Ex-Obama adviser: Missile defense may avert GCC proliferation

Retired Gen. James Cartwright, a former commander of US Strategic Command, says that missile defense could persuade Persian Gulf states to forswear nuclear weapons despite their concerns about an upcoming nuclear accord with Iran.

al-monitor US Marine Gen. James Cartwright testifies at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 23, 2008.  Photo by REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst.
Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin


Topics covered

united states, nuclear weapon, nuclear deal, nonproliferation, missiles, iran nuclear program, icbm, gulf war

Jun 9, 2015

SAN FRANCISCO — Conceived as a means of deterring a nuclear strike by the Soviet Union or North Korea, missile defense is proving a useful tool in persuading the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf not to acquire nuclear weapons, according to a former head of US Strategic Command.

Retired Marine Gen. James Cartwright, who also served as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the annual gala of the Ploughshares Fund the night of June 8 that members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), contrary to published reports, are already extensively sharing data on ballistic missile and rocket threats. This sort of sharing, he said, is key to dealing with potential threats from Iran, a country that many GCC states regard as their chief regional adversary and worry will be bolstered by sanctions relief under an impending nuclear accord.

“Strategically,” Cartwright said, missile defense has yet to prove its worth as a tool against an intercontinental ballistic missile. “Tactically, however, missile defense could provide reassurance to our Gulf allies.”

Missile defense, Cartwright added, was a manifestation of “extended deterrence” that could persuade GCC states that they don’t need to develop nuclear weapons to protect themselves against Iran should the Islamic Republic violate the terms of an anticipated long-term nuclear agreement and acquire nuclear arms or simply continue to augment its conventional capabilities.

The White House said it had no comment on Cartwright’s analysis.

Cartwright, who retired from the military in 2011 after a 40-year career that included a stint as commander of US Strategic Command — in charge of the US nuclear arsenal — serves on the board of directors of Raytheon, a defense contractor that works on missile defense systems.

Michael Elleman, an expert on missiles and missile defense at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, told Al-Monitor in an email that he agreed with Cartwright “that regional missile defense is proving to be a useful strategic asset, and testing shows it has the potential to be effective — not as an umbrella that provides hermetic protection against short- and medium-range missiles, but as the missile equivalent to air defense. In other words, it has the potential to block a large percentage of an attacking force consisting of ballistic missiles.”

However, Elleman, who was in Abu Dhabi preparing for a workshop on missile defense cooperation, said the GCC states still have “a long way to go” in this field.

“To the best of my knowledge, the GCC does not share in real-time the radar data each state acquires,” Elleman said. “They do communicate and hand off threat targets as they pass from one sector to another. So depending on how one defines ‘sharing’ radar data, his [Cartwright’s] comment could be judged accurate, or inaccurate.”

At the same time, Elleman said, “the prospects for greater security and/or missile defense cooperation [among the GCC] have never been better” in part because of Arab concerns about Iran.

Missile defense has its origins in the “Star Wars” concept of the Ronald Reagan administration that a missile could be used to hit and destroy an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) before it could strike the United States. Repeated failures in testing have led many experts to question the program. However, some US European allies in former Soviet-controlled Eastern and Central Europe continued to seek deployment of such systems even after the Soviet Union collapsed.

President Barack Obama shifted the focus when he entered office to stress a regional response to what was perceived as a greater potential threat from medium-range Iranian missiles. Controversial at the time, that change in approach has proven its worth, Cartwright said.

At a high-level meeting convened last month at Camp David to deal with GCC concerns about the anticipated Iran nuclear deal, Obama and GCC leaders agreed to further develop regional ballistic missile defense and early warning systems.

Tactical missile defense has come a long way since the 1991 Gulf War when Scuds fired by Iraq often succeeded in hitting Saudi Arabia and Israel despite the deployment of an early version of Patriot systems. The GCC states have acquired a variety of advanced US systems including the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense.

In 2012, the United Arab Emirates agreed to host a joint headquarters for monitoring regional threats in an acknowledgment that most individual GCC countries are too small to spot incoming ballistic missiles in time to destroy them. 

The sort of reassurance such systems provide was demonstrated recently when Saudi Arabia said it shot down a Scud missile it alleged had been fired by Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Israel, meanwhile, has come to rely on the Iron Dome system, whose development was extensively supported by the United States, to defend against rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities from Gaza by Hamas.

Cartwright said that missile defense is a far better bargain in both nonproliferation and budget terms than nuclear weapons.

Cartwright — an advocate of reducing the US arsenal even further, from about 1,500 warheads now to under 1,000 — said that the move could save US taxpayers a trillion dollars that would otherwise be needed to modernize aging land-, sea- and air-based systems. He also advocates getting rid of land-based ICBMs and would like to see US nuclear weapons removed from so-called hair-trigger alert, which keeps the weapons connected to the Internet 24/7.

“The only networks that exist,” he told the Ploughshares audience, are those that “have been hacked or will be hacked.”

Cartwright also praised negotiators from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany and Iran for making so much progress toward a comprehensive agreement curbing Iran’s nuclear program. Negotiators are aiming for a deal by June 30. 

In response to a question from Al-Monitor, Cartwright said there was a consensus among US military officers that the best solution to the Iranian nuclear issue is a diplomatic one.

The challenge now for both the United States and Iran, he said, is to be able to portray a deal as a “win” to skeptical domestic audiences in both countries simultaneously.

Editor's note: Slavin moderated the panel at the Ploughshares Fund, an organization that supports the Iran negotiations and seeks the elimination of nuclear weapons. 

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