Iran has seized another oil tanker in the Persian Gulf — this one, it says, was smuggling oil to Arab nations — weeks after it detained a British-flagged tanker and attacked several others.
So far, the United States has not succeeded in building a Western-led coalition to respond in the gulf; Germany initially declined to join the U.S. last week but said it is consulting, considering and “reviewing … in close cooperation” with Britain and France.
Thus, it seems time to consider a time-honored tactic to respond to Iran’s belligerence: Decoys.
Decoys have been used with great success to fool an enemy or to deter an enemy from attacking what could be a trap or a trick.
Who can forget the most famous decoy in war — the Trojan Horse, used by the Greeks to fool their enemies, the Trojans. That giant, hollow wooden horse was left at the gates of Troy, supposedly as an offering of peace in honor of Athena, the goddess of war. After leaving it at the gates, the Greeks retreated. The Trojans then moved the horse inside the gates of Troy, only to discover belatedly that it was chock-full of Greek “special forces” who exited the horse in the night and opened the gates of Troy to the Greek army, which had quietly returned. The Greeks quickly overwhelmed the Trojan forces and captured the city.
Fast forward to 1942. The U.S. Army built a decoy airfield in Virginia to fool the Nazi Luftwaffe. It was constructed in response to fears of an attack by ever-increasing long-range bombers. What the phony airfield concealed was batteries of anti-aircraft weapons.
The U.S. and its World War II Allies used other successful deceptions against the Germans. In advance of the D-Day invasion of France, they broadcast endless hours of radio transmissions about fictitious troop and supply movements; they planted wedding notices for fake soldiers in local newspapers and faked an entire invasion army supposedly led by U.S. Gen. George S. Patton, considered by the Germans to be the most capable Allied commander. They deceived Nazi aerial reconnaissance planes over Britain by fashioning dummy aircraft and an armada of decoy “landing craft,” composed of painted canvases pulled over steel frames, around the mouth of the River Thames. They even deployed inflatable “Sherman tanks,” which they moved to different locations under cover of night and used rollers to simulate tracks left in their wake.
Lately, the Iranians have preyed on commercial ships navigating in international waters in the area of the Strait of Hormuz — seizing ships and taking crews. Their hostile acts are meant to provoke the United States and our allies; their provocations included the downing of a U.S. Navy drone, and then showing it off in their media.
Iranians know that, to date, their military action against commercial shipping is relatively safe and easy, since tanker crews are not armed and the ships themselves lack defensive weapons, such as machine guns or missiles. Crews are defenseless when met by Iranian military speedboats armed with high-powered weapons, including missiles and mines.
It is time to turn the tables on the Iranians. The U.S. government and our allies should announce that decoy ships will be deployed in the Strait of Hormuz and elsewhere there are threats to commercial shipping. These ships would appear to be commercial ships and would fly the flags of their nations, but the crews would be military and special forces who will only respond to threats. Once a threat is made, the crews would respond with overwhelming force against those seeking to hijack, kidnap or otherwise harm the ship and its crew.
By deploying decoys, the Iranians will never know which is a true commercial vessel and which may be a ship full of military personnel and weapons to repel any threat.
If America and our allies embarked on this strategy, the Iranians’ aggression would cease immediately. Iran is a bully and a coward; while it seeks to provoke, the last thing it wants is a true military confrontation. If Iran respects international laws and the conventions of free passage, then there would be no incidents — but if it chose the wrong victim, it would be sorely mistaken.
Now is the time to act smartly and to use tactics that have proven successful throughout history. Deception is just such a useful tactic, to prevent and deter a skirmish or a larger war.
Bradley A. Blakeman was a deputy assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2004. A principal of the 1600 Group, a strategic communications firm, he is an adjunct professor of public policy and international affairs at Georgetown University and a contributor to Fox News and Fox Business.