Venezuelan Missile Crisis?
By John D. Turner
20 May 2011

Back in 2006, I wrote an article concerning Hugo Chavez, the ruler of Venezuela. I say “ruler” instead of “president”, because, although Chavez was elected as President of Venezuela, there is no evidence that he ever intends to step down or allow any sort of election whereby he might be replaced.

While the thrust of the article had to do with Venezuela’s oil resources and speculation on Chavez’s future policies concerning sale of said oil to the United States, I also mentioned the fact that Chavez was cozying up to countries with interests inimitable to ours; nations such as China and Iran. China I was less concerned about. Although China is moving fast to become a peer competitor with us, and a regional power in Asia where she has national interests, China currently does not have global power projection capability, nor does China seem interested in taking down the United States, or even clashing with us except in areas where our national interests overlap and conflict, such as Taiwan.

Iran, on the other hand, has spoken openly about “taking down” the United States, referring to us repeatedly as “the Great Satan” which must be defeated. Hugo Chavez has referred to us in those sorts of terms as well, claiming that we harbor an intention of invading Venezuela, and speaking of an “odor of sulphur” when referring to President Bush. (Note: he seems to not be a much bigger fan of President Obama.)

In my article I expressed concern over this new alliance between Iran and Venezuela, noting that Chavez has been purchasing weapons from Russia and other sources; weapons such as AK-47 assault rifles and additional AK-103 assault rifles, SU-30 attack aircraft, MI-17V5 Hip armed troop transport helicopters, MI-35M2 Hind helicopter gunships, MI-26T heavy transport helicopters and T-72M1M main battle tanks. I speculated that the Shahab-3, an intermediate range missile produced by Iran, might be next on his list of toys which he might want to acquire. Of course, at the time, my friends told me there was no way that was ever going to happen. Remember what happened when Russia tried to put missiles in Cuba back when Kennedy was president? We nearly went to war! George Bush was president, and the United States would never allow Iranian missiles in Venezuela.

Well, now it’s 2011. Bush is no longer president, Obama is. And what do you know? Here is a report in “Die Welt”, a German publication, saying that Iran is building (not plans to build) intermediate-range missile launch pads on the Paraguana Peninsula in Venezuela, about 120 miles from Columbia. The Paraguana Peninsula, located just south of Aruba, is pretty much the northernmost part of Venezuela and is approximately 2000 km (1250 miles) from Miami. That would put it just barely inside the range of the improved Shahab-3 tested by Iran in 2009.

According to the article, the project includes bunkers, barracks, watch towers, anti-aircraft defenses, and command and control systems. The missiles are to be housed in hardened silos 20 meters deep. The article goes on to state that there is an agreement between Venezuela and Iran that Chavez would “fire rockets at Iran’s enemies should the Islamic Republic face military strikes.”

Since I can’t think of any South or Central American nations that would be likely (or capable) of striking Iran, this alliance can only be against the United States. While the current threat of Shahab-3 missiles, armed with explosive warheads, to the US is minimal, suppose the missile warheads contained biological agents instead? Or nuclear ones, as Iran is currently trying to build? Nuclear armed Shahab-3s located in Iran could not hold the U.S. at risk, but if they were based closer? In Venezuela?

It is true that the Shahab-3, with its estimated range of 1500 km (930 miles) is currently unable to strike the United States from launch pads on the Paraguana Peninsula. However it should also be noted that Iran is working on longer-range missiles (Shahab-4, Shahab-5, Shahab-6); the article doesn’t say exactly which missile is to be emplaced. If indeed the intent is to hold the U.S. at risk, missiles of sufficient range would need to be employed. It should be noted that the Shahab-5 will have the range to strike the southern United States from Venezuela. Shahab-5 has been under development since at least 1996.

This assumption also supposes that the missiles would be used to strike ground based targets in the United States. If the intent were to explode a nuke at altitude short of the US but over the visual horizon, the resulting EMP wave could potentially damage the Eastern US grid. Collateral damage to electronics and power systems in Cuba, Haiti and other parts of the Caribbean would be, no doubt, severe; whether or not this would be a factor in any such decision by Chavez is unknown.

Venezuela will also reportedly be deploying the Scud-B (283-330 km range) and the Scud-C (300, 500, and 700 km range) as well. Although older technology, Scud-B missiles can carry nuclear warheads and were so deployed by the former Soviet Union. Both the B and the C models were also deployed with chemical warheads. These missiles cannot hit the U.S., but can threaten neighboring countries such as Columbia, a U.S. ally, which Hugo Chavez sees as a springboard for the U.S. to invade Venezuela. Venezuela will also apparently be taking delivery of Russian-built S-300PMU-1 air defense systems to guard their missile fields. The S-300PMU-1 (SA-20) is a long-range (150 km), highly sophisticated surface-to-air missile system designed to provide defense against aircraft, cruise missiles, and limited defense against tactical ballistic missiles. It is reputed by some to be superior to the American Patriot system, but has never been battle-tested.

Once this base is completed, Venezuela will be the only country in this hemisphere, other than the United States, to possess ballistic missiles. They will also have the most sophisticated air defense system in the hemisphere as well.

Is this a problem? I don’t know. Certainly in the short run we have nothing to fear. The weapons he is acquiring can currently do us no harm. Chavez maintains that his military buildup is purely defensive. He has announced repeatedly that they are to protect Venezuela against an impending American invasion designed to take over their oil fields.

I find such a scenario hard to imagine. Even were Venezuela to cut off all oil exports to the United States, which I fully expect to happen once Chinese refineries capable of refining Venezuelan crude come on line, I can’t imagine the Obama administration (or any administration for that matter) using that as a pretext to invade.

In 2010, the U.S. imported around 987,000 barrels of crude oil and other petroleum products per day from Venezuela. This represents around 8.4% of our total oil imports and is significantly down from the 1.5 million per day we were importing back in 2006 when I wrote the article I cited at the beginning of this one, and well off the peak of 2.1 million barrels per day back in 1997.

Would losing 8.4% of our current oil imports hurt? Certainly! Could existing oil refineries, designed to process Venezuelan crude, be modified to handle oil from elsewhere? Probably - however, not being a petroleum engineer, I have no idea what that would entail. I am sure it would cause some dislocations in the supply chain. How serious, I don’t know. It would probably cause the price of fuel in the U.S. to spike, on fear of insufficient supply if nothing else.

Do I think we would go to war with Venezuela over it? Not hardly. Certainly this administration would not. They would probably welcome the increases in fuel cost; they seem hell-bent on destroying the U.S. oil industry anyway. Help from Hugo Chavez would probably be seen as a plus; just one more reason to “invest” in hybrid vehicles, electric cars that only get 27 miles between charges, and other “green” technologies that are not yet mature. In fact, “green” is probably the perfect color to use to describe these alternative energy boondoggles; green as in “not yet ripe.”

So while I do view this development with some alarm, particularly if we continue in our evident policy of telling Iran they mustn’t develop nuclear weapons, while allowing them to do so anyway (or if Venezuela can get nukes from Pakistan), they cannot at this very moment hurt us. Their entire arsenal is only useful if we attack them, or if they decide to attack their neighbors. Should that occur, I would expect us to rise to our neighbor’s defense. If we can defend countries halfway around the globe, surely we can defend nations within our own hemisphere, particularly those we have a close relationship with.

In any event, the ballistic missiles he is acquiring are of no current threat to the U.S. (with the possible exception of the EMP scenario mentioned above). They would be of absolutely no use in protecting him from an attack by the United States, and would do him no good with regard to the agreement he signed with Iran, unless Iran were to be attacked by one of his neighbors. This begs the question, why put them there in the first place?

Why spend billions on missile systems and defenses for those systems that cannot reach the United States, and cannot therefore support the mutual defense treaty that seems to be in place between Venezuela and Iran? Do they know something that we do not know? Is it perhaps possible that the missiles can reach U.S. targets despite the assurances of our intelligence community that they cannot? The intelligence community has been wrong before. Could it be that the missiles to be installed are not the Shahab-3 but instead something with more range? Could it all just be a colossal bluff being run on the part of Iran and Venezuela?

Then again, perhaps the Shahab-3s are a ruse; perhaps the real threat is the Scuds. While the Scud has far less range than the Shahab-3, it more easily lends itself to the “offshore freighter launch” scenario, whereby one gets a missile with a nuclear warhead close enough to the US coast to make a viable EMP attack; while we are watching the Shahab-3 sites, we get sucker-punched in the gut by the Scud. As noted above, the Scud-B was field-deployed by the Soviets with a nuclear warhead, so it can be done.

It does make Chavez’s claim of a potential U.S. attack on Venezuela a potential self-fulfilling prophesy. Were we to attack Iran once this site has reached IOC, it would be necessary to simultaneously take it out as well. Not that it should be all that difficult. A stealth bomber, armed with precision-guided “bunker buster” munitions should do the job quite nicely. And as a further precaution, some Navy Aegis cruisers and/or destroyers as backup to shoot down any missiles that might be missed in the attack and launched by Venezuela would be efficacious as well.

Bottom line: although certainly provocative, this is certainly something well within the capability of the U.S. military to handle. Maybe we should encourage Chavez to buy more. Then perhaps he will spend himself into oblivion as did the Soviet Union.

One can only hope…