Guermantes Lailari, a member of the JPC Board of Fellows, is a visiting Scholar at National Chengchi University and a retired USAF Foreign Area Officer.
Breaking Defense published an article entitled “‘Menu of options’: What the Ford carrier strike group brings to Israel’s defense.” The Breaking Defense article questions the US ability to sustain providing weapons to Ukraine, Taiwan, and now Israel. This article argues that we should be aware that Iran and China could be setting traps to overextend the US military supporting operations in Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan. Therefore, we have at least two important tasks: prepare for war and avoid surprises and traps.
Preparing for war
The US defense industry is not producing enough weapons to keep up with demand in Ukraine, and a probable war defending Taiwan (and possibly Japan and other countries) against Communist China. The Hamas-Israel War of 2023 is an appropriate opportunity for the President, his National Security team, and Congress to put the US and allied defense industries on a war footing by providing funding to dramatically increase US weapon production lines, and to support creation of new supply chains. If we do not prepare for war, in addition to abdicating our standing in the world, we become victims of a new propaganda tool of China – “American Skepticism.”
Israel was surprised in 1973 Yom Kippur War and was surprised again on 7 October 2023 (almost 50 years to the day since the Yom Kippur War) by the timing of the Iran-sponsored attack from Gaza.
We were surprised in 1941 in Pearl Harbor initiating our involvement in WWII. We were surprised again on 9/11. The long wars in Vietnam (Cambodia and Laos), in Iraq, and in Afghanistan involved the expenditure of trillions of dollars, and have made us cautious about taking on military missions and commitments of unknowable duration and intensity. Yet, surprises happen. Are we prepared for another surprise war?
Possible Surprise Scenarios
The Wall Street Journal called out Iran as the instigator, planner, and approver of the terrorist attack against Israel. Stopping the Israeli-Saudi rapprochement and exploiting the political disarray in Israel were not the only reasons for the attack.
I think Iran and China have set traps for Israel and for the US.
Trap #1: Israel
The Iranian-inspired terrorist attack against Israel by Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad was designed to be dramatic, devastating, and to terrorize and demoralize the Israeli population. The terrorists conducted a combined operation that included attacks from the air (missiles, ultralights and UAVs), from the sea (terrorist “commandos” and ships), and from land (cars, trucks, motorcycles, on foot, and by underground attack tunnels). Hamas and PIJ personnel were ordered to murder, rape, pillage, kidnap and video their countless acts of terror. All of these acts are illegal according to international law including the Geneva Conventions and are war crimes.
The Iranians—and complicit countries supporting Hamas, such as Qatar, Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon—know that Israel will respond with a heavy hand. Hamas prepared for the Israeli response at the operational and tactical levels by building an intricate booby-trap system throughout Gaza including in buildings, tunnels, and roads. The IDF is aware of this elaborate trap and will take appropriate actions.
Hamas and its allies also prepared for the propaganda war. Pro-Hamas demonstrators in the US, UK, and Australia have already made headlines. Strategically, the Iranians and other Hamas sympathizers will use the future fighting in Gaza as a propaganda tool to pressure governments around the world to censure Israel diplomatically and economically. Israel is prepared and not afraid of this diplomatic, propaganda, media, psychological, and economic warfare.
Since Israel is prepared for the propaganda war and booby traps, what is the trap? The trap for Israel is to force it into a multi-front war by invading Gaza. These fronts would include attacks from West Bank Palestinians (Judea and Samaria), Israeli Arabs inside Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and possibly Iraq and Iran). Making Israel weaker makes Iran and its proxies stronger and they can be more aggressive in the region.
Trap #2: United States
The second trap is force the US to help Israel so that it continues to deplete more US war reserves and divert more military assets to the Middle East. Additionally, Saudi Arabia will feel more threatened by an emboldened Iran and ask for US assistance, further stretching US capabilities. Supporting allies in the Middle East will leave less available US military capabilities for other flash points such as in the Indo-Pacific and particularly Taiwan and possibly Japan and the Philippines.
Iran and the anti-west coalition, including China, Russia, and North Korea, seek to demonstrate that the US is weak and unreliable. Recently, several think tanks have described this messaging campaign as “American Skepticism.” For example, the Taiwan Information Environment Research Center (IORG) published a recent report, titled “US Skepticism Narratives and Where They Come From” and defined American Skepticism “as an evolving collection of unreasonable or manipulative narratives that suggests that Taiwan should keep a distance from or reduce its relations with the United States” based on three key messages:
- “the US will abandon Taiwan
- the US is not strong enough to protect Taiwan
- the US is the source of chaos and war in the world”
The larger American Skepticism message is that the US will abandon its friends and allies, the US is weak, and the US is the cause of all evil in the world.
Ford Carrier Strike Group (CSG) to the Eastern Med
The USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) is the newest and most sophisticated nuclear powered aircraft carrier in the fleet, the largest aircraft carrier in the world, and the most expensive.
What would happen if the USS Ford or its escort ships were attacked or sunk? Sinking US Navy ships, God forbid, would promote the idea of a weak US military and reinforce the American Skepticism narrative. The Ford CSG should proceed on highest alert, especially since the US reaction, a US military show of force, to an attack on Israel was predictable.
Update: The US Navy will deploy a second aircraft carrier in addition to the USS Gerald Ford, the USS Dwight Eisenhower and its strike group to the Eastern Mediterranean “to boost deterrence and prevent regional powers from joining the war.” The Eisenhower CSG will depart on 13 October and should arrive by the end of October.
The US Navy should be aware that it could be walking (or steaming) into a trap set by Iran, possibly in collaboration with China.
Hard Lessons Learned
One of the hard lessons learned by the Israelis in the 2006 Lebanon war was that they also were fighting Iran. They almost lost the INS Hanit (Sa’ar 5 light frigate) from Iranian supplied Chinese anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) fired by Hezbollah. Due to Israeli sailor human error at multiple levels, four Israeli sailors were killed. In 2023, the Israelis know that they are fighting Iran in Gaza through their proxies—Hamas and PIJ.
Recall that Hezbollah started the 2006 Lebanon war by kidnapping Israeli soldiers—a tactic Hamas copied in this attack. In 2006, some reports indicated that Iran’s nuclear program was under intense scrutiny and Iran asked Hezbollah to start a war with Israel to deflect world attention on them. This time Iran might be looking for an excuse to detonate a nuclear weapon. What better excuse will Iran have than to claim that Israel forced Iran to demonstrate its capability to deter Israel from taking any action against it.
The US Navy also suffered from a surprise attack against the USS Stark during the Iran–Iraq War on 17 May 1987 in the Arabian Gulf. An Iraqi Air Force Mirage F1 fired two Exocet missiles at the USS Stark. The French-made Exocets have a range of 40 miles and carry a 352-pound high explosive-fragmentation warhead. Due to human and intelligence errors at multiple levels, 37 US sailors were killed, 21 were wounded, and the USS Stark was badly damaged.
The US Navy should remember that the Iranians smuggled Chinese ASCMs into Lebanon and Syria. The Iranians have also smuggled Chinese missiles into Gaza. Besides firing the Chinese ASCMs from the coast, these terrorist groups could have, with Iranian or Chinese assistance, figured out a way to fire them from a ship or even from an aircraft.
Do we realize that we are fighting Iran and possibly China in the Eastern Med?
We should be prepared for a surprise war and a surprise attack. The first step in preempting such surprises is to ensure we have the personnel, the weapons, the training, and the support of American people. Let’s not wait for a surprise to draw us into a war we are prepared for.
Let’s initiate high-volume war materiel production. The first steps in doing so are on public record. On 9 October 2023, U.S. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth urged Congress to provide enough funding to ensure the U.S. can support Israel and Ukraine. The US government should also add Taiwan and be prepared to assist our nearby treaty allies such as Japan, Philippines, and South Korea.
By attacking or destroying our newest aircraft carrier, not only would American Skepticism be reinforced in the Middle East, it would be reinforced in the Indo-Pacific region, especially by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) who are experts in propaganda. The CCP would exploit every opportunity to denigrate their primary adversary in the Indo-Pacific—the US, the US military, and especially the US Navy.
China and Iran could be employing an ancient Chinese attack proverb, “lure the tiger out of the mountain,” from The Thirty-Six Stratagems. The proverb directs one to entice a stronger opposing force to move from a position of strength to a position of weakness. The Iranians and Chinese may be applying this strategy against Israel (terrorist attack that pulls the IDF into Gaza and expands to a multi-front war) and the US (drawing US naval forces close to the Eastern Med and overstretching our forces throughout the world).
Returning to the original paper topic of surprise and war preparation, we should heed George Washington sound advice during his First Annual Address, to both Houses of Congress on 8 January 1790: “To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.” We need to prepare now for our own multi-front war that our adversaries plan for us. Are we ready?