But that conventional wisdom is wrong, according to a recent report issued by an independent, non‐profit public policy research institute in Washington DC. The report found that the traditional post‐Cold War US military ability to project power overseas with few serious challenges to its freedom of action may be rapidly drawing to a close.
While such conclusions have been voiced before, most notably in regard to capabilities being developed by the People’s Republic of China — which is developing an anti‐access/area‐denial (A2/AD) battle network that could constrain the US military’s ability to maneuver in the air, sea, undersea, space and cyber‐space operating domains — China is hardly the only country that has developed such options.
According to the report published by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), “Iran, in particular, has been investing in new capabilities that could be used to deter, delay or prevent effective US military operations in the Persian Gulf. Iran’s acquisitions of weapons that it could use to deny access to the Gulf, control the flow of oil and gas from the region, and conduct acts of aggression or coercion, are of grave concern to the United States and its security partners.”
The report, “Outside‐In: Operating from Range to Defeat Iran’s Anti‐Access and Area‐Denial Threats”  notes that Iran has been preparing for a possible military confrontation with the United States for decades. Instead of engaging in a direct military competition, which would be pitting its weaknesses against US strengths, Iran has developed an asymmetric “hybrid” A2/AD strategy that mixes advanced technology with guerilla tactics to deny US forces basing access and maritime freedom of maneuver.
Even if Iran did not disrupt Gulf maritime traffic for long, it could still have a devastating impact. A recent report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) found that Iran’s closure of the Strait of Hormuz would “neutralize a large part of current OPEC [Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries] spare capacity,” saying “alternative routes exist, but only for a tiny fraction of the amounts shipped through the strait, and they may take some time to operationalize while transportation costs would rise significantly.”
“A blockade of the Strait of Hormuz would constitute, and be perceived by markets to presage, sharply heightened global geopolitical tension involving a much larger and unprecedented disruption,” it said.
The IMF said that “supply disruption would likely have a large effect on prices, not only reflecting relatively insensitive supply and demand in the short run but also the current state of oil market buffers”.
“A halt of Iran’s exports to OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] economies without offset from other sources would likely trigger an initial oil price increase of around 20–30% (about US$20–30 a barrel currently), with other producers or emergency stock releases likely providing some offset over time,” the report showed.
It stressed that “a Strait of Hormuz closure could trigger a much larger price spike, including by limiting offsetting supplies from other producers in the region”.
“If you could cut off oil flow for even several weeks the global economy would be in depression. That would be a serious price to pay; it is a sobering thought,” according to Patrick Cronin, a senior advisor at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington DC think‐tank.
Attacking ships is not the only option available to Iran to disrupt oil supplies, according to Cronin. In a phone interview with Asia Times Online he said, “Forget about shutting down the Strait of Hormuz, you could hit the oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia; that would have enormous impact.”
Cronin, who was involved in the reflagging of oil tankers during the Iran‐Iraq war of the 1980s, agrees that the Iranian ability to disrupt maritime traffic is real. “Iran is acquiring greater capabilities and has geographical advantages. Even back in the 1980s, we were very worried.”
Currently, aside from military factors, Iran can take advantage of a number of political and demographic realities.
For example, the populations, governments and much of the wealth of the region are concentrated in a handful of urban areas within range of Iran’s ballistic missiles. While attacks against Gulf cities may have little direct military utility, their psychological and political impact on regional governments could be significant, especially if Iran demonstrated the capacity to arm its missiles with chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear warheads.
And, as most analysts recognize, Iran could also mobilize its network of predominately Shi’ite proxy groups located across Southwest Asia to conduct acts of terrorism and foment insurrection in states that remain aligned with the United States.
Iran’s proxies could become far more dangerous should Iran arm them with guided rockets, artillery, mortars and missiles (G-RAMM). Other groups, like the Lebanese Hezbollah, could conduct a terrorism campaign designed to broaden the crisis and hold US rear areas — even the US homeland — at risk.
And while that indirect approach may not succeed, Iran could use its ballistic missiles and proxy forces to attack US bases and forces in the Persian Gulf directly.
Iran’s hybrid strategy would continue at sea, where its naval forces would engage in swarming “hit‐and‐run” attacks using sophisticated guided munitions in the confined and crowded waters of the Strait of Hormuz and possibly out into the Gulf of Oman. Iran could coordinate these attacks with salvos of anti‐ship cruise missiles and swarms of unmanned aircraft launched either from the Iranian shore or from the islands guarding the entrance to the Persian Gulf.
That last scenario is hardly theoretical. Lieutenant General Paul K Van Riper (US Marine Corps‐retired) gained notoriety after the Millennium Challenge 2002 wargame, which was a major exercise conducted by the US armed forces in mid‐2002, likely the largest such exercise in history.
It cost $250 million and involved both live exercises and computer simulations. The simulated combatants were the US, referred to as “Blue”, and an unknown adversary in the Middle East, “Red”, commanded by Lieutenant General Van Riper.