As oil sanctions continue to tighten the economic noose on Iran, all sides are building up their military capabilities. Last week Iran announced that it had conducted another large scale ballistic missile exercise involving Shahab 1, 2 and 3 missiles with ranges of, respectively, 300, 500 and 1,000 kilometers. These missiles enable Iran to strike virtually all U.S and allied bases in the Persian Gulf as well as hold Israel at risk. In addition to these longer range systems, Iran has built a massive arsenal of short-range battlefield rockets and missiles. Even more ominously, the Pentagon just released a report to Congress on the Iranian missile threat in which it warned that “Iran has boosted the lethality and effectiveness of existing systems with accuracy improvements and new submunition payloads.”
Iran’s proxies in the region, Hezbollah and Hamas, also possess massive missile arsenals. In the 2006 conflict, Hezbollah is believed to have launched some 4,000 rockets and missiles into Israel. Since that time, the terrorist organization has acquired an arsenal that many defense analysts believe exceeds 40,000 rockets and missiles. Most are relatively short range but hundreds, perhaps even a thousand are systems with ranges of between 200 and 800 kilometers and able to deliver payloads of between several hundred and 2,000 lbs. Hamas possesses a large arsenal of homemade Qassam rockets as well as hundreds of longer range Katyusha and Grad rockets. In one week last March, over 300 rockets and missiles were launched into Israel from Gaza.
Western militaries need to plan for massive missile strikes in the event of future conflicts in the Middle East. Israel has recognized this fact, if somewhat belatedly, and has taken a number of steps to address the problem. It is deploying an integrated defense against rockets and missiles of all ranges. There is the Arrow system, designed to counter long-range ballistic missiles such as those that would be launched by Iran. A particular feature of this response is the Iron Dome system to counter short-range rockets. Israel, with U.S. assistance, also is developing a system called David’s Sling to deal with longer-range systems.
It is not clear that the U.S. military is prepared for combat under conditions of continual massed bombardment by rockets and missiles. The missile attacks experienced during Desert Storm were but a pale shadow of what Iraq had been able to launch against Iran during their bloody conflict. Even the kinds of bombardments experienced during the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom are nothing compared to what can be expected in the event of a conflict with Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and/or Hamas. U.S. forces have not had to operate under threat of air attack in more than sixty years. With a focus on counterinsurgency for the past decade, the military has not conducted exercises involving operations under continual bombardment in a very long time. No one in uniform today has any experience with warfare in such an environment.
The U.S. has a program to develop and deploy a layered set of theater missile defenses based on a combination of the advanced Patriot, the Aegis/Standard Missile (SM) 3 and the Theater High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) System. Unfortunately, the Obama Administration has seriously cut funding for missile defense resulting in a decline by nearly half in the number of SM-3s and THAAD missiles being acquired. U.S. forces lack any serious defensive capability against short-range rockets and missiles despite the likelihood that they will face thousands of these in any future Middle East conflict.
Military planners spend a lot of time these days ruminating over so-called “Black Swan” events and planning for uncertainty. Rather than spending so much time speculating on the unpredictable or unknowable, the Pentagon ought to be spending scarce time and resources ensuring that the military will be able to conduct future large scale and complex joint military operations under massed and sustained rocket and missile attack.
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