Although U.S. Navy officials are convinced that they would prevail in a fight, Iran’s advances have fueled concerns about U.S. vulnerabilities during the opening hours of a conflict in the gulf.
Increasingly accurate short-range missiles — combined with Iran’s use of “swarm” tactics involving hundreds of heavily armed patrol boats — could strain the defensive capabilities of even the most modern U.S. ships, current and former military analysts say.
In recent weeks, as nuclear talks with world powers have faltered and tensions have risen, Iran has repeated threats to shut down shipping in the oil-rich gulf region. Its leaders also have warned of massive retaliation for any attacks on its nuclear facilities, which the United States believes are civilian covers for an Iranian drive to acquire a nuclear-weapons capability.
Last week, Iran’s Foreign Ministry declared that the presence of U.S. warships in the gulf constituted a “real threat” to the region’s security.
Pentagon officials have responded by sending more ships, urged on by Congress as well as U.S. allies in the region. This month, the Navy announced that it would deploy the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis to the Middle East four months ahead of schedule. The shift will keep two carriers in the gulf region.
The United States also has announced new military exercises in the region, including a mine-sweeping drill in the gulf, and has moved to add new radar stations and land-based missile-defense batteries in Qatar.
Assessing the risks
The likelihood that Iran would risk an all-out attack on a vastly superior U.S. fleet is judged to be small. But Iranian leaders could decide to launch a limited strike if Israel or the United States bombed the country’s nuclear facilities. Analysts also cautioned that a conflict could be sparked by an Iranian attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz — the narrow passage through which about 20 percent of the world’s oil passes from the Persian Gulf into open seas — in retaliation for international economic sanctions.
In either scenario, Iran’s ability to inflict significant damage is substantially greater than it was a decade ago. A Pentagon study in April warned that Iran had made gains in the “lethality and effectiveness” of its arsenal. The Pentagon declined to comment for this article.
Iran’s increased power to retaliate has led some military experts to question the wisdom of deploying aircraft carriers and other expensive warships to the gulf if a conflict appears imminent.
A 2009 study prepared for the Naval War College warns of Iran’s increasing ability to “execute a massive naval ambush” in the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway dotted with small islands and inlets and perfectly suited for the kind of asymmetric warfare preferred by Iran’s commanders.