fired. Iranian marine commandos and special naval forces had trained in confronting “possible enemy aggression” on Iran’s coast and used “state-of-the-art weapons and equipment” during the exercise, Iran’s Fars news reported. Iran’s military doctrine states that the public display of offensive abilities could serve as a form of deterrence. The defense types and exercises do not violate the JCPOA.
US Army General Joseph Votel, who heads US Central Command (CENTCOM), spoke before the House Armed Services Committee pushing for the use of military means against Iran. Votel stated, “we need to look at opportunities where we can disrupt [Iran] through military means or other means their activities. We need to look at opportunities where we can expose and hold them accountable for the things that they are doing.” US and Iranian provocations cannot escalate if we seek to keep the diplomatic relations painstakingly regained. We cannot turn our backs on one another, continuously fault the other, and use rhetoric in the media that incites controversy and ire. The countries’ various territorial/international border skirmishes remind me of a sibling holding a finger a centimeter away from the other sibling’s face, the behavior infuriating yet the statement holding true: “I’m not touching you…” Neither country will back down and both will continue to assert their dominance over the Persian Gulf and its defense of the valuable waters. To avoid this impending war, both nations must grow up and agree on rules of behavior. Creating a framework for behavior within the military forces and during drills and exercises could alleviate tension and promote bilateral stability. The promotion of trade and alleviation of sanctions could make passages through the Strait justifiably innocent and peaceful. Both countries should be ashamed of their immature behavior: fancy, modern war toys will still create age-old bloodshed and grief.