By Lt. General (Retired) Deptula
After the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps shot down an unmanned and unarmed U.S. Navy surveillance drone last week, President Trump exercised significant restraint, calling off a planned kinetic strike against the offending surface-to-air missile (SAM) launch site.
Many—including the Iranian leadership—expected to see a retaliatory attack in response to the unprovoked attack. While fully justified and empowered by Article II of the Constitution to take military action to protect important national interests—even without specific prior authorization from Congress—the President did not launch the strike.
To understand the President’s decision, we must put near-term response options in the context of longer-term desired strategic outcomes.
In other words, while the President and his advisers must act one step at a time, they must always be thinking 10 steps ahead.
The U.S. Navy Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Demonstrator (BAMS-D) aircraft is a Navy version of the U.S. Air Force block 10 RQ-4A Global Hawk high-altitude, long-endurance, unmanned, unarmed aircraft used to conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. It has a wingspan about the same size as a Boeing 737 airliner.
The BAMS-D is the precursor to the Navy’s MQ-4C “Triton” that is designed to support a wide variety of missions, including maritime ISR patrol, signals intelligence collection, search and rescue, and communications relay.
The Navy BAMS-D aircraft was operating in international airspace, never flying closer than about 34 kilometers from the Iranian coast. After its downing, three BAMS-D aircraft remain in the Navy’s inventory.
The SAM missile system that shot down the BAMS-D aircraft was claimed by Iran to be a domestically-built system known in Iran as the 3rd Khordad transporter erector launcher and radar, a variant of its Raad SAM system.
Iran also claims the system incorporates the Bavar 373 surface to air missile that seems to be a derivative of the Soviet 5V55 / SA-10B with additional controls.
The reason it is important to understand the type of SAM system used in the attack is that while this incident highlights the value of using an unmanned aircraft to expand response options that would be limited if a manned aircraft was involved, it also underlines a very significant point.
Global Hawk/Triton unmanned aircraft are subsonic, non-stealthy platforms that were not designed to operate in areas covered by advanced SAM or air-to-air aircraft threats.
The fact that Iran was able to destroy the BAMS-D Global Hawk illustrates how advanced SAM threats have proliferated, even to second-rate military powers.
More importantly, from a capability perspective, it illustrates why the U.S. military needs to accelerate the fielding of next-generation manned and unmanned stealth aircraft instead of continuing to rely on aging non-stealth 4th generation aircraft that were designed for less lethal environments.
The long-term goal of the U.S. and her allies seeking a peaceful and prosperous Mideast, is to get the leadership in Iran to realize that it is in their best interests to abandon their goal of achieving nuclear weapons.
Contrary to the proclamations of the members of the Obama administration that put it in place, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or the “nuclear deal with Iran,” only delayed—rather than prevented—a nuclear-armed Iran.
Through its hostile act against an unarmed reconnaissance aircraft flying in international airspace, Iran is trying to drive a wedge between the United States and her allies, as well as create dissension in American domestic politics by painting President Trump as a warmonger.
His restraint in holding back from rapid military action is therefore prudent; it shows he and his advisors are thinking about the long game.
First, President Trump was right that the significant loss of life that could have resulted from U.S. air and missile strikes would have been a disproportionate response to the shoot-down of an unmanned aircraft.
Second, he left little doubt that additional acts of aggression by Iran will result in a harsh military response. While some may criticize as waffling the President’s decision to withhold a counterstrike, he sent a clear signal that further provocations will not be tolerated while at the same time offering an off-ramp for Iran to seek a different, more peaceful path.
At the same time, it is also important to realize that options involving the use of military force are not binary. This was not a choice over whether or not to go to war.
The use of military force should not be confused with getting into inextricable long wars—that is a matter of choice.
Military force in response to hostile aggression can take a variety of forms without long-term commitment.
For example, President Trump in 2017 and 2018 successfully used air and missile attacks against elements of the Assad regime in Syria to curb Assad’s use of chemical weapons without committing the U.S. to war against Syria. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was reversed in 43 days in 1991 with Operation Desert Storm.
The humanitarian catastrophe that was then unfolding in Kosovo in 1999 was halted in 79 days with Operation Allied Force.
These were all campaigns where airpower was the key force behind their success.
Military options for dealing with Iran must avoid committing large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground with the intent for direct combat against opposing Iranian forces.
As we have learned only too well in Afghanistan and Iraq, ground-force doctrine leads to occupations and long wars of dubious strategic value. It is instructive to recall that the combination of airpower and a small number of special operations forces accomplished the critical initial U.S. security objectives in Afghanistan in less than three months.
By the end of 2001, we had removed the Taliban from power, helped establish a successor government that was friendly to the U.S. and her allies, and eliminated the Al Qaeda terrorist training camps in Afghanistan.
Those objectives were accomplished so quickly that the planning for the deployment of large numbers of U.S. ground forces had not yet been completed. This was due to an element of the default U.S. military playbook, known as “phased operations.”
That approach presumes large numbers of ground forces in “phase three” or the “dominating activities” phase, are required to succeed in any conflict.
Such assumptions run counter to the premise of actual joint doctrine—the use of the right force, at the right place, at the right time, to achieve the desired effects.
Why did we then pour hundreds of thousands of ground forces into Afghanistan over the next decade plus, after the vital U.S. security objectives were realized?
The answer illustrates the importance of clearly defining U.S. security objectives, and then acting rapidly and effectively with precisely the force necessary to achieve them. Neutering Al Qaeda and eliminating Afghanistan as Al Qaeda’s sanctuary were critical U.S. security objectives.
Attempting to turn Afghanistan into a modern Jeffersonian democracy was not. Critics may insist that early 2002 was too soon to recognize that Al Qaeda in Afghanistan had been neutered, but when we shifted from a strategy of counterterrorism to one of counterinsurgency we shifted from a set of strategic objectives that were vital to the U.S. to a set of objectives that were not.
The main objective regarding Iran is to change its aggressive behavior to achieve a measure of order in the region, and to dissuade its regime from acquiring nuclear weapons.
At some point toward that end, the option of military force application may be required.
Avoiding the mistake of introducing U.S. ground forces as a primary force element will be imperative to any success.
Those military options holding the greatest applicability with respect to achieving our objectives in Iran are airpower and offensive cyber operations; the latter is already being applied.
We need to isolate Iran, not let Iran isolate the U.S.
The response by President Trump to the unprovoked aggression by the Iranian regime this past week put the geopolitical advantage with the United States.
Time is on our side.
It must be used wisely to garner support of nations to contain Iran while remaining prepared to compel Iran to renounce its nuclear weapon aspirations using both continued economic sanctions, and if necessary, smart military options relying on air and sea power.
Finally, and perhaps most important, we must realize that the Iranian leadership views the world through a prism of their fanatical theological-based dogma. Iranian Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is dogmatic to an extreme and cares less about his own people than his own authoritarian well-being.
He may not be compelled by any action others would impose on him to comply with the norms of peaceful international behavior. To Khamenei, compromise is seen as a sign of submission and weakness.
Contrary to the norms of western culture, moral and ethical codes, he will do whatever it takes to remain in power.
Those who crafted the JCPOA may have realized that and designed that deal to buy time to achieve a “natural” or internal politically driven regime change during the course of the period of the agreement. Khamenei may not be interested in any more deals.
Accordingly, one of the options the current administration should have in its set of courses of action is one that encourages the Iranian people to oust their tyrannical leadership and replace them with Iranian leaders that seek a productive relationship inside the community of nations—and a degree of concern for the wellbeing of their own population at least equal to that of themselves.
This article was first published by Forbes on June 25, 2019 and is reprinted with permission of the author.