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