Today's edition of World Tribune.com contains this urgent headline:
"U.S. still preparing cruise missile strike on Iran"
According to Russian military analysts interviewed by the publication, the U.S. is still planning to strike Iran, possibly in a matter of weeks. A similar assessment has also been offered by French military sources, who recently told a London-based Arabic newspaper that the United States will probably attack Iran sometime this year.
As for the Russian prediction, it seems to be based on the concentration of American naval power in the Persian Gulf region. We currently have two carriers on station in the gulf, and a third battle group (led by the USS Nimitz) is enroute. Moscow notes that the three carrier groups would give the U.S. "hundreds" of cruise missiles for potential strikes against Iranian targets. The Russian experts don't differentiate between sea-based cruise missiles (launched by surface ships in the carrier groups), and air-launched versions of the weapon, which can be fired by B-52 and B-1 bombers, based on Diego Garcia.
Russian analysts also warn that "combat nuclear weapons may be used for bombing," an obvious reference to tactical nukes. Initial attacks (carried out by cruise missiles and fighter aircraft) would be aimed at destroying Iran's air defenses, followed by secondary strikes against the country's nuclear facilities.
Forgive me for not getting overly excited about this report. In fact, we saw many of the same claims about a year ago, in separate articles published by the Washington Post and the New Yorker. At the time, we observed that many media outlets (and reporters) have little understanding of the military planning process. Fact is, the U.S. has had plans for attacking Iran for years, just as we have plans for potential combat with other adversaries. These plans are constantly reviewed and updated, reflecting changes in our force structure and military technology. I'm guessing that the operational strategy outlined in the World Tribune bears some resemblance to plans that were on the books two, three, or even five years ago.
Obviously, the difference this time around is the U.S. naval build-up in the gulf, and the continuing escalation in the Iranian nuclear conference. The sustained presence of three carriers in the Persian Gulf might suggest that something really is up, but we'll see about that shortly. The USS Eisenhower and its escorts have been operating in the region since last fall, and are scheduled to leave station sometime this month. They would be replaced by the Nimitz carrier group, which would remain in the area, along with a second carrier (USS John C. Stennis) which arrived a few weeks ago. If the Eisenhower's remains on station into May, that could be a sign of escalation toward a potential strike against Iran. While the nuclear-powered carrier can steam almost indefinitely in the gulf, an extended deployment would require extensive replenishment for its crew, the embarked air arm and its conventionally-powered escorts.
Another indicator, oddly enough, is the presence of the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle in the northern Arabia Sea. Arrival of the French vessel allowed the Stennis to move into the gulf, without disrupting air support for coalition forces in Afghanistan. Departure of the de Gaulle would possibly prompt the redeployment of a U.S. carrier back to the Arabian Sea, for resumption of the Afghanistan mission. However, that location would also place the Stennis or Nimitz near potential targets in the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran would attempt to close in a major conflict with the U.S.
At this point, though, a Navy-led attack against Iran is far from certain. Based on current force deployments, we'll maintain an assessment we offered a few weeks ago: the U.S. is keeping its military options open, and the Iranians guessing.
ADDENDUM: The Russian assessment is correct in one sense. A first step in any air campaign is neutralizing your adversary's air defenses, to ensure your own control of the skies. As we've observed in the past, much of Iran's air defense system is antiquated and operates from fixed sites, making it easier to locate and destroy. The real "unknown" in this equation are the recently-acquired (and highly mobile) SA-15s. Keeping them on the move would make targeting more difficult, although Iran may have earmarked those missiles for defense of high-value targets, including its nuclear facilities. That sort of basing option would actually reduce their effectiveness, in the overall scheme of things.