With the current talk about “red lines” and promises that “all options are on the table,” this is a critical time to examine what a war with Iran might involve. Many proponents for military action seem to believe that a few well-placed bombs will thwart that country’s nuclear ambitions, and achieving the stated objectives will be relatively quick, cheap, and easy. For example, Matthew Kroenig’s Foreign Affairs article in 2012 argues that all the other options are more expensive and risky, and that conflict escalation is manageable.1 He is not alone in professing this school of thought.
Military-option proponents use examples such as the Israeli strikes on the Iraqi Osirak reactor in 1981 or the 2007 attack on Syria’s al-Kibar site as evidence that kinetic strikes can neutralize nuclear threats. In both cases these actions did not result in escalation of conflict, and those results may be responsible for creating the perception that the same will be true for Iran.
However, each war has its own character, and thus far Iran has given every indication that it will not “roll over and take it.” While it is impossible to forecast exactly how a potential conflict with Iran would play out, it is possible to examine such a prospect under the spotlight of historical precedence and see how it holds up to a few well-established strategic tenets. As oft-quoted Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz wrote, “Historical examples clarify everything and also provide the best kind of proof in the empirical sciences.”2
An Asymmetric Foe
Recently, U.S. and Israeli leaders have threatened a punishing air strike to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities if it crosses those defined red lines and moves toward bomb-grade uranium enrichment. This coercive use of force fits into what has become a pattern of warfare for the United States. It aims for a quick, decisive victory through the use of high-tech wonder weapons, brilliant generals, and highly skilled troops.3 In contrast, Iran will likely employ warfare best categorized as hybrid or asymmetric. An examination of conflicts where these dissimilar forms of warfare clash reveals that rather than the desired “quick victory,” protraction is more likely, and “the path to victory is not predictable in either duration or character.”4 This American form of warfare was recently employed against enemies in Serbia, Afghanistan, and Iraq (1991 and 2003). In retrospect, one can see a pattern where initial success of American technology and skilled application of force soon became disrupted by a low-tech form of asymmetric warfare. When considering whether to bomb Iran, one should ask, is this the pattern that such a conflict will likely follow?
Figure 1 depicts the historical interplay of these two warfare forms. The Y-axis represents the scale of violence, and the X-axis indicates the duration. The major pulse of coercive power (shock and awe, if you will) preferred by American forces is usually followed by a more steady-state application of force. As time passes without conflict resolution, additional pulses are employed in an effort to compel the desired political result. When the objective remains unachieved, a level of frustration is reached, and force once again escalates in an effort to reach the objective. Yet an asymmetric force is far more sustainable as long as its weapons can continue to inflict cost, and ample sanctuary and manpower remain. When these conditions are combined with a sufficient will to fight, protraction is unpreventable, and the political objective will remain elusive.
Sanctuary is one of the key conditions for an effective asymmetric campaign and is found in abundance in a country as large as Iran, which covers 632,000 square miles of territory and has 1,500-plus miles of coastline. It is more than just interesting trivia to note that a conflict with Iran would represent the largest theater of battle in which the United States has fought since the World War II European campaign. (Afghanistan, the current claimholder, is 60 percent smaller than Iran.) At 65 million people, Iran would also represent the largest population of a target country since World War II (over double that of Afghanistan). Size matters, especially where sanctuary and near-inexhaustible manpower resources are concerned.
Finally, some of Iran’s asymmetric weapons have been demonstrated on battlefields in Iraq, Lebanon, and Afghanistan. They include explosively formed projectiles, low-cost rockets, and acts of terrorism. Three historical cases illustrate the limitations of the American form of warfare when it confronts a country employing asymmetric warfare: the U.S. experience in Vietnam; the 1999 bombing campaign against Serbia; and recent Israeli operations against Hezbollah and Hamas.
Lessons from Vietnam
Political scientist Robert Pape wrote that “the air war against North Vietnam is the most studied case of conventional coercion.”5 The U.S. coercive weapon of choice was air power. The many complex developments of the war in Vietnam are too numerous to examine here. What suffices is the fact that Vietnam represented the most massive and protracted coercive campaign waged by the United States against an enemy practicing an asymmetric form of warfare. It is probable that, as with Vietnam, the nature of a war with Iran would likely be limited to the effectiveness of the air campaign.
In Vietnam the enemy’s asymmetric tactical weapon of choice was guerrilla forces attacking U.S. troops in South Vietnam. Iran’s asymmetric forces would most probably consist of its navy forces, theater ballistic missiles, and selective acts of terrorism. Like the ubiquitous guerrilla forces in Vietnam that required few supplies to sustain the fight, the irregular Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy forces would require only a small amount of fuel and weapons to execute a harassing mission in the Persian Gulf. Terrorist activities are equally disproportionately small when compared with the potential impact of their actions. Sanctuaries in neighboring countries and in North Vietnam itself (e.g., Hanoi and Haiphong), weather, and the jungle made it difficult for the United States to effectively target enemy forces in Vietnam.
Similarly, Iran’s missiles will most likely be scattered around the country’s vast interior in any one of hundreds of hardened facilities or placed in populated civilian areas.6 This potential makes targeting and destruction of these weapons a technically and possibly ethically challenging proposition. For example, as with North Vietnam, the limited objectives the United States set during the war did not justify actions such as taking out the Red River dikes that would have killed thousands of innocent civilians. Likewise, any limited war with Iran will be constrained by the value of the political objectives, and the loss of civilian lives will run counter to limited U.S. goals.
Changes in 1972
Some might use the Vietnam analogy by pointing to the successes of the 1972 Linebacker campaigns as a better parallel to any conflict with Iran today. In 1972, the punishing air strikes into previous sanctuary areas, “shocked [North Vietnamese] leaders” and pushed them to the peace table.7 However, one must remember that the other factors that made the Linebacker campaign more effective than previous bombings are unlikely to be repeated during a campaign against Iran. Foremost is the fact that the nature of the Vietnam War had changed by 1972. North Vietnam had shifted from using guerrilla attacks and was conducting a large-scale conventional attack (the Easter Offensive) that relied heavily on mechanized forces. The North’s exploding logistical requirements made the interdiction efforts of American bombing and the mining of Haiphong Harbor more effective than it would have been against guerrilla-type forces.
Furthermore, American strategic objectives for Vietnam had by 1972 gone from demanding that the North respect an independent, stable, non-communist South Vietnam to simply forestalling the imminent collapse of South Vietnam before the U.S. departure.8 Most important, the driving force behind this shifting objective was that eight years of war had not brought the United States any closer to achieving its original goals. Given the high value the Iranian government might place on developing nuclear weapons, it is unlikely that it will give in easily to U.S. demands to cease and desist. The importance of achieving this goal, coupled with Iran’s ability to wage a sustainable asymmetric form of warfare, will create the conditions for a protracted and costly conflict that most likely would, like Vietnam, have a disappointing conclusion. Finally, despite the outcome of the Vietnam War, one of the key lessons carried into the future was a U.S. preference for using coercive air power and precision weapons as a lower-risk instrument of power.
Operation Allied Force
The 1999 NATO bombing campaign against Serbia, Operation Allied Force (OAF), is an excellent example to examine before considering a potential coercive bombing campaign against Iran. Although Iran is 16 times larger than the space NATO forces operated in during OAF, it offers many parallels to a potential conflict with Iran. OAF also represents a war for a limited objective. Both conflicts pit the American form of warfare against an enemy that employs asymmetric warfare. For Serbian forces, the asymmetric weapon was the use of terrorism to ethnically cleanse Kosovo. Since the presence of a few police and soldiers armed with rifles and torches to burn villages could not be effectively targeted with air power, NATO opted to destroy Serbia’s conventional military and economic targets. Serbia, like Iran, was being coerced into changing its “unacceptable” actions. Finally, Serbia, like Iran, prepared and used a wide range of denial and deception tactics to foil and frustrate a superior foe. The combination of those qualities led to a protracted campaign with a less-than-satisfying conclusion.
The strategic objectives for OAF were described this way by the U.S. General Accounting Office: “The NATO alliance planned to use air strikes as a means to compel President [Slobodan] Milosevic to cease the violence in Kosovo.”9 By substituting “Iran” for “Milosevic” and “nuclear ambitions” for “violence in Kosovo,” a similar statement could describe what a coercive campaign against Iran would strive to achieve. Like Vietnam, OAF demonstrates the challenges of using air power to compel one’s enemy to accept a political solution.
For example, NATO leaders thought this operation would be a three- to five-day demonstration of force that would quickly convince Serbia to cease its ethnic cleansing. However, Serbia did not respond to the punishing air strikes as NATO assumed it would, and the operation dragged on for 78 days before achieving a political solution. Despite many flaws in the conduct of the operation, in terms of achieving the stated objective, OAF can be interpreted as a success. But at what cost, and are those conditions even possible with Iran?
‘Escalation and Protraction’
The employment of coercive power in both Vietnam and OAF resulted in the escalation and protraction of the conflicts. An after-action report from OAF states, “When the initial attacks did not achieve NATO’s objectives, the air campaign gradually grew in intensity to an around-the-clock air campaign operation.”10 NATO kept turning up the heat on Serbia, hoping that some unknown threshold of coercive pain would be reached and thereby compel a political resolution. It is important to note that escalation was a fairly easy proposition during OAF because NATO air and naval forces operated in a relatively threat-free environment. Ramping up operations against Serbia simply meant allocating more aircraft to forward bases in Europe.
In contrast, protraction in Iran would find U.S. forces operating under the threat of a variety of Iranian anti-access and area-denial weapons, making escalation much more challenging. The required scale of operations in Iran would be far larger, thus requiring more U.S. forces with fewer safe places to deploy them.
In this mouse-versus-elephant conflict, Serbia proved to be a surprisingly resilient enemy. Part of this can be attributed to the fact that throughout the Cold War, Yugoslavia planned and prepared to fight NATO. It had prepared a wide range of denial and deception tactics to foil NATO’s superior air power. Iran has also planned and prepared to fight a superior enemy. And it has had the opportunity to sit on the sidelines and observe its potential opponent conduct 11 years of combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. A prudent bet is that Iran has been “watching film” and is ready to conduct denial and deception at the varsity level.
Author Tim Judah reported that “Thanks to the Serbs’ deft use of decoys and deception, much NATO weaponry was hitting things like tanks made out of plastic sheeting with telegraph poles for gun barrels.”11 As a result, NATO’s initial postwar estimates of destroyed Serbian military hardware were wildly overestimated. While U.S. intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities have improved in the past decade, the challenge of locating and defeating hardened, hidden, and mobile threats still remains a tall order in a country as vast as Iran. Finally, as with Serbia, effective denial and deception may result in a protracted conflict.
The pattern of the U.S. response was shaped by its frustration to compel a favorable political end to the wars in Vietnam and Serbia. This pattern was to expand the target list and increase the intensity of coercive bombing, hoping the enemy would meet U.S. demands. Yet despite tremendous losses, both enemies were willing and able to continue fighting. One can speculate that even if many things important to Iran are destroyed, if the value of the object is high the enemy will continue to fight with all available means. For Iran, the means of fighting are vast and varied. For instance, its ballistic missiles can strike Israel and U.S. bases in the region.
Iran’s arsenal of hybrid-war options may also include terrorist attacks and the use of proxy Hezbollah forces to escalate the conflict to Israel and other places in the region. Significant for this analysis of Serbia is the fact that the massive air assault did not end ethnic cleansing in Kosovo; rather, it accelerated the effort. This may reflect the same effect on Iran’s commitment to acquiring a nuclear weapon. Finally, it was not the use of wonder weapons (e.g., the B-2 bomber) that compelled Milosevic to comply with UN resolutions; instead, it was the threat of ground forces that raised the stakes. And it was NATO ground forces that were committed to enforce the peace in Kosovo. Will the United States have a similar requirement, let alone the opportunity or the desire for such peace enforcement with Iran?
Israel Versus Asymmetric Warfare
Israel’s recent conflicts with Hezbollah and Hamas offer a historical perspective outside the U.S. experience where a similar American form of warfare confronts an asymmetric enemy. Israel’s 2006 conflict with Hezbollah includes the added dimension of pitting an Iranian-trained and -equipped proxy force against a superior Israeli force—a situation that mirrors a potential conflict with Iran. RAND Corporation researcher Benjamin Lambeth wrote in Learning From Lebanon, “What most accounted for the frustration felt throughout Israel as the conflict unfolded was the fact that at no time during the thirty-four days of combat were IDF forces able to stem the relentless daily barrage of short-range Katyusha rockets.”12 Like the guerrillas in Vietnam and Serbian forces in Kosovo, Hezbollah’s tactical weapons proved to be resilient. Despite more than 19,000 Israeli tactical sorties, a ground invasion of southern Lebanon, and some 173,000 artillery shells fired, the tide of rocket attacks on Israel was not stopped. Over the course of the 34-day conflict, Hezbollah launched an average of 170 rockets a day into Israel, and on the day before the conflict-ending cease-fire was enacted it launched a total of 250.13
The first point to be drawn from this case is, similar to the NATO operation against Serbia, Israel hoped to limit this operation to a two- to three-day precision application of air power that would coerce Hezbollah to surrender two Israeli soldiers who had been abducted. The Israelis employed devastating precision attacks with some of the best weapons available in the world. They hit all known enemy weapon caches, Hezbollah forces, and leadership locations. But the rocket fire into Israel continued unabated. This is a clear example of how low-cost asymmetric weapons can frustrate a superior force. The campaign ended with a cease-fire that weakened but did not destroy Hezbollah. The two Israeli soldier hostages, whose return to Israel was the original stated objective of the campaign, were not rescued or set free. (The bodies of the two Israeli soldiers, Staff Sergeant Eldad Regev and Sergeant Major Ehud Goldwasser, were exchanged for four Hezbollah prisoners in a swap arranged by the International Red Cross in June 2008.) Also noteworthy for a potential conflict with Iran is that the pulse of power expertly delivered by the Israeli military did not bring a rapid conclusion to the conflict nor completely achieve any of Israel’s stated objectives. Considering these facts, it is surprising that Israel believes it can now achieve better results against a far more challenging target set in Iran.
Israel’s more recent November 2012 conflict against Hamas forces in Gaza again shows the limits of air power. Planned as a 24-hour demonstration of force to compel Hamas to cease sporadic rocket attacks into Israel, the offensive lasted eight days and nearly escalated into a ground war. Like Hezbollah, Hamas employed asymmetric warfare that was able to continue threatening Israel despite Israel’s superiority in technology and weapons. Hamas reportedly fired more than 1,400 rockets into Israel during the eight-day conflict. While the Israeli “Iron Dome” missile defense system mitigated the damage to Israel, the key point is that the sanctuary for these rockets could not be eliminated with air strikes.
Hamas had clearly devised sufficient denial and deception tactics to foil Israel forces. By all appearances, Hamas could have continued to fire rockets which would have eventually forced Israel into conducting a costly ground invasion. As with Kosovo, it was the threat of a ground invasion and not air strikes that finally brought about a cease-fire. Like Lebanon in 2006, precision weapons were not enough to achieve the stated objectives of the conflict—to stop rocket fire into Israel. The campaign did not eliminate the threat; rather, it merely temporarily reduced the enemy’s war-making capacity. Is America doomed to a similar fate where, after a coercive military campaign, Iran stubbornly refuses to renounce its nuclear program?
‘Other Means to Inflict Cost’
In each case examined here, the war the superior power was best equipped to fight—the war it wanted to fight—was not the one it faced. These examples suggest that a conflict with Iran will probably not be won with stealth aircraft, smart bombs, and missiles. Even if operations destroy Iran’s conventional forces, these examples show that a nation, like Iran, will find other means to inflict cost. The risk of protraction and escalation is also higher when the current American form of warfare confronts an asymmetric enemy with sufficient means and motivation to keep fighting.
If this is the pattern of war that the United States is likely to encounter in a conflict with Iran, then why do some American leaders appear to be pushing for an option that informed analysis shows is not likely to achieve our objective at an acceptable cost? Many in the U.S. media and government today characterize Iran as “the biggest national security threat.” The problem with framing the threat as the “biggest” is that it potentially sets the stage for having to write a big check to eliminate it. The choice then comes down to two options: either a reassessment of the threat presented by a nuclear Iran, or the willingness to conduct operations on the scale of an unlimited war. Reframing the threat may require learning to live with a nuclear Iran, but as history indicates, a true “all options on the table” military solution will require a commitment and cost that may far exceed the value of the objective. Now is a critical time for a thoughtful debate to continue on assessing the risks involved if America should choose to bomb Iran.
2. Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 170.
3. Robert Rubel, “The Forms of Warfare: An Alternate Theoretical Perspective on Conflict.” Unpublished White Paper, Naval War College, Newport, RI, 7.
4. Ibid., 3–4.
5. Robert Pape, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (Cornell, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), 174–75.
6. David Crist, The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict With Iran (New York: Penguin Press, 2012), 397.
7. Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power: The Bombing of North Vietnam (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), 169.
8. Ibid., 174.
9. U.S. General Accounting Office, GAO-01-784 Kosovo Air Operations (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2001), 2.
10. Ibid., 3.
11. Tim Judah, Kosovo War and Revenge (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2000), 309.
12. Benjamin Lambeth, “Learning From Lebanon: Airpower and Strategy in Israel’s 2006 War Against Hezbollah,” Naval War College Review, 65/3 (Summer 2012), 83.
13. Ibid., 91.