The Obama Administration is finally doing something that is likely to lessen the threat posed by an aggressive Iran. It is following the lead of the George W. Bush Administration and looking to expand missile defense capabilities in the Persian Gulf.
This step has many advantages for the United States and its allies in the region. Reflective of a “protect and defend” strategy, it offers a defensive solution that highlights the aggressive intent of Iran. The alternative is to give the Iranians a first strike option. It also does not require the global consensus that has been holding up the imposition of effective sanctions against Iran. This is not to say that this step should substitute for the diplomatic effort to impose sanctions on Iran, only augment it. Third, it provides direct reassurance to U.S. friends and allies in the region and strengthens security ties there. Fourth, it will lessen the pressure on friends that do not have nuclear weapons to seek them in the future, and also will lessen the likelihood that allies who may have nuclear weapons will be put in a circumstance where they would be compelled to use them.
This last point is critical. Last fall, The Heritage Foundation ran a series of exercises based on an abstract of Middle East regional setting, where all the nation-equivalent players were presumed to have nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. The exercises demonstrated that pursuing a defensive option resulted in fewer nuclear weapons. On the other hand, a nuclear conflict broke out when the player equivalent to the United States simultaneously relied on nuclear retaliatory options, pursued a policy of nuclear disarmament, and chose not to pursue defensive options.
The Obama Administration, however, needs to close the circle on this productive step. The plan is to place the Patriot missile defense batteries in four Persian Gulf states and Standard Missile-3 missile defense interceptors on Navy ships in the Gulf. These steps will permit a defense against shorter-range missiles. The problem is that these current systems will not provide a defense to the United States or its friends against the longer-range missiles that Iran is seeking. This will permit Iran to focus on threatening the United States directly in order to drive a wedge between the United States and its friends and force the United States out of the region. It is an obvious window of vulnerability that the Obama Administration must close.
The Obama Administration can close this window of vulnerability by taking three steps. The first is to upgrade the sea-based missile defense system to make it capable of countering longer-range missiles. This sea-based system could also be used to protect the United States against an Iranian launch of a short-range missile off the coast that carries and electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) nuclear warhead. Such an upgrade program should be put on the fast track. The second step is to restore the larger number of Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) interceptors that are designed to counter long-range missiles that were proposed by President Bush. The Bush Administration proposed placing 44 such interceptors in Alaska and California and ten in Poland. President Obama, last year, made the unwise decision to scale back the number to be place in Alaska and California to 30 and cancelled the agreement with Poland. The most powerful step the Obama Administration could take to close this window of vulnerability is to announce that it will revive a proposal of the Reagan Administration and the George H.W. Bush Administration to put missile defense interceptors in space. This is a missile defense program that will serve to put the Iranians on the defensive.
Watch Heritage’s documentary on the necessity for missile defense: 33 Minutes.