The Pentagon Prepares for a Missile Attack from 'Iran'

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Reuters / Corbis

A Ghadr 1 class Shahab 3 long-range missile is prepared for launch during a test from an unknown location in central Iran

Fake "North Korean" missiles have been hurtling over the Pacific toward the U.S. for years, providing test fodder for the Pentagon's missile-defense systems. But next month, the fake enemy missiles flying over the same ocean are going to be "Iranian." The timing of the test, however, has nothing to do with a missile test-fired by Iran on Tuesday. That was a medium-range Sajjil-2 missile capable of targeting Israel or U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf. Next month's U.S. interceptor test will, instead, be aimed at the as-yet-hypothetical threat of an Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), even though such a threat has been deemed by the Obama Administration to be unlikely in the immediate future.

The Administration announced earlier this year that the long-range Iranian threat isn't advancing as quickly as once feared. Recent U.S. intelligence assessments have concluded that "the threat of a potential Iranian ICBM had been slower to develop than previously estimated," Ellen Tauscher, the State Department's arms-control chief, told Congress. Some intelligence estimates say an Iranian ICBM might not happen until 2020. That assessment prompted the President, with Pentagon support, to scrap a land-based interceptor system based in Poland and the Czech Republic and instead to deploy ships capable of shooting down the short- and mid-range Iranian missiles that U.S. intelligence believes pose a more imminent threat — like the sort of missile test-fired by Iran this week.

Next month's missile test not only will be aimed at a threat deemed less than urgent but will also involve tougher technical challenges. Destroying a "North Korean" missile involves hitting it as it zooms from left to right across an interceptor's field of view, but the locations of the "Iranian" missile and the U.S. interceptors require more of a head-on collision. That means the closing speed between the two projectiles will be faster than in previous tests: close to 18,000 m.p.h., compared with 15,000 m.p.h. in prior exercises.

That reduced shoot-down window means the interceptor will have to work more quickly to do its job. "Whenever we have a situation where we're taking on a missile more head-on than from the side, that increases the challenges," Army Lieut. General Patrick O'Reilly, the U.S. missile-defense chief, told a defense gathering sponsored by Reuters on Monday. The test is expected to send an interceptor missile from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at a fake Iranian missile, fired from the Marshall Islands.

The U.S. currently has 23 ground-based interceptors based in Alaska and California, and they could be used against missiles launched — for real — from either North Korea or Iran. "They can go both ways," O'Reilly told Congress in October. "If you look at the earth from the North Pole, you'll see that the closest part of the U.S. to Iran is Alaska." He added that the U.S. has other ways of destroying such weapons, including attacking them during the several days it takes to ready them for launch. "All ICBMs right now associated with Iran and North Korea are pad-launched," added General James Cartwright, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, at the same session. "They're very visible, they're up above the ground, and you can go after them before launch if you so desire. We're not advocating pre-emptive, but it is a physical capability that we possess."

It may, of course, make sense for the U.S. to hedge its bets on what it knows about Iran. Two years ago, the U.S. intelligence community declared that Iran had, in 2003, halted its secret push to build nuclear weapons. But last weekend a document, purportedly from inside Tehran's nuclear program, surfaced in a London newspaper suggesting that Iran has been busy developing the sophisticated devices necessary to trigger a nuclear explosion. Some intelligence officials believe that the undated document was written in 2007 — the same year U.S. intelligence said Iran had frozen its weapons program. Then again, neither the U.S. nor other Western intelligence agencies are able to verify the document's authenticity.