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What Do I Think of Iran's Military?

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

Though I don’t like writing too slangily on a topic this serious, Iran’s military sucks. Take Stephen Walt’s description:

Iran is not a very powerful country at present, though it does have considerable potential...But its defense budget is perhaps 1/50th the size of U.S. defense spending, and it has no meaningful power-projection capabilities. It could not mount a serious invasion of any of its neighbors, and could not block the Strait of Hormuz for long, if at all....

It’s hard to disagree with that take, especially considering this chart making the rounds on Twitter/blogosphere

So on one hand, I agree with Stephen Walt: Iran does not have the capability to strike the U.S. or project power in the Middle East for long. It cannot deploy troops or control surrounding bodies of water with its navy. It also lacks an air force capable of defeating its neighbors in an extended campaign.

Western arms embargoes have atrophied Iran’s advanced weapons capabilities, especially in air defense, conventional ships and aircraft. It has tried to develop an internal defense industry, but it still has a long, long way to go before its domestic arms production even resembles anything close the Western arms manufacturing.

As I’ve told many people in my life, though, size isn’t everything. Iran makes up for its resource deficits through wit, cleverness and initiative. The Iraqi army never truly embraced irregular and asymmetric warfare, but the most well-funded and trusted branch of the Iranian military--the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC, one of the few acronyms Eric C will grant me because, damn, that name is long)--has. The Ayatollahs hold the IRGC in the highest esteem and shower them (relatively) with money, kind of like America’s special operations folks.

The IRGC’s most trusted unit, the Quds Force (The closest thing Iran has to JSOC or CIA Operations branch, if CIA/JSOC supported terrorism. It’s like a bizarro world JSOC.) has operated for the last 30 years, and continues to operate, in countless countries around the Middle East, gaining experience fighting insurgencies, waging asymmetrical war and studying the United States military.

While Iran’s military “sucks”, they might be the best opponent the U.S. has faced since 9/11. Afghanistan barely had a military. Saddam never trusted his military, viewing it more as a threat to his power than an ally. Al Qaeda hide in caves in Pakistan. The Ayatollahs, comparatively, love the IRGC--its name literally means “the guardians of the revolution”.

Does this mean Iran will “win” in a war against the U.S? No. They literally don’t have enough planes, boats, soldiers or tanks to invade America. Iran can defend itself, though. Like an animal backed into a corner, Iran can lash out. That worries me. In my opinion, Iran could inflict a level of casualties equal to what the U.S. military has already seen since 9/11, and it could do so in matter of weeks.

Over the next few posts, I hope to convince my readers that war with Iran will mean dead U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. Possibly thousands. And almost definitely thousands of civilians. And maybe the world economy. Will those costs outweigh the benefits? I doubt it.

We need to have this discussion in concrete terms before the U.S. or Israel goes to war. Let’s start it.

three comments

USA! USA! USA! Take that rest of the world. Your armies fail at life. That, or we’re massively overspending on defense.

Score one for Eric C for fighting acronyms. Minus one for Eric C’s comment which I don’t understand.

Since the discussion is starting, I would point out that the Iranians don’t give up easy. In the war against Iraq they kept fighting for years despite the horrible losses. People who just refuse to cry uncle are very hard to beat no matter the correlation of forces. And it seems that Israel and some in the US are counting on the Iranians crying uncle after they’ve been bombed a bit.

He was referring to the chart and that we almost outspend every other country in defense combined (Half of whom are our allies).

True, but I would argue most people don’t give up easily. The Germans fought WWII because they hadn’t really given up WWI. The Russians spent millions of lives to defeat European invaders (Napoleon and Hitler). I think invaded countries will fight tooth and nail to kick out invaders.

That said, in this first round I am going to talk mostly about initial Iranian counter-attack options, then shift into what doctrine would call “branches and sequels”, invasions and rescue missions.