The election of Barack Obama as the next U.S. president has triggered greater uncertainty about the future of U.S. anti-missile projects, particularly the disputed plan to deploy long-range systems in Europe despite strenuous Russian objections. Meanwhile, the Pentagon agency spearheading missile defense efforts recently underwent its own leadership change, and one of its more mature systems experienced two test failures.
In its full-throttle pursuit of systems to protect against possible ballistic missile attacks, the Bush administration adopted a "spiral development" strategy. That approach entails fielding technologies, even if rudimentary, as soon as practical and then updating them incrementally. The general rationale was that to have something was better than nothing.
Obama's public statements suggest his administration will take another approach. Although saying he supports missile defense, Obama stresses that systems must be affordable and proven and not siphon money away from efforts to deal with more prevalent threats.
To the chagrin of top Polish officials, Obama has indicated that plans and systems already underway will not be exempted from scrutiny. Polish President Lech Kaczyński initially claimed after a phone conversation with Obama that the president-elect had said the proposed deployment of 10 missile interceptors to Poland would proceed. An Obama aide told the press that no such assurance had been given, reiterating previous statements that deployment of systems depended on them being "proved to be workable." Congress has already proscribed procurement and deployment of the Polish-based interceptors until they are certified by the secretary of defense as passing operationally realistic testing.
The interceptors expected to be stationed in Poland have yet to be flight-tested. Prototypes of the interceptors-a two-stage version of the three-stage silo-based interceptors already deployed by the United States in Alaska and California-are supposed to be flight-tested next year and then fired against targets twice in 2010. Models of the roughly two dozen fielded U.S. interceptors have scored seven hits in 12 intercept attempts since 1999.
Government officials from Poland and the Czech Republic, where a missile tracking radar is slated to be deployed, are urging Obama not to abandon the plan, particularly in light of steady Russian threats. Witold Waszczykowski, deputy head of Poland's National Security Bureau, told the Polish paper Nasz Dziennik that "if a decision to discontinue this program is made under pressure from Russia, it would be a political defeat." The Kremlin has reacted angrily to the U.S. plan, charging it targets Russia, not Iran, as the Bush administration claims.
Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski delivered a Nov. 19 speech in Washington declaring that "naturally, we would like to see this project to be continued." Sikorski, who asserted that the "Russian leadership does not hide from the fact of its preference for pushing America out of Europe," made clear that Poland views the deployment as a means to ward off Russia by drawing closer to the United States, particularly as Sikorski contends that "NATO has neglected us." Poland joined the alliance in 1999, but Sikorski complained that his country only has "one unfinished conference center" to show for the move.
To date, however, the proposed European deployment has only amplified Russian threats against Poland. In a Nov. 5 speech, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced that if U.S. interceptors are deployed in Poland, Russia will target them with new deployments of Iskander ballistic missiles in the Kaliningrad oblast, an outpost of Russian territory wedged between Poland and Lithuania. Traditionally armed with conventional warheads, the short-range missile presumably could carry nuclear warheads as well. Medvedev also reversed plans to decommission three regiments of nuclear-armed long-range missiles near Kozelsk in western Russia.
U.S. officials blasted Medvedev's speech. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said Nov. 13 that the president's remarks were "hardly the welcome a new American administration deserves." He further decried them as "provocative...unnecessary and misguided."
Medvedev did not retract his comments in a Nov. 15 appearance before the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, but he sought to deflect Russian responsibility for the tensions over the anti-missile plan. He argued that Russia does not want to deploy any weapons systems and that it "will not do anything until America makes the first step." Yet, he warned Russia would retaliate "if this program will be continued in an unacceptable manner for us."
Medvedev reiterated Russian proposals to work with the United States to assess the Iranian missile threat, using existing radars in the area, and respond jointly if necessary. He stressed that he is "ready to discuss" the issue with the new administration and concluded that "we have good opportunities to solve this problem."
Sikorski said Poland will soon provide Russia with proposals to ease its concerns about the planned interceptor deployment. He explained Poland is prepared to allow Russia an "almost but not quite" permanent presence to check on the interceptor base. He further added that Russia would receive "inspection rights and the kind of monitoring by technical means that to any reasonable person would give...a complete assurance that nothing that was not declared was going on in the facility." The United States has made similar offers to Russia.
Moscow, however, has rejected these entreaties as insufficient and suggests that the only true way to alleviate its anxiety is for the project to be shelved. Speaking Nov. 18, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov maintained that the Russians "need substantive guarantees precisely that there will be no [U.S. interceptor base in Poland]."
Winding down his four-year tenure as director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry Obering told reporters Nov. 12 that it would be a mistake to abandon the proposed deployment to Europe. Obering, who transferred command of the MDA on Nov. 21 to Army Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly, was quoted by Reuters as stating, "I cannot believe that the Russians truly believe these [interceptors] are a threat to their security."
Sergey Kislyak, Russian ambassador to the United States, however, told Arms Control Today Nov. 14 that Russia's concerns are "not about 10 interceptors per se." Instead, he portrayed the deployment as part of an "overall effort to undermine [Russia's] strategic deterrence."
U.S. law prohibits base construction for the interceptors and radar until the Polish and Czech parliaments ratify separate U.S. basing agreements. Prospects for approval are judged to be higher in Poland, particularly because Czech parties opposed to the deployment won some recent electoral gains in the Czech parliament's lower house. The upper chamber approved the U.S. basing Nov. 27, but a vote in the lower chamber is generally not expected to take place until after Obama is inaugurated.
Ship-Based System Goes One for Three
Meanwhile, one of the MDA's more successful programs, the Aegis ship-based system to defend against shorter-range missiles, experienced two recent test failures. On Nov. 1, two U.S. ships fired the Aegis Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptor against two separate targets; one scored a hit, and the other missed.
A Japanese ship also fired an SM-3 at a target and missed in a Nov. 19 trial. Japan is outfitting four ships with the U.S. Aegis anti-missile system. The only previous intercept experiment by a Japanese ship using the SM-3 interceptor succeeded in December 2007.
In the two recent misses, the interceptors successfully launched and flew properly but missed their targets in the end. Assessment investigations are underway. All told, the SM-3 interceptor has compiled a record of 13 hits in 17 intercept attempts.