Is Iran's Military the Model for America's Adversaries?

Iran Revolutionary Guard
In this photo released by the official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, Revolutionary Guard troops chant slogans at a military parade marking 39th anniversary of outset of Iran-Iraq war, in front of the shrine of the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, just outside Tehran, Iran, on Sept. 22, 2019. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.

Since 2017, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) has produced a series of unclassified reports on "the major foreign military challenges facing the United States." Recently, it released its newest report on "Iran Military Power."

The report lays out Iran's military strategy and goals, as well as the structure and capabilities of its armed forces and the country's enabling infrastructure and industrial base.

For the last two decades, the U.S. has been largely engaged in fighting asymmetrical conflicts, many of which involved large-scale, extended counterinsurgency operations. The Trump administration's National Defense Strategy released in January 2019, however, reoriented America's focus to "the return of big power rivalry in an increasingly multipolar world."

The renewed focus on American military competition with near-peer rivals like Russia and China was characterized by many as a return to the era of Cold War competition. While this description is partially true, it obscures the rise of hybrid, at times anonymous, warfare capabilities that have been evidenced by Russia, during the Crimean invasion; China, in the South China Sea; and most extensively by Iran.

In that sense, the organization of Iranian military forces into different parallel institutions -- the Islamic Republic of Iran Army (Artesh); the regular armed forces; and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which includes both official (conventional) military forces as well as (unconventional) proxy and non-officially state sanctioned "anonymous forces" -- represents a hybrid approach that is also being evidenced at the level of near-peer rivals.

The Iranian military strategy relies on a combination of deterrence and the ability to use unconventional and proxy forces, both anonymous and state-sanctioned, to advance its interests and to retaliate against an opponent.

Tehran's deterrence capabilities are based on its ballistic missile forces and its ability to use its naval forces to interdict traffic on the Persian Gulf, especially in the Straits of Hormuz. These capabilities will be further enhanced if Tehran succeeds in obtaining nuclear weapons.

In addition, it can employ the IRGC and, through them, a broad array of proxies, non-state actors like local militias and militant groups, and state-funded but anonymous actors. These forces are often the first employed by Tehran when it is attempting to project military power or dissuade an opponent from taking actions it disapproves of. The use of non-state and anonymous actors preserves Tehran's ability to deny responsibility and to de-escalate a confrontation, should it need to.

According to the DIA's findings, Tehran's ballistic missile arsenal, the largest in the Middle East, "is the primary component of its strategic deterrence. Since it lacks modern air forces, Iran "has embraced ballistic missiles as a long-range strike capability."

Iran's missile inventory consists of close-range, short-range and medium-range ballistic missiles with a maximum range of 1,200 miles. That brings a wide area stretching from Kiev to Oman and from Cairo to Islamabad within range of Iran's missile forces.

Iran's medium-range missile, the Khorramshahr, is based on the North Korean BM Musudan (BM-25). Its range can potentially be increased to 2,000 miles, bringing most of Western Europe and all of India within its target umbrella.

Continuing improvements in accuracy and lethality and the development, possibly at some point in the future, of intercontinental-range missiles will further enhance the value of Iran's ballistic issues as a strategic deterrence. Longstanding ties to North Korea's missile program may also serve to accelerate the expansion of Tehran's missile arsenal.

Iran's naval strategy revolves around its ability to leverage its geographic position in the Straits of Hormuz to interdict traffic in and out of the Persian Gulf. Its conventional naval forces are no match to those of the United States. According to the DIA, however, "Iran's layered maritime capabilities emphasize asymmetric tactics using numerous platforms and weapons intended to overwhelm an adversary's naval force."

These capabilities include a range of anti-ship cruise missiles, both shore- and ship-launched, naval mines, submarines, unmanned aerial vehicles, shore-based anti-ship ballistic missiles and air attack capabilities. These weapon systems are similar to the ones that Beijing has been deploying on the artificial islands it has constructed in the South China Sea.

In addition, Tehran has experimented with the use of small, possibly explosive-laden boats, using swarm tactics to try to overwhelm the defenses of U.S. Navy ships. These boats typically do not carry the insignia of either Artesh or the IRGC, but instead consist of a collection of varied civilian craft, both recreational and commercial, as well as small fishing boats.

The use of civilian craft, whose intentions are unclear and whose armament is unknown, puts U.S. Navy ships in the position of potentially opening fire on what could later turn out to be unarmed civilian craft.

The People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has employed similar tactics in using Chinese fishing boats to swarm around Philippine Navy ships in the South China Sea. So far, they have refrained from employing this response on U.S. Navy ships undertaking Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the same region.

The final element of Iranian military power, according to the DIA, is the wide use of "partners, proxies, and unconventional warfare" by Tehran in both a defensive and offensive capability.

The IRGC's Quds force controls a broad network "of non-state partners, proxies and affiliates," not just throughout the Middle East, but increasingly around the world. Quds-trained militias, for example, have played a pivotal role in keeping Venezuelan President Nicolas Madura in power, suppressing protests.

Per the DIA, "Iran provides a range of financial, political training, and material support to groups which include Hezbollah, Iraqi Shia militant groups, the Houthis in Yemen, some Palestinian groups, the Taliban and Shia militants."

Tehran has also significantly increased its cyber operations, seeing "cyberspace operations as a safe, low-cost method to collect information and retaliate against perceived threats."

In October 2020, the restriction placed on Iran from acquiring advanced, conventional weapons systems under U.N. Security Resolution 2231 will expire. It's likely that Tehran will use the opportunity to further strengthen and modernize its armed forces.

The combination of conventional and non-conventional military forces and capabilities, especially in the use of non-state actors, proxies and anonymous parties, poses a significant challenge to U.S. military forces. In many ways, it combines the issues of dealing with near-peer rivals with asymmetric, non-conventional warfare through state-organized and -directed third parties. In such conflicts, the rules of engagement are often unclear and their application or appropriateness can be difficult to ascertain. This ambiguity can put American military forces at risk while also increasing the risk of the use of force that might later be deemed excessive or inappropriate.

In addition to Iran, Russia effectively used such a strategy in orchestrating the revolt of portions of eastern Ukraine and in its takeover of Crimea. China has relied less on such tactics, with the possible exception of its confrontation with some littoral states in the South China Sea.

North Korea has generally not engaged in the use of proxies or non-state actors in unconventional warfare, though all four countries have extensive cyber warfare programs carried out by a combination of state institutions and anonymous non-state actors. Moreover, non-conventional warfare, typically in the form of ongoing insurgencies, remains a challenge for the United States in Afghanistan, Syria and, to a lesser extent, Iraq.

Iran's military organizations and its use of a combination of conventional and non-conventional forces and tactics are likely to become increasingly common among America's adversaries, including near-peer rivals like Russia and China.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to for consideration.

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