Confronting the Iranian Nuclear Threat

Randy Duncan
By Randy Duncan | February 13, 2012 | 2:13 PM EST

Iran’s nuclear ambitions are anything but state secrets.  The media have widely reported on the successful test-fire of two long-range Iranian missiles in recent weeks.  Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta went on 60 Minutes to warn America that Iran is perhaps two or three years away from being able to launch nuclear warheads against the United States.  A nuclear-armed Iran is just around the corner and the stakes are high.

In this April 8, 2008, file photo released by the Iranian President's Office, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, listens to a technician during his visit of the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility some 200 miles (322 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Iranian Presidents office, File)

Common sense tells us we need to defend ourselves from enemy missiles capable of reaching the U.S. That was the idea behind the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) proposed by President Reagan: to protect the continental U.S. with a shield.  Under President Clinton, SDI expanded and it became the Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) program.  But recent events suggest we’re at risk of marginalizing his strategic shield.

The centerpiece of our current BMD is the Navy’s AEGIS missile system.  It is a phenomenal system that defends our troops and allies against short and medium range ballistic missiles. At the heart of AEGIS is the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3).  Along with the currently deployed version of the SM-3, two additional enhancements are in development.  The first of these enhanced SM-3 missiles could be in production as early as next year; the second could be ready for deployment by 2018.

But there are two problems.  While the Navy is doing a good job deploying AEGIS around the world, they are stretched thin with minimal inventories of SM-3s.  It’s up to Congress to provide the necessary funding to beef up those inventories, allowing the Navy to do its job.  Secondly, we cannot afford to drag our feet on funding the next two generations of the SM-3.

The urgency is clear.  The missiles under development in both Iran and China are long-range ballistic missiles, making them unreachable with the SM-3 now deployed in the fleet.  Retired Admiral J.D. Williams, a recognized BMD expert, is encouraged by the testing and capabilities of the next generation of the SM-3 (known as Block IB) and he believes that proper funding for these new variants can provide the shield we need at a lower cost and in time to protect us from the threat of longer range missiles.

Even the DoD’s February 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review Report, ordered by President Obama and signed by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, suggests that the next generation of SM-3 could play a decisive role in protecting America in the near-term.  If this weapon truly is our first line of defense, as the president’s missile review suggests, funding it should be our first priority.

In this April 8, 2008 file photo provided by the Iranian President's Office, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, visits the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility some 200 miles (322 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran. (AP Photo/Iranian President's Office, File)

There are three key steps in increasing inventories of the existing SM-3 missile while expediting deployment of the two future systems under development and taking budget austerity seriously.  First, we could temporarily divert a portion of future missile development to expand the dangerously low inventories of the currently deployed SM-3.  Second, we should hold off on funding for a fourth SM-3 enhancement known as the Block IIB missile.  The fact that it is unproven, untested, has undefined requirements, and has a production date of 2020 at the earliest simply doesn’t match the threat we currently face.

The President and Congress should direct the remaining Block IIB funds immediately to expedite Block IB and Block IIA production. This approach fulfills our strategic defense needs by re-allocating existing funds to areas in which it is more needed.

Congress has all but eliminated Block IIB funding in its final 2012 spending bill passed in December, a decision supported by a wide variety of organizations – from think tanks like the Heritage Foundation to taxpayer watchdogs like the National Taxpayers Union.  The administration should follow suit.

The president’s budget was unveiled Monday and with luck, it will provide the Navy what it needs to protect the continental United States, and a smart, strategic funding program for current SM-3 inventories and development of upgraded missiles that can provide the defense we need in an increasingly hostile world.