Key Point: Iran has an arsenal of old American weapons. What if it got an update?
During the 1970s the ruler of Iran, the shah, was an ardent supporter of the United States. His coffers overflowing with petrodollars, the shah requested—and often got—the latest American weapons. Such examples included the AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter, Harpoon missile and even the F-14 Tomcat fighter. (His request for the SR-71 Blackbird was turned down.)
Now an entirely different theocratic, largely hostile regime rules Iran. The regime, armed with a hodgepodge of shah-era, homebrewed and Russian weapons, is less than optimally armed. But what if Iran had access to America’s great arsenal of democracy? What weapons would it choose to arm itself with?
1. MQ-9 Reaper
The Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle would be an extremely useful weapon for Iran. A country with land and sea borders with often hostile countries, mountainous terrain and a hand in conflicts throughout the Middle East, Iran could use Reaper drones for everything from border patrolling to maritime attack and close air support for its allied forces on the ground.
Reapers armed with Hellfire missiles would quickly become Iran’s go-to weapon, threatening shipping in the Straits of Hormuz and supporting Hezbollah forces on the ground in Syria. Unarmed and with a persistent loitering capability, Reapers could act as cheap intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms for the Iranian military.
2. AH-64 Apache Attack Helicopter
Backing up Iran’s fleet of MQ-9 Reaper drones would be AH-64 Apache attack helicopters. The Apache is armed with a 30-millimeter chain gun and external hardpoints capable of carrying up to sixteen Hellfire missiles, seventy-six 2.75-inch rockets, or some combination thereof.
The combination of Reaper drones and Apache helicopters would quickly make Iran and Iranian-backed forces two of the most powerful in the Middle East. Iran’s Reapers could identify the enemy and conduct a limited number of time-sensitive strikes, Apaches could then be called in to bring in the serious firepower. Apaches could wreak havoc on lightly armed enemy guerrillas, and Hellfire missile’s long range enables the helicopter to stay out of the engagement envelope of man-portable air-defense missiles such as the Chinese FN-6.
A flight of just four Apaches could seriously damage any warship operating in the Persian Gulf, and perhaps even sink smaller ones such as the American Littoral Combat Ship.
3. Littoral Combat Ship
Iran never had much of a navy, which amounted to a handful of American and European made small surface combatants. Then again, the Persian Gulf was virtually an Iranian lake and closing it was never in the cards for the shah. The Islamic Republic, on the other hand, has other ideas.
While Iran doesn’t need a large navy, it would benefit from having some of the latest, most advanced vessels designed to operate in the littorals. Littoral combat ships could patrol Iran’s sea border, intimidating enemy shipping, escorting convoys of military materials to Iranian client forces throughout the Middle East and showing the Iranian flag. They would also boost the prestige of the Iranian Navy against its archenemy the Royal Saudi Navy, matching the frigates of the Al-Riyadh class with a ship of similar size.
4. F-35B Joint Strike Fighter
In any armed conflict with the West, Iran would be at a serious disadvantage. Not only would it be outnumbered, it would be up against air and naval forces that are well trained and that have executed military campaigns in Serbia and Kosovo, Iraq, Libya, Syria and elsewhere. The targeting and destruction of Iranian air force bases would be just part of what has become a well-established ritual. While Iran’s S-300 and S-400 air defense missile systems would provide a credible defense, eventually those defenses would be worn down and the country’s air force would be completely destroyed.
The alternative is to scatter the Iranian air force to the four winds, dispersing its fighters to smaller civilian airfields, stretches of highway and perhaps even caves carved into hillsides. This would make detecting and neutralizing Iranian air power much more difficult, but still allowing Iranian air commanders to concentrate their combat forces when necessary.
Ideally, the fighter would be a multi-role beast, capable of air-to-air and air to ground missions. It would also be capable of vertical takeoff and landing. The obvious choice—the only choice at this point—would be the American F-35B.
5. Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missile
Iran, like other pariah states such as Iraq and North Korea, has spent decades pursuing both nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missile programs. The ability to attack the United States with nuclear weapons has been a long-cherished goal, a trump card against any military action against such states.
The nuclear program was halted by international agreement in 2015. Still, there’s little doubt that Iran would like warm and fuzzy comfort of a nuclear umbrella. Given Iran’s limited access to protected or expansive waterways and the lack of strategic bombers, the ideal choice would be intercontinental ballistic missiles.
A force of LGM-30 Minuteman III ICBMs, hidden in hardened silos in the Zagros Mountains, would deter Saudi Arabia, the United States and others from armed conflict with Iran. The risk of escalation to a nuclear exchange would be enough to give Iran’s traditional enemies pause, and cause the remaining nonnuclear states to go nuclear.
Unconstrained by arms control treaties, the Minuteman IIIs would sit armed with multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles, each capable of attacking a different target with a 350-kiloton warhead. Such a nuclear umbrella would likely embolden the Islamic Republic to pursue an even more aggressive regional foreign policy. . . much to the detriment of its neighbors.
Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.
This article first appeared several years ago. It is being republished due to reader interest.