The three steps on America’s ladder of military escalation

TO PARAPHRASE AN observation attributed to Leon Trotsky, you may not be interested in the Middle East but the Middle East is interested in you. After a decade of tapering down its military presence in the region, America is back with a huge display of force. In the past few days two fighter squadrons have flown in. They follow the deployment of two aircraft-carrier strike groups, multiple air-defence systems and much aid to Israel. More units have been told to prepare to deploy.

America’s goal is to deter attacks on American interests, on Israel and to a degree on its Arab allies. But what if deterrence fails? The daunting possibilities range from attacks against American soldiers to strikes on shipping in the Persian Gulf and rocket attacks that overwhelm Israel’s air defences. Under what circumstances would America’s forces then be used? And could it be dragged into a deeper Middle East war of the kind its leaders hoped would never happen again after the hell of the forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Those questions are both uncomfortable and all too real. Attacks on American interests have been proliferating even as Israel’s invasion of Gaza has been delayed. Between October 17th and 24th there were 13 strikes on American and coalition forces in Iraq and Syria by drones and rockets, the Pentagon says. They came from “Iranian proxy forces and ultimately from Iran”. Such activity has been fairly common in recent years. But these strikes are significant because they break an informal truce that had held in recent months.

America’s verbal warnings have become fierce. “If Iran or its proxies attack US personnel anywhere, make no mistake: we will defend our people, we will defend our security, swiftly and decisively,” Antony Blinken, secretary of state, told the UN on October 24th. A day later leaders from the militant groups Hamas, Hizbullah and Islamic Jihad met in person in Beirut, pledging to “achieve a real victory for the resistance”.

If America has to use force it has a wide range of options. The USS Gerald R. Ford, in the Mediterranean, is its most advanced carrier, commissioned only six years ago. With more than 75 aircraft and electromagnetic launch gear it can maintain a high tempo of sorties. The Nimitz-class USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, steaming to the Gulf, carries a similar range of air assets. Both carriers are escorted by up to five destroyers with Aegis air-defence radars and missile interceptors that could be used to protect Israel and the Gulf states.

They augment some 30,000 American military personnel in bases in the region, which are being bolstered by 2,000 marines. More marines may come. Bahrain is the home of the Fifth Fleet, and the biggest air base is at Al Udeid in Qatar. America is supplementing its ground-based air defence with Patriot and THAAD missile batteries. The latter have a long-range radar system that can peer deep into hostile territory.

How might these forces be used? There are probably three sequential rungs on America’s ladder of escalation: intelligence-gathering, defensive action and offensive action. Start with intelligence-gathering, which is already under way. The carriers are massive information-collecting platforms. The Gerald R. Ford has four EA-18G Growler electronic-warfare planes, four early-warning E-2D Hawkeyes and various helicopters and drones. Just as NATO aircraft are active in the Black Sea, hoovering up intelligence for Ukraine, American planes are probably flying up and down the coasts of Lebanon, Israel and Gaza, gathering signals that are then relayed to the Pentagon, the Israel Defence Forces and, perhaps, Arab allies.

If deterrence fails, the next rung on America’s ladder of escalation is defensive action, which is still relatively easy to justify to the American public. There is already one example: On October 19th a navy destroyer intercepted missiles fired from Yemen, apparently by Iran-backed Houthi rebels targeting Israel. The Pentagon revealed at a press conference on October 24th that it has assessed these missiles as having ranges in excess of 2,000km.

America is already augmenting Israel’s Iron Dome air-defence system, which faces the threat of between 130,000 and 150,000 Hizbullah rockets and missiles. On October 24th America said it would send two more Iron Dome batteries to Israel. Were Israel’s own air-defence systems to be overwhelmed it is likely America would augment them with its own carrier-based and land-based interception systems, though these would only be economical against larger and longer-range missiles, rather than against short-range rockets which can be brought down more cheaply using other means. America’s navy could accompany commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf, and if necessary defend it against missile or drone attacks.

After defensive action comes the third rung of the ladder, offensive action, a bigger and much more controversial step to take. The White House and Pentagon will be keen to avoid this, but their hands may be forced: having signalled it will respond to attacks, America may need to follow through to maintain a reputation for delivering swift retribution. Offensive action taken in retaliation for attacks on American forces is the easiest kind to justify. There are 2,500 troops in Iraq and 900 Americans embedded with Kurdish fighters in Syria. In 2021 American fighter-bombers hit facilities used by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria in retaliation for drone strikes on American personnel.

It is fairly easy, however, to envision scenarios in which American offensive action goes further to respond to attacks on allies rather than on Americans. If Israel’s air defences were overwhelmed it is possible that America might attack Hizbullah positions in Lebanon. America could also retaliate against attacks on Gulf allies. After Iran-backed attacks in 2019 on Saudi Aramco, an oil firm, which briefly shut down 5% of world oil production, Saudi Arabia was outraged that America did nothing. This time might be different.

There are more rungs on the ladder beyond intelligence, defence and basic offence. But they are ones that America will be even more reluctant to climb. Most experts believe that Iran does not want a direct war with America. Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank, reckons that assuming Iran does not see the current situation as “the Big One”—an existential fight for the Iranian regime—it will calculate that Hizbullah is too valuable an asset to waste when any element of surprise has been lost. America will probably avoid direct attacks on Iran (unless Iran enters the conflict directly itself) in order to keep further escalatory options in reserve. If American forces were to strike first, the Iranian regime might believe it had nothing left to lose.

By deploying so much force America hopes it will be able to avoid using it. Yet, as Mr Hokayem puts it, deterrence is difficult if you do not know exactly where the red lines are of the people you are trying to deter. Those of Iran and Hizbullah are the hardest to spot. Would Israel be crossing an Iranian red line if it carried out a protracted ground offensive in Gaza? And might there be a level of Israeli strikes on targets in southern Lebanon that would provoke Hizbullah to respond more fully?

It is a measure of Joe Biden’s concern for how quickly things could spiral out of control that the White House has demanded a “contingency” plan for evacuating up to 600,000 American citizens living in Israel and Lebanon. The American public, still traumatised by the deaths of thousands of Americans in campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, will dislike one thing more than anything else: sending large numbers of soldiers to the Middle East. The odds of that are low but not zero. It turns out there may yet be another chapter in the forever wars.


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