Saber rattling in the Persian Gulf drives home importance of shipboard missile defense
A simmering naval conflict between the United States and Iran in the oil-rich Persian Gulf may be reaching a boil this week, as Iranian naval forces not only test-fired what officials claim are two new long-range surface-to-surface missiles that might pose a threat to U.S. warships in the region, but also warned of military action against U.S. forces if a Navy aircraft carrier that exited the Gulf region last week should return to the Persian Gulf through the strategic Strait of Hormuz.
This kind of saber rattling on the part of Iran -- bellicose rhetoric aside -- points to two core issues coming to a head now. First, U.S. military forces rarely, if ever, give ground to an ultimatum like this, and second, the U.S. Navy needs to step up its development and deployment of reliable anti-ship missile defenses.
Among Iran's latest developments is a threat to close the Strait of Hormuz if the U.S. steps up its sanctions against Iranian oil imports, which the U.S. government has in place to pressure Iran into abandoning its program to develop nuclear weapons.
-- U.S. commanders assess technological lessons learned of Gulf War II
-- Submarine threat heats up in the Middle East
-- Navy on the verge of major shipboard electronics breakthroughs.
Particularly concerning is the latest Iranian missile test, which involved missiles that Iran claims not only have ranges longer than 100 miles, but that also have stealth capability to defeat even sophisticated missile detection and defense systems.
While Iranian military officials say closing the Strait would be "easier than drinking a glass of water," other experts say closing the Gulf would be much harder than that. Also consider that U.S. military forces rarely back down from a threat.
The Persian Gulf is among the most strategically important spots on the Earth, as far as oil resources are concerned. As much as 40 percent of the world's oil flows through the region. Much of Saudi Arabia's oil moves through the Persian Gulf on oil tankers. A good deal of Iran's oil experts flow to world markets in the same way.
If Iran could close the Gulf to oil shipping even for a short amount of time, world oil prices most likely would skyrocket and place even more downward pressure on tough economies in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere. Keeping the Gulf open is a top priority of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, which is based in the Gulf in Bahrain.
while Iran most likely does not have the naval resources necessary to blockade the Persian Gulf entrance at the Strait of Hormuz, experts agree that Iranian naval forces could slow or stop ship traffic in and out of the Gulf, at least temporarily, by laying sea mines or threatening military and commercial shipping with missiles.
It's a tricky thing to keep the mouth of the Persian Gulf open. The Strait of Hormuz is only 21 miles wide at its narrowest spot. That's narrower than the channel between Los Angeles and Catalina Island. If Iran wants to make good on its threats, the Strait of Hormuz is where that country's navy would choose to do it.
Sink a couple of large oil tankers in the Strait would create major hazards to navigation, create a sizable environmental disaster, and most importantly, would make commercial shippers reluctant to send their vessels through the waterway.
So what does all this mean for the U.S. Navy, which is charged with keeping the Strait of Hormuz open no matter the obstacle?
It means perfecting and improving mine detection and disposal technologies. It means perfecting and improving shipboard defenses from sophisticated sea-skimming anti-ship missiles. It also means moving to military alert levels when operating in the Persian Gulf that are at wartime levels.
I shudder to think of the political and economic fallout of a successful missile attack on a U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier or other sophisticated warship or military weapon system.
It seems that Navy commanders have their work cut out for them.