Fifty years ago, I was a young Bell Telephone Laboratories engineer on the heels of celebrating with our development team the deployment of Telstar, the first telecommunications satellite — and also a grad student at New York University. I vividly remember the evening of October 22, 1962, watching a student-union black-and-white TV broadcast of President John F. Kennedy’s address to the nation. The president announced that the Soviet Union was deploying nuclear weapons in Cuba, only 90 miles from our Florida coast — and the actions that the United States was taking in response. (For the unedited broadcast, see this.)
For the rest of the Cuban Missile Crisis’s fateful 13 days (which were already at midstream), we and all Americans reviewed our “duck and cover” preparations for what seemed to be a looming holocaust. Kennedy declared the highest nuclear alert short of launch, DEFCON 2, which, among other things, may have involved plans to deploy NATO aircraft (among others) to bomb Soviet targets. We now know from Soviet records of those fateful events, publicly released in the early 1990s, that we were even closer to that brink than we then realized.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s promise to President Kennedy on October 28 that he would cease deploying nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba ended the crisis and the blockade. But unknown for decades was that 100 smaller Soviet nuclear warheads were already in Cuba, and Fidel Castro wanted to keep them. Had he prevailed, Cuba would have become a nuclear power. And if Kennedy had known that Khrushchev had all but lied on October 28, the U.S. might have undertaken an all-out invasion of the island, triggering a holocaust. Happily, these weapons were also removed by the end of 1962.
Among the lessons of these events, which many consider the closest we came to a nuclear exchange during the Cold War, is that our intelligence community can be badly informed. Our technical capabilities for gathering information are much improved since a half-century ago, but this lesson remains true — even regarding the possibility of a renewed threat to the United States of a nuclear attack from the south, courtesy not of the Russians but of Iran.
Indeed, even as Israel seems sure that Iran will not gain a nuclear-weapons capability in the next few months, others doubt that we really know Iran’s capabilities so precisely — and they warn that Iran could pose an imminent threat not only to Israel but also to the United States.
For example, Reza Kahlili is a counterterrorism expert who served in the CIA’s directorate of operations as a spy in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and currently serves on the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, an advisory board authorized by Congress. He warns of an October surprise that could affect our upcoming election. Last year, he noted that when Iran gets a nuclear weapon, it will already have the tested ballistic-missile capability needed to launch it from a ship off our coasts, including from the Gulf of Mexico.
So we potentially could again be rudely awakened by a nuclear attack from a few miles off our coasts. As I have previously argued, this is an existential threat, because the associated electromagnetic pulse (EMP) from a high-altitude nuclear burst could lead to the ultimate death of two-thirds or more of all Americans, as reported to Congress by the congressionally mandated EMP Commission.
Thus, we could, in the near future, confront a modern Cuban Missile Crisis — produced by the threat of a nuclear attack either from a ship off our coasts or from Venezuela, which Iran is supporting with important technology and know-how. We are totally vulnerable to this threat.
While our missile-defense site in Alaska provides a limited defense against long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) launched from Iran, it is totally ineffective against this threat from the sea or from Venezuela. An additional East Coast site, as advocated by some in Congress, is a worthy objective to improve our defense against Iranian ICBMs, but it would not end our total vulnerability to Iranian missiles launched from ships off our coasts.
We should end this 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 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 24 or so Aegis ships.)
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. Given the defense footprint of the current SM-3 interceptor, only three or four sites would be needed. Planned and funded improvements 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.
Last summer, I briefed the Jackson County, Mississippi, board of supervisors on these issues, and I know they would welcome placement of the first site at Pascagoula, which is where our Aegis Cruisers are built. Other potential locations include Corpus Christi, Texas; Tyndall or Eglin Air Force Bases, in the Florida panhandle; and McDill Air Force Base, in Tampa. Congress would do well to initiate the planning for such an initiative at these and other potential military bases around the Gulf of Mexico, while debating the fate of “sequester.”
This is an urgent matter.
Whatever the uncertainties in 1962, President Kennedy knew he was dealing with an adversary that could be deterred from carrying out an existential threat to America. Today we confront an Iranian regime that is dedicated to destroying the “Great Satan,” America — and may even seek an “end times” catastrophe to hasten the “return of the Mahdi.”
It is not at all clear that they can be deterred. Indeed, many of their actions — and words — suggest that they are quite prepared to commit suicide to kill a multitude of Americans and destroy all we hold dear. We dare not respond with defenses needed to protect America.
A quick fix to our current vulnerability to this 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 the likely greater numbers of more capable future ballistic missiles.
— Henry F. Cooper was ambassador and 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).