a wider war, Iran must be deterred with limited U.S. military strikes.
By: Michael G. Vickers
Outlet: The Washington Post
Date: June 21, 2019
Michael G. Vickers, a former special forces officer and
CIA operations officer, served as assistant secretary of defense for special
operations, low-intensity conflict and interdependent capabilities (2007-2011)
and undersecretary of defense for intelligence (2011-2015).
warned Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last July in an all-caps
tweet that if Iran ever threatened the United States again, it would
“suffer severe consequences the likes of which few throughout history have
ever suffered before.” Iran’s attack Thursday
on a U.S. surveillance drone that was flying in international airspace,
according to U.S.
Central Command, should make it abundantly clear that the Iranians didn’t
take him seriously.
shoot-down of the RQ-4
Global Hawk — which has a wingspan of 131 feet and costs more than
$100 million — is the third act of aggression against U.S. military aircraft
in two weeks, according to the Pentagon. It followed the downing of
another U.S. surveillance drone by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels on June 6 in
Yemen and a failed
attack by Iran’s military on a U.S. drone flying over the Gulf of
Oman on June 13.
attacks on U.S. military aircraft have been accompanied by rocket attacks on an ExxonMobil
installation in southern Iraq, rocket and mortar attacks on U.S. military
bases in Iraq, missile
strikes into Saudi Arabia and mine
warfare attacks on oil tankers passing through the Strait of Hormuz.
All are suspected to be the work of Iran or Iranian-backed militants.
For deterrence to
work, a would-be adversary must believe that his attack plans will fail, or that
he will incur unacceptable punishment after an attack. And yet, thus far, these
attacks have gone unanswered by the Trump administration.
the New York Times, Trump had approved a limited retaliatory strike on Thursday
against Iranian radar installations and missile batteries, only to call it off
after planes were in the air. That will further embolden the Iranians.
Ronald Reagan’s very different response to Iranian attacks on Kuwaiti tankers
and international shipping during the so-called Tanker War of 1987-1988. After a
series of attacks on U.S. and international shipping, the Reagan administration
reflagged Kuwaiti tankers as U.S. vessels, provided them with Navy escorts and
conducted multiple strike operations against Iranian naval vessels, military
bases and offshore oil platforms.
The United States
suffered considerable losses during the limited conflict. During the first
escort mission in July 1987, the reflagged U.S. tanker MV Bridgeton struck
a mine and had to return to port. Iran’s prime minister, Mir Hossein
Mousavi, called the attack an “irreparable blow to America’s political and
earlier, an Iraqi F-1 Mirage fighter had mistakenly fired on the guided-missile
Stark, killing 37 sailors and wounding 21. In October 1987, the reflagged
U.S. tanker Sea
Isle City was struck by an Iranian Silkworm missile while at anchor at
the oil terminal outside Kuwait City, wounding the ship’s captain and 17 crew
members. And in April 1988, a frigate, USS
Samuel B. Roberts, hit a mine that blew a large hole in the ship and wounded
losses were far greater, and in the end, the Islamic republic agreed to
terminate its attacks on international shipping. U.S. Special Operations forces
sunk or scuttled four Iranian mine-laying vessels, captured its crews, provided
documentary evidence of Iranian complicity in the attacks on international
shipping and destroyed several Iranian offshore oil platforms. U.S. Navy forces
struck several Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps bases and sunk two
Iranian navy frigates.
The Tanker War was
also not without tragedy. The guided-missile cruiser USS Vincennes, engaged in a
gun battle with Iranian boats, shot down Iran
Air Flight 655, mistaking it for an Iranian F-14, killing all 290
passengers, including 66 children, and air crew members aboard.
Just as in 1987
and 1988, Iran’s most recent attacks on U.S. military aircraft and
international shipping cannot go unanswered. The United States must ensure its
ability to operate over Yemen (where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula still
plots against the United States and American interests around the world) and in
international airspace and sea lanes. The United States must also ensure the
free flow of goods in the Strait of Hormuz, through which one-third of the
world’s seaborne oil transits.
shoot-down on Thursday wasn’t accidental or the result of a rogue operator, as
Trump has suggested. The Iranians fired a missile at another U.S. drone a week
ago but missed. Senior Iranian officials have not only acknowledged their
successful attack on our Global Hawk but have also celebrated it.
unmanned aircraft, moreover, is every bit as much an act of aggression as firing
on manned aircraft. As automation advances, military force structures are
increasingly unmanned, and unmanned systems — whether in space, in the air, on
land, or on or under the sea — must be protected and defended.
administration should respond to these recent attacks with strikes of its own on
Iranian and Houthi air-defense assets, offensive missile systems and
Revolutionary Guard Corps bases. A measured but firm response is what is
required. It needn’t rise even to the level of the Reagan administration’s
successful counter to Iran’s Tanker War, but it must impose sufficient costs
to make Iran think twice about doing this again.
Off-ramps need to
built into the campaign plan so that limited military strike operations do not
lead to a wider war. Indeed, by reinforcing deterrence, a short-duration U.S.
military operation may well help to prevent a wider conflict with Iran.
Per its long
history dating to the 1983 Beirut bombings, the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996
and its attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq, Iran may well respond with additional
acts of state-sponsored terrorism against U.S. forces in the region. The lesson
of history, however, is that the Iranians strike us even when we don’t strike
them. Failure to hit back will only embolden them further.
Some measure of
deterrence must be restored.