Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Looking at Internal Look

With near-record speed, The New York Times has obtained details of a recent U.S. military wargame, aimed at assessing the likely impact of an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.

The exercise, part of U.S. Central Command's "Internal Look" series, was conducted earlier this month. But administration officials--civilian or military--apparently couldn't wait to share some of the results with their friends at the Times. And the reason for the rapid leak is abundantly clear; the NYT account paints a grim picture of a wider, regional conflict that draws in the United States, after an initial strike by Israeli forces. That supports the Obama narrative that diplomacy should be given more time to work, and Israeli should hold off on pre-emptive military action.

"..the game has raised fears among top American planners that it may be impossible to preclude American involvement in any escalating confrontation with Iran, the officials said. In the debate among policy makers over the consequences of any Israeli attack, that reaction may give stronger voice to those in the White House, Pentagon and intelligence community who have warned that a strike could prove perilous for the United States.

The results of the war game were particularly troubling to Gen. James N. Mattis, who commands all American forces in the Middle East, Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia, according to officials who either participated in the Central Command exercise or who were briefed on the results and spoke on condition of anonymity because of its classified nature. When the exercise had concluded earlier this month, according to the officials, General Mattis told aides that an Israeli first strike would be likely to have dire consequences across the region and for United States forces there.

The two-week war game, called Internal Look, played out a narrative in which the United States found it was pulled into the conflict after Iranian missiles struck a Navy warship in the Persian Gulf, killing about 200 Americans, according to officials with knowledge of the exercise. The United States then retaliated by carrying out its own strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities."

These results are hardly surprising, given the likely Iranian reaction to an Israeli attack. In retaliation, Tehran would almost certainly attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz, choking off a key waterway for oil shipments to the global market. The job of re-opening the strait would largely fall on the U.S. Navy, setting the stage for Iranian attacks against American warships, with the potential for loss of life on both sides.

But the snippets leaked to the Times don't tell the whole story. For example, what happens during follow-on exchanges between Israel and Tehran? Does the conflict go nuclear? And what about Israel's near-by enemies in Syria, the West Bank and Gaza? Do they unleash a barrage of rockets that overwhelms the "Iron Dome" defense system, inflicting wide-spread damage and casualties.

There's also the matter of Iran's neighbors? How do countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Iraq and Oman respond? Do they allow the additional basing of western military forces and even join the fight themselves? If the NYT received that information, it wasn't included in the article that was published in today's editions. Indeed, there are vast differences between a conflict that engulfs the entire Middle East, and a more limited affair focused on Israel's attempts to fend off enemies near and far, and U.S. retaliatory strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities. Without additional details, it's difficult to envision the type of "regional war" forecast by Internal Look.

To be fair, such matters are normally beyond the scope of the CENTCOM exercise, which has been held on a recurring basis for more than 30 years. Internal Look is designed primarily to improve communication and coordination between command elements at CENTCOM HQ (located at MacDill AFB, FL) and in the AOR. But the "results" provided to the NYT paint anything but a rosy scenario, which is one reason the administration was so anxious to share it with friendly reporters.

Obviously, an Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear facilities would ignite a firestorm across the region--and there is little doubt the U.S. would be drawn into the conflict. Under those conditions, there would almost certainly be American casualties and our economy would suffer even greater harm, thanks to skyrocketing energy costs. But what are the consequences of sticking with the diplomatic track? "Internal Look" doesn't examine that type of issue, given its focus on the military realm.

But it's a question worth asking--and war-gaming. Left untouched, Iran will, at some point in the near future, become a member of the nuclear club, followed in short order by deployment of warheads on missiles that can strike the entire Middle East, including U.S. forces stationed in the region. Beyond that, Iran will pose a growing nuclear threat to Europe (thanks to the BM-25 intermediate range missiles acquired from North Korea a few years ago) and eventually the United States. With help from Pyongyang, Iran could have a nuclear-tipped ICBM later this decade, capable of targeting American cities.

Which brings us back to the conundrum now facing U.S. leaders? Is it better to double-down on diplomacy (and discourage Israel from launching preemptive strikes), hoping that a break-through can somehow be achieved? Or keep all options fully on the table, with the willingness to use military force when Iran crosses critical "red lines" in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Current signals from the administration (including leaked results from "Internal Look") suggest the military option is all-but-off-the-table, which must be music to the mullahs' ears.


Chris said...


Thank you for your interesting take on Internal Look, and its military and political ramifications.

So, I ask you again (5 weeks later), since you didn't answer before:

"Do you think it is in the US's best interest to initiate a pre-emptive strike against Iran, based on the current threat assessment of its nuclear status?"

With the publishing of your current post, there are now four main scenarios to consider:

1. The US allows diplomacy to run its course (i.e., status quo).

2. The US pre-emptively strikes Iran in some form or fashion to, among other things, hinder or eliminate their ability to possess nuclear weapons.

3. The US, upon learning of a conflict initiated by Israel or Iran against the other, intervenes militarily.

4. The US, upon learning of a conflict initiated by Israel or Iran against the other, does not intervene on Israel's behalf (aka the "not gonna happen" scenario).

You pose some good questions; I'm posing one back to you, and I would love to hear your thoughts.

Always appreciative of your work,

Dio said...

The reality behind an intelligence report is always more severe than what is presented on the surface. The scenario offered the U.S. in the report is in reality even more dangerous. The current administration, having weakened our military and its posture around the world, leaves the U.S. in even a more vulnerable position. It is viewed as politically and militarily weak, lacking moral resolve and not to be taken as seriously as it would have been ten years ago. The lessons learned by countries in the region by the Gulf Wars have been nearly forgotten. Adversaries in the region are emboldened and not restrained.