Saudi Arabia Versus Iran; Battle for the Middle East Part 3

We continue from Saudi Arabia Versus Iran; the Saudi Decision Process; Part 1 and Part 2, which established as an “almost-fact” that Prince Salman is the sole author of policy both foreign and domestic. The Iranian decision process is quite different. But let’s put that off to consider the two countries as competing regional powers. What are their relative strengths and weaknesses?

The question has feet all over the place:

  • Military orders of battle; quality of units.
  • Geography.
  • Sociology; revolution fervor or hidden schism, tension or calm; national feeling.
  • Indigenous resources.
  • Alliances.

Which nation can prevail on the battlefield, now, and at at various times in the next ten years? Let’s look at just the first element of the list.

Orders of battle, paper or real, can mislead.  The history of the U.S. military is one of competent leadership, seldom dipping below the mediocre. U.S.  analysis of past battles includes the study of weapons performance, resulting in emphasis on superior quality. Other wealthy nations that attempt to copy the U.S. military have been so inspired.

But the psychology of U.S. forces and some other Western forces has been difficult to copy. There is nothing obvious about U.S. society that produces superior soldiers, yet it does. A social comparison that helps to estimate the quality of a foreign army does not exist. So let’s cut the Gordian knot with a novel assumption: the signal indicator of military potential (not  a combat strength factor, as would be computed in comparing orders of battle)  is the manpower of units that most approach simple infantry units, with transport by trucks or, at best, by armored personnel carriers.

These units sleep in the mud. They get blisters, trench rot, and they get to see their buddies die close up. They throw grenades, take on tanks with small arms, dig foxholes, carry the wounded, and step over the dead and dying. Why would someone want this job? The motivations are doubtless a mix:

  • Patriotism.
  • Ideological or religious motivation, including martyrdom.
  • Mythic structure within living memory.
  • Enhanced personal identity.
  • Sense of achievement.
  • Absence of other opportunities.
  • A personal force multiplier — a weapon.

The force multiplier of the foot soldier is a small thing. The other list factors hold sway. But in other military specializations with greater personal force multipliers, they are not as necessary,. A jet pilot can die suddenly, and alone, but the rest of the experience can’t be compared to life in the trenches.

According to CSIS, in 2007, the regular Iranian Army had about 700,000 men, of which there  were seven infantry divisions.The size of a division varies. A large logistics “tail” is typical of Western divisions. Minimizing this, the total infantry component of Iran may be around 120,000. Our Gordian-knot clipper does not require precision. The IRGC has about 100,000 lightly armed  members, plus 15000 in the Quds Force, Iran’s  “special forces”, which are logistically even lighter. This provides an estimate of about 220,000 “grunts”.

Saudi Arabia doesn’t have any infantry divisions, with a possible exception of a  “Guards” unit. Since even the U.S. Army has a sizeable infantry, there must be a reason other than utility for the absence of an infantry. In Saudi Arabia, the attractions of the list don’t work for infantry. No Saudi in his right mind wants to hump a pack and a rifle.

During the 1991 Gulf War, the Saudis were criticized by the U.S. military because their barracks were air conditioned.  The U.S. argument was that the air conditioning deprived Saudi troops of  essential conditioning to the environment. Readers in the U.S., which has many hot locales, know this well. They also know that when the power goes out, life in many parts gets very hard very fast. Living in barracks in the middle of the Arabian desert without air conditioning is a form of torture. Such is war.

Nevertheless, the making of an effective army is not as much about physical toughening as motivation. In one study, the Israeli army found no correlation between physical conditioning above a norm, and performance in battle.

Suppose we’ve managed to get the troops into the field. Why do they fight? It only starts with “God, King, and Country”. It really gets going when your buddy gets killed. The grunt fights for his friends. This is why troops who have been “blooded” fight better than  greens. Part of it is from experience, and part of it is vengeance. Of the troops who landed on D-Day in World War II, 90% were dead by the end of the war. You might think it kinder to rotate the survivors out of the theater,  but it was not done, because blooded troops fought best.

This is why, out of conscience and regard for the lives of our troops, we endeavor to give them the best weapons possible. Other nations do this too, but lack the structure of personal motivation that makes a good soldier.

Our Gordian knot-clipper points to the existence of a sizeable Iranian infantry component as a sign of potency absent in Saudi Arabia. The Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988  provides the mythic structure. Iranian youth were motivated to acts of suicidal bravery by religious martyrdom. In the West, we tend to deprecate this motivational strategy, having found that the soldier who intelligently risks his life is a better soldier than one bent on self destruction. But the martyrdom of the list is still present in a way that facilitates Iran’s deployment of poorly equipped yet highly effective militia.

Next: Implications for conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

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