Within weeks of entering office, the next U.S. president will be confronted with dozens of pivotal choices. One of the most important will be whether to install untested missile defenses in eastern Europe to deal with an Iranian missile threat that does not exist.
The decision should be easy. Deployment should be deferred until the system is proven effective in realistic tests, allies are on board, and a new agreement with Russia delineates the size and capability of strategic missile defenses.
Yet, after years of partisan posturing on missiles and missile defense, few decisions on the subject have been rational or easy. For more than a decade, proponents of missile defense have hyped the threat of long-range missiles from the likes of Iran and North Korea and pushed for anti-missile systems that are not ready for prime time.
For instance, in 1998 an influential commission chaired by Donald Rumsfeld dismissed earlier intelligence findings and warned that any nation with a well-developed, Scud-based missile infrastructure would be able to flight-test a long-range missile within five years. A decade later, neither Iran nor North Korea have successfully flight-tested intermediate-range or long-range missiles.
Rumsfeld’s report spurred missile defense acolytes to argue that testing and development of strategic missile defenses should no longer be constrained by the U.S.-Russian Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Over Russian objections, Bush withdrew from the treaty in 2002. Since then, the administration has poured roughly $8 billion a year into the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, conducted limited testing, and rushed a handful of ground-based strategic interceptors into Alaska and California ahead of the 2004 election.
In 2007 the administration announced plans for a new ground-based, long-range anti-missile system in Europe. It wants 10 interceptors in Poland and a new radar in the Czech Republic by around 2011. In response to sharp objections from Moscow, Bush has said the deployment is not intended to counter Russia and would be limited. Leaders in Moscow remain unconvinced, and Congress has withheld full funding until the interceptors can be proven to be effective and the host countries approve basing agreements.
Like Bush, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain enthusiastically supports missile defense as a way to guard against rogue-state “blackmail.” He has gone even further and asserted that missile defenses also serve “to hedge against potential threats from strategic competitors like Russia and China.” The presumptive Democratic nominee, Sen. Barack Obama, has voiced doubts about the effectiveness of strategic anti-missile systems and called for a greater emphasis on more capable short- and medium-range interceptors. Neither has addressed the European missile defense issue directly.
No matter who enters the White House, a course correction on the European component of missile defense policy is in order. If it is not already clear, the next president will soon realize that the case presented for the system simply does not stand up.
Although intelligence assessments suggest that Iran’s nuclear program requires urgent diplomatic action, it is not predicted to have a long-range missile capability until 2015 or later. Even if Iran were to acquire and threaten the United States or its allies with nuclear-armed missiles, such aggression could be deterred by other means.
The new president also will learn that strategic missile defenses cannot be relied on to protect in a real-world crisis. The new, two-stage interceptor for the European site has not yet been built, let alone tested. An October report from the Pentagon’s Office of Operational Test and Evaluation recommends at least three flights tests, a process that could not even begin until 2009 and would take several years to complete.
Meanwhile, the Polish government is demanding that the United States pay for costly upgrades to Polish air- and short-range missile defenses to counter Russian targeting of the proposed anti-missile site. Although other NATO allies have agreed to discuss the U.S. missile defense proposal, many are skeptical and have not endorsed it.
An open-ended deployment made over Moscow’s objections would also seriously impede work with Russia on a range of other vitally important issues, including strategic arms reductions, the prevention of nuclear terrorism, and curbing Iran’s nuclear program. Instead of choosing this path, the next administration should take the time needed to reach a new agreement with Russia for missile defense cooperation and avoid renewed strategic conflict. The key will be to agree to firm limits on the number of strategic missile interceptors that might be deployed in eastern Europe and elsewhere, as well as to complete a long-delayed joint early-warning center to build confidence and avoid miscalculation.
After decades of spending, ambitious timetables, and overstated threat warnings, it is past time to restore reason to missile defense policy by deferring deployment of a new anti-missile site on Russia’s border that is unnecessary and imprudent.