What do you need to bomb Iran?

The National Security Archive‘s publication of the original powerpoint slides used in planning for war with Iraq has got a lot of attention, especially the prediction that by now there would only be 5,000 US soldiers in Iraq. But it’s also interesting as an index of tension with Iran.

The briefing includes several scenarios on what to do if a “triggering event” occurred before the completion of the ground forces deployment. These specify a range of options, from minimal, through a week-long Desert Fox-like campaign of air raids, up to a 14-day bombardment. This last one, option Red would have encompassed all suspected WMD targets and a range of military ones, and would have included 3,000 individual weapon aiming points from 2,100 aircraft sorties and a considerable number of Tomahawk cruise missiles. (See document E(pdf doc).)

So what does this tell us?

Well, an operation against Iran would require hitting a lot of nuclear-related sites around the country, and probably hitting them several times. It would also have the big difference from Iraq that there would need to be extensive counter-air activity to defeat the Iranian air force and suppress the ground defences. There would also have to be strikes on targets around the Straits, such as surface-to-surface missiles and radars. So it would probably be nearer “Option Red” in size than anything else.

Now, how do you get to 3,000? Each aircraft carrier group is meant to provide 100 sorties a day (in the NSA briefing slides – see below). It might be possible to concentrate three reasonably quickly, hence 300, as included in some of the other slides. From that force, you can also get 421 missiles. But you can’t use all of the possible sorties. If you assume that combat air patrols of at least four aircraft per group are needed for defence at all times, a strong assumption in this case, and that they are FA18s with a typical combat endurance of 1 hour, 45 minutes, you’ll need 13 reliefs – i.e. 52 sorties a day, or almost half the carrier air strength.

3,000-421 gives us 2,579 bangs to find. If the carriers could operate at maximum capacity for 17 days straight, it could be done, but this is unrealistic – after all, a proportion of the sorties will not find their targets, will have to turn back for technical reasons, will fail to make a tanker rendezvous, will be shot down, will miss and have to do it again, or will not take-off for whatever reason. A carrier air wing includes 50 strike aircraft, which implies a sortie rate of 2 for each aircraft, and more importantly, pilot. GlobalSecurity puts the “sustained” sortie rate at 125 per ship per day, so perhaps the briefing subtracted the air defence requirement? Doing that, though, would require an unsustainably high sortie rate per aircraft (and pilot) of 3, which will not be maintained for more than a couple of days. At a rate of 2, the carrier groups will provide 144 sorties a day other than defensive ones.

If we assume a 10 day campaign, and essentially two bursts of activity, we might assume a rate of 2 for seven days, or 1,008 strikes. Including the missiles, that leaves 1,571 planned strikes to find. At the same rates, that will require some 80 aircraft, either two more carrier groups, or a couple of land-based fighter wings. But that’s not at all.

If you check the US CENTAF communiqués, you’ll see that the existing air force in the region is flying about 80 sorties a day in support of ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan (i.e. a rough requirement of 40-50 aircraft). I would suggest it’s reasonable to expect the demand for CAS to rise substantially if Iran is attacked, and that the value of this might be, say, 2.5 in Iraq and 0.5 in Afghanistan – so 150 or so a day, requiring 75 aircraft.

To put it another way – there will need to be a deployment of some 100 more combat aircraft, plus tankers and other support assets.

10 thoughts on “What do you need to bomb Iran?

  1. First the USS Stennis was slated to replace the Kitty Hawk, which is to be rehauled.

    At the end of January, that was reassigned to be the second carrier in the Gulf, instead of the USS Reagan, which is to take over the Kitty Hawk’s station.

    But the later is first to sail to San Diego, where it is to pick up 80 planes.

    So, the Stennis & the Reagan are sailing west *more or less together*…

    Then you have the B-52s at Diego Garcia.

    The B-1s and B-2s can fly from the US, as they did in Afghanistan and Iraq, and KC-135s tankers have recently been based in Bulgaria and Romania.

    An F-16 squadron has also been based at Incirlik in Turkey (not sure if the would be allowed by the Turkish govermment to participate though).

    The air assets in Iraq could very rapidly be massively reinforced by aircraft stationed in Europe (and from the US for that matter), especially if fuel and munitions is already prepositioned.

    Then who knows how many subs capable of launching cruise missiles there are in the neighbourhood?

    Last, but certainly not least, do not forget the USS Boxer with its the complement of AV-8 Harriers. And, serendipitously, the USS Bataan is on its way to transport fresh Marines for the “surge”…

    That makes two LHD’s availabe, each with a MEU aboard. That’s very handy to take over all those Iranian oil platforms and the oil terminal on Siri island…

  2. But the later is first to sail to San Diego, where it is to pick up 80 planes.

    That isn’t information. If the Reagan is, as per the null hypothesis, going to Japan, she will take her carrier air wing with her. Carriers don’t deploy without planes. She will do this whereever she is bound.

    Then you have the B-52s at Diego Garcia.

    The B-1s and B-2s can fly from the US, as they did in Afghanistan and Iraq, and KC-135s tankers have recently been based in Bulgaria and Romania.

    An F-16 squadron has also been based at Incirlik in Turkey (not sure if the would be allowed by the Turkish govermment to participate though).

    There are six Buffs on Diego Garcia. The big aircraft will be far less important in any attack on Iran than they have been over Iraq and Afghanistan, because this will be a “two-way range” as the soldiers say – the other side can shoot back. The B-1s and B-2s will have to do their cold war role, rather than circling overtarget waiting for calls to drop JDAMs, so you only get one strike per sortie. The B52s can’t go kebabside at all unless the major SAM threat is eliminated.

    Further, yes, there’s an F16 squadron at Incirlik. They are providing CAS in Iraq. Those 100 strike aircraft needed are *additional* to the existing force.

    Then who knows how many subs capable of launching cruise missiles there are in the neighbourhood?

    We know precisely how many TLAMs would be available to a 3 carrier group: 421. See the document.

  3. Of course carriers don’t fly without planes aboard; that would be rather daft. Air wings are rotated, making it a convenient way to group them in an innocuous way.

    Warships can sail at 30+ knots, that’s 500 nautical miles a day. In less than a week, you could have half-dozen CVNs in the Arabian Sea, plus I don’t how amphibious assaults, and all the escorts. The B1, B2, & B52 can fire plenty of tomahawks at stand-off range.

    421 in a carrier group yes, but you also have the four Ohio-class subs, each with 154 tomahawks. No reason for them to be elsewhere, eh?

    The main point is, you cannot just count the forces in-theater.

    The US will not attack out of the blue, for several reasons, one being reducing diplomatic fallout, and two precisely for being able to concentrate a maximum of assets.

    Expect a casus belli incident, with the US issuing an ultimatum of a few days, during which forces deploying, before the shooting starts.

  4. Of course carriers don’t fly without planes aboard; that would be rather daft. Air wings are rotated, making it a convenient way to group them in an innocuous way.

    Warships can sail at 30+ knots, that’s 500 nautical miles a day. In less than a week, you could have half-dozen CVNs in the Arabian Sea, plus I don’t how amphibious assaults, and all the escorts. The B1, B2, & B52 can fire plenty of tomahawks at stand-off range.

    421 in a carrier group yes, but you also have the four Ohio-class subs, each with 154 tomahawks. No reason for them to be elsewhere, eh?

    The main point is, you cannot just count the forces in-theater.

    The US will not attack out of the blue, for several reasons, one being reducing diplomatic fallout, and two precisely for being able to concentrate a maximum of assets.

    Expect a casus belli incident, with the US issuing an ultimatum of a few days, during which forces deploying, before the shooting starts.

  5. US doctrine is to achieve air supremacy, and then to attack other targets. If the opening wave of attacks is concentrated against airstrips, radar, air defenses, as the campaign proceeds, less of the force need be devoted to force protection. Most air defense systems are difficult to use without giving away their location.

  6. Yes there is.

    “The FRP [Fleet Response Plan] calls for six carriers out of the total fleet of 12 to be “surge capable” — able to be under way in 30 days or fewer, with a follow-on surge of two more carriers within 90 days — at any time.”

    http://www.stratfor.com/products/premium/read_article.php?id=283678

    http://www.ne.jp/asahi/gonavy/atsugi/gonavy604.html

    3 to 4 is the probable number to deploy for an attack on Iran.

  7. That link doesn’t say what you say it says. There are not six seaworthy carriers. No amount of plan will change that. Vinson, Lincoln, and Wash are all in drydocks. JFK is decommissioning next month. Big-E is going into dockyard hands postdeployment. Nimitz has yet to do her JTFEX. The Big Stick hasn’t CARQUALd, COMPTUEXd, or JTFEXd yet. Neither has the Truman.

    That leaves Ronnie, Ike, Johnnie Reb and Kitty, one of which has to mark the Korea-Japan-Taiwan commitment. 3 is the absolute maximum they can do, and even that involves employing a ship early in the training cycle (Reagan).

  8. You know, I am hearing the title of this post to the tune of “What Do You Get When You Fall In Love”?”

    Sorry.

    Doug M.