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The Iran War IPB: The Air War

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

I generally agree with Michael Rienzi, who writes “If this war were to ever to take place, it would be conducted mostly from the air and sea, something the Iranians fully understand.”

That said, I’m going to devote fewer words to Iran’s response to our air campaign than any other domain. Having made that analysis themselves, the Iranians long ago chose to devote their resources to naval warfare, the domain with the biggest bang (dead U.S. sailors) for Iran’s buck (a rial). (I touched on my skepticism about air power’s ability to destroy Iran’s nuclear program here.)
Let’s start with air defense. Suffering from a broad arms embargo by Western nations, and since Russia doesn’t support proxies like it used to, Iran’s air defense weapons have withered. Anthony Cordesman, take it away:

“Iran has extensive surface-to-air missile assets, but most are obsolete or obsolescent. All of these systems are poorly netted, have significant gaps and problems in their radars and sensors, and are vulnerable to electronic warfare. Once again, Russia is Iran’s only current potential source of the modern weapons Iran needs, and it would take major deliveries of a new integrated air defense system based around the S-300 or S-400 surface-to-air missile to change this situation.”

Despite Anthony Cordesman’s doubts, the U.S. Air Force still worries about Iranian air defenses. In a post about the Air Force’s desire for a new long range bombers on Time's “Battleland”, General Norty Schwartz specifically mentioned Iran’s improvements to their anti-air weapons. This article by On V fav David Axe quotes Jamie Morin, an Air Force assistant secretary, saying that air defense technology is, “proliferating very rapidly” and “widely available and comparatively cheap.” On the one hand, defense experts doubt Iran’s abilities to down U.S. aircraft, and the Pentagon generally believes it would triumph easily in an Iranian campaign, but the U.S. Air Force still worries about the threat Iran poses. (Hmm. I smell weapons acquisitions...)

The bottom line on Iran’s air defenses: the U.S.S.R. at the height of the Cold War this is not. Iran has invested heavily in ground-based air defense, but not enough. The equipment it has, it cannot repair. Its long range surface-to-air missiles will remain a threat, and could down several aircraft, but can’t fundamentally defeat the U.S., or kill nearly as many people as a destroyed/sunk U.S. capitol ship. Iran will keep investing in air defense weapons, but will lag behind the U.S. for years/possibly forever.

(Iran could use Man Portable Air Defense (MANPAD) surface-to-air missiles (SAM)--think Stingers, but made in Russia--in a proxy fight against America as I addressed two weeks ago or in the case of a U.S. ground attack. Unfortunately, only an invasion could tell whether or not they have learned enough to really hamper an armed invasion.)

The Iranian Air Force fares even worse. Weapons embargoes have prevented it from modernizing, and Iran’s Air Force struggles to keep the planes it does have flying. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Air Force has scant support compared to the IRGC Navy, and focuses on unconventional capabilities like UAVs, not fighter planes.

While a war with Iran will start at sea and from the sky, I believe Iran cannot stop a U.S. aerial bombardment. With a thorough “wild weasel” or “suppression of enemy air defenses” mission, U.S. planes could fly with near immunity. So here are the possible courses of actions and outcomes:

Best Case: We don’t lose a single aircraft.

Worst Case: Iranian surface-to-air missiles and radar technology have increased considerably as Iran tries to build its own weapons. Iran successfully shoots down several American or Israeli aircraft. About a 2-5% possibility.

Most Possible Deadly Option: Iran shoots down a single aircraft, like an F-15 or F-16. (What about our F-22? Could it crash? In an ironic twist of Pentagon purchasing, the second most expensive plane in the Air Force arsenal, the F-22, hasn’t flown a combat mission in Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya, and it probably wouldn’t in Iran either. F-15s and F-16s cost less to fly, and they can hit ground targets the F-22 can’t. Why do we build planes we refuse to fly?)
Most Costly Option: Somehow a B2 bomber malfunctions over Iran and crashes. Iran inevitably gives credit to its air defenses. This scenario will remain shrouded in secrecy for decades.

Most Likely Option/The Fog of War: In all honesty, planes crash all the time. Combat jets even more often. With multiple sorties on many more targets than Iraq, the odds of a few planes critically malfunctioning could happen. This happened during Libya remember.

One final question, can the combined U.S. and Israeli mission wipe out the Iranian nuclear capability in a two week period? (My guess for the “over/under” Las Vegas would set for the campaign.) That I don’t know.

Bonus Thought:

While Iran cannot currently challenge U.S. hegemony in the air, I know how another super power could:

Build cheaper planes, and build a lot of them.

Much like the U.S. Army out-built the Germans during WWII--four or five Sherman tanks for every Tiger tank--if China wanted to defeat the U.S. it would do this. China would build twenty (or more) cheap airplanes for every U.S. F-22. Then, if it came to an air war China would simply outnumber America in the sky. But Iran cannot hope to employ this strategy, because it doesn’t have the money.

One comment

You don’t use your best war horse to plow the field or to chase coyotes. It might break something then you are out your best war horse for a furrow or a dead dog. You save it for when you really need it. Same thing with the F-22. We don’t need all the capability that airplane has to fight somebody that doesn’t have airplanes that can contest ours, and like you said, military planes crash. If we were to lose say, 2 F-22s just to accidents in a conflict with Iran, we would have lost 1% of the force to no real purpose. There are only about 180 of those things and there most likely won’t be any more.

Performance has a lot more influence on the outcome of a fight with airplanes than it does with tanks. A Tiger had to get close no matter what if an attack was on. An F-22 doesn’t have to get close to anybody. It can sit up there at 65,000 feet and pick off every one of those superior numbers with no danger to itself. Performance disparities in aircraft allow superior performers to engage and disengage at will. Other war machines aren’t like that.

China did have multitudes of cheap fighters in the past. They are replacing them with smaller numbers of much higher performing fighters. The J-20 will not be a cheap airplane.