Iran & the Military Balance in the Persian Gulf By Vern Liebl

Iran & the Military Balance in the Persian Gulf By Vern Liebl

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Oil War:


& the Military

Balance in the

Persian Gulf By Vern Liebl

Strategic Situation


t’s been 24 years since Iran was last involved in

a major conflict, the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88,

with its corollary US-Iranian naval confrontation

in 1987-88. Since then Iran has remained at

relative peace, mending the wounds of war while

expanding its military and spreading its influence

around the globe. Conversely, the nominal winner

of that war, Iraq, went on to military defeat at the

hands of a US-led coalition in 1991 and 2003, then

occupation, civil war and insurgency, all of which

has militarily weakened that country. To the east,

Iran’s neighbor Afghanistan remains disunited and

in a state of seemingly perpetual civil war. (In 2000

there was a near war between the Taliban and the

Iranian regime, prompted primarily over Sunni/

Shia differences and the Afghan opium trade).

To the north, Iran faces weak and new states

in Central Asia recently free of Soviet overlordship

but still subject to the machinations of Moscow.

Iran exerts influence in that region via its support

of insurgent groups in Chechnya, Dagestan and

Ingushetia. The presence of some 3,000 Russians

working at the nuclear facility at Bushehr also

provides a potential for hostage-taking.

To the south is the Arabian Sea, from which any

potential invader (that is, the US) would be most

likely to attack, but would then still face having to

cross hundreds of miles of rugged terrain, relatively

unpopulated and easily defended in-depth, in

order to get to the Iranian urban heartland. The

paucity of harbors along that coastline – Chah

Bahar and Jask are the only ones able to support

such an enterprise – reinforces the logistical

difficulty inherent in such an undertaking.

It’s only to the west (more properly the

southwest) where Iran faces a real threat, stretching

from the Gulf of Oman through the Strait of

Hormuz to the northern extremity of the Persian

Gulf. That threat axis, though mostly along a

border of water, enables the presence of US naval,

air and amphibious forces supplemented by

anti-Persian Arab regimes along the western border

of the gulf, creates a serious security threat to the

territorial integrity of Iran in the event of war.

Further complicating that situation is the Strait

of Hormuz, through which passes approximately

40 percent of the world’s crude oil supply and 13

percent of its natural gas. That strait, a mere 34 miles

across at its narrowest point, is dominated by the

military forces of Iran. Approximately 13.4 million

barrels of oil pass through the strait every day, in

addition to 31 million tons of liquefied natural gas

per year (both primarily destined for Europe and

Japan), as well as much of the food and finished

commercial products needed by the Arab nations of

the Gulf for their daily sustenance (approaching 90

percent of the food supply for the Arab sheikhdoms).

An Iranian missile unit firing

its ordnance during a training

exercise in 2010. This photograph

– often in highly altered forms –

has recently become ubiquitous

across the internet. (see inset)

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A GCC unit deploys for a training

exercise in its US-supplied vehicles.

Gulf Cooperation Council

The Arab states of the Persian

Gulf are organized into the Gulf

Cooperation Council (GCC). They

maintain a joint military organization

called the Peninsula Shield Force

(the PSF, exercised yearly and first

activated operationally in 1990 with

the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq).

At least on paper they can muster

considerable armed force and thus

pose another significant threat to Iran.

Saudi Arabia has the strongest

regional Arab army. It’s divided into

two parts. The Royal Saudi Land Force

(RSLF) has 75,000 men organized into

four armored brigades, 17 mechanized

infantry brigades, three motorized light

infantry brigades, an airborne infantry

brigade and the Royal Guard Regiment.

The second part is the Saudi Arabia

National Guard (SANG), the Saudi

king’s private military force for regime

security and use as a counterweight to

the RSLF. It has a strength of 125,000

and is organized into a mobile force

of three mechanized infantry and five

motorized infantry brigades, with a

light infantry force of one more brigade

and 19 independent battalions.

They’re organized along a three-region

structure. The Saudi ground force is

further supplemented by an irregular

tribal militia of approximately 25,000

men directly loyal to the Saudi family,

called in Arabic the Fowj (meaning in

English simply “troops”). They’re lightly

armed and form another 24 battalions.

The Saudi Air Force is the largest

and most capable within the GCC;

with F-15s and Tornados, it’s easily

more than a match for the Iranian

Air Force in terms of technology.

The Saudi Navy consists of 15,000

men, seven missile-armed frigates,

four coastal defense missile-armed

corvettes and nine missile-armed

fast attack craft. As with the Saudi Air

Force, the naval force could defend

against, and likely defeat, an Iranian

naval attack. There are also two marine

battalions that fall within the RSLF.

The smaller GCC countries also

contribute significant forces but, as

with the Saudis, little of that military

power is intended for force projection.

Kuwait has an Army of 11,000 men

organized into three armor brigades,

two mechanized infantry brigades,

an artillery brigade, a border defense

brigade, a brigade-sized Royal Guard

“group,” and a commando battalion.

All those units are under-strength

and are small for brigades. They’re

to be augmented during wartime

by the 10,000 men of the Kuwait

National Guard. The air force of

2,500 is a capable force consisting of

F-18s, Mirage F-1s, AH-64 Apaches,

SA-342 Gazelles and five batteries of

Patriot missiles. The small navy of

2,000 men has 10 fast attack craft.

The Bahrain Defense Force (BDF)

land component musters 6,000 men

organized into one armor brigade,

one mechanized infantry brigade, an

artillery brigade, and a special forces

battalion. The 1,500 man air force has

two squadrons of F-16s, a squadron of

old F-5s, and two squadrons of AH-1

Cobras. The navy of 1,800 has a single

frigate, two missile-armed corvettes

and two missile-armed fast attack craft.

The Qatari ground force has 8,500

men organized into one armor brigade,

four mechanized infantry battalions,

two artillery battalions, a special forces

Another US-equipped GCC unit moves out on a training exercise.

battalion, and a brigade-sized group,

the Amiri Guard. A potential problem

is that approximately 20 percent of the

ground force is of Pakistani nationality,

which may cause internal division.

The Qatari Air Force is 1,500 men

strong and flies Mirage 2000s, Alpha

Jets, SA-342 and Sea King Commando

helicopters, while the 1,800 men of

the Qatari Navy muster on seven

missile-armed fast attack craft.

The army of the United Arab

Emirates has 49,000 men organized

into federal forces consisting of three

armor brigades, two mechanized

infantry brigades, an artillery brigade,

a marine brigade, a special forces

brigade, and a Royal Guard force organized

into yet another brigade-sized

“group.” That ground force is augmented

by three separate Sheikhdom

forces. The 15,000 strong Abu Dhabi

Defense Force has two mechanized

infantry brigades, an artillery battalion,

a squadron of Hawker Hunter fighters

and four coastal patrol boats. The 2,000

man Dubai Defense Force is organized

into a single infantry brigade called the

Central Military Command, while the

small sheikhdom of Ras al-Khayman

fields a 900 man Defense Force Group.

The UAE Air Force has 4,500 men

supporting 80 F-16s, 68 Mirage 2000s,

two squadrons of AH-64 Apaches,

and a squadron of AS565 Eurocopter

Panthers. (That air force can by itself

pose a credible challenge to the Iranian

Air Force.) Finally, the UAE naval

component has 2,000 men manning

10 missile-armed fast attack craft.

The final GCC member is Oman,

the forces of which are positioned

largely outside the Persian Gulf, but

whose critical landward borders abut

directly on the UAE in close proximity

8 MODERN WAR 2 | NOv– DEc 2012 MODERN WAR 2 | NOv– DEc 2012 9


Chah Bahar

10 MODERN WAR 2 | NOv– DEc 2012 MODERN WAR 2 | NOv– DEc 2012 11

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to the Strait of Hormuz. Oman can

continued on page 12 »

» continued from page 9

muster an army of 25,000 organized

into brigade-sized groups; two of

them are mechanized infantry; one is

armor; one is mechanized reconnaissance,

and there’s also an airborne

infantry battalion. That ground force

is augmented by the 6,500 men of

the Royal Guards and a tribal militia

of approximately 3,500, responsible

directly to the Sultan, called the Firqat

(brigade). As with Qatari forces, the

Oman ground force contains a significant

non-Arab component, with an

estimated 40 percent of it composed

of ethnic Balochis, a significant

portion of them from Pakistan.

The Omani Air Force has 5,000

men flying a small number of F-16s,

old Jaguars and Super Lynx 300s.

The small naval component has

two missile-armed corvettes and

four missile-armed fast attack craft

(4,000 men). Unlike the other GCC

countries, Oman maintains amphibious

transport capable of moving up

to two battalions of infantry, though

sustainability is questionable.

with nearly 3,000 personnel manning

communication and intelligence

posts as well as the headquarters

of Fifth Fleet. US aircraft are either

maintained in, or have the use of,

facilities in every country of the GCC,

most notably Al Udeid Airbase (AB)

in Qatar. US ground force equipment

has been forward staged in brigade

strength in the UAE, and in lesser

strength in Qatar, Oman and Kuwait,

all protected by small US military units

or contracted private security forces.

The US Navy has use of critical facilities

in the UAE (Jebel Ali and Fujaira),

Kuwait (Shuaibah) and Oman (Masira),

while also basing several minecountermeasure

vessels in Bahrain.

Saudi Arabia allows the US a

significant headquarters presence

(Central Command) in Riyadh,

components of which are also in Qatar

and Kuwait. None of that includes the

US ground combat force and air assets

available in Djibouti and Diego Garcia,

or the naval forces present within the




Persian Gulf and adjacent waters, such

as CTF-150 operating off the Horn of Home

Africa, or the Carrier Battle Groups or

Amphibious Task Forces frequently

operating in the Indian Ocean.

View from Tehran

Viewed by the Iranians, that

array of military power is daunting,

especially as much of it seems

aimed specifically at them. Thus,

since 2003 Iran has vociferously

US Presence

A GCC helicopter in flight near the Strait of Hormuz.

It’s the other military force in the

Persian Gulf region that potentially tips

the balance prohibitively against Iran.

The US maintains a 76 acre compound

in the center of Manama, Bahrain,

A two-man Iranian reconnaissance team on a training exercise.

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