President Donald Trump warned Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last July in an all-caps tweet that if Iran ever threatened the United States again, it would “suffer severe consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before.” Iran’s attack Thursday on a U.S. surveillance drone that was flying in international airspace, according to U.S. Central Command, should make it abundantly clear that the Iranians didn’t take him seriously.
Iran’s shoot-down of the RQ-4 Global Hawk — which has a wingspan of 131 feet and costs more than $100 million — is the third act of aggression against U.S. military aircraft in two weeks, according to the Pentagon. It followed the downing of another U.S. surveillance drone by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels on June 6 in Yemen and a failed attack by Iran’s military on a U.S. drone flying over the Gulf of Oman on June 13.
These direct attacks on U.S. military aircraft have been accompanied by rocket attacks on an ExxonMobil installation in southern Iraq, rocket and mortar attacks on U.S. military bases in Iraq, missile strikes into Saudi Arabia and mine warfare attacks on oil tankers passing through the Strait of Hormuz. All are suspected to be the work of Iran or Iranian-backed militants.
For deterrence to work, a would-be adversary must believe that his attack plans will fail, or that he will incur unacceptable punishment after an attack. And yet, thus far, these attacks have gone unanswered by the Trump administration.
According to The New York Times, Trump had approved a limited retaliatory strike on Thursday against Iranian radar installations and missile batteries, only to call it off after planes were in the air. That will further embolden the Iranians.
Consider President Ronald Reagan’s very different response to Iranian attacks on Kuwaiti tankers and international shipping during the so-called Tanker War of 1987-1988. After a series of attacks on U.S. and international shipping, the Reagan administration reflagged Kuwaiti tankers as U.S. vessels, provided them with Navy escorts and conducted multiple strike operations against Iranian naval vessels, military bases and offshore oil platforms.
The United States suffered considerable losses during the limited conflict. During the first escort mission in July 1987, the reflagged U.S. tanker MV Bridgeton struck a mine and had to return to port. Iran’s prime minister, Mir Hossein Mousavi, called the attack an “irreparable blow to America’s political and military prestige.”
Two months earlier, an Iraqi F-1 Mirage fighter had mistakenly fired on the guided-missile frigate USS Stark, killing 37 sailors and wounding 21. In October 1987, the reflagged U.S. tanker Sea Isle City was struck by an Iranian Silkworm missile while at anchor at the oil terminal outside Kuwait City, wounding the ship’s captain and 17 crew members. And in April 1988, a frigate, USS Samuel B. Roberts, hit a mine that blew a large hole in the ship and wounded 10 sailors.
But Iran’s losses were far greater, and in the end, the Islamic republic agreed to terminate its attacks on international shipping. U.S. Special Operations forces sunk or scuttled four Iranian mine-laying vessels, captured its crews, provided documentary evidence of Iranian complicity in the attacks on international shipping and destroyed several Iranian offshore oil platforms. U.S. Navy forces struck several Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps bases and sunk two Iranian navy frigates.
The Tanker War was also not without tragedy. The guided-missile cruiser USS Vincennes, engaged in a gun battle with Iranian boats, shot down Iran Air Flight 655, mistaking it for an Iranian F-14, killing all 290 passengers, including 66 children, and air crew members aboard.
Just as in 1987 and 1988, Iran’s most recent attacks on U.S. military aircraft and international shipping cannot go unanswered. The United States must ensure its ability to operate over Yemen (where al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula still plots against the United States and American interests around the world) and in international airspace and sea lanes. The United States must also ensure the free flow of goods in the Strait of Hormuz, through which one-third of the world’s seaborne oil transits.
Iran’s drone shoot-down on Thursday wasn’t accidental or the result of a rogue operator, as Trump has suggested. The Iranians fired a missile at another U.S. drone a week ago but missed. Senior Iranian officials have not only acknowledged their successful attack on our Global Hawk but have also celebrated it.
Shooting down unmanned aircraft, moreover, is every bit as much an act of aggression as firing on manned aircraft. As automation advances, military force structures are increasingly unmanned, and unmanned systems — whether in space, in the air, on land, or on or under the sea — must be protected and defended.
The Trump administration should respond to these recent attacks with strikes of its own on Iranian and Houthi air-defense assets, offensive missile systems and Revolutionary Guard Corps bases. A measured but firm response is what is required. It needn’t rise even to the level of the Reagan administration’s successful counter to Iran’s Tanker War, but it must impose sufficient costs to make Iran think twice about doing this again.
Off-ramps need to be built into the campaign plan so that limited military strike operations do not lead to a wider war. Indeed, by reinforcing deterrence, a short-duration U.S. military operation may well help to prevent a wider conflict with Iran.
Per its long history dating to the 1983 Beirut bombings, the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996 and its attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq, Iran may well respond with additional acts of state-sponsored terrorism against U.S. forces in the region. The lesson of history, however, is that the Iranians strike us even when we don’t strike them. Failure to hit back will only embolden them further.
Some measure of deterrence must be restored.
Vickers, a former special forces officer and CIA operations officer, served as assistant secretary of defense for special operations, low-intensity conflict and interdependent capabilities (2007-2011) and undersecretary of defense for intelligence (2011-2015).