What Should Obama Do about Missile Defense?

by Daryl G. Kimball

The Washington Times, Sunday, November 30, 2008

President Obama will have to quickly make many tough foreign policy judgment calls. Among the most important is whether to proceed with the Bush administration's crash effort to install untested anti-missile interceptors in Poland by 2011 to deal with an as yet nonexistent Iranian long-range missile threat.

The choice should be easy. A decision on new deployments of strategic missile interceptors can be deferred until the system is proven effective through realistic tests and has the full support of U.S. allies.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration should engage in serious talks with Russia's leaders to explore alternatives or, at a minimum, achieve a mutual understanding on the eventual size and capability of U.S. strategic missile defenses. The two sides also should launch a joint diplomatic strategy to curb global missile proliferation.

A more balanced, nonideological approach to U.S. missile defense policy is long overdue. 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.

President Bush bought their arguments. Over Russian objections, he abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, arguing that it was constraining U.S. missile defense research. Since then, the Bush administration has poured nearly $60 billion into the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and freed MDA from normal procurement standards and congressional oversight.

The result: MDA rushed a handful of experimental missiles into the ground ahead of the 2004 election. Their numbers have grown to about two dozen today, but their capability has advanced little. The interceptors since 1999 have only scored seven hits against targets in 12 highly scripted tests; only two of those successes have occurred since the initial deployment.

In 2007, the Bush administration announced plans to install 10 modified versions of those interceptors in Poland and a battle-management radar in the Czech Republic to counter possible Iranian missiles. Basing agreements were signed in 2008, but they must still be approved by Czech and Polish legislators.

Mr. Bush and his team maintain the driving threat is Iran and that 10 missile interceptors are no threat to Russia's expansive nuclear forces. Russia, however, remains unconvinced.

Russia's ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, told Arms Control Today magazine earlier this month that "there are several strategic defensive bases of Russia in the European part of Russia that will be within range of this system, [and] most probably, it is not the last deployment in the region."

An open-ended deployment of U.S. missile interceptors would not only lead Russia to militarily target Poland and the Czech Republic. It also would seriously impede U.S. work with Russia on a range of vital issues, including negotiating new verifiable strategic nuclear reductions, securing nuclear materials and curbing Iran´s nuclear program. Without nuclear payloads, Iran's long-range missiles, which U.S. intelligence predicts will not be developed until at least 2015, would be essentially impotent.

Mr. Obama has pragmatically pledged that as president he "will make sure any missile defense, including the one proposed for Europe, has been proven to work and has our allies' support before we deploy it." It simply doesn't.

The modified interceptor for Poland is unbuilt and untested. Planned testing for the system likely will take a few years to complete. Regardless, the Pentagon's Office of Operational Test and Evaluation concluded in February that testing of the U.S. system that the European deployment is based on "is not sufficient to provide a high level of statistical confidence in its limited capability."

Even if the performance of U.S. defenses can be improved, a future adversary could use inexpensive countermeasures to confuse or overwhelm them. In other words, they can't be counted on in a shooting war. What can be counted on, however, is that U.S. conventional and nuclear arms will still provide a strong deterrent to any foolhardy nuclear-armed aggression.

Although the leaders of NATO's 26 members stated in May they recognize "the substantial contribution that the current U.S. proposal could make in protecting against long-range missiles," many are skeptical and have not embraced it.

Earlier this month, French President Nicholas Sarkozy was downright dismissive.

"Deployment of a missile defense system would bring nothing to security in Europe," Mr. Sarkozy said. "It would complicate things, and would make them [Russia] move backward."

The Obama administration should make clear that it will look anew with Russia at missile defense in Europe. The new defense secretary should also reconsider other options to counter Iran's missiles that the MDA has passed over. These include more flexible and increasingly capable ship-based missile defense systems that are less worrisome to Moscow.

The president should also work with Congress to rein in and redirect MDA spending. The focus should be on more mature anti-missile systems designed to deal with short- and medium-range missile threats, which are more numerous and present a more immediate threat. Even these systems must be pursued with caution to avoid destabilizing defensive-versus-offensive missile races.

After decades of spending, ambitious timetables and overstated threat warnings, it is past time to restore reason to missile defense policy beginning with a nondecision decision on a new anti-missile site on Russia's border that is unnecessary and imprudent.

Daryl G. Kimball is the executive director of the Arms Control Association, which publishes the monthly journal Arms Control Today.