Even as the U.S. begins to reduce its involvement in Afghanistan, the potential source of future conflicts in the region, the Islamic Republic of Iran, is moving aggressively to expand its political and military power. Teheran is reported to be reaching out to its neighbors, Iraq, Afghanistan and even Pakistan in a seeming bid to supplant Washington as an ally. At the same time, President Ahmadinejad defiantly declares that his country will continue to enrich nuclear fuel, an advanced step on the path to a nuclear weapon.
Similarly, Iran is continuing to improve its ballistic missile capabilities. According to credible intelligence sources, Iran is building and deploying advanced medium and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. A senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander recently declared that the Guard's arsenal includes missiles with a range of up to 1,250 miles which puts Israel, U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf and parts of southeastern and Eastern Europe within Iran's reach. A series of flight tests in recent months certainly demonstrated the truth of this assertion.
These systems have the capacity to lift even a relatively primitive nuclear warhead. Although he claimed that Iran had not built longer range missiles, this assertion is belied by reports that Iran launched its second payload into space (the flight may have been suborbital) on February 2, 2010.
Iran’s increasing aggressiveness, its efforts to break out from the international sanctions regime and its ongoing work to build a ballistic missile force capable of threatening its neighbors, Israel, the U.S. and Europe requires a strong set of responses. In particular, Washington must make sure that its efforts to deploy missile defenses succeed.
On coming into office the Obama Administration proposed a plan called the Phased Adaptive Architecture (PAA). The idea of the PAA is to deploy progressively more capable missile defenses every couple of years. The core of this architecture is the highly successfully Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System which uses the Aegis radar along with the Standard Missile 3. Successive phases of the PAA will see more powerful sensors coupled with improved missiles deployed both on ships and ashore.
The key to countering the potential threat of a long-range Iranian missile, possibly an ICBM capable of reaching the United States, is the fourth and final phase of the PAA. A system capable of intercepting a long-range missile will require deployment of new sensors on land, sea and in space as well as a more powerful interceptor. The U.S. recently deployed the first of a new generation of early warning satellites, the Space Based Infrared Satellite.
Work is progressing in the United States and Japan on more capable variants of the Standard Missile 3 to address medium and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Countering an Iranian ICBM will require a brand new interceptor, the Standard Missile 3 Block IIB. Initial design contracts for the IIB have just been awarded.
The Obama Administration has been defending the PAA both from Russian efforts to restrict the program and from domestic critics who want to use missile defense funds to reduce the budget deficit. Faced with an intensifying international threat from long-range ballistic missiles it makes sense to proceed with the PAA free from Russian interference. The challenge will be to develop, test and deploy all the new technologies involved in the PAA on the stressing timelines established in the administration’s current plan.