12/06/11
6:37pm

Containing and Deterring a Nuclear Iran

by CDS Editors

This morning, in an event on Capitol Hill, Tom Donnelly, Dany Pletka and Maseh Zarif (joined by keynote speaker Senator Mark Kirk and AEI scholar Fred Kagan) unveiled their report “Containing and Deterring a Nuclear Iran: Questions for Strategy, Requirements for Military Forces.” Click here for the full report.

The key points are as follows:

  • Many have suggested that containing a nuclear Iran is a reasonable option, possibly more desirable than confrontation.  The United States may choose the containment of Iran as the least-worst option. Alternatively, containment may be thrust upon us at the moment Iran becomes a nuclear state, a moment that has been difficult to predict in the past.
  • Containment is hardly a cost-free policy, but aside from a small handful of policy sketches proffered heretofore, little thought has gone into what an effective containment and deterrent regime will require of the United States and its allies.
  • Even without a nuclear weapon, Iran is difficult to deter: its diffuse leadership structures and constant domestic power struggles make it hard to determine which individual leaders, groups of leaders and institutions should be the objects and targets of deterrence. Furthermore, the Iranian approach to military power is a highly asymmetrical strategy that substitutes nuclear weapons, irregulars, proxies, and terrorism for conventional strength.
  • Modeled on Cold War containment practices, the following are essential components of a coherent Iran containment policy: that it should seek to block any Iranian expansion in the Persian Gulf region; to illuminate the problematic nature of the regime’s ambitions; to constrain and indeed to “induce a retraction” of Iranian influence, including Iranian “soft power”; and to work toward a political—if not a physical—transformation of the Tehran regime.
  • A further essential characteristic of Cold War containment applicable to Iran is that such a policy demands a comprehensive, whole-of-government approach driven by consistent diplomacy.
  • Containing Iran requires effecting the isolation of the Iranian regime, disconnecting it from great power patrons, limiting its ability to peel off neighbors and regional players to serve its agenda, limiting its use of proxies, and more.
  • The keystone of any containment policy is a military strategy of deterrence. An Iran policy of containment must meet the basic Cold War standard of credibility, which includes three criteria. The deterrent posture depends on an adequate US nuclear arsenal of offensive systems; a substantial investment in forward deployed and reinforcing conventional forces; and the preservation of strong alliances that permit relatively good policy integration, military cooperation, and basing and access for US forces.
  • Adopting a serious policy of containment and strategy of deterrence will have implications for US nuclear policy and forces.  A credible US offensive deterrent must be “persistent”: that is, dedicated forces must be active, available, and “present,” at least in the mind of the adversary. In addition, the role of US offensive nuclear forces as the central feature of a “defense umbrella” covering American allies and their interests across the greater Middle East will be critical. Current policies and plans, however, do not reflect such considerations.
  • A serious policy of containment and deterrence calls for a constant and significant conventional force presence around Iran’s perimeter. Current US nuclear forces are not well prepared to provide deterrence against a nuclear Iran, and the deterrent value of US conventional supremacy is being undercut by continuous and well publicized reductions in defense spending, which has been marked, in recent years, by a growing number of terminations and cancellations of the very weapons most likely to provide a proximate danger in Tehran’s eyes.
  • US military planners must also consider the feasibility of eliminating Iran’s nuclear retaliatory options in a single raid or rapid-strike campaign given that Iran stands on the brink of developing not just a single weapon but a modest breakout capability for a more robust arsenal that would provide a survivable deterrent.
  • The diplomatic, strategic, and military costs of containing and deterring are already high. Consider the military costs alone: a renewed offensive nuclear deterrent, both in the United States and extended to the region; prolonged counterintelligence, counterterrorist, and counterinsurgency operations around Iran’s perimeter; a large and persistent conventional covering force operating throughout the region and a reinforcing force capable of assured regime change; and energetic military-to-military programs with coalition partners. Such a deterrent posture is not only near or beyond the limits of current US forces—and we know of no substantial body of studies that has analyzed in sufficient detail the requirements for a containment posture—but also would certainly surpass the capabilities of the reduced US military that proposed budget cuts would produce.
  • In conclusion, we find that though containment and deterrence are possible policies and strategies for the United States and others to adopt when faced with a nuclear Iran, we cannot share the widespread enthusiasm entertained in many quarters. Indeed, the broad embrace of containment and deterrence appears to be based primarily on an unwillingness to analyze the risks and costs described. Containing and deterring may be the least-bad choice. However, that does not make it a low-risk or low-cost choice. In fact, it is about to be not a choice but a fact of life.

This weekend’s news of a downed US drone over Iran was just the latest episode in what my colleague Tom Donnelly has described as a “low-level war” between Washington and Tehran. As Iran inches closer to a nuclear-weapons capability—Greg Jones from the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center has estimated that Iran could produce the highly enriched uranium needed for a nuclear weapon within two months—the prospect of a new geopolitical geometry in the greater Middle East looms large. Further, the spate of Iranian activity of recent months—from the abortive assassination of the Saudi Ambassador on American soil to the storming of the British Embassy in Tehran—indicates that the trend-line of Iranian misbehavior may be heading in the wrong direction. And, given the signals emanating from the White House, from an accelerated drawdown from Afghanistan, to the complete withdrawal from Iraq this year and slashed defense budgets, this should perhaps not come as a surprise.

Despite this pattern of Iranian behavior—a pattern likely only to worsen with a nuclear option—many seem resigned to a strategy of containing and deterring Iran. But what would containing and deterring Iran look like, and what would it require? In a report set for release tomorrow, Tom Donnelly, Dany Pletka, and Maseh Zarif will examine possible containment options. This promises to be a valuable addition to literature on American strategy in the Persian Gulf, and, even more, a contribution to a debate in Washington where many have decided on a strategy they have not scrutinized or explored fully. Tomorrow, the report will be unveiled in an event on Capitol Hill featuring the authors on a panel moderated by Fred Kagan as well as a keynote by Senator Mark Kirk, co-author of the most recent legislation on Iran-sanctions.

Of course President Obama does not want any more nuclear powers in Asia. But his policies are hastening that reality. Why? First “global zero” and deep cuts in conventional forces are both tempting Beijing to up its nuclear arsenal and giving allies pause about our “extended deterrent.” Second, Obama has continued the Bush and Clinton policies that have allowed North Korea to become a nuclear power.

Let’s turn to “New Start” and global zero. Without regard to China’s modernizing strategic arsenal, Obama signed an agreement with Russia to reduce the number of deployed U.S. nuclear warheads from 2,200 to between 1,500 and 1,675. Both countries are also reducing their strategic delivery systems.

China, however, is not part of any meaningful nuclear reduction treaties. In addition, it has no incentive to reduce its ballistic missile arsenal. As I previously wrote with Mark Stokes, Beijing is not bound by the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Agreement and therefore can build conventional and nuclear tipped ballistic missiles of all ranges with reckless abandon. Contrast that with the coming stark reduction in U.S. conventional forces in East Asia.

The Obama defense cuts — and make no mistake, there will much less conventional striking power in Asia by the time he leaves office — are all the more problematic given that the president justified his nuclear reductions by claiming that U.S. supremacy in precision-guided conventional weapons changes the calculus of deterrence. The logic was the U.S. can rely on conventional weaponry to have the same effects of nuclear weapons. 

But all of our credible delivery systems (for conventional and unconventional weaponry) are threatened by the budget knife (nuclear submarine fleet, stealthy aircraft, next generation bomber.) And, the administration’s plans for prompt global strike — the ability to hit any target in the world rapidly — are also of concern. First, Obama does not plan on employing very many of these systems, which undermines the stated objective of conventional supremacy. Second, if an administration decided to increase the number of missiles in the prompt global strike arsenal, those missiles would count against the New Start limits (which include conventional ICBMs against the total limit of delivery systems).

As a consequence we are getting close to a worst-case scenario in Asia. We are tempting Beijing to increase its strategic arsenal. As mentioned, China has no treaty limits on nuclear weapons or their delivery systems. At the same time, with our AirSea battle concept, we talk more openly about conventional strikes on the mainland to shut down a Chinese attack. Even if we had the conventional capability to hit targets in China that would have a strategic effects, this approach could lead toward more nuclear weapons in China. If I were a Chinese strategist, I would look at every option to negate the consequences of a massive conventional strike on my homeland – I would build a more robust nuclear arsenal. And apparently that is what China is doing.

If our strategy is to respond to a Chinese attack on an ally with massive conventional strikes on the mainland, we better have the nuclear arsenal we need to deter a nuclear response.

In short, China has every incentive to add to its arsenal. And, without a nuclear, conventional, or missile defense answer, our allies must be growing nervous. According to a State Department report cited by my colleagues Tom Donnelly and David Trachtenburg, “[t]here is clear evidence in diplomatic channels that U.S. assurances to include the nuclear umbrella have been, and continue to be, the single most important reason many allies have foresworn nuclear weapons.”

The bipartisan success of this decade’s long strategic policy is undeniable. South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Australia are all quite capable of acquiring nuclear weapons but chose (sometimes with U.S. prodding) not to do so. Now South Korea and Japan have at least two reasons to reconsider-North Korea is a nuclear weapons state and China may be a growing one. Taiwan is less confident that it will get the conventional arms it needs from the U.S., and we would do well to remember that it sought nuclear weapons when it was previously abandoned by the U.S.  

And Australia? While the administration’s decision to place Marines in Darwin is a move in the right direction, it stands to be undercut by the problems described above. With the fraying credibility of a U.S. nuclear or overbearing conventional capability, an Australia hosting Marines may come to look like a juicier target for Chinese defense planners. In terms of deterrence, the question may cease to be whether we will trade Taipei for Los Angeles. Instead allies may ask, why host U.S. troops if Washington does not have a credible extended deterrent? The next question will be, if North Korea and China have nuclear weapons, why not us?

Global Zero may quickly turn to Global Many.

Cross-posted from the Shadow Government blog on ForeignPolicy.com
(flickr/White House/Pete Souza)

Some Republicans on Capitol Hill want to kick the can down the road and address this impending damage next year. Their logic is that the automatic cuts do not kick in until 2013, so there is no need to address them now. They are wrong. The Defense Department does not operate from year to year—it operates off of long-term budgets. DoD will have to start cutting right away, in 2012, to meet spending reduction targets in 2013 and beyond. As the House Armed Services Committee has pointed out, “some decisions would be irrevocable. A shipyard closed because of program cancellations will not be there when we are ready to buy ships again.”

According to Secretary Panetta, in a letter and submission to Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, current law does not provide flexibility in applying the sequester cuts, which means that they must be applied in equal percentages to each “program, project, and activity” in the Defense Department. Immediate 23% cuts in weapons programs and military construction projects would require not just reductions in expenditures that could be ramped back up later, but wholesale cancellations of vital projects—because, as Panetta points out, you cannot buy three quarters of a building or a ship.  Among the programs on the chopping block, according to the Secretary:

•      Terminate Joint Strike Fighter; minimal life extensions and upgrades to existing forces ($80B);

•      Delay next generation ballistic missile submarine; cut force to 10 subs ($7B);

•      Terminate littoral combat ship and associated mission modules ($22B);

•      Terminate all ground combat vehicle modernization programs ($17B);

•      Terminate all Army helicopter modernization programs ($11B);

•      Delay or terminate major space initiatives, including space protection, communications satellites, and ISR systems ($27B);

•      Terminate European missile defense ($2B);

•      Eliminate ICBM leg of Triad ($8B).

As for personnel, the Department might have to turn to furloughs of a month or more next year to meet the immediate requirements of the sequester. In the longer term, according to Panetta, “Reductions at this level would lead to the smallest ground force since 1940” as well as the smallest civilian workforce in the history of the Department.

The damage this would do is incalculable. Today, the United States has the best trained, most capable, battle-hardened military force in the history of the world. They are a national security asset whose value is without measure. If something is not done, we will begin giving those experience troops pink slips in 2012—and once they have left for civilian life, there is no way to get back that lost knowledge and experience down the line.

The time for Congressional Republicans to act is now—not in 2013.

Cross-posted from the Enterprise Blog.

11/29/11
5:17pm

War with Iran

by Tom Donnelly

Curiouser and curiouser. Iranian “students” sack the British embassy in Tehran. The Quds Force contracts with a Mexican “Zeta” cartel hit man to assassinate the Saudi ambassador whilst dining in Washington. Computers in Iran’s nuclear complex are struck by a “Stuxnet” cyber-weapon. A “mysterious explosion” at a military base near Tehran kills the “architect” of Iran’s missile program.

Probably God alone can connect these dots, but the number of dots is rising rapidly. It’s beginning to look like there’s a thinly veiled, increasingly violent, global cloak-and-dagger game afoot that New York Times columnist Roger Cohen describes – in mostly approving tones – as the “doctrine of silence.” Cohen does have legal reservations, but also wonders whether there won’t be “repayment in kind” for the attacks on Iran.

So this might be a last opportunity to formulate a larger strategy for dealing with Iran, and for defining what would really constitute success. Spooky operations are fine as far as they go, but rarely achieve significant strategic results. The United States is, indeed, in a low-level war with Iran, and no one particularly wants to see it get bigger. On the other hand, wars have a logic of their own, and the presumption that everything is under control – that all repayments will be “in kind” and somehow proportionate – in not the best basis for planning. What is now merely curious might easily become deeply compelling.

But the presumption that repayment will be “in kind,” that there won’t be larger consequences strikes me as both dangerously optimistic and questionable strategy. It almost certainly violates the fundamental Clausewitzian principle: understand the nature of the conflict. We’re fixated on the Iranian nuclear program while the Tehran regime has its eyes on the real prize: the balance of power in the Persian Gulf and the greater Middle East.

It may be that things look pretty good to the Obama White House, as well, and to too-clever-by-half pundits who get tingles from covert action – I await the inevitable David Ignatius column. When things look good to both sides, the pattern is likely to continue and to expand.

In this larger contest, trends must look pretty good in Tehran. The regime has seen off the challenge of its domestic opposition in brutal, but effective, style. It’s been given a gift by the Obama administration’s withdrawal from Iraq and only need wait for the accelerating bug-out from Afghanistan. Its proxy in Syria is in some trouble (though it’s unclear how much or for how long), but its formerly troubled proxy in Lebanon is solidly entrenched.  Traditionally hostile Sunni Arab regimes are either in domestic disarray – Egypt – or disoriented by new levels of U.S. fecklessness – Saudi Arabia.

We are not well prepared for a larger war. We’re not prepared domestically, diplomatically, or militarily. Even a successful small-scale Iranian attack here would be a profound shock. The British and French may be with us (or in front of us, hence the attack on the British embassy) when it comes to sanctions, but they have little appetite or capability for any next step; China and Russia object to further sanctions. And we’re not only retreating from the region but in the process of a larger defense drawdown.

Cohen contrasts the Obama “silence doctrine” to the Bush post-9/11 doctrine of invasion and regime change. But the larger lessons of the Bush years are that you don’t always get to fight the war you want, that the enemy gets a vote, and – most of all – that there can be a very steep price if you misjudge that character of the conflict. Or, more simply, don’t start a war you don’t know how to end.

Cross-posted from the Weekly Standard.

Tonight at 8:00 PM, AEI will be co-hosting a Republican presidential debate with The Heritage Foundation on CNN. Go to CNN.com for the live stream, and for commentary see CDS contributor Gary Schmitt’s live coverage of the event. AEI research assistant Richard Cleary will be blogging for Real Clear World, as well.

11/22/11
3:40pm

Doomsday for Defense?

by Arthur Herman

The news last week from the Pentagon’s supersecret Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that it had successfully tested a hypersonic missile capable of speeds up to 3,082 mph caused quite a stir in military circles, and no wonder. Imagine being able to aim at and hit any target on the planet within an hour; or soldiers in Afghanistan calling in a pinpoint airstrike with missiles fired from Omaha.

Taken together with the successful test by the Office of Naval Research over Halloween of its hypersonic electromagnetic railgun—which, once it goes into action, can knock out approaching missiles as far away as 100 miles—and we may be entering an era as revolutionary as when gunpowder replaced the crossbow.

Unfortunately, now that Congress’ supercommittee has failed to reach some kind of budget deal, we may be doomed to crossbows for good.

The resulting sequestration of funds could strip away as much as $1 trillion from defense spending over the next decade—and put future weapons systems like hypersonic in permanent eclipse.

The House Armed Services Committee’s Democrats and Republicans have issued a chilling report on what happens if sequestration sets in.

We’ll be losing 60 ships from the Navy, including two carrier battle groups, and we’ll have 200,000 fewer troops than in 2010. Production of the Army’s Apache attack helicopter and Kiowa reconnaissance helicopter will have to shut down. No vertical take-off F-35 fighter for the Marines—and no next generation bomber for the Air Force. On top of losing ships, the Navy will also see fewer and fewer replacements, as lack of cash slows production schedules.

Is there wasteful spending at the Pentagon? Sure. Are certain weapons programs like the F-35 running way over budget? Of course. Does the military service’s very expensive health-care and retirement systems (the fastest-rising costs in the entire Pentagon budget) need some revamping and new thinking? Absolutely.

But the sequestration budget cuts will run up the white flag for friends and foes alike—and require major mission shrinkage in places like the Pacific, Africa and the Middle East. And they’ll mean losing the future while the Pentagon scrambles to save what it can of the present.

Which brings us to hypersonic. Programs involving first-time technologies have historically been extremely expensive to develop and engineer, and almost as costly to test. Like ballistic missiles in the 1950s and the Strategic Defense Initiative in the ’90s, expect serial failures on the launching pad until the technology is understood, let alone perfected. DARPA’s two earlier test hypersonic vehicles both crashed and burned—though not before the last reached Mach 20, an incredible 20 times the speed of sound.

But even if the will to persevere is there, the funding may not be. Future Congresses laboring under sequestration rules, and facing headlines proclaiming still more costly delays in a “flawed” hypersonic program, will be tempted to cancel the whole thing.

Congress has already cut funding for a free-electron-laser program. And despite successful tests, money for railgun development has been terminated, as well.

If hypersonic is next, the United States may be unable for the first time since World War II to exploit the next major military technology revolution—and so fall permanently behind those who are willing to try, including (inevitably) the Chinese.

The good news is that the Budget Control Act still allows Congress and the president to propose alternative cuts even after sequestration beings. This law was never meant to grind the government to fiscal standstill—or hollow out our military.

But those hard choices will now be postponed until the 2012 election—when American voters have to decide whether they want a permanently weakened defense structure or are willing to use the savings from our withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan to modernize our military for the threats to come, from a nuclear Iran to a hegemony-minded China.

Meanwhile, the future of America’s military superiority hangs in the balance—and by a budgetary thread.

Cross-posted from the New York Post.

(flickr/US Marine Corps)
11/17/11
2:53pm

And This is Supposed to Stop Iran?

by Maseh Zarif

The resolution coming out of the International Atomic Energy Agency meeting today following the release of a new report detailing Iran’s nuclear weapons activities is sure to embolden the Islamic Republic. According to the Associated Press:

Diplomats who spoke ahead of the meeting had said the United States and its allies were ready to push through a tough document, before ceding to Russian and Chinese pressure and accepting a watered down version that allows Iran to continue ignoring international demands.

Those who view diplomacy as an end rather than a means may hail the resolution as a sign of “success through unity,” but in reality it demonstrates the staggering failure of the years-long diplomatic effort to isolate Iran and to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons capability, a threshold it is rapidly approaching.

Cross-posted from the Enterprise Blog.

(United Nations photo/JC McIlwaine)

With the Super Committee decision looming, Defending Defense has released a primer debunking a number of myths surrounding the defense spending debate and delineating the relationship between inputs– America’s willingness to spend on national defense– and outputs– our security at home and place in the world. Here is an excerpt:

The future of America’s national security hangs in the balance.  Facing a looming Thanksgiving deadline, a select bipartisan panel of 12 lawmakers is struggling to hammer out legislation that would reduce the federal deficit by more than $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years.  However, it remains unclear if they will succeed.

If this so-called “Super Committee” falls short—or if the required deficit reduction legislation is not enacted by January 15, 2012—then the Pentagon’s long-term budget will suffer the brunt of the consequences.  Specifically, it will face not only lowered “sequestration” ceilings on spending that will effectively cut more than $500 billion from what the Pentagon was projected (based on Obama’s fiscal year 2012 budget proposal) to spend over the next ten years, but also “sequestration” cuts that will further indiscriminately slash as much as $500 billion more.  In all, sequestration’s spending ceilings and cuts could effectively trim anywhere from $500 billion to over $1 trillion from projected long-term defense spending.

A wide range of America’s civilian and military leaders have voiced grave concerns about the dangers of further defense cuts.  Most recently, in letters sent to Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on November 14, 2011, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta explained that sequestration cuts—which, under current law, “must be applied in equal percentages to each ‘program, project, and activity’—would be “devastating” to the military.  He wrote that, under full sequestration, the United States would have:  “[t]he smallest ground forces since 1940″, “a fleet of fewer than 230 ships, the smallest level since 1915″, and “[t]he smallest tactical fighter force in the history of the Air Force”.  The Pentagon would face the prospect of terminating the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter; littoral combat ship; all ground combat vehicle and helicopter modernization programs; European missile defense; all unmanned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems.  It may also have to delay the next-generation ballistic missile submarine; terminate next-generation bomber efforts; and eliminate the entire intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) leg of America’s nuclear “triad”.  Panetta thus concluded:

“Unfortunately, while large cuts are being imposed,the threats to national security would not be reduced.  As a result, we would have to formulate a new security strategy that accepted substantial risk of not meeting our defense needs.  A sequestration budget is not one that I could recommend.”

As lawmakers, policymakers, and the American public debate how best to achieve federal deficit reduction, this analysis debunks three common myths about U.S. spending on national defense.

Click here to read the document in full.

(U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. Reece Lodder)
AEI