In the event of a direct military confrontation between Iranian and American forces in the Straits of Hormuz, which strategies would each side be likely to adopt? In order to attempt to answer that question, we have to bear in mind the Clausewitzian point that the success or failure of any military expedition must be judged, not in military terms, but in political terms.
In this case, more concretely, in economic terms. The fundamental dynamic which has heightened military tensions in Hormuz, unilateral American sanctions against Iran, has forced the Iranians to respond by using Hormuz as an economic lever. With that in mind, the success or failure of Iranian strategy has to be judged in terms of its net effect on the economic prognosis. Do the Iranians have the strategic wherewithal to disincentivize unilateral American economic aggression by pressing the oil-shock lever, and then setting military traps?
First, we should run through a list of the military hardware which the Iranians have at their disposal.
Iran has 7 frigates and 3 corvettes, each armed with 48 anti-ship missiles, in addition to the IRGC navy, which is mostly comprised of small, fast attack-vessels. The Iranians also have 40 missile-boats, armed with Russian and Chinese anti-ship missiles, and about 30 submarines, most of which are midget-submarines. However, they also have 3 Russian Kilo-class submarines. The Iranian air force has at its disposal approximately 25 F-14’s, 60 F-4 Phantoms, 25 Mig-29’s, 25 Mirage F-1’s, and 20 Chinese F-7’s. These assets are capable of inflicting some pain on US forces, but obviously not capable of achieving decisive military victory in the event of a confrontation.
However, the Iranian coastline is littered with anti-aircraft (AA) and anti-ship (ASBM) missile batteries, including about 25 Chinese-made C-801 and C-802 anti-missile batteries, and the Chinese DF-21. In addition, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has the Khalij Fars ASBM, a derivative of the Iranian Fateh-110. Both of these are solid-fuel missiles, and therefore can be fuelled and deployed very quickly.
The Khalij Fars has a maximum range of 350 kilometres and a speed of about 3800 kilometres per hour, making it a potentially a very serious threat to ships in the narrow straits.
As most US warships can cruise at up to 35 knots, they might be able to evade the target-box of one missile. The Khalij Fars can adjust its trajectory only within a designated target-box. Therefore, it is likely that multiple missiles would be fired to “box” a target in. The Iranians also have Hormuz-1 and Hormuz-2, anti-radiation ballistic missiles, based on the Khalij Fars. These missile home in on the target’s own radar-system. Finally, we should note that the Iranians have at least 4 Russian S-300 air-defence missile-systems, and have also developed an indigenous Iranian equivalent, the Bavar-373.
However, American pilots have experience against the S-300, for example when it is operated by the Greek armed forces during NATO exercises. In April, it was reported that the US Air Force had also acquired an S-300 system from an unknown source, and use it to train pilots at the Tonopah test range in Nevada.
US aircraft carriers are typically escorted by missile-cruisers and missile-destroyers, both of which are equipped with the Aegis combat system. Therefore, in order to permeate US electronic countermeasures against incoming missiles, the Iranians would be likely to launch a saturation-attack involving not only missiles being fired from multiple locations, but also fast-moving attack-craft and midget-submarines manned by the IRGC. It is unlikely that the Iranians can equip their ASBM’s with enough payload to actually sink a carrier, but they still have the potential to inflict more pain than the US is prepared for.
In the event that the Iranians closed the Strait of Hormuz, arguably the most tactically crucial Iranian assets are their mine-laying craft. Mining the Straits is crucial to luring the US Navy into the crossfire. Mine-clearing is very slow work, and vessels deployed to that purpose would be extremely vulnerable. The US strategy would ideally be to operate from a safe distance, deploying bombers from its bases in the Gulf, Djibouti and Diego Garcia and cruise-missile launches from submarines in the Indian Ocean, in order to knock out the Iranian missile-threat before starting to re-open the Straits by beginning mine-clearing operations. However, this is far easier said than done, and a number of the land-based missile-systems which the Iranians have at their disposal are highly mobile and easily concealable truck-launched missiles, which can set up at a new location and deployed in less than 45 minutes.
This manoeuvreability means that the tactical potency of cruise missiles launched from US submarines would be limited. The US would be extremely unlikely to deploy the F-35 fighter in this theatre of war, as it lacks either the manoeuvreability or the fuel-capacity to loiter for long enough to locate and hit targets on the ground such as these. Furthermore, such bombing-sorties in themselves are fraught with hazards posed by Iranian AA-missiles.
The standoff which currently exists tactically is favourable to the Iranian strategy, which is essentially to use Hormuz as an economic lever in order to disincentivize American behaviour. In the event of direct military confrontation, the Iranians would only have to show enough resilience to press the oil-shock lever. Furthermore, the de facto government of American corporate interests must be extremely wary of the potential economic consequences of direct military conflict. However, the Iranians also need to be wary of squandering too much blood and treasure in order to pursue this strategy. Operation Praying Mantis (1988) resulted in almost half of all the vessels in the Iranian Navy being destroyed or damaged, and it took the best part of 2 decades before Iran was once again a formidable naval presence in Hormuz. Yes, the Iranians can play the Hormuz-card, but not too often.