The U.S. is surging carrier battle groups, Patriot missile batteries and Marines to the Persian Gulf. Four oil tankers have been holed at the waterline by what appear to be limpet mines placed by Iranian forces or their surrogates. In Saudi Arabia, oil pumping stations have been hit by explosive-laden drones. The writing is in the wall. We are headed into war with Iran.
And it will not be the war we want.
The war we want is one where American ships and planes send what passes for an Iranian Navy to the bottom in short order. The war we want is one where our armored divisions and helicopter gunships make quick work of an Iranian Army that is technologically inferior and would serve primarily as target practice. The war we want is one where our “hyper-conventional” special operations forces stage precision raids and strikes on enemy compounds and beam home high-def video coverage to be broadcast to the world.
The war we want is one where the enemy fights as we want him to fight.
It is not the war we will get.
The recent attacks on vessels in the Persian Gulf show clearly how this conflict will proceed. Four vessels were seriously damaged by explosive charges detonated at the waterline on each. The charges were powerful enough to breach a ship’s hull. They did not come close to sinking any of the ships in question, and nothing about the explosive devices utilized suggests any particular sophistication. They could have been made virtually anywhere with a minimum of technical expertise and assistance.
Likewise the placement of the charges does not appear particularly sophisticated. They were not affixed to the ships’ hulls under water. There is nothing about their placement that suggests that there would have been a necessity for the employment of frogmen, swimmer delivery vehicles or midget submarines. To the contrary, in all likelihood they were placed by a team or teams of men operating from small boats under the cover of darkness against undefended targets. Such a capability could be deployed, with proper prior planning, almost anywhere on the globe with little or no technical or logistical assistance.
Initial indications are that the drone attacks in Saudi Arabia are similar low-tech affairs. The Houthi rebels, armed and trained by Iran, have demonstrated a mastery of this capability previously and can deploy it easily and with minimal outside assistance.
This is exactly how the Iranians will proceed. They will not confront us on the high seas or in open battle. They will leverage the capabilities of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Iranian Intelligence, Hezbollah and the host of other surrogates that Iran has created worldwide, and they will hit us and our allies without warning and, in many cases, without even acknowledging that they are responsible. Targets will expand from oil tankers, to refineries, port facilities, embassies of nations supporting U.S. sanctions and beyond. The objective will be to inflict pain and to make those who stand with us pay a price for their support.
People will die. The price of oil will continue to rise. The Iranians will bet that sooner or later there will be cracks in the newly assembled coalition supporting the Trump Administration and the weak-kneed will begin to demand new negotiations and new concessions.
Against these tactics our conventional forces will not simply be hard pressed. They will be impotent. There will be nothing to smash, nothing to bomb, nothing to obliterate. Our SEAL Teams and other elite units will likewise be useless outside of those few occasions when we identify Iranian sabotage teams before they act and can vector in our forces to eliminate them.
This will be an unconventional war. It will be a war driven by intelligence, and more than anything else, by human intelligence. We will either penetrate the Iranian terror networks and take them off the board before they strike or we will be doomed to following them around the globe, sweeping up after them and calculating the damage they have done.
That means it will ultimately be American human intelligence capabilities, leveraging, as appropriate, signals intelligence as well, that will either win or lose this war. Our intelligence officers, principally those of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) will crawl into the belly of the beast, provide the warning we need, locate targets and allow us to take them out before they act or we will fight blind.
Whether or not we have the capability to win a war fought on these terms remains unclear. No doubt the men and women of the CIA overwhelmingly relish such a challenge. This is what they joined to do. They will willingly crawl into the back alleys and remote mountain ranges of the world to hunt down our enemies and keep their fellow citizens safe at home. What the leadership of the CIA is willing to do, or for that matter, capable of doing is another matter.
For far too long an organization, which used to pride itself on its “field-centric” approach to operations and draw its leadership from seasoned operators has been increasingly under the control of men and women who made their bones back home, standing next to the flagpole, playing office politics, jockeying for position and preferring safe – business as usual -approaches to intelligence gathering to the kind of audacious operations necessary to penetrate terrorist groups and the intelligence services of rogue states. The popular image of CIA may still tend toward a rogue spy agency toppling governments and stealing nuclear launch codes. The reality is an organization increasingly dominated by leaders who are risk averse and more focused on what happens inside the beltway than inside Tehran.
We are going to war. The first shots have already been fired. It is not the war we want, but it is the war we will get and the one we must win. Now let’s see if we have what it takes to do so.