5963118515_df446c99b6_bThere’s a strange construction project underway in the Persian Gulf. Iran is building a two-third size replica of a US Nimitz-class aircraft carrier in a shipyard near Bandar Abbas. The carrier will have no planes, no crew, no weapons. Nobody knows why the Iranians are building it. It seems to have no sane military purpose, but that’s the only feature it shares with “real” aircraft carriers. (A little anti-carrier humor there, folks.)

The Iranians have been less than frank about what it’s all about. At first they said the fake carrier was just a prop for a film. If so, it was a very, very big prop. It was hard to say whether they were trolling us with that line. Maybe the hardliners were actually doing what they said—building a two-thirds scale model of a US carrier just to keep the home folks angry at the Great Satan and in the process keep those pesky moderates out of power.

More recently, though, an Iranian admiral gave a more reasonable explanation:

 “We practice… on replica aircraft carriers because sinking and destroying US warships has, is and will be on our agenda.”

That’s pretty straightforward, and not particularly surprising, or scary. But the U.S. Navy press staff spreading this story spun it as a mystery, and of course the stateside press cooperated with their usual alacrity. USA Today ran with the headline “Iranians Up to ‘No Good’ with US Carrier Mockup,” quoting a congressman named Eliot Engel, who said, “It’s some kind of a ruse, and whatever they’re up to, it’s no good.”

Engel had a brilliant reason for his “no good” intuition: “We don’t really know what [the carrier mockup] means, but I for sure don’t trust the Iranians.” This is what logicians call the “Ad Tehranem” argument, and it generally works, because everybody who’s anybody in US foreign policy is phobic on Iran. And by “everybody” I mean two countries: Saudi Arabia and Israel. They may have their little squabbles about religion, but they’re like an old married couple when it comes to Iran: They hate it even more than they hate each other.

Representative Engel is not a very bright guy—he’s a Hunter College grad, which doesn’t win you a lot of respect around NYC, and his pre-Congress career was as a public-school guidance counselor, a job where you’d consider hanging yourself by your cheap tie several times a week.

But the man does have a point. When the Islamic Republic of Iran starts spending tax money building hollow mockups of America’s most expensive aircraft carriers, you have to wonder what’s going on. Ever since the Greeks started keeping the Trojans awake at night with hammers and saws, knocking up that giant horse that they insisted was just a going-away present, people have been nervous about XL versions of sacred images.

And to the US Navy, aircraft carriers are sacred—as huge, expensive, gaudy, and useless as any cathedral, mosque, or temple ever built. That’s one reason the US Defense lobby is so easily scared by this Trojan Carrier: They know that aircraft carriers are the most inviting and helpless naval targets since those Spanish galleons crammed with Peruvian gold made their last voyage.

The Persian Gulf is a body of water specifically shaped to exploit carriers’ vulnerability. It’s fitting that one of the carriers currently deployed to the Gulf is the USS George H. W. Bush, because these carriers will make a suitable memorial to the Bush Dynasty’s habit of rolling the dice one too many times in the wrong part of the world.

I live on the shores of the Gulf, and when I walk along Fahaheel Beach in the evening when it’s a little cooler, I’m always surprised by how small and shallow it is. People wade and quasi-swim out a long way, women in their black Islamic swimming togs, others in more standard Western suits—and even the kids can stand up in the water way offshore. Brave kids; I’m not going into that water, not til I know a little more about Kuwait’s sewage-disposal arrangements; but those kids standing up a hundred yards offshore give you an idea what a silted-up, shallow body of water this is.

The huge tankers have to stick to a few channels way offshore, because the Gulf has been silting up ever since Ur was a seaport, 5000 years ago. Back then, Ur was at the mouth of the Gulf; now, the ruins of Ur are 200 kilometers inland, near the city of Nasiriyah.

No place to hide vertically either, because the Gulf has an average depth of only 50 meters. And narrow, only 230 miles at its widest point and cinching up to 21 miles at the chokepoint, the Strait of Hormuz. All in all, a perfect death-trap for a blue-water naval force.

If you look out from Fahaheel Beach, Bushehr—yeah, that Bushehr, where Iran is building that reactor, peaceable or otherwise—is about 200 km (125 miles) across the water. I won’t say I can see Iran from my house—I don’t have Palin’s eagle eye, and the air here is a solid, khaki substance that makes anything more than a mile away fade into the general beige.

But you can certainly feel the claustrophobic geography of the Gulf, walking along the beach. It’s a defender’s dream and a nightmare for an ocean-based navy like ours–the marine equivalent of a box canyon, the perfect ambush site that even rookie lieutenants know not to lead their platoons into. You send a few expendable scouts, maybe, but you don’t charge in with your heavy forces.

So naturally, the US Navy, with its usual wisdom and discretion, has assigned the Gulf to its 5th Fleet, a force so huge it’s divided into 11 Task Forces.

Some of these are useful, survivable weapons, like the submarine force. In fact, the 5th Fleet’s submarine task force could handle any possible war scenario perfectly well on its own. The USN has two kinds of sub in the Gulf: hunter-killer subs of the “Los Angeles” class and the real doomsday subs, Ohio-class models packed with Tomahawk cruise missiles ready to pop out of the sub’s back like the young of a Surinam Toad. These missiles are officially conventional, not nuclear, but the USN has a long history of being coy about which vessels are and aren’t nuclear-armed—so coy that New Zealand refused to let any US Navy ships enter its waters for decades, since USN refused to say which ones were carrying nukes.

Not that the 5th Fleet actually needs nukes on its ships. It’s a very safe bet that land-based American ICBMs have been assigned to every city and military base in Iran, with satellite-image based targeting refined to specify whether you want Ground Zero to be the front or back seat of a particular Iranian base commander’s car. But then the US military’s attitude is that you can’t have enough ordnance, so it’s very possible those 5th Fleet subs are carrying nuclear-, as well as conventionally-armed cruise missiles.

So you might wonder why the showpiece of the 5th Fleet isn’t subs, but aircraft carriers–specifically, the USS Nimitz, flagship of the Fleet’s main Strike Force, the same aircraft carrier the Iranians are making a mockup, if not a mockery, of.

The answer is an old naval cliché, “power projection.” Navies do a lot of things, and fighting wars is by far the least important—at least until the war actually begins. In peacetime, or quasi-peacetime, which is what you’d have to call the state of things in the Gulf at the moment, naval vessels “show the flag”—that is, make the paying customers feel better, and keep the little mobsters away from the tankers. That’s what big mobsters do: Keep the little mobsters away. Henry Hill explained it in Goodfellas: “All they got from Paulie was protection from other guys looking to rip them off. That’s what it’s all about.”

And that’s the real job of the US 5th Fleet out there in that hot, smoggy Gulf: Protection for the paying customers—Exxon and BP—against the “other guys”—the freelance pirates, big and small, especially the ones operating in the name of the Islamic Republic of Iran on the opposite shore.

For a job like that, you can’t just use submarines. They’re designed as “clandestine platforms,” in USN jargon. What you need to reassure the customers and intimidate the little mobsters is something huge that displaces about the same volume as a mid-size city. And that’s one of the reasons that carriers like the USS Nimitz are still blundering around the oceans, even though everyone in the loop knows they wouldn’t survive one day if the Iranians ever got serious about doing some power projection of their own in the Gulf.

It’s worth emphasizing this, because it’s something most naval war fans don’t or won’t realize: Power projection and effective naval weaponry are mutually exclusive, now that we have cheap, smart missiles in every military inventory. Power projection means big, gaudy surface vessels, and real effectiveness means small, hard-to-target weapons—subs and missiles. So you design a Navy that either looks good and discourages small gangsters, or one that can fight an all-out naval war—but not both.

The Iranians must know that, which makes me lean toward the idea that they’re not really trying to mimic American carriers. They wouldn’t need any carriers of their own to defeat the US Fifth Fleet. The problem with the US military right now is that nobody will play with us on our own terms. Nobody’s going to engage the US Air Force in massive dogfights, fighter to fighter—but they may very well pick off those hundred-million dollar fighters with shoulder-fired SAMs that cost a few thousand. And nobody—not even China—is really going to engage in a retro Battle of Midway, one carrier fleet vs. another. But they can, and will, use some of the very cheap and effective new anti-ship missiles against those carriers, which are weapons from a time when the wet old primate brain was the only effective computer in production.

The Iranians can destroy the 5th Fleet with nothing more than fishing boats, private planes, anti-ship missiles and a few patrol craft. That’s not a guess. It’s a fact, demonstrated at the expense of American taxpayers by our own forces. Back in the summer of 2002, the US armed forces staged Millenium Challenge 2001, the biggest and most expensive war game in history, in the Gulf. The scenario was a war against an unnamed “Red” country, but everyone knew that the red country in question was Iran. At a cost of $250 million, the US Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Army planned to showcase their new HLA (“High Level Architecture”) program, allowing complex logistical and tactical planning among all the services in a joint attack on the “Red” nation.

It was a good idea, emphasizing the network side of war which had been neglected by generations of admirals and generals more comfortable with old-school military maps than software. But something went badly wrong when this joint force sailed out on the simulated waters of the Gulf. It ran into an ornery Marine commander named Paul Van Riper. Van Riper had been given the lousy job of commanding the “Red” forces in the exercise. His job was basically to make the expected moves and lose. But Van Riper, known as a “very controversial individual”—polite Pentagon language for “asshole”– and a “good warfighter”—Pentagon for “born killer”–didn’t feel like taking a dive. Instead, he came up with a low-tech strategy that sank two thirds of the simulated US vessels in the Gulf. The admiral in charge of the exercise then “refloated” those vessels and went on with the exercise, as if they hadn’t been sent to the simulated silt at the bottom of the simulated Gulf.

What Van Riper did was simple—much too simple and low-tech to seem valid to the US brass, which was only interested in testing its new joint-attack software. Van Riper just tried to think of a way to destroy all those high-tech ships and aircraft as they did their perfectly-choreographed dance number off the “Red” coastline.

And he did. It was simple, and it was completely against the spirit, if not the letter, of the rules. In fact, General “Buck” Kernan, one of the people who planned the exercise, complained afterward that Van Riper “…really focused on the OPFOR [“Opposing Force,” i.e. “Red” force] and he didn’t want any additional information. [about the larger purpose of the exercise]” — in other words, Van Riper acted like a real enemy commander, rather than seeing the “big picture” in which his role was to throw a few telegraphed, easily-dodged punches and then go down.

And the man in charge of the exercise actually blamed Van Riper for thinking like a real enemy commander. That’s the sort of slack thinking that sends big, technically advanced fleets to the bottom of the world’s oceans, providing interesting dive sites for future generations but ending the lives of thousands of trusting sailors in the process.

To his credit, Van Riper didn’t want to dance the kata; he wanted to play it out full-contact MMA style—and just as you saw when fancy karate-trained “martial artists” went into the Octagon in the first-generation of MMA fights, it turned out that all their fancy moves were very, very vulnerable to less cinematic but more deadly forms of combat.

Van Riper exploited the civilian vs. military divide; instead of using only designated combat vessels, “Red” warships that sailed out in proper Navy gray, he teased the US ships in the narrow, shallow Gulf by crowding them. He had lowly civilian propeller planes buzzing US vessels that cost billions of dollars, and “Red” fishing trawlers sailing along beside the “Blue” American strike force—not doing anything openly hostile, just annoying and confusing the US commanders by getting in their way.

You have to understand that the US armed services always prefer to fight in an imaginary world where there are no civilians at all. That’s why their preferred testing grounds are in uninhabitable deserts. Like the old joke says, “These exercises are fantastic. When the day comes that we have to go to war against Utah, we’re really gonna kick ass.”

The Navy doesn’t need deserts. It has thousands of square miles of empty blue-water ocean to play around in with its beloved “over-the-horizon” weapons, designed to keep any threat from getting close enough to threaten its ships.

Add the fact that the Gulf is one of the most heavily-trafficked bodies of water in the world. When I go for my night walks along the beach, the lights of the tankers lined up waiting to load up on the local crude are so thick they look like a city on the water. Every day, at least 28 tankers come in or out of the Gulf.

But those huge tankers are fairly easy to track. The real problem is the swarm of private boats floating around on this little sea. Some are just pleasure craft; people are rich in many parts of the Gulf, and every night I see 32-foot Bayliners, boats my salmon-crazy friends would have died to own, chugging along the short. There are dozens more sitting on trailers in the dust beside every apartment building.

Then there are the fishing boats. That’s where the numbers really get out of hand. Iran has 1,500 miles of coastline along the Gulf (no matter what Mitt Romney might think) and there are fishing villages all along that coast, at least 3,500 of them by recent count.

Then there’s the air traffic. Dubai, the world’s 7th-busiest airport, sits on the Gulf as it turns north toward its narrowest point. And Dubai is getting busier all the time, with a 15% jump in air traffic in 2013. Qatar is finally getting its Doha Airport up to speed, Abu Dhabi is booming, Kuwait shuttles a huge volume of expat workers from the Subcontinent in and out—and they all board civilian jets that fly over the Gulf.

This is exactly the sort of environment the US Armed Forces hate, crammed with civilian traffic—on the water, in the air, driving along the shoreline. You can’t use your “Over-the-Horizon” weapons when the horizon is hidden by civilian craft.

And what if those civilian craft turn into offensive weapons? On September 11, 2001, America saw that civilian airliners were actually incredibly powerful weapons—flying incendiary bombs crammed with explosive fuel, traveling at hundreds of miles an hour. A weapon is anything that can be used as a weapon, and if you’re willing to use them, civilian passenger jets are one of the best.

So the US Navy is sailing around on a narrow, crowded body of water bordered for half its length by Iran. In a situation like that, commanders watching air traffic take off from the dozens of airports around the Gulf either have to ignore all those potential threats or act preemptively and start shooting down anything that might threaten their very expensive, vulnerable surface vessels.

Back in 1988 the USS Vincennes, an American guided missile cruiser near the Strait, decided to err on the side of caution—shoot first and apologize later, if at all.

The Vincennes, spotting an aircraft moving southwest from Iranian territory toward its position (which was inside Iran’s 12-mile limit), decided it was under attack and fired an anti-aircraft missile at an “Iranian F-14.” Except the plane shot down wasn’t an F-14. It was an Iran Air Airbus A300B2, your classic giant passenger jet, on its regular run—Iran Air Flight 655–from Bandar Abbas to Dubai. There were 290 people on board, including 71 children. There’s never been a clear explanation on why the Vincennes decided to shoot down a big lumbering passenger jet on the theory it was a two-seat, twin-engine fighter/bomber. The Navy handled the “accident” its usual way, handing out medals to everyone who’d messed up, covering up the mistake with glory. Vice President George H.W. Bush said, when asked about this “regrettable” incident, “I will never apologize for the United States of America, ever. I don’t care what the facts are.”

This was the Cheers era, you know? A bad time. Bad people. Bad jokes about beer. Even now, when I hear the theme music from Cheers, I get a depressed Reagan-era feeling.

Even though no one was disciplined for shooting down Flight 655, the incident left the Fifth Fleet more wary of firing at targets that might turn out to be civilian. When Millenium Challenge 2002 came around, Van Riper, playing the enemy (Iranian) commander, exploited that squeamishness. As a veteran American officer, he knew how easily US commanders get confused in crowded, noisy civilian environments rather than the wide-open spaces they’re trained to fight in. They knew it wasn’t really safe to let all these “civilian” craft wander around in the kill zone, but they didn’t want to repeat the USS Vincennes’s mistake either.

In an article I did soon after the Millenium 2002 exercise, I described what happened next:

“Van Riper…was given nothing but small planes and ships-fishing boats, patrol boats, that kind of thing. He kept them circling around the edges of the Persian Gulf aimlessly, driving the Navy crazy trying to keep track of them. When the Admirals finally lost patience and ordered all planes and ships to leave, van Riper had them all attack at once. And they sank two-thirds of the US fleet.”

The Navy filed Van Riper’s shock win under “Lessons Learned” but there were no lessons learned. The Fifth Fleet, operating out of this crowded, shallow, long and narrow death-trap called the Persian Gulf, is still structured around huge aircraft carriers, the world’s biggest, most expensive, and most vulnerable targets. In theory, those carriers are supposed to be protected by overlapping defensive screens extending hundreds of miles into the open ocean. But there is no open ocean here, and not even the US Navy could order all the boats, shore traffic, and civilian aircraft zooming around the Gulf to stay away.

So when and if the quasi-peace of the present slips into real war in the Gulf, the only difference between the real carriers operated by the U.S. and that disposable mockup being constructed by the Iranians will be that the Iranian mockup won’t be worth targeting. The “real” carriers will be such obvious and vulnerable targets that the smart move will be to hide them in San Diego. If the US Navy is foolish enough to leave them here, floating in the Gulf…well, those Nimitz-class carriers are so damn big that at least some of the wreck should end up above the surface, so all it’ll take is a flag and a plaque to commemorate the poor bastards who died in it.

[Photo credit: Mooshuu (Creative Commons)]