Archive for the ‘Missile Defense’ Category

Missile Defenses in the Middle East

February 1, 2010

Administration and military officials have announced that the US is deploying additional missile defense systems in the Middle East/Persian Gulf.  The deployments include Patriot missile batteries in Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain (similar batteries have long been stationed in Israel and Saudi Arabia), as well as Aegis cruisers armed with missile interceptors that are positioned in the Persian Gulf.  The moves are intended to counter the threat posed by Iran’s short -range and medium-range missiles; Western leaders fear that the Islamic Republic is developing nuclear warheads (Iranian leaders deny that they seek to acquire the Bomb) that could be launched by the aforementioned delivery vehicles against other countries in the region or America’s military forces. 

The US wants to prevent Iran, which is viewed as a hostile nation, from joining the nuclear club.  The administration has tried to resolve the crisis through diplomacy and threats of economic sanctions if the Iranian regime does not agree to take steps that would make it difficult for its scientists to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels.  In December of last year, Tehran accepted a deal to ship its unprocessed uranium abroad but backed out before it was finalized.

According to administration officials, the US is deploying the missile defense systems for the following reasons:

1. To reassure its Arab allies and dissuade them from building their own nuclear arsenals for deterrence purposes.

2. To deter Iran from developing the Bomb or using it against American interests in the region.

3. To persuade Israel not to launch a preemptive military strike against Iranian nuclear sites.

It is doubtful if the deployments will have much of an effect on the situation.  They might provide a modicum of psychological comfort to Arab leaders, but American security guarantees (i.e., promises to come to the defense of its friends and allies in the event of an Iranian attack) would better achieve that purpose.  The US has already suggested that it would retaliate against Iran if the Islamic Republic launched a nuclear strike, and that threat should be sufficient unless Arab governments do not consider it to be credible.

When it comes to deterring Iran from creating an atomic arsenal, missile defense systems will not likely change the decision calculus of Iranian leaders, who understandably fear that America will invade their nation and almost certainly want nuclear weapons to protect themselves from perceived external threats; such weapons would be a good deterrent because no country would want to invade a nuclear Iran and risk suffering an atomic counterattack even if the invading forces, or its allies, possessed missile defense systems that could lower the chances that a nuclear-armed missile would get through.  As far as dissuading Iran from launching a first strike, the threat of nuclear retaliation alone would be enough to deter the Islamic Republic, so Patriot missiles are superfluous in this regard.

Israel already had Patriot missiles before the US put more in the region, and putting interceptors in Arab countries and the Persian Gulf would not substantially change Israel’s security status because Israel is not very close to the Gulf and Patriots are terminal-phase defense systems (meaning they are designed to destroy incoming warheads shortly before they detonate in the target area), so basing them in Arab states would not protect Israel.  Israel has its own nuclear arsenal, but if the Jewish state still feels like that is not enough to deter Iran from hitting Tel Aviv with atomic weapons the mere presence of more Patriot missiles and Aegis cruisers will not stop Israeli leaders from bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Nuclear weapons would not be the greatest threat to American interests emanating from the Islamic Republic if Iran becomes a nuclear power.  The country’s ability to use terrorist groups (such as Hamas and Hezbollah) as proxies, foment instability in Iraq and Afghanistan, and close down the Straits of Hormuz, through which a large percentage of the world’s oil supply transits, are much more plausible methods that Iran could employ against the US and its partners in the region. 

However, theater missile defense systems are not without purpose.  They could be useful in knocking down Iranian missiles armed with conventional warheads in the event of a conflict.  Although the odds that Iranian leaders would launch a nuclear first strike are extremely low (unless their country were invaded), there is a significant probability that they would use regular missiles to attack American military bases, large ground formations or the cities of US allies if a war involving the Islamic Republic broke out in the Middle East.

The State of the US-Japanese Alliance

January 21, 2010

This week, three similar articles about the state of the US-Japanese alliance were published in major newspapers (two in The Economist and one in the New York Times), and in each piece  the authors argue that the relationship between the two nations is on the brink of major deterioration.  They cite the dispute over the relocation of the American airbase on Okinawa and the strengthening ties between Japan and China as key reasons for the supposed breach.  They note the fact that Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has thus far sought more independence from Washington than his predecessors; last September, his Democratic Party took power from the Liberal Democratic Party, which had ruled the country for 53 years.

These analysts exaggerate the threat of a permanent rift between the long time allies.  The US and Japan still have major strategic interests in common, and the benefits that Japan derive from the relationship mitigate against a political divorce.  America remains the primary guarantor of security and stability in East Asia because of its military, economic and diplomatic clout.  The Treaty of Mutual Co-operation and Security enables Japan to spend less on defense and more on social programs, and it removes the impetus for the country to develop a nuclear deterrent against other regional powers who have the Bomb, including China and North Korea (the US also assists Japan with missile defense systems).  On an economic level, a falling out between the close trading partners would encourage protectionist policies in the US which would further hurt Japan’s relatively stagnant economy.

Although America and Japan disagree on some issues and many Japanese would like to assert more independence from Washington, it is highly unlike that the government in Tokyo would allow the alliance to fall apart because doing so would not serve its interests.  Domestic politics complicate the Futenma airbase problem for Mr. Hatoyama and it is unclear how it will be resolved, but when it comes to the big picture his political fortunes, and those of his party, will be jeopardized if he repeatedly pursues policies that alienate the US and undermine his country’s security and economic position.  American policymakers certainly need to pay attention to Japan’s concerns and keep relations as amicable as possible because the US benefits greatly from the trans-Pacific partnership; but people should not fear the dissolution of one of the strongest alliances in the world anytime soon.

Containing a Nuclear Iran

January 19, 2010

Last Friday, ForeignPolicy.com published an op-ed piece by Michael Singh in which he discusses the implications of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.  Mr. Singh makes the following arguments:

1. There is no possibility of a rapprochement between the US and Iran similar to the one President Richard Nixon achieved when he went to China in the early 1970s.

2. Iranian leaders might use nuclear weapons because their rationality is open to question.

3. There is a significant chance that Iran would give atomic bombs to terrorist allies like Hezbollah or Hamas.

4. Iran becoming a nuclear power would fundamentally change the security situation in the Middle East.

5. Arab states would respond to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons by building their own.

6. The US could not contain a nuclear-armed Iran.

It appears that Mr. Singh is correct in asserting that a major diplomatic breakthrough between the US and the Islamic Republic is unlikely at the present time.  Hardliners in Tehran remain vehemently anti-American and they continue to view the US, which has surrounded their country with its military forces and expressed sympathy for Iranian dissidents who are calling for democratic reforms, as a threat to their regime.  Moreover, they face no strategic threat from a third party that would compel them to seek an alliance with the US for counterbalancing purposes.

Mr. Singh’s suggestion that Iran might launch a nuclear first-strike against Israel or other nations is absurd.  He observes that the certainty of massive retaliation would probably dissuade them from doing so, but he says that the possibility should not be discounted because Iranian leaders might be irrational.  Although some political elites in Iran have railed against Israel and leveled threats against it, Iranian leaders are not suicidal.  The West should not react hysterically to their rhetoric; after all, Nikita Khrushchev said his country would “bury” the US, but neither he nor other Soviet leaders intended to attack the US with nuclear weapons unless they were attacked first.

A similar counterargument can be used to discredit his warnings that Iran might give the Bomb to terrorist groups.  If groups like Hezbollah or Hamas detonated a nuclear device in Israel, Israeli policymakers would assume that Iran was behind the assault and they would respond by destroying Tehran and other sites with their atomic arsenal.  Once again, Iranian leaders are not suicidal.

Whether Iran “going nuclear” would fundamentally change the security situation in the region is highly questionable.  Mr. Singh says that Iran would act more aggressively and give more weapons to militant groups, but they are already doing that in Lebanon, Israel-Palestine and Iraq, and they do not need nuclear weapons to do such things without suffering serious consequences.  Arab states like Egyt and Saudi Arabia would certainly be very concerned about their Persian rivals having the Bomb, but they would not necessarily create their own arsenals if the US extended a nuclear umbrella over them; America promised to protect Japan and Germany from their nuclear-armed adversaries and successfully prevented proliferation in those two countries. 

They idea that Iran could no longer be contained if it joins the nuclear club is unfounded.  The US has the capability to thwart a conventional attack against is allies in the region and prevent Iranian naval forces from closing the Strait of Hormuz for an extended period of time.   Nuclear deterrence still works for reasons mentioned above, and Iran would not have a greater ability to aid terrorist groups because atomic bombs are not the type of weapons that a state would want to pass on to extremists.  Despite what Mr. Singh claims, America and its partners could still contain a nuclear Iran and protect their interests much like they contained Russia during the Cold War.

US Sells More Arms to Taiwan

January 13, 2010

On Monday, the Chinese government responded to America’s decision to sell Patriot missile defense batteries to Taiwan by testing a land-based missile defense system of its own, according to Chinese officials.  The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has placed hunderds of missiles within striking distance of Taiwan, which is one reason why the island wants a missile defense system.

Most Chinese consider Taiwan to be a renegade province that should be part of the People’s Republic, whereas the US treats Taiwan like a separate country despite its so-called “One-China” policy, according to which America supports the idea of a peaceful reunification of the two territories at an indeterminate point in the future.  For decades the US has sold weapons to its longtime ally, which infuriates Chinese leaders.  Under the terms of the Taiwan Relations Act, which Congress passed in 1979 after America recognized the communist regime in Beijing as the legitimate Chinese government and closed its embassy in Taipei, the US is obligated to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive nature and maintain the capability to respond militarily to any use of force or coercion that threatens Taiwan’s security or independence.

Taiwan has no inherent strategic value to the US.  But the American government offers support to the de-facto nation for three main reasons:

1. It wants to deter a Chinese attack that could destablize the East Asia region, where the US has vital economic and security interests.

2. The ability to provide or withhold specific weapons systems to Taiwan is a diplomatic bargaining chip that can be used in negotiations with China.

3. Pro-Taiwanese  and anti-Chinese constituencies in the US encourage American politicians to help Taiwan improve its defensive posture.

It is unclear if the Obama administration or its successors would intervene with force in response to a Chinese attack on Taiwan.  They would not be legally obligated to do so by any treaty, and the American government maintains a policy of “strategic ambiguity”  toward this potential conflict to insure political flexibiliy.  

The desire to protect Taiwan’s independence would not justify a war with China, which is one of America’s most important international partners.  A military conflagration with the People’s Republic could prove costly to US forces, especially since the PLA has been procuring area denial weapons like submarines and anti-ship cruise missiles that could target American naval vessels, including aircraft carriers (a few years ago a Chinese diesel submarine surfaced in the middle of a US carrier battle group before it was detected).  Moreover, America’s security commitments to its other allies in the region would still be credible if the US did not join the fight because of the unique nature of Taiwan’s situation; in fact, a battle between China and Taiwan would probably strenghten the US-Japanese alliance, which has been somewhat weakened lately, partly due to a dispute over the location of a Marine air base on Okinawa.

Iran’s Underground Tunnels

January 6, 2010

Iran has constructed a labyrinth of underground tunnels to shield its nuclear facilities from attack, according to Western and Iranian officials.  The US and Israel have raised the possibility that they will bomb Iran’s atomic sites if the Islamic Republic does not reach a diplomatic agreement with the West that would inhibit the country’s ability to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels; although Defense Secretary Robert Gates has stated publicly that airstrikes would only set back Iran’s nuclear program one to three years, and it appears that President Obama will not pursue a military solution to the impasse even though he has not ruled it out.  Western officials believe that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, a charge that Iranian leaders deny. 

The modern tunnel system has been under construction since the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, and its development has accelerated under the administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has extensive experience in tunnel building in and out of government.  Iran’s efforts have been assisted by Western engineering firms, including Terratec and Herrenknecht.

The existence of the tunnel system raises two problems for military planners.  One is that it conceals Iran’s nuclear sites and complicates the efforts of intelligence analysts to locate them for targeting purposes; the late discovery of atomic plants in Natanz and Qum, which were largely found as a result of information provided by the National Council of Resistance on Iran, a group of expatriate opponents of the Iranian regime, demonstrates the limits of US intelligence gathering capabilities and the  IAEA monitoring regime .  A second issue is that it makes it very difficult for air forces to destroy the facilities whose positions are known because bombs would have to penetrate thick layers of rock to destroy their targets. 

Pentagon officials are trying to find a solution to the second problem.  They are developing a new “bunker-buster” bomb, which has been named the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, that is 10 times more powerful than current models.  During the Bush administration there was talk of creating penetration weapons that would be armed with nuclear warheads to increase their destructive power.  It is unlikely that the Obama administration or future Democratic ones will pursue that path, but there is a significant possiblity that Republican administrations, which are generally more hawkish, will try to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons.  Some analysts argue that doing so would encourage further nuclear proliferation and undermine global security, but proponents believe it will have the opposite effect because hostile regimes will conclude that their arsenals could not be protected.

There is also a chance that Israel will develop more sophisticated tunnel-destroying bombs, including nuclear ones.  Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said that Iran’s underground facilities cannot be destroyed with the conventional weapons that his country possesses.  Israel, which in the past has attacked nuclear reactors in Iraq and Syria, might seek more powerful bombs to enhance its preemptive/preventative strike capabilities.  If Israel choses that option it would increase the likelihood that Israel will take what it considers preventative military measures against Iran, which has expressed a desire to wipe out the Jewish state.

The discussion about bunker-buster bombs and preventative war  raises the issue of deterrence.  Some policymakers believe that the Cold War model of deterrence, the basis of which was the threat of nuclear retaliation if foreign powers used atomic weapons against the US, is outdated in a post-Cold War world filled with hostile regimes who seek nuclear weapons and have ties, or might develop ties, with terrorist groups.  Such thinking is flawed because it would be foolish for a government to give terrorists such powerful weapons that could be traced back to their source and precipitate a nuclear counterattack against the offending state; and foreign leaders, who want to stay in power and stay alive, are aware of this.  There is no reason to believe that classical nuclear deterrence is no longer a valid strategy.

A related controversy is missile defense.  Some officials and analysts claim that missile defense systems are needed to deter other nations from building nuclear-tipped missiles and using them against the US or American interests overseas, and they also say that it would be a critical defense capabily in the event of an attack.  Others point out that such technologies are expensive and unproven and the risk of being attacked is minute.  The necessity of a missile defense system designed to thwart nuclear strikes depends on the effectiveness of classical deterrence and the likelihood of a first strike by an adversary.  The odds of an opponent intentionally starting a nuclear war are incredibly low, as is the possiblity of an accidental missile launch, so the usefulness of a national missile defense system for the US is dubious; although theater missile defenses against conventional warheads, which the Obama administration has embraced, could be useful in future conflicts.