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The United States is “locked and loaded” to attack Iran in response to its alleged attacks on Saudi oil facilities last week, according to President Trump. How might the United States carry out such an attack? Here are five options that range from defensive to an extended air campaign. These options come from actions presidents have taken in similar situations in the past. Of course, diplomats are working to find a solution, and the president is saying that “he does not like war.” Nevertheless, at some point, I believe Iran will go too far, and the U.S. will launch a military response.
- Enhance air defenses around Saudi cities and oil facilities. By defending against similar attacks in the future, this avoids an immediate attack on Iran and is the least provocative. The Saudis already have extensive air defense capabilities, but they have a lot of territory to defend. The United States could send another Patriot battery to help out and perhaps some additional radars to give more warning. This would reinforce the Patriot battery sent back in May and replace the batteries withdrawn from the region in 2018.
A fundamental problem is that the U.S. and Saudi systems, Patriot and Hawk, are well-designed to defend against aircraft and, to a lesser degree, against ballistic missiles, but not well-designed for defense against drones. The flight paths are different, low and relatively slow for drones, and the cost per shot is very high. The United States is developing systems to defend against these kinds of threats, but they are not quite ready to be fielded. That’s a future opportunity for arms sales but does not help at the moment.
The United States has a long history of sending air defense battalions to hot spots to show resolve and bolster defenses without being provocative. For example, in 2013-2015 the United States and its NATO allies deployed Patriots to Turkey to guard against missile threats from Syria. In 2017 the United States sent THAAD, a different missile defense system, to South Korea to defend against missile threats from North Korea.
- Launch a missile strike at Iranian military facilities. Under this option, the United States would use its long-range missiles from aircraft or Navy ships to strike Iranian military targets, for example, airfields and naval port facilities. The United States frequently did this against Iraq under Saddam and against al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Trump himself used missile strikes in 2017 to attack Syrian military targets in retaliation for chemical weapon attacks. This is also the option that Trump was apparently on the verge of implementing when he decided at the last minute to call it off because of potential Iranian casualties.
The advantage is that such a strike tells the Iranians that there is a cost to continued provocations but does this without making an extended military commitment. The downside is that it will cause some Iranian casualties and crosses line of using military force. Further, it’s not clear that a single strike will change Iranian behavior.
- Launch missiles and airstrikes against a broad range of Iranian targets, including civilian infrastructure. These attacks would go beyond attacks against military targets to include attacks against command and control facilities, such as the Iranian Ministry of Defense or, more likely, the headquarters of the Iranian Republican Guard Corps. The strikes would also hit key civilian infrastructure such as electrical generation, bridges, and communications networks. The point would be to threaten the military and civilian leadership and put pressure on the Iranian people.
- Conduct an extended air campaign. An extended air campaign would go beyond a single strike or group of strikes and last days or even weeks. Whereas strikes in the previous options made a political point, the goal here would be to reduce Iranian military capabilities and force the Iranians to negotiate.
Aircraft carriers could provide some of the basing, but some aircraft would need to be land-based because of the range of capabilities needed—electronic warfare, aerial refueling, reconnaissance—and the extensiveness of the strikes. Saudi Arabia, and likely other Gulf countries, would have to provide such basing.
The United States conducted such an air campaign against Serbia in 1999. That lasted 79 days, much longer than expected, before Serbia finally gave in. Indeed, the history of such aerial punishment campaigns is not encouraging as leadership and populations tend to hunker down.
- “Quarantine” Iran. This option combines aggression and passivity. A “quarantine” would blockade Iranian ports or, if less stringent, might entail searching ships entering or leaving Iranian waters for cargoes contravening the sanctions. It would be aggressive because it would threaten the Iranian economy; it would be passive because the Iranians would have to make the first move. A tight “quarantine” would threaten the stability of the Iranian regime, but that seems less likely with the hawkish John Bolton now gone as national security advisor. A looser inspection regime would link the actions to the previous sanction policy.
The model here is the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, where the United States declared a quarantine of Cuba. (The United States used the word “quarantine” because a blockade, which it actually was, is an act of war under international law.) The Soviets, fortunately for world peace, turned their ships back and did not challenge the blockade, giving diplomats time to work out a settlement.
All of these options could include participation by allies and partners, but such participation seems unlikely. Although NATO is uncomfortable with Iranian aggressiveness, it blames Trump for inciting the crisis by exiting the nuclear weapons agreement with Iran. Even Britain has signaled equivocation. Gulf states might participate, but they don’t like to act directly given Iranian strength and nearness. Instead, they would prefer to participate indirectly by providing support and basing.
Beyond these five options, there are more aggressive options, such as the seizure of Iranian islands in the Persian Gulf. The United States has long had plans for such operations, but they go far beyond what is likely at this point.
Whether Trump will implement any of these options is hard to say. In yesterday’s press availability, he was noncommittal. Trump said it “looked like Iran” had conducted the attacks and that the intelligence conclusions would be revealed soon, but he also noted that this was “an attack on Saudi Arabia, not us.” With tanker minings and drone shootdowns, Iran has brilliantly conducted a months-long campaign of intimidation and harassment in response to its isolation by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and their allies while maintaining plausible deniability and staying below the threshold that would engender a military strike.
One might reasonably ask would it would take to get Trump to order an attack. For all of his aggressive tweeting and martial swagger, Trump has been exceedingly reluctant to use military force and risk getting into conflicts. Such involvements are, after all, what he campaigned against. The red line for Trump appears to be US casualties and, so far, the Iranians have been careful not to cause any.
Watch for reports of U.S. force movements. As I noted in an earlier Forbes column, the United States has the capabilities in the region to launch the limited strike in option two and three above (the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln is in the region) but would need to reinforce its forces to execute the operations of options one, four, or five. These reinforcements would be visible, for example, Air Force tactical squadrons heading to bases in Saudi Arabia or Qatar or bombers staging at the US facility on Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.
Because the Iranians have extensive special forces capabilities and use them abroad, U.S. troop movements to provide additional security at U.S. facilities in the region would also be a tipoff.