LIONETTI: Iran continues uranium enrichment program

U.S. failure to act not an option

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Iran’s refusal to back off from its uranium enrichment program, which could usher in a nuclear-armed Iran, has dramatically heightened tensions in the Persian Gulf region. The regime’s oft-stated threats of missile attacks against American and allied interests in the region, stated plans to block the Strait of Hormuz and military maneuvers to test new Iranian missiles increase the level of brinkmanship with each passing day.

The United States’ response so far addresses the tactical dimension of potential Iranian military action. The U.S. Navy has enhanced its mine clearing capabilities with the deployment of additional mine sweepers and submersible drones capable of detecting and destroying Iranian mines threatening shipping lanes. Additional warplanes, including F-22 stealth fighters and F-15s, have been deployed in recent months. American troop levels in Iraq have been steadily reduced, but the U.S. Army maintains a brigade of soldiers in Kuwait, and an ever-present carrier battle group steams off shore, ready to respond if needed.

Iran’s missile threat is very real and even more lethal than when I provided a risk assessment of the Gulf region in the Winter 2004 Issue of Defense Procurement Analysis. I asserted that Iran’s regional conduct would destabilize Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members’ economic growth and discourage outside investment. With high oil prices and a booming economy, GCC countries were encouraged to invest in regional missile defenses to reverse a perception of continuing risk, which could hurt the willingness of foreign companies to invest or operate in the Persian Gulf. Recent testing of Iran’s longer-range missiles underscores the continuing validity of these observations.

Continuing its aggressive posture, Iran declared as recently as last month its willingness to unleash its arsenal should the country feel threatened. “The Islamic Revolution Guard Corps and the Iranian army’s missiles can target and destroy any threatening target in the region,” according to Mansour Haqiqat-pour, who sits on Iran’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission.

Key among our missile defense assets in the region is the Patriot system. Continuously refined and improved since its introduction in the 1980s, Patriot batteries in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates provide a missile defense ring around western Iran. This battle-tested system — Patriot’s technology has been combat-proven in two wars — is also part of the Israeli defense package. Because Patriot is a mature system, it is ready to deploy on a moment’s notice. This combination of land, air, naval and missile defense forces allows us to confront traditional and asymmetrical attacks from Iran should it come to that.

Maintaining commerce through the Strait of Hormuz is equally critical. Nearly 40 percent of the world’s oil moves through this strategic sea lane, and the U.S. Navy will be at the tip of the spear in keeping it open. To that end, the USS Ponce, an amphibious ship previously slated for decommissioning, has been refurbished and is now supporting Fifth Fleet operations in Bahrain. It represents the sort of thinking that meets the needs of military missions while conserving budget resources at a time when Americans are weary of war, Congress is confronting serious budget questions and our economy is fragile. Appropriate as this response has been, it is no less important that U.S. policymakers take a longer view — one that provides the defense infrastructure required to ensure continued success should Iran become an active or chronic aggressor.

Iran’s early-July missile drill, code-named Great Prophet 7, demonstrated the regime’s capability to strike at American and allied targets across the entire Middle East, and high among our priorities should be adequate funding for continued Patriot development and acquisition. Many of the system’s engineering costs were spread across its dozen international partners, and Patriot’s open architecture provides interoperability with a variety of missile and air defense systems. It is a cost-effective, operationally potent and immediately ready response to the Iranian threat.

No right-thinking person wishes for a confrontation with Iran, but their threats are neither idle nor trifling. Iran has the means and possibly the will to engage in a shooting war of significant proportions. Terrible as that would be, we must stand vigilant or face the even more dangerous consequences of failure to act. That means maintaining the readiness of our high-performance aircraft squadrons, credible in-theater troop levels, versatile and well-purposed naval assets and adequate funding for continued Patriot modernization.

Lt. Gen. Donald M. Lionetti was commanding general of the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command.

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