Iran Isn’t Afraid of B-52s and Aircraft Carriers

Troubling signs suggest Iran is stepping up its aggression. U.S. Central Command has sounded a familiar refrain: More forces, please. Defe...


Troubling signs suggest Iran is stepping up its aggression. U.S. Central Command has sounded a familiar refrain: More forces, please. Defense Department leadership has approved. On Dec. 10, the Pentagon announced that B-52 bombers had conducted another “short-notice, nonstop” flight from the U.S. to the Middle East and back. The department also extended a carrier strike group in the Persian Gulf and deployed a fighter squadron to the region from Europe. It took the rare step Sunday of announcing the transit of a guided-missile submarine through the Strait of Hormuz. All supposedly to deter Iran.

This is business as usual, and it must stop. Sending the most advanced and expensive U.S. conventional forces to the Middle East in response to every potential provocation isn’t an effective or sustainable way to deter Iran’s bad behavior. Continuing this approach wastes taxpayer dollars, drains military readiness, and deprives the U.S. of ready forces needed to compete with and deter China and Russia.

With a presidential transition under way, U.S. troop reductions in Iraq and Afghanistan continuing, and the anniversary of

Qasem Soleimani’s

death approaching, it is right to be concerned about Iranian provocations. The Pentagon should continue to take steps to improve force protection at U.S. bases and diplomatic facilities. But these latest deployments of U.S. forces to the Middle East won’t further deter Iran or reassure regional partners.

Iran knows that the U.S. military is superior to its own and enjoys conventional “escalation dominance.” It has watched for years as the U.S. has deployed bombers, fighters and warships to the region at will. This is baked into Iran’s strategic calculus.

Such conventional overmatch is the reason Iran prefers to assert itself through proxy forces, such as the November 2019 militia rocket attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, or through deniable attacks like the September 2019 drone strike on oil fields in Saudi Arabia. Even under U.S. pressure, Iran sometimes resorts to more-direct means, such as its January 2020 missile attack on U.S. forces in Iraq. Notably, all of these attacks occurred after a U.S. buildup of forces began in May 2019 and when a U.S. aircraft carrier was present in the region. On Sunday, in the face of recent U.S. force deployments, Iranian proxies reportedly conducted another rocket attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

Conventional forces are of limited use for deterring unconventional attacks, yet Centcom continues to request them. Civilian leadership needs to say no and reconsider its approach to deterring Iran, which is putting pressure on military readiness. Strains on the U.S. aircraft-carrier fleet are a leading indicator: declining readiness, record-length deployments, overworked shipyards, worn-out sailors and families. Countering the threat of militia attacks with aircraft carriers and other high-end assets places the U.S. on the strategic back foot and drives up costs.

A more effective and sustainable approach would emphasize less expensive measures more relevant to Iran’s “gray zone” activities. Increased intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance activity decreases Iran’s confidence that it can conduct deniable attacks without attribution. Given that Centcom already consumes most such resources, a good first step would be to improve management of its in-theater assets to prevent deniable attacks by Iran.

Time is on our side when it comes to Iran. The Iranians know that in a shooting war the U.S. can take its time, build the “iron mountain” of forces it needs to achieve decisive advantage, and impose enormous costs on Iranian forces. Even with their formidable missile arsenal, there would be little the Iranians could do about it.

When it comes to China and Russia, however, time isn’t on our side. Under plausible conditions, both adversaries could act quickly in Taiwan or the Baltic states to achieve a fait accompli that would be difficult, if not impossible, to reverse. Stationing, rotating or temporarily deploying additional U.S. forces forward in the Indo-Pacific and Europe injects risk and uncertainty into Beijing’s and Moscow’s strategic calculus by making them think twice about whether a fait accompli strategy would be successful.

That is why the U.S. needs to preserve ready forces primarily for the Indo-Pacific and Europe, where adding forces directly challenges the adversary’s theory of victory. In the Middle East, adding forces gilds the lily of U.S. conventional deterrence and squanders the strategic advantage of time.

Every aircraft carrier, bomber task force or fighter squadron that goes to the Middle East is one that doesn’t go to the Indo-Pacific or Europe to repair the strained credibility of U.S. deterrence against China and Russia. The U.S. must grapple with these trade-offs to master the challenges of great-power competition.

Simply put, America can no longer afford business as usual in the Middle East.

Ms. Wheelbarger served as acting assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, 2017 and 2018-20. Mr. Walker is a former professional staff member on the Senate Armed Services Committee and adviser to

Sen. John McCain.

Journal Editorial Report: Kim Strassel, Kyle Peterson and Dan Henninger on the week’s best and worst. Image: Erin Scott/Reuters

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Newsrust: Iran Isn’t Afraid of B-52s and Aircraft Carriers
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