My colleague Timothy Whiteman at Liberty Unyielding highlighted recently the number of Air Force squadrons that will have to cease training later this year because the Air Force doesn’t have funds for the flying hours. This is real, and it is astounding. It will mean that, at a certain point in the near future, as early as this fall, if no additional funds become available, the cost of mounting an operation big enough to eliminate Iran’s nuclear weapons-related installations is likely to be too high.
This is because there will be no force depth to either sustain follow-on operations or overcome the geographic constraints U.S. forces are increasingly likely to face. Assuming all of the Air Force’s stand-downs and readiness-losses do occur, the available front-line forces would be maxed out with a moderately scoped strike package. To meet the task, they would require the most favorable basing options that could be available in the Persian Gulf under today’s conditions – but which may not be available. If we don’t have those favorable basing options and the Air Force squadron groundings remain on track, the Iran strike goes from all-but-under-resourced to impossible.
There will not, after all, be two aircraft carriers on station near Iran, with their combined eight squadrons of Navy strike-fighters (more on that below). It will in theory be possible to deploy a second carrier, but doing so is pretty much certain to require more money from Congress. (Doing so would also enlarge and accelerate the readiness snowball for the Navy’s carrier force, a snowball that will inevitably become an avalanche of carrier unreadiness in the next three years, if world problems require unplanned operations during this period.)
The Air Force will have to carry the load of a strike on Iran, if there is to be one in the foreseeable future. The Air Force’s forward-deployed squadrons will continue to train and conduct operational flights. The B-2s and some of the B-52s, which can deploy immediately and/or operate globally from their bases stateside, will remain combat ready. But the strike-fighter squadrons at their home bases in the States, which would be called on if a major operation had to be ordered, will be in an impaired state of readiness. The aircrews will fall out of combat qualification when they haven’t been able to get their training hours in (and some aircraft maintenance will be deferred as well). If the president wanted to order a new operation, beyond our current military commitments, it is not clear what would happen.
This is a good time to briefly review the features of the hole we are backing into, with respect to an Iran strike. (I wrote more about some of them in February). The features of this hole can be grouped geographically and in terms of military resources.
Geographically, the potential axes of approach to Iran for a nuclear-facilities strike have been whittled down significantly, through political attrition and strategic disuse. Five years ago, U.S. forces might have approached from multiple axes, including possibilities like operating intelligence or refueling aircraft out of Turkey, or inserting special forces from Iraq. These were at least political possibilities at that time; today, they fall between unlikely and not happening.
Moreover, it is no longer guaranteed that we would be able to launch the Air Force’s strike-fighter aircraft from Qatar or Kuwait, still less from a base in UAE or Oman. We don’t normally operate Air Force aircraft from Bahrain, but even Bahrain – long our closest partner in the Gulf – may not be a fallback option. Iraq will not be an option at all, and Afghanistan would object to being used as a base for launching attacks on Iran. The same can be said of Pakistan.
If the Air Force has to launch most of the aircraft for this operation, we have a serious problem. B-2s and B-52s launch from elsewhere, of course, but for certain types of bombing, they will require fighter escort protection while over Iran. Refueling tankers orbiting over the Gulf will require fighter protection as well, as will the EA-3 Sentry airborne command and control platform.
We may or may not have the use of other nations’ air space to approach Iran (e.g., Kuwait’s, Jordan’s, Saudi Arabia’s, or Oman’s); if we don’t, there will be one way in and out of the Persian Gulf air space through which manned bombers will have to transit. That in itself is a significant vulnerability. Geographically, there is a real possibility that the U.S. would be limited to bringing aircraft in through the air space over the Strait of Hormuz. If there is nowhere local for aircraft to recover – e.g., Oman – that limitation would effectively knock the Air Force strike-fighters out of a small operation.