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Inside the Ring

- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2008

New Iran NIE

The U.S. intelligence community in May completed a major National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran that concluded the Iranian military is building up its missile and conventional forces but that its forces remain relatively outdated, according to U.S. officials.

The classified assessment, circulated to senior policy-makers, comes amid rising tensions in the region over Iran's refusal to halt uranium enrichment and concerns that Israel or the United States will take military action to knock out Iranian nuclear facilities.

Intelligence officials familiar with the estimate declined to disclose its details or even its key judgments, noting that the entire document is classified.

However, the officials said one of the strategic issues discussed in the estimate is whether Iranian military forces have the capability to follow through on threats to close the Strait of Hormuz to oil shipping in the event of a U.S. or Israeli strike on Iran. An estimated 20 to 40 percent of the world's oil passes through the 21-mile strait.

That question was discussed earlier this month by Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said the Iranian military could threaten the strait with its forces but could not keep it closed in response to U.S. and allied military action to re-open it.

Asked about Iranian Revolutionary Guards' threats to shut down Hormuz, Adm. Mullen told reporters July 2 that:

"The analysis that I have certainly indicates that they have capabilities which could certainly hazard the Straits of Hormuz," Adm. Mullen said July 2. "But ... I believe that the ability to sustain that is not there."

The classified estimate is the first all-agency assessment related to Iran since the questionable estimate of Iran's nuclear program made public in December. That estimate stated that Iran had halted work on its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Senior U.S. intelligence officials later backtracked from the nuclear estimate, stating that Iran continues to seek nuclear arms.

"The Iranian military has an inventory of aging equipment of mixed origins - U.S., Soviet and Chinese - and is heavily reliant on foreign procurement," a defense official told Inside the Ring. "Recent Iranian attempts to acquire advanced air defense systems from Russia, such as the SA-15 and the SA-20 [surface-to-air missiles], reflect Tehran's attempts to modernize its defense capabilities."

DIA Director Lt. Gen. Michael Maples told Congress in February that the Iranian navy buildup includes "asymmetric equipment such as fast missile patrol boats as well as anti-ship cruise missiles and naval mines."

Gen. Maples also said Iran is "building an asymmetric capability to counter more advanced, adversary ground forces, including through enhancements to its Basij volunteer forces, which would play a large role in an asymmetric fight." Its missiles can hit targets in Israel and central Europe, he said.

Iran's recent missile tests near the Strait of Hormuz included a test firing of a Shahab-3 medium range missile.

Commanders appeal

The commanders of the U.S. Strategic Command and the U.S. European Command this week wrote to Senate leaders urging full funding of the $712 million request for missile defenses in Poland and Czech Republic, noting Iran's recent missile tests.

"Iran's actions last week illustrate the imperative of global missile defenses," said Air Force Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, the strategic commander, and Army Gen. Bantz Craddock, the European commander. "We cannot wait to counter long-range, WMD-capable Iranian missiles. Deploying missile defenses in Europe would demonstrate our resolve to deter this threat, and protect our nation and allies by providing a critical capability to the war fighter.

"This funding supports the vital implementation of bilateral missile defense agreements reached by the United States to address the growing threats to Europe and North America from Southwest Asia," they stated.

The generals stated they are "in complete agreement that Europe requires a layered defense enabled by a network of sensors and credible interceptor capability," according to the July 14 letter.

The combatant commanders responsible for military operations in Europe and global missile defense operations noted that "our best military advice leads us to strongly endorse the president's funding request for European missile defense sites."

"These capabilities remain critical to defending America and our allies in Europe, and for deterring our adversaries today and in the future."

The letter was sent to Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and four other senators.

Taiwan arms freeze

Despite the growing military imbalance across the Taiwan Strait, the State Department and White House National Security Council have frozen all U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific said Wednesday.

Adm. Timothy Keating, the Pacific commander, said after a speech to the Heritage Foundation that policy-makers have "reconciled" Taiwan's aging forces with China's missile and aircraft buildup opposite Taiwan. They have determined that "there is no pressing, compelling need for, at this moment, arms sales to Taiwan," he said.

Other officials said the arms sale cutoff was the work of U.S. Ambassador to China Clarke Randt, who urged the arms cutoff to Taiwan to avoid upsetting China prior to the Olympics.

The arms freeze comes after years of pressuring by the Bush administration for Taiwan to pass a defense spending bill that would lead to purchases of submarines, missile defenses and aircraft. Taiwan also is seeking to buy new F-16s.

Asked if he supports the weapons freeze, Adm. Keating said, "it's a tough question."

"I'm hopeful, optimistic that the Taiwan defensive systems and the training of the Taiwan forces and the motivation of the Taiwan military is sufficient to convince China it is very much not in China's interest to come across the Strait in a military fashion."

Adm. Keating also revealed that the Pacific Command has a Joint Task Force of ships, aircraft, troops and other forces that is "committed" to responding to a conflict between China and Taiwan. "We do have a task force that does that on a day-to-day basis," he said, noting that forces are added and removed from the task force that is dedicated to a Taiwan war.

On deterring China, Adm. Keating said: "I want them to know they're going to lose" if China launches a war, Adm. Keating said. "So don't bother."

"Every day that missiles aren't flying across the strait I believe are [days] that deterrence is effective."

21st Century deterrence

Strategic national security specialist Keith B. Payne warns in a new book that U.S. strategic deterrence theory and policy is stuck in the Cold War and needs to be revamped to deter 21st century threats. He also argues that the U.S. strategic nuclear weapons arsenal must be sustained because of the risk that nuclear deterrence will fail.

The book, "The Great American Gamble," presents in detail how U.S. theorists and policy-makers beginning in the 1960s agreed to leave the country vulnerable to a massive Soviet nuclear attacks because it was viewed as good for "stability." Mr. Payne is currently president of the National Institute for Public Policy, a private think tank.

However, threats today from radical and rogue states like Iran and North Korea argue for new deterrence theories and policies that include strategic defenses - like missile defenses - as well as air defenses and civil defenses of the population.

The reason: Threats of massive retaliation are not likely to deter states and especially terrorists groups, especially those seeking and threatening to use weapons of mass destruction.

Mr. Payne, until 2003 the deputy assistant defense secretary for forces and policy, writes that U.S. nuclear weapons must be sustained because of the risk of "deterrence failure."

The al Qaeda suicide bombings with hijacked airliners in the Sept. 11 attacks highlighted the military's outdated air defense deterrent policies that grew out of "this Cold War definition of 'stable' deterrence," he wrote.

The resulting policy "left a legacy most apparent at the time of the 9/11 attacks," Mr. Payne stated. "The norm of U.S. societal vulnerability had become so well-established that the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) could call on but a few immediately ready interceptors," he said.

"Apparently, not all of those few interceptors were armed," he said. "There is little wonder that, according to The 9/11 Commission Report, the absence of U.S. air defense capabilities at the time, '...led some NORAD commanders to worry that NORAD was not postured to protect the United States.' That was an understatement. The lack of significant U.S. air defense capabilities was the cumulative effect of U.S. government policy choices for almost four decades prior to the 9/11 attacks."

Bill Gertz covers national security affairs. He can be reached at 202/636-3274, or at InsidetheRing@washingtontimes.com