White House and Pentagon spokesmen have been skeptical of these Iranian claims, but they should not be summarily dismissed. After all, the 1998 Rumsfeld Commission Report on the ballistic-missile threat to the United States pointed out that ships off our coasts could launch ballistic missiles toward our coastal cities. More ominously, the authors of the 2004 Commission on the Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) report to Congress testified that Iran had launched a ballistic missile from a vessel in the Caspian Sea to high altitude, and that other tests implied an interest in “triggering” warheads at an altitude that could create an EMP. That could have devastating, long-lasting effects over a very large part of the United States, if not the entire country, depending on the size and point of detonation of an EMP device.
Indeed, Dr. William R. Graham, a science adviser to President Reagan and chairman of the congressionally mandated EMP Commission, has stated that an EMP attack could disable telecommunications and transportation systems, the electric-power grid, and other critical infrastructure. With an indefinite severing of current “just-in-time” supply chains of food, drugs, and other critical items, two-thirds of the U.S. population might not survive. Such an attack might be mounted with a single nuclear warhead launched by terrorists (whether agents of al-Qaeda or Iran) on a SCUD-type short-range missile from a vessel off the U.S. coast.
What is most notable about the recent Iranian statements about deploying their ships to the U.S. coasts is the focus on the Gulf of Mexico. The U.S. Navy’s ballistic-missile-defense Aegis ships can shoot down such missiles if they are cruising near the launching ship. Today we have Aegis ships operating off our west and east coasts. However, they do not normally operate in the Gulf of Mexico. Thus, this area is vulnerable to the threat of missile attack.
Happily, there is an affordable near-term response to this EMP threat from the south. We can cure our current vulnerability by deploying the Navy’s Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) interceptor and an associated radar and command-and-control system at several military bases around the Gulf of Mexico. This would in fact be a homeland-defense version of the Aegis Ashore component of the U.S. program for building comparable capabilities in Central Europe. (Aegis Ashore is essentially a land-based version of the ballistic-missile-defense system currently based on Aegis ships.)
As part of its funded program, the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency is developing a prototype of the needed Aegis Ashore infrastructure — and, once developed, the capability probably can be deployed more quickly at Gulf of Mexico coastal sites than it can in Central Europe. The anticipated cost of each of the sites is about $350 million — and given the defense footprint of the current SM-3 interceptor, only three or four sites would be needed. A planned and funded improvement of the SM-3 will double the defensive footprint, so that as few as two sites may be sufficient to provide the same defensive coverage.
While planning for the deployment of several Aegis Ashore sites, Congress should make sure right now that enough SM-3 interceptors will be produced to be ready for deployment as soon as the first of these sites can become operational. Congress should keep production lines for the currently deployed interceptors open and running, while developing follow-on interceptors. This is a small price to pay for the increased level of security that would result.
A quick fix to our current vulnerability to a near-term threat is necessary but not sufficient. Also needed is a comprehensive, increasingly robust missile-defense system to defend all Americans and our overseas troops, friends, and allies from likely greater numbers of more capable future ballistic missiles.
— Henry F. Cooper was chief U.S. negotiator at the Geneva Defense and Space Talks with the Soviet Union (1985–89) and director of the Strategic Defense Initiative (1990–93). Robert L. Pfaltzgraff, Jr. is president of the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of International Security Studies at the Fletcher School, Tufts University, and co-chairman of the Independent Working Group.