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In Pursuit of a Shield:US, Missile Defence and the Iran Imperative

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  • April 20, 2012
    Fellows' Seminar

    Chairman: Professor Satish Kumar
    Discussants: Dr. Probal K. Ghosh, Cdr. Abhijit Singh

    The paper dealt with US efforts to counter Iran’s missile ‘threat’ and ensure security of its allies like Israel and Turkey and safeguard its interests and the regional repercussions of such measures. The paper began by discussing the Iran threat as flagged in key US policy documents including the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), 2006 National Military Strategy to Combat WMD and the February 2010 Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) Review and the solution articulated (missile defence) to deal/hedge against such a threat. Pertinent among these measures being erected in consort with allies like the NATO and GCC countries at sea as well as on land across the Bush and the Obama administration were examined. The next section examined Iran’s missile inventory and its developing capabilities.

    The pursuit of such ‘defensive’ measures has led to complications in US-Russia arms control efforts, uncertainties in Iran’s relations with its neighbours like Turkey and has generated regional strategic tensions (NATO-Russia) as well. Russian contentions that the real focus of such measures is to constrain its strategic capabilities despite US officials insisting that it was directed against Iran were pointed out. NATO’s November 2010 Lisbon Summit explicitly avoided naming Iran as the intended target of Obama’s Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA) at the instance of Turkey, which agreed to host a X-band radar at Kurecik 700 kms from the Iranian border in September 2011 on the condition that data would not be shared with Israel. The strong US-Israel missile defence cooperation was noted, with Arrow Block 4 version tested in February 2012. It was pointed out that the Arrow – first inducted into the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) in 2000 – was the first operational theatre missile defence system in the world. The paper noted that there was the distinct possibility of Obama’s PAA being extended to the Gulf region, with senior US policy makers expressing such a desire publicly in recent times. The UAE became the first international partner to buy the THAAD missiles from the US in December 2011.

    The paper ended by flagging possible implications for Indian security given that these efforts relate to developments in what Indian policy makers have called its ‘proximate neighbourhood’. Among these included greater regional strategic uncertainties coupled with rising military expenditures, energy security complications as a result of a possible incident at sea, and possible deterrence complications given that American BMD systems provides the justification for both Russia and China to continue their nuclear modernization efforts.

    Prof. Kumar noted that the issues examined in the paper have a fundamental bearing on regional and global security. He added that the ‘reset’ in US-Russia relations has been affected by the US missile defence policy with regard to Iran.

    Dr. Ghosh began his comments by noting that the paper was ‘well-crafted’ but with certain loopholes which can be plugged to make it better. His comments dealt with the BMD architecture, Russia-US imbroglio and Iran’s capabilities. He wanted the author to examine some of the US programmes that had been mothballed as well as programmes like the Hypersonic Glide Kill Vehicle, which could be the future of BMD. Dr. Ghosh reminded the audience that Obama’s PAA was in many ways similar to the 1996 document Capstone Requirements Document (CRD) specifying NMD operational requirements which was scrapped because the capabilities could not mature. Dr. Ghosh noted that the Bush-era system did not cover Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, and parts of Romania. He also noted that the US had rejected the Russian suggestion to host US radars at Gabaladarya, Azerbaijan directly overlooking Iran instead of in Poland and Czech Republic. On Russian contentions specifically, Dr. Ghosh stated that they were a bit overblown given that Russia could potentially overwhelm US interceptors by sheer numbers at its disposal. He concluded his remarks by noting that an Iranian ICBM capability ‘was still some distance away’.

    Cdr. Singh commended the effort to bring out a coherent paper by the author despite not having a military background. He gave a geo-strategic context to the issue in the light of declining Russian influence over ‘buffer’ states after the break-up of the Soviet Union, and the genuine apprehensions of countries like Poland and Georgia over the resurgent Russia. He pointed to intra-NATO divisions over the issue, which are being played up by Russia. In his opinion, the technological basis of the US system was sound. He however termed the ‘threat’ from Iran as ‘over-stated’ given that Iranian IRBM capabilities have prominent North Korean/Chinese links and an Iranian ICBM capability was far away. Iranian cruise missile capabilities though are potent and are being still further developed. Cdr. Singh pointed out that Iranian threats to close the Straits of Hormuz were real, even though it could be for a limited period. He stated that as a concept, BMD was a ‘brilliant, strategic idea’ equivalent to a ‘strategic tent’ rather than a ‘strategic fortress’.

    Internal Discussant Cdr. S.S. Parmar noted that in the event of clashes, it will not involve missile defences per se but conventional capabilities. He also noted that Iran could swarm US ships with shore-based batteries making defences against short-range missiles ineffective. Cdr. Parmar pointed to the importance of maps and tables to more clearly convey information. The other Discussant Kapil Dharaj Patil pointed out that Iranian perceptions of the US missile defence system was absent in the paper. He added that it was important to note the ‘threat construction’ by US and NATO vis-à-vis Iran’s capabilities.

    DG, IDSA Dr. Arvind Gupta noted that though the paper is an important update, it could do with more analysis. He pointed out that implications for Indian security if any have to be more clearly brought out and the author’s own assessment of the US efforts has to be included in the concluding section. The paper could also benefit by incorporating maps/tables. Chinese reactions to the issue could also be pointed out. On issues like budgetary pressures being faced by the Obama administration that the paper flags, a more focussed effort can be made to go into the pertinent details.

    Other points of discussion that were flagged from the floor included regional responses to US BMD efforts, specifically from countries like Saudi Arabia and the GCC, assessment of Iranian capabilities or lack of it, and the efficacy of the BMD systems being pursued by the US, among others.

    Report prepared by Shri Kiran Jai Prakash, Research Intern, Nuclear and Arms Control Centre, and Sam Rajiv.