Iran views the pandemic as prime time for antics at sea — at its peril

America’s coronavirus agony is Iran’s opportunity. Or at least the mullahs who rule the Islamic Republic may see it that way — rightly or wrongly. Last week the Annapolis-based U.S. Naval Institute reported that 11 fleet-of-foot vessels from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN), Iran’s irregular sea force, had harassed U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels plying the northern Persian Gulf. IRGCN speedboats repeatedly passed close ahead or astern of the American ships. In fact, one reportedly veered within 10 yards of USCGC Maui’s bow.

Ten yards is a hair’s breadth at sea. Inertia is a fact of life for ship drivers. It’s hard to turn a ship to avoid collision when another ship passes that nearby. Stopping verges on impossible. That’s why the nautical rules of the road forbid the IRGCN’s brand of daredevilry.

To IRGCN commanders, though, this looks like prime time for such antics. Think about it. The U.S. Navy seems to be in disarray. One of its deployed nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, USS Theodore Roosevelt, has moored in Guam and removed most of its crew to fight a major outbreak. Idling Theodore Roosevelt, its embarked warplanes, and its retinue of escort and logistics ships subtracts a substantial fraction of the U.S. combat power available to thwart Iranian mischief-making in the Persian Gulf region. If you’re the IRGCN, it doesn’t matter much whether battle or disease strikes down your foe; it only matters that the correlation of forces has swerved in your favor.

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So why not take advantage of American weakness while it lasts? Tehran could exploit this interlude to step up its usual support to militants in Yemen or the Levant, repay America for its drone takedown of IRCG chief Qassem Soleimani in January, and on and on.

Or could it? Not just Iran but China and Russia have interpreted the pandemic as a license to make trouble around the Eurasian periphery. For example, the past few weeks have seen an uptick in collisions involving Chinese vessels in the East and South China seas. Beijing has also rattled its saber in the Taiwan Strait more loudly than usual. A Russian fighter jet buzzed a U.S. Navy surveillance plane, passing as close as 25 feet. Trying to respond to all provocations around the Eurasian perimeter stretches and thins out U.S. forces at a time when they are consumed with combating affliction.

But the Persian Gulf isn’t as friendly a setting for Iranian adventurism as IRGCN seafarers might think. All theaters are not created equal. The Gulf is not the South China Sea, a massive expanse where one domineering power, China, confronts a variety of lesser neighbors. Tehran doesn’t have the luxury of a lopsided overmatch. Sure, Iran overshadows the Gulf’s eastern reaches, but well-armed Gulf Arab states comprise its western rim. The United States is a resident power in the region, having based its Fifth Fleet there along with powerful air and ground forces. The U.S. military, in other words, could rouse itself with far greater ease in the Gulf than in the South China Sea, or for that matter in other embattled expanses such as the Russian-dominated Black Sea. 

Indeed, a compact theater such as the Persian Gulf region offers fertile hunting grounds for U.S. Army and Air Force aviators. Air Force fighter and attack aircraft and Army attack helicopters routinely range out to sea from airfields in the Gulf Arab states. Sea power isn’t just for navies. In recent years the land-based services have repurposed themselves as an arm of sea power, chiefly to compete against China in the Pacific but also to stare down the Islamic Republic in the Middle East. For example, U.S. Army Apache attack helicopters have practiced flying from U.S. Navy expeditionary sea bases — think container ships converted for military support duty of all kinds — and thus extended their range and on-station time over Gulf waters. 

If army helicopters now use navy ships as logistical lily pads, the air force has practiced unleashing A-10 Warthog ground-attack aircraft — planes built to pummel hostile armies in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan — to pepper ships at sea with their vaunted Gatling guns. Even high-tech F-15 fighters have gotten into the act, toting around cluster munitions — weapons ideal for use against speedboats — while they patrol Gulf skies. In short, the U.S. Navy’s sister services can offset naval aviation’s momentary weakness in the Gulf theater.

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Nor are things that dire even for carrier aviation. Judging from U.S. Navy deployment patterns, Washington has designated the Gulf region as the primary theater for U.S. military endeavors during the pandemic. As of last Monday, the USS Eisenhower carrier task force was cruising the Arabian Sea, whose waves lap against Iranian shorelines. Nor is Eisenhower the only flattop at sea. The Pentagon directed the USS Truman task force to remain at sea in the Atlantic as a backstop in case of a crisis. Truman could rush to the Middle East if need be. And after suffering a few coronavirus cases, USS Nimitz is now apparently virus-free. Nimitz is preparing to deploy from its home port of Bremerton, Wash.

Naval air power, then, has not been defanged by the Theodore Roosevelt’s distress. Still less has the coronavirus disarmed shore-based U.S. and allied air forces in the Persian Gulf.

Proceed with caution, IRGCN.

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and the author of A Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy. He deployed aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt in late 2017. The views voiced here are his alone.