The U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone strike that eliminated top Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani on January 3 was a measured, timely, and appropriate combat action. It occurred after 18 months of restraint by the Trump Administration in the face of a series of increasingly provocative Iranian violations of international law—the seizing of oil tankers in international waters; attacking of other oil tankers; the shooting down of an unarmed American drone in international airspace; and the direct attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure. The important task now is how the U.S. should be postured to focus on what comes next.
President Trump set a “red line” with Iran—no U.S. casualties—warned Iran not to cross it, and when they did, he acted boldly as promised to defend American personnel and interests. He did so after eleven Hezbollah Brigade attacks on facilities occupied by U.S. personnel who were conducting security training for Iraq’s military. On December 29, 2019 U.S. Air Force aircraft bombed five bases of the Iranian-backed Shia militia Kata’ib Hezbollah, killing twenty-five. On December 31, 2019 members of the Hezbollah Brigades—under the direction of Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, a senior member of Kata’ib Hezbollah—initiated attacks against the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
Over the course of this same time period, compelling intelligence indicated—according to the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Miley—that the “size, scale, and scope” of impending attacks planned by Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al Muhandis on U.S. personnel in the region, demanded that the U.S. neutralize the co-commanders of these premeditated attacks. Taking this action dealt a major blow to Iran and the paramilitary groups in Iraq that it supports, as well as demonstrating to Iranian leaders that there are consequences of their malign activity.
Soleimani was the architect of Iranian expansion designed to create a Shia crescent from Iran to Iraq through Syria into southern Lebanon. He was instrumental in keeping Syria’s Assad in power when his regime was on the verge of collapse, and Soleimani was the key figure in getting Russia involved in the Syrian conflict—a factor that led to further bloodshed and instability in the region. He also orchestrated the Iranian infiltration deep into the governments of Iraq and Lebanon; he personally led the recent crackdown on demonstrators across Iraq who are rejecting Iran’s influence in Iraq’s politics reportedly killing over 1,000 with 20,000 injured since October 1, 2019; and he is directly responsible for killing over 600 U.S. military personnel in Iraq. Retired General David Petraeus, a previous commander of American forces in Iraq, referred to Soleimani as, “our most significant and evil adversary in the greater Middle East.”
The action to eliminate Soleimani needs to be put into the context of a three-part strategy—to constrain Iran’s malign activities; roll-back Iran’s influence in the region; and ultimately deter further Iranian aggression. The deterrent element is especially important. Securing interests through peaceful influence is in America’s long-term interest. To deter Iran, its leaders need to believe the U.S. will use its power. This is akin to pushing back on a bully. At some point, a counteroffensive is required, or the abuse will continue.
Looking forward several perspectives are key. First, leadership matters—Soleimani is not replaceable in the short term. He was Iran’s top terrorist, an influential military persona, and leader of Iranian revolutionary ideology. As the strategic mind driving much of Iran’s strategy, less adept Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps subordinates will take over his roles. This turn of events creates opportunity and U.S. decision calculus should capitalize on this fact to exploit mistakes made by Soleimani’s replacement.
Second, American leadership must prepare their next steps by building the confidence of the Congress and the public and then reinforcing it. Some on the national stage are pandering fear—fear of potential Iranian reaction to Soleimani’s death. The fear of possible consequences should not outweigh the logic that forceful action is sometimes necessary to defend U.S. and allied personnel and to shore up the value of deterrence. The Trump Administration needs to convincingly explain these facts in order to garner the American people’s support as well as that of international friends and allies to build a coalition to constrain Iran’s bellicosity. The reality is that taking no action would have increased the odds for further Iranian aggression. It is important to grasp the nature of deterrence. We will not deter Iran through inaction. Although no sane individual wants to see open warfare between the U.S. and Iran, the best way to avoid that outcome is to convince Iran’s leadership that continued aggression against the U.S. and her allies will come at an increasingly high cost on their part.
Third, at any point in time, the U.S. can impose devastating effects on Iran. Such operations will not be easy and would incur risk, but they are wholly attainable. Iran, on the other hand is a weak nation without the material resources required to pose a similar threat to the U.S. That is the principal reason why it relies on terrorism and proxy forces. Iran’s leaders need to fully understand this relative military balance. Those leaders must be made to realize that continued violence against U.S. personnel will result in the rapid application of force against key elements of their regime.
Fourth, America’s security leadership must move beyond anachronistic military conventions that associate warfare with large numbers of soldiers on the ground as its primary element. With proper application, the effects of lethal force with modern aerospace power—our asymmetric advantage—supplemented by offensive cyber operations can result in the collapse of Iran’s economy, negation of their military, denuding of their nuclear programs, and choking of their regional influence. Iran’s critical oil refining capacity, oil distribution network, and power grid can all be rendered ineffective by these means in short order without any U.S. boots on the ground in Iran.
Fifth, there must be clarity about the character of conflict with Iran if pushed to do so by further aggression against U.S. personnel. Dealing with Iran militarily should not follow the flawed strategies applied over the last 19 years in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those strategies involved deploying hundreds of thousands of ground forces in the region to conduct prolonged occupation, nation building, and counterinsurgency operations—none of which are applicable to Iran. Rather, any action necessary in Iran should be modeled after the decisive take-down of Iraq applied in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 using aerospace power for 43 days. Only 4 days of that operation used ground forces to reoccupy Kuwait and that will not be required in an Iranian effort. We have to stop equating strategy with the number of U.S. boots on the ground. Large numbers of U.S. ground forces in the Mideast plays into Iran’s hands and does lead to unnecessary and unwanted “endless wars.” Rapid accomplishment of desired effects should be the goal.
The best way to deter Iran now is to supplement the power projection capability of U.S. air forces in the region by forward deploying fully armed and loaded stealth B-2 bombers, F-22s, and additional stealth F-35s to the region—the Mullah’s will get the message. Peace through strength is key to deterring open conflict with Iran—projecting fear or appeasement is not.
Dave Deptula is the Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies and a Senior Military Scholar at the Air Force Academy. He was the principal attack planner for the 1991 Operation Desert Storm air campaign; commander of no-fly-zone operations over Iraq in the late 1990s; director of the air campaign over Afghanistan in 2001.