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U.S. Navy Missile Defense: The Evolving Iranian Ballistic Missile Threat

U.S. Navy missile defense, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, Part 11

The widely discussed U.S. “pivot” to Asia is one of the strategic themes that will likely dominate at least the next several decades in U.S. military strategy, operational deployment, and tactical development. This, in turn, will affect decisions regarding the platforms, systems, sensors, and weapons the Pentagon develops and procures through at least 2020 and, perhaps, beyond. As discussed in the previous post, China’s role as a rising regional hegemon is a major element of all of this. Clearly, this trend is something on which the defense industry is keenly focused.

The aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) transits the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility, Feb. 19, 2013. John C. Stennis is deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility conducting maritime security operations, theater security cooperation efforts and support missions for Operation Enduring Freedom. The deployment of two carrier strike groups (CSGs) to the CENTCOM AOR is putting a strain on Navy resources. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kenneth Abbate

The aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) transits the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility, Feb. 19, 2013. John C. Stennis is deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility conducting maritime security operations, theater security cooperation efforts and support missions for Operation Enduring Freedom. The deployment of two carrier strike groups (CSGs) to the CENTCOM AOR was putting a strain on Navy resources even before sequestration necessitated cutting one carrier strike group from the most recent rotation. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kenneth Abbate

But while this pivot to Asia is real and enduring, senior government officials, from the commander in chief down, have emphasized that the United States is in no way turning away from the Middle East and the Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility (AOR). Indeed, as widely reported in the international media, the United States has been increasing its presence in the CENTCOM AOR even as it completes its withdrawal from Iraq and continues to reduce its forces in Afghanistan. And this is perhaps more true in the naval realm than anywhere else.

For example, early in 2012 the United States announced it was committing to an ongoing presence of 1.7 carrier strike groups (CSGs) in the CENTCOM AOR, high by historical standards. But the reality is that throughout 2012, the U.S. Navy maintained two CSGs in the AOR, a truly unprecedented level of presence. And not to put too fine a point on it, this is causing enormous stress on U.S. Navy assets. As one example of this, the Navy was forced to deploy the John C. Stennis CSG four months early in mid-2012 to cover this enhanced level of commitment. The U.S. Navy announced it intended to maintain this two-CSG presence at least through 2013. Indeed, in an October 2012 Navy Times article, “CNO: 2 Carriers in 5th Fleet Through March,” speaking to this commitment, CNO Adm. Jonathon Greenert noted that the average carrier strike group deployment would be eight to eight-and-a-half months long. That this was a pace the Navy would be unlikely to be able to maintain was made moot early in 2013 by sequestration, which sidelined the second Carrier Strike Group due to the automatic budget cuts going into effect.

 

The Strategic Rationale Behind Enhanced U.S. Presence in the CENTCOM AOR

Part of the rationale behind this enhanced military – and especially naval – presence in the CENTCOM AOR has been (accurately) attributed to the forces unleashed by the so-called “Arab Spring.” One need only look at the ongoing turmoil in nations such as Egypt, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere, let alone the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and this urgent need for enhanced, and ongoing, U.S. presence in the region is completely understandable. But from a longer-term perspective, it is Iran’s strategic capabilities and intent as a rising regional power (some even argue that it wants to be the regional hegemon) that make it highly unlikely that the United States will dramatically diminish its presence in the region anytime soon.

A surface-to-surface missile is launched during the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ maneuvers in an undisclosed location in Iran on July 3, 2012, according to Fars News Agency. Fars News Agency photo

A surface-to-surface missile is launched during the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ maneuvers in an undisclosed location in Iran on July 3, 2012, according to Fars News Agency. Fars News Agency photo

While Iran’s military capabilities are dwarfed by a nation like China, let alone the United States, the enduring U.S. interests in the region are long term, and therefore Iran will be a long-term issue. Indeed, while a large segment of the American population is (perhaps fairly) criticized for being “at the mall” while 1 percent of the U.S. population is fighting and dying in Afghanistan, Iran’s capabilities and intent present a such a compelling threat that in both Gallup and Pew polling conducted in 2012, Americans identified Iran as the country presenting the greatest danger to the United States.

 

Iran as a Threat

Clearly, the United States would like to have peaceful relations with Iran, and in a best-case scenario make Iran a long-term partner in the evolution of a secure and prosperous Middle East. However, there is a growing body of work that shows that concerns about Iran are well-founded and that Americans are not overreacting to headline-grabbing inflammatory rhetoric by Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or by periodic Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz. Like the previous discussion regarding China, it’s impossible to treat the entire U.S./Iranian strategic conundrum in a book – let alone 1,500 words or so – but it is possible to focus on what is arguably the greatest threat posed by this growing regional hegemon.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (waving), President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, is shown with his delegation in the General Assembly Hall during the general debate of the Assembly's sixty- fourth session, Sept. 23, 2009. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has become known for his inflammatory rhetoric toward the U.S. and her allies. U.N. photo by Evan Schneider

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (waving), President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, is shown with his delegation in the General Assembly Hall during the general debate of the Assembly’s sixty- fourth session, Sept. 23, 2009. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has become known for his inflammatory rhetoric toward the U.S. and her allies. U.N. photo by Evan Schneider

Much has been written in the international media regarding Iran’s enrichment of uranium to levels approaching weapons grade (see, for example, David Sanger and William Broad, “Iran Said to Nearly Finish Nuclear Enrichment Plant,” in the Oct. 26, 2012, The New York Times and Reel Marc Gerecht and Mark Dubowitz’s, “Countdown to the Red Line in Iran,” in the Oct. 24, 2012, Wall Street Journal). And as widely reported in the international media, in spite of economic sanctions and international condemnation, Iran continues to find a way to import material critical for its nuclear enrichment programs, with some estimating that Iran could have sufficient weapons-grade uranium to field a nuclear bomb in as little as two months. Indeed, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said as recently as October 2012 that Iran, “Will defeat a combination of sanctions, military threats, and ‘soft wars’ launched by enemies trying to weaken Iran and force it to back down over its nuclear program.”

However, it is the combination of this nascent weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capability (that, given Iran’s industrial capabilities, could also include radiological, chemical or biological WMD) with its rapidly developing ballistic missile capability that presents a compelling challenge to the United States and especially to its Middle Eastern and European allies.

While it is not too much of a stretch to say that throughout 2012 there has been an avalanche of articles in the international media describing the growing Iranian ballistic missile and especially WMD threat, there has also been more cogent and less shrill analysis by experts in the field. For example, in 2012, the Center for Strategic and International Studies published a widely read report entitled, Iran and the Gulf Military Balance – I: The Conventional and Asymmetric Dimensions. Written by Anthony Cordesman and Alexander Wilner, the report examines the factors that drive the focus of concerns regarding Iran:

“The most threatening form of U.S. and Iranian competition takes place in the military and security arena. The areas where this competition now gets primary attention are the nuclear and missile arena, and Iranian threats to ‘close the Gulf.’ U.S. and Iranian tensions over Iran’s nuclear program have grown steadily over the years. They now threaten to reach the crisis point as Iran produces highly enriched uranium and develops all of the technology necessary to produce nuclear weapons, and as U.S., European, and U.N. sanctions become steadily stronger.”

Importantly, this is not a distant threat, but a near-term one. As Jay Solomon reported in The Wall Street Journal in October 2012 in his article, “Iran Seen as Closer to Bomb-Grade Fuel”:

“Iran has advanced its nuclear program to where it will be able to produce weapons-grade fuel in two to four months, nuclear experts and former United Nations inspectors said … Iran could produce enough highly enriched uranium for one atomic bomb, about 25 kilograms, in two to four months using its largest uranium-enrichment facility near the city of Natanz … the IAEA said in August that Tehran had doubled its capacity to produce 20% enriched uranium at its underground facility near the holy city of Qom.”

An MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter assigned to the Saberhawks of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 77, embarked aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72), flies patrol as the ship transits the Strait of Hormuz, Feb. 14, 2012. The Iranian threats to close the strategically important Strait of Hormuz combined with her ballistic missiles and WMD programs pose a grave threat to the U.S. U.S. Navy photo by Cmdr. Daniel J. Walford

An MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter assigned to the Saberhawks of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 77, embarked aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72), flies patrol as the ship transits the Strait of Hormuz, Feb. 14, 2012. The Iranian threats to close the strategically important Strait of Hormuz combined with her ballistic missiles and WMD programs pose a grave threat to the U.S. U.S. Navy photo by Cmdr. Daniel J. Walford

Nor are outside-of-government experts and commentators the only voices identifying the threat that Iranian ballistic missiles armed with WMD pose. Official U.S. government publications amply document this threat. For example, as the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) noted:

“States with the means to do so are acquiring a wide range of sophisticated weapons and supporting capabilities that, in combination, can support anti-access strategies aimed at impeding the deployment of U.S. forces to the theater and blunting the operations of those forces that do deploy forward. North Korea and Iran, as part of their defiance of international norms, are actively testing and fielding new ballistic missile systems. Many of these systems are more accurate and have greater ranges than the Scud-class missiles used by Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. As the inventories and capabilities of such systems continue to grow, U.S. forces deployed forward will no longer enjoy the relative sanctuary that they have had in conflicts since the end of the Cold War. Air bases, ports of debarkation, logistics hubs, command centers, and other assets essential to high-tempo military operations could be at risk.”

While Iran possesses many anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, especially those designed to deny or impede – or simply hold at risk – transit through the Strait of Hormuz, arguably, it is Iran’s ballistic missile developments combined with that nation’s WMD program that presents the most compelling threat to the United States and especially to its allies and friends in the Middle East and Europe.

And, increasingly, it is Iran’s decades-long aggression against Western interests – beginning with the takeover of the American embassy in Tehran and including a wide range of other incidents too numerous to mention here – that argues against any change in Iran’s intent to use its capabilities where and when it sees opportunity.

As Bret Stephens noted in an October 2012 article in The Wall Street Journal, “They are at war with us.”

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Captain George Galdorisi is a career naval aviator. He began his writing career in 1978...