Iran’s ‘asymmetric capabilities’ likely to determine military strategy
Since the revolution in 1979 cut it off from its traditional supply base of Western defence technology, Iran has pursued a military strategy characterised by self-reliance and asymmetry, undergirded by a proxy network for strategic depth.
Iran found itself in a war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq within a year of its revolution and that conflict, which lasted eight years, left a lasting effect on how Tehran shaped its defence strategy.
Iran’s missile programme became central to its strategy of asymmetric defence and its ballistic and cruise missiles advance with longer ranges, more accuracy and, most important, the ability to be produced locally.
The Iran-Iraq War created lessons that altered how Tehran approached defence at sea.
The Strait of Hormuz connects oil-producing Arab states and Iran to the world. Its strategic value cannot be understated and it occupies a key role in how Tehran aims to bring together the elements of its defence strategy.
Specifically, Tehran prizes its potential ability to implement anti access-area denial (A2AD) of the Gulf by blockading the Strait of Hormuz. Ostensibly, Iran’s goal would be to generate wide-scale disruption to freedom of navigation in the Gulf rather than pursuing a quick military victory, which, in the bigger picture, lies beyond its capabilities.
The more Iran prolongs any military confrontation in Gulf waters, the more it limits costs to itself and raise costs for its rivals. By slowing any potential offensive to buy time, Iran can activate its regional proxies to spread conflict across a much wider area.
To achieve its A2AD goals in the Gulf, Iran would seek to avoid direct confrontation and keep its naval forces light and dispersed, maximising the use of surprise at tactical levels.
Naval mines are likely to figure heavily. The threat of casualty remains in place once mines are deployed and, in Iran’s case, a first line of defence could be gained as well as an important psychological advantage. Naval mines have accounted for around 77% of US ship casualties since World War II.
With their simplest configurations costing less than $1,000, naval mines allow weaker forces to challenge more conventionally superior forces, particularly in constricted littoral environments such as the Gulf.
During the Korean War, the initial landing of US troops was delayed for a week as North Korea disrupted American military logistics and damaged 11 US warships. In the Tanker War phase of the Iran-Iraq War, an Iranian mine costing less than $2,000 inflicted damage amounting to as much as $96 million to the US Navy’s USS Samuel B. Roberts frigate in the Gulf.
Naval mines can be deployed on the surface, in the water column or on the seabed and can be contact mines or fitted with specific triggers.
Drifting mines, floating on the water and moving with the current, are the simplest type of mine. They are the easiest to counter but also the easiest to deploy in volumes. Moored mines are more sophisticated because they float underwater. The most dangerous are rising bottom mines that are fired from the seabed against passing vessels with specific magnetic, acoustic or pressure signatures.
Iran is believed to possess an inventory of sophisticated naval mines but the geodynamics of the strait, which is 33km wide at its narrowest point, and, more important, probably no more than 50 metres deep, makes it particularly vulnerable to mining, even with rudimentary devices.
The effectiveness of mine-laying platforms can also prove more important than the sophistication of naval mines themselves. Iran’s stealthy Russia-made Kilo-class submarines can lay 24 mines per sortie but its fleet of indigenously built Ghadir-class and Nahang-class “midget” submarines, which lay up to 16 mines per sortie, are ideal mine-laying platforms.
Additionally, Iranian forces are likely to utilise unconventional mine-laying platforms, such as hundreds of fast boats that are agile and difficult to detect, open-decked ships that offer large staging areas and even disguised merchant vessels.
Iranian mine-laying forces could be supported by fast craft and missile boat teams equipped with anti-ship missiles, rocket launchers and heavy machine guns to harass and stage low-intensity attacks from multiple directions to disrupt interception operations.
Those light forces are augmented by anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles as well as anti-aircraft guns positioned on coastal and island bases in and around the strait.
The result of this layered, asymmetric approach by Iran to defence at sea creates a complex and highly challenging environment for larger, more capable forces to freely operate in, especially at the early stages of a potential confrontation.