Small Wars

This Is Not a Test

Are missile defenses ready if Iran responds to an Israeli strike?

An Aug. 15 Bloomberg article describes a grim and anxious Israeli public preparing itself for war with Iran. Citizens are filing by distribution sites at shopping malls to pick up gas masks while wondering when the Israeli air force will attack Iran's nuclear complex. Although it is possible that Iran would restrain itself -- leveraging potential outrage at the attack to reverse some of the political and economic isolation it has suffered in the past few years -- virtually everyone assumes Iranian military retaliation would soon follow an Israeli strike. Matan Vilnai, the outgoing civil defense minister and a former general, predicts that a war with Iran would last a month and said that Israel should brace itself for hundreds of missile hits each day, which could kill 500 people by the end of the war.

Although Hezbollah pounded northern Israel with short-range rockets for several weeks in 2006 and Hamas still occasionally strikes towns near Gaza, a war with Iran could subject Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and other major urban areas and military bases to large-scale and long-range missile attack, the first such missile war anywhere since the 1991 Gulf War. Such a bombardment would test the hopes placed in modern missile defenses, affecting not only Israel but also American plans for the Asia-Pacific, where the United States has made missile and anti-missile systems a core part of its strategy for the region.

Vilnai's prediction of several hundred rocket hits per day implies that Hezbollah would join Iran, again striking northern Israel with Katyusha and other mostly short-range rockets. But even if it didn't -- fearing another bashing from the Israeli army and the prospect of having to recover without much help from a fracturing Syria -- Israel would have to face Iran's growing ballistic missile arsenal. Of particular concern is the Shahab-3 missile, which, according to an analysis prepared by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), can fly up to 1,300 kilometers and carry a high-explosive or chemical warhead weighing 760 to 1,100 kilograms. The U.S. Congressional Research Service estimates that Iran possesses 25 to 100 Shahab-3 missiles, deployed both in underground silos and on truck-mounted launchers. (According to the CSIS report, however, Iranian policymakers will have to live with uncertainties regarding the Shahab-3's dependability, accuracy, and warhead reliability.)

Opposing Iran will be Israel's Arrow missile defense system, designed specifically for the Shahab-3 threat. The Arrow system is tested and deployed, but has yet to face combat. The United States has positioned a high-powered, long-range X-band radar facility in Israel to boost the Arrow's sensor capability and supply target data to the Pentagon's own missile defense network. The performance of both Arrow and the U.S. missile defense system will depend on how well all the various radars and sensors in the region collect, transmit, and integrate their results -- something that has yet to occur under the stress of actual combat. In particular, Arrow's operators should brace for a large attack, perhaps involving a dozen or more Shahab-3s. It is very unlikely that the system has ever gone through a live-fire rehearsal against a dozen or more simulated Shahab-3s. Iran will have a strong interest in launching such a large-scale raid, both to stress Arrow before it can work out any unknown bugs and to use its missiles before Israel destroys them on the ground during follow-up airstrikes.

The U.S. Navy has the highly capable Aegis air and missile defense system deployed on most of its guided-missile cruisers and destroyers. The Aegis system, originally designed to protect naval task forces from missile attack, has been upgraded to be a major player in national missile defense. Some of these ships could be positioned for missile defense duty over Israel. U.S. policymakers will have to decide whether to have such ships, if present, along with other U.S. missile defense capabilities, participate in the initial defense of Israel. Opting out would allow Israel to demonstrate its own missile defense capabilities and would remove an excuse for Iran to escalate the war against the United States around the Persian Gulf. Policymakers in Washington, however, will likely opt to engage, both to exercise U.S. missile defense systems in combat (revealing any glitches) and to demonstrate to allies in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East that missile defense partnerships with the United States will be effective when needed.

The outcome of an Israel-Iran missile war will have profound implications for military strategies and investments in Asia. The expansion and modernization of China's ballistic and cruise missile forces is a recurring topic in the Pentagon's annual reports on China's military power. In a recent study CSIS performed for the Pentagon, it noted the vulnerability of U.S. military bases in the Pacific to missile attack and recommended increased missile defenses and dispersal of airfields and aircraft around the region. Should a lopsided outcome occur in an Israel-Iran missile war, military planners on all sides would likely scramble to reassess their assumptions. Should Arrow and the U.S. Navy's missile defense systems sweep a large Shahab-3 raid from the skies, American planners would undoubtedly gain confidence in their ability to sustain a forward presence in the Western Pacific in the face of China's growing missile forces. By contrast, should Iran succeed in pummeling Tel Aviv and other targets in Israel, U.S. policymakers would likely develop doubts about the long-term future of their forward-basing plans in the Pacific. The outcome of a missile war would also affect the long-running debate over funding the Pentagon's troubled effort to build limited defenses against intercontinental missiles.

An Israeli strike on Iran will come with no warning. Israel would like to give its citizens some time to prepare for an Iranian retaliatory barrage, but because it may get only one shot at Iran's nuclear program, Israel will want its initial airstrike to benefit from tactical surprise. Ideally, Israel's policymakers would also prefer to ready their missile defenses in coordination with the Pentagon and the U.S. Navy. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have to weigh the risk of a leak from Washington, which would prefer that Israel hold its fire. An Israeli attack would thus be "a bolt from the blue," designed to surprise Iran's air defenses, wreck the program's physical plant, kill Iran's nuclear engineers and technicians, and demoralize survivors.

Vilnai may be right that a war may taper off after a month, if only due to the exhaustion of missile inventories. But that would hardly mean the end of the war, which would be bound to take many unpredicted turns in the years ahead. If Netanyahu and his colleagues decide to strike, they will be walking into a dark room, with everyone else scurrying to adjust to the shock as best they can.

Quique Kierszenbaum/Getty Images

Small Wars

The Next Proxy War

How the United States can use the Syrian civil war to prepare the region -- for Iran.

In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joseph Lieberman argued for stepped-up U.S. intervention in Syria's civil war. They called for providing Syria's rebels with weapons, training, and intelligence. They also called on the United States to support the establishment of safe zones inside Syria, to be protected by U.S. air power and other capabilities (but not American ground troops). Failure to take these steps, they argued, would prolong Syria's bloody civil war, boost the role of Islamic radicals such as al Qaeda, increase the chance that Syria's chemical weapons will end up in dangerous hands, and cause the U.S. to be shut out of the country after the Assad regime falls.

A key step in formulating effective strategy is confining oneself to realistic and obtainable goals. Significantly shortening Syria's war, determining which factions come out on top, and seizing control of Syria's most threatening weapons in the midst of chaotic combat are goals very likely beyond the grasp of U.S. policymakers, at least at reasonable cost. The senators' rationale for U.S. intervention implies an ability to influence events in Syria beyond what seems feasible. Should U.S. intervention fail to rapidly end the war or quickly seize Syria's chemical weapons, the United States would risk finding itself climbing a ladder of escalation, with increasing use of air power and even ground troops in an effort to achieve the campaign's goals. Once committed in a large and visible way, U.S. prestige would be at risk, forcing policymakers to continue adding resources in the hope of achieving overly ambitious objectives.

However, that does not mean that the United States should avoid the conflict. In fact, there are important and achievable objectives in Syria, obtainable with little risk and for a modest price. Rather than attempting to influence the course of Syria's civil war, something largely beyond Washington's control, U.S. policymakers should instead focus on strengthening America's diplomatic position and on building irregular warfare capabilities that will be crucial in future conflicts in the region. Modest and carefully circumscribed intervention in Syria, in coordination with America's Sunni allies who are already players in the war, will bolster critical relationships and irregular warfare capabilities the United States and its allies will need for the future.

The conflict in Syria is just one front in the ongoing competition between Iran and America's Sunni allies on the west side of the Persian Gulf. That competition has played out in the past with proxy warfare in Lebanon and Yemen, and Iraq may become the next surrogate battlefield. Should Iran become a nuclear weapons state, the competition will almost certainly intensify. Regardless of the outcome in Syria, U.S. allies around the Persian Gulf must brace for deepening security competition with Iran.

The Sunni Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are building up their conventional military forces, in particular coordinated missile defenses to counter the threat from Iran's ballistic missiles. However, the actual fighting in recent years has been conducted by insurgent militias that have usually been armed and trained by Iran and some of the Sunni countries. For example, Qatar, whose special forces played a large role in the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime in Libya, is a major sponsor, alongside Saudi Arabia, of the rebels in Syria. On the other side, the capture this week of 48 Iranian Revolutionary Guard advisers by the Syrian rebels illustrates Iran's role in the country.

This kind of irregular warfare will very likely continue to be the most common manifestation of the security competition between Iran and the Sunni countries. Hezbollah in Lebanon, various Shiite militias in Iraq, and the current training and support Iran is supplying to pro-Assad militias in Syria demonstrate Iran's experience with this form of warfare. The Sunni countries have a strong interest in stepping up their own irregular warfare capabilities if they are to keep pace with Iran during the ongoing security competition.

The civil war in Syria provides an opportunity for the United States and its Sunni allies to do just that. For the United States, supporting Syria's rebels would constitute a classic unconventional warfare campaign, a basic Special Forces mission. Such missions are typically covert and usually performed in cooperation with regional allies. So, U.S. and GCC intelligence officers and special forces could use an unconventional warfare campaign in Syria as an opportunity to exchange skills and training, share resources, improve trust, and establish combined operational procedures. Such field experience would be highly useful in future contingencies. Equally important, it would reassure the Sunni countries that the United States will be a reliable ally against Iran.

Normally, the goals of a combined U.S.-GCC unconventional warfare campaign in Syria would be the overthrow of the Assad regime and the establishment of a government friendly to U.S. and Gulf Sunni interests. However, policymakers should recognize that unconventional warfare campaigns are fragile projects with no assurance of success. They can take years to run their course with plenty of opportunity for embarrassments along the way. The Syrian war is proving to be just as dirty as any other modern proxy war, with both sides apparently guilty of war crimes. Rather than committing to the goal of overthrowing the Assad regime, an elusive task that could result in an unpleasant spiral of escalation, the U.S. should limit itself to the goal of growing coalition irregular warfare expertise.

But to improve the odds of achieving this limited goal, policymakers should expand U.S. participation beyond its current limits. They should not rule out providing lethal assistance to the rebels not available through other partners. U.S. special forces advisers and trainers should be allowed to visit rebel sanctuary camps in Turkey and Syria. Finally, U.S. policymakers should consider the limited use of air power -- for example, drones for intelligence-gathering and close air support. Since the principal U.S. goal would be the buildup of GCC irregular warfare capacity, GCC intelligence and special forces officers should have the lead, with U.S. officers supporting them. This approach would do the most to build overall alliance special operations capacity while limiting U.S. exposure and risk.

Some will no doubt criticize this approach as an exploitation of the humanitarian disaster in Syria to allow the U.S. and its allies to refine some unpleasant techniques. A historical analogy would be the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, another very ugly civil war, which Europe's great powers used to tune up their military doctrines before World War II. By this view, intervention would only accelerate Syria's suffering and make the United States an accessory to a dirty war.

However, to the extent U.S. intervention in support of its Sunni allies shortens the war and hastens the end of the Assad regime, it will save lives and reduce the suffering in Syria. U.S. intervention cannot assure such a result and U.S. policymakers should not commit U.S. prestige to such an outcome. But as we saw in the Balkans in the early 1990s, standing aside while a civil war rages has its own moral problems. By contrast, when outside adviser assistance to the Croatian and Bosnian militias was finally allowed, the fighting soon ended. No one can guarantee a similar result in Syria. On the other hand, we can see what Syria is going through right now. Although ending the war should not be a goal of the very limited intervention discussed here, the odds of ending the fighting on favorable terms would seem to be higher than with no intervention at all.

Furthermore, irregular warfare is the future for which the U.S. and its allies must prepare. When Senators McCain, Graham, and Lieberman -- the most hawkish elected officials in Washington -- rule out the use of conventional ground troops, policymakers should conclude that they have a depleted toolbox for addressing future security challenges. With the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan still fresh, policymakers will be highly reluctant to employ conventional ground forces in future contingencies. Among the few remaining tools will be intelligence and special operations officers pursuing irregular warfare techniques alongside allies. Supporting the Sunni allies in Syria will sharpen irregular warfare skills, improve operational relationships, and prepare the United States and its allies for future contingencies. And it may even end the war and save some lives.