From Sunday's UK Telegraph comes a sobering story about U.S. plans for possible combat operations against Iran. According to the British paper, planners from the U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) and U.S. Central Command have been identifying targets, updating weapons loads, and calculating logistics required for the operation. Sources told the Telegraph that the effort is not merely an update of existing contingency plans:
"This is more than just the standard military contingency assessment," said a senior Pentagon adviser. "This has taken on much greater urgency in recent months."
One interesting wrinkle in the Pentagon's reported plan involves the use of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) attacking Iranian nuclear sites with conventional warheads. However, other press reports have suggested that the program is (officially) at least four years away from fruitiion. A recent Bloomberg article outlined efforts to develop a conventional warhead for some Navy TRIDENT D-5 missiles (carried on Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines). The Navy plans to spend at least $127 million in FY'06 and $225 million in FY'08 to develop capability, with deployment of the missiles in the years that follow. The conventionally-armed TRIDENT program is part of a Pentagon effort called Prompt Global Strike, allowing the U.S. to target virtually any point on the globe in 30 minutes--or less--using non-nuclear weapons.
In other words, the Telegraph story on U.S. war plans is referring to a capability that currently doesn't exist--at least not officially. There are a number of potential explanations for this apparent inconsistency. Perhaps the writer was referrring to the new mission of the USS Ohio, the first boat in that SSBN class. SLBMs were removed from the Ohio more than two years ago, and the sub has been re-fitted as a cruise missile platform. It is scheduled to being operations this year, and could conduct cruise missile strikes against enemy targets--a mission assigned to U.S. attack subs in past conflicts. Two other Ohio-class boats--the Michigan and Georgia--are undergoing similar conversions, and will re-join the fleet in 2007. Collectively, these vessles are capable of launching hundreds of cruise missiles against hostile targets. However, their weapons are not the sub-launched ballistic missiles referred to in the Telegraph report.
That leaves two other theories. Perhaps the planning update is actually a long-range effort, accounting for capabilities that won't enter service until later this decade. The looming crisis with Iran would certainly account for the new "urgency" in planning efforts, even if some of the weapons and employment scenarios are still under development. On the other hand, it makes little sense for a critical contingency plan to list--or integrate--combat capabilities that are still 4-5 years away from their initial operational capability (IOC).
The third--and perhaps most likely explanation--is that the conventional TRIDENT D-5 program is further along than the Navy is admitting, and will enter operational service well before the end of the decade. Fitting a conventional warhead isn't exactly rocket science (forgive the deliberate pun); the launch system (the missile itself) and reentry vehicle technology are tested and reliable, so equipping the D-5 with a conventional warhead is largely a matter of building a large, high-explosive warhead, and developing the required fusing and guidance (think GPS) technology to transform the RV into a precision, penetrating weapon, capable of destroying buried, hardened targets. That's exactly the type of capability we would need in going after Iran's nuclear facilities and it would be a welcome addition to the U.S. arsenal.
Using SLBMs in this role does present a potential problem. Unless coordinated in advance with the Russians and Chinese, a sudden SLBM launch against Iran is bound to scare the hell out of Moscow and Beijing. On the other hand, prior coordination with Russia and the PRC would reduce chances for misinterpretation of the event (and overreaction of their part), but it could divulge details about operating patterns/locations for conventionally-armed SSBNs, increasing the threat those platforms would face. But from the Pentagon's perspective, the benefits clearly outweigh the risks, and if the Telegraph story is any indicator, conventionally-armed SLBMs on U.S. subs may be a reality well before their "published" introduction date.
On a related note, the Telegraph also published this companion piece in Sunday's edition, outlining the potential consequences of a war with Iran. You'll note that the paper relied on left-wing experts for their assessment, which predicts that as many as 10,000 Iranians might die in a U.S.-led bombing campaign. Readers will also note that these "experts" recommend that a "military response....should not be considered further. Alternative approaches must be sought, however difficult these may be." Hat tip: Regime Change in Iran.
Here's a question for the smart boys at Oxford: pray tell, what would those alternative approaches be? We've been negotiating with Tehran in search of those options for almost a year. To date, EU and Russian diplomatic efforts have resulted in renewed Iranian nuclear activity, escalating tension in the Middle East, and no viable solution in sight. Admittedly, the military option should be the last one for the Iran crises, but in the end, it may be the only alternative. Removing the military option from the table now would be tantabmount to Britain and France's refusal to eject Hitler from the Rhineland in 1936. The British and the French had the military might to defeat the fledgling Nazi army, but they were so intent on preserving peace, they eliminated their best option. And we know what happened three years later.