A War Without Allies

A "no trespassing" sign at al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar (Wikimedia Commons)

by Mark Perry

In late May of 1944, rubbed raw by his country’s disagreements with the Americans over war strategy, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill turned to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. “There’s only one thing worse than fighting a war with allies,” he told Ike, “and that’s fighting a war without them.” Churchill would know. The British were just then scraping the bottom of the manpower barrel, with tens of thousands of their soldiers either dead or in Nazi and Japanese prison camps. That wasn’t true for the Americans, who were flooding the U.K. with troops in preparation for D-Day. The British could not win the war against Germany without the U.S. – and Churchill knew it.

Churchill’s axiom has retained its meaning over the decades, as any U.S. military commander will tell you. In March of 2003, in the midst of the invasion of Iraq, Gen. Scott Wallace, the U.S. V Corps commander, told his fellow officers he wanted to delay the assault on Baghdad until the arrival of Gen. Ray Odierno’s 4th Infantry Division—which was supposed to be attacking Baghdad from the north. It wasn’t. Instead, the 4th ID’s soldiers were bobbing up and down aboard ships in the Mediterranean, consigned there after Turkey refused to host an army that would invade a neighbor on the thinnest of pretexts. It didn’t matter—the U.S. high command rejiggered their plan and the assault went forward. But Churchill’s lesson wasn’t lost on the U.S. military: just when the U.S. needed an ally it could count on (like Turkey), it didn’t have one.

The U.S. has been shedding allies ever since, or is increasingly dependent for help on an unimpressive handful of wannabes. After all, Turkey wasn’t the only U.S. ally to sit out the Iraq War—so too did France, Germany and Canada. That bit of history is crucial, because it sheds a distinctive afterglow on the escalating confrontation between the U.S. and Iran. There seems little doubt that the U.S. could launch an air campaign that would destroy the Islamic Republic’s most important military assets. But it would be on its own, and relying primarily on four fighter squadrons of F-18E Super Hornets (from Carrier Air Wing 7) aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, perhaps 80 aircraft in all. That’s a lot of firepower, but not nearly the “unrelenting force” promised by U.S. national security adviser John Bolton.

The true “unrelenting force” against Iran would probably come from bombers actually deployed in the region. The problem is that the U.S. has few aircraft parked at regional airbases, manifestly because no such airbases exist. Saudi Arabia showed the U.S. military the door in April of 2003, the UAE hosts a contingent of U.S. air wings deploying surveillance aircraft, Bahrain is home of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet (with a handful of F-18s), Kuwait allows the U.S. to use its airfields for cargo operations, Jordan trains with the U.S. military (but that’s about it), while the U.S. military presence in Oman is negligible. Nor could the U.S. depend on the airpower wielded by its friends. Saudi Arabia’s air force is maintained by the U.S., the Emirati Air Force is tiny, while the offensive air capabilities of Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait and Oman are minimal, at best. That leaves Israel, Turkey, and Qatar.

U.S. sales of fighter aircraft to Israel have made it the most potent air force in the region, but its ten (or so) active squadrons are hamstrung by their range. Israeli F-15s and F-16s (and even its newest squadrons of the U.S.-made F-35, of about nine in all), can make it to targets in Iran, but they can barely make it back—which means that the IAF would be dependent on mid-flight refueling from U.S. airborne tankers. Then too, bringing Israel into a fight against Iran would send U.S. regional allies scampering for the exits, whether they welcome a war against Iran or not. Nor is it clear that the Israeli Air Force would actually help the U.S. in such an attack, as its aircraft would be busy trying to find, and destroy, rocket sites manned by Iran’s ally, Hezbollah, in South Lebanon.

Or the U.S. could mount air operations from Turkey, but the difficulty in doing that is that U.S. operations at the base there, at Incirlik, have been pared back. Anti-ISIS missions were flown out of Incirlik, but Turkey has the final say-so on what we use and when we use it. Incirlik is used primarily as a stopover for U.S. troops exiting Iraq and Afghanistan, and as home of the U.S. 39th Air Base Wing, which mounts “Reaper Ops”—MQ9 drones. As was the case during “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” U.S.-Turkey relations are not only decidedly cool (the result of U.S. support for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces), it’s difficult to imagine a circumstance under which Ankara would agree to host U.S. fighter-bombers in a war with Iran, which Turkey doesn’t want. Of course, the U.S. might mount air attacks against Iran from its airfield in Diego Garcia but the base, in the Indian Ocean, cannot support the around-the-clock operations that would be demanded. It could also mount attacks from the U.S. itself (as was done during recent military operations in the Middle East), but those kinds of operations strain U.S. Air Force resources, which are already stretched thin. “We’ve been in the air since [Operation] Desert Storm back in ‘90s,” a senior Air Force officer told me several months ago, “and it’s starting to show.”

Which leaves Qatar. America operates the huge al-Udeid airbase in the tiny Gulf kingdom, and the U.S. (as reported elsewhere) has a “sweetheart deal” on its use. But since the advent of John Bolton’s sabre rattling over Iran, senior U.S. Air Force officers question whether the “sweetheart deal” will hold during what could be a bloody and indeterminate war. Nor is it clear that U.S.-Qatar agreement explicitly allows the U.S. to attack Iran without Qatari permission. “The U.S.-Qatari defense cooperation agreement is comprehensive and detailed, and I will not get into its particulars. It’s classified,” the Congressional Research Service’s Kenneth Katzman, one of America’s foremost experts on the Middle East, told me. “But I think it would be safe to say that any kind of offensive actions the U.S. undertakes from al-Udeid can only happen after a full consultation with the Qatari government.”

The former head of the U.S. Central Command, retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, agrees: “From my past experience, any offensive action taken by the U.S. requires approval by the host nation,” he says, “though I would think if it is an immediate response to a threat or attack that might not hold.” A retired senior U.S. Air Force officer who served in the region, is less circumspect: “ I think the Qataris would object if the U.S. were to use al-Udeid for offensive operations, to punish Iran,” he says. “I am not privy to the details of the U.S-Qatar agreement on the use of al-Udeid, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it lays out in some detail the kinds of operations it can be used for. The Qataris have a say in this and my bet is that when it comes to an attack on Iran, they would have the right to say ‘no.’”

None of this, of course, touches on whether an attack on Iran would actually succeed (defining success would, in fact, soon be an issue), even if, somehow, the U.S. could count on its regional military allies for help. “Iran is not Iraq,” retired Army Col. Lawrence Wilkerson said in a recent interview, in pointing out that the Iranian military is not only well trained, but well-armed. Any initial U.S. air attack would focus on Iran’s air defenses, as well as on its major air assets. Senior U.S. Air Force officers view that as a challenge, as the Iranians deploy the Russian-made S-300 air defense system. In general, Russian weapons are not among the most sophisticated in the world, but that’s not true for the S-300. “The entry fee to the skies over Hanoi, during the Vietnam War, were higher than over Berlin during World War Two,” a senior retired Air Force officer who served during Operation Iraqi Freedom argues. “The entry to the skies over Tehran would be higher. We’d take a lot of casualties and probably lose a lot of aircraft.”

So it is that, nearly three weeks after Washington claimed it received intelligence reports that Iran was preparing to attack American forces in the region, and one year after the White House announced that U.S. was abandoning the Iran nuclear deal, Donald Trump is threatening to “end” Iran. Just how the U.S. military will do that after eighteen exhausting years of the war on terror (and with a single aircraft battlegroup and a lone regional airbase) isn’t clear. But this one thing is: we’ll be doing it alone.

Mark Perry is a foreign policy analyst and author of ten books including, most recently, The Pentagon’s Wars. Portions of this article appeared first in Spectator/US @markperrydc

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  1. The whole of Iran is waging war everyday against this horrible regime. Any help would be just fine.

    No. The exact opposite is true. The US loves the Ayatollahs. Jimmy Carter put them there. The Ayatollahs need fearful nurturing to stay in power, and the US needs bogeys in the world to keep funding its military Industrial complex.

  2. How incredible that the international community, with its UNSC and international laws, etc., is watching, like some bystanders watching a lamb being slaughtered simply because a fat man desires the lamb, and all they would bother to do is to discuss meticulously the ‘size’ of the butcher’s knife!

    The only justification for the world community’s inaction is the ‘credibility’ of the American ‘intelligence’: the CIA ‘intelligence’, known for its impartiality since the infamous CIA MI6 military coup in Iran in 1953! Like the fabricated American media backed ‘intelligence’ that led to over four million dead in Vietnam; or to the mass murder of tens of thousands of civilians in 2003 in Iraq; and more in Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen and Syria! Mass murder with honour and impunity.

    On 14 May 2019, the world watched the British Major General, Chris Ghika, rebuking the US claim to Iran’s increased threat in Syria and Iraq; then heard the opposite verification shortly after Britain’s foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt received orders from the US Secretary Mike Pompeo: Hunt who was not even in Iraq or Syria, rebuked his own General within 24 hours, by parroting his American Master’s version! How typical of the world community: that just because the US has claimed then automatically the US, UK and Israel have the moral right to attack a sovereign country based on their ‘own’ intelligence manufactured by their war criminals armed with hundreds of WMD unlawfully occupying the Muslim World!

    And how willingly prevails the world powers’ silent complicity in American crimes in the Muslim World: it is like conceding to a criminal to investigate his own crime – as the US, UK and Israel conceded to the Saudis ‘investigating’ their own barbaric murder of the Saudi journalist in their embassy in Turkey!

  3. Sorry Mr. Perry US is in no position to attack Iran unless US is seeking a final strategic suicide for her weak and unbalanced Middle East allies including Israel. Everyone in region knows if it was possible for US to militarily attack Iran she would have done so 40 years ago when the US regime was much stronger and Iranians were much weaker. Today Iran has more allies and support in region than US does with her client states. Perception and Dream of attacking Iran, and hoping that might restore US strategic downfall as the consequence of Iranian revolution, has become liberal and neocon analyst wet dream. Strategically speaking US has no option to attack Iran, unless she is willing to defend her interests in an unfriendly war theater as big as Mediterranean to Hendokosh.

  4. Mr. Ali Mostofi says, correctly:
    “The Ayatollahs (present day “internal despotism”) need fearful nurturing to stay in power, and the US (“external colonialism”) needs bogeys in the world to keep funding its military Industrial complex.”
    I wonder then, why he also says:
    “Any help [from Trump, Netanyahu, etc., i.e., the “military industrial complex” — that did the CIA Coup of 1953] would be just fine.”
    Could it be that Mr. Mostofi has no problems with Ben Salman, the present colonial brutal puppet “shah” of Saudi Arabia, because MBS serves the “military industrial complex” as obediently as did Mr. Mostofi’s favorite Iranian colonial puppet brutal dictator, the Shah?
    Who is going to resolve the bewildering inherent contradictions in Mr. Mostofi’s argument? Who?


    The International Community, UN, The Hague, etc. are for the feeble-minded and mis-informed.

    The League of Nations did not do anything for Ethiopia, or Czechoslovakia now, did it?

    Only Arabs and Africans talk of UN, International Law etc, serious people know otherwise.

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