In remarks this week celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said, “We have not asked and will not ask for permission to develop various types of missile[s].” Rouhani’s remarks indicate Tehran may continue to develop the technologies necessary to deploy an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of threatening the United States.
Iran already possesses a formidable arsenal of short-range and medium-range ballistic missiles that enable Tehran to strike targets throughout the Middle East and in Eastern Europe. However, the development of an ICBM that could reach the United States would be especially concerning, since the U.S. intelligence community has warned that “Tehran would choose ballistic missiles as its preferred method of delivering nuclear weapons, if it builds them.”
In his January 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats testified that “Iran’s work on a space launch vehicle (SLV)—including on its Simorgh—shortens the timeline to an ICBM because SLVs and ICBMs use similar technologies.” The 2019 Missile Defense Review included a similar warning.
Echoing years of testimony from Department of Defense (DOD) experts, the Missile Defense Review also noted that building a new ground-based interceptor (GBI) site in the continental United States “would add interceptor capability against the potential expansion of missile threats to the homeland, including a future Iranian ICBM capability.” GBIs are a principal element of the ground-based, mid-course defense system, which is designed to defend the United States from an ICBM attack by a rogue state.
As part of this system, the U.S. currently has 44 GBIs at two military bases in Alaska and California, which are well positioned to address a North Korean ICBM. They are less well positioned to address a potential Iranian ICBM launched toward the east coast of the United States.
A third GBI site – perhaps in New York, Ohio, or Michigan, for example – would provide additional capability or “battle space” to intercept an incoming Iranian ICBM targeting Washington, DC, Philadelphia, or New York, among other population centers. Still, the Missile Defense Review failed to announce any decision related to a third GBI site.
In his January remarks on the Missile Defense Review, President Trump said, “It is not enough to merely keep pace with our adversaries; we must outpace them at every single turn. We must pursue the advanced technology and research to guarantee that the United States is always several steps ahead of those who would do us harm.”
If so, a failure to take appropriate action now could leave the U.S. in the unenviable position of someday confronting an Iranian ICBM with less than optimal means to protect the American people.
DOD is right to focus finite missile defense resources on the North Korean threat, since it is more immediate. However, with relatively modest additional resources, DOD could also better prepare to address any potential Iranian ICBM threat. With an eye toward North Korea, DOD is equipping existing GBIs with advanced boosters, developing a more advanced exoatmospheric kill vehicle, and fielding new sensors. These efforts should continue. In addition, deploying a third GBI site would add significant and complementary capability with respect to a future Iranian ICBM threat.
Some may suggest that we should wait before investing in a third site since Iran cannot yet field an ICBM. However, that kind of thinking put the U.S. in the position of playing catch-up when it comes to the North Korean ballistic missile threat. In light of Rouhani’s comments this week, we should not make the same mistake with Iran.
Bradley Bowman is the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_L_Bowman. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.