Saturday, January 28, 2012

Fighting in the Gulf

If Iran closes the Strait of Hormuz in retaliation for Western sanctions that target Iran's oil exports, we will have to fight in the Persian Gulf. But we don't want to put our carriers in the Gulf since that is too close to Iranian shore-based assets. We need the maneuvering room of the Arabian Sea.

But we will need to fight in the Gulf and we are outfitting a ship--Ponce--that can do that without risking a carrier or other high value targets that would provide a propaganda coup for Iran:

The Navy is converting an amphibious transport and docking ship to serve as a floating base for military operations and humanitarian assistance, with deployment expected this summer to waters in the Middle East, Pentagon officials said Friday. ...

Officials said the staging base would allow commandos, helicopters, speedboats and even aircraft with a short-takeoff capability to operate in regions where the United States does not have access to installations on land.

Iran is not mentioned in this article, but the potential is clear. Indeed, we did this before with smaller assets, in the 1987-1988 Tanker War (the naval war part of the Iran-Iraq War) to protect shipping in the Persian Gulf. Then, we outfitted two smaller barges as platforms for service in the Gulf:

Each barge would have a mixture of patrol craft, including Vietnam-era riverine patrol boats (PBRs), Navy SEALs, and a Marine platoon. Should the Iranians directly challenge the barges, positions would be reinforced with metal plating and sandbags while the marines manned various weapons: 50 caliber machine-guns, MK–19 grenade launchers, a TOW missile, 81mm mortars, and Stinger missiles. With the addition of an explosive ordnance team and a Marine Corps radio reconnaissance linguistic and communication detachment, Hercules and Wimbrown VII would carry complements of 177 and 132, respectively.

Barges would be moved randomly every few days among the Saudi islands and oil platforms and have a layered defense. Helicopters would interdict any target out to 50 nautical miles while MK–III patrol boats covered the mid-distances and smaller Seafoxes and PBRs safeguarded for the first five miles. If all else failed, the Marine security force would man the decks with machine guns, rifles, and side arms.

In practice, the patrol boats only operating out to 16 miles rather than 25. The article describes how we fought with those barges as the persistent frontline force backed by traditional naval assets (including aircraft) further back, which should provide a guide to how we would use Ponce in a clash with Iran.

So we have a history of using these types of floating bases. But now we will have a bigger vessel. Whether bigger is better remains to be seen. But one thing (adjusted for inflation) holds true. Worried that these barges would be "floating Beirut barracks" that would provide a target for Iran, barge proponents countered:

“Would you rather risk losing two oil barges or a billion dollar ship?” The threat of mines or an errant missile from an Iraqi aircraft simply made the northern Gulf too risky for a gray hull.

Oh, and ponder the fact that we built the Littoral Combat Ship to get in close to shore to fight. But even these ships are too expensive to be considered expendible. Sure, it is better to risk an LCS than an Aegis destroyer or cruiser (or carrier), but they are not appropriate for the Gulf in the early stages of a conflict with Iran. I'd still rather risk losing the converted Ponce than a half billion dollar warship (those mission modules aren't free, remember) that is neither cheap enough or survivable enough for the mission.

We have to fight in the Gulf to beat Iran. But we still need options for what we use in the Gulf to fight Iran.