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U.S. Navy Missile Defense: Responding to the Evolving Iranian Ballistic Missile Threat

U.S. Navy missile defense, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, Part 12

The previous post examined Iran as a threat, while this post explores U.S. and regional responses to Iran’s rapidly evolving ballistic missile development. It is important to note that the U.S. approach to the growing Iranian ballistic missile/WMD threat has changed substantially over the past several years. In spite of some voices who believe Iran has the capability of fielding an ICBM capable of reaching the United States some years – perhaps only a few years – hence, the weight of evidence and informed opinion suggest that this is not Iran’s primary focus, at least at the moment.

The guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey (CG 61) departs Naval Station Norfolk for a six-month independent deployment to the U.S. 6th Fleet area of responsibility, March 7, 2011. Monterey provided the first ballistic missile defense under the European Phased Adaptive Approach. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kayla Jo Guthrie

The guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey (CG 61) departs Naval Station Norfolk for a six-month independent deployment to the U.S. 6th Fleet area of responsibility, March 7, 2011. Monterey provided the first ballistic missile defense under the European Phased Adaptive Approach. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kayla Jo Guthrie

However, Iran does have the capability, today, to reach most of the Middle East and some of Europe with short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Importantly, Iran has continued – and even accelerated – its efforts to obtain weapons-grade uranium even as the international community has made repeated attempts to impede Iran’s nuclear program through means as diverse as computer virus penetration, denial of technology, and draconian economic sanctions (parenthetically, these sanctions are having a profound impact on the Iranian population, including the 40 percent drop in the value of the Iranian rial in the fall of 2012). Combined, these capabilities present a clear and present danger that has caused the United States to dramatically change its approach to ballistic missile defense, with President Barack Obama announcing the European Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA) in 2009, noting, “This new approach will provide capabilities sooner, build on proven systems, and offer greater defenses against the threat of missile attack than the 2007 European missile defense program.”

While the progress of Iran’s efforts to develop WMD is difficult to predict – especially given the United States and some allies’ (principally Israel) demonstrated intent and capability to impede this program – its ballistic missile development is far less opaque and much easier to predict. For example, in 2011, and again in 2012, Iran launched dozens of ballistic missiles (such as the Shahab-3) during its “Great Prophet” exercises. Some of these missiles were capable of striking American bases in the region as well as the Arabian Gulf states, Israel, Turkey, and the fringes of Eastern Europe. Iranian ballistic missile firings have been a constant focus during their military exercises, with numerous mid-range ballistic missiles like the Shahab-3 launched over the past several years.

Estimated ranges of current and potential Iranian ballistic missiles. DoD image

Estimated ranges of current and potential Iranian ballistic missiles. DoD image

While the European PAA has been the more widely discussed BMD initiative, an important new development in 2012 provides stark evidence of just how seriously Iran’s immediate neighbors take its growing ballistic missile capability – ballistic missiles potentially carrying a WMD-armed “Persian bomb.” Early in 2012, the Washington Post reported that the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) had entered into a strategic dialogue with the United States to explore the potential of establishing a regional missile defense system. As the State Department noted in March 2012, “We’re working with each of them [the GCC states] to develop the architecture for a regional system. The administration’s goal is to put existing U.S. tactical defense cooperation with individual Gulf nations into a ‘strategic context.’”

And while there are many aspects to the Iranian ballistic missile threat, it is important to note that, despite the GCC states’ understandable wariness of entering into formal defense relationships with the United States, let alone having U.S. troops on their soil, and despite the fact that there are still underlying tensions between and among the GCC-six, in little more than a few months this initiative has taken on a life of its own. This speaks volumes regarding the compelling nature of the threat and the “why” behind the rapid advance of this new concept.

As The New York Times reported in August 2012 in an article entitled, “U.S. and Gulf Allies Pursue a Missile Shield Against Iranian Attack”:

“The United States and its Arab allies are knitting together a regional missile defense system across the Persian Gulf to protect cities, oil refineries, pipelines and military bases from an Iranian attack, according to government officials and public documents. It is an enterprise that is meant to send a pointed message to Tehran, and that becomes more urgent as tensions with Iran rise. But it will require partner nations in the gulf to put aside rivalries, share information and coordinate their individual arsenals of interceptor missiles to create a defensive shield encompassing all the regional allies.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry walks with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal upon his arrival to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on March 3, 2013. One of the jobs of the new Secretary of State will be to get the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait) to work together to develop missile defense. State Department photo

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry walks with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal upon his arrival to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on March 3, 2013. One of the jobs of the new Secretary of State will be to get the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait) to work together to develop missile defense. State Department photo

And more recently, as reported in an Agence France-Presse article, “U.S. Pushing Gulf Nations to Develop Missile Defense,” a senior U.S. official was quoted, noting: “It’s the United States goal to encourage GCC countries to develop this missile defense architecture, because to truly protect the region by missile defense it requires a regional approach. To be able to defend against a missile in your territory often requires radars and other types of capabilities outside your territory … I think that the important thing to understand is that if they are buying U.S. missile defense equipment, it’ll make it easier to knit that together because by its nature, it’ll be more interoperable … Our aim is to help our Gulf partners with their defense needs. And so there is a missile threat that they face. We want to help them face that threat as best we can.”

Clearly, while only one part of the equation in an overarching ballistic missile defense scheme to counter the Iranian threat, the fact that the U.S. Navy has already surged Aegis BMD ships to the CENTCOM AOR, and has announced the near-term homeporting of four Aegis BMD destroyers in Rota, Spain where they could be quickly surged to the Gulf (an agreement recently approved by Spain), coupled with the widely reported interest among some Gulf States in Aegis BMD,  the value of this asset to local and regional ballistic missile defense is easy to understand. And in this light, and especially after drilling down into the ballistic missile threat posed by China and Iran (and to a lesser-extent North Korea), it is worth stepping back and looking at the overarching strategic framework for Aegis BMD.

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