Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.
The Iranian regime’s shoot-down of an unmanned, non-stealth, hyper-expensive US reconnaissance aircraft in international airspace today was a highly anticipate-able event.
One of the challenges we have in trying to think and act strategically is that we regard ourselves as either at peace or at war. Legal authorities and bureaucratic permissions reflect this perception. The reality is that we live in a competitive world of combined effects that blends these two ideal types.
Authoritarian states tend to confront and cooperate at the same time. There is no on-off switch of peace or war, or use of force as a last resort. Military and paramilitary action is part and parcel of diplomatic opportunism, mis- and dis-information, predatory economics, and social control.
The clerics, military, and government of Iran are also split politically but manage to conduct combined effects warfare. Combined effects are DIMES-wide, producing Diplomatic, Informational, Military, Economic and Social results that interact with one another. The synergy can produce outcomes that challenge us to overcome specialized boundaries of our national security apparatus.
Iran’s attacks on Arabian Gulf shipping and unmanned aircraft are consistent with its indirect and proxy warfare in Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon, and around the globe.
Consider a few historical samples: the website Another Western Dawn used information to dupe the Pakistani Defense Minister into threatening Israel with a nuclear strike; Iran’s proxy Hezbollah conducted pre-attack surveillance of military and police facilities in New York City; Iran-funded and trained proxies attacked the US Embassy in Baghdad and the US Consulate in Basra; Iran continues to fund and fight with a Shia minority-run regime under the secular Bashar al Assad; Iran does the same for Shia militias in Lebanon such as Hizb Allah; Iran’s deceptive media outlets around the Greater Middle East and North Africa region routinely distort the truth.
The combination of effects that Iran’s rivalrous national security elements muster is one of informational inducement, military coercion, and diplomatic compellence. If we look at the shoot-down from this perspective, we see three elements. Taken together, the result is an opportunistic strategy that attempts to slap a dilemma on US decision makers — do nothing and look weak, or take action and look like we are over-reacting. Iranian leaders will exploit both of these possibilities in the information environment.
- Military coercion—the shoot-down of a high-value undefended asset in international airspace removes that capability from the US inventory.
- Informational inducement—subsequent spin portrays Iran as stout Shia resistance against foreign presence and surrounding Sunni oppressors, inducing anti-Arab and anti-US sentiment as well as what will be portrayed as a reckless or weak US reaction.
- Diplomatic compellence—stating Iran is ready for war even though it does not intend to escalate sets conditions for more favorable negotiations as Iran can pull back or demand concessions from the new status quo it just created.
Domestically, Iran’s combined effects are informational persuasion and military coercion. The theocracy uses moral-religious persuasion and violence to produce what Amin Saikal in Iran Rising refers to as coercive obligation. This strategy enables a divine-based legitimacy that facilitates social control over people who are weary of political corruption and economic mismanagement.
In response to the shoot-down, US strategy should consider how to create combined effects that offer cooperation and confrontation at the same time. It’s not a simple situation, and strategy is contested. Combining conditional economic sanctions with a justifiable military response to the shoot-down would need to be considered in terms of how the effects will likely play out, for how long, and with what subsequent interactive effects in the information environment, not just the operational environment.