Friday, December 10, 2010

The Next Missile Crisis?

Almost 50 years ago, for a few fateful days in October, the world teetered on the brink of a nuclear war during the showdown now referred to as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Almost anyone who was alive in the autumn of 1962 can tell you how it began, and how the crisis eventually ended. Cuba, acting on behalf of its Soviet patrons, agreed to the basing of Russian nuclear missiles on its soil. Their discovery prompted a standoff that lasted for a week, until Moscow finally back down and removed the weapons. Meanwhile, the U.S. began deactivating Jupiter missiles at bases in Turkey and Italy. Deployment of those missiles had inspired the Russian basing in Cuba, a move that almost triggered a nuclear holocaust.

Russia's withdrawal of those SS-4 missiles marked the end of the only nuclear crisis in the history of the Western Hemisphere. And, over the decades that followed, it was widely assumed that the Americans would never again witness such an incident. After all, the U.S. was the only superpower in the neighborhood, and our military might was enough to dissuade the region's few rogue states from pursuing nuclear weapons, and the long-range missile technology. True, a few countries like Brazil and Argentina formed alliances with Middle Eastern states with the SCUD missile system (notably Egypt), but nothing really came from those programs.

However, the notion of another nuclear crisis in he Western Hemisphere is no longer unthinkable. Late last month, the German daily Die Welt reported that Iran is planning to base short and medium-range missiles in Venezuela, as part of a development program with their ally, Hugo Chavez. Die Welt's account received virtually no media in the U.S., but it highlights a potential menace to the U.S. homeland. From a Hudson Institute blog post on the story:

At a moment when NATO members found an agreement, in the recent Lisbon summit (19-20 November 2010), to develop a Missile Defence capability to protect NATO's populations and territories in Europe against ballistic missile attacks from the East (namely, Iran), Iran's counter-move consists in establishing a strategic base in the South American continent - in the United States's soft underbelly.

According to Die Welt, Venezuela has agreed to allow Iran to establish a military base manned by Iranian missile officers, soldiers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Venezuelan missile officers. In addition, Iran has given permission for the missiles to be used in case of an "emergency". In return, the agreement states that Venezuela can use these facilities for "national needs" – radically increasing the threat to neighbors like Colombia. The German daily claims that according to the agreement, Iranian Shahab 3 (range 1300-1500 km), Scud-B (285-330 km) and Scud-C (300, 500 and 700 km) will be deployed in the proposed base. It says that Iran also pledged to help Venezuela in rocket technology expertise, including intensive training of officers.

So, as NATO forged a missile defense plan aimed (primarily) at Iran, the leadership in Tehran was already implementing a counter-move. At this point--assuming the deployment actually occurs--Iranian missiles in Venezuela would not pose an immediate threat to U.S. territory. Cities such as Miami, Tampa, New Orleans and Houston (along with military bases in those regions) are currently outside the threat ring of the Shahab-3, which has a maximum range of up to 1500 km. On the other hand, the missiles would pose an instant threat to key American allies in the region (i.e., Colombia) and such vital waterways as the Panama Canal.

And, over the long haul, Caracas and Tehran would expand and improve Mr. Chavez's missile arsenal, adding such systems as the BM-25 (with a range of up to 4,000 km) that are capable of striking U.S. population centers with a nuclear warhead. Iran reportedly acquired the BM-25 from North Korea back in 2006 and has been working to duplicate the technology. Obviously, Tehran would have no qualms about selling the BM-25 to Venezuela, or simply moving its own intermediate range missiles to that joint base described in the Die Welt dispatch.

Venezuela also provides a convenient mechanism for Iran to evade UN sanctions and various export controls on weaponry. For example, Russia has, supposedly, decided not to go through with a planned sale of the S-300 air defense system to Tehran (a transaction opposed by both the U.S. and Israel. Now, with Moscow looking for a new buyer, who do you think is at the top of the list? If you guessed Hugo Chavez, move to the head of the class. And once the S-300 arrives in Venezuela, there's nothing to prevent Chavez from transferring the advanced SAM system to his allies in Iran.

We assume the U.S. intelligence community has been monitoring the situation, looking for any tell-tale signs of an impending arms transfer. Construction activity will be an early indicator, as Venezuela builds shelters, crew quarters, assembly buildings and other support facilities needed for missile operations and training at the joint base.

As for the actual delivery of airframes, that may come suddenly, since missile components can be easily flown from Tehran on an IL-76 transport. And, if the Iranians and Venezuelans have a satellite warning program, they can schedule on-load and off-load activities during periods when our surveillance platforms aren't overhead, making detection more difficult.

In that sense, a future missile crisis in Venezuela might resemble the 1962 standoff in Cuba. We didn't detect those missiles until they arrived in that country, thanks to elaborate Soviet deception efforts and a self-imposed moratorium on reconnaissance flights over Cuba, which lasted from August until early October of 1962. Navy aircraft actually detected a shipment to Cuba, but the containers on the deck of a Russian cargo vessel were mis-identified as those containing IL-28 aircraft, not medium range ballistic missiles.

Fifty years later, our intelligence collection and analytical capabilities are much improved, but that leads to a larger question: what is Mr. Obama prepared to do if Iranian missiles (or even missile components) are detected in Venezuela? We're guessing that Caracas and Tehran already have a cover story for that contingency, claiming the missiles are part of some space research project. North Korea made similar statements before testing its TD-1 and TD-2 long-range missiles and a few western observers actually supported that position, saying that Pyongyang had a "right" to a space program. Will the president follow a similar position when Venezuela and Iran make similar claims?

With most of its territory located along and just north of the Equator, Venezuela is in an excellent location to launch geosynchronous satellites into orbit. But that would put Chavez in competition with the European Space Agency and its established complex in neighboring French Guiana. Needless to say, the Europeans aren't worried about losing launch business to the Venezuelans and their Iranian partners. But the space ruse could provide an excuse for Chavez and Tehran to send bring even larger missiles--like the North Korean TD-1 or TD-2--to South America. The presence of those long-range systems would pose an even greater threat to the United States and our interests in this hemisphere.

Bottom line: the U.S. should never tolerate ballistic missiles in the hands of Hugo Chavez and his patrons in Tehran. According to the German newspaper account, Iran has already agreed to transfer operational control of the weapons "during an emergency." We can only imagine Chavez's thresh hold for launching a strike against the U.S.--or the Iranians using his territory to do the same thing.

One cautionary note: the German media was the first to report that Iran had acquired the BM-25. However, those claims have never been fully verified. And even if the newspaper article is correct, it may take years for the Iranians and Venezuelans to achieve operational capability, giving us more time to formulate an operational strategy. But inactivity and idle threats are not viable options. Drawing imaginary lines in the sand doesn't impress the thugs in Tehran or Caracas. Perceiving Mr. Obama as a weakling, they are making (or at least contemplating) a highly provocative move--one that demands an equally forceful U.S. response.


Papa Ray said...

When you talk about missiles and nukes most people (almost all civilians) think mushroom clouds, thousands killed and whole cities burned.

What they don't think about is something much worse. Much much worse. They don't think about this:

"A high-altitude nuclear detonation produces an immediate flux of gamma rays from the nuclear reactions within the device. These photons in turn produce high energy free electrons by Compton scattering at altitudes between (roughly) 20 and 40 km. These electrons are then trapped in the Earth’s magnetic field, giving rise to an oscillating electric current. This current is asymmetric in general and gives rise to a rapidly rising radiated electromagnetic field called an electromagnetic pulse (EMP). Because the electrons are trapped essentially simultaneously, a very large electromagnetic source radiates coherently.

The pulse can easily span continent-sized areas, and this radiation can affect systems on land, sea, and air. The first recorded EMP incident accompanied a high-altitude nuclear test over the South Pacific and resulted in power system failures as far away as Hawaii. A large device detonated at 400–500 km over Kansas would affect all of CONUS. The signal from such an event extends to the visual horizon as seen from the burst point."

Read the rest here:

People ask me why I still have an old 75 Chevy pickup and a couple of old vacuum tube radios, along with other old things.

I just tell them I like old things.

Papa Ray

TOF said...

History repeats, although not perfectly. The Cuban Missile Crisis emerged, at least in part, because JFK had repeatedly shown weakness and ineptitude in earlier dealings with Khrushchev. The opportunity to put nuclear missiles in Cuba must have looked like a sure winner to the Soviets, going into that operation.

I was a participant in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Specifically, I was part of the Chromedome operation that had nuclear armed B-52s on 24-hour airborne alert. There were two routes: the northern route that ran out over the Atlantic Ocean and northward past Greenland; then it came southward over Alaska. The eastern route ran from the CONUS to the Mediterranean, passing over Spain on the outbound and return legs. I flew the KC-135 Stratotanker. At the peak of operations we were launching two aircraft per hour to refuel two outbound B-52s; the return B-52s were being refueled by KC-135s from Moron Air Base, Spain.

The US response to the Soviet move was fast and overwhelming; the Soviets had nothing to match it. The Soviets were nothing, if not pragmatists; they knew when to fold 'em. We did remove our MRBMs from Turkey and Greece; however, those missiles were not all that secure from the outset. By December 1962 most of the Minuteman force was becoming operational. Like the B-47s, another stop-gap measure, and the need for the MRBMs was no longer pressing. I knew a Jupiter missile launch officer who was at a Turkish site on the Black Sea at the time. His name was Iceal E. Hambleton. He said he watched through binoculars as Soviet bombers orbited over the Black Sea. He estimated that he could just get his Jupiters fueled and launched before the bombers got to his site.

I have written down some of my own recollections and opinions on that crisis. If you want to read it I will send you a copy.

The current world political structure is nothing like the Cold War. Neither are, in my opinion, the quality of the various leaders. The current US leadership shows little in the way of leadership or skill. The other side shows nothing much better. It appears to me that the greatest risk in a confrontation now is miscalculation and the absence of rational self interest that guided past leaders.