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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Say it isn't so: US no longer capable of effectively attacking Iran?

In an earlier post, I reported that both IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and Minister of Defense Moshe Boogie Yaalon said on Tuesday that Israel is capable of attacking Iran by itself.

J.E. Dyer,  a former US Naval officer, doesn't discuss those statements in the article excerpted below, but assuming that her assessment is correct, it should be clear why Gantz and Yaalon found it necessary to say what they did: The United States is no longer capable of effectively attacking Iran, and a threat coming from Binyamin Netanyahu to attack Iran is far more credible than a threat coming from Barack Hussein Obama.

My Liberty Unyielding colleague Timothy Whiteman highlighted last Thursday the number of Air Force squadrons that will have to cease training later this year because the Air Force doesn’t have funds for the flying hours. This is real, and it is astounding. It will mean that, at a certain point in the near future – as early as this fall, if no additional funds become available – the cost of mounting an operation big enough to eliminate Iran’s nuclear weapons-related installations is likely to be too high.

This is because there will be no force depth to either sustain follow-on operations or overcome the geographic constraints U.S. forces are increasingly likely to face. Assuming all of the Air Force’s stand-downs and readiness losses do occur, the available front-line forces would be maxed out with a moderately scoped strike package. To meet the task, they would require the most favorable basing options that could be available in the Persian Gulf under today’s conditions – but which may not be. If we don’t have those favorable basing options, and the Air Force squadron groundings remain on track, the Iran strike goes from all-but-under-resourced to impossible.

There will not, after all, be two aircraft carriers on station near Iran, with their combined eight squadrons of Navy strike-fighters (more on that below). It will in theory be possible to deploy a second carrier, but doing so is pretty much certain to require more money from Congress. (Doing so would also enlarge and accelerate the readiness snowball for the Navy’s carrier force, a snowball that will inevitably become an avalanche of carrier unreadiness in the next three years, if world problems require unplanned operations during this period.)

The Air Force will have to carry the load of a strike on Iran, if there is to be one in the foreseeable future. The Air Force’s forward-deployed squadrons will continue to train and conduct operational flights. The B-2s and some of the B-52s, which can deploy immediately and/or operate globally from their bases stateside, will remain combat ready. But the strike-fighter squadrons at their home bases in the States, which would be called on if a major operation had to be ordered, will be in an impaired state of readiness. The aircrews will fall out of combat qualification when they haven’t been able to get their training hours in (and some aircraft maintenance will be deferred as well). If the president wanted to order a new operation, beyond our current military commitments, it is not clear what would happen.

...

An option Israel has always had, and one we are now more likely to select ourselves, is to go after only one or two target installations, hoping to set Iran back but not destroy her nuclear-weapons program to the extent that the whole thing must be reconstituted. Choosing such a limited objective, however, would mean less support for a U.S. operation from our regional partners. We can’t rely on them to let us expose them to Iran’s wrath for operations that aren’t worthwhile. We will not get to decide how worthwhile the operation must be, if we seek to calibrate it at a level too low for our partners’ confidence.

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It would be challenging but well within our capabilities to launch a comprehensive strike, and complete it in 96 hours or less, if we had – at the ready – a deep Air Force roster and at least two carrier strike groups, with the air wings and Tomahawks they bring, in or close to the Persian Gulf. But in 2013, we no longer do. The prospect we face is of being squeezed out of strike-option feasibility by a combination of resource attrition – driven by the sequester – and the geographic constraints that are closing in due to political shifts in the region.

With enough combat-ready forces, we could overcome the geographic constraints, at least to a large extent. If we didn’t face the geographic constraints, the forces we will have available would be enough for a limited strike package, if not necessarily for the full scope of what needs to be done, or for containing Iran in the aftermath of the strike. But we face both limiting factors now. We have gone about 80 percent of the way from being the “United States” to being “Israel,” in terms of the capability we could actually bring to bear, right now, on the Iranian nuclear problem. There is no prospect of this changing.

And it’s a problem, because, unfortunately, our current president will not have the credibility Netanyahu would have, regarding his determination to neutralize Iran’s most threatening assets. We are not Israel today, in terms of will. We are Obama’s America. Regional nations have real reason to worry that a basing concession to Obama would increase their vulnerability without taking care of the threat. We can hope that Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman would allow us to use their airfields and air space, but it’s not a given anymore.

It isn’t a given that the United States will step up to the plate when the perceived, near-term threat from Iran is not to us directly, but to our regional partners. There is no question that the threat to Israel from a nuclear-armed Iran would be direct and existential. Few would doubt that a Netanyahu would have meaningful strike intentions and would follow through on them. But with our particular president’s history of national-security decisions, it is reasonable, even prudent, to doubt his rhetoric about Iran.

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If a strike is necessary, we’d better hope it gets ordered in the next 3-4 months. It would be dicey to try one with the comparatively shallow force profile available right now. But after that, Obama can’t just order it. It will have to be prepared for first, at additional expense – if, that is, the president intends for the strike to be effective, for the U.S. to minimize combat losses, and for his administration to have discretion over when and how the strike happens.

Perhaps Obama doesn’t intend to have that discretion. He was willing to deal it away in Libya, and has shown no disposition to secure it in Syria. Unfortunately, you cannot compile Obama’s national-security record and keep respectful assumptions alive in the minds of your allies and opponents.

The president may order an operation anyway, and override any military objections about feasibility. We can hope not, but foreign troublemakers may force his hand. Obama will care about appearances at least until the 2014 election. Our military can get any job done if it has the resources it needs, and a feasible and well-defined objective. But the prospect of our forces being asked to do what they do not have the resources for – with, quite possibly, a poorly-defined objective, as in the Libya operation – is now very real.

Read the whole thing.

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