The military build-up in the Gulf is now well over a quarter of a century old. It was first · stimulated by World War II, and then given momentum by the Cold War, Nasserism, the fall of the Hashemite dynasty in Iraq, the Arab-Israeli War, British withdrawal from the Gulf, the Iran Iraq War, the Gulf War, and a host of minor regional quarrels. It is also an arms race that shows no signs of ending. New purchases ensure a steady flow of new arms and technology. Iran and Iraq retain major war-fighting capabilities, and the problem of proliferation not only can reshape the military balance but introduce whole new forms of terrorism.
CHANGES SINCE THE GULF WAR
The military balance has changed fundamentally since the Gulf War. At the beginning of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Iraq was by far the dominant military power in the Gulf. It had decisively defeated Iran during the spring and summer of 1988, in battles which cost Iran some 45-55 percent of its inventory of major land-force weapons, while the United States and Britain had inflicted major losses on the Iranian navy. Today, Iraq has rebuilt and reorganized its forces that survived the Gulf War, but it has only about half the land and air capability it had when the air campaign began. It has not had any significant imports of arms or military technology since the summer of 1990, and has had no real opportunity to react to many of the lessons of the Gulf War. Most of its missile, chemical, biological and nuclear capabilities have been dismantled by UNSCOM and the IAEA, and its efforts to develop its other military industries have been severely limited by the impact of seven years of U.N. sanctions. Iraq is still, however, a significant threat, and as long as Saddam Hussein is in power, it is likely to be a revanchist state and seek to rebuild its military power as soon as it can do so.
Iran has partially recovered from its defeat in the Iran-Iraq War and is again a major military power by Gulf standards, though scarcely a modem military power. Many of its post-Gulf War imports have done little more than offset the steadily growing obsolescence of its Western supplied equipment, and it has had only limited imports of modem aircraft and armor. Iran has, however, developed carefully focused military capabilities. It has concentrated its resources on expanding its missile capabilities and its chemical, biological and nuclear capabilities. It has developed a substantial capability to threaten shipping through the Straits of Hormuz and the rest of the Gulf.
In contrast, the southern Gulf forces have tended to maintain the status quo. The Gulf Cooperation Council remains as divided as at the start of the Gulf War. Their arms purchases reflect the same lack of effective standardization, interoperability and focus on key missions. Far too little real progress per dollar has been made in the effective defense of Kuwait and the Saudi border with Iraq, and in dealing with mine warfare and the Iranian naval threat in the lower Gulf. Far too little emphasis has been placed on training and sustainability, and many of the arms purchases made since the Gulf War have done little to improve military effectiveness.
There are three other major changes in the military balance that seem likely to characterize the Gulf well into the twenty first century:
- The Gulf states have made little progress since the Gulf War in dealing with their structural economic problems and political divisions. Iraq, whose economy had largely collapsed during the Iran-Iraq War, experienced a full collapse in 1991. Its Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish factions are held together by one of the most repressive regimes since Nazi Germany. Iran's per capita income has fallen to its mid-1970s levels, and it is unclear what its long-term prospects for development will be. The southern Gulf has talked reform but has failed to act, and its rapid population growth has cut per capita incomes far below the days of the oil boom. Ethnic, political and economic problems have already contributed to extremism and violence in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
If the Gulf states finally act on their promises of reform, there is no reason to assume their current problems will lead to significant civil unrest and violence. If they do not, internal civil conflict may often be as serious a threat as Iran and Iraq.
- The Gulf War has left a heritage of far greater southern Gulf dependence on U.S. power-projection capabilities with the hope that Britain and France can also deploy at least naval and air forces. This dependence is reflected in strengthened U.S. prepositioning, improved deployment facilities, and in a series of bilateral and multilateral training and exercise efforts that are far more advanced than those carried out as part of the Gulf Cooperation Council. This dependence, however, creates growing doubts within many Gulf states as to the cost effectiveness of national defense efforts and arms purchases, makes the United States a natural target for dissidents and extremists, and has the critical weakness that the United States has not been able to preposition land equipment in Saudi Arabia - the most urgent area in terms of southern Gulf vulnerability.
- The Gulf War and "dual containment" have slowed the missile race and efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Instead, the Gulf seems locked into a process of ''creeping proliferation" in which Iraq attempts to preserve the remnants of its pre-war capabilities, carry out new covert programs, and develop a "break out" capability for the time when U.N. sanctions are lifted. Iran, in contrast, is actively pursuing the development and/or deployment of long-range missiles. It is deploying chemical weapons and is carrying out covert biological and nuclear weapons programs, but at a slow and steady pace, rather than in the grandiose manner of pre-Gulf War Iraq. No southern Gulf state has followed up Saudi Arabia's purchase of obsolete long-range missiles from China or shown signs of developing WMD. Several countries are, however, beginning to explore theater missile defense and civil-defense options. The U.S. increasingly focuses on counter proliferation, and the "creeping proliferation" in the Gulf inevitably interacts with proliferation in the India-Pakistan arms race, the Arab Israeli arms race, and the search to find a counterbalance to the conventional technology of the United States.
At present, U.S. strength and Iranian and Iraqi weakness ensure a relatively stable balance of deterrence in the Gulf that offsets the lack of effective military cooperation among the Gulf states. At the same time, this is no guarantee for the future. Iran and Iraq already present serious potential threats, and these will grow much worse if the southern Gulf states continue to put national interests ahead of regional cooperation, or if the United States and its allies should weaken their presence and power-projection capabilities.
THE IMPACT OF ARMS TRANSFERS SINCE THE GULF WAR
The flow of arms to the Gulf has scarcely ended. However, the end of the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War, U.N. sanctions against Iraq, and "dual containment" have had a major impact on the nature of military expenditures and arms imports. Iraq has lost the ability to recapitalize its military forces, much less modernize them effectively. Iran is spending far less on both its total military forces and arms than during the Iran-Iraq War. Contrary to conventional wisdom, southern Gulf military expenditures and arms transfers have also dropped significantly. While declassified U.S. intelligence data are only available through 1995, an examination of other sources indicates the following:
- Iranian military expenditures have dropped to about one-third of their Iran-Iraq War level, as measured in constant dollars. Iranian arms imports have dropped to about one-fifth to one-fourth of their Iran-Iraq War level.
- Iraqi military expenditures have dropped to about one-tenth of their Iran-Iraq War level, as measured in constant dollars. Iraq has had no major arms imports since 1990.
- Southern Gulf military expenditures are now at somewhat lower levels than their average before the Gulf War. Southern Gulf arms imports now average about half of their pre-Gulf War level in constant dollars, driven largely by the purchases of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.
NEW ARMS AGREEMENTS AND ARMS DELIVERIES
New agreements in the northern Gulf have fallen precipitously since the Gulf War, and new agreements in the southern Gulf are reaching average levels far lower than those made during a similar period before the Gulf War.
The data on deliveries show that the momentum of Iran's orders during the Iran-Iraq War, and during the immediate crisis following its defeat in 1988, has led to sustained deliveries at higher rates than new orders. At the same time, the extraordinary volume of deliveries to Iraq before the Gulf War - some $16.6 billion worth of deliveries 1987-90 - helps explain why it has been able to sustain its reduced military force posture in spite of a cut-off of arms imports since 1990.
The data for the southern Gulf reflect the fact that Saudi Arabia is the region's largest arms buyer. At the same time, they reflect the fact that Saudi Arabia's economic and budget deficit problems led to significant cuts in the rate of new arms orders in spite of the Gulf War, while Kuwait has been forced to spend in order to reconstitute its shattered forces, and Qatar and the UAE have emerged as major new buyers. Once again, the cuts in new Saudi orders are disguised by the momentum of deliveries from past orders. Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE, however, still have major "pipelines" of deliveries in progress.
It is impossible to discuss all of the qualitative problems accompanying the arms purchases currently being made in the Gulf. Even a casual reading of the IISS Military Balance, however, reveals that far too many southern Gulf countries buy arms without a consistent strategy, proper regard for coalition warfare, or meaningful mission priorities. A review of the Military Balance reveals far too many different types of weapons from different countries both among southern Gulf states, and often within their force structures. In addition, many naval purchases seem to reflect a contest as to which country can buy the most complex frigate or corvette.
The problems in air orders of battle and land-based air defenses are less obvious, but there are too many types of aircraft and short-range air-defense systems that are not integrated into a common and fully computerized southern Gulf-wide system or concept of air operations. Only Saudi Arabia has fully integrated airborne sensor and battle management systems into its concept of air operations. Purchases for offensive air operations reflect a lack of meaningful reconnaissance and targeting capabilities, a failure to integrate battle damage assessment into the loop, and a lack of integrated concepts of joint warfare.
This is not to say that individual countries have not made major progress, but the fact remains that buying radically different mixes of equipment from a wide range of different suppliers presents major problems in terms of interoperability and standardization. It is not coincidental that the last two U.S. CENTCOM (U.S. Central Command) annual seminars dealing with security assistance have focused on the need to provide for adequate training, infrastructure and sustainability, and have stressed the fact that southern Gulf states are buying too many major weapons too quickly. This does not mean that the Gulf should "buy American." Europe and Russia are perfectly capable of supplying excellent systems, many of which are better suited to Gulf needs than U.S. systems designed for long range and global deployment. The southern Gulf should not cease modernizing or seeking an edge over Iran and Iraq. It should buy wisely and at the proper rate.
"FOCUSED POVERTY" IN THE NORTHERN GULF
For all the political and economic criticism of U.N. sanctions and dual containment, it is clear they have not been without their military benefits. Iraq has had virtually no arms imports since 1990. While it is impossible to make reliable estimates, it is difficult to see how Iraq could recapitalize and modernize its forces for less than $35 to $50 billion dollars, and even if all sanctions stopped today, it would take at least half a decade for Iraq to buy and receive deliveries on such orders.
Iran, on the other hand, has encountered fewer constraints. The United States and its allies have blocked many transfers of advanced arms to Iran, particularly from Europe and the former Soviet Union. Iran's mismanagement of its budget. development. and foreign debt have interacted synergistically with containment.
According to declassified U.S. intelligence estimates, Iran signed new agreements worth $10.2 billion during the four-year period 1987-1990 - the time between the final years of the Iran-Iraq War and the Gulf War. Iran's new arms agreements again dropped sharply during the four-year period following the Gulf War, totaling only $4.8 billion from 1991- 1994. Despite some reports of a massive Iranian military build-up, new agreements during this period equaled only a quarter of the value of the agreements that Iran had signed during the previous four years.
Iran signed only $1.3 billion worth of new arms agreements during 1993-1996, a period heavily influenced by an economic crisis inside Iran, low oil revenues, and problems in repaying foreign debt. Iran ordered $200 million from Russia, $300 million from China, $100 million from other European states (mostly Eastern Europe), and $600 million from other countries (mostly North Korea). The drop in agreements with Russia reflected both Iran's financial problems and the result of U.S. pressure that had led President Yeltsin not to make major new arms sales to Iran. Iran's new agreements with China and North Korea heavily emphasized missiles and missile production technology.
It is its focus on WMD and systems that can threaten tanker traffic and the southern Gulf that makes Iran dangerous in spite of its relatively low level of arms imports and the obsolescence or low quality of much of its order of battle. Iran has bought enough arms to rebuild its army to the point where it can defend effectively against a weakened Iraq. It has begun to rebuild its air force and land based air defenses and can put up a far more effective defense than in 1988. It has restructured its regular forces and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps to improve the defense of its southern Gulf coast and create a far more effective ability to attack naval forces, tanker traffic, offshore facilities, and targets along the southern Gulf coast.
CONVENTIONAL THREATS FROM IRAN AND IRAQ
There is no way to predict the threats Iran and Iraq can pose in the Gulf but it is important to reiterate that a combination of U.S., British, and southern Gulf military forces is now capable of defeating virtually any conventional war-fighting threat from either state if it acts with sufficient speed, unity, and determination.
The only near-term developments that could alter this balance would be (a) a major cutback in U.S. power projection or southern Gulf support, (b) the appearance of a significant low-level internal conflict in a southern Gulf state that Iran or Iraq could exploit and which would confront the United States with the fact that it cannot save a Gulf government from its own people, or (c) the sudden transfer of a nuclear weapon or sufficient fissile material for a "break out" in building a bomb - a development that could radically change U.S. and southern Gulf perceptions of the risk in taking military action.
THE THREAT FROM IRAN
It is easy to talk about Iran as seeking to be a hegemon or trying to dominate the Gulf, but it is unclear what this rhetoric really means. Iran has a regime that is hostile to the West and its neighbors in many ways, but this hostility does not translate into a predictable willingness to start a conflict. Iran's revolutionary rhetoric is mixed with statements describing its good intentions; its threats are tempered with defensiveness. Iran faces powerful limits to its ability to import arms, develop its WMD, and create effective military forces. Every hostile or threatening act it takes is likely to provoke a reaction from the United States, southern Gulf states, and Iraq.
While it is impossible to dismiss a long list of "wild card" events and changes, it is possible to summarize the probable trends in Iran's military future by looking at a range of the most likely contingencies and Iran's present and future capabilities in each such contingency.
CONFRONTATION IN THE GULF
Iran cannot win a naval-air battle against U.S. forces in the Gulf and has no prospect of doing so in the foreseeable future. It would have to rebuild and modernize both its regular navy and air forces at levels it simply cannot hope to achieve in the next decade. Alternatively, it would need to develop the capability to deliver WMD to the point where it could back its conventional military capabilities with a deterrent threat, one that might seriously inhibit U.S. military action and/or the willingness of southern Gulf states to support the United States and provide air and naval facilities.
The wild cards in such contingencies are the U.S. determination to act; the size of the U.S. presence in the Gulf and U.S. power-projection capabilities at the time of a given crisis; southern Gulf support for the United States and willingness to provide it with suitable facilities; and the political liabilities the United States would face, if any, in terms of the response from nations outside the region. Far more than military capability is involved in a confrontation in the Gulf, and Iran would have an advantage if the United States could not respond for political or budgetary reasons.
CONFLICT WITH IRAQ
Iran has a rough overall military parity with Iraq, although Iran could not sustain a massive land offensive against Iraq's military forces. Iran has long had the naval and air capabilities to defeat Iraq's negligible naval strength and deny Iraq naval and commercial access to the Gulf. Iran is slowly increasing the capabilities of its land and air forces relative to those of Iraq, and its ability to use chemical warfare in another Iran-Iraq conflict. Iran is now a much stronger defensive power than in I 988, both because of its own force improvements and because of Iraq's defeat and the sanctions that have followed.
The wild cards in any contingencies involving a conflict between Iran and Iraq are the possibility of internal unrest and divisions in Iraq that are serious enough to split the armed forces, and/or lead to a new Shiite uprising. Similarly, a major Kurdish uprising would greatly complicate Iraq's ability to concentrate its forces to defend against an Iranian attack on Iraq's center and south. At the same time, any Iranian victory over Iraq might prove to be more apparent than real. It is doubtful that the United States or southern Gulf states would tolerate an Iranian victory that did more than depose the present Iraqi regime. Further, it seems likely that Iraqi independence would rapidly reassert itself if Iran attempted to occupy or dominate a substantial part of Iraq.
ADVENTURES IN THE SOUTHERN GULF
There is little prospect that Iran will develop enough power-projection capability - and supporting power from its navy, air force and WMD - to win a serious conflict in the southern Gulf or to force its way in supporting a coup or uprising. This contingency is also the one most likely to unite the United States and the southern Gulf states and to ensure European and other support for a strong U.S.-Southern Gulf response.
At the same time, there are three important wild cards affecting Iranian military involvement in the Southern Gulf:
• Nothing can prevent Iran from exploiting any fracture lines within and between the southern Gulf states. This is particularly true of the Shiites in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but it might also prove true of future confrontations between Bahrain and Qatar and Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
• The United States would face serious problems in responding to any change of government in a southern Gulf state that resulted in a pro-Iranian regime and which sought Iranian military advice or an Iranian military presence. The United States cannot save a Gulf regime from its own people or (openly) endorse such action by other southern Gulf countries.
• Iran's process of creeping proliferation is making enough progress that the United States and the southern Gulf states must reach some degree of agreement on taking suitable counter proliferation measures. A power vacuum in which Iran proliferates, the southern Gulf states grow steadily more vulnerable, and U.S. resolve seems progressively more questionable could give Iran far more capability to directly or indirectly intervene in southern Gulf affairs.
PROXY WARS AGAINST ISRAEL AND OTHER STATES
Iran has already demonstrated that it is steadily improving its ability to conduct "proxy wars" by training, arming and funding movements like the Hizbollah. The IRGC and the Quds Force are likely to continue to exploit such methods as long as they are directed to do so by the Iranian regime. There is little that can be done to force Iran to stop.
UNCONVENTIONAL OFFENSIVE CONFLICTS
Iran has steadily improving capabilities for unconventional warfare, including the potential use of chemical and biological weapons. The practical problem that Iran faces is finding a place and contingency where it can exploit them. The key wild cards are Iran's willingness to take the risk of using such forces and alienating other states, the uncertain value of such adventures to Iran, and the willingness of other states and non-Persian movements to accept such Iranian support and the probable political price tag.
THE DEFENSE OF IRAN
The previous contingencies assume that Iran will take offensive action. If it does, it may well be confronted with a U.S.-led attack. If this attack is confined to naval and coastal targets, particularly those Iranian military capabilities that potentially threaten Gulf shipping, there is little Iran can do other than try to ride out the attack by dispersing and hiding its smaller boats, anti-ship missiles, etc.
If a U.S.-led attack includes strategic conventional missile strikes and bombings, there is little Iran can do in immediate response other than escalate by using WMD in ways that are more likely to end in increasing the risk and damage to Iran than deter or damage U.S. forces. Iran can, however, respond over time with terrorism, unconventional warfare, and proxy wars. It is much easier for air and missile power to inflict major damage on Iran than it is to predict or control the political and military aftermath.
Attacks on the Iranian heartland that went beyond a punitive raid would be much more costly. A U.S.-led coalition could defeat Iran's regular forces but would have to be at least corps-level in size. Occupying Iran would be impractical without massive land forces of several entire corps. Even limited amphibious and land attacks on the mainland would expose the invading forces to a much higher risk of low intensity and guerrilla combat with Iranian forces that received constant reinforcement and resupply. Further, Iran's use of terrorism and WMD would be politically easier to justify in a defensive conflict than an offensive one. Such attacks would probably end in futility, and in creating a revanchist Iran.
EXPLOITING "WARS OF INTIMIDATION"
The previous contingencies assume that Iran's strength will be determined largely by the war-fighting capabilities of its military forces. Iran may, however, be able to achieve some of its objectives though intimidation and direct or indirect threats. Iran's ability to provide such threats will improve steadily in the near-to mid-term, in spite of its military weakness. In many cases, its neighbors may be willing to accommodate Iran to some degree. This is particularly true of those states whose gas and oil resources are most exposed - like Qatar - or which see Iraq as a more serious threat - like Kuwait.
IRAQ'S MILITARY FUTURE
It is unrealistic to hope for moderation in Saddam Hussein's regime, or to expect that a new leader will bring a complete end to Iraq's challenge to its neighbors and the West or its efforts to proliferate. The Gulf War did not change Saddam's fundamental behavior and neither has the "war of inspections." Saddam's most probable near-term successors are likely to be products of the Baath, Saddam's coterie and/or the military rather than true moderates. They are also likely to be minority Sunnis from some mix of clans and tribes rather than a true national government. While no one can rule out the possibility of an Iraqi Ataturk or Sadat, such leadership is more likely to change Iraq's image and moderate the more controversial aspects of its behavior than to change its fundamental strategic perspective.
Iraq's mid- to long-term prospects are more favorable. It is unlikely that any sequence of ruling elites will continue to ignore Iraq's pressing demographic and economic problems to the extent that Saddam has, or that any successor can provide the same mix of political skills and reckless ambition. However, it is unclear when a true national leadership will come to power that can bridge Iraq's deep religious, ethnic tribal, and clan divisions. Iraq is likely to have authoritarian minority leaders for some time to come. Iraq's geography alone makes it likely that its rulers will believe they must compete with Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States for regional influence and power.
Iraq is not proliferating simply because its current regime is radical and extreme; it is proliferating because it has good and enduring strategic reasons to do so.
The West and other Gulf states need to accept this reality. They need to understand that they have a vital interest in maintaining, for as long as possible, export controls on weapons and dual-use items, and the efforts of UNSCOM and the IAEA. They need to understand that arms control negotiations with Iraq will be an extension of the "war of inspections" by other means, and that only strong military forces and counter-proliferation efforts can deter and defend against Iraq's break out capabilities and a post-sanctions expansion of its proliferation effort. At the same time, some of Iraq's near-term capabilities are predictable. While it is impossible to dismiss a long list of wild card events and changes, it is possible to summarize the most probable trends in Iraq's military future by looking at a range of the most likely contingencies.
IRAQ'S NEAR-TERM CAPABILITIES
Iraq's land forces still retain significant war-fighting capabilities and much of the force structure that made Iraq the dominant military power in the Gulf after its victory over Iran. Iraqi forces can still seize Kuwait in a matter of days or occupy part of Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, if they do not face immediate opposition from U.S., Kuwaiti, and Saudi forces. CENTCOM and U.S. experts indicate that Iraq could assemble and deploy five heavy divisions south into Kuwait in a matter of days. Iraqi divisions now have an authorized strength of about 10,000 men, and about half of the Iraqi army's 23 divisions had manning levels of around 8,000 and "a fair state of readiness." Republican Guard divisions had an average of around 8,000 to 10,000 men. Brigades averaged around 2,500 men - the size of a large U.S. battalion.
Even today, Iraq has five Republican Guard divisions within 140 kilometers of the Kuwaiti and Saudi border. It can rapidly deploy two to five divisions against Kuwait from the area around Basra. A recent background briefing by CENTCOM indicates that Kuwait could only rapidly deploy a few combat-strength battalions to defend its territory, and Saudi Arabia would take days to deploy even one heavy brigade into areas north of Kuwait City. The tyranny of geography, Kuwait's small size, and Saudi Arabia's widely dispersed army give Iraq a natural advantage in any sudden or surprise attack. Unless there are weeks of strategic warning, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United States will lack the land forces to stop Iraq. A force of five Iraqi divisions would compare favorably with total Kuwaiti forces of about four brigades, with only about a brigade equivalent combat-ready, and with a total forward deployed U.S. strength that normally does not include a single land brigade. The Saudi forces at Hafr al Batin are at most the equivalent of two combat-effective brigades that would probably take two weeks to fully deploy forward to the Kuwait and Saudi borders in sustainable, combat-ready form. The so-called GCC rapid-deployment force is largely a political fiction with no real-world combat capability against Iraqi heavy divisions.
There is little prospect that this situation will improve in the near term. The United States has not been able to preposition large numbers of equipment sets in or near Kuwait, and prepositioning brigade sets in Qatar and the UAE means that such forces would take at least a week to 10 days to deploy in combat-ready form in Kuwait. Kuwait is making only limited progress in its military modernization, and the Saudi Army has made little progress in· improving its capability to move quickly to the defense of Kuwait or to concentrate its forces along the Saudi border with Iraq.
As a result, the ability to deal with a sudden Iraqi attack on Kuwait is likely to depend on U.S. ability to mass offensive air and missile power and use it against Iraq the moment major troop movements begin. The United States will also require the full support of Saudi Arabia and the other southern Gulf countries to assist in the deployment and basing of U.S. forces in the region, support from friendly local forces like the Saudi Air Force, and a firm and immediate Kuwaiti willingness to allow the United States and Saudi Arabia to employ force.
Even today, Iraqi land forces might penetrate into Kuwait City in spite of U.S., Saudi, and Kuwaiti air power - if Iraq were willing to take very high losses in reaching and seizing the city. If Iraq then took the Kuwaiti population hostage, it might succeed. The only way that Iraqi forces could then be dislodged would be through a combination of another land build-up in Saudi Arabia by the U.S. and allied forces, and a massive strategic/interdiction air campaign against targets on Iraqi territory.
The essential dilemma in any "second liberation" of Kuwait would be U.S., Saudi and Kuwaiti willingness to act in the face of potential massacres of Kuwaiti civilians, versus the willingness of an Iraqi regime to accept massive damage to Iraq. It seems likely that the United States and Saudi Arabia would show the necessary ruthlessness if the Kuwaiti government supported such action. Oil is too strategically important to cede such a victory to a leader like Saddam Hussein.
The outcome might be different, however, as sanctions ease or end and Iraq rebuilds more of its military capabilities. There are a number of wild cards in such a case:
• Iraq may somehow obtain nuclear weapons or demonstrate the possession of highly lethal biological weapons.
• The United States may be forced to reduce its forward presence and readiness in the Gulf to the point where it could not rapidly surge air power, and/or had reduced its overall power-projection capabilities.
• Iraq may choose a more limited and "acceptable..objective like restoring its pre-Gulf War border or demanding access to Bubiyan, Warbah, the Kwar Abdullah, and the Gulf.
• Saudi Arabia may not immediately and fully commit its own forces in support of U.S. action.
• A Kuwaiti government may refuse to accept the cost of continuing to fight in the face of ruthless Iraqi action against a "hostage,, Kuwaiti people.
CIVIL WAR IN IRAQ
Iraq's forces have already shown that they have the military strength to defeat its lightly armed Kurds in a matter of weeks if U.N. forces cease to protect them. The Iraqi army has effectively defeated all serious Shiite resistance. It would take a massive uprising, and possibly a major division within Iraq's military forces, for any civil conflict to challenge the regime.
Power is now so centralized among Sunni tribal elites, who control virtually all senior posts in the military and security forces, that any struggle for power seems more likely to take the form of coup and counter coup than civil war. Nevertheless, no one can dismiss the possibility that Saddam Hussein will take another major military risk and end up making another strategic mistake. Saddam may well be able to survive the present situation, but not another major defeat.
It is possible that the Iraqi military could split over the struggle for power after Saddam and combine warlordism with regional and ethnic alliances. Any serious north-south split within the army could trigger a significant civil conflict, although it is impossible to predict the resulting balance of power and ethnic and political alignments. Such a struggle might also trigger limited Iranian and Turkish intervention.
CONFRONTATION IN THE GULF
Iraq has almost none of the assets necessary to win a naval-air battle against U.S. forces in the Gulf, nor any prospect of acquiring them in the foreseeable future. It would have to rebuild, modernize and massively expand both its regular navy and air force at levels it simply cannot hope to achieve for the next half decade. Alternatively, Iraq could develop its capability to deliver WMD to the point where it could back its conventional strength with a threat that might seriously inhibit U.S. military action and/or the willingness of southern Gulf states to support the United States and provide air and naval facilities.
Unlike Iran, Iraq cannot conduct meaningful surface-ship, naval-air-force, and amphibious operations. Currently, the Iraqi navy can only conduct limited mine warfare and land-based anti-ship missile attacks, and surprise raids on off-shore facilities. Its air force may be able to conduct limited anti-ship missile attacks using its Mirage F-1s, but only in a permissive environment. Iraqi Mirage F-ls burdened with the AM-39 Exocet would be unlikely to survive Kuwaiti, Saudi or Iranian air defenses without a level of air escort capability that Iraq cannot currently provide.
Iraq has little ability to intimidate its neighbors as long as the United States can use its air and missile power to inflict enough strategic damage to create a massive deterrent to any Iraqi escalation to chemical or biological weapons, and back these capabilities with the ultimate threat of U.S. theater nuclear escalation.
This does not mean that Iraqi air and/or naval forces could not score some gains from a sudden, well-planned raid in the Gulf. Iraq could not sustain any initial success, however, and would probably accomplish nothing more than provoke a U.S., southern Gulf, or Iranian reaction that would far outweigh any advantages. The only exception might be a proxy unconventional or terrorist attack that allowed Iraq to preserve some degree of plausible deniability.
The wild cards in such contingencies are the U.S. determination to act, the future size of the U.S. presence in the Gulf, U.S. ability to surge its power projection capabilities at the time of a given crisis, southern Gulf support for the United States and willingness to provide it with suitable facilities, and the political liabilities the United States would face - if any - in terms of the response from nations outside the region. Far more is involved in a confrontation in the Gulf than Iraq's military capability, and Iraq would able to acquire far more contingency capability if the United States could not respond for political or budgetary reasons.
Similarly, much will depend over time on Iranian, southern Gulf, and Western reactions to Iraq's efforts to rebuild the naval-strike capability of its air force and to build up a meaningful blue-water navy. A passive response would obviously strengthen Iraq. So would any indifference to Iraqi efforts to improve its access to the Gulf by renewing its pressure on Kuwait to grant Iraq access to Bubiyan and Warbah, or to secure the channels to Umm Qasr. Even then, however, it is difficult to see how Iraq can acquire much contingency capability beyond the upper Gulf, unless Iran and/or Saudi Arabia are indifferent or supportive to Iraqi action.
CONFLICT WITH IRAN
The cumulative impact of U.N. sanctions is slowly eroding the capabilities of Iraqi land and air forces relative to those of Iran, and Iraq has only very limited ability to use chemical warfare in another Iran-Iraq conflict. Iraq cannot hope to challenge Iran's naval strength or deny Iran naval and commercial access to the Gulf. Iran is now a much stronger defensive power than it was in 1988, both because of its own force improvements and because of Iraq's defeat and the sanctions that have followed.
It is far from clear, however, that Iran will acquire enough of an "edge" over Iraq to win a major conflict and avoid a repetition of the grinding war of attrition that took place during the Iran-Iraq War. In spite of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi army seems more likely to unite in a defensive conflict than to divide, and it still has nearly twice Iran's tank strength and a superior air force.
Further, an escalation to the use of WMD against urban, economic, and large military targets could introduce great uncertainty into such a conflict. Iran now has a major advantage in terms of biological and chemical weapons; this advantage will grow steadily until U.N. sanctions on Iraq are lifted. Iraq could then rebuild its strategic delivery capabilities relatively quickly, however, making the end result of any sustained conflict of this kind difficult to predict.
The greatest single uncertainty would be the development and use of advanced biological weapons with near-nuclear lethality or the use of a nuclear device assembled with weapons-grade fissile material bought from an outside source. There may be little or no warning of such a strategic development, and the United States is unlikely to extend its deterrent coverage over either Iran or Iraq. Another wild card is that a U.S. or Israeli counter proliferation strike on either Iraq or Iran could make the target vulnerable enough for the other country to exploit the resulting window of opportunity.
ADVENTURES IN THE SOUTHERN GULF
There is little near-term prospect that Iraq could win any conflict in the Southern Gulf where it does not attack by land into Kuwait or across the Saudi border. The only exception might involve support of a coup or uprising, as when Iraqi volunteers operated in Southern Yemen in 1994. Any Iraqi attack on a southern Gulf state is also the contingency most likely to unite the United States and the southern Gulf states and to ensure European and other support for a strong U.$.-Southern Gulf response.
At the same time, there are three important wild cards affecting Iraqi military involvement in the Southern Gulf:
- As is the case with Iran, nothing can prevent Iraq from exploiting the fracture lines within and between the southern Gulf states. Iraq has much less capacity than Iran to exploit the Shiite unrest in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but it might be able to exploit future confrontations between Bahrain and Qatar and Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
- The United States would face serious problems in responding to any change of government in a southern Gulf state that resulted in a pro-Arab/pro-Iraqi regime and which sought Iraqi military advice or an Iraqi military presence. The United States cannot save a Gulf regime from its own people or (openly) endorse such action by other southern Gulf countries.
- Iraq is making enough progress in creeping proliferation that the United States and the southern Gulf states must reach some measure of agreement on taking suitable counter measures. A power vacuum in which Iraq proliferates, the southern Gulf states grow steadily more vulnerable, and U.S. resolve seems progressively more questionable, could give Iraq far more capability to directly or indirectly intervene in southern Gulf affairs.
WARS AGAINST ISRAEL
At least in the near-term, Iraq is so weak that it seems unlikely to directly provoke Israel by doing anything more than sending limited forces to Jordan or Syria if another major conflict should somehow take place between Israel and its key neighbors. Iraq could move a corps-size force into Jordan or Syria within a matter of days, although it would take weeks to give it the substantial capability needed to sustain itself in intensive combat. It could also deploy air units, although it does not have the ability to operate within the Jordanian or Syrian C4 I/BM and identification of friend or foe (IFF) system. Improving this situation requires the extensive rebuilding of Iraq's military capabilities, and joint exercises with Jordan and/or Syria.
Until recently, such a prospect seemed very doubtful. Jordan has made peace with Israel, and King Hussein actively supported Iraqi opposition movements in 1994-96. Syria fought against Iraq in the Gulf War, and President Hafiz al-Asad has long been a bitter rival of Saddam Hussein. The deterioration of the Arab-Israel peace process in 1996-97, however, led Syria to take a progressively harder line towards Israel and to reach out for new allies. At the same time, Iraq's search to end sanctions and break out of its containment led it to approach Syria. Iraq and Syria began to hold serious meetings for the first time in half a decade; The border was opened for limited traffic and key Iraqi papers like Babel began to call for Iraqi-Syrian military cooperation as a "useful action to all Arabs" and for Iraq and Syria to "resume diplomatic ties."
It seems unlikely that such conflicts will take place involving Egypt or Jordan as long as President Mubarak, King Hussein, or any other moderate leaders remain in power. Asad has shown little interest in taking such risks and remains hostile to Saddam Hussein. Iraq must also realize that it is extremely unlikely that Israel will show restraint in any future missile war, and would probably escalate to the use of nuclear weapons if Iraq made any attributable use of WMD against Israel's civilian population or military forces.
TURKEY AND THE KURDS
Iraq is more likely to seek a tacit or open alliance with Turkey against the Kurds than a military confrontation. There are, however, two possibilities for conflict. One is a future Iraqi-Turkish "alliance" in the form of coordinated operations against the Kurds in the northern border area. This would offer Turkey the prospect of, denying its rebel Kurdish factions sanctuary and bases in the Iraqi border area, and offer Iraq both support in suppressing its Kurds and the prospect that Turkey would cease its raids across the border. Both nations have a strong incentive to secure the area in order to allow them to improve trade and the security of Iraq's pipeline through Turkey.
It is also possible, however, that Turkey's constant incursions into Iraq's border area could trigger some kind of low-level fighting if Iraq's military forces should reoccupy the Kurdish security zone. Iraqi senior officials have increasingly protested Turkey's military actions in Iraq and its establishment of a "security" zone inside Iraq to halt Kurdish attacks on Turkey: Many senior Iraqi officials also seem to fear that Turkey might still attempt to annex some part of northern Iraq, including some of the oil fields in the area. These fears of Turkish ambitions are almost certainly exaggerated, but they are still very real.
Unlike Iran, Iraq has never demonstrated much capability to conduct "proxy wars" by training, arming and funding Arab extremist movements. Iraq does sponsor some extremist and terrorist groups, but the end result has done little for Iraq. Iraq also lacks Iran's bases, training centers, staging facilities in other countries, and the political support of third nations like Sudan and Syria, which are close to the scene of such proxy conflicts. Similarly, Iraq can only hope to win proxy wars fought against vulnerable governments. Attempts to fight such wars will have little impact on a successful Arab-Israeli peace settlement, or in sustaining civil conflict in the face of a government that demonstrates a capacity to govern and deal with its social problems.
At the same time, the failure of the peace process and of secular regimes may make Iraq's use of proxy wars more successful in the future. So would the creation of a radical Arab regime in Jordan, Egypt or Syria that might tum to Iraq for support. Iraq also has a strong revanchist motive to use proxy warfare against Israel, Saudi Arabia and the U.S.
UNCONVENTIONAL OFFENSIVE CONFLICTS
Similarly, Iraq may seek to improve its capabilities for unconventional warfare, including the use of chemical and biological weapons. The practical problem will be to find a place and contingency for exploiting such capabilities that offer more return than using proxies, and that involve an acceptable level of risk. In broad terms, there do not seem to be any current contingencies where Iraq can achieve major gains by using unconventional military forces in offensive warfare. The closest case seems to be Turkey's struggle with its Kurds. But Turkey is an extraordinarily dangerous opponent for Iraq to provoke, and any Iraqi aid to Turkey's Kurds would present further problems in Iraq's efforts to control its own Kurds.
The key wild cards affecting this set of contingencies are Iraq's willingness to take the risk of using its unconventional forces and alienating other states, the uncertain value of such adventures, and the willingness of other states and movements to accept such Iraqi support and the political price tag that would come with it. This situation might change if
- Iraq could send volunteers to Lebanon and Syria under circumstances where such conflicts had broad Arab support, and Israel was sufficiently preoccupied with other threats that it could not retaliate;
- Actively supporting some opposition force in Iran appeared to be a safe way of limiting the Iranian threat or ending Iranian support for anti-Iraqi movements;
- Supporting an alienated Yemen offered Iraq a low-cost way of using unconventional forces to threaten or put pressure on Saudi Arabia;
- Supporting some movement in Turkey seemed likely to gain Iraq broader support there;
- A civil conflict took place in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia.
None of these contingencies now seem likely. At the same time, the risks of Iraq's using its unconventional warfare capabilities should not be discounted. If nothing else, Iraq might act in a spoiler role, attempting to deny some other nation influence even if Iraq could not make clear strategic gains on its own.
THE DEFENSE OF IRAQ
The previous contingencies assume that Iraq will take offensive action. If it does, it may well be confronted with a U.S.-led attack. If an attack were confined to naval and coastal targets, particularly those Iraqi military capabilities that potentially threaten Gulf shipping, there is little Iraq could do other than try to ride it out by dispersing and hiding its smaller boats, anti-ship missiles, etc. If a U.S.-led attack includes strategic conventional missile strikes and bombings, there is equally little Iraq can do other than escalate to using WMD in ways that are more likely to end in increasing the risk and damage to Iraq than to deter or damage U.S. forces. Iraq can, however, respond over time with terrorism, unconventional warfare and proxy wars.
Any U.S. use of amphibious and land warfare would be considerably more difficult. Iraq can probably mount a significant defense of its coastline and islands. It is impossible to dismiss a popular Shiite or Kurdish uprising in support of an outside attack, but the most likely response would be that Iraq's population would unite or remain passive while U.S. or Coalition troops were forced to advance over water barriers and through built-up areas.
The Iraqi Army might collapse in the face of such an assault, but the Republican Guards are more likely to dig in and defend from positions co-located with Iraq's civil population, which would limit the ability to exploit air power. Attacks on Iraqi territory that went beyond a punitive raid might be costly.
A U.S.-led coalition could probably defeat Iraq's forces but would have to be at least corps-level in size. Occupying Iraq would be impractical without massive land forces of several corps. Further, Iraq's use of terrorism and WMD would be much easier to justify politically in a defensive conflict than an offensive one. Such outside attacks would probably end in futility. and in creating an even more revanchist Iraq.
EXPLOITING "WARS OF INTIMIDATION"
The previous contingencies assume that Iraq's strength will be determined largely by the war-fighting capabilities of its military forces. Iraq may, however, be able to achieve some of its objectives through intimidation and/or direct and indirect threats. Iraq's ability to provide such intimidation is now very limited but will improve steadily once U.N. sanctions are lifted. In many cases, Iraq's neighbors may be willing to increasingly accommodate Iran to some degree. This is particularly true of those states which see Iran as a more serious threat - like Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the UAE.
Much will depend upon regional perceptions of the long-term resolve of the United States, the ability of the southern Gulf states to avoid major divisions and to show they will support a firm U.S. response to Iraq, even at some risk. Much will also depend on the ability of Iraq's leadership to set achievable demands and avoid open confrontation. In broad terms, it seems likely that Iraq's ability to intimidate will slowly improve over time, but there is no way to predict how quickly or by how much.
IRAN, IRAQ, AND WMD
It is possible to conduct endless debates over the seriousness of Iran's efforts to proliferate and Iraq's potential success in retaining some of the capabilities it possessed at the time of the Gulf War, developing a covert break-out capability in spite of UNSCOM and the IAEA, and rearming once sanctions are lifted.
IRANIAN USE OF WMD
Iran's efforts to acquire chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons - and suitable long-range strike systems - do not necessarily change Iran's contingency capabilities. At the same time, such weapons do give Iran a post-Gulf War edge over Iraq. They also inevitably affect U.S., British, Israeli and southern Gulf perceptions of the risks inherent in engaging Iran, refusing its demands, and dealing with Iranian escalation and/or retaliation. It seems unlikely that Iran's "creeping proliferation" will reach the point in the near-term where Iran's capabilities are great enough to change perceptions of risk to the point where they would limit or paralyze outside military action. Further, it seems unlikely that Iran can continue to build up its capabilities without provoking even stronger U.S. counter proliferation programs, including retaliatory-strike capabilities. The same is true of a response from Iraq and the southern Gulf states. As a result, Iran's "creeping proliferation" may end simply in provoking a "creeping arms race."
Arms races do not, however, always bring deterrence and stability. Four further wild cards deserve special attention:
- A successful Iranian attempt to buy significant amounts of weapons grade material;
- A change in the U.S. and regional perception of biological weapons;
- Iraq's finding a way to end U.N. sanctions and/or revealing a substantial break-out capability of its own;
- Iran's using such weapons through proxies or in covert attacks with some degree of plausible deniability.
IRAQ'S USE OF WMD
Iraq's present holdings of chemical and biological weapons are so limited that they do not constrain U.S. freedom of action or intimidate its neighbors. Also, Iran now has a significant lead over Iraq. Nevertheless, Iraq's possession of such weapons inevitably affects U.S., British, Israeli and southern Gulf perceptions of the risks inherent in attacking Iraq.
It seems unlikely that in the near term Iraq can reach the point where its capabilities are great enough to change U.S., British, Israeli and/or southern Gulf perceptions of the risk to them of military action. Further, it seems unlikely that Iraq can continue to build up its capabilities without provoking strong U.S. counter proliferation programs, including retaliatory-strike capabilities. The same is true of a response by Iran and the southern Gulf states. As a result, Iraq's acquisition of WMD may end simply in provoking an arms race even when U.N. sanctions are lifted.
Once again, however, arms races scarcely ever end in deterrence and stability. As is the case with Iran, several wild cards deserve special attention:
- A successful Iraqi attempt to buy significant amounts of weapons-grade material. This could allow Iraq to achieve a nuclear break-out capability in a matter of months. Both the United States and the region would find it much harder to adjust to such an Iraqi effort than to the slow development of nuclear weapons by creating fissile material. It seems likely that the United States could deal with the situation by extending a nuclear umbrella over the Gulf, but even so, the southern Gulf states might be far more responsive to Iraqi pressure and intimidation. Most, after all, are so small that they are virtually "one bomb states."
- A change in the U.S. and regional perception of biological weapons. Biological weapons are now largely perceived as unproven systems of uncertain lethality. Regardless of their technical capabilities, they have little of the political impact of nuclear weapons. Iraq might, however, conduct live-animal tests to demonstrate that its biological weapons have near-nuclear lethality, or some other power might demonstrate their effectiveness in another conflict. The successful mass testing or use of biological weapons might produce a rapid paradigm shift in the perceived importance of such weapons.
- Iraq might break out of U.N. sanctions and reveal a more substantial capability than now seems likely. Paradoxically, such an Iraqi capability would help to legitimize Iran's and Israel's nuclear, biological, and chemical programs and the escalation to the use of such weapons.
- Iraq might use such weapons through proxies or in covert attacks with some degree of plausible deniability. Terrorism and unconventional warfare would be far more intimidating if they made use of WMD.
THE PROBLEM OF TERRORISM
It is often difficult to distinguish terrorism from unconventional or proxy warfare, and one person's "terrorist" is another person's "freedom fighter." Repressive regimes create their own violent opposition through mistreatment of minorities, repression and economic failures. These pressures interact in the Gulf with the economic costs of war and revolution and with a broad failure to offer Gulf youth the education, job opportunities, and social role necessary to integrate into society one of the world's youngest and most rapidly growing populations. The "rentier" or welfare character of southern Gulf regimes and economies is rapidly becoming unaffordable, and Islamic extremism is often a natural refuge.
This is likely to pose at least a low level continuing threat to Western power projection forces in the Gulf as the natural proxies for the regime. This problem is likely to be compounded by the dismal quality of the efforts of southern Gulf regimes to explain to their people either their own security policies or the reasons for the U.S. and Western presence. At another level, those dispossessed and discriminated against are likely to use violence directly against their regimes and become the natural proxies of Iran and Iraq. This is to be expected where royal families deny the legitimacy of grievances, blame the problem on other states, and/or fail to respond to demands for broader political participation.
These threats will be serious only if southern Gulf regimes consistently attempt to Jive in a world of patriarchal illusions. There will be many bombings and killings in the years to come, but they should be as containable as those in other parts of the world if regimes transform their good intentions regarding economic and social reform into actions, and communicate more effectively with their own people. As bad as future Al Khobars may be, they will only be fatal to Gulf security if the Gulf's problems are allowed to escalate out of control, something that currently seems improbable.
The wild card is the possible use of WMD. Iran and Iraq have the option of exploiting a wide range of unconventional delivery methods that are far less expensive, difficult and detectable than most of the previous delivery systems. In addition, Iraq and Iran may be able to use other radical nations or groups that either sympathize with them or would strike against Iraq's and Iran's enemies for their own reasons.
The official attitude toward the terrorism of Iraq and Iran is the usual one of denial. Further, their efforts may well be improvised and reactive - suddenly escalating the scale of the use of unconventional warfare/terrorism in reaction to a given contingency or the failure of their military forces. This makes any effort to characterize their use of such delivery methods purely speculative.
What is clear is that such attacks are technically feasible and could offer Iran and Iraq significant advantages in a wide range of scenarios, many of which may seem to borrow plots from bad spy novels and science fiction, but a number of the scenarios are at least technically possible. These scenarios also illustrate the fact that Iraq does not need sophisticated military delivery systems or highly lethal WMD, but can mix terrorism with elements of covert action and deniability.
The danger of such scenarios is that they tend to overstate Iran's and Iraq's willingness tum to extreme forms of terror, the readiness of proxies to risk dying, and Iran's and Iraq's ability to undetectably execute complex attacks. At the same time, such scenarios are not difficult to carry out, and only a few require large numbers of people and complex technical activity. The actions of Aum Shinrikyo have already shown that it can be extremely difficult to evaluate the level of extremism and capability for sophisticated action by a given group until it has committed at least one act of terror. The organizational structure used by the violent elements of most Middle Eastern extremist groups lends itself to the creation of cells with different and unpredictable commitments to violence, while the loose and informal chain of contacts between extremist movements and radical governments creates the possibility of random or unpredictable transfers of technology or weapons. There are many possibilities and no clear probabilities.