Putting Iran on Notice Through Missile Defense
Eight years of former President Obama’s proffered “open hand” to Iran has done nothing to diminish belligerent Iranian attempts to assert regional hegemony in the Middle East. Despite the July 2015 nuclear deal which unfroze billions in Iranian assets, allowed Tehran to continue enriching uranium, and leaves open a nuclear weapons breakout capability, the ayatollahs have continued to harass Western forces in the Gulf. So far this month several fast-attack vessels have approached a U.S. Navy warship in the Strait of Hormuz, and Tehran test-fired two anti-ship ballistic missiles into the Gulf of Oman, defying a U.N. Security Council resolution.
The Trump Administration has put Iran “on notice” and the time has come for the U.S. to demonstrate these are more than just words. A response should be robust and aggressive, which may include authorizing a military response to vessels buzzing U.S. ships in an unsafe and provocative manner. But the response should also be multi-faceted – and action on missile defense should be a critical facet.
When newly elected President Obama canceled the deployment of ground-based, mid-course ballistic missile interceptors in Poland and an advanced radar in the Czech Republic, he did not entirely abandon the concept of European missile defense. Instead, a missile shield took the form of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), utilizing the Aegis BMD system and including two land-based interceptor sites in Poland and Romania. The EPAA was designed in four phases with phases one and two already complete and phase three on track for completion in 2018. When complete, there will be Aegis Ashore sites in Poland and Romania as well as the Aegis system at sea, all upgraded with the highly capable and proven interceptor, the Standard Missile 3 Block IIA.
President Trump’s budget calls for an increase in defense spending of $54 billion this year but has not released specifics on how that money should be spent. Completing and expanding the EPAA should be a top priority.
Despite Russian claims to the contrary, the EPAA was designed to protect against threats from nations in the Middle East such as Iran. The specific capability of the systems proves this. According to a recent RAND study, even the upgraded SM-3s are only capable of intercepting Russian ICBMs from two of their Eastern launch sites, and even then, only under unrealistic, zero-time-delay conditions. They are, however, very capable of defending against a range of current and future threats from Iran. While the EPAA does not pose a threat to Russia’s strategic deterrent, ensuring Europe has a multilayered missile defense shield would have an added benefit of acting to counter Russian aggression in the region.
In addition to ongoing Iranian naval provocations, Iran also continues to develop and deploy ballistic missiles, likely in conjunction with North Korea. Expanding the European missile shield would be a direct and effective response to counter this threat. Its effect would be immediate. It signals both U.S. resolve and capability to the ayatollahs and offers much-needed reassurance to our allies in the region. A robust missile shield would also add a layer of complication to Tehran’s nuclear weapons decision-making calculus. The existence of such a shield would significantly alter Iran’s cost/benefit analysis in threatening to use nuclear or non-nuclear ballistic missiles. It might even call into question the rationale for developing these weapons in the first place.
In addition to the expansion of our own BMD efforts in Europe, the U.S. should actively encourage our allies in the region to develop their own missile defense systems. Poland recently announced plans to acquire the Patriot missile system. We should encourage other countries to follow suit and assist them in acquiring the proven, interoperable systems developed here in the U.S. This would be of a piece with President Trump’s ongoing effort to move NATO allies toward contributing more to support the alliance.
Committing to European BMD should be an integral part of a much-needed response to Iran’s continued provocations. It offers the added political benefit for President Trump of running contrary to Russia’s long-standing policy views, which undercuts the current political narrative in Washington. By investing in and promoting the expansion of the European missile defense shield, the Trump Administration at once can demonstrate resolve against Iran, reassure our allies, stake out a position against Russian objections, and put American interests first.