- A word to the reader: The following paper is so shocking
that, after preparing the initial draft, I didn't want to believe it
and resolved to disprove it with more research. However, I only succeeded
in turning up more evidence in support of my thesis. And I repeated this
cycle of discovery and denial several more times before finally deciding
to go with the article. I believe that a serious writer must follow the
trail of evidence, no matter where it leads, and report back. So here is
my story. Don't be surprised if it causes you to squirm. Its purpose is
not to make predictions history makes fools of those who claim to know
the future but simply to describe the peril that awaits us in the Persian
Gulf. By awakening to the extent of that danger, perhaps we can still find
a way to save our nation and the world from disaster. If we are very lucky,
we might even create an alternative future that holds some promise of
the monumental conflicts of our time. --MG
- Last July, they dubbed it operation Summer Pulse: a
mustering of US Naval forces, world wide, that was unprecedented. According
to the Navy, it was the first exercise of its new Fleet Response Plan
the purpose of which was to enable the Navy to respond quickly to an
crisis. The Navy wanted to show its increased force readiness, that is,
its capacity to rapidly move combat power to any global hot spot. Never
in the history of the US Navy had so many carrier battle groups been
in a single operation. Even the US fleet massed in the Gulf and eastern
Mediterranean during operation Desert Storm in 1991, and in the recent
invasion of Iraq, never exceeded six battle groups. But last July and
there were seven of them on the move, each battle group consisting of a
Nimitz-class aircraft carrier with its full complement of 7-8 supporting
ships, and 70 or more assorted aircraft. Most of the activity, according
to various reports, was in the Pacific, where the fleet participated in
joint exercises with the Taiwanese navy.
- But why so much naval power underway at the same time?
What potential world crisis could possibly require more battle groups than
were deployed during the recent invasion of Iraq? In past years, when the
US has seen fit to "show the flag" or flex its naval muscle,
one or two carrier groups have sufficed. Why this global show of power?
The news headlines about the joint-maneuvers in the South China Sea read:
"Saber Rattling Unnerves China", and: "Huge Show of Force
Worries Chinese." But the reality was quite different, and, as we
shall see, has grave ramifications for the continuing US military presence
in the Persian Gulf; because operation Summer Pulse reflected a high-level
Pentagon decision that an unprecedented show of strength was needed to
counter what is viewed as a growing threat in the particular case of China,
because of Peking's newest Sovremenny-class destroyers recently acquired
- "Nonsense!" you are probably thinking. That's
impossible. How could a few picayune destroyers threaten the US Pacific
fleet?" Here is where the story thickens: Summer Pulse amounted to
a tacit acknowledgement, obvious to anyone paying attention, that the
States has been eclipsed in an important area of military technology, and
that this qualitative edge is now being wielded by others, including the
Chinese; because those otherwise very ordinary destroyers were, in fact,
launching platforms for Russian-made 3M-82 Moskit anti-ship cruise missiles
(NATO designation: SS-N-22 Sunburn), a weapon for which the US Navy
has no defense. Here I am not suggesting that the US status of lone world
Superpower has been surpassed. I am simply saying that a new global balance
of power is emerging, in which other individual states may, on occasion,
achieve "an asymmetric advantage" over the US. And this, in my
view, explains the immense scale of Summer Pulse. The US show last summer
of overwhelming strength was calculated to send a message.
- The Sunburn Missile
- I was shocked when I learned the facts about these
cruise missiles. The problem is that so many of us suffer from two common
misperceptions. The first follows from our assumption that Russia is
weak, as a result of the breakup of the old Soviet system. Actually, this
is accurate, but it does not reflect the complexities. Although the Russian
navy continues to rust in port, and the Russian army is in disarray, in
certain key areas Russian technology is actually superior to our own. And
nowhere is this truer than in the vital area of anti-ship cruise missile
technology, where the Russians hold at least a ten-year lead over the US.
The second misperception has to do with our complacency in general about
missiles-as-weapons probably attributable to the pathetic performance of
Saddam Hussein's Scuds during the first Gulf war: a dangerous illusion
that I will now attempt to rectify.
- 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
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."
- After the collapse of the Soviet Union the old military
establishment fell upon hard times. But in the late1990s Moscow awakened
to the under-utilized potential of its missile technology to generate
needed foreign exchange. A decision was made to resuscitate selected
and, very soon, Russian missile technology became a hot export commodity.
Today, Russian missiles are a growth industry generating much-needed cash
for Russia, with many billions in combined sales to India, China, Viet
Nam, Cuba, and also Iran. In the near future this dissemination of advanced
technology is likely to present serious challenges to the US. Some have
even warned that the US Navy's largest ships, the massive carriers, have
now become floating death traps, and should for this reason be
- The Sunburn missile has never seen use in combat, to
my knowledge, which probably explains why its fearsome capabilities are
not more widely recognized. Other cruise missiles have been used, of
on several occasions, and with devastating results. During the Falklands
War, French-made Exocet missiles, fired from Argentine fighters, sunk the
HMS Sheffield and another ship. And, in 1987, during the Iran-Iraq war,
the USS Stark was nearly cut in half by a pair of Exocets while on patrol
in the Persian Gulf. On that occasion US Aegis radar picked up the incoming
Iraqi fighter (a French-made Mirage), and tracked its approach to within
50 miles. The radar also "saw" the Iraqi plane turn about and
return to its base. But radar never detected the pilot launch his weapons.
The sea-skimming Exocets came smoking in under radar and were only sighted
by human eyes moments before they ripped into the Stark, crippling the
ship and killing 37 US sailors.
- The 1987 surprise attack on the Stark exemplifies the
dangers posed by anti-ship cruise missiles. And the dangers are much more
serious in the case of the Sunburn, whose specs leave the sub-sonic Exocet
in the dust. Not only is the Sunburn much larger and faster, it has far
greater range and a superior guidance system. Those who have witnessed
its performance trials invariably come away stunned. According to one
when the Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani visited Moscow in October
2001 he requested a test firing of the Sunburn, which the Russians were
only too happy to arrange. So impressed was Ali Shamkhani that he placed
an order for an undisclosed number of the missiles.
- The Sunburn can deliver a 200-kiloton nuclear payload,
or: a 750-pound conventional warhead, within a range of 100 miles, more
than twice the range of the Exocet. The Sunburn combines a Mach 2.1 speed
(two times the speed of sound) with a flight pattern that hugs the deck
and includes "violent end maneuvers" to elude enemy defenses.
The missile was specifically designed to defeat the US Aegis radar defense
system. Should a US Navy Phalanx point defense somehow manage to detect
an incoming Sunburn missile, the system has only seconds to calculate a
fire solution not enough time to take out the intruding missile. The US
Phalanx defense employs a six-barreled gun that fires 3,000
rounds a minute, but the gun must have precise coordinates to destroy an
intruder "just in time."
- The Sunburn's combined supersonic speed and payload size
produce tremendous kinetic energy on impact, with devastating consequences
for ship and crew. A single one of these missiles can sink a large warship,
yet costs considerably less than a fighter jet. Although the Navy has been
phasing out the older Phalanx defense system, its replacement, known as
the Rolling Action Missile (RAM) has never been tested against the weapon
it seems destined to one day face in combat. Implications For US Forces
in the Gulf
- The US Navy's only plausible defense against a robust
weapon like the Sunburn missile is to detect the enemy's approach well
ahead of time, whether destroyers, subs, or fighter-bombers, and defeat
them before they can get in range and launch their deadly cargo. For this
purpose US AWACs radar planes assigned to each naval battle group are kept
aloft on a rotating schedule. The planes "see" everything within
two hundred miles of the fleet, and are complemented with intelligence
from orbiting satellites.
- But US naval commanders operating in the Persian Gulf
face serious challenges that are unique to the littoral, i.e., coastal,
environment. A glance at a map shows why: The Gulf is nothing but a large
lake, with one narrow outlet, and most of its northern shore, i.e., Iran,
consists of mountainous terrain that affords a commanding tactical
over ships operating in Gulf waters. The rugged northern shore makes for
easy concealment of coastal defenses, such as mobile missile launchers,
and also makes their detection problematic. Although it was not widely
reported, the US actually lost the battle of the Scuds in the first Gulf
War termed "the great Scud hunt" and for similar
- Saddam Hussein's mobile Scud launchers proved so
to detect and destroy over and over again the Iraqis fooled allied
with decoys that during the course of Desert Storm the US was unable to
confirm even a single kill. This proved such an embarrassment to the
afterwards, that the unpleasant stats were buried in official reports.
But the blunt fact is that the US failed to stop the Scud attacks. The
launches continued until the last few days of the conflict. Luckily, the
Scud's inaccuracy made it an almost useless weapon. At one point General
Norman Schwarzkopf quipped dismissively to the press that his soldiers
had a greater chance of being struck by lightning in Georgia than by a
Scud in Kuwait.
- But that was then, and it would be a grave error to allow
the Scud's ineffectiveness to blur the facts concerning this other missile.
The Sunburn's amazing accuracy was demonstrated not long ago in a live
test staged at sea by the Chinese and observed by US spy planes. Not only
did the Sunburn missile destroy the dummy target ship, it scored a perfect
bull's eye, hitting the crosshairs of a large "X" mounted on
the ship's bridge. The only word that does it justice, awesome, has become
a cliché, hackneyed from hyperbolic excess.
- The US Navy has never faced anything in combat as
as the Sunburn missile. But this will surely change if the US and Israel
decide to wage a so-called preventive war against Iran to destroy its
infrastructure. Storm clouds have been darkening over the Gulf for many
months. In recent years Israel upgraded its air force with a new fleet
of long-range F-15 fighter-bombers, and even more recently took delivery
of 5,000 bunker-buster bombs from the US weapons that many observers think
are intended for use against Iran.
- The arming for war has been matched by threats. Israeli
officials have declared repeatedly that they will not allow the Mullahs
to develop nuclear power, not even reactors to generate electricity for
peaceful use. Their threats are particularly worrisome, because Israel
has a long history of pre-emptive war. (See my 1989 book Dimona: the Third
Temple? and also my 2003 article Will Iran Be Next? posted at
- Never mind that such a determination is not Israel's
to make, and belongs instead to the international community, as codified
in the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). With regard to Iran, the
Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA's) recent report (September 2004) is well
worth a look, as it repudiates facile claims by the US and Israel that
Iran is building bombs. While the report is highly critical of Tehran for
its ambiguities and its grudging release of documents, it affirms that
IAEA inspectors have been admitted to every nuclear site in the country
to which they have sought access, without exception. Last year Iran signed
the strengthened IAEA inspection protocol, which until then had been
And the IAEA has found no hard evidence, to date, either that bombs exist
or that Iran has made a decision to build them.
- (The latest IAEA report can be downloaded at:
- In a talk on October 3, 2004, IAEA Director General
El Baradei made the clearest statement yet: "Iran has no nuclear
program", he said, and then repeated himself for emphasis: "Iran
has no nuclear weapons program, but I personally don't rush to conclusions
before all the realities are clarified. So far I see nothing that could
be called an imminent danger. I have seen no nuclear weapons program in
Iran. What I have seen is that Iran is trying to gain access to nuclear
enrichment technology, and so far there is no danger from Iran. Therefore,
we should make use of political and diplomatic means before thinking of
resorting to other alternatives."
- No one disputes that Tehran is pursuing a dangerous path,
but with 200 or more Israeli nukes targeted upon them the Iranians'
on keeping their options open is understandable. Clearly, the nuclear
regime today hangs by the slenderest of threads. The world has arrived
at a fateful crossroads.
- A Fearful Symmetry?
- If a showdown over Iran develops in the coming months,
the man who could hold the outcome in his hands will be thrust upon the
world stage. That man, like him or hate him, is Russian President Vladimir
Putin. He has been castigated severely in recent months for gathering too
much political power to himself. But according to former Soviet President
Mikhail Gorbachev, who was interviewed on US television recently by David
Brokaw, Putin has not imposed a tyranny upon Russia yet. Gorbachev thinks
the jury is still out on Putin.
- Perhaps, with this in mind, we should be asking whether
Vladimir Putin is a serious student of history. If he is, then he surely
recognizes that the deepening crisis in the Persian Gulf presents not only
manifold dangers, but also opportunities. Be assured that the Russian
has not forgotten the humiliating defeat Ronald Reagan inflicted upon the
old Soviet state. (Have we Americans forgotten?) By the mid-1980s the
were in Kabul, and had all but defeated the Mujahedeen. The Soviet Union
appeared secure in its military occupation of Afghanistan. But then, in
1986, the first US Stinger missiles reached the hands of the Afghani
and, quite suddenly, Soviet helicopter gunships and MiGs began dropping
out of the skies like flaming stones. The tide swiftly turned, and by 1989
it was all over but the hand wringing and gnashing of teeth in the Kremlin.
Defeated, the Soviets slunk back across the frontier. The whole world
the American Stingers, which had carried the day.
- This very night, as he sips his cognac, what is Vladimir
Putin thinking? Is he perhaps thinking about the perverse symmetries of
history? If so, he may also be wondering (and discussing with his closest
aides) how a truly great nation like the United States could be so blind
and so stupid as to allow another state, i.e., Israel, to control its
policy, especially in a region as vital (and volatile) as the
- One can almost hear the Russians' animated
- "The Americans! What is the matter with them?"
"They simply cannot help themselves."
- "What idiots!"
- "A nation as foolish as this deserves to be taught
- "Yes! For their own good."
- "It must be a painful lesson, one they will never
forget. "Are we agreed, then, comrades?"
- "Let us teach our American friends a lesson about
the limits of military power..."
- Does anyone really believe that Vladimir Putin will
to seize a most rare opportunity to change the course of history and, in
the bargain, take his sweet revenge? Surely Putin understands the terrible
dimensions of the trap into which the US has blundered, thanks to the
and their neo-con supporters in Washington who lobbied so vociferously
for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, against all friendly and expert advice,
and who even now beat the drums of war against Iran. Would Putin be wrong
to conclude that the US will never leave the region unless it is first
defeated militarily? Should we blame him for deciding that Iran is
bridge too far"?
- If the US and Israel overreach, and the Iranians close
the net with Russian anti-ship missiles, it will be a fearful symmetry,
- Springing the Trap
- At the battle of Cannae in 216 BC, the great Carthaginian
general, Hannibal, tempted a much larger Roman army into a fateful advance,
and then enveloped and annihilated it with a smaller force. Out of a Roman
army of 70,000 men, no more than a few thousand escaped. It was said that
after many hours of dispatching the Romans, Hannibal's soldiers grew so
tired that the fight went out of them. In their weariness they granted
the last broken and bedraggled Romans their lives.
- Let us pray that the US sailors who are unlucky enough
to be on duty in the Persian Gulf when the shooting starts can escape the
fate of the Roman army at Cannae. The odds will be heavily against them,
however, because they will face the same type of danger, tantamount to
envelopment. The US ships in the Gulf will already have come within range
of the Sunburn missiles and the even more-advanced SS-NX-26 Yakhonts
also Russian-made (speed: Mach 2.9; range: 180 miles) deployed by the
along the Gulf's northern shore. Every US ship will be exposed and
When the Iranians spring the trap, the entire lake will become a killing
- Anti-ship cruise missiles are not new, as I've mentioned.
Nor have they yet determined the outcome in a conflict. But this is
only because these horrible weapons have never been deployed in sufficient
numbers. At the time of the Falklands war the Argentine air force possessed
only five Exocets, yet managed to sink two ships. With enough of them,
the Argentineans might have sunk the entire British fleet, and won the
war. Although we've never seen a massed attack of cruise missiles, this
is exactly what the US Navy could face in the next war in the Gulf.
- Try and imagine it if you can: barrage after barrage
of Exocet-class missiles, which the Iranians are known to possess in the
hundreds, as well as the unstoppable Sunburn and Yakhonts missiles. The
questions that our purblind government leaders should be asking themselves,
today, if they value what historians will one day write about them, are
two: how many of the Russian anti-ship missiles has Putin already supplied
to Iran? And: How many more are currently in the pipeline?
- In 2001, Jane's Defense Weekly reported that Iran was
attempting to acquire anti-ship missiles from Russia. Ominously, the same
report also mentioned that the more advanced Yakhonts missile was
for attacks against carrier task forces." Apparently its guidance
system is "able to distinguish an aircraft carrier from its
The numbers were not disclosed.
- The US Navy will come under fire even if the US does
not participate in the first so-called surgical raids on Iran's nuclear
sites, that is, even if Israel goes it alone. Israel's brand-new fleet
of 25 F-15s (paid for by American taxpayers) has sufficient range to target
Iran, but the Israelis cannot mount an attack without crossing US-occupied
Iraqi air space. It will hardly matter if Washington gives the green light,
or is dragged into the conflict by a recalcitrant Israel. Either way, the
result will be the same. The Iranians will interpret US acquiescence as
complicity, and, in any event, they will understand that the real fight
is with the Americans. The Iranians will be entirely within their rights
to counter-attack in self-defense. Most of the world will see it this way,
and will support them, not America. The US and Israel will be viewed as
the aggressors, even as the unfortunate US sailors in harm's way become
cannon fodder. In the Gulf's shallow and confined waters evasive maneuvers
will be difficult, at best, and escape impossible. Even if US planes
of the skies over the battlefield, the sailors caught in the net below
will be hard-pressed to survive. The Gulf will run red with American
- From here, it only gets worse. Armed with their
cruise missiles, the Iranians will close the lake's only outlet, the
Strait of Hormuz, cutting off the trapped and dying Americans from help
and rescue. The US fleet massing in the Indian Ocean will stand by
unable to enter the Gulf to assist the survivors or bring logistical
to the other US forces on duty in Iraq. Couple this with a major new ground
offensive by the Iraqi insurgents, and, quite suddenly, the tables could
turn against the Americans in Baghdad. As supplies and ammunition begin
to run out, the status of US forces in the region will become precarious.
The occupiers will become the besieged.
- With enough anti-ship missiles, the Iranians can halt
tanker traffic through Hormuz for weeks, even months. With the flow of
oil from the Gulf curtailed, the price of a barrel of crude will skyrocket
on the world market. Within days the global economy will begin to grind
to a halt. Tempers at an emergency round-the-clock session of the UN
Council will flare and likely explode into shouting and recriminations
as French, German, Chinese and even British ambassadors angrily accuse
the US of allowing Israel to threaten world order. But, as always, because
of the US veto the world body will be powerless to act... America will
stand alone, completely isolated.
- Yet, despite the increasingly hostile international mood,
elements of the US media will spin the crisis very differently here at
home, in a way that is sympathetic to Israel. Members of Congress will
rise to speak in the House and Senate, and rally to Israel's defense, while
blaming the victim of the attack, Iran. Fundamentalist Christian talk show
hosts will proclaim the historic fulfillment of biblical prophecy in our
time, and will call upon the Jews of Israel to accept Jesus into their
hearts; meanwhile, urging the president to nuke the evil empire of Islam.
From across America will be heard histrionic cries for fresh
even a military draft. Patriots will demand victory at any cost. Pundits
will scream for an escalation of the conflict.
- A war that ostensibly began as an attempt to prevent
the spread of nuclear weapons will teeter on the brink of their use.
- Friends, we must work together to prevent such a
We must stop the next Middle East war before it starts. The US government
must turn over to the United Nations the primary responsibility for
the deepening crisis in Iraq, and, immediately thereafter, withdraw US
forces from the country. We must also prevail upon the Israelis to sign
the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and open all of their nuclear sites to
IAEA inspectors. Only then can serious talks begin with Iran and other
states to establish a nuclear weapon free zone (NWFZ) in the Mid East so
essential to the region's long-term peace and security. 10/26/04
- *Mark Gaffney's first book, Dimona the Third Temple?
(1989), was a pioneering study of Israel's nuclear weapons program. He
has since published numerous important articles about the Mid-East with
emphasis on nuclear proliferation issues.