On June 9, 53 BCE, Marcus Licinius Crassus' 30,000 Roman Legionaries were encircled by Parthian General Surena's small, mobile formations of slaves and nobles astride fast horses from Persia (the pre-1935 name for Iran). When the battle in Carrhae (now Diyarbakir, Turkey) was finished, all of Crassus' forces had either been killed or captured. Over 2,000 years later, on July 16, 2012, the USNS Rappahannock, a US Navy supply ship, fired on a fishing boat off the coast of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) after the fishing boat disregarded warnings and rapidly approached the US ship within the narrow Strait of Hormuz. Initial reports indicate an Indian national was killed and three others were seriously injured.
Could these incidents possibly have a common thread?
Iran's national maritime security strategy focuses regular and elite units on establishing the Persian Gulf as the front line of any potential confrontation with the US. Fast-forwarding from Carrhae to more contemporary times, during the Iran-Iraq War groups of small, fast Iranian gunboats (not mounted forces) and mined sea lanes posed a modern asymmetric threat to crude oil shipping in the Persian Gulf — the so-called "Tanker War" which lasted from 1984-1988. As a military reaction, in April 1988, the US Navy conducted Operation Praying Mantis, which destroyed almost half of the Iranian navy in several hours. Twelve years later on October 12, 2000, the US Navy destroyer USS Cole suffered 17 casualties and nearly sank during an asymmetric attack by al Qaeda that detonated an explosive-laden boat next to the destroyer while it was near a port in Yemen.
In 2006, the Iranian Minister of Petroleum, Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh, claimed that Iran may use oil as a weapon if it served its national interests, and Iranian government spokesperson Gholam Hossein Elham said in June 2006 that Iran would disrupt oil supplies as a last resort if it were punished over its nuclear program. On January 6, 2008, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) patrol boats confronted a US Navy destroyer, cruiser and frigate in a tense encounter that ultimately cost no lives but raised serious questions about whether the aforementioned lessons from military history are going unheeded.
Since taking office, US President Barack Obama has purportedly ordered increasingly sophisticated secret attacks on the computer systems that run Iran's main nuclear enrichment facilities. At the same time, Iran has increased its cyberwarfare capabilities, evidenced by a recent $1 billion investment in new technology, and has grown to be the "most active state sponsor of terrorism," according to the US State Department's estimation. The day before the incident involving the USNS Rappahannock, Iran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz — through which about one-fifth of the world's traded oil passes — unless sanctions imposed over Iran's nuclear program were lifted.
To put it mildly, Iran has a complicated stance on issues of international maritime law. While Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi did not sign the 1958 UN Convention on the High Seas, he stipulated that the Strait of Hormuz is an international corridor not subject to local sovereignty. Although Iran has not signed any treaty on transit passage, the country asserts that it has the right to close the Strait if other countries ban its oil export and imports under a tenuous interpretation the 1958 Geneva Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone.
Iran has signed the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), but has not yet ratified it. Nonetheless, Iran claims it is committed to the Convention's principles and considers transit passage as available to only those countries that have ratified the Convention — thus excluding the US, among others. Closing the Strait could be a method of retaliation for the alleged cyberattacks or retribution for nuclear sanctions. Such a closure would economically paralyze the other exporting countries in the region (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Qatar, the UAE and Bahrain) as well as importing states (including Japan and the oil-dependent Western states). At a minimum, under the UNCLOS such actions would be considered a serious violation of international laws and regulations by the concerned states. Such closure could also conceivably constitute an act of war, which would draw together the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members under their mutual defense agreement to combat against possible internal and external subversion.
The reaction of the USNS Rappahannock's crew to a small approaching vessel was part of the evolving rules of engagement (ROE) and national defense strategy to deal with asymmetric threats at sea, which sometimes involve individual vessels converging with others in insect-like "swarming" tactics. Since the Cole incident, the US Department of Defense (DoD) commissioned the Rand Corporation's 2000 monograph, "Swarming on the Battlefield, Past Present and Future," which aptly noted that "swarming has occurred throughout military history, and the lessons of this past experience may offer insights into a possible future application of swarming." Testing the Rand Corporation's observation, the DoD's so-called Millennium Challenge 2002 (MC 2002) military exercise pitted notional Iranian versus notional coalitional forces. While details remain classified, the New York Times in January 2008 interviewed Marine Lieutenant General Van Riper, who served in MC 2002 as commander of the notional Iranian force. Van Riper observed "important lessons of his simulated victory were not adequately acknowledged across the military," namely that "the sheer numbers [of swarming forces] involved overloaded [coalitional] ability, both mentally and electronically, to handle the attack," ending the encounter "in 5, maybe 10 minutes."
Since MC 2002, the US armed forces have intensively studied, trained, and fought under asymmetrical conditions. By 2004, the US Navy anticipated this kind of tactic in the guise of Irreducible Semi-Autonomous Adaptive Combat (ISAAC) and the US Marine Corps' Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities (CETO) has extensively explored [PDF] "swarm tactic" operations.
For that matter, Persian Gulf littoral states have grown their military forces since the 1980s, such that even the UAE has a more capable air force than Iran. French and US forces stationed near the Strait of Hormuz will also remain poised to keep the Strait open and challenge terrorist threats in the region. It doesn't take a historian, or even a military member, to appreciate the asymmetrical tactics Iranian forces have used, or may use again. These tactics even have analogues in the realm of business and culture; consider how Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking and Peter Miller's The Smart Swarm have popularized the notion of "swarm theory" in realms off of the battlefield. As our politicians and military leaders anticipate and encounter emergent threats from Iran and other actors they will find that future battlespaces are multidimensional domains where an adversary can be engaged outside of the traditional parameters of space and time.
Kevin Govern is an Associate Professor of Law at Ave Maria School of Law. He began his legal career as a US Army Judge Advocate. He has also served as an Assistant Professor of Law at the United States Military Academy and has taught at California University of Pennsylvania. Unless otherwise attributed, the conclusions and opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the US government, Department of Defense or Ave Maria School of Law.
Suggested citation: Kevin Govern, Asymmetric Warfare: The Strait of Hormuz and Future Crises, JURIST - Forum, July 17, 2012, http://jurist.org/forum/2012/07/kevin-govern-hormuz-conflict.php.
This article was prepared for publication by Caleb Pittman, head of JURIST's academic commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org