Iran Has Validated its Own “Competition Phase” Concept of War: Why It Matters
by Major J.A. Lyons
Picture an empty room with a parquet wooden floor. On the floor before you sits a domino, behind that one domino sit two, behind those two sit a row of four, beyond that eight, so on and so on. In various YouTube videos one can watch as someone trips the first domino of a uniquely intricate design. Once initiated, a cascading pattern takes form as row, after row of dominoes fall behind it. Whether United States strategists recognized it for what it was at the time or not, Iran initiated its first domino in May of 2019 when it formally withdrew from any adherence to the Obama Administration Nuclear deal, and slowly the intricate design pattern of its response took form as the summer months have shifted into fall and winter. Throughout the summer of 2019 the United States failed to recognize or compete strategically at regionalized power competition.
Leading up to the United Nations General Assembly Iran conducted multiple tactical military actions against regional United States partners that culminated with an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) attack on the Saudi Aramco refinery located in Buqyaq, Saudi Arabia on 14 September 2019. The attack resulted in the loss of an estimated 5% of the world’s oil production.[i] Iran executed a tactical action leveraging UAS to achieve a global impact while not overtly triggering any countries threshold to move into direct kinetic conflict with the Regime. The attack showcased regional power competition to affect global markets, and to influence United States partners in effort to reduce United States imposed sanctions.
Iran began a deliberate campaign of tactical attacks following its withdrawal from the Obama Administration’s nuclear deal. Upon Iran’s withdrawal, the United States responded with diplomatic and economic sanctions, leveraging two of its four elements of national power. Because of the 14 September 2019 attack, Iran forced the United States to utilize its third element of national power its military at the formal request of the Kingdom to act as an escalated deterrence measure against future oil refinery attacks.
One must first understand how United States doctrine and current concepts define and visualize phases of conflict. Joint Publication (JP) 5-0 defines the shape and seize phases of conflict and Field Manual (FM) 3-0 Operations defines the Army’s strategic roles in relationship to these joint phases. The Multi-Domain Battle Concept version 1.0 defines competition as a Phase before or occurring concurrently during the shape phase stating:
“In competition, U.S. forces actively campaign to advance or defend national interests without the large-scale violence that characterizes armed conflict. Although the idea of competition is not new, the current and future operating environments require a holistic approach to campaigning that links activities short of armed conflict with the execution of armed conflict. Peer adversaries compete to separate alliances and defeat partners below the threshold of armed conflict and challenge the traditional metrics of deterrence by conducting operations that make unclear the distinctions between peace and war.”[ii]
Mental models of war found within articles from the Modern Warfare Institute (MWI) assist readers to visualize the Competition/ Deter/ Conflict continuum.[iii] This model was developed by General David Perkins in his article “Multi-Domain Battle: The Advent of Twenty First Century War.”[iv] Like a gas knob on an outdoor grill, Iran has demonstrated its ability in dialing up and down at will the intensity of their conflict, leveraging tactical actions following a strategic decision to reinforce their position. Concurrently, Iran manages their Information Operations (IO) campaign well enough to ensure that the Regime never trips any threshold to initiate the conflict phase of war.
As the multi-domain concept defines, Iran has taken a holistic approach to hybrid style warfare; employing cyber-attacks, Information Operations, kinetic rocket and UAS attacks via Yemeni, proxy forces trained by its Quds forces. This remains in effort to compete effectively for regional hegemony. Iran is very publically executing operations across multiple domains (Information, Cyber, Air, Land, and Sea) to defeat regional competitors and a lack of unified United States strategy. This is having the secondary effect of allowing the Regime to maneuver itself to a better position for the negotiation of the reduction in sanctions following their pull out of the nuclear deal.
Timeline of integrated actions to achieve results:
In response to the final attack on 14 September 2019, the United States announced a tiered deterrent deployment approach. Currently the United States has deployed an additional Patriot Battery with five supplemental Sentinel radars. This deployment does have a few positive effects for the United States. It reinforces United States diplomatic positions with regional partners displaying commitment. It assists tactical units on the ground to bolster defenses. However the United States may have played a few cards too soon. Iran is a shrewd poker player that keeps their cards close to the chest and has created a situation that has the United States on the horns of a tactical dilemma.
United States actions exposed seams and flanks that it doesn’t regularly contend in:
Within 14 days of the attack on Saudi Arabia the United States imposed sanctions on Iran’s central bank, announced a deployment to support the Kingdom placing United States forces in harm’s way, and conducted a “Jump Tactical Operations Center (TOC) Drill” from one of its forward most operations centers.[v] Although the United States has attempted to provide a positive narrative to these actions to United States and foreign observers, strategically the United States is playing directly into Iran’s hands as it attempts pressure Iraq into voting the United States out of the Iraq area of operations.
By conducting a jump TOC exercise the United States is showcasing its ability to command and control its operations from afar, but as a secondary effect has openly re- defined its battlefield geometry to the enemy. In the combined “Defining Multi-Domain Battle” article between the United States Army and Israeli Defense Force (IDF) Dado Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, the authors describe that in the new era of multiple domains employing new capabilities, also creates new gaps, seams and flanks which are then exposed to the enemy by using a new capability. At the onset of their employment, most new capabilities haven’t necessarily been contested because of the assumed United States superiority across most domains. [vi]
Within the United States frame work or geometry of the battlefield, United States Air Defense assets sit within the Joint Security Area, deep in the rear of the forward line of troops (FLOT) to protect critical assets.[vii] In this case the Air Operations Center (AOC) capability was shut down forward and withdrawn to the Continental United States’ (CONUS) Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina. Stars and Stripes contends that by building redundancy in its systems and demonstrating this capability the United States devalued its forward Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Al Udeid, Qatar Air Force Base as a future Iranian target while also exercising capability. It negates this point by further quoting unnamed analysts that state “there is little guarantee that it (Al Udeid) could be defended.”
Further compounding the situation for a forward base, Task and Purpose released an article entitled “The Pentagon moved CENTCOM to South Carolina for a day because its Forward HQ is a ‘sitting duck’ for Iranian attack,” released 30 September[viii]. It quotes an unnamed NATO attaché that “”Iran being able to hit the oil facilities without being seen or intercepted reinforced what has always been a concern: The Americans have a huge amount of military capability in the gulf, but the command and control of that capability is a sitting duck for the Iranians in the case of a regional conflict.”
Reasonable logic following these broadly broadcasted actions showcase that the United States is already planning to lose a critical forward asset and has therefore validated a viable enemy Course of Action (COA) should it be struck and become untenable. With Iran’s proven ability to combine Special Operations Forces (SOF) capability to infiltrate, coupled with the ability to launch medium range ballistic missiles and a mix of armed UAS, Iran can stage a hybrid style attack against a forward United States asset.
The United States failed to control its IO theme and message strongly enough. Leaders openly orchestrated the United States response to the CAOC position becoming untenable; furthermore it publically displayed an exploitable flank. Should an Air Operations Center get attacked and the United States is forced to withdrawal its command and control to other Joint intra theater areas, it will likely negatively impact the strategic relationship with the Qataris. Upon any United States withdrawal within this volatile area while facing a regional power it will have the secondary effect of weakening other strategic United States relationships in the AOR.
By extending the battlefield geometry all the way to the United States it inadvertently exposed a digital flank. Logically, Iran cannot kinetically strike the United States this deep with precision fires. Therefore, it would have to rely upon non-kinetic fires, IO, or hybrid stateside attacks to reduce Shaw’s capability. In effect, it made a stateside Air Force Base (AFB) a target for Iranian attack. Should Iran not be capable of orchestrating an attack on a stateside United States Air Force Base, it will have to contend with the United States digitally within the cyber realm and through the information environment in order to disrupt operations. Aware now of this digital flank, Iran may begin reconnaissance into United States digital command and control systems both forward and stateside. They will focus on United States communications for weak points to later exploit in the future to disrupt United States command and control resulting in catastrophic risk to United States forces.
The Wrong type of deterrent for the wrong type of threat:
Multiple open source reports state that up to twenty Iranian drones or cruise missiles were the tool employed by the Regime to kinetically strike the Saudi Aramco refineries.[ix] Swarming UAS tactics alone are worthy of a case study focusing on how a state power is using a timed coordinated convergence point to achieve tactical overmatch. In response to a low altitude attack, the United States reinforced the Kingdom with a High Altitude threat weapon system, their Patriots. Unclassified technical capabilities and limitations can be pulled from various internet sources to verify what threat the Patriot system is optimized to defeat.[x] The United States took a strategic action, committing strategic weapon systems to face a tactical threat; this is a mismatch of action and desired effect unless coupled with point defense systems like the Avenger which would be tied into the deployed sentinel radars.
To the casual observer when looking at Iran’s most dangerous courses of action (COA) versus most likely courses of action, the United States is more optimally postured in USCENTCOM for the adversary’s most dangerous COA. The most dangerous being a ballistic missile attack either long or medium range, launched from Iran or its proxies on United States or partner assets. The current deterrence package does not deter the enemies most likely COA.
Iran had success in removing itself from the nuclear deal. It employed tactical maritime attacks in the Gulf, land based proxy attacks in Saudi Arabia from Yemen and successfully used swarming techniques in the Arabian Peninsula (AP) airspace with up to 20 UAS that weren’t defeated. Logically, the enemy will stick with what works until it’s successfully countered. Iran’s exploitation of hybrid style warfare hasn’t just worked, but it has worked so well they are able to thread their state information operations through all internal messages and state media. This allowed the Regime to showcase its success and leverage it to dial their threat back down using the U.N. General Assembly and U.N. week in 2019 to sue for peace even after all the open hostilities it had performed.
Iran used the U.N. General Assembly remarks as the public off ramp to deescalate world leaders, dial back the knob and allow them time to consolidate their gains. Iran proved they can openly employ state capabilities against United States partners to defeat them below the threshold of armed conflict and remain there. This tactic was later seen in a more perfected state following its attacks on the United States air bases in Iraq on 7 JAN 2020, both striking tactically, then publishing open messages that the Regime was complete in its actions and deescalating the situation.
Over the course of the summer of 2019, Iran validated its own version of competition phase warfare. It dialed up and back the conflict continuum at will, using tactical actions to achieve strategic effects and reinforce Regime end states. It successfully removed itself from the Obama Administrations nuclear deal, made several unanswered attacks across multiple domains using hybrid style tactics escalating the situation and culminating in a new style of air attack that was not contested, reducing the world’s oil production by 5%. Iran used these actions combined with state run media to project its version of the truth and showcase its power to its people reinforcing the perception of the regimes strength as a regional power. It successfully escalated the regional kinetic conflict and then used the United Nations week to deescalate the situation in public all while never crossing the United States or partner nations threshold for conflict. This successful summer run of competition phase warfare had additional benefits in placing the United States and its partners on the horns of multiple tactical dilemmas in how and where to defend its airspace, while also exposing tactical, and strategic flanks in the United States force posture. This summer time trial run then set conditions and outlined the procedures it adhered to following the 7 JAN 2020 attacks on United States forces in Iraq.
The Regime has outpaced the United States strategy for the area, and forced it to over commit strategic assets to partner nations. Summer time actions, followed by the January attacks have validated this techniques use, and be deescalating publicly allowed it to consolidate its gains. This is a major issue for United States strategists, with no direct deterrent to the strategy publicly being offered.
Major Joshua A. Lyons is a graduate of Indiana University Class of 06’ where he was commissioned as a United States Army Air Defense Officer. He holds a Master’s in Military Operational Arts and Science from the United States Air Force Air Command Staff College. He serves as the Active Defense Chief at the Army Air Missile Defense Command level within the Combined Air Operations Center. He additionally served a three year tour as an Operational Advisor with the U.S. Army Asymmetric Warfare Group as a Troop Commander and the Group S-3. His other works include Defining Cross Domain Maneuver for the 21st Century, the U.S. Army Travel Awareness Handbook and multiple articles within the Small Arms Review and the Asymmetric Warfare Journal.
[i] The Guardian, accessed 30 September 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/sep/16/saudi-arabia-oil-attacks-everything-you-need-to-know
[ii] Multi-Domain Battle: Evolution of Combined Arms for the 21st Century, 2025-2040, Version 1.0, dated December 2017, page 2.
[iii] McCoy, Kelly, Competition, Conflict and Mental Models of War: What you need to know about Multi-Domain Battle, 26 January 2018, accessed 30 September 2019. https://mwi.usma.edu/competition-conflict-mental-models-war-need-know-multi-domain-battle/
[iv] GEN Perkins, David G. “Multi-Domain Battle The Advent of Twenty First Century War”, accessed 1 OCT 2019, https://www.armyupress.army.mil/Journals/Military-Review/English-Edition-Archives/November-December-2017/Multi-Domain-Battle-The-Advent-of-Twenty-First-Century-War/
[v] Stars and Stripes, accessed 30 September 2019, https://www.stripes.com/news/air-force/air-force-shifts-middle-east-command-center-from-qatar-to-south-carolina-1.601074?fbclid=IwAR3-MCl2Z8_Y1t39FprnD_69JNZ9mnoWem3mh6KlNaz7iScO46Z19cOXnoU
[vi] LTC Liebhaber, Ryan, MAJ Lyons, Joshua, Shmuel, Captain Lazar Berman, Defining Multi-Domain Battle, accessed 30 September 2019, https://www.translatetheweb.com/?from=&to=en&ref=SERP&dl=en&rr=UC&a=https%3a%2f%2fwww.idf.il%2f%25D7%2590%25D7%25AA%25D7%25A8%25D7%2599%25D7%259D%2fdado-center%2fdado-center-journal%2f
[vii] Field Manual 3-0, Operations dated 6 December 2017, page 1-30. Figure 1-7.
[viii] Prothero, Mitch, The Pentagon moved CENTCOM to South Carolina for a day because its forward HQ is a ‘sitting duck’ for Iranian attacks” accessed 1 October 2019, https://taskandpurpose.com/centcom-al-udeid-south-carolina-iranthreat?utm_content=bufferb6372&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer&fbclid=IwAR0EmMLy2uSCmLZdYRcy7SaXiKh-fQFIJXB8_mV9eoDlxTNZP1rF9m-zfiA
[ix] New York Times, accessed 30 September 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/14/world/middleeast/saudi-arabia-refineries-drone-attack.html
[x] The Guardian, accessed 30 September 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/sep/16/trump-says-us-locked-and-loaded-after-saudi-arabia-oil-attack-as-crude-prices-soar-iran-aramco
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