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Arms escalation in the MidEast

Reports indicate that the Israeli warship was hit by an Iranian C-802, also known as a Silkworm. This anti-ship cruise missle is the same as the one fired by an Iraqi jet that struck the USS Stark in May 1987 (during the Iran-Iraq war), killing 37 United States sailors and disabling the ship for sixteen months. Even though the USS Stark instruments issued a warning about the jet, the US sailors, like the Israelis, were caught completely by surprise when crusie missles struck their ship.

The AP news report suggests the Israeli sailors did not even bother to turn on their defensive systems:

An Israeli military official said the Spear’s missile detection and deflection system was not on during the attack, apparently because the sailors did not anticipate such an attack.

The military official said the ship is one of the most technologically advanced in the Israeli fleet, boasting an array of high-tech missiles and a system for electronically jamming incoming missiles and other threats.

YNetNews put it more clearly:

Navy sources said that had they known the Hizbullah was in possession of missiles of the type used against the boat Saturday, the missile interception system would have been turned on.

The AP also pointed out that another Iranian cruise missle fired actually destroyed a civilian vessel:

Nehushtan said another Hezbollah radar-guided anti-ship missile hit and sank a nearby Cambodian merchant ship around the time the Spear was struck. Twelve Egyptian sailors were pulled from the water by passing ships, Brig. Gen. Noam Fieg said.

Looking back, the C-802 was originally a Chinese product that was sold to Iran in the mid 1990s for use in the air, at sea on a dozen or more patrol boats supplied by the French and Chinese, as well as on land (in transporter-erector-launchers or TELs). This transfer of weapons was in violation of the 1992 Gore-McCain Act (Iran-Iraq Arms Non-Proliferation Act). Many policy-makers and military advisors saw it as a threat to the US naval dominance in the Gulf. Clinton’s Defense Secretary spoke of a similar situation in the summer of 1997:

Cohen…has said the Clinton administration will not ease its stance against Iran until Iran ends its support for terrorism, gives up trying to develop nuclear weapons and stops trying to undermine the Middle East peace process. Iran denies such conduct. […] `We would look favorably, obviously, upon changes that are real, not simply paper promises,’ Cohen said, adding that he remains to be convinced Iran will change. `Iran continues to pose a threat to the whole region,’ he said.

There were also harsh statements made in Congress about Iran’s acquisition of cruise missles, such as the Iran Missile Proliferation Sanctions Act of 1998 sponsored by Representative Gilman:

the Administration has concluded that the known transfers of C-802 cruise missiles from China to Iran are not a destabilizing number and type and, therefore, require no enforcement of sanctions against China. Instead, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee in May, 1997 that the Administration has `deep concerns’ about the acquisition of cruise missiles by Iran and will continue to review this development. This is unacceptable. While reasonable people can disagree over what constitutes `destabilizing,’ there can be no argument that Iran has been engaged in a worrisome expansion of its conventional military capability, especially its navy. Iran has threatened to use its military power to close the Straits of Hormuz, disrupt international shipping, and challenge American forces active in the Gulf.

The act passed the House and Senate but Clinton’s State Department continued to argue that the missles were not “destabilizing” and thus sanctions were not warranted. Clinton actually vetoed Gilman’s Act, and yet still apparently succeeded by 1998 to get China to agree to halt arms sales to Iran. This seems like a difference over method, but not purpose, and Clinton’s diplomacy was fairly promising according to the Washington Times:

Mr. Cohen said in 1998 that the assurances he received from China’s president and defense minister covered more than just new missile sales. “There will be no new sales, no transfers of technology, no technical cooperation that could give Iran an ability to upgrade current systems,” he said at the time.

A defense official also said then that the Chinese pledge covered all cruise missile sales and included technology, not just cruise missiles.

“It was the very clear message that no sales will go forward, no transfers — period — to Iran,” said one official. “That would include those missiles that have been contracted for before.”

The administration also managed to negotiate non-proliferation terms with the Russians, but soon after Clinton-Gore were no longer in office, Iran acquired larger, longer-range and faster (shore to ship in 30 seconds) SS-N-22 (sunburn) missles from Russia. Moscow annuled the Gore-Chernomyrdin Memorandum in November 2000 that limited its ability to trade arms to Iran. According to the AP the Russian former Prime Minister seemed upset by Bush’s campaign claims about the non-proliferation deal that Gore brokered. It is hard to know if this was just a convenient excuse, or whether Bush’s manner really upset the Russians so much that cruise-missles were dispatched to Iran:

Chernomyrdin accused Bush of being an irresponsible politician, and said his comments were “not only insulting but also dangerous” for the future of U.S.-Russian relations. […] Chernomyrdin also noted that he had close ties with ex-U.S. President George Bush and his wife, Barbara. He praised Bush, Sr., as a “wise politician.” But he indicated that he held a lower opinion of his son. “I know well his mom, his dad. But this one is something else!” Chernomyrdin said.

With this weakening of US foreign-relations and influence, one has to wonder if the Russian-made sunburn are now available to the Hizbullah soldiers…and if not, who and when? It seems more clear than ever that the proliferation of cruise missles with radar is going to significantly impact the security model of countries with a significant naval presence in the Mid-east. There are certainly some who suggest that the model should already be shifted, as an article by Rense (in typical hyperbole and weak citation) warns:

Many years ago, Soviet planners gave up trying to match the US Navy ship for ship, gun for gun, and dollar for dollar. The Soviets simply could not compete with the high levels of US spending required to build up and maintain a huge naval armada. They shrewdly adopted an alternative approach based on strategic defense. They searched for weaknesses, and sought relatively inexpensive ways to exploit those weaknesses. The Soviets succeeded: by developing several supersonic anti-ship missiles, one of which, the SS-N-22 Sunburn, has been called “the most lethal missile in the world today.”

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems odd that on the one hand you have military experts saying supersonic radar-guided anti-ship missles are too sophisiticated and expensive for the Hizbullah to develop without help from Iran, and then some pundit tries to suggest these things are relatively inexpensive and likely to spread as they are primarily “defensive”. They are less expensive than what, a nuclear submarine? I believe the experts, not Rense, on this one but I don’t discount the fact that the Bush administration needs to earn some respect and make better long-term decisions to improve relations with China and Russia, or the proliferation of viable threats to the US military and its allies will continue to escalate.

Posted in History, Security.


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  1. Anonymous Coward says

    When the soviet union invaded Afganistan, the US took the opportunity to bog down the USSR getting them to spend too much money and resources and hurting the USSR’s economy. How? By sending arms and support to the opposition.

    Bush and the neocons and the politicians who voted to give Bush “war powers” have opened the door for other countries to do a similar thing to the US in Afhanistan and Iraq.



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