How might the US attack Iran? Tomahawk missiles, B-2 stealth bombers, F-35s, carriers?

Tensions between the U.S. and Iran appear to be de-escalating, but if the Pentagon decides to punish Tehran, it has a vast array of options at its disposal.

Submarine or ship-launched Tomahawk missiles could hit targets from hundreds of miles away, B-2 stealth bombers could destroy enemy air defenses from high altitudes while undetected and stealthy F-22s and F-35s could attack enemy fighter jets with long-range sensors and air-to-air weapons.

Amphibious assault ships could launch F-35Bs, carriers could catapult F-18s into attack missions and the Pentagon could even launch recently tested medium-range, cruise missiles from fixed ground locations.

Any of these scenarios are within the realm of the possible if tensions between the U.S. and Iran flare up again.

“As we evaluate the situation and our response, we will take all necessary measures to protect and defend U.S. personnel, partners and allies in the region,” a Jan. 7 Department of Defense statement said. The attacked bases, Ain al-Asad Air Base and Irbil, have been on high alert in recent days due to “indications that the Iranian regime planned to attack our forces and interests in the region,” the Pentagon statement said.

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A potential war with Iran has become more plausible following the U.S. killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' elite Quds Force. The Iranian-backed group is known to be responsible for many attacks against American forces. While not offering specifics, speaking Tuesday before the Iranian missile attacks in Iraq, Defense Secretary Mark Esper was clear about his stance regarding the possibility of Iranian retaliation.

“We remain prepared for any contingency with regard to Iran," Esper said, in an impromptu Pentagon news conference.

According to a statement released by the Pentagon, Esper said that the U.S. message is that the ball is in Iran's court, and the United States encourages Iran to de-escalate the situation. Esper added that the U.S. is open to discussing issues and having a more normal relationship with Iran.

“But if Iran chooses to go the other path, we are prepared to deal with that and will respond forcefully," he said.

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While no senior U.S. military official would ever offer specifics or speculate about a possible attack on Iran, or even cite general possibilities, there are a number of interesting hypothetical attack options that might offer themselves as topics for a separate analytical discussion. Of course, entertaining any possibilities for discussion purposes would be something completely separate and apart from any actual DoD comment on the possibility. DoD comments along the lines of attack options would naturally not be expected, for security reasons.

Tomahawk missiles and stealth bombers or fighters, if used as part of a series of opening attacks upon Iran, would likely lead the way in an assault by destroying or “softening” Iranian air defenses and other obstacles intended to thwart any U.S. strike. Using range, precision and air dominance, a massive war campaign against Iran would likely begin by opening up an “air corridor” by destroying air defenses so that non-stealthy attack planes and helicopters can conduct operations at lower risk of attack. Ship-launched Ospreys could drop Marines, weapons and networking gear behind enemy lines to conduct high-risk clandestine missions, destroying Iranian supply lines, laser-painting targets for air attack platforms or scouting terrain for an eventual armored vehicle ground attack. U.S. Navy assets would likely seek to destroy Iranian submarines and fast-attack boats, while coordinating massive carrier-launched air attacks on inland targets.

There is a range of specific air-defense weapons that Iran is known to possess, the most dangerous of which is the Russian-built S-300, the most modern variant being the S-300PMU2. This weapon, while by no means invincible to U.S. B-2s, F-22s or F-35s, is significant in that it can reportedly reach ranges of 200km (124 miles) and travel up to altitudes of 27km (17 miles).

What is not clear, or certainly less obtainable through open-source, public information, is the current state of modernization of these weapons. The most advanced Russian air defenses, while often hyped by Russia itself in its state media, are increasingly able to detect even some stealthy aircraft. They use a wider range of detection frequencies, faster-processing power and increased digital networking able to share target data across multiple nodes. Nonetheless, it is by no means clear, despite Russian claims, that these advanced air defenses can actually threaten the most advanced U.S. stealth attack assets.

Nonetheless, these conditions do further underscore the significance of achieving air superiority at the beginning of any kind of military campaign, because alongside its S-300 series air defenses, the Iranians are also armed with a wide sphere of short-to-medium range ballistic missiles and air defenses. For example, the Iranian Kamin-2, a low-altitude, medium-range air defense system, can reportedly target drones, helicopters or even approaching cruise missiles from distances as far as 60km (37 miles). Iran unveiled its Kamin-2 at a National Day parade in 2018, according to a report in Armyrecognition.com.

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Ultimately, initial strikes could prepare the warzone for a massive ground assault led by tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and even dismounted units prepared to attack urban areas. Such an advance would, of course, not operate without close air support likely to include drones, Apache attack helicopters and low-flying attack planes such as A-10s or even high-speed F-35s capable of ground attack. Air supremacy would also clear the way for helicopters, C-130-transport planes and drones. Iran might also present some air-to-air threats, including some of its own fighter jets. Globalfirepower.com estimates that Iran has 142 fighters out of a total of 509 air assets. One report from The National Interest states that Iran possesses six F-14 Tomcat fighters acquired years ago.

Carrier or other ship-launched air attacks such as amphib-launched Ospreys or F-35Bs would likely operate from the Persian Gulf. The range and reach of sea-fired weapons and carrier-launched fighter attacks, in this scenario, would be of great significance in this kind of particular engagement with Iran. Iran regularly operates both mines and small attack boats in the narrow and highly dangerous Strait of Hormuz waterway, an area bordering Iran’s coastline that functions as a key passageway between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Having stand-off weapons attack options such as Tomahawk missiles (which can travel up to 900 miles) and carrier-launched fighters would enable the U.S. to project power while being at lower risk of Iranian counterattack by swarming small boats or coastal region sea mines. As of 2019, Iran is in possession of more than 88 small patrol vessels, according to Globalfirepower.com.

While not likely to overmatch the U.S. by any estimation. the Iranian military is significant in many respects, presenting very serious air, ground and undersea threats. Globalfirepower.com’s 2019 assessment states Iran has more than 1,600 tanks, 837,000 total military personnel, roughly 2,300 armored fighting vehicles, nearly 2,000 rocket projectors and 570 Self-Propelled Howitzer artillery vehicles.

Even operating at safer standoff ranges will not remove the seriousness of Iranian maritime attack possibilities; Iran not only has six frigates but also 34 submarines, including up to three Russian-built Kilo-class submarines, according to information from Globalfirepower.com and the Defense Intelligence Agency. This kind of scenario would likely require the U.S. Navy’s most advanced undersea technologies such as Virginia-class attack submarines, undersea drones, advanced sonar technology and a host of surface anti-submarine systems.

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Broadly speaking, there are several key concepts to bear in mind when considering a possible U.S. attack; any campaign would likely be multi-domain, meaning it would incorporate air, sea and possibly land systems operating in tandem. Cyberattacks and even electromagnetic warfare could also quite possibly figure prominently. Given this, one much-discussed phrase to keep in mind is... "no war plan survives first contact with the enemy."

Tomahawk Attack?

Alongside a theoretical discussion of potential war scenarios, two senior Pentagon officials told Fox News that Tomahawk-armed U.S. assets in the region would be ready to fire if given the order.

The USS Harry Truman aircraft carrier strike group has been in the Gulf of Oman along with guided-missile destroyers, a guided-missile cruiser and at least one submarine,” Fox News reported. “The Navy warships and submarine together had hundreds of Tomahawk cruise missiles with pre-planned targets locked into the missiles.”