A debilitating cyber attack against Iran reportedly ordered by the US president as military tension spiked late last week is a clear example of the way modern warfare is changing.
The cyber attack was aimed at disabling Tehran’s missile systems ahead of air strikes against three unnamed targets, which Donald Trump called off at the last-minute.
Iranian officials did not react to the cyber attack claims reported by US media on Sunday, but such tactics would underline how any conflict with Iran is unlikely to take the form of previous American-led military interventions in the Middle East.
“Overthrowing the Iranian regime through military force as the US did in Iraq and Afghanistan is completely off the table,” said Seth Jones, political scientist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank. “There is no appetite for that from Trump or any of his cabinet.”
Instead, targeted strikes against Iranian missile batteries and radar targets showed the US would follow a similar playbook to air strikes on Syria in 2017 and 2018, and missile attacks on radar sites operated by Iran-aligned Houthi forces in 2016.
Overthrowing the Iranian regime through military force as the US did in Iraq and Afghanistan is completely off the table. There is no appetite for that from Trump or any of his cabinet
“Look at the options the US has taken against Syria and in Yemen,” said Henry Boyd, analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank. “These could include operative strikes against radar sites — something that indicates the Americans can and will hold the Iranians responsible for their actions and that they can inflict damage on the Iranian military.”
The US has deployed cyber attacks against Iran before. Along with Israel it was widely believed to be behind the Stuxnet computer virus that attacked and destroyed centrifuges at an uranium enrichment facility at Iran’s Natanz nuclear site.
Yet one challenge with using cyber attack against Iran’s military targets would be in identifying their effectiveness, said Mr Jones. “It [also] does not have the same sort of response publicly that a more direct [military] response would have done,” he added.
The question for military analysts is whether such tactics can deliver the intended message to the leadership in Tehran and alleviate the pressure in a rapidly escalating crisis in the Gulf.
Tension remains high following a series of incidents that have threatened to unleash a new wave of instability, including the downing of a $130m US surveillance drone and attacks on tankers in the Straits of Hormuz that the Americans have blamed on Iran.
Over the past two months the Pentagon has deployed the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and its strike fleet, consisting of up to 70 attack aircraft, and at least three Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers to the area.
It has also sent B52 bombers to its air base in nearby Qatar and has F35A and F15 fighter jets based in the United Arab Emirates. In addition, the US navy has its fifth fleet in Bahrain and marines from the 22nd expeditionary unit are stationed aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge.
Yet such traditional military force may be of limited use against an opponent that will seek to use its proxy forces and powerful ballistic missile capabilities, rather than enter a head-on land war against US forces.
The IISS’s annual analysis of global armed forces concludes that Iran’s 125,000-strong Islamic Revolutionary Guards exerted “significant military influence via a range of regional allies and proxies” including the Houthi rebels in Yemen and Hizbollah in Lebanon. The risk for the US is that by attacking military targets in Iran, it provokes the Revolutionary Guards and its allies to hit US interests in the region, or Israel.
“If you consider where Iran has placed its money since the 1980s, it has not been in building strong, conventional forces,” said Mr Jones. “Their army, air force and navy are relatively weak and not well funded,” he added citing years of US sanctions and budget cuts.
According to a research paper by the Brookings Institution published this year, Iran has an arsenal of 15 different types of ballistic missile with ranges from 200km to 6000km. The country also has a new anti-ship missile which it fired from a submarine in tests in February.
Faced with such threats, analysts said the US may have to constrain itself to limited “kinetic” responses, such as air strikes, more strategic cyber attacks, or economic force. “My sense of this at the moment is that the US is more willing to fight this through sanctions, not even indirect military force,” said Mr Jones.
Analysts also noted that Iran had stepped up its offensive cyber capabilities. Cybersecurity experts have blamed Iran for a big cyber attack in 2012 against Saudi Arabian companies using a virus known as Shamoon. A similar attack was launched last year, experts say.
“There is no question that there has been an increase in Iranian cyber activity,” said Christopher Krebs, director of the Department for Homeland Security’s cyber security agency in comments reported by US media over the weekend. “Iranian actors and their proxies are not just your garden variety run-of-the-mill data thieves. These are the guys that come in and they burn the house down.”
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