In addition, Iran possesses dozens of fast-attack craft and even more inshore attack vessels that can sally forth from the country’s more than 70 ports and 1,300 miles of coastline and lay mines, launch missiles, shoot at, and otherwise seek to disrupt navigation in Gulf waters. Iran has three Russian Kilo-class submarines that can carry anti-ship missiles, mines, and surface-to-air missiles. Iran’s missile capabilities include anti-ship cruise missiles as well as longer-range surface-to-surface systems.
In addition to military options, IRGC agents and local sympathizers might explore trying to stir up trouble in Bahrain, Lebanon, Iraq, or other Middle Eastern countries. Bahrain is particularly vulnerable given its proximity to Iran and given that it has already experienced considerable internal strife due to its Shiite population’s alienation from the Sunni monarchy.
But equipped as Iran might be to create trouble in the Strait, the reality is that the United States wouldn’t allow Iran to close it. The Strait’s closure would have a disastrous impact on the flow of world oil and, therefore, global oil prices. U.S. credibility would also be hurt if Iran succeeded in closing the waterway after U.S. officials have said that they wouldn’t permit such a development. U.S. Fifth Fleet spokeswoman Lt Rebecca Rebarich declared that, “Anyone who threatens to disrupt freedom of navigation in an international strait is clearly outside the community of nations: any disruption will not be tolerated.”
The United States certainly has the military capacity to meet any Iranian challenge. U.S. warships are constantly present in the waters near and sometimes in the Persian Gulf. The Fifth Fleet is also headquartered in Bahrain and typically has at least one Carrier Strike Group, Amphibious Ready Group, or Expeditionary Strike Group, as well as other warships and aircraft on hand. These naval forces typically represent some 60 percent to 80 percent of all U.S. military forces in the Gulf area.
This isn’t to say that U.S. forces are invulnerable. Certainly, a carrier’s guns can defend against Iranian cruise missiles. It has four Raytheon/General Dynamics 20mm Phalanx 6-barrelled Mk 15 close-in weapon systems that have a firing rate of 3,000 rounds/min and a range of 1.5 kilometers. With this firing rate, it’s likely that these guns can shoot down incoming cruise missiles to avoid a potential strike. However, if the carrier were attacked by multiple cruise missiles coming from different vectors, it’s unlikely that all missiles could be destroyed in time.
Still, the carrier is also equipped with multiple decoys that offer another layer of protection. These include four Sippican SRBOC (Super Rapid Bloom Off-Board Chaff) 6-barrelled Mk 36 decoy launchers, which can deploy infrared flares and chaff, SSTDS torpedo defense system and AN/SLQ-25 Nixie torpedo countermeasures system. The Raytheon AN/SLQ-32(V) system is designed to detect hostile radar emissions using two sets of antennae that help identify the threat and direction and provide a warning signal while interfacing with the ship’s countermeasures systems.
Chances are, though, that the United States wouldn’t let it get this far. U.S. ships and planes would most likely aim to rapidly destroy most Iranian military assets in the region before they could be used against U.S. targets, and would likely be able to detect Iranian crews trying to lay mines, while Iranian submarines are vulnerable to U.S. anti-submarine capabilities. U.S. forces would also rapidly respond to an Iranian missile strike by destroying any Iranian missiles within range (especially if the targets weren’t initially known to U.S. intelligence sources as potential launch sites).
Ultimately, despite its significant military edge, the United States will want to deter an Iranian move against the Strait before it happens. It has, for example, confirmed that it will sell 84 F-15s to Saudi Arabia, as well as warplanes to Iraq. Such weapons sales are clearly aimed at discouraging Iranian threats, as well as reassuring these countries that the United States is concerned about their security.
For now at least, Iran’s threats are likely to remain just that.