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May 21, 2009
Notes from the Pentagon

Iran's nuclear program
Rep. Peter Hoekstra, Michigan Republican and ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said Tuesday that Iran is continuing its nuclear program and an Obama administration one-year plan for diplomatic engagement poses national-security dangers.

"That's a high-risk strategy ... based on the estimates that we have that are out there" on when Iran could field a nuclear device or warhead, Mr. Hoekstra told reporters and editors of The Washington Times.

U.S. estimates of Iran's nuclear program are that Tehran could deploy a nuclear weapon by 2010 at the earliest if a decision were made to do so. Israeli intelligence estimates are that Iran could have a nuclear bomb sooner, according to published reports.

Mr. Hoekstra said any military option for dealing with Iran's nuclear program would be difficult. "I've got concerns whether we know where all their capabilities and things are [located]," he said.

A 2005 U.S. Energy Department report on the Iranian nuclear program stated that Iran had at least 13 facilities involved in nuclear research, many of them located in fortified underground facilities or disguised by camouflage.

Mr. Hoekstra said he favors a U.S. policy of organizing a "global coalition" of the United States, Europe, Russia and China to pressure Tehran with "a vigorous sanctions regime," rather than a yearlong diplomatic initiative favored by President Obama.

Iran's government has denied its nuclear efforts are part of a weapons program and claims that it is developing power-generating nuclear stations.

On the controversial 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that said Iran halted nuclear-weapons design in 2003, Mr. Hoekstra said Michael McConnell, until earlier this year the director of national intelligence, has stated that the wording of the NIE was "very inappropriate" in asserting Iran's nuclear program was stopped.

Mr. Hoekstra said Iran only halted one of the three elements of a nuclear program - weaponization - in 2003 and that the other two, fissile-material production and delivery systems, are continuing.

"The third one that could be done in the shortest period, we didn't know whether that had started up again or not," he said of the weaponization work. "That was just an awful document, poorly written."

CIA Director Leon Panetta said in a speech in California Monday that Iran's nuclear program remains a significant intelligence concern.

"On the nuclear front, the judgment of the intelligence community is that Iran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop deliverable nuclear weapons," he said, noting that Iran halted weaponization in 2003, "but it continues to develop uranium-enrichment technology and nuclear-capable ballistic missiles."

"And that represents a danger for the future," he said.

Iran tested a missile Wednesday with a range of about 1,200 miles.

Marine artillery in Afghanistan
The commanding general of U.S. Marine Corps forces in Afghanistan said recently that as part of the troop surge, the Marines are bringing more artillery power for use against insurgents in the rugged terrain.

Lt. Gen. Dennis J. Hejlik, commanding general of the II Marine Expeditionary Force, told defense reporters May 12 that "the artillery is back with the brigade in Afghanistan."

About half of Gen. Hejlik's 8,000 Marines are in Afghanistan, and the rest are set to deploy there in the coming weeks as part of the troop surge designed to stabilize the country.

Gen. Hejlik said the Marines are bringing a newer M777 Ultralightweight Field Howitzer, a 155 millimeter gun, with them. "It's got the same range as the old one 9-er-8 does," he said, referring to the towed M198 howitzer. "Obviously a lot lighter piece of gear, so that's back." Additionally, Marines are using the towed Expeditionary Fire Support System (EFSS), a 120 mm mortar.

The artillery is needed because troops are being deployed in forward operating bases as part of a new strategy and need readily available firepower against Taliban insurgents, Gen. Hejlik said.

"They have then instant fire support with the 120 and the 777. So that's one of the reasons we did that," he said.

According to a military official, U.S. forces in Afghanistan for years since the 2001 operation to oust the Taliban had relied more on aircraft power than artillery, based on the strategy of then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who emphasized the use of smaller, less well-equipped special-operations forces on the ground backed by bomber strikes.

However, in recent months, U.S. air strikes have caused civilian casualties, and the deaths are being exploited by Taliban propaganda efforts against U.S. and coalition forces.

Gen. Hejlik said air support for the Marines remains "the best in the world" and includes F-16s and F-18s armed with precision-guided missiles.

"With the precision systems, actually we're operating right now, we don't foresee a problem. So we'll go with both," he said.

Additionally, the Marines are backed by AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters. "I'm an infantry officer, and the greatest sound in the world [is] the Cobra coming down the valley or whatever, so the Cobra's back in there," Gen. Hejlik said.

China missiles
China is rapidly expanding its arsenal of strategic nuclear missiles, and the buildup is being left out of the Obama administration's strategic arms initiative with Russia to limit U.S. strategic forces, according to a report in the trade publication Jane's Intelligence Review.

"This effort is expected to result in a relatively modest increase in missile numbers, but armed with far more capable, if not a larger number of warheads," wrote Richard D. Fisher Jr., a military-affairs specialist with the International Assessment and Strategy Center in the June edition of Jane's Intelligence Review.

The exclusion of China from the new U.S.-Russian strategic nuclear talks means "China will therefore continue to expand its nuclear arsenal."

Mr. Fisher identified up to five Chinese intercontinental ballistic missile systems deployed or in development in what he termed "China's most ambitious increase in intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability since the late 1980s."

Chinese military secrecy makes estimating the number of nuclear missiles difficult; however, published accounts by the Pentagon and State Department indicate that the Chinese missile force will grow from about 60 missiles today to as many as 120, including difficult-to-detect road-mobile missiles and new submarine-launched missiles, Mr. Fisher said.

Evidence of the missile buildup in the report includes commercial satellite images showing a significant expansion of the Taiyuan Space Launch Center, China's main missile test facility, since 2006.

"The imagery shows that Taiyuan has doubled in terms of launch capability since 2006, a clear indication of a more robust strategic missile development intention," Mr. Fisher said in an interview.

China's state-run media also disclosed in February the warhead configuration of the DF-31A, the new long-range ICBM, which indicates that China has developed a maneuvering warhead equipped with thrusters similar to warheads reported on Russia's SS-27 ICBM.

"The objective for both warheads would be to defeat current and future U.S. missile defenses," Mr. Fisher said.

Chinese embassy spokeswoman Wei Xin said in response to the Jane's report that China has a "principled position" in strategic missile development.

"China always supports and actively advocates comprehensive prohibition and thorough destruction of nuclear weapons," she said.

"China endorses international nuclear disarmament and has made unremitting efforts in this regard. Given the completely explicit and transparent nuclear strategy and policy of China, any groundless accusations in this regard are totally unacceptable."

Mexico threat

Drug violence and drug-related murders in Mexico are being watched closely by U.S. intelligence agencies, and the problem poses a national-security challenge to the United States, according to Rep. Peter Hoekstra, Michigan Republican and ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Mr. Hoekstra said he has been briefed by U.S. intelligence agencies on the threat to the United States posed by drug cartels and related deaths. Mexican drug gangs and related violence have led to the deaths of at least 7,000 people since January 2008, mostly in border regions.

"I think having an unstable government on your border is not the kind of position you want," Mr. Hoekstra said.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in March that the United States is partly to blame for the drug violence because so many Mexican-origin drugs are consumed by Americans and because arms used by drug gangs have been purchased in U.S. border states.

Asked about intelligence assessments of Mexico, a U.S. intelligence official said: "To be sure, there are some serious challenges confronting the Mexican government, including violence in some cities along the U.S. border. And that's a problem for them and for us."

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the data involves sensitive intelligence, said the Mexican government is taking aggressive action in areas hit by drug violence, and a conclusion that the government is unstable "isn't something we're prepared to say."

"Moreover, the fact that the Mexican and U.S. governments both recognize what's going on has allowed our two countries to work more closely together and to get past some of the historical issues that have sometimes crept into the relationship," the official said.

A 2008 report by the U.S. Joint Forces Command that looked at worldwide security trends stated that the Mexican government's infrastructure is "under sustained assault and pressure" from drug cartels and gangs. The report said that if Mexico were to collapse, it would "demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone."

  • Bill Gertz covers national security affairs. He can be reached at 202/636-3274, or at

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