That was the result of a war game conducted by our Defense Department in 2002 and reassessed in 2008, according to this NYT article. The key advantage of the unnamed attack force was asymmetric warfare using large numbers of cheap speedboats (like Iran's) and cruise missiles overwhelmed the Navy's ability to deal with all of them fast enough. From the article:
The United States and Iran have a history of conflicts in the strait — most recently in January 2008, when the Bush administration chastised Iran for a "provocative act" after five armed Iranian speedboats approached three American warships in international waters, then maneuvered aggressively as radio threats were issued that the American ships would be blown up. The confrontation ended without shots fired or injuries.
In 2002, a classified, $250 million Defense Department war game concluded that small, agile speedboats swarming a naval convoy could inflict devastating damage on more powerful warships. In that game, the Blue Team navy, representing the United States, lost 16 major warships — an aircraft carrier, cruisers and amphibious vessels — when they were sunk to the bottom of the Persian Gulf in an attack that included swarming tactics by enemy speedboats.
"The sheer numbers involved overloaded their ability, both mentally and electronically, to handle the attack," Lt. Gen. Paul K. Van Riper, a retired Marine Corps officer who served in the war game as commander of a Red Team force representing an unnamed Persian Gulf military, said in 2008, when the results of the war game were assessed again in light of Iranian naval actions at the time. "The whole thing was over in 5, maybe 10 minutes."
There seems to be a consensus that the US military could reopen the Straits of Hormuz to oil tankers, although it might take months to do so, but we would be at war with Iran with all that implies: Eliminating Iran's navy, air defenses, aircraft, and missiles; deciding whether to blockade Iranian oil exports and refined product imports and whether to interdict the shipping of neutral nations to/from Iran; how to deal with Iran's plentiful ground forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere; how to deal with assassinations and increased terrorism around the world; controlling Iran from the air for decades as we did the vastly smaller Iraq; deciding what degree of revenge is required by US domestic politics for the embarrassment of an initial naval defeat; etc. The US might be able in some sense to "win" such a war, but we could not control it.
Many say, and I agree with them, that the Iranians must surely understand that it would be a disaster for them. However, it is not rare for isolated dictators to miscalculate and/or do irrational things. Recall Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor and Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, for examples. The NYT article also highlights the risk that the Revolutionary Guards navy, which operates the speed boats and other forces, are "cowboys" and capable of "buffoonery." We could get into a war with Iran that its top leadership did not intend.
In any confrontation or negotiation, it is useful to make your adversary think you are crazy and therefore capable of grossly irrational and self-destructive acts. So for Iran to be engaging in brinksmanship and acting crazy is not a surprise, but I fear they may actually be crazy. And if they aren't yet, continued assassinations of Iran's political, military, and technological figures by Israel's Mossad may push them over the edge into popular or leadership irrationality and martyrdom.
I believe the US is better able to tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran than another war in the Middle East tinder box. We should be taking these risks of unintended war more seriously than I think we are, and not get too close to the edge. Iran is not China or Russia, but it's a much bigger adversary than Iraq, Afghanistan, or Vietnam, and we should not want to find out if we can handle Iran or at what cost.
If Israel were to involve the US without our knowledge and against our will by having Mossad agents pose as CIA agents or otherwise planting America's fingerprints on Mossad's Iranian operations, it wouldn't be the first time according to this report. H/t Christine. That Israel would do that in Iran is not only logical but probable.
The US government may be more worried about being dragged into a war with Iran than it is about being attacked by Iran, according to this WSJ article (h/t Christine), and that worry may be very well founded. The tenor of the story is that we can't control Israel, which may already have decided to make war on Iran, and we can't even prevent Israel from dragging us in with it. Some great power the US is!
"No nation from this region wants to take the U.S. on with conventional munitions," said a senior Navy official, who agreed to discuss the issue anonymously because of continuing international diplomacy relating to Iran. "The asymmetric weapon is the way to go, and mines are cheap, easily manufactured and, not unlike an IED, are tripped by an unsuspecting victim," he said.
Iran has threatened to flood the Gulf with thousands of mines, which Navy officials say could take a year or more to clear, hampering oil shipping and exposing ships to mine blasts in the meantime.
"It's a volume issue more than a technical challenge," Navy Lt. Cmdr. Wayne Liebold, the skipper of the mine-hunter USS Gladiator, told The Huffington Post in a phone interview from the Persian Gulf.
. . . .
"My concern is going out there and having to search a large volume of water with large quantities of mines," said Liebold, who has done three mine-hunting deployments in the Gulf. And until the Gulf is cleared of mines, danger lurks.
Hat tip to Chuck.
NYT reports that US Central Command war games this month found that a strike by Israel on Iran's nuclear facilities would be relatively ineffective but might draw an Iranian attack on US forces, which would require a US military response and likely have dire consequences across the region.
Some military specialists in the United States and in Israel who have assessed the potential ramifications of an Israeli attack believe that the last thing Iran would want is a full-scale war on its territory. Thus, they argue that Iran would not directly strike American military targets, whether warships in the Persian Gulf or bases in the region.
Their analysis, however, also includes the broad caveat that it is impossible to know the internal thinking of the senior Iranian leadership, and is informed by the awareness that even the most detailed war games cannot predict how nations and their leaders will react in the heat of conflict.
The Telegraph has a story here on Iran's "swarm attack" strategy and capabilities.