In the 1980s, the Pentagon Was Desperate to Avoid Nuking the Middle East
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By Edward Chang, War Is Boring
In a secluded section of MacDill Air Force Base, four miles south of Tampa, Florida, is a building once used as a command center for strategic bombers based at the facility during the early decades of the Cold War. It is also where, on March 1, 1980, that Marine Corps lieutenant general Paul X. Kelley stood up the headquarters for the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force.
Fewer than two months before, Pres. Jimmy Carter had committed the United States to one of its most consequential foreign policies in history. During the State of the Union address on Jan. 23, the president announced to the world what became known as the “Carter doctrine.”
“Let our position be absolutely clear,” Carter said. “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”
The speech came amid concurrent crises. On Nov. 4 the previous year, Iranian revolutionaries raided the U.S. embassy in Tehran and were holding hostages. Then on Christmas, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to shore up its fledgling communist government.
Going farther back in time, the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the embargo-induced energy crisis that followed made it abundantly clear the oil the world so depended on was not secure and that the United States had to pay greater attention to the Middle East/Persian Gulf region.
The RDJTF was a product of these concerns. In 1977, a concept to create a mobile strike force to respond quickly to crises gained traction within the Carter administration. A driving idea behind the force was to not have to draw upon forward-deployed forces in Europe and Northeast Asia.
A sense of urgency to implement the concept, however, was absent until the American embassy seizure and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. From that point forward, the RDJTF transitioned from concept to reality.
The Carter doctrine breathed life into the RDJTF, forces were allocated, and the headquarters stood up, all in a period of months. Though its official title suggested a global mission, RDJTF ultimately assumed a Middle Eastern orientation due to events in the region.
At top — Russian troops in Kabul in 1986. Above — Iranian air force F-14s in the 1980s. Photos via Wikipedia
Kelley and his staff hit the ground running from day one. With once-ally Iran now under the control of Islamic revolutionaries and the Soviets having moved next door, the world’s oil supply appeared at risk. But, like most events during the Cold War, superpower tensions were the primary preoccupation.
David Crist described what worried the RDJTF the most in the early days in his 2012 book The Twilight War.
Kelley’s staff quickly began planning for World War III in Iran. They saw two possible Russian invasion plans. One would be a quick incursion designed to seize Iranian Azerbaijan, either to support a communist coup in Tehran or to forestall the Islamic Revolution from spreading to Moscow’s own Muslim population. The second, more serious threat involved a full-scale invasion of Iran by fifteen to 24 divisions, with the objective of quickly seizing the Khuzestan oil fields in southwestern Iran as well as the vital choke point, the Strait of Hormuz, to cut off the oil flow to the West.
The RDJTF staff further surmised that if the Red Army were successful, Moscow could use Iran as a springboard for further offenses in the region, including a seizure of the Saudi oil fields, perhaps the entire country itself, and the Strait of Hormuz, primarily using airborne troops. Finally, the Soviets would be at Turkey’s doorstep and threaten NATO’s southern front in the event of war in Europe.
If such a scenario developed, Kelley and the RDJTF staff planned to invade Iran to pre-empt or blunt the Soviet attack. U.S. forces would be deployed to countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman to both stage and protect Gulf Arab oil fields. Marines, supported by aircraft carrier-based air power, would capture the coastal city of Bandar Abbas and secure the Strait of Hormuz, as well as seize Kharg Island, which was the gateway for the export of Iran’s oil.
The plan assumed, however, that the United States would have sufficient warning of a Soviet invasion and the ability to deploy substantial amounts of force to the region in short order. Estimates for early notice ranged from one to three weeks, depending on the size of the operation.
This was, unfortunately, not enough time to deploy the force necessary to execute the war plan detailed above. It would take up to a month for heavy-hitters like armored and mechanized forces to arrive in any meaningful numbers. From the beginning, the RDJTF appeared to be “too little, too late.”
This left the United States with one, final, desperate option – nuclear weapons. The idea was nothing new. America had previously considered using nukes in the Middle East in the event of a Soviet invasion. Should it become impossible to stop the Red Army from making it down to the Persian Gulf, the U.S. was willing to use tactical nuclear weapons to halt the Soviet offensive.
Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Robert Komer developed three scenarios for employing nukes against the Soviets in Iran. Crist provides an overview of them in his book.
The first two options used nuclear weapons only within Iran, with the objective to block Soviet forces by destroying the mountain passes on the Iran-Soviet border and the Zagros Mountains, which would impede Moscow’s movements southward toward the Gulf.
If Soviet troops were already in Iran, American bombers would hit Soviet rear echelon units entering Iran, while the U.S. Army’s tactical artillery nukes would devastate front-line ground forces attacking U.S. forces. The third option expanded American nuclear attacks to bases and nuclear missile sites in the southern Soviet Union, striking Soviet nuclear headquarters, logistics bases, and conventional forces.
The glaring drawback to this strategy was it amounted to first-use of nukes on the part of the United States. As inconceivable as this was, it had been decided on a political/strategic level there was no planet in which Soviet occupation of the Middle Eastern and Gulf oil fields was considered acceptable. Still, nuking Soviet troops or territory was a step too far.
U.S. Navy warships in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm. Navy photo
Therefore Komer preferred the first option, which was to be implemented using the Special Atomic Demolition Munition.
Initially developed in the 1960s for use in Central Europe in the wake of a Warsaw Pact invasion, SADMs were “backpack nukes” that were light enough to be handled by two-man teams of specially-trained troops. The team would parachute behind enemy lines, plant the device at a high-value target, set the warhead yield and timer, then make an escape.
SADMs were to be employed in much the same manner in Iran, except they would be used on mountain passes, tunnels and roads to cause collapses and avalanches that would prevent Soviet forces from advancing any farther into the Islamic Republic, stopping an invasion before it gained much ground.
In a best-case scenario, no Soviet casualties would be incurred, limiting the risk of escalatory nuclear warfare. Though little could prevent the Soviets from nuking key Iranian cities and ports to prevent the United States from invading and occupying the country, this was considered a small price to pay in exchange for stopping a Soviet offensive.
Like many Cold War fears, however, plans for stopping the Soviets from taking over the Persian Gulf, were rooted in fantasy. Even if the Soviets could muster a force large enough for an invasion, the likelihood of sustaining supply lines through hundreds of kilometers of unforgiving terrain — not to mention a hostile country — was doubtful.
Given the difficulties the Soviet military encountered during its long war in Afghanistan in somewhat similar terrain, there was little evidence to suggest it was capable of a larger, more complicated operation of greater intensity.
Though Moscow certainly sought to increase its influence in the Persian Gulf, as evidence by their bid to protect Kuwaiti tankers later in the decade, a military conquest, at least in retrospect, was unlikely, especially considering the economic and political turmoil raging in Moscow at the same time. Still, U.S. fears were not entirely ungrounded. The Soviets had, after all, recently practiced invading Iran, though practice hardly translates to real-world capabilities.
But most curious is the apparent lack of consideration for the Iranian perspective. Despite all that had occurred in the years leading up to the establishment of the RDJTF, U.S. planning for the Persian Gulf was Cold War-centric, placed within the context of superpower confrontation as opposed to a regional conflict.
Iran was basically viewed as a barren plot of land to be fought over by the world’s titans. Early on, little attention was paid to how the Iranians would react to the U.S. and Soviets colliding on their territory.
Change comes closely, especially for institutions as conservative as the military, but they eventually came. A full-blown East-West clash was seen as less likely and events like the Iraqi invasion of Iran and the numerous altercations with Libya forced the military to place greater emphasis on waging something short of World War III.
In 1983, RDJTF transitioned into Central Command, a combatant command dedicated to U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Persian Gulf region. Proceeding editions of Gulf war plans placed greater emphasis on Tehran’s perspective, as well as actually fighting Iran, as opposed to the Soviets or some outside power.
When Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf took command of CENTCOM, he dismissed what had become known as the “Zagros Doctrine,” de-emphasized the Soviet threat to the region, and instead prepared for what he felt to be the region’s true threat – Iraq.
On a political level, the stage was also set for the storms brewing on the horizon. The Carter administration may have never seriously considered using nukes in Iran, but it established and reinforced the policy of ensuring the free flow of oil from the Persian Gulf, to include preventing Iran from closing the Strait of Hormuz.
It was this very policy, the Carter doctrine, that the Reagan administration drew upon in its decision to intervene in 1987 in response to escalating attacks on merchant shipping during the Iran-Iraq War. The Bush administration summoned the Carter inspiration once more in August 1990, when it deployed military force to the Gulf in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
This response, Operation Desert Shield, became Desert Storm in January 1991 and resulted in the liberation of Kuwait, and was the genesis of a military conflict that persists to this day.
A Soviet invasion of Iran, while both implausible and unlikely, did make for good fiction. It was a key plot element in the 1986 Tom Clancy novel Red Storm Rising, as well as Harold Coyle’s 1988 work Sword Point. All interested parties probably agree it was a good thing it remained in the realm of fiction and planning.
Edward Chang is a freelance defense, military and foreign policy writer. His writing has appeared at The National Interest and War Is Boring.