Iran's 'Swarm War' Against the Islamic State

By Garrett McKinney Samples

The Iraqi push into Tikrit features loads of Iranian weapons. And the pint-size Safir jeep is one of the most distinctive of them all.

Dozens of the rocket launcher-equipped, Iranian-made buggies are in Iraq, helping out Iraqi troops and allied Shia militias.

The buggies reflect Iran’s preference for swarm tactics, which emphasize deploying large numbers of simple, cheap vehicles in order to outmaneuver and overwhelm the enemy.

While reminiscent of something your great-uncle might have ridden through a desert during World War II, the Safir is quite different than the American and Russian vehicles that dominate the fighting in Iraq.

Some of the Safirs in Iraq boast rocket launchers. Others pack direct-fire weapons, such as 106-millimeter recoilless rifles. All of them are lightweight, brute-simple vehicles — perfect for the hastily-trained recruits who increasingly fill out the ranks of Baghdad’s beleaguered army and the Iranian-backed militias that reinforce it.

The buggies are similar to the infamous machine gun-toting “technical” pickup trucks that have fought in most of Africa’s modern wars.

Minimally-trained irregular troops can deploy the swift little vehicles to strike and even surround the enemy in an urban environment — like a swarm of insects. With so many individuals in the swarm, each darting around so quickly, it’s hard to swat them all.

The vehicles allow a military force without modern communications equipment to perform flanking attacks. The jeeps can establish visual contact with neighboring vehicles at intersections, then drive toward gunfire in the event of a neighbor coming into contact with the enemy.

Surveillance aircraft and attack helicopters are the best weapons for defeating a swarm. Islamic State has neither.

The U.S. government appears to appreciate the Iranian methods. The Pentagon has begun providing technical-style trucks to Iraqi troops.

But there are obvious downsides to deploying Safir buggies in Iraqi cities. Soldiers riding in the thinly-armored vehicles are vulnerable to improvised explosives, small arms and well-thrown rocks.

Sharp turns, blind spots — and the possibility of waiting to reestablish contact at intersections — can render the buggies even more vulnerable to bullets and bombs.

But this fragility won’t halt the Safir’s proliferation. The vehicle is simple and fairly inexpensive to make. Iran has produced as many as 3,000 of them ever year since 2008

Affordability and ease-of-use counts for a lot. Resupplying damaged or destroyed Safirs should be considerably easier than supplying more of the armored Humvees the U.S. has gifted to Iraq since 2003. Tehran can simply drive more Safirs over the border.

The Iranian military has shown a willingness to trade mass casualties for marginal victories in past conflicts — and it’s possible that Tehran could apply this strategy to Iraq.

More than anything, though, the prominence of the Safir and other Iranian weapons systems in the Tikrit offensive helps illuminate Baghdad’s growing dilemma.

The U.S. has been the main donor of weapons to the country since the 2003 invasion. Iran’s open provision of weapons and equipment to Iraqi forces is in part an attempt to supplant this influence.

And though they’re still allies, the U.S. and Iraq aren’t playing well together at the moment. Iraq neglected to inform the Pentagon beforehand of its planned push on Tikrit, and the U.S. has in turn denied air support to the campaign.

This lack of coordination means that the bulk of the upcoming fighting will come down to Iraqi soldiers and militias — increasingly backed by Iranian hardware instead of American jets.

This piece first appeared in War Is Boring here

Garrett McKinney Samples
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