Interdum stultus opportuna loquitur...

Monday, November 01, 2004

Reasons to be Fearful - Part 3...

Note - from June 24th 2009, this blog has migrated from Blogger to a self-hosted version. Click here to go straight there.

It's now looking increasingly unlikely that anything will eventuate from the "chatter" I wrote about (rumours concerning a potential US/Israeli strike on facilities in Iran before the election next Tuesday).

I think that's a good thing, in case anybody was wondering.

In the event that Bush is re-elected, however, it's pretty clear that Iran is in the targeting viewfinder at Neo-con Central.

Iran doesn't have any nukular capacity (the IAEA - the final arbiter in international law - has said so).

But that's not even interesting as far as the strategic dilemma facing the US is concerned. The big question is how they will counter Iranian anti-ship missiles in the littoral environment near the Straits of Hormuz.

The US relies heavily - in the first-strike arena - on ship-launched ballistic missiles, and aircraft-carrier-launched air-superiority fighters and fighter-bombers. As such, any tool that the Iranians can bring to bear against the US fleet becomes a principal issue in both the strategic and tactical analysis.

There are two significant tools that Iran has, which represent an almost-insurmountable advantage in any combat that involves US naval vessels (and in particular the aircraft carriers).

Those tools are

  • the 3M-82 Moskit anti-ship missile (also known as the SS-N-22 Sunburn) which has a range of about 100 miles and can deliver a 750-lb conventional payload; and
  • the SS-NX-26 Yakhonts anti-ship missile (range: 180 miles; payload 800lb).

More important, both are supersonic (the Moskit hits at mach 2.1 at sea-level; the Yakhonts at Mach 2.9... both run above Mach3 at altitude), running at three times the speed of its US riveal (the Harpoon). They also have amazing "end of flight" volatile-path guidance systems which enable them to perform avoidance manouvres with minimal loss of airspeed.

This means that the Phalanx missile defence system (a precision-controlled 6-barrel Gatling-style gun firing 3000 depleted-uranium rounds per minute) cannot track an incoming Moskit or Yakhonts reliably and find a firing solution in the time taken for the missile to cover the 80-mile radius of the Phalanx radar.

The replacement (not yet fully implemented) for the Phalanx is the "Rolling Action Missile" or RAM system - so called because it is designed specifically for incoming missiles with volatile-path guidance. However even RAM has little chance of successful intercept of a supersonic incoming missile unless it can get advance warnings (at least 200 miles) - which can be provided by the AWACS surveillance craft that run round-the-clock air patrols over every carrier battle group.

Nobody probably remembers the guided missile frigate USS Stark (FFG31), which was hit by 2 Mirage-launched Exocet missiles from a range of less than 50km; the HMS Sheffield and Atlantic Conveyor were sunk in the Falklands by Exocets - also air-launched from Mirages - and the HMS Glamorgan was damaged by a ground-launched Exocet.

The Exocet is sub-sonic and has considerably less range (43 miles) momentum and payload (363 lb) than either the Moskit or Yahkonts; Exocets must actually be launched from within the radar range of the Phalanx system - whereas Moskit and Yakhonts can both be travelling at wave height and under radar by the time they can even be acquired by the Phalanx system.

It's not clear (given the abysmal record of US surveillance in finding SCUDs in Iraq) that ground OR ship-based SS-N-22s and SS-NX-26s will be disovered before they enter the 200-mile perimeter required by RAM (and Phalanx will be a complete waste of time because it can't deal with rolling action). The usual response time (from launch to impact) for countermeasures is 15-25 seconds (as opposed to nearly 3 minutes for Exocets).

Defending against Exocets is such hard work that fully half of all combat air patrols in the first Gulf War were run as air-defense sorties - to defend the carrier group against possible incomiung Exocets; there will simply be no time for response to an incoming, ground-or-ship-launched Sunburn.

Frankly, even if the Iranians don't deploy either of these weapons against the US fleet, the US still has the nightmare of logistics of post-attack fleet protection of oil tankers in the Hormuz (and Iran will have no compunction about asking mujaheddin to attack various other global oil-transport choke-points such as the Straits of Malacca).

But if it does - imagine the effect on pubic confidence (and the markets) if one of the US's carriers was sunk. The recent "Summer Pulse" exercise - a show of naval power which saw all but one of the US carrier battle groups out of port (unprecedented since WWII) - also gave military planners and strategists some vital data on manouevrability and force structure of the main carrier battle groups. And most strategists - actually, every one that I have read - think that in the Gulf's "lake-like" spaces, an attack on a carrier group by Sunburn/Moskit variants would be successful.

The important thing to understand is that the US has done pretty much what Varus did (in taking his legions into the Teutoberg forest). They have ignored a significant terrain-problem which exposes the most vulnerable and most critical deployment platforms - in the case of the US, that's their naval vessels. From their carrier battle groups stems their air-superiority (although holding airstrips in Iraq and Afghanistan ameliorates that somewhat), and their guided missile frigates are their primary first-strike capability.

It's my contention that the US will find it difficult to deploy their long-range bombers (B52s and so on). the primary reason is that Iran's air defences have not been pulverised by 12 years of "no fly zone" bombings. And if the Russians were prepared to sell Iran their primary anti-shipping weapons platforms, there is little doubt that Russian Sa-10s and Sa-12s will have found their way to the Iranian arsenal, alongside the older-fashioned SAM-6's; and of course the Shehab-3 and Shehab-4 medium-range (2000km) weapons are a potential problem if Israel involves itself in any shenanigans (although Israel has claimed that its Arrow anti-missile system is sufficient, that goes in the same swill-bucket as as the claimed efficacy of Patriot missile batteries, which failed against SCUDs in the first Gulrf War... they never hit ONE).

I think that the US would be wise to have second, third, fourth and fifth thoughts - and then to sack the neo-cons (they should drop the "neo" from their name, nd hereafter be accurately described ase con men pure and simple).