Pentagon’s Iran Buildup Call for Adding Laser Weapons

Tony Cappicio – Bloomberg March 2012

The U.S. Central Command plans to bolster military capabilities against Iran by fielding new laser target-trackers for machine guns, enhanced sensors for underwater vehicles, improved protection against drone attacks and upgrades of U-2 spy planes.

The Tampa, Florida-based command, which is responsible for U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region, also wants to shift $5.5 million in previously approved funds to buy Gatling guns for Navy coastal patrol craft, according to budget documents.

 Iranian officials have periodically threatened this year to block the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world’s daily oil transits, in retaliation for Western sanctions aimed at slowing its nuclear program. The U.S. Navy would move to stop any Iranian attempt to lay mines in the Strait or Gulf as an “act of war,” the services’s top Gulf commander, Vice Admiral Mark Fox, has said. 

The Central Command’s intentions are spelled out in two “reprogramming” requests that Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale sent Congress last month. The four congressional defense committees have approved the requests to move defense funds, which were to go to other programs, and the changes are being implemented, according to the comptroller’s website.

“There’s no significant area where I’ve got to come in and say, we’ve got a big problem here.” Central Command commander General James Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee on March 7. “They’re just areas I want to make certain we maintain our edge.”

Faster Than Anticipated

In a “couple of cases,” Iran improved capabilities “faster than we anticipated,” he said.

The Command requested the additional funds because “our growing reliance on our maritime forces requires an ability to project power against asymmetric threats, particularly in the confined and crowded sea lanes” of the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf, Major David Nevers, spokesman for the Central Command, said in an e-mailed statement.

Funds were shifted from Pentagon biological and chemical weapons defensive programs and Navy and Air Force shipbuilding, satellite and aircraft programs deemed to have excess funds or experiencing delays.

Congress approved a $28 million shift to provide six U-2 spy planes with upgraded satellite links that increase their capability to “provide real-time, high bandwidth video feeds to ships, ground forces and command and control centers,” according to the reprogramming documents.

Air Combat Command spokeswoman Kelly Sanders declined to discuss the upgrade, citing its classification.

Anti-Radar Missile

Congress also backed the shift of $10 million to increase funding for a joint Navy-National Reconnaissance Office program to equip the service’s new anti-radar missile — the Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile made by Alliant Techsystems Inc. (ATK) – - with a “Special Target Engagement” capability that includes a broadcast receiver.

The National Reconnaissance Office is the spy agency that manages U.S. intelligence satellites.

An additional $4.8 million was approved for integrating new sensors on a Navy underwater vehicle “for very shallow water- mine countermeasures missions,” according to the documents.

The Central Command also won congressional approval to shift $3.7 million to developing a defense against drone attacks. The system will cover “vulnerable areas below typical air-defense radar coverage areas,” according to the documents.

Iran’s Drones

Iran “has an active program and two families of reconnaissance, target and lethal” drones, an April 2010 Pentagon report on Iran’s military capabilities found.

Congress also approved plans to accelerate installation on coastal patrol craft of the “MK 38 Mod 2” system, which includes the laser-tracker for precision aiming of machine guns. Lawmakers rejected the planned source of $4 million in funds so the Comptroller is looking to other sources, a document said.

As described by BAE Systems Plc (BA/) and subcontractor Boeing Co. (BA), the tactical laser system “brings high precision accuracy against surface and air targets such as small boats and unmanned aerial systems. The system also provides the ability to deliver different levels of laser energy, depending on the target and mission objectives.”

Iran has increased the number of small, fast patrol vessels, some of which have been outfitted with large warheads for a suicide run at U.S. vessels, Fox told reporters last month.

Iran’s Subs, Speedboats

The Pentagon’s 2010 assessment of Iran’s military power listed four midget submarines, 80 patrol craft and 18 guided missile patrol boats under control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps navy. The Corps also “controls hundreds of small patrol boats,” it said.

The Guard navy since the 1990s has purchased Italian-made speedboats and has been making them domestically, according a 2009 report by the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence.

It also has Chinese-built C-14 missile boats and North Korean-made “semi-submersible” vessels that can carry two torpedoes.

The planned Central Command improvements are in addition to deploying four additional mine-sweeping vessels and four more MH-53 helicopters within three months, doubling U.S. counter- mine capabilities, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, told reporters on March 16.

Greenert said he determined new capabilities were warranted after making a trip the Gulf and a carrier transit through the Strait of Hormuz. He likened the improvements to giving vessels a “hunting rifle” or a “sawed-off shotgun” if needed in the Strait’s narrow waters.

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