‘A Very Pragmatic Proposal’ – The Obama Administration’s New Approach To Missile Defense

Originally published here.

SecDef Robert Gates (left) and VJCS Gen. James E. Cartwright, Sept. 17, 2009.

SecDef Robert Gates (left) and VJCS Gen. James E. Cartwright, Sept. 17, 2009. DoD photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Molly A. Burgess, U.S. Navy. Click photo to enlarge.

Those who say we are scrapping missile defense in Europe are either misinformed or misrepresenting the reality of what we are doing. The security of Europe has been a vital national interest of the United States for my entire career. The circumstances, borders and threats may have changed, but that commitment continues. I believe this new approach provides a better missile defense capability for our forces in Europe, for our European allies and eventually for our homeland than the program I recommended almost three years ago. It is more adapted to the threat we see developing and takes advantage of new technical capabilities available to us today.

– Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, September 17, 2009

Despite a rather thorough question-and-answer session with the press at the Pentagon, and despite the White House press release of an extremely clear description of the fine-tuning of European missile defense plans, the press, pundits, random know-it-all talking heads, and a variety of conservative gasbags have insisted on perpetuating the misconception that the Obama administration has somehow “canceled missile defense in Europe”.

Like I said in my brief introductory post on September 17, 2009, that is simply not true, and it’s intellectually lazy on the part of said talking heads and reporters to suggest it.

Today, I’d like to lay out as simply as possible why the Obama administration decided not to go with the Bush administration’s proposed missile defense plans in Europe, what the new plan is, and why it is better from strategic, diplomatic, and budgetary points of view.

The Bush Administration plan: a non-existent system targeting a non-existent threat

No one gets to the point faster than arms control analyst Joe Cirincione, in a piece he wrote for Foreign Policy:

The system that former President George W. Bush was rushing to build in Eastern Europe did not work. The interceptors slotted for Poland have not yet been built, let alone tested, and their sister systems deployed in Alaska have demonstrated serious operational problems. The radar intended for the Czech Republic has been shown to have major shortcomings, as documented by Theodore Postol of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other independent experts. In short, it could not see the warheads it was suppose to track.

There was no “shield.” There was no defense capability to “give up.” It did not exist. Fortunately, neither did the Iranian missile threat that the system was supposed to counter. Iran does not have a long-range missile that can strike Central Europe, let alone the United States, and is unlikely to develop one over the next 10 years, if ever. Nor does it have a nuclear warhead to put on a future missile.

I went into considerable detail about the Bush administration’s proposed “missile defense shield” in several previous posts (click here, here, and here). In short, it was bound to be just another repeat of typical missile defense concepts dreamed up over the past thirty years: cool, expensive ideas with serious flaws, and no assurance that they would ever work.

The Obama Administration plan: a thoroughly tested, functional system against an emerging, potential threat

The White House released a fact sheet on Thursday, September 17, 2009 describing their revamped missile defense plan. Please click the link and read the whole thing, but I’ll summarize it here.

Basically, the Obama administration decided not to deploy ten land-based interceptors in Poland (i.e. GMD, or ground-based midcourse defense), and a proposed radar center in the Czech Republic, which were meant to counter long-range missiles from Iran — a non-existent threat.

The technology behind this proposed “shield” had multiple problems, which I detailed in this post; basically, it was a hell of a lot of money for something that had yet to be proven to work.

Instead, Secretary Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff advised the Obama administration to go with Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptors as part of a phased approach; they will first be based on Aegis Destroyers, but will eventually expand to include land-based systems.

The Center for Arms Control And Non-Proliferation describes this further, and details the (potential) threat assessment:

Missile Defense Agency flight test record.* Click to enlarge.

Aegis destroyers are already deployed worldwide and the SM-3 interceptor has proven successful in 19 of 23 tests since 2002. The SM-3 interceptor is also specifically designed to counter short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, which are the most dangerous near-term threat posed by Iran. As Missile Defense Agency Director Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly said earlier this year, “ninety-nine percent of the threat today” is from short- and medium-range missiles.

Iran is years away from possessing the type of long-range ballistic missile that could threaten most of Europe and the continental United States. Though intelligence estimates vary, the broad consensus is that Iran, without substantial foreign assistance (which Western intelligence would likely detect), is not likely to possess a ballistic missile topped with a nuclear weapon capable of threatening all of Europe and/or the United States until 2015 at the very earliest. Under the Obama administration’s plan, upgraded SM-3 interceptors that are more capable of defending against intermediate- and long-range missiles will be deployed as they become available over the next decade. Thus, as the Iranian threat potentially evolves, the U.S. missile defense system will evolve along with it.

The point is that although Iran is years away from developing long-range missiles, they have devoted considerable time to their short-to-medium-range missiles. Specifically:

Iran has devoted considerable time, energy, and resources to developing short- and medium-range ballistic missiles and a space launch vehicle. Iran has developed and deployed at least four different liquid-propellant ballistic missiles and the liquid-propellant two-stage Safir space launch vehicle, which put a satellite in space on February 2, 2009. These missiles use rocket motors based on Russian SCUD and North Korean Nodong missile technology. The Shahab-3 is Iran’s longest-range deployed missile, with an estimated range of 2,000 km. On May 20, 2009, Iran tested the solid-fueled Sejjil-2 missile, which has an estimated range of 2,000 km. Iran’s current ballistic missiles could reach Israel, Turkey, and portions of southeastern Europe.

You can read more about it in the seminal report by the EastWest Institute on the US-Russian joint threat assessment on Iran.

Working with Russia?

The question that keeps coming up is: did the Obama administration change their missile defense strategy because of Russian pressure? Or, as the most cynical of neocons would put it, is Obama “caving to Russia”?

The emphatic, unequivocal answer comes from Obama himself:

The Russians don’t make determinations about what our defence posture is,” Barack Obama told CBS television.

“If the by-product of it is that the Russians feel a little less paranoid… then that’s a bonus,” Mr Obama said.

I had a short chat with Joe Cirincione on Friday, and I asked him about what he learned at a White House briefing on missile defense the day before. Specifically, I asked him if anyone brought up the Russian question. He told me:

At the end of the White House briefing, one of the officials revealed that the US and Russia are already cooperating on a joint threat assessment of the Iranian ballistic missile program. The two presidents had said they wanted to do joint assessments in their April 1 [2009] joint statement. I asked if they had followed up on that, and I was told, yes, that a joint assessment had begun, been put in motion right after the Moscow summit in July and that the teams had already had their first round of evaluations, and they expected this joint assessment to likely expand to include Iran’s nuclear program.

Cirincione brought this up because of concerns being voiced by Russian Maj. Gen. Vladimir Dvorkin, that Russia should still be cautious:

“Everything depends on the scale of such a system,” [Dvorkin] told the Interfax news agency. “If it comprises a multitude of facilities, including a space echelon, it may threaten the Russian potential of nuclear deterrence.”

In an address [pdf] to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, NATO head Rasmussen said that he sees potential for the US and Russia to work together in the area of missile defense:

In my view, the proliferation of ballistic missile technology is of concern not just to NATO nations, but to Russia too. Our nations, and our forces deployed in theatre, will all become increasingly vulnerable to missile attacks by third parties…

…We should explore the potential for linking the US, NATO and Russia missile defence systems at an appropriate time.

Pragmatism and flexibility for the future

I’ll conclude with an excerpt from Secretary Gates’ op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times, because he sums it up so well:

I am often characterized as “pragmatic.” I believe this is a very pragmatic proposal. I have found since taking this post that when it comes to missile defense, some hold a view bordering on theology that regards any change of plans or any cancellation of a program as abandonment or even breaking faith…


The bottom line is that there will be American missile defense in Europe to protect our troops there and our NATO allies. The new proposal provides needed capacity years earlier than the original plan, and will provide even more robust protection against longer-range threats on about the same timeline as the previous program. We are strengthening — not scrapping — missile defense in Europe.

Gates has supported missile defense ever since the Reagan “Star Wars” years. If conservatives have a problem with him now, it’s only because he’s with a Democratic administration… not because of who he is or the proposal itself.

They’re cutting off their own noses to spite their faces. National security is clearly a moral issue to them, not one of practical, real-life potential threats and protective responses to threats.

That speaks volumes about today’s Republican party.

*Missile defense test ource pdf here. Test footage here.

This entry was posted in Missile Defense, Nuclear Weapons and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>