Iran’s Naval Strategy: Planning for the Worst Reply

How Iran’s naval strategy and assets play a role in regional security

By: Carlos Colon

Our present capabilities are incomparable to the past,” said the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Navy commander, Rear-Admiral Reza Torabi, during the recent naval drill exercises aimed at honing battle tactics in the strategic Strait of Hormuz. The war games continue as tensions rise, with naval forces taking center stage. In light of the increasing IRGC naval activities in the maritime environment, now is the time to discuss Iran’s naval strategy and how America can best prepare to counter it.

Guerre de course, as detailed in Robert Worley’s book titled Shaping U.S. Military Forces, favors distributed operations and avoids decisive fleet engagement, preferring to attack through commerce warfare. This is worth mentioning because ever since the end of the Iran-Iraq War, Iran has been strengthening a guerre de course strategy built on sophisticated mines, midget submarines, mobile anti-ship cruise missiles, a fleet of small, fast boats and the ability to conceal and deploy its artillery amid the numerous coves, inlets, and islands.  Furthermore, according to a 2008 report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the IRGC Navy’s inability to properly retaliate through conventional means against Iraqi led to a shift in strategic thinking. Lacking the proper means to respond the IRGC Navy were then tasked to develop and implement naval unconventional guerrilla warfare tactics using speedboats. By the end of the war, one of the identified requirements for IRGC Navy was “the importance of initiative and the avoidance of frontal engagements with large U.S. naval surface warfare elements,” an important aspect of guerre de course.

Put into effect, this approach includes commerce raiding which employs hit and run tactics to destroy or capture resources at sea or ashore. For Iran, the aim would be to exploit enemy vulnerabilities through the use of “swarming” tactics by well-armed small boats and fast-attack craft. When discussing the Iranian sea power  it is also important to point out, as an article published in November noted, [t]he Iranians do not have to win outright at sea to achieve geopolitical goals; economic disruption of the West may be enough. Firstly, there is no need for Iran to withstand the full power of U.S. Navy and its allies when they can simply avoid it. Secondly, the Iranian asymmetric threat will likely be achieving strategic objectives through prolonged campaigns against commerce that erode the enemies’ ability and will to wage war. As Robert Worley explained, guerre de course seeks to cripple the enemy through commerce warfare which will be done by attacking the enemy’s weakest point rather than its strongest.

Besides sea power, there are many factors influencing why Iran will adopt a strategy that uses tactics unacceptable to its opponent. Given the United States and its allies dependence on Strait of Hormuz, guerre de course becomes an attractive strategy because of the many high value targets scattered around the region (the onshore and offshore production facilities). Moreover, the coastal geography along with the bases, staging areas, and routes increases Iran’s capability to execute “surprise attacks at unexpected times and places” a key component to their asymmetric naval operations. The sea condition of the area also plays a factor. The coastal waters are shallow and irregular with complex currents that affect large ships and can interfere with the electromagnetic spectrum that a technologically superior force like the United States favors.

A strategy is what dictates how the military will invest limited funds in preparation for combat. By adopting a guerre de course strategy, Iran can afford to buy low cost vessels in large quantities. This seems to indicate that Iran will not be investing in expensive capital-ship programs and will remain in littoral waters rather than attacking at sea where the element of surprise is gone and technological superiority awaits them. Any potential method of attack will be through distributed operations using low-cost armed speedboats in large numbers (including other vessels that are cheap to build and operate). In response, a counter strategy for the U.S. does not have to worry about an outright defeat but being denied access for too long. Their task is to achieve its objective without squandering too much resource. The problem at hand, however, is that the U.S. military appears to be investing in expensive fleets to fight at sea rather than preparing for combat in littoral waters where a naval battle with Iran would take place. The American strategy may be to create a deterrent — but if war with Iran does indeed break out, the U.S. Navy may be unready for precisely the type of water war Iran plans to wage.

Carlos Colon is a Staff Writer at the Jerusalem Review of Near East Affairs. 

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons


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