Cuts to SM-3 missile funding send wrong message to Iran

Released to Congress last month, the new Obama budget reduces by half the funds needed to procure the next generation of SM-3 missiles, significantly cutting, rather than increasing  the number of missiles available (from 62 to 29). The SM-3 is the centerpiece of the United States’ strategic missile defense capabilities and is currently deployed globally aboard the U.S. Navy’s AEGIS class warships.

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Congress will have its first chance to quiz Missile Defense Agency (MDA) director, Patrick O'Reilly, about SM-3 IB funding at a House Strategic Forces Subcommittee hearing on Tuesday. Members of the Subcommittee should use the hearing as an opportunity ensure the MDA has its budget priorities aligned with addressing the most urgent threats facing America.

Importantly, military experts believe that this next generation SM-3 will not only protect our allies in Europe and the Middle East, but will be the first missile that could intercept a long-range missile aimed at the continental United States. This concept may not be as futuristic as it seems. An SM-3 has already been used to successfully shoot down a rouge U.S. satellite orbiting many miles above the Earth – the equivalent of hitting a bullet with a bullet, as defense planners sometimes call it.

But just as the Navy is expressing the need to increase its inventory of SM-3 missiles in light of the looming Iranian threat, the White House is turning its back on this request. There are several problems with failing to deploy additional SM-3s, not the least of which is demonstrating to our allies (Israel) and our opponents (Iran) that America possesses the readiness to respond to any escalation of the Iranian threat.

Israel’s position is more tenuous than that of any other Mideast nation should Iran achieve its nuclear ambitions, so its interest in pre-empting those ambitions is easy to understand. But if the Obama administration is serious about deterring Israel from launching such a strike against Iran, one of the best means of doing so is to demonstrate that the United States has the necessary missile defense system in place.

Cutting SM-3 missile acquisition at the very moment that Israel is contemplating action against Iran, while Iran is promising retaliation against any pre-emptive strike, does not instill a sense of confidence among our allies in the region. It actually signals to Iran, at the worst possible time, that we don't take their threat seriously. This undermines the diplomatic strategy, as well as military needs.

This cutback also fails to demonstrate to Iran our sense of resolve in confronting their attempts to obtain and field nuclear weapons. Any perception of strategic or tactical weakness on our part will only embolden Iran to take provocative action; action which could be devastating to our interests in the Middle East, and globally.

Tensions with Iran are as high as they have been in a generation and now is not the time to scale back on acquisition of the military’s first and best defense against an Iranian missile threat. Congress must give the Navy the authority it needs to make sure its inventory of SM-3 missiles is sufficient to assure Israel of our ability to respond to any attack while showing Iran that we mean business in the Gulf.

Stier is a Senior Fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research and directs its Risk Analysis Division.