America vs. Iran: Can U.S. Military Win a War Against Islamic Republic?

With President Donald Trump continuing to practice diplomatic brinkmanship via Twitter, U.S.-Iranian tensions appear to be reaching a boiling point—as they have several times since Trump entered the Oval Office.

The president's latest outburst was in response to comments from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who said, "Peace with Iran is the mother of all peace and war with Iran is the mother of all wars."

Trump fired back in all capital letters, warning his Iranian counterpart to "NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN."


— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 23, 2018

Exactly what this means is unclear, as is often the case with the president's bellicose social media output. Political commentators raised concerns that Trump might use such a conflict to deflect attention from his domestic troubles, whether in Syria, North Korea or Iran. But if the U.S. was to go to war against the Islamic Republic, could it win?

The U.S. military is superior to Iran's in every way. In a straight, one-on-one fight, America trumps Iran every single time, and that's without taking into account the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which alone is enough to flatten most of Iran. But no war is fought on paper, nor in a vacuum.

American might crushed the Taliban in Afghanistan and swept Saddam Hussein from power within weeks. As far back as the Vietnam War, U.S. forces never lost a battle against the North Vietnamese enemy. Regardless, none of those conflicts ended in total victory. If decades of difficult conflicts worldwide have taught the American military anything, it is that a mighty armory goes only so far.

US President Donald Trump steps off Marine One at the White House in Washington, D.C., on June 28. NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

In pure population terms, Iran, at 80 million, is dwarfed by the U.S.'s 325 million. That gives America much more available manpower and domestic production ability than Iran. Though Iran has one of the youngest populations in the world, it still wouldn't be enough to tip the balance in its favor.

The U.S. military has around 1.3 million active military personnel, while Iran has just 550,000. Including reserve personnel, the U.S. has more than 2 million, while Iran would struggle to hit 1 million. On top of this, American troops are far better trained and equipped than their Middle Eastern rivals.

The U.S. has the largest military budget in the world. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, America committed $610 billion to its armed forces last year—more than China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, France, the U.K. and Japan combined. Iran, on the other hand, can only dedicate around $14.5 billion to defense—a startling mismatch.

U.S. Marine Corps M1A1 Abrams tanks patrol the beach during a training exercise in Ustka, Poland, on June 12. Dengrier M Baez/U.S. Marine Corps

Such a gulf in funding means a gulf in equipment. The U.S. fields some of the most advanced weaponry in the world, while the backbone of the Iranian military is comparatively outdated. Iran fields around 1,650 tanks compared to around 5,000 for the U.S. How many of those are battle-ready on either side is unclear, but even if you halved the American numbers, the U.S. would still come out on top.

The numerous variations of the M1 Abrams tank form America's armored backbone. Introduced in 1980, the base platform is aging, but constant offensive and defensive improvements have equipped the tanks of 2018 for the modern battlefield. The newest units are inbound, and the Pentagon has already taken delivery of the first M1A2 SEP Abrams systems, sporting further upgrades.

Iran mostly fields second-rate, Cold War–era battle tanks, none of which are a match for an Abrams in a one-on-one fight. The country is developing its new Karrar platform, which it says will be one of the most advanced tanks in the world. But even if it could be introduced in great numbers, experts are skeptical about how potent a weapon it could be.

An F-35 Lightning ll flies alongside F-15E Strike Eagles at the Utah Test and Training Range, on July 3. Codie Trimble/U.S. Air Force

In the air, the U.S. comfortably outstrips any other nation on Earth. With more than 13,000 military aircraft across all branches, the American total towers above Iran's 550. Though many of them are support aircraft, the U.S. flies the most modern weapons on the planet, while Iran still relies on Cold War leftovers.

Currently, the most advanced offering in the U.S. arsenal is the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II stealth jet, of which around 50 are in service and more than 1,000 on order. One of only five fifth-generation fighter jets on the planet, it is far superior to Iran's MiG-29 fighter and a handful of older American planes left over from the days of the Shah, such as the F-14.

At sea, the American navy is unrivaled worldwide. It boasts approximately 282 deployable battle force vessels, including 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. Discounting more than 200 small patrol boats, Iran has around 50 battle vessels. Those smaller boats could be used as suicide boats or in other unconventional ways, but the full might of the U.S. Navy would surely dispatch an Iranian enemy.

Three F/A-18E Super Hornets fly in formation over the aircraft carriers USS Ronald Reagan, USS Theodore Roosevelt, USS Nimitz and their strike groups, along with ships from the Republic of Korea Navy, as they transit the Western Pacific, on November 12, 2017. Aaron B. Hicks/U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS

One of the issues that has caused so much animosity between Washington and Tehran is nuclear energy. Iran remains outside the nuclear club, and in the event of total war would be unable to retaliate against America's enormous nuclear arsenal, which currently houses around 6,500 warheads. In an all-out conflict with no limits, this atomic disparity would make all other comparisons irrelevant.

But all of this technological superiority might be moot depending on the circumstances of a potential future war. The most likely scenario is either a series of American standoff strikes on Iran or a limited conflict in Syria. At the far end of the plausibility scale is an American invasion of Iran, which was often discussed during President George W. Bush's tenure.

There is no prospect of Iran launching a conventional war against the U.S. Tehran is simply not a conventional military threat to America. It would be far more likely to rely on covert and asymmetric operations—for example, cyber or terror attacks—against U.S. targets or its allies in the Middle East.

Observers are generally agreed that an invasion of Iran would be significantly more challenging and bloody than the Iraq War. Though Saddam was ousted within weeks, years of guerilla warfare left nearly 5,000 Americans dead, tens of thousands of soliders wounded, and hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties.

Iraq is a much smaller country than Iran, and its terrain is much better suited to the U.S. armored charges that terrified their opponents in 2003. This would not be just another Middle Eastern intervention, however—war with Iran would be a devastating prospect for all involved.